A few weeks ago Cruiseabout.com.au was one of Australia’s highest-profile cruise websites. But on March 20, it virtually disappeared from Google search results. Nothing in the first five pages. Same story at Escapetravel.com.au, another popular website, also owned by Flight Centre, one of the world’s biggest travel companies.
The game had changed – they were being punished for borderline SEO practices by perhaps the most important person in the online travel industry: a tidy, bespectacled middle-aged man with a Masters of Computer Science who wields extraordinary power from an office in Mountain View, California, in the beating heart of Silicon Valley.
His name is Matt Cutts, the ‘Distinguished Engineer’ in charge of Google’s “web search quality regarding spam”, which he defines as “adversarial information retrieval”.
Adversarial – Matt and his team are in a never-ending war with ‘black hat’ web spammers who use every trick in a rapidly dwindling book to game Google and improve the rankings of websites they work on.
One increasingly popular strategy – until now at least – revolves around guest blogging.
In simple terms someone writes a guest blog for your site that includes links back to sites they are promoting.
To sweeten the deal, payment may even be involved.
Look in your junk mail, I guarantee there’ll be plenty of offers.
In fact, Matt Cutts is even getting them.
Unfortunately, the SEO team at Cruiseabout and Escape Travel made the big mistake of ignoring a warning issued by Mr Cutts through his blog exactly two months earlier on January 20.
“Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop,” he wrote.
“Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.
“So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy.”
Some listened, others didn’t.
“In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well.
“Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a link-building strategy.”
Crucially though links remain vital to Google rankings – they just have to be authentic, not manufactured.
“Through links, engines can not only analyze the popularity of a website & page based on the number and popularity of pages linking to them, but also metrics like trust, spam, and authority,” wrote search industry expert Rand Fishkin.
“Trustworthy sites tend to link to other trusted sites, while spammy sites receive very few links from trusted sources.”
Cruiseabout.com.au and EscapeTravel.com.au have learned this lesson the hard way.
They have been working non-stop since March 20 to rectify past wrongs, which we have to assume (because no-one is saying) involved posting guest blogs on other sites that linked back to their portals.
And progress has been made, demonstrating that Google is prepared to listen and react both ways.
“The Google penalty came into effect as a result of historical SEO activity, much of which dates back several years,” a Cruiseabout spokesperson said.
“Despite the penalty, the effect on the website has not been as bad as expected and customers are still able to find the site.”
She said after Cruiseabout had addressed the issue, Google lifted the site-wide penalty and “Cruiseabout is now ranking for the majority of the key terms.
“Some penalties still apply, however these are specific to sections of the website and we are working to remove the remaining unnatural links to resolve the issue swiftly.”
The implication for other travel sites is really quite simple.
You can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.
Or in this case the Google machine.
Stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done.