Google’s Catch-and-Release of a Few Black Hats

Google made a couple of high-profile spam arrests in the last week, blocking the German Web site for automaker BMW and office-product manufacturer Ricoh from its search index for a few days after it detected the sites using spam techniques.

But at press time, the freeze-out is over. While Google won’t comment on specific cases, Matt Cutts, Google’s senior search software engineer, posted a notice to his blog that said both BMW.com.de and Ricoh.de have been reinstated following moves by Webmasters at both companies to correct the offenses.

In case you blinked and missed it, here’s the apparent chronology. The Google ban, known as a delisting, was reported on several blogs and confirmed last Saturday by Cutts. According to his post, the German BMW site used a Web optimization tactic known as a “doorway page” redirect. When Google’s bots scoured the site, they found a page that used the word “gebrauchtwagen” (“used car”) more than 40 times, suggesting that the site would be highly relevant to users in search of pre-owned cars. But users who clicked on the search link were automatically redirected to an entirely different page that showed flashy graphics of new BMW luxury cars.

“That’s a violation of our webmaster quality guidelines, specifically the principle of ‘Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users,’” Cutts wrote, adding that the German Ricoh site made similar use of a doorway page.

Under the terms of the delisting, a Google search for terms such as “BMW” or “BMW Germany” did not produce a link to the German Website, BMW.com.de. Users still saw a link for the worldwide Web site BMW.com and to nation-specific sites such as BMW USA.

But the two big brands didn’t go gentle into that un-Googled night. In a story in The Times, BMW spokesman Marc Hassinger complained that Google hadn’t spoken to his company prior to the delisting, and said that the Web tactic was not illicit. “We don’t view what was on our Web site as manipulation,” he said.

Hassinger added that Google’s move came two days after BMW had removed the offending redirect pages in response to criticism from other bloggers, and said Cutts’ post about the penalty created “media hype” around the issue.

Industry observers predicted that BMW and Ricoh would move quickly to correct the issues and get back into the Google index, if possible with their Page Rank restored. Page Rank is the quality measure that Google uses to determine how useful and authoritative a Web page is, and thus how high it should rank in a search result.

And in fact, both BMW.com.de and Ricoh.de re-appeared in Google late yesterday, with Page Ranks of 7 and 6 out of 10 respectively. A brief post in Cutts’ blog thanked the companies for their quick response in removing the doorway pages and offered links to Google’s quality guidelines for Webmasters in 10 different languages with a reminder that the search engine will be cracking down on spam in non-English pages throughout 2006.

But there was no word whether Google got the other information Cutts said it would need to reinstate the delisted companies: namely, the identities of the Web optimizers responsible for the doorway pages, and reassurances that those spam tactics won’t recur on the sites.

It was certainly the most visible use of the delisting sanction against high-profile brand-name sites in recent industry history, and a signal that Google and the other search engines will move to protect the relevance and value of their search results. Much less fanfare accompanied imposition of the cyber-death penalty on another, smaller German car site in mid-January when Google delisted Automobile.de, also for stuffing “used cars” many, many times into a doorway page the Google spiders could see but redirecting searchers to a page full of different content.

In that case, Cutts blogged a note to the company that read in part: “When you believe your pages are clean enough to be reincluded in Google, send us a reinclusion request. We’ll need to hear about who suggested the [search engine optimization] idea of Javascript redirects”, not only on the automobile.de site but on related sites operated by the same company. For their part, the Automobile.de operators s aid the multiple uses of the term occurred because the page took content from different offers, including free private ads, and stuck them into what it called “bridge pages”.

“Even though we believe that automobile.de was not misleading people looking for cars, we immediately deleted the bridge pages,” the Web operators said in a press release. So far, their site has not reappeared in Google’s index.

Google has gotten serious lately about attacking the problem of illegitimate page re-directs, even making their elimination one of the main aims of its new “BigDaddy” data center update. While there can be good reasons to send visitors from a specific group of IP addresses to a different page than the one most people see, Google has been bothered for a while by spam sites that do that to every searcher—mostly for gambling or adult content sites, but also for phishing and pharming exploits or simply to raise a Web site’s ranking in Google’s natural search results. The BigDaddy infrastructure, still in test mode but due to roll out into the Google data system soon, will constitute a powerful new way for Google to snag those bogus redirects and penalize the companies that use them.

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