25 Apr 2009, Posted by admin in Google, 14 Comments
Update: GoCompare’s penalty has been lifted and they’re ranking in the SERPs again. It’s possible that Google thought the original links were paid for, or they just wanted GoCompare to get a slap on the wrists. Who knows?
Recently the major insurance aggregator GoCompare was hit by a major penalty, and as such they’re not currently ranking for their own brand term, or for their major search terms. EConsultancy were quick to point out the fact that they’d been penalised, and for the second time too. The first time GoCompare were penalised, it was for adopting a very aggressive link buying strategy which caught Google’s attention, resulting in a manual review and a very public drop from the listings.
They wouldn’t be so stupid as to do it again, would they?
Well, actually, no. The interesting case with GoCompare’s new penalty is that it doesn’t look like they were actively buying links, at least not outright. In this case it seems as if GoCompare has been offering content in the form of ~400 word article in exchange for a link back (the link obviously being included in the content).
Red Cardinal originally reported on an email that had been sent, allegedly from GoCompare, that ran through the details of how it would work – in particular, this section:
We can have our editorial team research and hand write some unique content for you to add to a page on ******.TLD. We will agree a subject with you that is relevant to both of our sites. The content will contain a single unobtrusive text link in it back to a relevant page on our site.
In order to sign up and agree, the email says, you would need to go to a different section to accept the offer: http://www.gocompare.com/secure-reply.aspx.
This is where it gets interesting.
You need an access code, included in the email, to get in. When you’re in, you’re presented with some introductory text, along with some options.
If you select the “I Need Help Choosing/More Info” option, you’re taken to a page that includes an FAQ section, as well as a “Content For Links Explained” section. This section says, word for word:
The search engines are particularly sensitive to the quality and relevance of on-site content and seem to be rewarding sites where content is regularly added or changed. This is something of a challenge for most site owners given the time involved in writing material.
As an alternative to trading links, we are therefore happy to write some relevant content for you to publish on [domain name]. This would be of some 4-600 words in length on a subject that is relevant and complimentary to both our websites. It will be hand-written for you and therefore unique which is important for search engine reasons.
Within this content, usually towards the end, we will include a single text link back to a relevant page on our site. This way, you get some fresh, unique content and we get a relevant link.
The FAQ goes into a bit more detail about the plan, but important things to mention are that it implies keeping the link to GoCompare will be beneficial to the site owner. The creators of the content are apparantly based in the UK, and if the link is ever removed then GoCompare has the right to get you to remove the content (or ask you to re-instate the link). Another part of the FAQ answers the question “Can we have a phone call to discuss this?”, the answer being “I’d love to, but the reality is that when I’m not in meetings I’m travelling – so I’m handling absolutely everything I can via email (at fairly odd hours of the day!).
If you choose “I Would Like The Content”, then you’re presented with a form:
In case you hadn’t guessed it yet, the key and defining feature behind this is that this process is automated.
It seems as if sites in the specified niche are identified and emailed (probably automated), the site owner can then log into this panel and (if they agree to it) can accept the content in exchange for a link to GoCompare. If they accept, they fill in a form providing their contact details and what topic the content should be on. This will then be sent straight to a copywriting team who then create the content, including the link, and email it back to the site owner (the content creation being the only real part of this that isn’t automated), who’ll put it up along with a link to GoCompare.
GoCompare were outed for doing this, and then they got penalised.
The idea of offering content for links is a bit of a grey area, because it can happen naturally and normally, like in guest blogging (which to be honest is fairly nice, and within the spirit of blogging). However, GoCompare were clearly pushing that rule way past it’s limit.
What’s the difference between GoCompare’s Method & Guest Blogging?
GoCompare’s method is, for the most part, automated. The end content doesn’t include any kind of disclaimer that it’s been ghostwritten. This method also states that it’s being employed to help both sites rank well in the search results (true or not). It doesn’t mention that there’s a risk to the site owners that they may get a penalty or a ban for engaging in this tactic.
Guestblogging always includes a disclaimer, it’s not automated, it’s natural. Guest bloggers usually know the actual site owner, and the site owner has chosen to allow them to guest blog because they know that they’ve got something interesting to say, that will benefit readers. It’s not usually done purely to build links. For the most part it’s done to build a bit more of a brand.
In this instance, GoCompare have identified a grey area within Google’s guidelines and have really pushed it, in doing so it looks like Google have had to step in and create a new ghostwriter penalty, to discourage sites from creating content (with embedded links) with no disclaimer that it’s ghostwritten, all while doing it as automated as possible (without markoving the content). It’s quite unlucky that they’ve been penalised a second time, but it’s hard to defend their point when there’s so much of this that’s clearly automated and risks putting regular site owners in jeopardy of getting penalised or banned themselves, without telling them the risks.
What do you think? Did GoCompare deserve this penalty?