2014 is indeed looking like the year of the spam clampdown, and here is a fresh example of a major company getting wiped off the face of the (google) index, the Halifax Bank (a well known high street bank in the UK).

 

What’s happened?

Lets take a look at the losing keywords:  (all data via the awesome SearchMetrics platform)

halifax1

As we can see, the reduction in rankings has all been biased towards high value, generic keywords.  The site still ranks perfectly well for all its (hundreds of) brand terms, and it still ranks for the occasional generic as well, but the hit this week has been considerable, and doubtless will cause a decent financial impact on search related revenues.

But Why?

A cursory look at Majestic shows us a pretty decent upswing in link acquisition around mid december, with new links seen by the MJbot increasing from 4k per day by 10x, to 40-50k per day:

halifax2

If we take a closer look at the links “earned” on those dates we see some pretty obvious site patterns:

halifax3

 

If we look at any of those pages listed, (ie. here) we find that there ISNT a link to the Halifax, but a quick check of the Google Cache shows us a different picture:

halifax4

Thats an HTML banner ad with multiple anchor text links (followed) pointing at different Halifax pages.  So 2008!

Another sign of the naivety of linkbuilding employed, has been the seeming reliance on buying links from places like the Yakezie network of financial blogs, which were outed as far back as 3 years ago for selling links.

 

The Cleanup has Already Started!

Whoever is tasked with cleaning up their back-link profile has already made a go of things, quite a few of the sites I checked had already removed the offending links.

This in my mind rules out the potential for negative SEO being the root cause, as they have been so quick to react that there must have been a contingency plan in place.

 

What Can YOU Find?

Piecing together the root cause of a penalty is akin to being an SEO CSI, what reasons can YOU find as to why they may have been penalised?  Leave your comments below!

Categories: blog-category

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39 Responses

  • Noman Ali

    Well, Its obvious when a company building up links 10x to 50x daily with low authority websites in the means of banners it seems very very very un natural tactic so google animal definitley hunt that website…

    February 7, 2014 at 7:07 am
  • Neil Maycock

    Unbelievable! On first read I thought that’s a bad mistake. But really anchor text on a HTML banner!! So keyword rich!! How blatant do you want to be!! If maybe they had focused on exposure on these sites instead of links they would have been fine!

    February 7, 2014 at 8:12 am
  • Glen

    Good spot!

    Just curious how you found out about this?

    It’s a shame these rules don’t apply to Godaddy ;)

    February 7, 2014 at 9:30 am
  • Krystian Szastok

    I was waiting and waiting for them to fall because of those widgets.

    Really curious if Lloyds will get a penalty too as I think they had plenty of them too.

    Thanks for the find Martin.

    February 7, 2014 at 9:46 am
  • Matthew Barby

    Haha – I love those HTML banners! Not quite sure what they were expecting here – there often seems to be a lot of naivety with big brands when it comes to SEO. A lot of them just think that they’ve been around for so long that they will be immune to Google penalties.

    One thing’s for sure – someone’s getting a serious slap on the wrist!

    February 7, 2014 at 10:08 am
  • Josh Hamit

    Wow, this looks painful for Halifax!! If it is found to be a negative SEO campaign I wonder how Google will handle it… And would negative SEO become a criminal offense??

    February 7, 2014 at 10:30 am
  • Matthew Pont

    I have a feeling that 2014 is going to be even bigger than 2013 for spam / dubious link practice clamp downs by the webspam team at Google. Brace yourselves!

    February 7, 2014 at 10:31 am
  • Chris Hutchings

    It is also worth noting that when you search for current accounts you now get the Google comparison tool – https://www.google.co.uk/compare/currentaccount/qs#!profile=ANY_ACCOUNT – which has an interesting omission from the big UK high street banks.

    The cynical side of me wonders if this is a coincidence.

    February 7, 2014 at 10:38 am
  • Dave

    Google outs another major player again.

    Definately expect to see shockwaves in the industry. It isn’t anything new. We’ve seen Interflora and the BBC become subject to this as well.

