Interflora got penalized only 2 weeks ago, right after Valentine’s day with a huge coverage in the media and also a some-what indirect statement from Google’s Matt Cutts himself about Advertorials also counting as paid links if they pass Page Rank (i.e. do not have NOFOLLOW tags on them).
Now, just this past Sunday, a week before Mother’s day in UK, they are already back for most of their rankings. Many wonder how that recovery was possible so quick and we’ll look at what was changed and what was cleaned up.
More Than Advertorials
As we could see in the Interflora Deep Dive Analysis the 100 or so Advertorials where not the only bad links in the mix, albeit Google specifically “reminded” about paid links in Advertorials being bad as well.
Interflora actually had more than 70% of their links as toxic or suspicious according to Link Detox. So those were actually 1000′s of links that would probably not pass a manual review by the Google spam team.
If you look at some of the examples of Tiered backlink structures (aka Linkwheels) or the huge number of low Power*Trust links compared to the competition you will wonder just like so many others why Interflora actually wasn’t hit before in the Google Penguin updates, as such backlink profiles were clearly those of the losers.
They had a lot of free blogs with simply one page on it, carrying a money keyword like i.e. “roses” to their site or to another simple free blog. That was a common link pyramid tactic implemented with link automation tools.
You will probably also wonder how they got back so fast, just in time for Mother’s Day.
Link Removal & Disavows
Interflora losing rankings even for the brand name indicated a manual penalty by Google.
The manual spam penalty and news around the globe already indicated high level attention at Google, and while Matt Cutts didn’t specifically mention Interflora, the correlation of events seems very plausible.
We also heard about a lot of bloggers being contacted to remove their links to Interflora from various pages, which many of them found a good thing to do. Some said that the guestposts or “paid” posts were low quality content anyway.
This outreach was so big that the whole industry noticed, including Google. Something they probably wanted to happen to make Interflora to an example.
We also saw that advertorial links were quickly removed from regional newspapers already in a first analysis following the penalty.
Interflora changed their link profile to contain 10822 links (from 10944, so only minus 122 links) but the number of pages they got the links from increased from 7276 to 7442. This means that actually a couple pages that had two or more links are gone now.
One example is the following very obvious paid blog post, which could still be found in the Google Cache and had 3 links to money pages with money keywords and the Interflora brand in it (a common tactic we call “Compound keyword phrases” that is used to make links pass money keywords camouflaged in variations with the brand in it as well).
Now while a lot of bad link building examples were shown in the Deep Dive, this is another poor one, and a quick look at the site reveals this pretty spammy sidebar:
and in this (broken) contact form:
So as you can see immediately, this was not a great link either, so good it’s gone.
To answer a typical question that comes up at this point when we look at results of Link Detox – the number of links were not inflated by sitewides, which means no more than 5 links per domain were counted.
This post explains more detail about the reason; but in general – 1000s of subpage links are no valued as much as 1000 domains linking to any site, as was just recently confirmed by Matt Cutts. The inflation of link counts by sitewides is a big flaw in many “backlink checking tools” and often leads to misinterpretations by webmasters.
For more inspiration on which good links Interflora could build now, the post about 101 Links for Interflora gives more ideas for how they could proceed now.
But the problem is, even today the link profile of Interflora shows a lot of suspicious and toxic links in Link Detox. The number of healthy links went up from 2164 to 2207, but still exactly 29.7%.
It’s worth nothing that also not all advertorial links were completely removed, but the remaining three will probably be as you read this.
Now while we see that a mere 122 links were actually removed based on this quick analysis, the questions we cannot answer are:
- How many links could not be removed and were thus “disabled” using the Google disavow tool?
- How many links were disavowed because contact information is unavailable or lost (like maybe for free host spam)?
Why these question? The number of “disabled” links is probably a lot higher than 122.
How The Disavow Process Works
Google recommends that a penalized website should try to remove every bad link possible, and disavow the others that could not be removed. Disavowing links works by uploading a simple text file with links that a webmaster wants Google to ignore. They take it as “a strong recommendation” in the next crawls to ignore those links.
