Is the Interflora penalty a one off or something more sinister?

Last week Google unceremoniously dumped Interflora out of its index and a search for the company name today shows that the penalty still applies. Of course the question being asked is ‘why have they done this’?

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In truth no one except Google and perhaps Interflora and their SEO agency can know why they have received this penalty, the rest of us are simply searching the data for clues and speculating. So far the speculation appears to range from the conspiracy theorist ‘it’s Google’s way of getting their own back after losing a court case to them in 2011’ to the mundane ‘Google doesn’t like that bloggers have been writing nice things about them’. Whatever the real reason, the fact remains that it has engendered a climate of fear amongst a great many digital agencies.

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Google LogoThe problem lies with the lack of transparency from Google into what it is doing and why. For years it has hidden behind a cloak of secrecy, veiled by the enveloping mysticism of the algorithm which is guarded with even greater secrecy than the formula for Coca Cola. This means that whenever Google ‘tweak’ their algorithm, or decide that one of the metrics that they are using (and according to Matt Cutts there are over 200 separate signals they use), the resulting Search Engine Result Pages (SERPS) are ‘de facto’ an improvement. It doesn’t matter if the results are wildly inaccurate, or penalise good companies, or promote spurious blogs, because they are Google’s results they are always right. That’s not to say that they aren’t improving, in a lot of cases they do improve them but in so many others they fail miserably.

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As a good example, try Googling ‘mortgages Leeds’. We wrote about this last year, pointing out that having one company dominating all the top ten results cannot be good for consumers and although Google have improved these results (previously the first 27 slots were taken by one company, now it’s only the first 9) they still leave a lot to be desired.

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And this sort of inconsistency leaves Agencies on edge, waiting for the next change and constantly in fear that something done on one of their sites will turn around and bite them in the coming weeks. As an example we are currently working with a client who has been penalised by Google for work done over two years ago. It’s nothing we have done but we are charged with the task of cleaning it up and helping the client regain their page one position. And it’s tough. There are no indications from Google as to exactly what they don’t like, which links need removing and how they would like to see the site changed. Of course we have analysed the entire site and know what needs doing, but even as we are working on this we have no ideas if this will remove the penalty as there are no guarantees, no channels of communication open to us and no way of knowing if, once we remove what we think is causing the damage, if this will be good enough.

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The reality is that ever since it became clear that links to your site were the currency for getting to the top slot businesses the world over have been building links. Now Google tells us that some link building is wrong, against their guidelines and worse still, damaging. So does this mean the noose will get even tighter? How much tighter and what will the next thing be? The answer probably is anything that is easy to get will be of no value in twelve months, so firms are going to have to work a lot harder to get their rankings. And does this mean that bloggers will become the power brokers of the internet, and if so is this really a good thing?

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One thing is for certain, every agency is now constantly checking their clients rankings looking for adverse signals and wondering if something that was built two years ago will come back to bite the client. All of us are watching for the next major casualty as it seems certain that Interflora will not be a one off and other high profile names, with equally messy backlink and anchor text profiles, are likely to fall foul of Google’s penalties.