4 years ago

Why travel brands are particularly at risk from the next Google Penguin update

NB: This is a viewpoint from Patrick Altoft, director of search at Branded3.

In the past 18 months Google has brought out a large number of updates designed to penalise sites that have used unnatural links to gain an advantage in the search results and lot of sites suffered from major penalties and ranking drops.

In the past six months our penalty recovery team has helped over 35 brands recover from manual unnatural link penalties and it’s clear that the impact from this sort of manual action, while pretty devastating when it happens, is recoverable within a few months if you take the right steps.

The big penalty that people need to worry about is Penguin because you can only recover when the algorithm runs again, which could be six to nine months based on the number of updates we’ve had recently.

Imagine losing 90% of your SEO visits for nine months?!?

Coming to a website near you soon

Google’s high profile search evangelist Matt Cutts has announced that the next Penguin update is a big one and it’s coming sometime soon (we don’t know exactly when), so people really need to be aware and be taking action to prevent the penalty hitting because the recovery time is too long to take the risk.

As we’ve been working through all our penalty recovery projects, one thing has become clear to us – the travel industry is particularly at risk from the next Penguin update because there are more low quality spammy travel blogs than in any other sector.

We’ve manually reviewed and classified almost 100,000 unique domains recently and there are more travel blogs in the “bad site” category than in any other.

This isn’t the fault of the travel sector or the brands that are active in this space, but it just seems like lots of dodgy SEO people have decided to setup link networks of travel-related sites and give/sell links on them.

I’m sure you have all seen the sites I mean, they have a free WordPress theme and talk about “holidays in spain” one day, “travel insurance” the next and have sidebar links about “payday loans” and “flights to New York”.

The big problem that a lot of travel sites have is that historically doing SEO for a company targeting destinations around the world meant building links to hundreds of landing pages.

Imagine a flight comparison site wanting to rank for “flights to [city]” around the world or a holiday company targeting “holidays in [location]”, there are hundreds of pages to build links to and even if an SEO company built just 20 links to each page that could be 2,000 links easily.

Creating those links on good sites is very time consuming, so in the past a lot of SEO agencies chose to take a short cut and just build on low quality travel blogs. This spawned a big industry of people selling these £10-a-time links and, subsequently, thousands more blogs sprung up.

Google will hit the baddies

Make no mistake, if you have links on these low quality sites, Google will wipe you out one day. We get dozens of enquiries every month from people who were wiped out by penalties and we see first-hand the reason behind the penalty as well as the impact this has on peoples businesses.

A lot of travel brands we speak to are in denial about the next Penguin update and are not taking action to prevent these penalties.

Most will probably be fine, but the way that Google works these days means that SEO isn’t about growth for most sites, it’s about defensive SEO to make sure that your site isn’t a penalty target for Google in the next 12 months.

There are a few key steps that all sites need to take ASAP to prevent future penalties:

  • Download all your links from Webmaster Tools, Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO
  • Carry out a full manual audit of all the links to your site
  • Disavow any links you think are bad, ideally at the domain level
  • Remove any bad links by contacting the sites

Remember that Google specifically doesn’t like keyword anchor text, links that look paid, links from dodgy sites that sell links or any other unnatural link patterns.

If a site looks bad then remove the link from it; if a site looks good then the link has to be natural.

Any questions please ask in the comments and I will make sure to answer them.

NB: This is a viewpoint from Patrick Altoft, director of search at Branded3. The UK-based company specialises in penalty recovery and offers free help and advice to businesses affected by SEO penalties.

NB2: Scared laptop image via Shutterstock.

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About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of his employer, tnooz, its writers, or partners.



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  1. rohan


    I am very new to online space hence I wanna clear one of my doubts. I am planning to have a content based website where I will be sourcing content from travel bloggers by paying them. Now if I tell them to publish the same content on their website/blog , will I be penalized or be negatively affected by duplication of content.

    Please help.

    • Brandon Dennis

      If you publish the content first and they publish it a few days later, then no, neither your content nor your website will be penalized.

  2. HhotelConsult

    Our group charged an additional $50 for listings under $400, 15% for listings above…..

    My ignorance has me worried, and I know ignorance leads to assumptions, etc. But I have been very concerned, and voiced my concern over the past couple years.

