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March 20, 2017

Brands That (Nearly) Died Thanks to Google

“The best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google search results.”
– Unknown

Unbridled corporate power almost inevitably leads to the destruction of livelihoods. This has been seen time and time again; BP oil spills have crushed small businesses, Goldman Sachs has destabilized entire countries and Monsanto has direct ties to Indian farmer suicides. This is what unchecked corporate influence looks like.

While Google is loved by millions, it too has been responsible for crippling (and sometimes killing) small businesses. While Google is not technically a monopoly, webmasters have to rely on its offerings to a degree that can sometimes feel uncomfortable at best.

Google is well-known for constantly changing and tweaking algorithms to bring about the highest level of user experience. In 2011, Google unveiled Panda to the world. In 2012, Penguin was announced. In 2013, Hummingbird made its first flight while 2014 saw the release of Pidgeon. And pandemonium ensued in 2015 when Mobilegeddon hit the Web.

Most of these algorithms sound cute and harmless, but the reality is that every one of these updates has obliterated businesses and left their owners in dire circumstances.

In 2014, coupon company RetailMeNot saw its stock plummet by 20 percent after Google annihilated the company’s search ranking with its Panda update, dropping the company’s visibility by 33 percent.

This, however is far from an isolated incident:

Devastation at Demand Media

Demand Media, now known as the Leaf Group, took some devastating blows in accordance with the Panda update.

The company behind the eHow website (which accounted for roughly 30 percent of the organization’s total revenue) was essentially a content farm, making it a prime target for Panda. The content offered by the site was often thin, vague, and not always the highest quality. The writers of the pieces sometimes lacked obvious expertise, which meant that some of their content contained little pragmatic nor original information.

By April of 2011, after Panda’s implementation, third-party measurement services were reporting that the Google update had turned away approximately 40 percent of Demand’s traffic.

Considering that none of the company’s properties (with the exception of eHow, which was decimated) accounted for more than 10 percent of its revenue, the loss was disastrous.

Before Panda rolled out, Demand was generating roughly 120 million unique visitors per month. After the bear had its way with the brand, traffic was reduced to about 88 million.

In the company’s statement describing its name change to “Leaf Group,” it was stated that:

“. . . Demand Media has sold off a number of its hallmark properties in recent years as part of an effort to distance itself from its reputation as a content farm. . . after Google recalibrated its search engine formula in 2011 to partly reject cheap content, Demand Media’s market capitalization shrunk dramatically, from more than $2 billion to about $117 million today.”

Rap Genius Almost Calls it a Wrap

Prior to the April 2012 release of the Penguin update, lyrics website Rap Genius was topping the SERPs.

Unfortunately for the company, part of the way the website got so high in the search results was because the site owners/operators were posting on Facebook about the brand’s “affiliate program” which was no more than a link scheme to gain links pointing to Rap Genius in exchange for a Twitter shout out.

Shortly after posting about this on Facebook, a blog was published about it on Hacker News, which then caught the attention of none other than Matt Cutts.

Just a few days later, on Christmas day, Rap Genius was penalized and no longer showed up in the SERPs for ranked keywords or even its brand name.

The brand was eventually placed back in the SERPs, but took quite the hit; dropping from around 700,000 unique visits a day to roughly 100,000.

When all was said and done, Rap Genius cleaned up its practices and lost its position for only about a week; a minimal time frame compared to most. Many have speculated that this was because Andreessen Horowitz, a high-profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist, funded the site and might have had ties within Google.

Peter Walter’s Tale of Woe

In a piece published by The Telegraph entitled, “Google Penguin Nearly Killed My Business,” Peter Walter documents the disheartening story of how Google almost dealt his business a death blow.

After acquiring his father’s media training business, Peter knew that the company needed a more prominent online presence. Like many small business owners, he hired a SEO firm that touted good reviews and references. Much to his delight, his company’s website began to rise in the SERPs.

Then one day, Peter stopped acquiring new clients.

It wasn’t until one of his friend’s tried to Google his site and related keywords that Peter discovered his company had seemingly evaporated from the SERPs.

As it turns out, the SEO firm Peter had been using was creating artificial links pointing to his site which resulted in a penalty from Google.

Understanding that the penalty was necessary, Peter was not miffed by this. What did upset him, however, is how Google handled the process.

