Interflora Penalty: ionSearch Speakers Offer Their Opinions

27th Feb 2013 News, Events 7 minutes to read

ionsearchThe Interflora penalty has sent shockwaves through the search community over the past week. And as the dust now starts to settle, several speakers attending the ionSearch social and search marketing conference in April offer their opinions on what happened to the brand and the wider impact.

The penalty is one of the highest profile in recent times and is certain to be a major talking point throughout a number of sessions at the conference. So we asked our speakers the big questions: were paid advertorials to blame for Interflora’s penalty or just a marker that singled the site out for closer inspection? Was any one link-building method to blame? And where does this leave SEO in 2013?

Marcus Tober
Marcus Tober, CTO and Founder at Searchmetrics (@marcustober)
The Interflora penalty was interesting. They have such a bad link profile that I’m wondering why it hadn’t lost its rankings after the last Penguin updates. That shows us that Google has more improvements to implement in the coming Penguin updates.

I think Interflora had too many bad links. Not just advertorials, it also seems that they participated in a link exchange network. They had absolutely too many spam links.

Interflora will stay banned for a long time I assume. If they disavow or delete all links then nearly nothing is left. And without links you can’t rank. I think they need years to recover.

David Harling
David Harling, Head of Search at Razorfish (@DavidHarling)
This is another example of Google making an example of a big brand carrying out bad link-building activities (the last high profile case was JC Penney back in 2011). If you evaluate the full domain backlink profile you can clearly unpick the unnatural nature of their link behaviour. Any brand or agency that invested heavily into paid advertorial content strategies to engineer inbound links is asking for trouble, especially when they are over-using exact match anchor text that reflects the primary generic keywords they want to rank for.

I think the key point to focus on here is that Interflora was penalised for building poor quality paid links – mainly fueled by advertorials and bad practice outreach campaigns. What this doesn’t mean is that outreach is not an effective channel for brands to deliver on multiple KPIs, including SEO.  If the primary objective of your outreach is to engage influential audiences, to encourage user generated content, and build a network of positive brand advocates, while ensuring brand endorsement by the means of a ‘justified’ natural link, then you can expect to build a strongly positive brand profile in natural search.

If agencies engage in poor quality outreach campaigns and over-engineer the process by over-optimising anchor text they will see little impact or lasting sustained value – as well as putting their domain at risk. Considering what happened to Interflora through an ‘outreach’ lens doesn’t paint the full picture.

If you over do a sharp corner in your car you will crash – but this doesn’t mean turning corners in your car will cause you to crash. This penalty tells me that quality is always more important than quantity. Competition is hard but shortening your route to top rankings with shady links is a big risk.

Kevin GibbonsKevin Gibbons, Managing Director (UK) at BlueGlass Interactive (@kevgibbo)

From what I’ve seen it looks more like it was an excessive combination of link manipulation factors that caused the penalty. Advertorials seem to be the stand-out tactic from this – but certainly not the only reason the site has been penalised. As with most things in SEO it’s about knowing the thresholds of what Google considers to be good or bad – and Interflora have obviously crossed that line in terms of having a link profile which appears unnatural.

The Link Research Tools post was very interesting in terms of identifying the types of links which are likely to be having a negative impact. In terms of if one type of link is worse than another, I’m not sure it quite works like that – anything that looks paid and over-optimised is always going to stand out to Google as a potentially unnatural link, irrespective of the type of link or domain it’s hosted on.

If you look at previous Google penalties, Interflora are probably looking at a minimum of three months out of the SERPs for their main money keywords. I’d expect the brand terms to return quicker – but who’s to say, it’s not me who makes up the rules unfortunately :)

At SES London last week I spoke about both Google Penguin and content marketing. The key messages I wanted to get across were that in 2013 you should focus on human engagement and activity, with links as a by-product of great content. Obviously since then Interflora have been penalised, which if anything has only strengthened my belief in this. If you’re building links that are for SEO purposes alone Google now have many more social and traffic signals to identify them as weak links (such as advertorials) – it doesn’t matter if content is hosted on a strong domain, if no-one reads it that means no-one cares – so why should Google?

Aresha KrishnanAresha Krishnan, Senior Social Content Creative, Cheil Worldwide’s Centre of Excellence (@areshaonline)

It was interesting to see The Drum’s article with criticism from We Are Social’s MD Robin Grant saying SEO agencies are ‘poisoning’ the ‘ethical approach’ of agencies like his own.

The key issue with blogger outreach is that the KPIs tend to differ depending on whether it’s a PR/Social or SEO agency leading the execution.

PR and social agencies tend to lead outreach with engagement, reach and distribution as key KPIs – as these are the foundation metrics for Public Relations, even from an offline perspective. Links are a ‘nice to have’ additional KPI.

SEO agencies tend to be more linear and lead with ‘links back’ and search rankings as primary KPIs, due to the foundation metrics of the industry.  It is therefore important to strike a balance between rules of engagement and SEO metrics.

Ideally all blogger outreach programs should be treated as a social outreach campaigns, with creativity at the heart, instead of badgering bloggers for links with minimal one-way outreach activity.

Christoph CemperChristoph C. Cemper, Founder of Link Research Tools (@cemper)

The advertorials were really just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Others are doing similar things, but I think they were just overdoing it. While many (including Google and others) have talked about advertorials, the fact is that the whole mix of over 70% toxic and suspicious links is what caused the problem.

I think that they will remain penalised until they undertake link clean-up and disavowal, and I’ll be following up and analysing their backlink profile over the coming months.

This shows that the first releases of Penguin were just the beginning. What is surprising is that according to what has happened in other sectors following other Penguin updates Interflora should have tanked earlier.

Mike EssexMike Essex, Online Marketing Manager, Koozai (@Koozai_Mike)

When the penalty was first issued there seemed to be a lot of finger pointing to determine which agency was to blame. As Irish Wonder pointed out there are at least six agencies who state Interflora on their client list and for a brand that large it is likely they would have different agencies carrying out multiple tasks. That’s on top of anything Interflora themselves did thinking they were helping the campaign.

This explains how they were able to get in to a situation where they had an excessive number of advertorials, spammy blogger outreach and other tasks that probably came about via different agencies each trying to over deliver without a holistic view of the bigger picture or any effects. Not all of these agencies would be “SEO agencies” either which would only compound the problem further without them realising they were doing any harm.

You can see similar things now with the link clean-up which seems to lack a clear focus and is more about removing as many links as possible rather than a clear strategy.

Removing every link in this way is likely to lead to a longer penalty – as it’s an admission of potentially more bad links that those Google saw – and reduced rankings when they do get back.

What’s really needed now is someone with a clear vision to come in and focus the different agencies on the task at hand. Interflora are likely to be out of the index for 3 months so they would be better taking a week to get their processes in order and appointing a senior person to keep a tight rein on the different agencies to stop this happening again.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author so may not represent those of the Koozai team.

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