Mr Jonathan Jones

Mr Jonathan Jones

SEO & Digital Consultant

Big Brands Penalised by Google

I thought that I’d put together an example of big brand websites that have been penalised by Google. This is partly inspired by the recent Rap Genius penalisation debacle. Plus, it’s good for SEOs out there who work on large brands to avoid the sorts of tactics that got the following websites banished from the search results by the all-powerful Google.


22 Feb 2013: If you’ve not heard about the Interflora penalisation case then you haven’t been paying too much attention to SEO this year. The popular flower service saw 95% of its top pages for high traffic keywords such as “flower” and “roses” removed from the search engine result pages. 11 days after it was penalised it was allowed back and ranked for many of the high driving keywords that it ranked for prior to its penalisation. In 2011, JCPenny was penalised for engaging in paid link schemes, which saw them out of Google’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for around 90 days. Quite the contrast in comparison to Interflora’s 11 days, but this could be due to the amount of paid-for links that JCPenny accrued over the years.

What did they do to recover from this?

According to Search Engine Land, they contacted many of the bloggers that they may have incentivised  (possibly with free flowers) to remove any links that may have looked unnatural. What’s also curious about this case is that their website may have been penalised with excessive use of advertorials on major newspaper websites, which I’ll come onto in the next bit. There was likely quite a bit of disavowing going on in the background, which only Interflora and Google would know about, but this may have expedited the status that Google placed on their website from penalised to “normal” — or whatever Google calls a website that is no longer in the penalised stage.

2. 600+ Regional Newspapers Punished Due to Advertorials 

22 Feb 2013: Although this wouldn’t be considered a manual penalty by Google, this is still in part related to the penalisation of Interflora, so is very relevant and would be something to take note of for many SEOs out there. First spotted by Anthony Shapley, he noticed that a lot of regional newspaper websites had their toolbar PageRank decrease from the highest case, PageRank 7 to PageRank 0. It can almost be blamed in part for advertorials that they were selling (without including the rel=”nofollow” attribute) and as a result they suffered a blow to their toolbar PageRank. Advertorials offer SEOs an opportunity to increase rankings if they insert keyword phrases along with relevant copy. However, this didn’t impact these newspapers’ rankings, rather it sent a stern message to these regional newspapers and SEOs that over-optimising keywords in advertorials is not a smart decision. The timing of this and Inteflora’s wrong doings would seemingly link these penalisations together, as it was found that Interflora had paid for 150 advertorials on these regional newspaper sites that included dofollow links with heavily optimised anchor text.

Did these regional websites recover their toolbar PageRank?

A lot of these regional newspaper websites didn’t recover their original toolbar PageRank prior to this PageRank penalisation/downgrade by Google. If we take a look at some of the websites in Anthony Shapley’s lists of penalised websites on, you’ll find that went from PageRank 7 to PageRank 0 and then to PageRank 3 — its current toolbar PageRank status. Or if we look at the, that went from PageRank 6 to PageRank 0 and then finally to its current PageRank 5 status. You’ll find that a lot of these sites didn’t recover in the most recent toolbar PageRank update (6 December 2013) this year.

3. &

6 Feb 2006: BMW & That’s the German luxury car manufacturer and the not so well-known technology product vendor.  They were penalised for doing something quite ingenious. Well, at least when compared to some of the more recent tactics by big brands. They used javascript to redirect genuine users to a landing page that would display a page that contained mostly images, and the page that was listed in the search results would be a page that would be crafted specifically for search engine crawlers. This made it seem like their pages were full of interesting content, which I’m sure was full of keywords that they would be able to rank for as a result. You can read more of this on a post entitled as “Ramping up on international spam” on Matt Cutts’ blog.

What did they do to recover from this? and was included back into the search results after they acted quickly by removing the doorway pages. It took them two days for this to be resolved and for Google to reinclude both sites back into Google’s index. Matt Cutts went on about how even in the international market that there are consequences for going against Google’s guidelines.


