Angry with Big Brand Spam? - Web Marketing School

Angry with Big Brand Spam?

I’ve been contacted a handful of times over the past two years by webmasters complaining about Expedia outranking them, or for having some links of questionable value.

While I never put myself forward as the Spam Police, when you’re a high visibility member of staff on social networks, and SEO is in your job description, I guess thats understandable:

Twitter users that mention Expedia, sorted by social score (


Its certainly led to some amusing twitter conversations:



For the record: I know a lot of the Expedia brand SEO teams, they are great people, and Expedia has been a great place to work.

Sure, there are some skeletons in SEO-closets, but thats the same for every single major site that has existed for a decade or longer, bar none.


Today I received an email complaining about it, and as its relevant to the community as a whole I’m cross posting my reply here on the blog:


Thanks for your email – firstly I’d just like to reference a couple of things:

1) Im on my notice period at Expedia, as you can see from this Facebook post from November:

While I’m still technically an employee until January, I’m no longer in “active service”.

2) At no point did I work on any Expedia owned/branded site, my position was head of Inbound Marketing at Expedia Affiliate Networks, which involved helping big brands that contract Expedia inventory to improve their internet marketing, and notably SEO.

Aside from those points however, I totally understand your pain at brand sites being able to get away with certain things, that would  cause smaller non brand sites to get banned.

The fact of the matter is, that large sites such as Expedia brand, and these other two that you mention in your letter, have long standing history in Google’s index.

They are trusted brands which consumers have a long history of using.  They are results without which any search engines index would suffer.

A great example of what I mean is when BMW were banned for a few days for breaking the google terms of service.  Google made their point, and re-included them.  The simple fact is, if you search Google for BMW, and their site does not appear, then consumers that know nothing of SEO think that the search engine isn’t working.

Another point is that any brand which has been around for 10 or more years, which has been built using search engine marketing of course will have skeletons in their SEO closets.  While Google have really started cracking down on offenders, its unrealistic to expect them to ban every site that ever did anything wrong, they simply wouldn’t have any results left.

Yet another factor is the unfortunate prevalence of negative SEO.  If Google went and banned any site that had spammy links pointing at them now, it would be laughably simple to ban your competitors sites.

The truth, and this is coming from a long time career SEO, is that there is a pivot point of bad signals vs. good signals.  Sites like wikipedia would be impossible to attack with negative SEO simply because they have so much positive link history.  The same goes for any long established brand site, such as Expedia.

Personally (as I can not speak for Expedia), I would welcome you to post your study on gawker or anywhere else.

Publicising the SEO industry is a good thing, and while as an industry we may have a shady past, I sincerely feel enthusiastic about where we are going.

Our skill sets have evolved from analysing the index looking for shortcuts, to creating fantastic content that people are passionate about and want to share.  We have evolved from a hacker mentality, to a creative mindset.  Yes, technical SEO still exists, and always will, but there is a rich tapestry to what we do – and any effort to further publicise our industry is something I love to see happening.

Best regards,
Martin MacDonald
(former Inbound Marketing Director, Expedia EAN)[/well]

So to sum it up, yes – I totally get that you’re bummed that [insert major brand] outranks you for all your key generic money terms.  It sucks, but these sites are major brands for a reason. They ARE brands.

If you want to compete in this arena, you can!  But you need to build a brand, and everything that goes with it!

21 thoughts on “Angry with Big Brand Spam?”

  1. Yup. nailed it. As a smaller site, if you’re going to focus on what the big brands are doing, focus on the bigger picture: They’re building a brand. That’s what you should emulate. Back up from the trees and look at the forest. Start building your own brand as well so that you can be in the same position.

  2. Absolutely! Yes its a long haul, Yes its a pain in the A** – but you’ll achieve much more by building a brand that just getting rankings.

    You will also build a long term viable business, thats worth far more than any SEO campaign.

