A number of well known UK brands have been penalised recently by Google for boosting their rankings through paid links and reviews.

This happened to Moneysupermarket.com last year, more recently to Gocompare, and just last week Kwik-Fit’s car insurance offering was relegated from page 2 to the relative obscurity of page 5 of the search engine.

All three were penalised for using paid links and reviews to boost their Google rankings for the highly competitive term ‘car insurance’.

We talked to Nilhan Jayasinghe, Vice President, Head of Natural Search for icrossinguk about the risks of trying to ‘game’ Google. 


Can you sum up what happened to Kwik Fit?

Kwik Fit had been up on the second page on Google for the term ‘car insurance’ and occasionally on the first page and has achieved this by using Payperpost [a paid blogging service] on a large scale.

Now its insurance-related URL (http://www.kwik-fitinsurance.com/) has been relegated to page 5.


Is this a standard penalty for buying paid links?

I don’t think there is a standard penalty, but this seems to be the same as happened to GoCompare recently.

It looks like a manual penalty – Google does have manual reviewers but they are usually used for different issues. Google normally relies on a system where webmasters report link spam to Google.

If the search engine receives enough complaints, then Google will look into it. They generally pick out well known brands to set an example.


Is the practice of buying links widespread?

This has been going on for the last few years, since the Florida update, and a lot of big brands in the insurance and finance sector are doing this.

As well as Kwik Fit and Gocompare; Moneysupermarket, Ocean Finance and Star Finance have all fallen foul of Google on this issue.


Why aren’t more sites being penalised then?

It can be harder for Google to spot when big brands are doing it, as it looks for signs of quality and these brands give plenty of those signs to the search engine in other ways.

Gocompare went from nowhere on Google to the number one slot in the space in a year, which doesn’t normally happen, especially when you are an insurance aggregator. It went above the radar a little too quickly.

This is a big issue for Google as its ad revenues depend partly on having a clean search index.


What is your agency’s policy on paid links?

We used to do this ourselves but stopped the practice a year ago. We have taken a strong position on this, and have even lost clients as a result of refusing to buy paid links / reviews.


Are many search agencies offering this service?

Well, a lot of paid search agencies who previously didn’t offer SEO have started doing so because they can achieve a similar quick fix with paid links.


Does the harshness of the penalty depend on whether a company has a large paid search spend on Google?

The geeks at Google that are sorting out search relevancy are in a different section from the paid search teams so I’m not sure this makes a difference to whether sites are penalised or not.

However, sending a lot on paid search may make a difference once you have been found out – it means you can make more of a fuss when you are penalised and give them more access to Google.

For instance, Moneysupermarket.com, which had a large paid search budget, was able to overturn the penalty within weeks.


Do you think that Google Adwords / Adsense growth may be peaking?

I think there is a definite ceiling for PPC inflation. It is also under threat from the introduction of universal search – as soon as you put an image on a search results page, users eyes will scan towards it, which may result in fewer paid search clicks.

There are signs that Google will have to offer enhanced listings, images etc for paid search ads, which will mean that branding may become more important than conversion in future.

If branding money comes into paid search, then such advertisers would be willing to pay more so Google could even see its revenues increase.

Google is already moving towards this with TV and radio advertising, as well as the DoubleClick acquisition.


What kind of SEO approach would you recommend to clients?

The pure, link-based algorithm that Google has been using for years is quite old now, and Google is likely to start incorporating user data as well.

My advice is that changes are going to come, and that websites need to concentrate on building a reputation through engagement with visitors, content and services.

Rather than using paid links as a quick fix, sites need to take a more long-term approach, and think about how they will attract and engage users / customers.


Are there more Google penalties to come?

Yes, until Google has found a more effective way to deal with the problem – in the meantime all they can do is to manually take out more websites for using paid links. We will see more of these penalties in the next 12 months. 


Related research:

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – Best Practice Guide 2007

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