Marketing Pilgrim's “SEO” Channel

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Calling All SEO’s! You Be The Judge and the Jury

We know that the SEO community is an opinionated bunch. In fact, it’s one of the reasons it can be fun. Well, here is your chance to sound off on whether someone is truly making SEO sense or not. It’s Friday so let’s have a little fun.

An article that was run at SiliconValley.com (which is part of the Mercury News) has opened up the latest can of worms of a website (and in this case a large network of websites) feeling mistreated by Google. Their cause has been picked up by antitrust attorney Gary Reback (hmm, I see a dotted line connection here, what about you?).

The initial site in question is ShopPaloAlto.com along with a few others and there are claims that it has been unfairly judged by Google in the SERP’s.

ShopCity, the parent company of local sites such as ShopPaloAlto.com, ShopMountainView.com and ShopPleasanton.com, says Google provides it an unfairly low ranking, especially since those sites have the backing of groups such as the city of Menlo Park, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper. A search for “Palo Alto restaurants” on Google this week didn’t reveal a ShopPaloAlto.com result until the seventh page of results, while the site ranks at the top for identical searches on Yahoo (YHOO) or Microsoft’s Bing.

First of all, just because a chamber of commerce is involved it doesn’t give a business a free pass on quality. I have seen a lot of bad chambers and even worse chamber members in my time.

Secondly, I am not quite sure when having a search result show up in Bing and Yahoo (the same search engine, by the way) is any indicator that it should be number 1 in Google as well. Aren’t the engines trying to differentiate themselves in order to get more people to use them because their results are better etc, etc? But hey, what do I know?

Web CEO

Here’s what we are proposing for you, our expert SEO readers, to consider. Rather than let lawyers and just one search engine expert (Danny Sullivan is the only industry voice in the article) determine whether these sites have anything to complain about, we wondered if our experts, our readers, would make the case for or against ShopPaloAlto.com and the over 8,100 sites that are just like in this network. Here’s what we would like you to do:

  • Read the article to get as much background on the situation as most people would have (including lawyers, judges, politicians and anyone else who might get into this ruckus)
  • Take a look at the SEO fundamentals of the sites and other related sites
  • Determine whether these sites have leg to stand on from the SEO community’s point of view
  • Voice  your findings and opinions in the comments here (and maybe even argue your point a little :-) )

We are finding that more and more, SEO battles are being played out in the courtroom rather than in the SEO community. The value of these sites and their arguments for whether they are treated fairly are often determined without the input of true experts, SEO’s. We would like for you, the experts, to put your two cents into this discussion, if for no other reason than to have a forum for your own expertise.

So what do you say? Interested in giving your two cents worth regarding why or why not a site should be treated as it is in Google? Now’s your chance. I bet more people are waiting for your opinion than you might think.

  • http://www.arcanasphere.com MrAndrewJ

    I’ll try insight first. Google has been taking these broad approaches to prevent content farms from cluttering their engines. Seeing as this network is pretty much acting like a content farm with only an acre or two of crops actually planted, this seems to be exactly what would be expected.

    They also provided dates of boosted then reduced rankings. Those dates, while not exact, are also very close to the last two Panda updates.

    It sounds to me like they don’t even know what they’re doing. I imagine some alternate reality where Demand Media sued for killer rankings because they totally put up 44 high quality YouTube videos.

    Of ShopCity’s 44 very informative sites, what are their other metrics? How visible have they made themselves through other means? How hard are they pounding the pavement to market themselves outside of Google? How many inbound links have they received? How saturated or even oversaturated is their market?

    ShopCity has not shown that they fully understand Google’s quality guidelines. Their lawsuit makes me wonder if they understand the culture of the Internet they wish to market to. Even the timing of their ‘boost’ has a strong shadow of doubt to it.

    I can’t side with ShopCity in any regard. I wish them well, but I can’t take their side.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Thanks for your comment MrAndrewJ.

      Your ‘content farm’ comment is incorrect. We are actively blocking Googlebot from accessing the content on the majority of our sites via robots.txt to please the Google Gods. Would a content farm block Google from indexing millions of pages just to stay on the ‘up & up’?

      This has NOTHING to do with Panda or rankings, these are manual penalties imposed by Google. Read the article again if you need the quote.

      I can assure you that we know what we are doing as we have been working on this challenge for more than 10 years, and have spent considerable time, money and energy trying to solve this major problem in a way that benefits every stakeholder involved.