    Can you tell me if these links are ones that will get us in trouble? They aren’t satisfactorily replying to me, so I post here. They actually suggested charging us for them to audit the below:











    • Carolin Kobelt

      Rule Number 1: Don´t f+++ing pay for links! Never!

      Rule Numer 2: Look for links that are related to the topic of your homepage. Why on earth would a hotel need a link form a genealogy site?

    • Patrick Altoft

      As a rule you should avoid any links that either are paid or look paid. If the site looks like it is selling links then Google will devalue the links whether yours were paid or not.

      Suggest if you are not sure about them then you disavow them.

  3. HhotelConsult

    I love this forum… I wish I could “@” people.

    My ignorance is strong, here… and that ignorance leads to nervousness. So should I be nervous that the group who handled SEO team paid for (and charged us a fee on top):

    indextravelling.com – $64.95
    adventuresportsonline.com – $500
    sfgeneology.com- $120
    traveljunkies.com – $127
    discoverourtown.com – $249
    preservationdirectory.com – $185
    touristclick.com – $85
    bizbash.com – $525

    Please help. I assume those are big trouble from what I understand?

  4. Nick

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts:

    I have a company that sells tours (zip line, snorkel..) It is our company, our tours, our site. My site is getting 87% of inbound link from one group of site that have nothing to do with travel, tours, or our destination. The site is a translations site (linguee) and the link come from seven different ccTLD country links (.es, .com, .pe, .cl, .mw….)

    Since they dominate our inbound links and are not relevant, are they causing harm – or might the next update hit us for them? Should we do what we can to remove or limit them?


    • Patrick Altoft

      Usually you are not at risk from links that you have not arranged to be placed, unless somebody is doing a negative SEO attack but this is very rare. In your case if it’s just one group of sites I wouldn’t worry but you could just disavow all these domains that are linking to you – I wouldn’t bother unless you are having problems with rankings though.

  5. Larry Waight

    One way to avoid google penguin is to write compelling content that people will tweet, share on facebook, google plus, linked in and other social media sites.

    Great article by the way.

    • Ingrand

      The ones that have created compelling content for a long time have actually benefited from this update. We have customers in this case (Not many I agree;-) Panda was actually a relief for them because finally original content was rewarded. Some win, some loose, but clearly we have been preaching in the dark about the importance to think long term, create value for your customer and grow conversion rates thanks to compelling content, create real unique engaging Multilingual content, answer social post and start taking control of the overall social conversation. Create regular blogs, advertorials, share this and create long term online real estate on specific topics (not just keywords), become an authority and do this over and over. Compelling content is at the base of building a great brand, this is true online and offline, in 2012/2013 successful global travel brands that understood this early are now very very happy about Panda, I am sure you know who I am thinking about…. We have listed 20 best practices on our blog last week, please let us know what you think: http://www.enveritasgroup.com/2013/04/30/search-content-optimization-20-seo-best-practices/
      Thanks for this great article that I have shared everywhere I could 😉 very interesting, thanks Patrick for sharing your views on this topic.

  6. Steve Silbar

    I agree with Drew’s comment “Go build a real brand & real value and none of this matters.” I am confident in our strategies and recommendations, and our team is up-to-speed with all updates, and proactively plan for them.

    • HhotelConsult

      I knew you would pop in! =) You are on it. I just worry about some of these. I always knew link farms were bogus, and the comment about building real brand would suggest we wouldn’t spend money on gimmicky SEO. But we did. We’ll see what happens?

  7. HhotelConsult

    So this means anything like DMOZ, or link directories, anything that “looks” or is *literally* paid?

    I am a hotel guy, so I don’t want to act out in my ignorance, but I was warning our hotel marketing firm about this about 6 months ago, maybe 9 months. I was like “that’s spam, those are link farms, and you will get penalized in future updates”.

    But they assured us not, and happily spent our money. I sure hope my reaction is dead wrong.

    • Patrick Altoft

      Dmoz is fine but any directory sites that only exist to link to people are without doubt against Googles guidelines. We have seen Google specifically give directory sites as examples of links that caused penalties so we just remove them all.

  8. Martin

    Hi Patrick

    A follow up question which I forgot to ask in my previous comment… Do you believe it is possible to recover from Penguin? There is a LOT of negative talk out there that there have been very very few confirmed Penguin recoveries.