    We covered some ‘coincidences’ with Google’s PR move in this post.
    http://www.directtrafficmedia.co.uk/blog/coincidence-googles-algorithm-vs-googles-profits

    It is good that spammy tactics are being addressed, but it does reinforce that Google is the law, as we wrote in this post here too.

    http://www.directtrafficmedia.co.uk/blog/google-judge-jury-executioner

    2014 will be another interesting year in SEO.

    February 7, 2014 at 10:39 am
  • blackhatcat

    Oohh interesting. Seems like Google has changed its threshold on what sort of links it tolerates in the sector. I digged around on this and spotted that uswitch took a much bigger tumble this week according to searchmetrics (4x the halifax drop) and moneysupermarket and even bigger drop in August 2013. Do you think we are going to see more of these drops in the sector? It seems inevitable.

    I also spotted another big drop this week for nccgroup.com. It is interesting how penalties seems to have become much more main stream now.

    February 7, 2014 at 12:17 pm
  • SEO Bomber

    You have to be an idiot to place exact match anchor text links in Widgets in 2014.

    Their anchor text spread says it all.

    Fully deserved…

    February 7, 2014 at 12:22 pm
  • Jared Codling

    “Wiped off the face of the (google) index”? SearchMetrics is showing me a drop from 88,783 to 71,691 so a 19% drop? This dont seem too major compared with expedia who had a right good hard spankin a few weeks ago with 24,680 to 13,965 in Google UK so a 43% drop.

    Is the expedia penalty the biggest this year or is there still bigger? I read on another blog that you were the mastermind behind the expedia wordpress theme spam links, is it true or it that BS?

    February 7, 2014 at 12:48 pm
  • MartinMacdonald

    Hey @jared

    a few things to bear in mind, the searchmetrics visibility thats left is their (admittedly, extremely large) brand footprint.

    Also, the Expedia penalty to which you refer was in the US, not the UK so you need to look at the USA searchmetrics index to get an idea of scale.

    And for the record (again) I worked for Expedia’s EAN division, NOT the US brand site.

    February 7, 2014 at 1:42 pm
  • Andy Drinkwater

    There seems to be a lot of this happening to big names right now. it just goes to show that no-one is beyond the reach of Google. If you mess about with dodgy marketing tactics, expect a kick in the pants.

    February 7, 2014 at 2:55 pm
  • Jonathan Hatton

    Great find this Martin,

    It seems like its every week now, that Google is penalizing major companies.

    Will be interesting to see how quickly they recover from the penalty.

    February 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm
  • Alex Moss

    The real shame here is that Halifax may lose more revenue in the next few weeks than the agency received for their entire contract. The agency or people who acquired these links, who will at most just lose the contract and carry on as normal, need to educate the client more and be more transparent instead of simply doing what they can with the allocated budget – whatever the consequence.

    Google are clearly penalising big brands for activity that, as you pointed out, is actually quite dated and obvious black hat. The larger the brand, the more they need to understand internally the potential dangers of trying to rank for something to aggressively. One would have thought that J.C. Penney or Interflora would be an effective enough shock tactic – obviously not.

    February 7, 2014 at 3:28 pm
  • Gareth

    @Glen It wasn’t his spot, just a stolen post with no attribution :) https://storify.com/SEO_Doctor/halifax-get-a-spanking

    February 7, 2014 at 3:45 pm
  • Sassle

    All brought to you by the guy who screwed up MoneySupermarket when he was their in-house. Some people never learn!

    February 7, 2014 at 6:37 pm
  • Mark Preston

    When will the big brands learn that they are not above the law named GOOGLE. They seem to think that throwing money at things will do the trick and because they have such a high brand profile they will not get hit.

    February 7, 2014 at 8:29 pm
  • Jonathan Jones

    Their media agency also very recently removed a case study they had up on their website. I’ve managed to retrieve it with the Wayback Machine:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20130428023317/http://www.mecglobal.co.uk/our-work/case-studies/halifax-isas-search

    But from the looks of this, it seems this all started (with the widgets) in 2011/12.

    February 8, 2014 at 1:22 pm
    • MartinMacdonald

      I saw that, and reached out to someone who used to work at MEC before I published the post.