      Here are some examples of our offline marketing activity:

      http://www.flickr.com/shopcity

      In most of our active markets, we do the following:

      - Participation in local groups (chambers, etc.)
      - Partnerships with local authorities
      - Signs & stickers on business windows
      - Billboards
      - Email marketing
      - Print marketing
      - Radio advertising
      - Event sponsorships
      - Social media marketing
      - Contests & giveaways

      Some of our inbound links:

      http://www.paloaltochamber.com/

      http://www.stanford.edu/dept/visitorinfo/activities/dining.html (right side, via 301 redirect – they replaced their existing restaurants directory with ours)

      http://www.lpch.org/forPatientsVisitors/LodgingFood/index.html (again, via 301 redirect)

      http://stanfordhospital.org/forPatients/lodgingFood/ (again, via 301 redirect)

      http://www.commongroundinpaloalto.org/

      http://www.hometownpeninsula.com/ (links in footer)

      http://www.menlopark.org/doing_business.html (City of Menlo Park to ShopMenloPark.com – banner on right at bottom)

      We are fully aware of Google’s arbitrarily enforced quality guidelines and we have tried very hard to satisfy them, going so far as to send field representatives into the community with our custom iPhone app (http://www.iphonesalestool.com/) to claim and authenticate business profiles and collect rich information (in Palo Alto, it was 4 Stanford students).

      Here are links to some of our requests for help from Google on their Webmaster Forum:

      http://tinyurl.com/gforum1
      http://tinyurl.com/gforum2

      Also, this is not a lawsuit, this is an antitrust issue. We are doing no different than Google itself did when it lobbied the government to stop Microsoft’s ability to use their dominant position in the PC market to impede Google’s access to the marketplace.

      http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19419611/ns/business-us_business/

      We find it very hypocritical that Google is now using the very same tactics that they have complained about and spent millions of dollars lobbying against.

      As far as internet culture is concerned, I think we have a pretty solid grasp on it. If in doubt, please look us up or watch these videos:

      http://www.crunchbase.com/company/shopcity-com

      You could also check out our main Twitter account with more than 8,000 genuine followers, including many city governments, chambers of commerce, and thought leaders:

      http://twitter.com/shoplocally

      Our Klout score for that account is 66, compared to Yelp’s Klout score of 64 (even though they are a huge company).

      http://klout.com/shoplocally

      http://klout.com/yelp

      Additionally, we are the #1 ranked Twitter account related to the term ‘local’ as shown here, above MerchantCircle, above CitySearch, above Yelp, above Groupon:

      http://wefollow.com/twitter/local

      This is because we are 100% authentic. We are doing all this because we are passionate about strong local communities and economies, about small business, about family business, and about giving our stakeholders the tools they need to be successful.

      This is why we have invested a significant amount of money in acquiring these 8,000 domain names over a 10-year period – that is the heart of the matter here. Our business model revolves around giving each community a meaningful call-to-action brand and a platform they can customize to match the ‘feel’ of their location, which we feel is the key to solving local.

      Some examples:

      http://www.shopbuffalo.com
      http://www.shopbirmingham.com
      http://www.shopmountainbrook.com
      http://www.shophomewood.com
      http://www.shoppaloalto.com

      Without these brands (domain names), it is difficult to conduct the offline marketing in the community that is required to get a critical mass of merchant participation and consumer awareness. That is absolutely critical to our success. The second component to the consumer awareness side is search engine placement, which is why this move by Google is so critical – and why their forced penalty is harmful to our business.

      We partner with established local leaders (chambers, newspapers, yellow pages companies, city governments, etc.) and give them a platform to add value to their relationships. This enables these organizations to earn revenue and gain access to a competitive online product that they can promote.

      These local leaders own recurring revenue rights, secured via real contracts (unlike Google’s user agreements that have no real value to the party on the other end). We are talking revenue sharing, reporting, accountability, and service guarantees. Something they can actually base their plans for success around, and that enables them to do the local sales, marketing and community management required.

      Web developers in the community can join our Certified Partner program, gain access to embeddable website widgets and also earn residual revenue.

      Local businesses get profile pages with a shopping cart, gift certificate engine, videos, coupons, website link, review management and more. They save time by having a single place to create and distribute offers to their local ShopCity site, website & social media accounts at once.

      Consumers can find, interact and transact with local businesses online.

      This is not just another business directory. We are shooting for the moon and have invested significantly in our platform to become the #1 player in local.

      And in fact, for searches like ‘palo alto restaurants’, we are #1 for the term on Bing & Yahoo. We were also #1 for that term on Google during the brief period when we were not penalized. However, now that Google has re-penalized us, we are currently on page 7, result #145 (may vary slightly). There are thousands of other examples we can provide.

