20 SEO Fails and What We Can Learn From Them [+tips to avoid penalty]

SEO failsFails can be funny. But where SEO fails are concerned, no one is laughing. If you commit the kind of SEO fails we’ll be taking a look at in this article, you could find yourself removed entirely from Google.

Just like BMW did!

And if Google isn’t concerned about putting BMW in the naughty corner for a few days, it’ll hardly lose sleep if they kick you off their search rankings.

Google seems like a hard taskmaster at times. It’s like that awkward boss who always plays by the rules or that stern headmaster you had at school who rejected your homework if you didn’t write on the lines.

The thing is, though, that Google – rightly – has high standards it wants us all to meet in the name of fairness. Play by the rules, and you could go far. Make mistakes, and it’s tough luck. You do the crime – you do the time.

But why would Google punish you?

Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO

seo fail

If you’ve taken even a mild interest in SEO lately as you bid to climb up the rankings, you’ll have surely heard of black hat and white hat SEO.

Essentially, while some of us play by the rules and seek to win the search rankings race by fair means, others want to win the war by foul means – in other words, they’re willing to use black hat SEO black magic. They want to conjure keywords from their digital cauldrons, and they’re prepared to undercut the good guys with underhand tactics that – they hope – will make them short-term profits.  

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Black Hat SEO

Put simply, black hat SEO practices are the unethical way to game the rankings system, while white hat SEO practices are the ethical way of making your website more visible.

People who use black hat techniques often aren’t really interested in long-term investment and gain, but just want to get to the top ASAP. They’re not concerned about their audience either, which means good content doesn’t always matter to them. Instead of offering value, they offer more keywords than you’ll find in a dictionary.

Black hat sorcerers more often than not end up in Google jail as soon as they’re caught. Once there, they don’t always care so much if they’ve already made a tidy profit anyway.

White Hat SEO

White hat practitioners, on the other hand, actually care about their audience. They have a lot more to lose if they’re penalized by Google. They’re focused on climbing up the rankings, but they also deliver content that offers value to their readership. They want to forge a relationship with subscribers, engage with them, and they’re prepared to put in the time and effort needed to rewrite meta tags, measure keyword metrics, explore backlinks, and reverse engineer what their competition is doing.

White hat guys and gals are in it for the long haul. And, because what they are doing is legal and above board, they’re here to stay – provided they don’t make an honest mistake.

What Is a Google Penalty and Why Does It Happen?

Google will play it fair with you – provided you play it fair with Google. Violate the rules, and Google will punish you. It’s just like sports. Google penalty is the worst SEO fails that you can make. 

The difference between Google and baseball is that it’s impossible to get away with anything on Google.

Those pesky algorithm updates and Google bots, right? Make a mistake, and you can expect to be caught red-handed.

“I didn’t stuff my articles with keywords,” you say under interrogation, with keywords literally falling out of your mouth.

When you’ve been penalized by Google, the worst that can happen is your website is removed from the search results. Not usually forever, but for at least a few days. Either way, the damage can be lasting.

The more lenient punishment targets your rankings for your main keywords. If you were ranking in the top ten before you were penalized, you could find yourself ranking at #100 after an SEO fail.

These SEO fails can be a huge catastrophe.

And you’ll probably be wishing they just removed you anyway.

The problem is that there are blurred lines when it comes to the reason why Google punishes a website. If you knowingly practice the dark arts of black hat SEO and buy links, you probably deserve to be punished. If, however, you made a genuine mistake and still get punished, you can count yourself unlucky.

Not that you can do anything about it. Once you’re in Google jail, the only thing you can do is plan your recovery. It can be a long and drawn-out process getting back to the top of Google.

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How to avoid falling foul of Google? Let’s take a look at 20 SEO fails that we can all learn from!

20. Mozilla

Mozilla is a pretty big deal. It’s responsible for Firefox, the open source browser you’ve probably used at some point.

You’d probably assume that folks who create browsers would know better when it came to Google. But even those of us who we think we’ve got it all figured out clearly haven’t.

And so in 2013, Mozilla got penalized by Google for including a single page of user-generated content which was deemed to be infested with spam. This is the biggest SEO fails of 2013. 

Google didn’t come down too harshly on Mozilla – they just told them to remove the page. But it’s a warning that you need to be wary of all user-generated content.

19. BBC

BBC SEO fail

Wow. Even the BBC got into trouble with Google? I know, right!?

What ignited the wrath of Google was a page that was riddled in what Google called “unnatural links.”

It’s never been revealed exactly how this was resolved, or how it impacted the BBC. But what is clear is that Google comes down on so-called unnatural links. What are they?

According to Google:

“Creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines.”

You’ve been warned!