This is the interesting part – even if Interflora would have disavowed thousands of shady links in the last week, the recrawl for all those pages could have taken weeks or even months. This is because Google doesn’t give any indication when Disavowed Links are discounted. Also many of those bad links came from pretty weak pages, which are not recrawled very often naturally anyway.
At this point, we come to expect that either:
a) The recrawl process for Interflora links was really sped up by Google (manually)
b) The mass of spammy links were already disavowed in the past as part of a Link Risk Management undertaken, which would make a lot of sense
c) The manual penalty was not only applied but also revoked, and included “forgiveness” for a lot of these other bad links. Matt Cutts himself maybe pushed a button to get the links recrawled faster, so disavowing would work faster.
We can however assume now that in addition to these 122 removed links a lot more were disavowed.
External Link Profile vs. Internal Link Profile
This brings us to the point often overlooked, even in the previous analysis pointing out 70% toxic links for Interflora. The backlink profile that any software can show for a website can only be accurate if we assume that no links were disavowed.
As soon as links were disavowed (and recrawled) Google would probably not count them anymore, and neither should we.
Therefore only Interflora and Google know the answer to above options, and ever link analysis is being diluted by links that Google maybe already has discounted because of disavows many weeks ago.
Using the “Round Trip Disavow” in Link Detox webmasters can allow Link Detox to discount links that were disavowed as well, just like Google does. Thereby one can keep track of its cleanup and disavow process and get a more accurate picture of his backlink profile.
Discounting Disavow Links Too
The file listing all disavowed links can also be uploaded, and to demonstrate that, we’ll do that really quickly by picking 6981 links from really bad sites, virus sites, sites with Page Rank penalties and several more reasons and uploading that into a Link Detox analysis.
By this, we get a picture of only roughly 40% problematic links remaining, which probably comes a lot closer to what Google currently sees. Still a lot, but every website has some problematic links. It’s the ratios between good and bad that matter.
Keep in mind only Interflora and Google know which links were disavowed actually, this should only serve as an example here.
Given that the outreach to bloggers was done so fast and wide-spread, we can assume that Interflora was well prepared and probably already warned about Unnatural Links a lot earlier. This makes a lot of sense for Interflora and any company depending on Google’s organic traffic. Link risk management is something that came with the Google Penguin updates and the first time that poor links can cause harsh traffic drops and penalties.
We might also assume that:
- According to this case study on Unnatural Link Warnings and their effect Interflora probably just did not trip the threshold for traffic loss earlier
- But the warnings probably already led to preparation of outreach lists and previous link removals by Interflora
- Previous link disavows made a lot of sense, given the links we saw they still have on free blog hosts
- The ashamed Advertorials were the tip of an iceberg that were pretty much overdone – causing manual intervention
- Interflora and/or their SEO agency reached out to the Google spam team or Matt Cutts right after the penalty to declare more sins and disavow more bad links, also show action by their immediate reach out
- Google got the reminder on paid links in Advertorials spread across the world really fast
- After global press coverage of both the Interflora penalty and the most prominent paid link example penalty since JC Penney, was another successful “PR stunt” as some call it by Google. The timing here is also very similar to the famous JC Penney penalty. That one also hit at a time that meant very bad PR within the SEO industry, but “minimal” impact in terms of their revenue, right after Christmas.
Assuming everything went fine for Google, all poor links were disavowed or removed by Interflora there was no reason to hurt the user experience of Google clients – their users – anymore. This is very good for Interflora’s business of course as well.
The unfairness that many see is that Interflora gets back so quickly, when smaller websites struggle for months in their cleanup and never seems to get released from the penalty. After all, someone Googling Interflora would expect just that – Interflora, and not a lot of SEOs and Mainstream media writing about their penalty. Unless it’s an SEO Googling…
That’s the beauty and power of being a big and important brand. Google just cannot have it in its search for long, otherwise “Google would be broken”, as my mother would call it.
For a smaller brand that’s bad news, as such fast recovery then would not be possible. This means everyone should start with link risk management as described above, today.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.