      Google also wants to own the local space. They recently named Marissa Mayer (one of their top executives), to the head of Location and Local (http://techcrunch.com/2010/10/12/marissa-mayer-google/). They have launched Google Offers for local businesses, they have upgraded Google Places (and recently started showing only their reviews), they have Google Maps, Google Boost, and other products that compete with us, as well as many of our potential partners.

      Therefore it is in Google’s competitive interest to block potential partners from finding out about us by ensuring that we do not show up under searches like ‘shop locally’ and ‘shop local campaigns’. We used to rank highly for terms like this through ShopCity.com and ShopLocally.com, which are both now penalized. It is also in their competitive interest to remove us from search results for local brands like ‘shop menlo park’.

      If we are forced to take our entire network down just so that Google will allow our well-developed properties to reach searchers through their engine, then we miss out on connecting with all of the potential partners that could accelerate our growth.

      TO REITERATE: we are not talking ‘RANK’, we are talking ‘PENALTY’, willfully imposed by Google as stated by Google’s spokesman in the July 28th Mercury News article.

      If you were doing everything we were doing and Google was holding you back by penalizing you, would you not start to wonder if it was an attempt to ‘kill you in the cradle’ and stop you from becoming a big company that could become a serious competitive threat?

      When their excuses fail all logic tests, we cannot help but come to that conclusion.

      For example:

      - Yahoo & Bing work with our model and we are frequently the #1 result for our brands in those engines
      - We are obviously not trying to game their system and do not engage in any ‘blackhat’ techniques
      - We have great local partners (including the Chamber of Commerce Mountain View, of which Google is also a member)
      - We frequently ask Google for guidance and implement improvements to our system based on the feedback we receive (with the exception of Google’s demand that we use a single domain, which would destroy our model)

      Even expert Danny Sullivan says in the Merc article, “Google should be able to differentiate between higher-quality ShopCity sites such as the Bay Area sites, and placeholder sites waiting until ShopCity makes partnerships with local groups.”

      Certainly many SEOs make valid points about ways we could improve our system for search engines, but when it works fine with Yahoo and Bing, and when it serves the purpose we intended (we get great feedback from consumers, businesses and partners on a regular basis), and the only problem we seem to be having is that Google doesn’t like our model, we think it extends well-beyond the minor technical details that are being pointed out.

      The fact that we are still moving forward despite Google’s challenges attests to the strength of our model, and other many businesses under similar Google penalty have been destroyed.

      In our experience the ShopCity local URLs are the keys to solving the persistent challenge of connecting local consumers and businesses online. We have developed an extensive platform to facilitate this model, however, due to Google’s domination of search and their penalization of our domain names, it is difficult to fully demonstrate just how powerful and successful this model can be. This ongoing penalization is not just to the detriment of our company, but also to the detriment of our local partners – including municipal governments, local businesses and local consumers.

      Hopefully this long, winding post sheds some light on the situation, explains why we are holding them accountable, and demonstrates why we believe this issue extends well beyond ‘SEO’…

      Thanks for the good wishes and your follow up post.

      Looking forward to all of your thoughts and comments.

      Colin

      ShopCity.com / ShopLocally.com

      P.S. I am writing this comment from an awesome little restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. I suggest you check out Oren’s Hummus Shop (www.shoppaloalto.com/orenshummusshop) if you’re in the neighborhood. Gotta love great local businesses!

      • http://www.audiographics.com Ken Dardis

        Re: “…we are 100% authentic. We are doing all this because we are passionate…”

        Colin:

        This may be true (even for most web site owners), but there are still only 30 slots on Google’s first-three SERP, and you’re up against sites that already posses one of them – which means they have to give up their slot so you can get it. That’s a tough battle, because you’re not just fighting Google here. A good, SEO-schooled, web site designer will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain their position.

        I’ve been lucky enough to receive extremely high rankings at all search engines for over a decade by adhering to the basics: One tip is that the http://www.shoppaloalto.com and http://www.shopmountainview.com sites are so top-heavy with nonsensical words and graphics as to be worthless for a search engine to bite into. (Alt and Title tags are not even helping you here.)

        Here are two of Audio Graphics’ web site ranking sheets – for chosen keywords. I present them only to show reaching, and staying, in a top-ten slot is possible. Yes our site design may be outdated, but they remain on the top of the list in most cases, and generate visits and revenue. http://radiorow.com/RadioRowSearchEnginePositions.htm
        http://www.rradiomusic.com/search_engine_positions.htm

        • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

          Thanks for your comment Ken.

