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SEO Schadenfreude: 7 SEO Fails from Big Brands That You Need to Avoid

Why do people revel in the misery of others?

This concept, known as schadenfreude, is just one way of acknowledging the failures and mishaps of others.

Instead of empathizing with them during their moment of weakness, people laugh at them instead.

There’s a reason why shows like “America’s Funniest Videos” and “Ridiculousness” exist.

There’s a certain pleasure we get from seeing other people fall to the floor face first or get hit in the groin, among other hilarities.

Schadenfreude exists in the SEO world too. 

Isn’t it funny when Google catches and penalizes a website for poor SEO practices?

What if it’s a big, popular brand getting hit in a very public way? Funnier.

What if it’s Google itself getting a Google penalty? Hilarious.

You’d think that established brands are shining beacons in their respective industries.

However, some implement tactics that go against the guidelines set forth by search engines. If caught, Google didn’t think twice about issuing harsh penalties on these sites.

In this post, you’ll learn some of the most infamous SEO fails in history.

While it’s easy to sit back, grab some popcorn and have a hearty laugh at the mishaps of big brands (which I’m sure you’re about to do), there are lessons here that you should learn as well so you can ensure that you don’t end up penalized.

SEO Schadenfreude: 7 SEO Fails from Big Brands That You Need to Avoid

1. 1-800 Flowers buying links

Mother’s Day is the time of the year when you acknowledge the person who brought you into this world.

A simple gesture, such as giving her a bouquet of flowers, would mean the world to her. In our modern times, the easiest way to do this is via the internet.

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1-800 Flowers and other sites selling flowers are fully aware of this. They know people are looking to buy and send flowers online at this time of year.

To drum up sales during this period, the brand optimized its website for “mothers day flowers” and “mothers day arrangements,” among other keywords.

Since competition for those keywords would be at an all-time high in the days leading up to Mother’s Day, 1-800 Flowers initiated a link-buying scheme in 2011 to increase their search position for the keywords above.

Despite its attempt to buy links from various sites, 1-800 Flowers failed in getting the upper hand in search results.

Yes, the site ended up placing in second for “mothers day flowers.” In a New York Times article, but Google spokesperson Jake Hubert sent a statement saying reported that its efforts in gaming the search algorithm did not yield any significant changes in their site’s rankings.

“None of the links shared by the New York Times had a significant impact on our rankings, due to automated systems we have in place to assess the relevance of links,” says Hubert. “As always, we investigate spam reports and take corrective action where appropriate.”

Ranking second in search results for their target keyword doesn’t seem like a failure to most. However, 1-800 Flowers was already ranking in the same position before pulling off the link buying shenanigans. There’s a real pressure to get to spot #1 in the Google SERPs. Basically, the flower company just flushed their money down the drain.

Lesson: Even if you have money to burn, avoid link buying at all costs. Not only do they put your site at risk by getting it eradicated from Google search results, but positive results from paid links aren’t guaranteed.

2. WebHostingSecretRevealed.net penalized by Google Penguin for link manipulation

Web Hosting Secret Revealed is one of the premier sites that provide unbiased different web hosting reviews to help people make the right choice for their site’s web host.

Since it’s also in a very competitive and profitable niche, the challenge is to maintain its top rankings for its target keywords while keeping equally good sites at bay.

The challenge got too much for site owner Jerry Low. He resorted to shady link building approaches to maintain the site’s SEO performance. However, Google eventually caught up with him.

“Like many sites in a competitive market, WHSR got slapped by Google Penguin Update in 2012 and was penalized heavily for link manipulation,” recalls Low in an exclusive chat with him about his site. “Traffic and business income drop significantly. I had to fire my entire team of writers to survive.”

“It took two stressful years, with zero business profit, to rebuild WHSR on a new domain and start making money again,” continues Low. “I consider myself lucky to have a ‘come back’ and continue my career as a full-time internet marketer. Some others were not so lucky and got wiped off from this business.”

Lesson: This example only emphasizes the fact that you should never engage in link manipulation. Now that Google’s search algorithm is getting smarter and more sophisticated by the day, any link buying scheme you have in store will be uncovered sooner or later.

3. Mozilla created UGC page infested with spam

User-generated content is an excellent way for your brand to engage with your community. However, the risk of UGC is that you cede the power to the users. There’s only so much you can do once your users start submitting content in droves.

Mozilla found this out the in the worst possible way.

Google hit the free software community with a manual penalty. The problem is that Mozilla was genuinely unaware of the issue that caused the penalty. Upon further research, the search engine penalized only a single page out of the 22 million Mozilla pages due to comment spam.

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The example above features some of the comment spam on the penalized URL http://blog.mozilla.org/respindola/about/ which no longer exists.

Even though Mozilla set the comment links to nofollow, the fact that there was more than enough volume of spammy comments for Google to notice and penalize the site.

Lesson: It’s great to provide people with a voice through user-generated content. However, you also need to moderate the content they’re publishing on your site. As seen in the example above, you can’t cede power to users because some will take advantage of it. I’m pretty sure that “Maui offseason hotel” and “Michigan Wedding Fireworks” just want to drop their links on the page and not engage with Mozilla.

4. Luxury brands with less-than-luxurious UI/UX

Luxury brands online are a dime a dozen. However, some of these brands have websites that feel less than premium.