18. Rap Genius

Rap Genius was handed a massive rap of its own by Google in 2013 when they asked bloggers to add their links to its content. Rap Genius would then tweet the bloggers’ posts.

Google started sniffing around and deemed Rap Genius guilty of posting unnatural links. It stopped ranking for its own name on the first page, with this penalty lasting ten days.

17. Overstock

Not all the SEO fails starts with Google, but with your competitors. Sometimes, Google doesn’t catch you out. Sometimes, it’s your competitors that rat you out instead. That’s what happened to Overstock in 2011.

Overstock committed a gross error when they asked schools to link back to their website. In exchange, they would offer discounts to any school that participated in this unusual part-exchange program. For Overstock, it meant that they started to rank well for certain keywords.

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Google was given word of this, and it degraded almost the whole site from ranking on page one for a whopping two months. The impact of that? Overstock claimed that they probably lost 5% in revenues.


16. Washington Post

Gosh, even the ones who report on heinous stuff like black hat SEO practices are possibly at it!

Back in 2007, respected periodical, The Washington Post had its PageRank value degraded after it was caught selling links in a bid to boost its rankings. That’s been outlawed since, well, 2007. The Washington Post had no one to blame but themselves – and neither do you if you sell links for better rankings.

15. Interflora

Interflora nigh-on disappeared from Google after using advertorial content without nofollow. Without it – or similar methods – Interflora was able to use links in their content that helped them to rank better.

Interflora set to work on removing some of their links, and Google lifted their penalty after eleven days.

14. BMW

BMW SEO fail

BMW was one of the first major brands to get punished for Google when it was found guilty of cloaking back in 2006. They had their entire site removed for three days!

Even BMW cannot avoid SEO fails. 

Don’t want this to happen to you? Then don’t cloak. Basically, don’t use a technique that shows one thing to human visitors and another to search engine crawlers.

Because if it’s you, Google won’t restore you after just three days. The only reason they did was that BMW was so big.

13. SearchKing

SearchKing set a precedent when it butted heads with Google in court back in 2002, after backing the PR Ad Network that let people buy and sell links in a bid to boost their rankings.

Naturally, Google didn’t like that and chose to drop their PageRank score to PR4. Unhappy, SearchKing sued the search engine monolith – and lost. It took them four years to recover their rankings. 

In my opinion, in SEO fails list, this incident is on top of every other.

The lesson?

Just don’t buy links for better rankings.  

12. WordPress

Yes, even WordPress, which powers millions of our sites around the world, has been penalized by Google.

In 2005, WordPress deliberately played host to a number of pages for a third party company that was seeking better rankings. They realized that they could rank better if their pages were continued inside WP itself.

They also included some hidden links too, which is considered to be doorway spam.

To be fair to WordPress, they apologized and moved on.

11. JC Penney

In another case where a company was exposed by someone other than Google itself, retailer JC Penney was the subject of a New York Times article in 2011 that revealed how the company was buying links to improve its rankings.

Consequently, JC Penney stopped ranking for a number of terms altogether, though it did refrain from taking any responsibility for the mess, choosing instead to dump the blame on its SEO firm.

10. NewsDay

NewsDay SEO fail

Like Interflora’s SEO fail, NewsDay was caught red-handed for failing to use a nofollow on some of their links. Some of the links lead readers to sites that had nothing to do with their niche. When Google found out, they dropped NewsDay’s score to PR5. This caused them to fall way behind rivals, who were mostly all scored PR8.

9. Forbes

Forbes has fallen foul of Google a couple of times, usually for selling links on their site. Google doesn’t like this and usually slaps you with a penalty straight away.

In Forbes’s case in 2011, Google sent them a notification email, requesting that they look into the unnatural links and remove them.

It took Forbes a while. At first, they were so perplexed that they wrote on the Google Webmaster Forum, asking if someone could point out the toxic links. Google did indeed point them out, and Forbes duly took them down.

The lesson? Just admit it when you’ve knowingly put up a paid link. Admit it, remove it, and then ask Google to get you outta jail.

8. GourmetGiftBaskets

GourmetGiftBasket’s brush with the Google law should be a lesson to all of us. Back in 2008, just as the holidays were approaching, the hamper service was hampered (sorry) by being removed from the Google index.

Their customers couldn’t find them, which resulted in an alleged $4,000,000 loss.

The reason? Unnatural links on their home page.

The lesson? Don’t do it, especially if you’ve got a lot to lose.

7. 1-800 Flowers

1-800 Flowers is HUGE in North America. So many of us associate it with goodness, sweetness, love, and romance.

However, the flower market is insanely competitive and sometimes even florists get busted for bad practices.

But fear not, because although 1-800 Flowers were selling paid links on their site to target major keywords, you don’t need to picture your favorite florist in handcuffs of nothing. Google took them out of their game for a while, the online florist lost sales – but they’re back in now.