          We have always followed Google’s own maxim to optimize for the user, not the search engine, so if some of our decisions do not seem so SEO-oriented, that is why.

          In markets like Midland, Ontario, Canada with sites like ShopMidland.com, we have maintained those same types of long-term high search rankings due to quality content, trusted relationships with local authorities and a fairly consistent information architecture.

          Google is doing a major disservice to users and businesses in that community by penalizing that domain. It is actually an embarrassment to Google and is seriously affecting the local economy.

          Search for ‘midland, ontario menus’ (http://www.google.com/search?q=midland+ontario+menus) for instance and see what comes up. Then click onto page 6 or 7 and see the link to http://www.shopmidland.com/menus

          You tell me – what is a better experience for the user? Do you think they really want to get a weather report or learn about a tornado, or would they rather get menus for 42 local restaurants all in one place?

          As a consumer, does this make you trust Google more or less? How do we know they are always serving up the top quality results and not hiding things that may be more beneficial due to conflicts of interest or political decisions?

          As has been mentioned elsewhere, the fact that Bing & Yahoo seem to be able to make sense of our ‘non-sensical words and graphics’ indicates either a lack of technical sophistication on Google’s part (unlikely), or that we are being penalized for other reasons (possibly anti-competitive in nature).

          Thanks again for your feedback,

          Colin

        • http://www.audiographics.com Ken Dardis

          Colin:

          Re: ” Bing & Yahoo seem to be able to make sense of our ‘nonsensical words and graphics’ indicates either a lack of technical sophistication…”

          You keep bringing up these two as if they are separate entities – which they are not. Yahoo! is powered by MSN – and who’s to say MSN is right?

          I see you unsuccessfully trying to build a case for anti-competitive behavior, yet not acknowledging the inherent flaws that I (and many others) see in your design. Instead of a constant stream of defending your position, perhaps taken action to change your approach may prove the most efficient means in gaining better rankings.

          Advice is like food, it only does good if you digest it.

        • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

          Ken, we have reworded our top level category descriptions (which I assume is what you were referring to as ‘nonsensical’) so that they are easier to read. Thanks.

      • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

        The fastest way to get rid of a penalty is to stop engaging in the behavior that leads to the penalty. You can punish Google just as much as they punish you by using your 8,000 sites to promote Bing (or Yahoo! or whomever). You can also comply with Google’s guidelines and keep your 8,000 domains out of Google’s index, thus affording you time to fix whatever issues may be reflected in the 44 “healthy” sites — thus setting the pace for bringing the rest of the 8,000 domains back into Google’s index when they are ready.

        That’s a pretty simple fix.

  • http://joehall.me Joe Hall

    I took a look at ShopPaloAlto.com and just 3 minutes in I can see that they:

    are blocking crawlers to a significant portion of their content via robots.txt
    They have hideous URL structures, and have
    massive keyword stuffing in the title tags.
    average product descriptions are around 50 words.

    Google is treating them like they would any site that doesn’t understand SEO.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Thanks for your comment Joe, and while you raise some good points, I don’t think any of those issues would be cause for penalization, do you? In fact, with this exact same architecture, some of our sites like http://www.shopmidland.com ranked very highly – in the top 3 results for almost any ‘midland, ontario’ + ‘category’ search for years.

      We implemented the robots.txt file because of feedback we received in the Google Webmaster Forums about duplicate content. If that’s not the right way to go, what do you suggest?

      I happen to think most of our URL structures are quite nice actually, with the exception of a couple of sections that haven’t been rewritten yet, but even those are decent I would think. We will always be working on making things as intuitive and clean as possible and will work on the URLs.

      I don’t think we’re stuffing keywords, but we could definitely work to make them more succinct. Thanks for focusing some attention on it.

      The merchants themselves enter the product descriptions, so we don’t have as much control over it as we would if we were publishing the content. We will try to provide better guidelines for them to follow – what length would you say is optimum?

      Also, just wanted to point out this article on your site as I thought it was well done and a little ironic :)

      http://joehall.me/dear-seos-please-shut-up/02/

      Just subscribed to your RSS feed and look forward to your posts!

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Hey Joe,

      Just wanted to thank you again for focusing our attention on the title tags, etc. We have updated our title schema for categories to make it more succinct.

      Colin

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    I believe this company sought help in the Google Webmaster Forums and they were not satisfied with the feedback provided to them there.

    • http://www.cyber-key.com/SocialSEO/ M.-J. Taylor

      Good catch, Michael. I agree with some of the other comments about the structure and lack of on site optimization, but surely the content here is the problem? What was the advice they didn’t like?