The search giant did not inform Peter of his penalty, and as a small business owner with minimal resources, he found this quite disturbing.

Moreover, Google provided him no way to formally appeal the action.

After months of trial and error to rectify the situation, Google finally began hinting, but not verifying, that it would not even look at his case until after the next Penguin updated occurred; he had no idea when that would be.

Likening Google to an Old-Testament-style God,” Peter had to wait a full 18 months to find out if he had made the right corrections for his site to begin raising up in the SERPs again.

In Peter’s own words, “. . .  they had crushed any chance my company had of taking off.”

Many site owners dip their toes into the waters of black hat tactics thinking the worst that will happen is that they will receive a penalty and have to recoup for a while.

The truth is that exploring the darker side of SEO can cost you your entire business and livelihood. The lesson to take to heart is this: Don’t game the system and tick off the search gods.

Has your business been impacted by Google’s algorithms? Do you think that Google needs a better appeals process for cases like Peter’s?


Conscious online marketer, web executive, and multi-faceted writer Tina Courtney has been creating and fostering online innovations since 1996. Tina has assisted many clients in maximizing online production and marketing efforts, and is a staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney and JDate, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, influencer marketing, community management, lead generation, and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, and accomplished life coach.  Learn more on LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+.

14 Responses to “Brands That (Nearly) Died Thanks to Google

    avatar PureLocal says:

    The above article is very true, it seems that big businesses benefit the most from Google as they can bombard serps with Adwords and paid link SEO etc. The small business really cannot hope to appear at the top of Google.

    avatar Jon says:

    I can tell what google creating unnatural search engine, which will be removed from bookmarks quickly as soon as new competitors will launch “natural search engine”. I see all time what I am unable to find at google, yandex, even bing what I looking for and think it need to be changed.

    These search engines switched from “real search engines” to “google profit-based search engines”. In such area, here is no ways for small business to survive.

    I think what google/bing/yandex must be taken to court due to anti-monopoly laws (in correct reality). However, such laws just a joke in the current world. And google sponsor govs to it not happen.

    Everything we can do – DO NOT count on search engines. Because it not “real search engines”, and need to use other ways to promote our content.

    Brand always help in online marketing.

    Great piece of lessons learnt that Google ranking can’t be game. Thanks greatly for sharing this free content and I hope to share this content with my audience and lists because it is helpful and impactful to a great extent. Thanks greatly.

    avatar John C says:

    Interesting article Tina, and one I fully agree with; there should be assistance from Google in such instances. I used to enjoy page 1 ranking with Google until I changed my format to Prestashop and subsequent Google updates. Now I am nowhere to be seen. I have hired endless freelancers, white hat link builders, article writers, seo ‘experts’ and for some reason they have no effect. As a micro-business in the UK, only selling online, I can’t afford the services of expensive SEO agencies, and as all my business comes from the internet, there is little us small businesses can do (Google certainly aren’t interested in the likes of us). They maintain that their aim is to bring searchers the most relevant content, so why is it that a website that specialises in a product group is nowhere, but a large retail group that might have just 1 page of a similar product gets on to page 1?

    All of this only matters if Google organic search results is your whole business strategy for attracting customers.

    Surely only a moron would cede this critical area of their business to an entity as fickle as Google.

    Pay them a bit of money and, hey presto, you can be right at the top of the page for your desired keywords.

    Then there is Facebook, Bing, YouTube, Yahoo ads you can buy to get even more targeted leads.

    Really…Google will only be able to “destroy your business” if you rely on it for your business.

    avatar Christian says:

    It’s not just search results. My site was banned from Adsense. I lost several hundred dollars a month until I found an agency who would supply me with ads. This was several years ago and I still don’t know why I was banned, nor have any attempts at contacting the Adsense team or appealing the decision provided and info or help. They very clearly state that they cannot tell me why.

    avatar Tim Dorrian says:

    I always wondered what happened to eHow in the SERPs. Although not too surprising. Most of their content was more comedy than informative.

    I am assuming it’s not cool to work on getting your site ranked and then just see that flying through the window.

    The positive side is that other people can see that google is not playing around. Also, those who like doing black hat SEO will no longer have any advantage over the ones who like to do things right. At the end of the day it’s all about the user experience.

    avatar Daniel says:

    Our company had a similar experience to Peter Walter. We are also a small company with limited resources for SEO.

