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Trying to rank at the top of the Google search results is a challenging and daunting task for many business owners and marketing managers. Companies are spending billions of dollars annually to try to maintain and increase their visibility in the Google search results.  There is good reason for this.  Research has shown that ranking first for a keyword in Google sends 33% of all traffic from that keyword.  That increase in traffic to your website could mean more revenue for your business.

Many companies achieve a top ranking in Google by simply being good at what they do and by playing by the rules.  Google has a very clear set of quality guidelines that, if ignored or overlooked, can lead to severe penalties. In fact there are many examples of high profile companies that have tried and failed to gain an unfair advantage in ranking in Google search results by manipulating their way to the top.

Among these examples are companies that just about everyone will recognize, including The Washington Post, WordPress, The BBC, BMW, Mozilla, Genius, eBay, Overstock.com, JCPenny, The Home Depot and even Google themselves has been penalized. Many of these brands are just guilty of not paying attention or not being educated on the Google quality guidelines.  Let’s take a deeper look in to just what each company did to receive a Google manual penalty, followed by an infographic for more information from Digital Third Coast.

The Washington Post

In October 2007, The Washington Post was selling links on their blogroll and didn’t use the Google best practice of using a no follow tag when linking to a site. As a result of their Google penalty, the PageRank of their site dropped from a PR7 to a PR5. It’s hard to say exactly when their PageRank was restored, but it looks to have been within a couple of months.  If that penalty had happened in 2016, the loss of traffic over those two months would equate to 76.4 million users.


In 2005, WordPress quietly hosted 168,000 articles about high-cost advertising keywords which were written by a third party in exchange for a fee.  This is called creating doorway pages.  These doorways are sites or pages created to rank highly for specific search queries.  They are created to manipulate Google’s algorithm and increase PageRank for a website.  While PageRank is no longer something Google measures, it had a huge effect on rankings in 2005.  The penalty WordPress received from Google was that the site’s home page didn’t rank for its name, and their PageRank was reduced to zero. If this penalty happened today, the loss of traffic for WordPress would be just over 10 million users.


The BBC was hit with a manual penalty in March of 2013 for using unnatural links to rank for a single page.  Unnatural links are described by Google as artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links.  They are a product of buying links or participating in link schemes to manipulate a site’s ability to rank.  While the penalty length for this one is unknown, if their site was penalized today for even a single day, the traffic loss would be over 3.52 million users.


BMW manipulated search results to ensure top rankings when users search for “used car” by redirecting the user to a regular BMW company page when they clicked on search result links. This is called cloaking, which is essentially a type of doorway page.  The user is redirected a different page without their knowledge. The BMW site was removed for the search results completely for three days which would result in a loss of 71,600 users if it had happened today.




In April of 2013, Mozilla was penalized for having a page that had 12MB of Spam from 21,169 different user comments. This is a form of user-generated spam that is commonly found in the forum or comments section of a page.  This page degraded in the rankings, and the penalty length is unknown because the page was removed.


Genius, formerly knowns as “Rap Genius,” asked bloggers to link to its lyrics content in exchange for tweeting out the posts from said bloggers, resulting in massive traffic for both parties. The objective here is not to make your links appear natural, but the objective is that your links are natural.  Genius was hit with an unnatural link penalty which resulted in them not ranking for their own name, and their PageRank was reduced.  The penalty lasted 10 days, which would equate to a traffic loss of 3.88 million users today.


Overstock attempted to manipulate the Google Algorithm by offering discounts to schools in exchange for specific links back to Overstock. This is known as a paid link violation.  A paid link is an unnatural placement of a link which is paid for with the intentions of increasing rankings. They were penalized for over two months in which they didn’t rank for their own name, and their PageRank score was reduced.  If that happened today, the loss of traffic over those two months would be over 12.17 million users.

Home Depot

Home Depot asked recommended providers to share a link to one of Home Depot’s pages with recommended anchor text and stated that the link doesn’t need to be visible.  Hiding links can be done several ways, including using white text on a white background, placing text behind an image or using CSS to position text off-screen and setting the font size to zero.  Home Depot had many pages that had hidden links pointing to their site degraded from their first page rank.  The penalty lasted for two months, which would result in a loss of traffic of over 37.13 million users if this happened today.


Believe it or not, even Google has been found guilty of violating their own quality guidelines. Google bought links as part of a campaign to promote its Chrome browser.  Google claims it was more accidental than intentional but, regardless, still penalized themselves. Rankings were lowered for the Google Chrome homepage for two months.

In the end, the lesson learned is, when it comes to SEO strategy and linking, play by Google’s rules.  This will help to ensure that your site avoids manual penalties and a loss of search engine traffic that accompanies it.




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