Joe Friedlein is the founder of Browser Media, a UK based search engine marketing agency. 

Browser Media has been the victim of a Google penalty which has seen its pages almost disappear from the SERPs. 

I’ve been asking Joe about the possible reasons for the penalty and his frustration at the Kafkaesque nature of Google’s (non)communication with webmasters. 

Rumour has it that you have been having ‘issues’ with your own search rankings recently – not an ideal situation for a search marketing agency?

Yes, we have been having a bit of a nightmare and are in the midst of trying to resolve a penalty on our website. 

Going public about it does indeed put us on a pedestal for ridicule, but we have built the agency on a foundation of complete transparency and I think that there are questions to be asked and lessons to be learned for us all. I hope that a public debate can help benefit the wider online community. 

We are also not the only SEO agency to have been hit with a penalty and I was interested to read Will Reynolds from the highly respected SEER Interactive blog about some pain that they recently felt, despite also advocating an ethical approach to SEO.

It is perhaps this last point that has made the journey somewhat painful for us. Anyone who has spoken to us will know how OCD we are about approaching SEO in an ethical manner. We have always embraced Google’s guidelines and it is therefore especially frustrating to end up in Google’s bad books!

Why do you think you have been penalised?

The irony of this situation is that I am fairly certain that the root cause of the headache was a good bit of content creation on our blog.

We published an infographic at that did a very good job of attracting interest (and links). We did very little to publicise the fact that it was there but a lot of sites picked up on it following a few mentions on popular, high traffic sites (including Econsultancy who blogged about it) so there was a definite spike in link activity and overall ‘noise’.

Not only was the increase in link acquisition fairly marked but a lot of the links would have appeared to have been over-optimised due to the use of ‘seo agency’ in the blog post title. 

I can absolutely see why this may have caused some waving of red flags over at the Googleplex and we received the dreaded ‘unnatural links’ warning in Google Webmaster Tools three days after the spike in link activity. 

What were the effects of the penalty? 

Very shortly after that, we vanished from the SERPs. Pages are still indexed but it is mighty hard to find us, even for our brand name. I have no doubt that our off-page profile is the problem although I would like to think that a manual review of the links that the infographic attracted would have showed that it was actually a good example of good content working well rather than a manipulated event.

I would also hope that the quality of the sites linking to the infographic would help to show that it was worthy of links rather than a spammy link building exercise. 

We have subsequently spent a lot of time looking through our backlink profile to try to identify anything dodgy.

Over the years, we have submitted our site to various directories, which tend to be ‘keyword rich’ links, but I think the following graph (which compares the profile of keywords used in our links to those used in links pointing to sites ranking well for ‘seo agency’) proves that we cannot be accused of manipulating the keywords used in our back links:

I therefore believe that the spike in links following the publication of the infographic created an automated red flag and that Google’s recent aggressive actions against ‘unnatural’ links plunged us into the quagmire.

One other theory that we looked at is the somewhat frightening spectre of ‘negative seo’ (where you try to destroy competitors by building poor quality links to their sites), but I can’t see any real evidence that this has occurred.

There are a few odd links to our site that I am baffled by (I have no idea why they are there) but there are very few and it would be very alarming if they could topple a site.

Do you think that negative SEO is a real threat?

There is no doubt that this is a worrying possibility and some of the examples that have surfaced (mainly on the other side of the Atlantic) suggest that recent Google changes have increased the likelihood of negative SEO working, so I do believe that this is an issue that needs to be monitored carefully.

Historically, ‘bad’ quality links were generally ignored (i.e they didn’t help improve rankings for the destination site). It does now appear that your link profile can actively damage your rankings and the well publicised increase in ‘unnatural links’ warnings in webmaster tools shows that Google is on the warpath.

If it is possible for bad links to wipe you out, rather than not help, the logical conclusion is that negative SEO can work.

I think that this is especially true for smaller brands or newer sites that do not have a large volume of aged links, although a sudden spike in spammy links may well get you in hot water whoever you are.

Matt Cutts has been on record saying that this is not possible, but I am no longer as reluctant to believe the scaremongers as I used to be. 

The debate will continue, but I raise my hat to Rand Fishkin’s (of SEOmoz) challenge to anyone to take him out through negative SEO. What a great link building strategy, as you can be mighty sure that Google won’t let them be hurt by it…

Do you think that Google does enough to communicate with webmasters?

Yes and (mainly) no. In Google’s defence, nobody pays for the organic results and no site has a right to rank well so they don’t really have any immediate obligation to offer support for the organic search, but I think that there is a growing tide of resentment towards the search engine that could be appeased through improved levels of communication.

