Google penalises Interflora and UK newspapers for failing to comply with SEO regulations

The website for Interflora has disappeared from Google search pages, amid accusations the company has manipulated links

The website for flower delivery company Interflora has disappeared from Google search pages, amid accusations that the company has been manipulating links to improve its search ranking.

Both Interflora and Google have declined to comment, but SEO experts have been blogging about the impact of Interflora's actions on search engine optimisation (SEO) and digital marketing.

Interflora’s website has been removed from Google’s search results only - its website still ranks first on Bing for the terms “Interflora” and “send flowers”, suggesting that the flower company is being penalised by Google.

David Naylor, head of the SEO marketing team at Bronco, told Computer Weekly that Interflora is being punished by Google for paying newspapers to publish advertorials on their websites with links back to Interflora.

“In January, Interflora, in order to get ready for Valentine’s Day, paid newspapers to run stories which were only there to get links to improve their Google ranking,” he said. “Google found out and went ballistic.

“In SEO terms, advertorials are like gold dust, but have to be taken with care. Interflora went and did as many as humanly possible, and they really went too far,” he added.

In order to comply with Google's regulations, paid advertorials which feature links must attribute a nofollow tag - which Interflora did not include. According to Naylor, a nofollow tag provides a way for webmasters to tell search engines not to follow this specific link and therefore not to pass any equity over to the website.

“Google doesn’t want people buying links to influence Google search engines, it makes a mockery of search.”

Decrease in PageRank for UK newspapers

Google has not only penalised Interflora by removing the website from its search ranking, but it has also punished the newspapers that carried its advertorial, by reducing their page rank.

PageRank is how Google scores different websites for influence, 0 being not on Google’s radar at all, up to 10, which is a highly influential website.

Naylor’s team investigated the matter and wrote a blog post, which showed the huge PageRank drop that occurred late last week across nearly all regional and a couple of national newspaper websites. The Border Telegraph has dropped from 6 to 0, while The Independent has dropped from 8 to 4.

“The thing is that 90% of all links happening on the internet are being paid for, this makes a massive problem for Google,” said Naylor.

Google has made an example of Interflora, using a “shock and awe exercise, which is a big scare tactic that works,” he added.

Newspapers will have to build up a lot of trust to improve their PageRank, and may have to change all advertorials. “This in itself is a problem, as there are commercial agreements in place,” said Naylor. “Interflora has made a mess for newspapers and anybody using advertorial to advertise a product.”

Google's webmaster guidelines

Last Friday, Google reiterated the dangers of selling links, with a reminder post on its blog. While the blog did not mention Interflora by name, which some feel is a warning, it stated that websites need to be wary if companies approach them offering to pay for links or advertorial pages that pass PageRank.

“Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations. The consequences for a link-selling site start with losing trust in Google's search results, as well as reduction of the site's visible PageRank in the Google Toolbar. The consequences can also include lower rankings for that site in Google's search results,” wrote Matt Cutts, distinguished engineer, Google.

This penalty has been put in place in the run up to Mother’s Day on 10 March.

“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,” said Yousaf Sekander, director at digital marketing agency, RocketMill.

Other 'shock and awe' tactics

Interflora is not the first company to be blacklisted from Google. In 2006, BMW in Germany had its PageRank reduced to zero after Google discovered that the car manufacturer had influenced search results.

Car insurer GoCompare also felt the sting from Google after buying links in 2008, after which the company’s website dropped from page one to page seven on Google’s search engine.

It is also not the first time that Interflora has been tangled up in the rules and regulations of SEO. In 2011, the company took Marks & Spencer to court for infringing the florist’s trademark rights by purchasing "Interflora" as a Google AdWord. Interflora started legal proceedings when M&S purchased its trademarked name as an AdWord, meaning that users searching for "Interflora" could be presented with an advert that connects them to the M&S website instead.

A 2010 ruling by the European Court of Justice said that Google had not broken any laws by allowing a trademarked word to be sold in this way, but failed to decide whether the purchaser - in this case M&S - was in breach of trademark protection rules.

The Advocate General of the European Court of Justice subsequently decided in 2011 that Marks & Spencer had indeed violated this trademark.

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