  • john

    Uh….

    If you take a look at the source code, it appears that they’re using the old “multiple title tag trick”.

    • http://google.com paisley

      among other things.. am i the only did a spam report?

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Didn’t realize that was a problem, but we’ve removed it anyway. Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/melanienathan Melanie Nathan

    What Joe Hall said. Also, they have a huge amount of nofollow links on their homepage, including inner links to their own important pages (an attempt at sculpting?). And, sure they have over 60,000 backlinks but the majority of them come from one sitewide link on paloaltoonline.com.

  • http://www.goteq.com Goteq

    All of the comments so far seem right on. We could go on for days with the problems here from an on-page perspective, i.e….234 links on the home page, poorly written content, way too many .css files, missing or too long header tags, canonical link structure, and many missing alt tags.

    That alone sheds some insight into why they might be having trouble with google giving them some love.

    Then move on to site speed. which is slow. This is not shocking because they are jammed full of images, but they still have a problem with properly optimizing image sizes, tagging them, expire dates on the server, user-agent header calls, This list too could go on and on.

    Now move on to their linking, internal and external. There is clearly a place where quality over quantity comes in. They have plenty of inner linking, and I wouldn’t say they have done a bad job. Managing this many pages on a proper linking structure is daunting at best. However, they don’t have incoming links, or enough of the Qs to justify their claim. They show 67k inlinks but a LARGE majority is from their own internal linking, and sites they have created.

    Although the 5 main sites linking to them are nice, and have authority, google still knows they are a network.

    The MOST important part of this, the use of this network they have built and the piggy backing they are trying to use. This is clearly a website that has been growing over the years, and not paying attention to on-site SEO, and thought they could build up tons of pages, link them together and call it good.

    Then they throw up tons of sites just like it and link to eachother. as MrAndrewJ clearly pointed out, google sees this as a content farm, or even a link farm. They have created their own link network and are using it, and not really hiding it.

    I hate to go here, but there is no Social Media Presence either, their twitter accnt is suspended, their facebook page doesn’t connect or have much connection to their site. Plain and simple, they are currently operating as a directory… what do they expect.

    Googles quality guidelines want links coming in to your site because you are good, and people like you. Not because you created them. I too cannot take palo alto’s side on this one. It doesn’t appear to be them trying to cloak, or hide anything, or trick the engines, it is a matter of not having a clear cut plan. And some bad onsite SEO.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Just wanted to clarify that we were told by John Mueller of Google to leave the one page that linked our sites together as a ‘noindex’ page, which would enable Google to crawl to different sites, but would not publish the page in their index. We have now blocked them from accessing the /locations/ and /regions/ page from them completely using robots.txt.

  • http://www.reubenyau.com Reuben Yau

    Agree with above comments. There are a number of basic issues that any decent SEO should find and correct. If you don’t make your site crawlable, it’s really hard to establish visibility in the search engines.

  • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

    Thanks everyone for giving your opinion about this matter. It’s interesting to watch the industry perspective. Our readers rawk!

  • http://www.seoaly.com Alysson

    To me this seems little more than a case of a company hoping the courts will protect them from their own ignorance and the resulting consequences. In just two brief comments, Joe & Melanie have illustrated some major problems with ShopPaloAlto.com that are FAR more likely to be the culprit in this case than any purposeful attempt by Google to maliciously bury their competitors in the SERPs.

    Now, if ShopCity resolves the issues above (as well as many more that would likely be uncovered by an extensive SEO audit) and their site continues to be penalized, they might have more of a case against Google. At this point, though, their allegations are tantamount to suing a doctor for malpractice when your health does not improve despite your conscious choice not to follow ANY of your treatment plan.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Thanks for your comment Alysson. We will work on any issues, for sure.

      Believe me, we are the last ones who want more government intervention. We are libertarians who believe in free markets.

      We went to the press because we were unable to reach anyone at Google, had already made many, many changes to improve things and mitigate the odds that we really deserved to be penalized, and essentially ran out of options.

      When more than 21,000 businesses (with claimed profiles) and dozens of partners, employees and supporters’ livelihoods are affected by an arbitrary decision like this, we can’t just sit idly by and ‘hope for the best’.

      A company like Google, that literally makes $10m in profit per day, should have a clear process, people to connect with and very clear guidelines that are uniformly enforced. If they did, we would not need to use public forums to bring attention to our grievances.

      We are definitely not the first company to be affected by these always-changing, opaque policies and enforcement techniques that leave way too much power to influence the marketplace to one company that competes with everyone in the ‘information space’.

