It’s been a long week in the SEO industry in the UK. Many of you will have heard that GoCompare had been seriously penalised in Google, to the extent they weren’t ranking on their own username.
And if this was anything like their previous run-in with Google, it was serious news for their business. Robin Goad from Hitwise reported they were losing as much as 87% of their traffic as a result of the penalty.
Anyone monitoring the situation over the last week will have realised it became difficult to keep track of the various opinions, allegations and speculation about the cause of the problem.
What follows is a timeline of their problems and a series of lessons the industry can learn from this debacle.
January 29th 2008 GoCompare’s Previous Penalty – Insidersview notice GoCompare have lost a huge number of their rankings including cash cow term ‘car insurance’ and branded terms. Many, including Blogstorm, imply this penalty is due to paid link purchasing and other search marketing tactics considered against Google’s terms of service.
March 27th 2008 GoCompare has bounced back – Many report GoCompare seems to have overcome their penalty and are ranking again in the top five for some of their most competitive keywords.
April 20th 2009 Red Cardinal Post calling them out on link building tactics – Red Cardinal’s Richard Hearne writes a blog post ‘calling out’ GoCompare’s guest post/article writing in return for a link strategy. A discussion by many SEOs in the comments reaches a consensus that this type of tactic wasn’t unethical or against Google’s guidelines, but sending out untargeted misleading deceptive email about exchanging content for links was unwise and could likely have repercussions.
April 22nd 2009 Econsultancy/BlogStorm Post On Penalty/Banning – Two of the UK’s biggest search marketing blogs, Econsultancy & Blogstorm, highlight GoCompare is no longer rankings on its own brand name and also both made the link to the early Red Cardinal post
April 24th 2009 Twittersphere talk of possible causes – Several search marketers on twitter publicly and privately discuss the possible causes of the penalty. Some suggest it’s a server issue, while others such as dannyguk & GuavaMarkeD, after some detective work, suggest https://www.contentnow.co.uk may be behind the link building work called out by Red Cardinal
April 24th 2009 Post by ContentNow – Kieron Donoghue, one of the people behind Content Now, posts a response to the suggestions that they are behind the link building work that some are suggesting has resulted in GoCompare getting banned. Though the post doesn’t indentify GoCompare as a client of ContentNow, it does defend the ‘Content for Links’ Strategy.
27th April – GoCompare Back in the index in a high position – Following the weekend, the furore dies down a little and the website re-enters the search results in a similar position to before its apparent banning. Various suggestions as to what caused the problem have been posited so far, but a problem in a site re-launch seems the most likely.
Well at the moment it looks like everything is back to normal, but what can this storm in a teacup teach us about how we go about SEO?
What can we learn from GoCompare’s problems?
Every tactic has a risk – Though in many ways Google encourages the SEO community, if their webmaster guidelines are taken in their most literal sense, all SEO could be viewed as manipulation and therefore against their terms of services. Although most of the tactics carried out by top SEO agencies fall comfortably on the whiter end of the grey area of Google’s Guidelines, it’s important to remember every search marketing tactic has a risk. But equally there is an opportunity cost of not carrying out the marketing. The role of a search marketer is to balance the two in the best interests of their clients.
The manual spam report is very powerful – if the link building tactic was responsible for GoCompare’s problems, it can highlight the ability of webmasters to report websites as spam. A trusted contact of mine assured me the link request mentioned by Red Cardinal was sent to a large number of webmasters; a few of those reporting GoCompare as spam may have triggered the whole situation.
Again, any SEO contacting someone about links, content or any other kind of relationship, should spend time familiarising themselves with the site and sending a tailored personal one off email request. This kind of work doesn’t scale easily, but it’s the hard graft that SEO really requires.
Google likes to make examples of sites – given their quick re-inclusion, I’m not convinced Google intended to make an example of GoCompare, but they have a history of penalising high profile sites in the hope that this will get the message across to the community. Though a while ago now, the “Page Rank Massacre” was a prime example of this kind of tactic.
The rankings are always in flux – you should never be too obsessed about the specific rankings of a particular keyword, as they will go up and down and be different to a variety of users based on location, personalisation etc.
If your traffic suddenly drops, then be concerned. But if GoCompare’s re-inclusion proves anything, it proves that a website can reappear on highly competitive terms quickly.
The echo chamber doesn’t always do us any favours – It’s very easy to get caught up in the immediacy of a kind of situation like this. The recent episode is less than a week old, but already hundreds of posts and tweets have been written on the subject. In fact I’ve produced this article because a number of our clients have asked about the situation.
Were it not for the fervour the industry has whipped itself up into, this temporary situation may never have attracted so many people’s attention. These types of situations are great to study from an R&D perspective, but the SEO industry’s time and attention would have be better spent delivering great projects for clients.