What happened to Expedia?
In the middle of January, this well-known travel website saw its visibility in Google drop by 25%. In a hugely competitive industry, this would have lost them a lot of bookings and money. Google had manually penalised them for various black-hat SEO techniques.
Expedia was highlighted as a brand getting away with link schemes by an SEO agency. Google had to respond and a month later Expedia saw the penalty.
When it was initially picked up by the media, it was thought to be a negative SEO attack but it has become clear that Expedia has been using outdated and bad SEO tactics knowingly. Recent in-depth analysis by Bartosz Góralewicz goes into detail of what Expedia were doing and is worth a read. Since the penalty, Expedia have been addressing the problem.
What were Expedia doing wrong?
- Distributing a WordPress theme with hidden links to their website – this had been created by an agency and has been used by thousands of bloggers. Hiding links is an old and frowned upon technique.
- Using link networks.
- Paying for “do follow” links. These are typically advertorials.
- Paying for guest blogs.
- Listing themselves on poor-quality directory websites.
- Creating sponsored articles and press releases with “do follow” keywords with links.
How were they getting away with it?
At this point, it’s hard to understand why they have been able to use these techniques and rank well. Google refuses to comment on private company penalties so we may never know. There is a suspicion that it allows larger companies to get away with certain practices – something that obviously doesn’t sit well with the SEO community.
If I use these techniques, will I get away with it?
Probably not. Often smaller companies are the first to see the hits when Google changes its policies. We’ll no doubt see more brands get into trouble, forcing these practices to really die.
For best practice, always refer to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
I think these techniques may have been used for our website in the past and not been amended. What can I do?
Many digital and marketing managers may find themselves in this position. Predecessors or previous agencies may have used these techniques and then left/been dismissed. Often there is no paper trail to discover what they did.
The first step would be to do a backlink analysis and see if any backlinks are hurting the website. This should be done periodically to make sure the backlink profile is high quality. We outline tools and tips on how to do this type of analysis in our Penguin 2.0 article.
If you have access to old reports (and by old I mean from the mid-2000s) then it’s worth looking through to see what was being done.
Speak to a digital agency to find out if they can help you. An SEO audit would show up any damaging websites and techniques.
We engage an agency to manage our SEO. How do I know they are not using black-hat techniques?
Good, transparent agencies will report to you regularly on the activities they are carrying out for SEO. Read your reports and if you have concerns, then talk to them.
Bear in mind that search goalposts change quickly and sometimes frequently. What was a viable technique yesterday can become a bad technique today. For example, guest blogging was a recognised and legitimate technique for link building but over the past year, Google have clamped down on it and now say you should not use it for these purposes. This doesn’t mean that guest blogging is bad but that its purpose should be focused on building your reputation rather than links.
Three lessons on what you should be doing
- Regularly reviewing the backlink profile of your website, at least every 3-6 months.
- If you are paying for articles, e.g. sponsorship, advertorials, then make sure any links back to your website are “nofollow”.
- Be active in understanding SEO – whether it’s a team member or an agency, read the reports they give you and know what they are doing.
Three lessons on what you should not be doing
- Buying cheap SEO – if you pay peanuts you will get monkeys, penguins and pandas.
- Paying for poor-quality links to build up the link profile.
- Thinking you’ll get away with it. Google catches up sooner or later and this incident puts pressure on them to completely stamp these practices out.