      Google is not a donation-driven, academic project, they are a for-profit company that all of us collectively have put a lot of trust in.

      Their mantra is that ‘the consumer’ drives all of their decisions, but please, do this search and tell me if the consumer is being served.

      Go to Google and search for ‘midland ontario menus’. Scan through the results on the first page. Then, go to page 5, 6 or 7 and look for http://www.shopmidland.com/menus.

      Please tell me which result you would rather receive if you were hungry and looking for somewhere to go.

      So despite any technical issues we have, could they possibly warrant penalizing our quality content and burying it like it has been?

      • http://www.seoaly.com Alysson

        Unfortunately, if your network of sites violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, the answer to your question is, “Yes…reduced ranking is indeed warranted.” Particularly if that network, or a large part of it, is hosted on the same IP. There is much more to optimizing a site properly than quality content alone. You must take into consideration all of the criteria used to evaluate a website and rank it, not just what you believe is important.

        Authority and trust are not earned by doing “A”, “B”, “G” & “Q” properly while ignoring “C”, “D”, “H”, et al. To refer back to my previous analogy, let’s say you’re told by your doctor that you must eliminate refined sugar from your diet, eat 5 small, high protein/low carb meals per day and walk for at least 60 minutes each morning & evening or you will remain morbidly obese and probably die as a result. You cannot then blame your doctor for not losing weight and suffering a heart attack when you made the conscious choice to only do part of what you were told you had to do.

        Proper optimization, like the relationship between diet & exercise, is more than the sum of its parts. So far, just in the handful of comments made by SEO pros on this post, issues have been identified that, if resolved, could have a positive impact on the performance of ShopCity’s web properties in Google’s index. Like I said before, if those issues did not exist and your web properties were still ranking poorly, I would be more likely to support your efforts.

        Furthermore, several of the comments you made here – “We have blocked Google from accessing our ‘placeholder’ sites using robots.txt (only the homepage is accessible…”, for instance, raise a red flag that perhaps you or whomever is in charge of optimizing your sites doesn’t truly have the advanced understanding of SEO needed to run such a network of sites effectively if the goal is to perform well in Google’s index.

        You also said, “We do not interlink our sites and we are not trying to take advantage of these sorts of network effects in any way…”. Interesting. This page would seem to prove otherwise: http://www.shoppaloalto.com/locations/?region=1001&state=CA#selector and while you have indicated that Googlebot should not index the page, the page is still accessible to crawlers and the links are nonetheless followed by Googlebot.

        Thus Google can easily identify your entire network of sites, and whether it is your intent or not, that is something that can be readily, and understandably, mistaken for malicious intent to manipulate the search results by falsely inflating the number of inbound links to all of your web properties. Google doesn’t know you. They don’t know what your intent is. And they will always err on the side of caution.

        The bottom line is this: Google owns its index. You can’t force them to rank your sites well because you believe they should any more than I can force you to take down your network of low quality sites because I think they do a disservice to the Internet community as a whole. If your goal is to rank well in Google, you have to play by their rules. But before you can do that, someone on your staff needs the experience to know what those rules are and how best to accomplish your goals without violating them.

        Until then, this lawsuit is an exercise in futility that will cost a lot of money which could have been better invested in fixing the problems that will continue to impact the ranking of all of your sites until they are properly resolved.

        Just my two cents. Take it or leave it. :)

        • http://www.goteq.com Goteq

          @alysson good point. Spend the money on some web/dev engineers that understand URL structure and can organize the sites, vs throwing it at google.

          This isn’t the first of this kind of lawsuit for google, and they will stomp this into the ground. This is un-winnable and just doesn’t make much sense.

        • http://navolutions.com Stev0

          I agree with Colin on the degree of “opaque policies.” I will just take one, “a large part of it, is hosted on the same IP,” which is speculation, as is most of your SEO “advice”. Which you all seem to agree is okay for them to do. There is nothing in the TOS for Google that states it will ban or penalize for sites being on the same IP. The fact that SEO is all speculation, I think is Colin’s point. None of you know for a fact what Google likes, and what Googles doesn’t like. How could you? They don’t tell anyone.

        • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

          @Alysson

          Thanks for your comments, you definitely raise some good points.

          To clarify, there is no lawsuit. We crossed paths with Gary Reback, explained to him our issues and concerns, and he put us in touch with reporters that cover technology regulation and who were already planning articles on the Google anti-trust investigation and looking for material.

          I think the basic point is that Google does not like our business model and is penalizing us accordingly.