  9. Martin

    Hi Patrick

    Great article. We were hit by Penguin April 24th last year, then about 10 days later we received the dreaded Unnatural Links penalty message in WMT.

    We then managed to get our Unnatural Links penalty removed coming up to 6 months ago now, after about 6 months of hard work getting 80-90% of the Unnatural Links removed and disavowing the ones we couldn’t.

    However celebration quickly turned into disappointment when we only recovered from outside the top 999 positions for all our major keywords, to position 300-400. We were ranked #1 in Google for our major keyword before any of these penalties. And despite our major links removals is is interesting to know we are STILL #1 in Bing. So obviously we still have some algo affecting us.

    As we have been doing this all internal (learning seo as we go) we would be interested to see if you could analyse our site/links to see if you think we have done enough to recover from Penguin when it finally refreshes. It would be great to get some independent points of view, from people who are not as close to our particular case. Seeing this penguin refresh is taking so long to go, we would hate to miss this boat and possible have to wait a further 6 months+ for the next-next penguin.

    If so…please let me know how to make contact with you to review our case etc, and discuss fees. btw we only have 600 or so links now in WMT.. So not a HUGE project.

    • Patrick Altoft

      If you want to email via the branded3 site we will take a look. Usually we would say if you recover from the manual penalty you will be ok for Penguin but if the last audit you did was 6 months ago then there are likely to be more links that have sprung up since then that need disavowing.

      • Martin

        Thanks Patrick, I have emailed you (contact @ brand…com)

        Much appreciate it.

  10. Kevin May

    Kevin May

    To the person trying to leave comments with the accusation about Branded3, please forward me the evidence – I’d be more than happy to see it.

    Then you might get your comment published.

  11. Smith

    We are unable to predict the coming changes of Google updates, but we clearly understand the principle that it is the compelling content that attract natural links, viral social shares and engagement, so the area of focus are creating remarkable content and outreach strategies so that we can both diversify the traffic source and ultimately get to the top of Google in the long run.

  12. Brandon Dennis

    Excellent post Patrick, I can confirm that many hoteliers are very concerned about the looming algorithm update–what many in the industry are dubbing ‘Penguin 2.0’. Last Tuesday I published 8 predictions where Penguin 2.0 will hit hoteliers hard, with some tips on how to prepare for it–I’d love your feedback: http://www.buuteeq.com/blog/penguin-two-point-o/

    The key point I hope hoteliers really digest and then act on is that paying for people to manipulate Google just doesn’t work because Google’s algorithm has advanced far beyond the days of simple keyword stuffing and exact match anchor text.

    • Carolin Kobelt

      I really like the hands- on mentality of this article. As you mentioned a lot of companies now pay double: They hired cheap agencies to take care of SEO, so they didn´t have to deal with it and now they have to face the consequences. I think it is still a common misconception that managers, not only in the hotel industry, like to think their homepage or the whole online topic in general is not their responsability. Managers have to understand, that a well working homepage (and SEO is necessary for that!) is one of the key components of their business. I always try to tell poeple: look, you can have the best product ever, but if people don´t find out about it, they can´t buy it!

      I also think that you are absolutely right when you talk about social signals and how google might detect fraud with ‘natural’ sharing or liking paterns.

      It sounds pretty mischievous but I´m looking forward to this update…

      • Steve Silbar


        Thank you for mentioning using “cheap agencies.” I work for a hospitality DMA and constantly see hoteliers go to the cheap firms to save money, and then they wonder why they are not getting the results they expected. Like most things in life, to get the best or better quality you need to spend more and make the investment. A hotel’s identity, brand, and search performance are too important, and saving a few dollars is foolish when you consider the consequences.


      • Brandon Dennis

        Thanks Carolyn, great comments, I’m glad you liked the article. I’m right there with you–hotel managers and marketers need to take personal responsibility for their online marketing, including their websites, which are now their public face to the world, and often the first thing guests see. Hoteliers should take an active interest in the first impression they give guests!

      • Drew Meyers

        The classic cheap agency problem. It’s definitely not just a travel industry issue, same thing applies in real estate vertical where I spent over 6 years (1 of which was spent at a web design & internet marketing consultancy).