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Bentley Motors, a brand synonymous with luxury cars, had flowers as its hero image.

To make matters worse, instead of scrolling the page down to see the content of the site, you’d need to click on the small “skip to home” button on the lower-right side to get away from this atrocity.

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Another luxury brand, Tom Ford, got its web design wrong. In particular, the navigation was painfully terrible. The text from the transparent drop-down menu overlapped the text in the content. It made discerning which part of the text is from the menu or the content unnecessarily hard for visitors.

You can view more luxury brands with visually-painful designs by clicking here.

User experience is an atypical and crucial SEO factor. Not only does it cover web design but also site speed, site architecture, mobile friendliness and more. If done correctly, you can better conversion rates, longer duration time on site and ultimately happier visitors.

The companies above eventually revamped and improved their respective UX to better accommodate their users, which works to their benefit. However, it doesn’t change the fact that they had websites that didn’t reflect the essence of both brands.

Lesson: Some luxury brands feel the need to appear grandiose at the expense of usability and convenience. By making your site easy to navigate and simple, it actually helps elevate your brand even more! Observing the best web design practices is the first step towards this route.

5. BMW guilty of cloaking

Moving on to another luxury brand, BMW used doorway pages in 2006 to increase search ranking for its target keywords.

The creation of doorway pages is a black hat SEO tactic and is against Google guidelines. It manipulates search engines by setting up a page designed to rank high on organic search. However, once users click on that page, it redirects them to another site.

BMW employed this tactic because its site ran primarily on Javascript code that Google couldn’t read and therefore couldn’t rank. While Google can now read Javascript, it wasn’t able to during this time, as search algorithms weren’t as complex and comprehensive.

To offset this, the luxury car manufacturer created doorway pages to target the keyword “used cars.” Once people click on that page, they’d be redirected to the BMW site.

Google laid down the hammer on BMW by demoting its PageRank (Google’s ranking system based on its search algorithm) to zero.

The brand admitted to creating doorway pages but denied deceiving users with those pages. Nonetheless, the damage had been done, and it sent a stern message to brands employing black hat tactics.

Lesson: Always create your website for users, not for search engines. It’s not challenging to gamify Google and Bing for a short period if you want to reach the top of search results. However, if you want sustainable success for your website, then you need to target users instead. Design your site well and create content that people love.

6. ToysRUs.com bought Toys.com but forgot the implications of 301 redirects

It’s normal for brands to acquire domains of their competition. The purchase allows them to not only gain property of the name and its assets but also funnel existing traffic from the acquired site to their website.

ToyRUs.com did precisely this—buy Toys.com for a cool $5.1 million and redirected all traffic from the site to ToysRUs.com.

The logic is sound. The brand wanted to inform people that Toys.com no longer exists and that ToysRUs.com is now the premier place for all their toy needs.

The speculated reasons for the purchase is association by brand name and free redirect. Since the purchase, Toys.com is no longer an entity of its own. Whenever people type Toys.com into their address bar, they’re redirected to ToysRUs.com.

However, the company overlooked the effects of 301 redirects. By setting up the redirects from Toys.com to ToysRUs.com, Google de-indexes all Toys.com pages. Therefore, the hundreds of thousands of traffic Toys.com was getting from Google is no longer available, no thanks to the redirects.

Also, ToysRUs.com had the opportunity to send traffic to specific pages related to the ranking ones at Toys.com. For example, if Toys.com ranks for a keyword related to a gaming console, ToysRUs.com could have funneled the organic traffic to their version of the gaming console page to increase traffic and rake in potential conversions. However, there’s really no point in crying over spilled milk.

Lesson: I won’t assume that the decision to redirect all Toys.com pages was put into any type of consideration or if they had an SEO specialist on board to get his or her opinion. However, the potentially crippling loss in organic traffic somewhat dampens the purchase of the domain. Therefore, if you plan on acquiring your competition, make sure to cover all your bases and consider the SEO ramifications of your decisions.

7. Google Adwords penalized itself for cloaking

In a cruel yet hilarious twist of fate, Google penalized the Adwords platform for showing search engines different content than what users actually see. This process of “cloaking” your site is a black hat tactic that all site owners should avoid if they don’t want to drop out of the search results.

Google acted swiftly to get rid of the problem. However, this isn’t the first time that happened to the search engine giant.

Google support pages were banned in 2005 for the same reason.

In 2009, Google Japan engaged in link buying.

In both instances, Google penalized the responsible parties for their mistakes. The penalty was a message to all site owners that no one is safe, even Google itself.

Lesson: It’s amusing for a company that expects people to follow rules that even its people can’t do. However, while you should expect everybody in your organization to know all your guidelines, some rules go over their heads. As a result, they forget and commit mistakes along the way. It’s essential, therefore, to get everyone on the same page, to avoid errors like the ones Google made.

Conclusion

There are more SEO fails than you can imagine.

Due to the nature of the competition, it’s no surprise that lots of brands engage in fishy schemes and tactics.

As companies, they’ll do what’s best for business.

At the same time, there are repercussions if Google catches them.

The examples above are activities that you should avoid at all costs if you want to rank on search engines. As schadenfreude suggests, it’s only funny if it doesn’t happen to you.

Aside from being the butt of jokes, Google will think your site is a joke as well.

If you want Google will take your site seriously, then you need to observe only the best SEO practices.

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