      Yes: that case study did make claims as to the effectiveness of the job that they had done.
      Yes: the keywords in that case study were some of the affected ones.

      *BUT*

      Lets be sensible about this for a minute. Back in 2010, if you’d hired 99.9% of successful SEO’s to improve the rankings on a banks website, having to deal with likely roadblocks on-site, and not forgetting the cut-throat competition in the financial SERPs, anyone would have done the same thing that they have been penalised for.

      Whether the agency in question actually bought those links? I have no idea.

      Should we be jumping up and down shouting at them? Absolutely not.

      We have nothing other than speculation to go on, and finger pointing won’t help anybody.

      The challenge here, is the perpetually moving goalposts that Google have presented us with over the years. If Google had always done what they’d said, and penalised websites for these kinds of links, nobody would have ever done it. SEOs (myself very much included) have done this for years because thats what worked.

      The skill over the past few years has been modernising your techniques, mitigating risk, and removing historic footprints. THAT’s what hasn’t happened here.

      Lets not get all pitchfork’y’ people! ;)

      February 8, 2014 at 7:48 pm
  • Adam Whittles

    @Glenn & @Gareth, I doubt very much that Martin stole the post from elsewhere! There is an area within SearchMetrics called ‘Top lists’, which shows the weekly ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ according to SearchMetrics SEO visibility. Then all you have to do to write one of these outing-type posts is to troll those lists for any big name drops! ;-)

    February 8, 2014 at 5:15 pm
    • MartinMacdonald

      That is correct, and one day someone should write a script that notifies you on refresh and pulls all the data for big losers in the top 1k sites in any territory, just saying ;)

      For the record though, this was a personal tip referred to me by someone who works in the industry, and is currently doing a follow up post – more details to follow.

      February 8, 2014 at 7:50 pm
  • Jonathan Jones

    I totally agree with you. It’s a tactic of the past that worked, and now it has caught up with them. I don’t necessarily blame MEC Global, as it really isn’t their fault, but it’s just something they didn’t clean up on and have been caught as a result.

    I actually noticed their entire widget network in July last year, and contacted a few of the blog owners who had those widgets up to guest post on their blog. They all asked for money or some sort of monetary gain. They’ve definitely paid for them.

    February 8, 2014 at 8:26 pm
  • Anon

    How on earth does the chuffing yakezie network still rank so well through the blogosphere?

    February 10, 2014 at 12:55 am
  • James Norquay

    I remember back in 2006 people were using the “calculators widget” with text links in the finance sector in the Australian market, well more of the affiliates in credit cards space and personal loans. Something I would 100% not advise on in the enterprise space in today’s market, it just stands out for those nosy competitors who are willing to dob you in. That been said these guys clearly were after quick wins and were prepared to cut corners at that. You can do so much more in the finance niche to gain quality creative links to target pages which are natural, I use to run campaigns for many years in the space so I have tested a whole bunch. The issue is getting on board big clients to some cool content market is some times a challenge on itself.

    February 10, 2014 at 6:48 am
  • ImMagic

    This post and the vast majority of the comments (Josh Hamit, Matthew Barby, Alex Moss, Neil MayCock, James Norquay, etc. etc.) show an immense naivety to what’s actually going on in the sector and what links drive results.

    I work in an agency with a UK client in the financial sector and everyone has been ‘acquiring’ links through advertorials, PR, paid outreach, widgets, banners etc. If you don’t believe me, just look at the link profile of HSBC, MoneySuperMarket, Santander and Barclays. We are all at it (us too) because it drives results.

    This Halifax wrist slap is just Google sending another message to the finance sector to say clean up. I expect they’ll bounce back in a couple of weeks and they are already ranking in top 3 again for mortgages.

    As enjoyable as it is watching a competing agency sweat, Martin your post is incredibly naive and patronising to the industry. ‘Widgets: so 2008′! WTF? Have you done SEO in competitive sectors or are you just another one of these SEO journalists, so detached from what’s actually going on day to day in the industry and what drives results? Who you kiddin?