Google’s webmaster tools is potentially very good but I do feel that it is a half-hearted effort and there is so much more that could be done to improve communication with website owners. 

For example, if they can tell you that they believe that your site does not meet its quality guidelines, why not provide a bit more information regarding why they believe this to be the case? 

You could argue that this would just encourage the spammers to carry on plying their trade and wait for slapped wrists by Google who would then point out exactly where they have overstepped the mark, but if Google really wants to ‘improve the internet’ then I think it is in everyone’s interests for them to be more transparent.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t be penalised for trying to game the system (I actively encourage Google to stamp down on spam), but it is frustrating when you are told that you have been naughty but there is no indication of what you have done wrong. 

We immediately filed a reinclusion request outlining our fears that the infographic may have been the cause of an unnatural spike in links,  but that was met with a standard ‘we’ve reviewed your site and we believe that some or all of your pages still violate our quality guidelines’ message and a link to their help forums, which are definitely weak and apparently ignored by Google themselves. 

It is incredibly frustrating and the sense that there is a brick wall between you and Google causes a lot of site owners to start looking at tactics that Google wants to stamp out. 

What would you like to see in the future from Google?

As I mentioned, there is no contract between webmasters and Google and Google does not make any money directly from their organic search results so they have no obligation in terms of support levels.

I actually think that this is a golden opportunity. Some form of paid for SLA would be hugely attractive for all serious webmasters. This works well for AdWords and Google Apps (I have seen varying degrees of quality in terms of their support, but they do communicate when you have a problem) and I suspect that Google could make a fortune from an official support channel, so it is something that I would love to see.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that you could bypass any penalties by paying a subscription fee, but I think that a clear statement of how to communicate with Google and published response times would reduce the frustration that is felt by so many site owners.

I also think that any potential SLA should include clear details of what to expect if you game the system. For example, if Google states that buying links will get you a 6 month penalty, then there can be no complaints from anyone who undertakes such activity.

Paying for support would not get you out of jail, but you would at least be told that you have had been punished and shown why. 

This would also help to address concerns over the threat of negative SEO. If you can see which links are at fault, it will become clear very quickly if there is any malpractice at play.

Personally, I think that this should be included within Google’s webmaster tools – the ability to say ‘ignore these links’ should be available as it would instantly render negative SEO pointless. Technically, this should be possible and would be a much easier step to take than building an official support channel.

I generally like to avoid bureaucracy and ‘officialdom’ but Google is so powerful now that it surprises me that a level of governance isn’t being considered. It makes me laugh to see how health and safety legislation gets in the way of pretty much everything whilst Google, which can make or break businesses, escapes any form of accountability.

What lessons have you learned from the experience?

To be honest, we are still in the learning phase as we still haven’t recovered nor are we any closer to knowing for sure what caused the penalty, but it has been an interesting experience!

I am through the anger (rage?) phase but still feel frustrated that it has happened at all. Not because we are good two shoes (although we have worked tirelessly to support Google’s ambition to stamp out spammy SEO), but because it rocked my belief in ethical SEO. If you try so hard to do it ‘properly’ and still get stung then it is easy to be tempted to the dark side. 

It is even more frustrating to think that the effort we put into the infographic may actually have been the catalyst for the penalty – that hardly encourages us to focus on content…

Another major frustration has been seeing what other SEO agencies are up to (notably, some of the sites that are ranking well for ‘seo agency’ related phrases). I am not going to hang out any dirty laundry, but there are some hideous examples of link spamming that really should have been detected but appear to be working very well.

There is a school of thought that SEO will become more aggressive in terms of ‘outing’ poor practice by your competitors. That isn’t for me (I would rather focus on doing good things) but you can see why this approach is growing in popularity.

I have always said that relying on organic traffic is a very, very risky strategy for any organisation, but this experience has reinforced that belief. Most of our organic search traffic is to our blog and that rarely converts to enquiries but it has been extremely frustrating to witness the disappearance for brand related search terms.

Not knowing when the situation will be resolved is very difficult to deal with – this is why I now believe that a paid support option would be beneficial.

No organisation is perfect and I think that most would agree that Google falls into this camp. We have not seen any penalties on any of our clients’ sites (which have typically faired very well from the recent Penguin update), so I remain confident that an ethical approach is the best approach for long term success, but things can go wrong and you need to be prepared for the worst. We are now very well equipped to truly appreciate the pain that you feel when you are hit with a penalty. 

It has definitely made me think harder about the secretive nature of Google as an organisation and I really do think that time is running out for the frontier days – something needs to change and I hope that my suggestion of a paid support option is something that may be on Google’s radar.