Learning from the Chrome Penalty

by rishil on January 4, 2012

I always insist, when a public story breaks in the SEO field of big proportions, you should take every opportunity to learn from it. The Chrome paid posts debacle is actually a pretty good example, as unlike in previous situations, Matt Cutts has publicly announce EXACTLY what the penalties were.  Which is all kinds of awesome to know.

A bit of background reading over at SEObook who originally spotted the story, then to Danny Sullivans breakaway post with more analysis and again Danny’s post on the announcement of the penalty. If you want, you can also read Matt Cutts response over at Google+.

What did I learn from the situation?

It’s possible to be Innocent

Despite the hype, I don’t believe that the campaign the Google Chrome team ran was to gain links. To be honest I doubt they needed them.  I am with Andrew Girdwood on that (and you should read why here).

By mistake, some webmasters added those links. So what happened if this activity was caught by the manual spam team? Pretty much a penalty. So in effect, it IS possible for someone to screw up link building without realising. If you were a small business (read: NOT Google or another brand) then you would be in effect screwed.

As Danny rightly puts it:

It also raises the serious question that if Google can’t keep track of its own rules, what hope is there that third parties are supposed to figure it all out?

Now lets take another coment – made by someone on Matt Cutts post:

So if I understand this correctly, it was only 1 sponsored post (out of 400) that was passing pagerank that was against the guidelines? Since the writer was being paid to write an article about Google Chrome they decided to insert the link editorially and that’s what has generated this penalty? Would there have been a penalty applied if that 1 post had not linked to Chrome and it was just 400 paid spammy posts? The whole thing seems strange. Polluting the internet with poor content and spamming the video is ok but one link (which the author deemed relevant in this case) is not? I don’t get it someone please clarify.

The bolded sections are my highlights.

This link was not paid for.

The payment was for the hosting of the video.

The link was given by the editor. Update: Want more proof? See this post by Dave Naylor on Unruly Media and how they send out campaign requests. If I was Unruly Media, I would be fuming.

As an advertiser, you HAVE NO CONTROL over what someone puts up on their site over and above what you have paid for. So did Google, in effect, unfairly punish themselves just for good PR? The mind boggles.

A Single Link and a Singular Penalty Example

Matt Cutts said:

In response, the webspam team has taken manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome for at least 60 days. After that, someone on the Chrome side can submit a reconsideration request documenting their clean-up just like any other company would. During the 60 days, the PageRank of www.google.com/chrome will also be lowered to reflect the fact that we also won’t trust outgoing links from that page.

So Google penalised itself. The chrome main page dropped out of the index for its most profitable generic “browser” and its most appropriate brand “chrome”.

However, the page https://support.google.com/chrome/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=95346 ranks for Chrome instead.

Now call me a conspiracy theorist, but I CAN understand why the original Chrome page ranked for “chrome” . Not sure why the support one does though.

Chrome Backlinks via Majestic SEO

Chrome Backlinks via Majestic SEO

What Should then?

wikipedia Chrome

Personally I see this page now supposedly the stronger one – of course, I haven’t investigated the value of other internal Google  links, nor the value of each link. And I admit my view is very simplistic.

I guarantee you, if such a penalty was applied to ANY other site for ANY brand term, NOTHING from that site would rank. Interesting to see a PAGE specific penalty in this way.

Or is that NOT a page but a subfolder?

Why use Google Chrome

Why use Google Chrome

Aha! It IS a subfolder specific penalty, because I am pretty sure ONE of those pages ranked for “Why Use Google Chrome”.

Oh wait! SEMrush confirms that at their last crawl, their recorded ranking position 1 for that term was http://www.google.com/chrome/intl/en/more/index.html

In fact, if you dig into the above SEMrush data a bit deeper, you will see that a common high volume query was: “what is google chrome”.  Guess who ranks at the no. 1 position for that?

No. It’s not a Google property, but the Wikipedia page I highlighted above. Which makes me wonder if that  support page which now ranks for Chrome has been manually promoted or is it just that the next best page from the domain surfaced?

Let’s go back to SEMrush and check previous US rankings for “Chrome”:

Support page ranked or not?

Support page ranked or not?

Ha! According to SEMrush data, that page did NOT rank in the top 20 results. Yet here it is. At position 1.

Let’s pull out a screenshot Danny Sullivan has of the US results for “Chrome” just to verify.

Danny Sullivans screenshot

Danny Sullivans screenshot

Now a disclaimer: The Support page DID in fact rank in the UK. (see screenshot below).

Support page in the UK

Support page in the UK

What does this teach you?

  1. The penalty isn’t PAGE specific as some people are saying – it’s to the whole subfolders – which in effect are now being treated as subdomains as well – we knew that they made this change for recognising internal links in the past year. But as I demonstrated, the penalty is to the whole subfolder / subdirectory.
  2. The surfacing of the support page – if you have  penalty on a particular page / folder / directory of a site, you CAN rank again for that KW as long as you have another section of your site dedicated to ranking for the same KW. In theory at least. Especially if that KW is a “brand” signal.

Manual Penalties Exist, and Always Have.

