25 Apr 2009, Posted by admin in Google, 14 Comments

Google’s New Ghostwriter Penalty

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:

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:

GoCompare 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?

Promote Post

Enjoyed this post?


April 25, 2009 7:39 pm


Absolutely not. That’s ridiculous to penalize somebody for providing quality content in exchange for a link. This company isn’t the only company doing this I know for a fact.

True they were doing it a little more openly, but G is making it so hard to rank for anything unless you are Amazon or Ebay these days that there’s nothing of value to find on their search engine most of the time.

I’m very against the branding update. If I wanted to buy off ebay I’d go to ebay. I don’t want to see 100 ebay stores show up in the listings every time I search for something.

If I wanted to watch a video, I’d got to youtube. I don’t want to see 10 videos on the front page and not a single useful website until pages 2 or 3.

AND I really think G should get on the ball with updating its system and stop penalizing people for trying when they are doing a perfectly good job of ruining their own search engine themselves!

Ok, rant over.

April 25, 2009 7:44 pm


What’s worse:

Providing real decent content to a webmasters website for a link


Writing clearly false sensationalist posts and alarmist lying articles as link bait? (i.e. What has recently been on Sphinn “Google is changing their Algorithms according to a “reliable source””)

One helps the overall quality of the internet, the other destroys any air of legitimacy it has left.

April 25, 2009 11:41 pm


“Google have had to step in and create a new ghostwriter penalty”

Says who exactly? Google? Give me the evidence that this exists, and if you don’t have any evidence then express it as an opinion not as fact. And by evidence I mean confirmation from Google, straight from the horses mouth, not hearsay and speculation from self-styled SEO “experts”.

Good posts by Brawnydt.

April 26, 2009 1:28 pm


I’m not disputing whether GoCompare have received a penalty – or not, what I am disputing is your statement:

Google have had to step in and create a new ghostwriter penalty

‘A new ghostwriter penalty’? I mean come on, you say this as if it were fact but you have actually concocted it yourself based on information you have gathered from other blogs. If not, what is your source for the phrase ‘a new ghostwriter penalty’? Is it Google?

I do agree with you that the TOS are vague though.

April 26, 2009 2:51 pm


Hey guys
I am not querying the reasoning behind a potential penalty more how you have labelled it a ‘ghostwriter penalty’.

There’s a whole debate going on over at if you are interested, likewise check out if you want more info on the approach straight from the horses mouth ie. from the guys who run ContentNow.

It is certainly proving to be an interesting debate, however the TOS is not transparent enough with regards to non-paid for links IMO. That’s where it boils down to individual interpretation of the ‘rules’.

April 26, 2009 6:42 pm

The System

They played the hard way, they got found out, and grassed up hundreds of times, many sites before though not as high profile, have suffered the same fate or worse. Their penalty will be short lived due to their adwords spend – their ‘bounce back rate’ will only be as good as the NEW SEO team they employ!

April 27, 2009 1:35 pm

The System

Brawnydt “True they were doing it a little more openly, but G is making it so hard to rank for anything unless you are Amazon or Ebay these days that there’s nothing of value to find on their search engine most of the time.”

Wow, what are you doing wrong? or not doing?
Google has never made it easier to rank for ANY keyword!

April 27, 2009 7:23 pm


@ TheSystem

“Google has never made it easier to rank for ANY keyword!”

That’s a really interesting comment considering I can’t actually see you ranking for ‘thesystem’ or indeed ‘the-system’!

April 27, 2009 9:28 pm


Benefit of the doubt and all that, how about ‘search engine marketing system’?

No, I’m sorry I still can’t find you (but I am always happy to be corrected)

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is that sometimes we need to ask ourselves the questions we rush to ask of others. In this case – what are you doing wrong? or not doing?

Take it easy, King.

April 28, 2009 3:56 pm


Heh, thanks King. That’s very true. By the way, as a side note, I can’t find you in the top ten G search results for “King” either. Dang Google for keeping the little guy down! 🙂 (joking of course)

April 28, 2009 10:43 pm


I was never quite sure it was a penalty – posted my thoughts on the whole debacle over here.

Posting your comment...