    LMAO for how you then change your tune in your most recent comment probably cos you were grilled by your SEO mates for being as asshole? It’s a bit much asking the question ‘what other dirt you can find’ in your blog and then saying once people have done it: ‘this isn’t about finger pointing’.

    If one of my clients gets a penalty and you write it about it like you have this one, I’ll just do some link auditing on your domains, or your clients domains to see what dirt I can find… Great linkbait right? LOL.

    Make love, not war.

    February 10, 2014 at 9:13 am
    • MartinMacdonald

      Hey ImMagic,

      in answer to your question as to whether Ive done any SEO in competitive niches, that’s a really fair question:

      Yes. The first 7 years I worked in SEO were exclusively in gambling, specifically poker related terms. During that time I built a self funded company which (now sold) became one of the top 20 poker brands back when there were around 800 rooms live on various networks.

      If you google around Im pretty sure you’ll find some videos of me speaking at conferences as far back as 2009 where I demo’d a link network of 300,000,000 links I’d built using common CMS plugins. I also used to operate over 3,000 blogs each individually written by real people as a massive industry backlink play.

      So just to be clear, yes. I’ve worked the hardest industries there are. Yes, I’ve won in those industries.

      As to the rest of your comment – I’ll be honest, a couple of years back I thought exactly the same as you did. I’ve since learned that there are better ways, that are ultimately cheaper, and safer long term.

      Two things changed my mind:

      1) A friend of mine (another “well known” SEO) said to me “do you want to be the kind of SEO, who every morning when he wakes up, the first thing he does is checks to see if TODAY’s the day that Google get you?”. That hit me, pretty hard, as I WAS the kind of SEO that did that, every day. It was bugging me, it worried me. Ive moved away from that for my business purposes entirely – although I make no secrets of the fact that I still dabble for fun in linkbuilding and content creation that may be considered by some as blackhat.

      2) My boss back in 2007-2009 said to me “if you want to work in a black box, you’ve got to accept the consequences”. This also resonated with me, as I was taking risks with other people’s P&Ls. Now I’ve become much more senior, Im the stakeholder who is in charge of risk mitigation and I’d rather have a career and a job thats safe, than short term gain. I understand that working in an agency most of the time you can’t afford to have the kind of risk management ethics that us who work in house do.

      Thanks for leaving the comment!
      Martin

      February 11, 2014 at 2:10 am
  • Robert Jones

    Yet another big player hit by an SEO penalty, I’m not quite sure why anybody would run HTML banner tactics in this day and age.

    Has there been any word to which company has been running their marketing campaign?

    February 10, 2014 at 1:30 pm
  • Jarrett Holmes

    I think we will see this more and more in 2014 as the “big G” clamps down on shady link building practices. I’m pretty sure most banks don’t get 40K links a day built to their site for any reason. There aren’t that many reasons to link to a bank site. it’s amazing to me that whomever supervises this project didn’t recognize the huge influx of links, especially the poor quality ones. Slow is best. You can always build more. And of course higher quality as well. Finally much better link diversity and not so much over optimization with their anchors. They will come back out of this, but it will take a while. Slow and steady wins the race.

    February 10, 2014 at 3:48 pm
  • Mr Jiggly Legs

    @ImMagic If you were looking for dirt (or for a guide on how not to act), just read Martin’s Twitter stream :)

    After Expedia penalty:

    “@cemper JUST noticed this minute mate thanks :) (ps, any chance you can disassociate me from Expedia ;) ) Im trying to keep clear!!”
    “@cemper many thanks! :) just trying to keep association down to a minimum ;)”
    https://twitter.com/searchmartin/status/432190552231407616

    “@searchmartin clear causation there = no more martin macdonald = -25% visibility. (via @krystianszastok) within <1 week as well ;)"
    https://twitter.com/searchmartin/status/425584717736329217

    But months ago before Expedia penalty:

    "“@thebcco: Interview With @searchmartin – Head Of Inbound Marketing At @Expedia thebc.co/seo/interview-…” <great questions, thanks!"
    https://twitter.com/searchmartin/status/393457740770975744
    (Note, no protest about the affiliate thing there)

    "@LandiGjoni you kidding? Do I have contacts at Expedia? You checked my job title???"
    https://twitter.com/searchmartin/status/375601542067658752

    Which makes you wonder if Martin really did have 'contacts' at expedia being just the affiliate guy as now he professes to be.

