The world of online marketing witnessed the heavy extent of Google's draconian penalties to those who don't abide their SEO tactics by Google's PageRank policies.

It is well known by anyone who is involved or takes an interest in SEO that Google is particularly strict when it comes to the quality management of links. They have proven how serious they are about their PageRank policy and the severity of the punishment handed out to companies who try to manipulate their own search rankings.

Well known florist Interflora was penalised by Google for suspected manipulation of PageRank. Interflora, whose domain interflora.co.uk ranked first on many Google searches for key phrases related to floristry, such as; 'florist', 'flowers', "valentines day flowers", was found to have breached Google's PageRank policy. The riposte from Google resulted in Interflora having its page rank slashed dramatically  The result being that the company has now become seemingly invisible on Google searches; to the extent that they don't even rank first for their own brand name.

As you can see from the above screenshot, searching Google for 'Interflora' yields nothing to any of the brand's own pages; the PPC link is still retained and articles surrounding the controversy, but nothing directly relating to the company's own website until you get to page 3. More interestingly, and no doubt to the dismay of Interflora is that one of their competitors rank higher on their own search. Google and Interflora up to now have both remained tight lipped about the incident, which has only led to a wave of blogs from SEO experts, all offering their conspiracies of what foul techniques caused the penalisation.

The growing consensus suggests that the penalisation measures centre around Google's PageRank system. There is speculation that the florist company were manipulating links to improve its ranks on Google's search engine. The methodology behind PageRank is that links from a website with a high PageRank will increase the PageRank of the site being linked to. Google interprets these links as a sort of vote of confidence. Though, the flaw of this system is that companies in theory can manipulate their own page rank by purchasing links on other sites with high PageRank, which will then manipulate their own PageRank to gain better results in Google searches.

Google has an order in place to avoid manipulation of links; any links gained through advertorial content on a site are supposed to use a 'nofollow' attribute. This will tell Google not to include the link as part of its PageRank calculation. Failure to use the 'nofollow' attribute is taken by Google to mean that a company has been manipulating its PageRank, which can result in severe punishment.

This is believed to be the case with Interflora. The company are believed to have operated a highly aggressive advertising campaign in January in preparation for the huge flower and gift demands for the coming Valentine's day. This campaign is said to have taken the form of an advertorial-heavy approach, with Interflora buying advertorial space in over 150 regional newspapers around the country.

This seems the most probable reason as many of the newspapers that ran the advertorials have seen their page ranks drop to zero; a punishment by Google for link selling. Interflora have also been accused of sending product to bloggers in exchange for links. An example I uncovered is the one above featured on the Twinkle in the eye blog.

The sloppy keyword insertion clearly questions the legitimacy of the post. Further inspection of the post reveals that the insertion of Interflora's brand name was merely employed to serve as a back-link to their homepage. Other examples out there include direct product advertisement, reviews of products sent by Interflora- all with clumsy direct links back to the company's stated pages.

The integrity of these examples is skewed though. Sending product to reviewers as a means to gain publicity is an advertising method that is completely appropriate. In a bid to ascend in a market niche, isn't it vital to win the favour of reviewers; after all, wasn't that the case for The Cambridge Satchel Co. who Google championed last year? Though, the morality behind this is a question for another article altogether.

What is odd is Interflora's response to Google's discovery of the backlinks, and their seeming attempt to withdraw them. There are examples of social feeds surrounding the Interflora incident all over the internet. An example being this one;

It would seem that Interflora are skewing the truth to those they have asked to review their product. Covering the issue with a 're-design' fallacy, Interflora made an attempt to withdraw all of their backlinks from websites. As you can see by the chart, around the time of the incident, Interflora's backlinks dropped considerably. It would appear that there was maybe a bit of panic by the SEO team and they attempted to destroy the illicit backlinks.

As a result of all of this Interflora have been blasted off the map in terms of their search ranking.

Though Google have not commented directly on the incident, Google engineer Matt Cutts issued a post on the 22nd of February entitled, 'A reminder about selling links that pass PageRank?.

Though it doesn't directly refer to the Interflora incident, it explicitly refers to matters that occurred in the incident; stating that 'selling links that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines.' and that 'Google does take actions on such violations', and clearly their actions for incidents such as these are very very severe. By looking at the graph below, you can see that Interflora's online presence has fallen with the same velocity as an anchor off a cliff face.

Obviously with Mother's day right around the corner, this isn't an ideal time for Interflora to lose their ranking. PageRank is extremely important for an edge in a highly competitive niche such as floristry. As a result of the measures taken against them, Interflora will suffer incredible business loss at a time when they should be thriving in the market. It will be very interesting to see if Interflora can actually recover from this heavy gust from Google, and if they do then how they succeed will make for an even more interesting tale.

What is your take on the recent events surrounding Interflora and Google? Do you think the punishment was too severe? Or do you have tips on how a company can successfully abide by PageRank policy and gain the edge? Please leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts!