So, you want to get a competitor banned from Google? here’s how…and why the EU needs to step in!

by G on September 6, 2013

People doing Search Engine Optimization (SEO)  will know that the way Google cares for webmasters is under the auspices of providing helpful advice and videos. However the reality is at odds with these kind gestures via  their webmaster guidelines which are open to so many levels of interpretation and manipulation, that if you’re doing business online, you should be very worried indeed about your future. 

Consider that in those niche’s generating revenue for Google (take loans, insurance, health, dieting, electronics) the results pages are almost unquestionably being subjected to human review. It’s all about money: the economics involved in the paid advertising mean that any website that is able to rank organically and that is NOT paying for that placement via Adwords, is getting free traffic for nothing, and frankly that’s not playing by Google’s books (you can see Google how much revenue is gathered from online advertising here). To limit this threat of lost revenues as much as possible, a webmaster should expect a lot of manual reviewing going on for sites that are appearing in these high profile niches.

Aside: Google would love so much to turn all its results into paid advertising but they can’t do this easily. So, what they have been doing systematically over the past few years is moving all the non-paid listings as far down the page as possible and/or promoting it’s own products over competitors. But don’t take my word for it, read it on Reuters.

Let’s take a guideline out of Google’s very own quality guidelines:

Link Schemes Guideline [link]

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site”
    [last accessed 06/09/2013]

 

How to get a competitor banned:

Why don’t we take a hypothetical situation to set down some realities and put things in evidence:

Let’s assume that I have a website on the first page of Google for a strong keyword term (read: it has an expensive cost per click, combined with a large volume of monthly searches) and it is listed organically. A competitor could simply create a number of profiles on a range of good authority websites in my company name, and then publish high-quality content (a budget of $30 will get at least 5 decent articles, and we want high-quality because it further reinforces the believability that it was the the owner of the website that posted the content) ensuring that there are a few links to my website with a good keyword anchor (such as “payday loans”).

If this all sounds like hard work, then there are a number of technical tools to expedite the process for you, so you can build out a spam network in just a few clicks and start damaging my website immediately.

In order to give additional weight that this is reviewed and perceived as  one of the bullet points listed above in the guidelines, the competitor might point a few thousand links at that page. This has nothing to do with ranking it more quickly (Google will find everything and also index the stuff you tell it not to index), but is instead intended to send out signals of intent, that the page being promoted also correlates with a typical link-profile used as part of a black hat linking strategy. Once the page is indexed and the competitor can then report the page to Google with a Spam Report for our heavenly father and his team.

If this wasn’t enough, the competitor could go and increase the number of people complaining about my website, by registering these reports via a few extra gmail accounts.  However, this will likely be unnecessary because the manual review team will probably capture it themselves.

At the moment, as the website owner, I have no idea my competitor is doing this to me.

What happens next? 

If I have added my website to Google’s Webmaster Tools (GMT), I might get a manual spam warning, but I might get nothing, and this is guaranteed if I have not added my website to GMT at all.

Assuming I get a warning, I am then going to have to make the case that the link(s) were not created by me, even if it’s the type of page that a paid marketing agency might create. The pages with the content will look like I was the owner (in my company name) and the high quality piece of content is going to convince the Google reviewer that the I was complicit in the process (“this doesn’t look like the normal kind of spun spam we see!” it’s a good quality piece of content with a exact match anchor text link!).

For me when I get a manual penalty I will not be told which page is causing the problem. As a result of this I am going to have to crawl through my entire backlink profile trying to isolate which link might be causing the problem. Let’s assume I have an established online brand, but I am not Coca Cola – there could be a lot of links to analyze.

All this can happen!

Based on a few cases I have been asked to investigate, typical response times for reconsideration requests are 5 days with Google only starting to provide examples of the links they consider problematic (explicitly providing the links) after about a month of virtual ping-pong.  That’s assuming you are able to get any sense out of the reviewers, who seem to have the skills of the population of idiocracy.