          We have instructed Google not to index the ‘locations’ page you linked to and blocked it in robots.txt. What else do you suggest we do? We would like human visitors to be able to explore different areas, but we are not looking to game Google’s system. In Webmaster Tools and in reviews from other SEO pros, these links do not show up as inbound links, so I do not see how they would impact us.

          As far as the single IP address is concerned, we are aware that if we wanted to hide our network, we would need to have our sites on separate class C IP addresses. However, we are not trying to hide the network of sites and do not want Google to perceive us as trying to hide things.

          Our robots.txt file is advanced, yes, because we have an advanced platform. We have not had any feedback from SEO experts to indicate that there are any problems with it.

          Yes, Google owns their index, there is no denying that, and we are trying to play by their unwritten rules as best we can. Without really clear feedback from them, it has been difficult to know if guidelines are not being followed, and therefore the question about whether or not they are creating an intentionally difficult operating environment arises.

          It is not just us who have been impacted by Google’s arbitrary decisions and policies. There are many documented cases, and Aaron Wall of SEOBook.com has many great articles that highlight the duplicity of their policies and how Google directly benefits to the detriment of their competition.

          We will continue to invest in our product and have spent $0 on legal fees. We have been trying to get Google’s ear for quite some time, and after hitting brick walls and starting to wonder if we were being deliberately targeted, we had to take a different approach.

          Thanks for your feedback, and if you have any specific recommendations for things we should implement, they would be most welcomed and appreciated.

        • http://www.seoaly.com Alysson

          @Stev0 – many of their web properties are being hosted on the same IP. That is not speculation. It is a fact that can be verified by using a tool such as this: http://www.yougetsignal.com/tools/web-sites-on-web-server/.

          Google does not freely publish the specific criteria included their ranking algorithms. To do so would be idiotic, as the webmasters who would most benefit from knowing that information are those whose intent is to maliciously manipulate the search results.

          That’s where experience comes into play. Professional SEOs are capable of drawing on years of trial and error. We do know that Google doesn’t like to see a network of sites hosted on the same IP all linking together in a giant “web ring” because it has been tested time and time again. Professional SEOs are not just “guessing” at this stuff any more than a doctor is “guessing” about how to treat a particular illness or ailment.

        • http://www.seoaly.com Alysson

          @Colin – believe me, I understand your frustration. You’re right. You are certainly not the first business to be impacted by a decision Google has made. Most recently as a result of the Panda update. We agree on that 100%.

          As for the /locations/ directory being disallowed in your robots.txt file, I see it is included now. I did not see it before despite having done a “find” on that page for both the words “locations” and “region”. I will take your word for it that the /locations/ directory was included in the robots.txt file all along, so both my own eyes and Firefox’s find function must both have missed it the first time.

        • http://www.seoaly.com Alysson

          @Steve0 – their network of sites, or at the very least a large part of it, IS hosted on the same IP. It’s a fact.

        • http://navolutions.com Stev0

          @Alysson – Show me where Google openly states that having a network of sites on a single IP is a violation punishable by penalty. If that is the case then most shared hosting should be penalized out of the box as they have 5000 site for each grid IP. I disagree with it being a problem that Google should publish what it will penalize you for. Seriously you know who does the best at SEO? Black hats, because they have way more sites to play trial, and error with.

          You are missing my point completely, stating “their network of sites, or at the very least a large part of it, IS hosted on the same IP. It’s a fact.” I never said that there sites being hosted on the same IP was speculation, I said “There is nothing in the TOS for Google that states it will ban or penalize for sites being on the same IP,” If you are going to try and debate and want to look like you know what you are talking about you need to hear the other side of the debate, otherwise you come off sounding very emotional in your responses, which is uniformed and close-minded, but your twitter post sounded the same.

          My point is that all SEO is speculation. Was only made stronger by your statement; “Professional SEOs are capable of drawing on years of trial and error.” Speculation is defined as “A conclusion, opinion, or theory reached by conjecture.” Your very definition of what makes a SEO professional is the very definition of speculation.

          It is very different then a doctor, sickness is only trial on error on TV with doctor house. Most sickness is found by blood tests, so that doctors don’t have to speculate.

      • John Mueller

        Hi Colin, I work at Google.

        You said “We went to the press because we were unable to reach anyone at Google.” I actually provided advice regarding ShopCity’s network twice, once in February 2011 and again in April 2011. Here are the threads for reference:

        http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=75afa2ec4c13ae8d&hl=en
        http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=266cfb1a0cf60c3a&hl=en

        I tried to make clear in those posts that the 8000+ site ShopCity network had issues with auto-generated content, duplicate content, and little original content. I also recommended against employing thousands of domains and recommended against cross-linking so many of your domains.

