Marketers ... we're always looking for ways to make our metrics skyrocket up and to the right. We love our tips, tricks, hacks, "insider" secrets, and yes, we even love our performance-enhancing drugs (sips coffee).
Where were we?
Right ... it seems we're all so obsessed with improving and optimizing and driving results, that we're sometimes tempted to break the rules. In the world of SEO, we call that using black hat tactics. And of course, we all think these black hat tactics are unfair or unethical and we never, ever use them.
But here's the thing: If black hat SEO can give your numbers a big boost and get you the results you need, why not go for it? I mean, what's the worst that could happen?
Spoiler alert: The worst that could happen is Google lands a direct hit on your search rankings with a flying roundhouse kick, your PageRank drops to 0, and you eventually get featured in a blog post (like this one) that's filled with examples of companies that broke the rules and paid the price.
Remember, as that influential marketing guy wrote in that famous book of his, “The Dark Side of the Force is the pathway to many abilities some consider to be … unnatural.”
Actually, that's from Star Wars. But the message is still relevant: You might hit your numbers using black hat tactics but, inevitably, Google's going to notice that you're doing something "unnatural." And Google ain't afraid to lay down the law.
(Pssst. Want to make sure your website is squeaky clean? Check out our new guide, 10 SEO Mistakes to Avoid During Your Next Website Redesign.)
The SEO Hall of Shame
BMW feels the Google kiss of death for using doorway pages, receives a "0" PageRank
The year was 2006, and German car company BMW's German website (BMW.de) was mopping it up in the search rankings with important keywords like "used car."
As it turns out, the company had been using doorway pages to artificially inflate their inbound links and rank higher for competitive keywords. A doorway page, also known as a bridge or portal page, is a webpage that's created solely for the purpose of redirecting visitors to a parent page. In BMW's case, this page was BMW.de.
Even back in 2006, Google wasn't messing around. BMW.de was promptly blacklisted, receiving a PageRank of 0 as a consequence of the infraction.
Toys R Us pays $5.1 million for Toys.com domain name, forgets to set up 301 redirects
Toys R Us really, really wanted to dominate the word "toys' in search, so much so that they paid top dollar for the eponymous domain name, toys.com, back in 2010.
While the plan was to score some serious SEO cred for having such a searched-for term -- toys -- right in their domain name, the crew handling the project made a big, big mistake: when they launched the new site, they failed to redirect their old URLs. As a result, Google re-indexed the site, so instead of seeing their search ranking for "toys" climb, the Toys R' Us team watched it take a nose dive.
In this case, there was no ill SEO-intent on the part of the company. They didn't use any black hat tactics -- they just messed up. Big time.
Want to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to you? When making big changes to your site, keep track of everything in a workbook.
Overstock.com trades discounts for links, loses $1.05 billion in revenue after Google takes notice
Rap Genius was by no means the first company to construct a scheme for generating rank-boosting links. Back in 2011, it was discovered that online retailer Overstock.com was encouraging colleges and universities to embed links on their websites in exchange for faculty and student discounts on Overstock.com merchandise.
As far as terrible, sleazy, no-good, rotten link-building schemes go, this one was actually pretty clever. The ".edu" designation that most academic websites carry gives those sites some extra authoritativeness in the eyes of Google. So if you can get a bunch of these sites to link to your site using the keywords you want to target, you'll be more likely to rank for those keywords.
The problem, of course, is that trading discounts for links doesn't help make information on the web any more organized. In fact, it muddles it all up (why would all these academic institutions link to product pages for bunk beds and lawn furniture?).
Google, of course, penalized Overstock.com big time. These penalties were part of the reason why Overstock.com's revenue dropped by $1.05 billion in 2011.
J. C. Penney sees ranking for "living room furniture" drop from #1 to #68 in a matter of hours after Google penalty
Another retail company, another link-building scheme. In this case, it's theorized that J. C. Penney, or the SEO firm that worked for them, bought the company into a paid link network.
As a result of participating in the network, the retailer received such an astronomical amount of inbound links -- which targeted very specific keyword phrases -- that the J. C. Penney site was ranking first for, well, almost everything. This came across as suspicious to some, including journalist David Segal.
For the full scoop, you'll definitely want to check out his New York Times piece on the subject, "The Dirty Little Secrets of Search." For the abridged version, I think one of the most fascinating aspects of this case was how fast Google was able to take action and drop J. C. Penney's search rankings. Within hours, they were ranking in the high 60s and 70s for search terms that they used to rank first for (including "living room furniture" and "Samsonite carry on luggage").
So for those of you who've ever thought about dabbling in paid link-building networks, take heed. Google knows what's up, and will bring the pain if it needs to.
Rap Genius loses 80% of its traffic after Google uncovers link-building scheme
We all know that getting backlinks (a.k.a. inbound links) from trusted websites is a great way to give your website’s search rankings a boost. However, as the lyrics website Rap Genius would discover, the method you use to generate those backlinks is of considerable importance.
If your website is attracting links because you regularly create stellar content and people in your industry love you and they always share and link to your stuff, then guess what? You're golden! Google will give you a pat on the back.
However, if you're attracting links by regularly sending out spammy emails that instruct people to link to specific pages of yours, Google's going to bring the heat.
Rap Genius went so far as to develop a network of bloggers who received publicity for their posts in exchange for including links to specific song lyrics on the Rap Genius site. This "affiliate program," as Rap Genius called it, didn't fly with Google, especially since the lyrics the blogs linked to rarely aligned with the actual content of the posts.
As a result of this scheme, Google delivered a punishing blow to Rap Genius's search rankings, and -- for a short while -- the company lost 80% of its daily organic traffic.
Fortunately for Rap Genius, Google is willing to forgive. After publicly admitting that their SEO tactics were whack, and deconstructing their link-building network, Rap Genius was allowed back on Google's search results pages.
SEO inception: Google punishes itself for using black hat tactics?
There's only one company out there that can bring Google, the almighty ruler of internet search, to its knees. And that company, of course, is Google.
Back in 2012, the Google Chrome homepage received a two-month penalty after it was discovered the site was benefiting from paid links.
Two years prior, the company got itself in hot water -- with itself -- for cloaking content on its AdWords help pages.
For more instances of Google punishing Google for SEO infractions, check out this great post from Search Engine Land.
And there you have it, some of the biggest SEO missteps in recent history. Remember: If you want to stay in the clear with your site, just avoid making these common SEO mistakes. Got any SEO horror stories you'd like to share? Sound off in the comments below!