    Following Penguin our visitor numbers started to fall, but there was no sudden drop. It was not clear to us that we had been penalised. In fact, some pages were still coming up on page 1 of the SERPs for certain keywords and phrases.

    It was a long time before we realised that we had actually been penalised, longer still before we discovered what had caused the problem and even longer before the changes we made to our website could take effect.

    Four years before Penguin we had posted a few of our outdoor gear product advice pages on an article website. People copied this content onto their own websites including the links to our site. Our SEO at the time said other people would copy the articles but we thought it would be copied onto personal blogging sites about the outdoors, so it seemed harmless enough. At that time, around 2008, our SEO said lots of people were posting on article websites and although it was not a proper white hat technique, it was definitely not considered black hat.

    When we looked thoroughly at our backlinks after Penguin, it turned out that the sites which had copied our advice pages were not usually about the outdoors at all. They just contained affiliate links selling all sorts of random products and had no content themselves.

    We spent a lot of time doing a backlink analysis, asking people to remove our advice (some of whom said they would only remove it if we paid them) and disavowing links on Google. However we had to wait a long time for the changes to take effect when Google finally ran its Pengium update again.

    We can see why Google wished to implement the Penguin changes to its algorithm, but the way Google went about it was ruthless and very inconsiderate towards online businesses and the people who work for them. Clearly Penguin caused businesses to close down and people to loose their jobs.

    Many companies relied on external SEOs who either knowingly used black hat techniques or SEOs who simply did not understand the implications of what they were doing – after all SEO was quite new at the time and many people were just muddling along in the years before Penguin and Panda.

    Before implementing Penguin, Google should have put something in place to enable people to quickly remedy problems rather than having to wait two years before running the next Penguin update.

    It would also have been helpful of Google to message directly to websites that had been penalised to a lesser extent.

    What Google did was premeditated, grossly immoral, and horrendously destructive. Their goal was to force small businesses that have good sites to buy advertising or force us off the SERPS so big advertisers don’t have competition; crappy sites started replacing good ones as soon as Panda rolled out. This has been verified with many case studies and by comparisons with ethical SEs such as Bing and Yahoo.

    What Google didn’t anticipate, in their arrogance, was SE users would become so frustrated at “googling” for things they wanted to buy they would simply type in Amazon and start looking there.

    Google’s debauched search engine made search so bad it has now become irrelevant to shoppers. Too bad those hoseheads can’t fix this, but there’s no going back now.

    Google forever damaged the vast majority of good small sites and the Internet in general.

    They have fully lived up to their motto, “Do MORE evil.”

    OMG… Mark Lamendola Nailed it!! That is the most concise and to the point summation on this topic I have seen. We were exactly one of those very capable and rich web experiences for customer’s in our industry. We were an authority. We had customer’s all over the planet ordering from us every day… 15 employees…. Then came Penguin and Panda… DONE nearly overnight. Down to 3 employees. We kept chasing it, but down the mountain we fell…. Right into Amazon’s hands. Now we rock on Amazon. Not too sure how thrilled I am of that, but that is a story for another topic. But, at least Amazon wants us and provides an even playing field (to a certain extent.) and is not dependent of Google. I would tell everyone that Google was the Devil, but they would all look at me like I had 2 heads… and here we are. It is the Yellow Pages from the 70’s and 80’s all over again!! Garbage. Google is the new Yellow Pages! Big bucks for little return. Not me, baby!

    avatar Obiective says:

    One other thing that is greatly affecting websites is Google’s Knowledge Graph, ending with the users not having to click on the search results to get the information that they’re looking for. And maybe showing information like how old is a football player or politician, or the weather in a certain place, would not be such a big deal, but they keep expanding this approach and they’re showing travel sights, movie reviews, match scores, sport leagues tables, match summaries, schedules, etc. Sometimes searching for something, would cover 80% of the page. The user would have to scroll alot just to click one organic search result. Searching for “federer” for example, shows the whole tournament he’s been in last week, pictures of him, links to his facebook, instagram, g+, youtube, twitter accounts, quotes (pointing to a google page searching for “roger federer quotes”), related searches, his last tweets which you can scroll left and right… and only then six or seven organic search results. So to be able to go to would take the user a great deal of effort and he would have to absorb alot of the information he’s bombarded with.

    avatar Tim says:

    Holy cow, that’s such a massive dip for rap genius. They’ve really turned things around since then though!

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