  3. Whilst I agree with this there is a definite line between brands that have a grey past and brands that are still spamming. We do enough penalty recovery stuff to see massive household brands that have been hit in the past 6 months for stuff they were doing in 2013.

    Google has no tolerance at all for anybody doing stuff wrong today whether you are a big brand or not, especially if it gets in front of the right person at Google.

  4. Got to disagree with you to a point here Patrick – Let me put it this way:

    IF google had a zero tolerance attitude towards spam links of any kind, then it would be trivial to execute negative SEO. Its not trivially easy. Its certainly much more possible than it was 5+ years ago, but trivial it is not.

    In my experience with large brand penalties, (ie, LARGE global brands) Google have reached out in advance of the ban every single time. A “run of the mill” brand might not get the same attention though.

    My point about pivots still stands though, there simply must be a cutoff amount of links you can get away with before its considered to be self-build spam vs. negative SEO.

  5. I’ve seen a good amount of big brands that did got penalties. In the Netherlands a whole bunch of subdomains got banned on the first of November. What the smaller brands forget, is start looking to your own website and ask yourself the question: do I deserve to rank between the big brands based on what you’re selling? Is your site, from a technical SEO point of view, as good as the big ones? It is always easy to blame the big guys but I do have seen some small startups getting good results by doing what Google wants: build a brand and deserve your top rankings by building great stuff.

  6. @Jan-Willem Subdomains? Surely StartPagina never got hit? 😉

    On a more serious note though, you’re absolutely right – first question should always be: Do I DESERVE to rank vs. these other companies.

  7. “Our skill sets have evolved from analysing the index looking for shortcuts, to creating fantastic content”

    This is a lovely narrative and I know it’s core to your efforts to rebrand as an inbound marketing professional and distance yourself from the troubled SEO moniker, but in reality, few SEOs are truly well equipped to ‘create fantastic content’.

  8. @Butler

    Thanks for the kind comments on my narrative – and yes, I can accept that I have spent some time rebranding away from being “just” an SEO. I’d rather not pigeonhole to any moniker though – inbound marketer included.

    I think the real future, is when we are all just called “marketers”. The problem is, the techie fraternity (of which I certainly came from) that don’t move towards mainstream marketing will get left out in the cold, eventually.

  9. Martin,

    Since you never worked on directly, how do you know anything about Expedia’s backlink history, how they interact with vendors to get backlinks, and what kind of backlinks they acquire?

  10. @billy
    I’m not claiming to know anything more than anybody else that is an experienced SEO would already know…. My only benefit is knowing the people that work on the teams, above the average SEO.

  11. I think the biggest problem of old websites/ big brands is that they inherit a lot of crap from the past (especially if the sites are more than 5 years old). If you work for that type of company, the majority of the time you would spend on dealing with the past! I read the conversation on the Hacker News and I personally cannot believe that those type of practices take place.

  12. Hi Martin

    What do you think now that has been smacked? Was there too many bad to outweigh the good? Manual action or algo? When do you think Expedia (.com, is fine) will
    bounce back?


  13. First it was..

    – nofollow-dofollow


    – report paid links- diswow links


    seo companies take on Big Brands on their blogs and the big G shamefully stops caring about people who use its services and tries to prove a point which no one cares for..

  14. “In my experience with large brand penalties, (ie, LARGE global brands) Google have reached out in advance of the ban every single time”

    soooo… where you? 🙂

    • Assuming you are referring to Expedia I could not say as I worked for the B2B division, NOT the consumer brand “” in the USA.

      Its worth noting that I ceased to work for them officially last week, having handed my notice that I was leaving in some 3+ months previously.

  15. I guess that when they weren’t having SEO troubles it was fine to let people assume that you were the guy in charge? (going by your interviews, profiles, conferences etc…).

    Penalty? No mate, I actually work for their affiliate platform.

    Oh but they get a penalty after I leave?… Yeh must be correlation because I’m awesome and I left.


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