“The best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google search results.”
Unbridled corporate power almost inevitably leads to the destruction of livelihoods. This has been seen time and time again; BP oil spills have crushed small businesses, Goldman Sachs has destabilized entire countries and Monsanto has direct ties to Indian farmer suicides. This is what unchecked corporate influence looks like.
While Google is loved by millions, it too has been responsible for crippling (and sometimes killing) small businesses. While Google is not technically a monopoly, webmasters have to rely on its offerings to a degree that can sometimes feel uncomfortable at best.
Google is well-known for constantly changing and tweaking algorithms to bring about the highest level of user experience. In 2011, Google unveiled Panda to the world. In 2012, Penguin was announced. In 2013, Hummingbird made its first flight while 2014 saw the release of Pidgeon. And pandemonium ensued in 2015 when Mobilegeddon hit the Web.
Most of these algorithms sound cute and harmless, but the reality is that every one of these updates has obliterated businesses and left their owners in dire circumstances.
In 2014, coupon company RetailMeNot saw its stock plummet by 20 percent after Google annihilated the company’s search ranking with its Panda update, dropping the company’s visibility by 33 percent.
This, however is far from an isolated incident:
Devastation at Demand Media
The company behind the eHow website (which accounted for roughly 30 percent of the organization’s total revenue) was essentially a content farm, making it a prime target for Panda. The content offered by the site was often thin, vague, and not always the highest quality. The writers of the pieces sometimes lacked obvious expertise, which meant that some of their content contained little pragmatic nor original information.
By April of 2011, after Panda’s implementation, third-party measurement services were reporting that the Google update had turned away approximately 40 percent of Demand’s traffic.
Considering that none of the company’s properties (with the exception of eHow, which was decimated) accounted for more than 10 percent of its revenue, the loss was disastrous.
Before Panda rolled out, Demand was generating roughly 120 million unique visitors per month. After the bear had its way with the brand, traffic was reduced to about 88 million.
In the company’s statement describing its name change to “Leaf Group,” it was stated that:
“. . . Demand Media has sold off a number of its hallmark properties in recent years as part of an effort to distance itself from its reputation as a content farm. . . after Google recalibrated its search engine formula in 2011 to partly reject cheap content, Demand Media’s market capitalization shrunk dramatically, from more than $2 billion to about $117 million today.”
Rap Genius Almost Calls it a Wrap
Prior to the April 2012 release of the Penguin update, lyrics website Rap Genius was topping the SERPs.
Unfortunately for the company, part of the way the website got so high in the search results was because the site owners/operators were posting on Facebook about the brand’s “affiliate program” which was no more than a link scheme to gain links pointing to Rap Genius in exchange for a Twitter shout out.
Shortly after posting about this on Facebook, a blog was published about it on Hacker News, which then caught the attention of none other than Matt Cutts.
Just a few days later, on Christmas day, Rap Genius was penalized and no longer showed up in the SERPs for ranked keywords or even its brand name.
The brand was eventually placed back in the SERPs, but took quite the hit; dropping from around 700,000 unique visits a day to roughly 100,000.
When all was said and done, Rap Genius cleaned up its practices and lost its position for only about a week; a minimal time frame compared to most. Many have speculated that this was because Andreessen Horowitz, a high-profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist, funded the site and might have had ties within Google.
Peter Walter’s Tale of Woe
In a piece published by The Telegraph entitled, “Google Penguin Nearly Killed My Business,” Peter Walter documents the disheartening story of how Google almost dealt his business a death blow.
After acquiring his father’s media training business, Peter knew that the company needed a more prominent online presence. Like many small business owners, he hired a SEO firm that touted good reviews and references. Much to his delight, his company’s website began to rise in the SERPs.
Then one day, Peter stopped acquiring new clients.
It wasn’t until one of his friend’s tried to Google his site and related keywords that Peter discovered his company had seemingly evaporated from the SERPs.
As it turns out, the SEO firm Peter had been using was creating artificial links pointing to his site which resulted in a penalty from Google.
Understanding that the penalty was necessary, Peter was not miffed by this. What did upset him, however, is how Google handled the process.
The search giant did not inform Peter of his penalty, and as a small business owner with minimal resources, he found this quite disturbing.
Moreover, Google provided him no way to formally appeal the action.
After months of trial and error to rectify the situation, Google finally began hinting, but not verifying, that it would not even look at his case until after the next Penguin updated occurred; he had no idea when that would be.
Likening Google to an “Old-Testament-style God,” Peter had to wait a full 18 months to find out if he had made the right corrections for his site to begin raising up in the SERPs again.
In Peter’s own words, “. . . they had crushed any chance my company had of taking off.”
Many site owners dip their toes into the waters of black hat tactics thinking the worst that will happen is that they will receive a penalty and have to recoup for a while.
The truth is that exploring the darker side of SEO can cost you your entire business and livelihood. The lesson to take to heart is this: Don’t game the system and tick off the search gods.
Has your business been impacted by Google’s algorithms? Do you think that Google needs a better appeals process for cases like Peter’s?