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Getting smacked by Google is never fun, but when you run a multi-million dollar online business that generates much of its sales through Google's SERPs, a Google smack down can be downright painful.

Just ask Ryan Abood, who runs GourmetGiftBaskets.com. According to a profile by Inc. Magazine, Abood lost $4m when his GourmetGiftBaskets.com was dropped from Google's index in 2008, right before the most important time of the year -- the holidays.

The reason? One of the companies Abood outsourced his SEO to was actually buying links to boost GourmetGiftBaskets.com in the SERPs, and Google somehow discovered those paid links. A penalty was applied, and without the top rankings that had been driving business, Abood watched as his SEO's blunder cost him $4m in sales. In addition, Abood was forced to spend money on AdWords, and even had to let staff go.

Fortunately, he was able to keep his business afloat and was finally able to get Google to let his website back in the index. Today, Abood says he has a stronger company because of his experience, and as one might guess, his company is especially vigilant about paid links.

There are two lessons here:

  • Being almost wholly dependent on Google for your revenue isn't the most desirable position in the world, even if you are making a lot of money.
  • When Google is the source of a big chunk of your revenue and revenue is measured in seven-plus figures, you have to be really, really careful about your SEO initiatives.

When it comes to the latter, hired help poses some of the greatest challenges. After all, third party vendors who manage your SEO can literally make or break your business. That's why a hefty amount of trust must be placed in these vendors. Here are a few suggestions for protecting your interests when dealing with them:

  • Know thy vendors. Who are they? What exactly are they doing for you? These seem like obvious questions but somewhat surprisingly, many don't really know what their SEOs are up to. Assumptions are made and risks are ignored. Big mistake.
  • Cover your behind -- legally. Define what your SEO will be doing, and don't hesitate to set boundaries. For instance, if you don't want your SEO paying for links, make that clear. And get it in writing, in a contract. A good lawyer, armed with clear instructions about the nature of your relationship with a vendor, can draft an agreement that can protect your interests and provide a significant deterrent to a vendor who might otherwise go rogue.
  • Stay local. While there's nothing inherently wrong with taking advantage of the global economy, it's often a good idea to keep your most important vendors geographically close to you. Not only does it usually make relationship-building easier, it also makes it easier to hold vendors accountable. Obviously, if a vendor breaches a contract or acts negligently, resulting in millions of dollars in damages, your odds of obtaining compensation are far greater if the vendor is around the corner and not half way around the world.

Of course, it's impossible to eliminate all risk when dealing with people you don't supervise on a daily basis. Which is why for many companies that generate millions of dollars from their positions in the SERPs, the best insurance policy against a multi-million dollar Google penalty may just be an investment in an in-house SEO team.

Photo credit: borman818 via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 31 August, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2405 more posts from this author

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Ben Tullett

There is no way this was entirely the result of paid links, otherwise every industry would be buying links to competitor sites and reporting them just to have the site punished.  The sites that sell links are the ones that get the rankings hit, taking away the benefit of buying them and this has been mentioned by Matt Cutts on a number of occasions.  There must have been other factors involved.  I do agree that clients should know what their SEO's and link builders are doing and ask the difficult questions.

about 6 years ago

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Lekan Adetifa, Head Online Acquisition at Moi

It could well be "entirely" the result of paid links! Think about it, if Google penalizes the sites that sell links, it devalues whatever link juice the site in question has passed to you. It is also largely agreed that Google devalues whatever benefit your site gets from paid links. A big reason Google does this is because competitors like you said will just buy links and point them to your site to punish you. Instead of hitting the site recieving the links, Google devalues the link.

Now, if you think about the companies that only buy paid links as the only link building activity they carry out. Sudden devaluation of all those links will result in a drop in the SERPs.

Google's last MayDay update; the so called caffeine update was reportedly to bring Google in line with the social web. A few sites seem to have been hit though. I personally know of a big site that saw a drop in rankings (maybe Google specifically spotted paid links)

The SEO portals and forums have however been awash with complaints about how long its taking Google to really hit hard at sites that are clearly achieving first page positions with paid links and other black/grey hat techniques. Rand Fishkin for one, has aired his dis content in a piece over at SEOMoz

about 6 years ago

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Ben Tullett

I did consider that, but the article mentions the site being completely dropped from the index.  Unless GourmetGiftBaskets.com was held up entirely by paid links, I think broader issues would have been at play.

about 6 years ago

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carouser

According to Google, if they so much as smell you gaming the system you can pretty much assure yourself that unless you have a cushion of savings you will be filing for bankruptcy real soon… http://scallywagandvagabond.com/2010/08/ryan-abood-wants-to-warn-you-dont-ever-fck-with-google/

about 6 years ago

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Social Tool

Ouch, that's quite a dent. It is very important to thoroughly check the background of potential hired helpers, as you have to make sure that you're getting the most bang for your buck.

about 6 years ago

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Sarah Taieb

We all know Google does not like paid links and can penalize sites for using them but to this level I have doubts it was entirely due to paid links issues unless the amount of them was mega-huge.

about 6 years ago

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Anonymous

While there are many different types of paid links (and therein lies a problem if you're actually going to ask your legal guys to define 'paid link') in competitive SERPs the truth is you will need to pay in some way for links. <br><br> I undertand the sentiment behind the 'cover your behind' point but this is a well meant article which is inadvertantly giving poor advice. I'd urge everyone to choose an honest SEO who explains what links need to be paid for and why it's necessary, over one who says they can work miracles just by keyword stuffing your html and swears they won't pay even a penny for links. Please also bear in mind that the issue isn't the actual payment for links but the belief in the mind of someone at Google that your site has overstepped 'the line'. You can do this just as easily with free links (comment spam, SEO networks, random sitewides from the guy on the pub) or with non link related things (hidden text, gateway pages, pretty much any type of 2003 SEO). The list of sites deindexed by Google and reasons why that's been done is very long and if you require an absolutely zero risk strategy then you must be realistic about the timescales and dedication (including from your own staff) involved to achieve results.

about 6 years ago

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