The finacial costs of auditing the problems:

All of this is going to cost me a lot of money to correct (paying an expert to understand why I am no longer present) but the first I will likely hear about it is when I wake up one morning and find that I am no longer getting traffic or orders due to a penalty.

What’s more the fact that I’m unable to isolate the links that were created means that I am not in a position to bring any legal action against those entities that are responsible for creating the links in the first place. When my website drops out of the organic search I am going to be forced short-term to purchase Adwords, and that is great for Google’s bottom line.

So returning to the point made at the start of this post, the more sites that get hit with a penalty, the better it is for Google’s revenues.

It is for these reasons that it is not sufficient for Google to police itself, because it seeks to gain hugely out of websites that are hit with penalties, and the fact that webmasters can’t claim financial damages against such manual actions because the information is not available, makes this frankly scary.

It’s why I call for the relevant people in EU member states to take note of this reality and take action, because it’s not going to be international brands (save a few exceptions of stupidity, as highlighted by cases such as J C Penny and Interflora) that suffer long-term but those smaller member states national brands that will lose out in the international marketplace, because of the potential to limit their ability to compete in the global the marketplace resultant from the problems highlighted in this post.

You have good reason not to sleep comfortably at night.

 

Author Information
Glyn S. H. has been online marketing since 1999 and has developed campaigns for leading luxury brands that have included Nestlè and Interflora . He works primarily in for the Travel and Tourism sector, helping hotels beat-down OTA paychecks. He has a web-marketing company, a Masters in Professional Communication, speaks fluent Italian, and is married with two kids. He also has a good sense of humour – essential for survival in web-marketing. He is not employed by Google. To contact via email: glyn@ (this domain).

 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Hzar September 9, 2013 at 1:34 pm

I understood that to harm a competitor you could anonymously create websites in the competitor’s name, create obviously fake links etc.

In regards to the fake websites…does there exist some kind of database registering who pays for a website ? If so, you could find out who is trying to screw with you.

And if this information is not available, is there some domain ending, such as .eu or .biz etc, where it is obligatory to publicly register contact details of the site owner ?

Such a domain ending might instill more confidence from the site’s users although it would not solve the problem mentioned in your article.

Reply

G September 9, 2013 at 2:13 pm

There are lots of ways that you can check on the history of the website, the one I’ve aways used is http://whois.cs/domainname. However, there are also a number of services that will protect your registration information from such attempts at revealing them. In most cases services run in the US & Europe will respond to legal actions brought against them by those people that have been infringed or had sabotage performed on their website. However there are some countries where they will not ask to many questions about the role and function of the domain, as there are service web-service providers that would allow the sending of material that under EU/US legislation would result in a huge fine. Some registrars and domain endings are tighter than others. There have been a number of high-profile cases where the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN), who manage .com/.net/.org Tlds basically, took away the domain name from the website. The pirate bay had something similar back in April of this year happen with a .se domain they registered (link)

But all of this is under the assumption that the person would want to be associated with such an action, which they wouldn’t. Were a person to associate their company with an activity that was identifiable it would still not be sufficient to take action because Google does not provide proof for of which links are causing the problems, simply a vague “there’s a problem”, and so any conclusion that you might make that the reason for a website to drop-off Google is because of a specific site, is not confirmed. Thus leverage is almost impossible. Quite whether this situation would change if the webmaster that had received the warning issued a letter from their lawyer directly to the regional Google HQ asking for confirmation of the domain names that were problematic, is unknown.

Industrial sabotage on the web can be manufactured without necessitating anything other than a few pieces of information. Take for example the very simple WordPress comment form you filled in. There are millions of websites running word-press as there are other open-source platforms.

Before no-one really cared that much because if a link was not important it would just be ignored. So if a competitor created 1,000 of links and they had no value it didn’t damage your business. The difference is that now Google is considering all the links that point to your website, and that means even the bad ones that you didn’t create – and it could be those that are terminating your online business.

And then what are you supposed to do?

Reply

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