Often I hear when Google is being taken to task over some legal issue about them artificially pushing up or down certain results, we have had quotes saying that Google cannot control the flow of the organic algo. However no one seems to mention these penalties, which can be applied – which means that though they may have no manual control of the UP switch, they do in fact have control of the DOWN switch – which has the same effect as the UP switch if you demote everything slightly.

This to me constitutes control over the organic placements. I think it’s time everyone started reading more about Foundems Search Neutrality  Campaign. Like I said on a recent post in Econsultancy:

“…serious investigation by capable organisations on the Google Monopoly of the search market and its anti-competitive behaviour to various niches.

I don’t think it’s fair that Google is allowed to bring out products and services that are simply clones of businesses it’s been taking money from to market, and using its data to build and market their own services.”

Some Other Takeaways That SEOs Should Be Aware Off

On Matt’s Google Plus post, a bunch of interesting questions have been asked, some of which have been answered well by John Mueller ( a googler I really respect)  – which I am pulling out because they are worth recording somewhere other than a random Google plus post.

Would another site’s page be “banned” from Google search, not just demoted in pagerank?

Generally speaking, we only remove pages or sites from the index if there are significant issues with regards to our webmaster guidelines with the website itself. As mentioned in http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=66736

“Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.”

there’s also a blog post on this topic at http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2007/12/information-about-buying-and-selling.html which covers some of the possible negative effects.

Would another site’s root domain get demoted, not just the offending page?

As mentioned in http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2011/12/tips-for-hosting-providers-and.html

“We try hard to be granular in our actions when protecting our users and search quality, but if we see a very large fraction of sites on a specific web host that are spammy or are distributing malware, we may be forced to take action on the web host as a whole.”

In a case like this, it’s easier to be granular since it’s based on a very specific action.

Now that Google knows how innocently a good site can get caught up in a mess like this, will the ability to “plead your case” be opened up a bit before demotion?

You can always explain what happened in a reconsideration request. As Matt mentioned, it’s important that you document your efforts in getting any known issues cleaned up in your reconsideration request.

There’s more on reconsideration requests at http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35843 .

I realize it’s not often that the community at large will find and diagnose an issue with a website in this way, but if you’re unsure of what your site has run into, you can always post in our webmaster’s help forum to get more input. While you may not always get answers from Googlers there, the replies there will often point you towards issues that can be resolved, and in many cases, in the right direction.

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Rishi Lakhani is an independent Online Marketing Consultant specialising in SEO, PPC, Affiliate Marketing and Social Media. Explicitly.Me is his Blog. Google Profile

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jono Alderson January 4, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Fantastic coverage; fascinating that they appear to have rolled out folder-specific considerations (in the same vein as subdomains) in line with their link classification changes!

Reply

kevin January 4, 2012 at 1:59 pm

So did google get Penalised for being linked to from a 3rd party website? I really don’t get it!

Reply

rishil January 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Sort of. they got penalised for theoratically buying links.

Reply

Ian Lurie January 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm

The painful truth here: Google is only human after all. Which means they shouldn’t wield god-like power over the internet.

Anyone want to build a search engine?

Reply

Dixon Jones January 14, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Ian – We’ve thought about it ;)

Reply

searchengineman January 4, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Wow – what a take away – directory based penalties..it’s nice to know that Google
won’t completely nuke an entire site, for alleged infractions. Is there anyone else who agrees that the drop is directory based only?

Searchengineman

Reply

Doc Sheldon January 5, 2012 at 3:47 am

Interesting, Rishi-

I think your point is well taken, that any other site would have seen the entire site penalized, rather than the page.

Interesting, but dismaying that they even saw it as necessary. I’m afraid the repercussions may be unpleasant for a lot of folks. You might find this video that Andy Beard put up today interesting on that front. http://andybeard.eu/3606/reinstate-chrome.html

Reply

Gordon Campbell January 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Great PR stunt.

Reply

Marcos January 8, 2012 at 10:46 am

Hi Rishil,

Thanks for mentioning my comment in Matt Cutts Plus page

“Now lets take another coment – made by someone on Matt Cutts post:”

Great article released today on Google´s transparency and their double standards
http://www.seobook.com/transparency

Reply

Mike January 11, 2012 at 6:55 pm

I recently received a penalty for just ONE of my pages on my site. It dropped from top 5 to around 70-80 and was the only page on my site to do so.

I’m really unsure as to what my plan of action should be.

Is this a manual penalty that needs manually reversing? Or will removing any dodgy links reverse the rankings automatically?

Thanks,
Mike

Reply

Ingo Bousa January 12, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Google acts exactly like a Government would. It’s like playing chess. Very slick..

Reply

Emory Rowland January 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Funny to imagine, but has anyone suggested a site wide penalty should have been invoked. Seriously, if this were John Doe’s awesome browser instead of Chrome, I wonder if there would have been just a subdirectory level penalty.

Reply

Mike March 23, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Adding on to my previous post. We worked on a .co.uk and redirect the .com domain to the .co.uk. It appears that the penalty has finally caught up with us as we got a notifcation regarding unnatural linking, despite doing nothing of the sort on the .co.uk domain.

Hopefully I can simply get rid of the 301 redirect and my rankings will stay safe.

Thanks,
Mike

Reply

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