Is negative SEO a realistic concern for 2014 and beyond?

Speculation is rife as travel giant Expedia sees a 25% drop in traffic!

Expedia DeniedSeveral stories are circulating in the press that Expedia may have been hit by a deliberate negative SEO campaign after the website lost 25% visibility in search results between 12th – 19th January 2013.

According to USA Today, “Expedia may have been hit by a “negative SEO” campaign that hammered the travel website’s rankings on Google searches.”

Furthermore, it goes on to state that “shares fell… on concern about the impact to its business and the stock was down again on Wednesday.”

Contrary to this however, Search Metrics stated on the 21st January that the website was simply caught red handed attempting to manipulate search results, after initial investigations showed that Expedia was in fact, paying for some of these links!

However, the following day after deeper investigation, they changed their tune having found link building techniques that seemed to be somewhat questionable for a company the size of Expedia to get involved in. They simply felt this would not happen at a company that hires seasoned SEO professionals who would avoid making such common, costly mistakes.

Searchmetrics Founder Marcus Tober went on to state that “techniques used to increase Expedia’s search visibility were so clumsy and outdated (and used in such high volume) that it would be very surprising if the company alone was responsible for the scheme.”

So who or what was responsible for this catastrophe?

There appears to be three possible reasons for the link scheme.

Firstly, the links could have been built quite some time ago as part of an older link building campaign; were simply overlooked and subsequently only just discovered by Google. Personally speaking, I think the likelihood is remote considering the complexity of Google’s most recent algo updates as they would have been discovered a long time ago if they were very old, spammy links.

The second possibility is that a poor choice of SEO was hired by one of Expedia’s departments who used outdated, risky techniques and caused these issues. Again, this seems highly unlikely as any half-witted SEO would realise that a company the size of Expedia doesn’t need to build spammy links in their droves to try to manipulate search results when they already have great ranks.

This leaves one final and very worrying possibility that Expedia was the target of negative SEO by a competing website. If this is true, what kind of precedence does this set for 2014? Has the world of search ranking gone dirty?

Just to give an example of the damage done, a basic search for the word “hotels” showed no results for Expedia on page 1 or 2 of Google! Their top result was pushed down to the middle of page 3 and it is still the case now (at the time of writing) which will have a massive impact on traffic.

Searchmetrics’ investigation found that over 15,000 back links were created using this exact anchor text alone. That is pure SEO suicide in anybody’s books if they did the work themselves. At such a large scale, I find it impossible to believe this was an internal decision, rubber stamped by the cheque writers. My inclination is this was a deliberate attack by a competitor.

What does this means for the future of SEO?

If they were hit by negative SEO, it is a worrying trend and this may not be the last we see of such a story affecting a large corporation with millions in shareholders.

What it does again expose is the flaws in Google’s page rank system and highlights the repeated argument by SEO’s that algorithmic penalties and manual actions placed on websites is not the way to solve web spam.

Google has effectively created a new dark side to SEO by enabling negative SEO to become a real and present danger to good businesses. In my view, they need to take a long hard look at their current policies and in future, simply place penalties on specific, targeted in-bound links as opposed to actual domains. It’s ludicrous to think that Google sees the only culprits as the target website in these scenarios, because it is rarely ever the case.

2013 was the year of the algorithmic update. I have said before that 2014 will be the year of the attitude adjustment. I sincerely hope this includes Google, they see common sense must prevail and deal with spammy links in a more considered, pragmatic, fair way. We can only hope.

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