  13. Drew Meyers

    There’s nothing anyone can do about Google, so why spend time worrying about it? Go build a real brand & real value and none of this matters. Depending on Google is not a defensible long term business.

    • Douglas Aurand

      That’s the best advise anyone can give. Instead of using “tricks” to builds traffic, use content that is actually valuable to the web surfer

  14. Edward Lewis

    It will be interesting to read about all of the disaster stories when the update hits 🙂

  15. Are Morch

    Hi Patrick.

    It is kind of interesting to observe how every time Google or FTC announce changes everyone pays attention.

    No doubt it will effect you negatively if a lot of your links comes from link farming. Hopefully this is the final count down for the link farms. Have some old school junk hangover here myself that I see need to clean up.

    But not only is it a great tip to follow the prevention steps you mentioned here, but also get your Google Authorship set up properly. This will help you somewhat pickup a little juice from the drop that will come. This is where I started prepare myself, having Google SEO / SMO in order first. And then follow the steps you mention here. If it will balance me out I am not sure, but I will do what I can to avoid losing 90% of my SEO / SMO.

    Thanks for staying on top of this topic. Keep us informed.


    Are Morch
    Hotel Blogger

  16. Gary Arndt

    “We’ve manually reviewed and classified almost 100,000 unique domains recently and there are more travel blogs in the “bad site” category than in any other.”

    Is this data available? How did you get it?

    • Patrick Altoft

      The data isn’t public – we literally trawled through all the links to our clients and people who come to us for penalty recovery and manually reviewed the site to see if it was good or bad. We now have a giant blacklist and whitelist we can use to match against peoples link profiles.

      • Gary Arndt

        There are a lot of “blogs” which were created for the sole purpose of selling links, so I don’t really find it surprising. I know of many people who have small farms of blogs who’s only purpose in life is to get to PR3 and sell links.

        • AlexBerger

          Also, I’ve been fighting a hack for the past 2 years that injects auto-recreated hidden folders with SEO link spam pages. There’s a special place in hell for the blackhate SEO’s behind it. I’ve finally narrowed it down (perhaps) to an outdated TimThumb file though that’s only a theory. We’ll see. I just completed the 4th scrub of my hosting account (I have several sites and infection seems to be able to hit most of the sites on the same account) and hope i’ve finally locked them out. What’s particularly frustrating in this case is that the hack is essentially invisible. Securi and Google Webmaster tools have no idea it has happened and the pages look “ok” from the outside which is “good” as it doesn’t directly penalize me. From my side of things, I don’t even know they’re there as the folders appear empty/invisible. The only way I discovered the hack and that the files even existed was when one of the SEO’s client’s reached out to me asking I remove a link and a folder that shouldn’t have existed. The bad is, of course, that there several thousand links end up being illegally propagated across my sites. Links I have no control over – which, as someone who puts a very high focus on quality and never publishes material authored by a 3rd party – really irks me.

          • Matthew Barker

            Alex – a tip for dealing with problems like that: install the “Chrome UA Spoofer” extension and view your site through the Googlebot user agent. That should let you see which pages have been hacked.

    • Matthew Barker

      @Gary – no idea how Patrick did it, but there are ways of doing this stuff. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s possible: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/machine-learning-and-link-spam-my-brush-with-insanity

  17. Matthew Barker

    Thanks for this Patrick. The “next Penguin” has got a lot of people very nervous, there’s no doubt that the long trend of old SEO investments going sour will only continue. It’s important that business owners wake up to these dormant risks, especially if they’re not sure exactly what previous SEO contractors have been doing on their behalf.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on “the way that Google works these days means that SEO isn’t about growth for most sites, it’s about defensive SEO…” There’s only one thing more predictable than the next algorithm change and that’s the “SEO is dead” mantra that inevitably accompanies it.

    There are many emerging approaches to driving real returns from organic search that we’re only just beginning to appreciate: semantic search, rich snippets, authorship, content & converged media strategy, personalised results, etc. Babies and bathwater.

    • Patrick Altoft

      The point about growth vs defensive SEO is that if you look at the number of sites, especially travel affiliates, who were wiped out in the past 2 years they all would have been looking for growth and instead lost loads of traffic.


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