Last week saw Interflora, alongside some UK newspaper publishers such as Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror with whom the company ran many advertorials across thei regional platforms, face adverse SEO rankings through Google over the SEO strategy and paid for links. The Drum asked a few SEO agency experts for their views on what this means for the future.
Pete Young, search strategy and social director at MediaCom
First of all – let's put things straight. The Interflora fallout is definitely not just down to paid advertorials. Yes they are part of the issue, but like anything in excess, too much of anything can be bad for you. Looking at the Interflora link profile, the high volume of advertorials acquired in a small amount of time is one issue – however the overzealous blogger outreach, and evidence of some rather debatable domains with questionable link placement certainly would have compounded the issue.I would have been hugely surprised if there was no forewarning for Inteflora – either directly or via some ranking patterns beforehand.As regards where this puts the UK Newspapers, I can’t help thinking a tightening up of ship for the foreseeable future. Google has made it clear via Matt Cutts' post on the Google Webmaster Central blog
of the potential implications of selling links, and has thus firmly put the issue at the feet of the newspapers themselves. I would suggest at the very least we will see a significant change in use and stance from the publications themselves as many of them align themselves with Google best practice.How that affects the SEO community remains to be seen. Certainly, like many other old-school SEO techniques, things may need to move on and evolve…….
Stu Owens, head of digital marketing at Bloom
This is another clear signal that Google is serious about cleaning up the search industry. What remains to be seen is if this is a case of Google making an example of Interflora and the media owners involved, or the start of a wider trend. Google has sent a clear signal that everyone needs to focus on marketing to people first, rather than cynical link building. The SEO industry should welcome this move as it enforces the principle that link buying and spammy tactics are not the way to go. Search should be based on combining great sites with exciting content and connecting with influencers. It is a discipline of creativity, people and reputation management. Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable will impact a company’s brand both on and off-line.
Yousaf Sekander, director of digital marketing agency RocketMill
Google has a strict policy against paid links, particularly any paid links that try to manipulate search results. The engine continually updates its systems to detect manipulative techniques and when it detects them it will penalise sites automatically. In some instances, Google takes manual action against sites that violate its guidelines and this is what happened with Interflora, which was trying game the search engine through paid advertorial links.Interflora is lucky that this penalty was applied straight after Valentine’s Day, which is clearly one of the biggest dates for the florist. This penalty will be a major setback to Interflora’s sales, as recovery from penalties like this can take months.Google utilises shock and awe tactics to enforce its guidelines every now and then. Taking manual action against big brands is the best way of relaying its message. Past examples include penalties against BMW, JC Penney, Overstock and Go Compare.
Richard Falconer – head of technical search at LBi
For years, Google has been consistent with its message, advising not to buy links in order to manipulate search rankings. Interflora would appear to have been badly advised in pursuing a strategy of buying advertorial space for SEO purposes.For the newspapers which were hit with warnings about selling links, there seems to be some inconsistency. Some had public PageRank reduced significantly whilst others did not. Perhaps the extent of their misdeeds were taken into consideration.Google is clearly not relenting in its pursuit of bad link development practice. I’d expect to see more of this in the coming year with previously successful tactics being considered “unnatural” and attracting penalties.
Aresha Krishnan, senior social content creative at Cheil Worldwide’s Centre of Excellence
It was interesting to see The Drum's article with criticism from We Are Social's MD Robin Grant saying SEO agencies are 'poisoning' the 'ethical approach' of agencies like his own. The key issue with blogger outreach is that the KPIs tend to differ depending on whether it's a PR/Social or SEO agency leading the execution. PR and social agencies tend to lead outreach with engagement, reach and distribution as key KPIs – as these are the foundation metrics for Public Relations, even from an offline perspective. Links are a 'nice to have' additional KPI. SEO agencies tend to be more linear and lead with 'links back' and search rankings as primary KPIs due to the foundation metrics of the industry. It is therefore important to strike a balance between rules of engagement and SEO metrics. Ideally all blogger outreach programs should be treated as a social outreach campaigns, with creativity at the heart, instead of badgering bloggers for links with minimal one-way outreach activity.
Fergus Clawson, IonSearch founder and managing director of Blueclaw
There is more to this problem than just the advertorials. Interflora’s link footprint is awash with money term anchor text link building, that’s the key mistake here. The advertorials contributed to the burnout, it was always eventually going to happen. As soon as their anchor text ratio hit a certain point the site was likely reviewed by a member of Google’s Webspam team. Once this happened and all of the site’s backlinks came under scrutiny it was bound to be penalised.Google will slap more big brands for bad link building practices and my advice is to get on with the clean-up, do it carefully and don’t make the same mistakes.
David Harling, head of search at Razorfish
This is another example of Google making an example of a big brand carrying out bad link building activities (the last high profile case was JC Penney back in 2011). If you evaluate the full domain backlink profile you can clearly unpick the unnatural nature of their link behaviour. Any brand or agency who invest heavenly into paid advertorial content strategies to engineer inbound links is asking for trouble, especially when they are over using exact match anchor text that reflects the primary generic keywords they want to rank for.I think the key point to focus on here is that Interflora was penalised for building poor quality paid links - mainly fuelled by advertorials and bad practice outreach campaigns. What this doesn’t mean is that outreach is not an effective channel for brands to deliver on multiple KPIs, including SEO. If the primary objective of your outreach is to engage influential audiences to encourage user generated content and build a network of positive brand advocates, while ensuring brand endorsement by the means of a ‘justified’ natural link, then you can expect to build a strong positive brand profile in natural search. If agencies engage in poor quality outreach campaigns and over engineer the process by over optimising anchor text they will see little impact or lasting sustained value – as well as putting their domain at risk. Considering what happened to Interflora through an ‘outreach’ lens doesn’t paid the full picture. If you over do a sharp corner in your car you will crash – but this doesn’t mean turning corners in your car will cause you to crash. This penalty tells me that quality is always more important than quantity. Competition is hard but shortening your route to top rankings with shady links is a big risk.
Jonny Artis, SEO director at Stickyeyes
It’s understandable, given Google’s recent statements about advertorials, that many have pinned the blame on that approach for Interflora’s fall from grace. However, even anecdotal analysis reveals a series of other issues to consider, not least a particularly keyword-heavy link profile made up of many sites of questionable quality. Whilst Google has apparently set out its stall against high-profile publishers selling links, in reality this is simply another step in its battle to stamp out incentivised link tactics in general. How wide an impact this will have ultimately remains to be seen, however it may well serve to further reward altogether more genuine, creative approaches to link acquisition as paid linking becomes a less effective and prevalent tactic.