    Because now it raises the question that if he did have contacts, then surely he'd have told them straight away about any poor SEO practices? like the very things being discussed here from 2008 (WTF?), or surely about some dodgy wordpress themes.

    Or perhaps being the well known SEO, I'm sure they must have talked with him very frequently on best practices, who wouldn't? Did they contact him to help/advise about any link penalty?

    So my point after all of that: It's all well and good pointing the finger at these bad practices, but where was Martin to tell Expedia it was bad practice? And given the Expedia situation does writing about Halifax, criticising their approach amount to hypocrisy?

    February 10, 2014 at 10:10 pm
    • MartinMacdonald

      I’ve allowed this comment because I fervently believe in free speech – even if it is aimed squarely at me, on my own site.

      The only thing I’ll reply to on this is – once you’ve worked in a truly global organisation with dozens of divisions, in a senior position – then we can talk about the best way to approach these situations.

      Thanks for commenting though – appreciated.
      Martin

      February 11, 2014 at 2:13 am
  • Cyril

    @mrjigglylegs interesting, do you think the SEO industry or google should hand out penalties to individuals/ agencies instead of brands?

    I guess certification is the way to go, except the most credible source hates SEO (Google)

    February 10, 2014 at 11:50 pm
  • Marty Rogers

    I love seeing examples made out of the big companies as they often think they can do what they like with regards to SEO, but Google know otherwise.

    Still, it will be interesting to see how long it takes until they recover.

    2 / 4 weeks?

    February 14, 2014 at 10:52 am
  • ohno

    This post is a pill of crap, I don’t see a big penalty? I see Halifax ranking number 1 on brand with a huge omnibox and ranking all over generics, hell they are 1 for mortgages? That’s one of the biggst terms in the industry.

    It seems that other members of the SEO community are looking down on what has been done here and are questionning whether there really is an SEO penalty. Danny Sulivan goes as far as to say that there is hyperactive attention around so-called ‘penalties’ and it is “turning into a problem” within the industry. He sure as hell is right.

    What is your take on this Martin? He and others are saying that people are writing content to get links for their blogs or promote their tools, without their being real proof of penaltys. Take the Linkresearchtools analysis as an example. Any SEO reading it would know the author knows FA about SEO, hell he described directory submissions as black hat – LMFAO, WTF? As you are the king of blackhat (according to the homepage image on your old site), i expect you also had reservations about that poor analysis which is why you didnt link to it? Cemper clearly has a thing or 2 to learn about whats black hat.

    I thought you would have an opinion on all this given the fact you pushed the news of this penalty so hard within your Twitter stream in order to promote your new website. You even twited Matt Cutts about it – WTF.

    Will you be doing this again in the future? I think you have lost some credibly for selling yourself on this one and it looks like Barry Schwartz, Danny Sullivan and others agree.

    February 18, 2014 at 4:54 pm
  • Cyril

    I’d partially agree about martin losing credibility, also the fact about the conduct & communication regarding expedia via those twitter stream comments looks bad, I read some of the interviews and you’re an ass when you talked about campaigns you had nothing to do with and now you’re whoring your blog out just like nenad over another companies possible penalty.

    Having said that, the wider problem is that people have been citing these tools like searchmetrics but not one person ever mentioned if visibility correlated with traffic, from what I see in searchmetrics, you can’t choose the keywords that make up the scores. All in all this plus the industry whoring plus the pathetic ass covering make the SEO industry look like a bunch of shallow untrustworthy idiots who cite being data driven etc… But don’t know the first thing about it.

    There’s nothing new to learn here.

    February 23, 2014 at 7:28 am
  • Rob Broley

    Oh no another company that has been caught out. When will people learn that Google is getting smarter

    April 8, 2014 at 10:16 am
  • Peter Wootton

    Bad as it was at the time. It looks like they are now recovering Post Penguin 4. Looks like it the kick up the backside they need to get their SEO strategy up to scratch.

    June 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm