All is well. Your business is booming. You’re one of the biggest e-commerce brands on the internet. Then, within days, your website almost seems to disappear from all search results. What happened? You’ve been penalized by Google.
This is exactly what happened to Overstock.com in back in 2011. Overstock had concocted a shady scheme in which they bribed university employees to link back to their site. For Google, “.edu” links carry more authoritative weight than normal links. For a while, it drove Overstock’s popularity dramatically. That is, until they got caught. Overstock was penalized so dramatically by Google that it had to rebrand.
Overstock bent the rules and it came back to bite it in the butt. In SEO we refer to good practices as “white hat SEO” and shady practices as “black hat SEO.” Though unethical strategies that get around rules and regulations might work in the short term, SEO history proves time and time again that devious business practices never last.
Here are a couple of ways people have tried to get around Google’s rules, and why it didn’t work.
- Keyword Stuffing: Keyword stuffing consists of writing a keyword as many times as you can on both the front and back end of your page. Though trendy and effective for a while, Google soon caught on and introduced semantic search. Semantic search now looks at what words are related to the keyword you want to rank for and how you use those phrases.
- Bad Links: Let’s say you and all your best buddies start linking to each others’ sites so that you can all have backlinks. Let’s say you do it too much. Google put a stop to that in an update called Jagger in 2005. This updated also penalized link farms and paid links.
- Bad Reviews: In 2010 an e-commerce eyeglasses website, DecorMyEyes, purposely sent customers faulty glasses so that they would leave bad reviews. Any press is good press, right? For a while, it worked. Because so many people and media outlets were talking about them, DecorMyEyes ranked at the top of the search results when unsuspecting customers looked for eyeglasses online. Google found out, and wasn’t happy. Google penalized the site, and released this explanation entitled “Being bad to your customers is bad for business.”
- Piracy: In 2012 and with another push in 2014, Google began penalizing websites with repeat copyright violations.
- Multiple Addresses: Business owners tried to game Google’s mapping system by listing their business with multiple addresses. Suppose you’re a dentist with an office in a strip mall. You could list your business for each apartment you occupy there. Google hasn’t yet been able to solve this, because some businesses really do have two locations within a close proximity (think McDonalds).
Black hat SEO isn’t illegal, it’s more like Google has house rules and if you want to stay, you have to play nice. When Google penalizes a business, it just drops their ranking in the search results, which then affects the business’s sales. However, when a business does something shady outside of search results, it’s just a matter of time until it gets penalized by the law.
Writer: Claire Shaner, SEO and Content Marketing Strategist at BestCompany.com. She has a background in SEO, PR, digital marketing, and research.