If you’re in a competitive market, guess what? We all are. Be like the tortoise and not the hare – slow and steady wins the race.

6. GoCompare Insurance

GoCompare Insurance is known in the UK for a really annoying commercial. It’s also well known – as a lot of car insurance companies are – for displaying paid links on its site.

However, a lot of these companies offset the paid links by having a generally excellent link profile. Not so GoCompare, who bought a chunk of links from some dubious websites.

They’re still using them, which probably explains their poor ranking for some pretty major keywords.

And just in case you didn’t know, most bought links are dirty. They’re like having a crack dealer as your referee – less of a ringing endorsement and more of a mark of Cain. Avoid.

5. GoHealthInsurance

GoHealth SEO fail

Yup, the insurance game is a murky one where SEO is concerned. Unfortunately, you’ll find more insurance companies doing questionable things than companies sticking to the law on Google.

GoHealthInsurance was using a third party company to buy links for them in a bid to boost their rankings. Google made them remove them, and nowadays the company is finding it hard to climb back up.

Once you’re knocked down, that’s pretty much it for some companies.

4. BeatThatQuote

BeatThatQuote was another company that bought links to boost their rankings. The lesson? Develop a winning SEO strategy and ace the rankings that way.

And now – three times Google broke its own rules and penalized itself … D’oh!

3. Google Japan

Blimey, even Google themselves have been punished?

Yup, in the name of fairness and transparency, Google isn’t averse to penalizing itself. When Google Japan bought links from bloggers for better ranks on Yahoo!, the almighty hand of God (okay, Google) came down on them.

2. Google Chrome

As mentioned in the case of Google Japan, Google occasionally breaks its own rules. It also punishes itself, too. This is when things tend to get really complicated. After all, why would a company make the rules, break them (countless times), and penalize itself?

Well, Google is a complicated company. In 2012, as it sought to promote the new Chrome browser, it accidentally bought links. It was caught out, apologized, and didn’t rank well for “Google Chrome” for 2 whole months.

1. Google AdWords

At the start of the article, we said that SEO fails are no laughing matter. But they kinda are when Google themselves keeps making ‘em.

In 2010, Google AdWords was found guilty of cloaking, and had to penalize itself by degrading its ranking for targeted keywords, such as “AdWords help.”

Long and short of it? If Google can’t get away with cloaking, you definitely can’t.

Do you have any SEO fails to share?

In case you’re not already frightened to death by the prospect of being put into Google jail and your website being degraded, possibly losing you lots of revenue.

We’ve got one last warning for you: Avoid black hat techniques if you care about the long-term success of your website.

White hat techniques not only work, but they’re totally legitimate. If done right – can see you climb to the top of search engine results.

It’s just a matter of implementing a few things; such as keywords and a proper SEO strategy, and then monitoring backlinks. As soon as you see a bad one (from a spam site), discard it ASAP.

To make sure your site is always looking good and healthy, measure your SEO metrics for growth, too.

Enjoyed the article? – Here are SEO Penalty Case Studies and 7 day Google Penalty Recovery example

Feel free to share your SEO fails to help others fail-less 😉

This piece is contributed by Aljaz Fajmut who is a serial internet entrepreneur, the founder of Nightwatch – a search visibility tracker of the next generation.

7 thoughts on “20 SEO Fails and What We Can Learn From Them [+tips to avoid penalty]

  1. The fact that most of these examples are from a few years ago at least means that brands are now catching up to the fact there is no point in trying to artificially inflate your rankings as the drop once caught can be massive and almost impossible to come back from.

    Also, with search engines becoming more and more “human” or rather more understanding of human queries, the incentive to invest in black hat SEO is diminishing. Its just not profitable in the long run.

    1. Totally agree with you, Sam.
      “Black-hat” might seem like a good idea at first but in the long run, it will hurt your business. #staywhite

  2. When you talk about big company maybe they are remove just for three days, what about small company how long are they ban from appearing in google search? After degrading some of the ranking, will the ranking slowly get back to where they are or are they forever degraded?

    1. That’s a really good question. First of all the penalties will differ:
      – When you are penalized manually – you will receive an email with the things you did wrong and how to fix it. Then go an fix it – it won’t take long before you are back in the game.
      – When you receive an algorithmic penalty – both penalty and recovery is done automatically and will take some time before Google notices you have improved.

  3. This article was an eye opener, earlier I thought lesser mortals like us make mistakes and get penalized but never knew that such big names also bore the brunt of the scary Google Penalty and Google, in its all fairness, did not let one of its own go scotfree.

    This is the reason Google continues to be the top search engine.

  4. This is useful article to the someone who just started to work SEO, and For me It is helpful, you have almost covered everything. Anyway Thank you so much.

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