12 Feb 2011: This one is likely the cream of the crop when it comes to big brands being penalised by Google for engaging in link schemes. It started out with an investigation by the New York Times, who hired an SEO expert to identify why JCPenney ranked so well in every part of the business they had a webpage. It turned out that they were paying for links and subsequently JCPenney fired their SEO agency, SearchDex for engaging in black-hat SEO. JCPenney saw their search traffic plummet by over 90%.

What did they do to recover from this?

As stated in the beginning of this article it took 90 days  (23 May 2011) for JCPenney to be allowed back into Google’s index. This is of course before the introduction of the disavow tool, so it is likely JCPenney had to contact every single spammy website that was linking to them to remove any trace of outgoing links to Nowadays, with the disavow tool, you can simply make the effort to contact a website and if they don’t respond or want to charge money for removing a link then you can just add the website to a disavow list. Google’s algorithms will simply ignore those pages that are linking to your page if you disavow them.


16 Feb 2011: was penalised not for buying links, but were penalised for selling links on their own website without any thought into adding the rel=”nofollow” attribute or without masking any of their sponsored links in javascript — like many big sites do when they sell advertising space. This is also not the first time has sold links, and in 2007 they were penalised for selling links. What I found odd about this case was the fact that Denis Pinsky, Forbes’ Digital Marketing Manager, posted on Google’s official public webmaster forum with the email from Google containing the notice that contained “artificial or unnatural links” linking out to other sites. Matt Cutts and Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land along with a whole host of other users pointed out where the unnatural links were on the site that Google deemed as an attempt to manipulate PageRank.

What did they do to recover from this?

It’s not too difficult to figure out what they did to recover from this. They simply removed the paid links and submitted a reconsideration request.  He was politely told where the unnatural paid links were located and I am fairly certain that this situation was resolved quickly.


25 Dec 2013: On Christmas day Google extended its heavy hands on a lyrics annotation website called RapGenius. The penalisation is site wide (30 Dec 2013). RapGenius were publicly exposed when John Marbach exposed the sort of link schemes that the website engaged in. They would ask bloggers to post up rich keyword targeted links up on their website and in return they’d get a Tweet on RapGenius’ Twitter account page. As a result of this penalisation their organic search traffic tanked.


What did they do to recover from this? (See update)

They haven’t yet recovered from this. The course of action for them right now would be to gather a list of websites that they contacted during their link scheme wrong doing days to remove those links going back to In any case, they can gather a list up and upload it to the disavow section in Google’s Webmaster Tools, then resubmit the site for reconsideration. The question on whether they’ll recover to their original rankings is debatable. The only thing for sure is that because of this their website became link bait and as a result they gained links from many high authority sites; whether this will help them when they are back in Google’s index is another question altogether.


4 Jan 2014: It took just 10 days for RapGenius to appear back in the search results. In a post on the RapGenius news website, they apologised to Google for “being such morons” and explained in full their now former SEO strategy.

They explained how they got back into Google by downloading the backlink profile and analysing this list by finding websites that would potentially violate Google’s guidelines. They would then either contact those websites by asking them to remove the links pointing to RapGenius or by asking blog owners to add the rel=”nofollow” attribute to those links. For any links they could not get removed or changed they would add to a disavow list, which they would later submit to Google. They delved into the more technical side of what they did to get back into Google’s search results, and I encourage those to read it if you’re interested.


  • Don’t overdo the advertorials and certainly don’t include rich keyword targeted anchor text links.
  • Don’t try to fool Google by creating specific pages for search engine crawlers.
  • Don’t purchase links — or at least don’t make it blatantly obvious. That’s a really bad long-term strategy.
  • Vary your keywords when you guest post and certainly don’t only use keyword rich targeted anchor text links. That’s signaling Google to police your website.
  • Don’t sell links on your own website, especially if you’re using rich keyword targeted anchor text links. Another signal for Google to police your website.
  • Simply, be smart about it. It may seem silly to some, but a lot of these are blatantly poor decisions made at some point in time.
  • Hire an expert on the subject of Search Engine Optimisation. In regards to Rap Genius, they could have avoided all of this, had they employed an SEO Genius. (Like what I did there?)

Are there any other examples of other brands that were penalised by Google? Or any other situations that were more interesting than the ones listed here? Feel free to comment about them in the comments section.

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