By the time this post is published, there will be many blogs floating around the SEO blogosphere on this subject; however this is an area that is close to my heart when I think about what specific SEO areas I am passionate about.
In case you haven’t heard, Interflora.co.uk – one of the UK’s best-known florist brands – has suffered a Google Penalty. How bad is this?! Well, at the time of writing, the brand does not even rank for its own brand name in Google organic SERPs… Google has obviously decided that Interflora has been up to something pretty bad for that to happen.
Looking for the source of the Penalty
Lots of SEO folk have already speculated that this is down to a black-hat approach to link building, wherein it has been acquiring back-links in ways which do not comply with Google Webmasters Guidelines. Over the weekend it would seem Google has re-iterated its stance on paid-links here
We have blogged here before about link acquisition strategies and also on Google Penalties, so I won’t drill into that again – in fact, there is a great post by Martin Macdonald on the subject of Interflora’s links. It would seem that Interflora has not complied with Google Webmasters Guidelines with respect to links, what I want to look at here is other aspects of their SEO strategy that seems shady.
My first port of call was to see what its site looked like to Google. This meant attempting to crawl the site to see what the structure looked like. We like using the ScreamingFrog tool for this here at Vertical Leap. Upon running our little amphibian SEO tool, it actually crashed on the first attempt. This normally happens when the site is too big or has some other issue, like a spider trap. I ran my crawl again and paused it after about 10 minutes, after collating a good chunk of data to look at.
On Page Issues
At first glance, I could see potential issues. Many URLs looked very similar and many Page Titles were also very similar. Upon further investigation, I can see that the company has decided the best course of action is to set up a page for almost every town in the UK! That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but without doing the hard graft and building quality content to support these individual pages, you are left with many, many pages that are almost identical. Pretty much the only content that changes above-the-fold is the H1 Tag, the Breadcrumb Trail and Map (embedded). At the foot of the page, Interflora provides provide a few (depending on location) references to local florists and then a small passage of copy that looks like cookie cutter text.
I can see from a site search for ‘site:interflora.co.uk’ in Google, Interflora is still fully indexed, but just not ranking. Google has 38,800 pages indexed – does that sound normal for an online florist? Here are a couple of URLs to pages that seem to offer little in terms of value to the user…
So, before we even think about off-site SEO tactics, I think the on-site SEO is pretty weak. Interflora’s local SEO strategy has been to simply roll out a load of pages to cover almost every town across the UK, before adding some weak content in a bid to satisfy the search engines. No thought at all has been given to what would be useful to the user and I think if the site has or has not been found to have been playing around with shady link building tactics, it would have soon fallen foul of the Google Panda Algorithm – which focuses on the quality of a site and its pages.
Tackling one issue at a time
I have just detailed one issue here (admittedly it is pretty big)… but that is not all I found. I have found numerous pages with shocking Page Title usage. They contain short, missing or duplicated instances found, as well as missing and duplicated Meta Descriptions. Widespread usage of Meta Keywords (not a ranking factor these days) but why are they there at all? There were missing H1 Tags, too… Really, I could go on forever.
My strategy here at Vertical Leap has always been to get on-site aspects right first, then explore link building opportunities and other areas – such as social and content marketing. We may never find out what happened here, but from the outside, it looks like a case of misguided and/or stretched internal SEO resources not being able to tame the 38,000-page Interflora beast. At worst, it could be that old-fashioned and potentially black-hat SEO strategies have been deployed.
Here at Vertical Leap, we are lucky to have a knowledge-sharing culture. We also have a system of accountability and visibility in place with not only our customers, but amongst other team members. We are given a number of days off per year to train on our specific areas of interest, too, which helps keep our SEO knowledge current. In fact, next week I have organised a link building summit for my team here for us to come together, to think about where we need to be taking our work forward in 2013 and – most importantly – how to keep the Big G happy!