        I just wanted to point out that you were able to reach someone at Google, and we did our best to provide constructive advice.

        • Donald

          Yeah, you provide advice when people go to the press and shame you.

  • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

    Hi guys,

    Great idea. Thanks for taking this challenge on.

    We will be first to admit that we are not perfect, however, what I would appreciate everyone focusing on is the simple question, ‘should we be penalized?’

    Our model is definitely different than most, but local is a complicated subject that no one has solved, which we feel is largely due to a lack of offline branding. We believe that the key to offline branding is having a local brand that can be promoted in traditional media, on signs and stickers, apparel, etc.

    The ShopCity brands match the existing campaigns that local governments and other organizations are running. That, plus a robust platform, congruent business model and similar messaging is why these great local authorities want to partner with us.

    Again, we are not saying we are perfect, but do we deserve to be penalized?

    We have blocked Google from accessing our ‘placeholder’ sites using robots.txt (only the homepage is accessible, as we believe we should be found it someone searches for a direct match term like ‘shopmenlopark’ or ‘shop menlo park’. Most people who search for those terms are potential partners who should know about our partnership program.

    So their argument that they are judging our entire network doesn’t really make sense.

    We are obviously not trying to game their system. We are all about high quality content. We manually approve all content to ensure there is no spam and that it’s all local. This is not an SEO play, but having our site completely blocked impedes our ability to operate.

    We do not interlink our sites and we are not trying to take advantage of these sorts of network effects in any way.

    The external sites linking to us do so because we’ve partnered with them and we share common values.

    This is not about ‘rank’, this is about ‘penalty’.

    Do our ‘hideous URLs’, which are really no different than many other sites, deserve to be penalized?

    Should we not use robots.txt, even though everyone else says that we need to block duplicate content with robots.txt?

    Why the sudden change of heart for sites like http://www.shopmidland.com, which was the #1 site for Midland, Ontario for more than 10 years?

    To the comment about ‘not understanding SEO’, we have invested heavily and employed experts to ensure that our sites, while maybe not perfect, do work. And besides, Google themselves has said not to focus on SEO and instead on the user. That is exactly what we’ve done.

    As far as site speed goes, the site speed section of webmaster tools (under labs) says we are faster than 70% of sites, so again, should we be penalized?

    We do not have a massive social media presence yet in Palo Alto, but we are building it. Although we haven’t tweeted yet, we do have an active Twitter account that isn’t suspended. We also have a Facebook account.

    Please take a look at http://www.shopmidland.com, which is also penalized. Or http://www.shopbuffalo.com or http://www.shopbirmingham.com or http://www.shopcorona.com. Again, these sites are also penalized.

    We are open to any suggestions and feedback you have and will be monitoring this challenge.

    Thanks for initiating this Frank.

    Sincerely,

    Colin Pape

    Founder, ShopCity.com

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      @Colin – Thanks for checking in! We appreciate you joining the conversation!

    • http://joehall.me/ Joe Hall

      Colin,

      In my honest opinion you aren’t being penalized. You just aren’t doing a very good job at SEO. There is a very big difference. The things that I and others have mentioned here are basic SEO practices, Google doesn’t go around forcing anyone to adhere to them, its just smart marketing to do so.

      Are you going to file a case against Good Morning America because they haven’t run a story on you yet? Even though you maybe have never hired a publicist?

      Business owners need to take responsibility for their mistakes. You screwed up on SEO, that’s your fault, not Google’s. End the entitled attitude and get to hustling like everyone else.

      • http://www.seoaly.com Alysson

        DING DING DING! Someone give Joe Hall 64 silver dollars! :)

      • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

        @Joe – from Google:

        “Stricker, the Google spokesman, said an earlier automated penalty imposed against ShopCity sites by coincidence had expired at that time, but Google imposed another penalty when it received outside complaints about ShopCity sites. Local partners say they still have high hopes for their network.”

        • http://joehall.me/ Joe Hall

          @ Colin – I know this sounds like I am grasping here, but if you didn’t hear the word penalty from a Google spokesperson directly, then its likely that the reporter accidentally misquoted Stricker. I say this, because penalties in search rankings are very specific. In the past Google’s spokespeople have stayed away from the word “penalty” unless they explicitly mean it.

          Many times a algorithmic drop in the rankings looks like an apparent penalty to web masters and journalist. But in fact its just the result of the index updating. Recently this was seen as a wide spread issue with the “Panda Update”. And many SEO’s speculated if Panda was a universal penalty or algo change.

          I wouldn’t be surprised if what you have experienced is a result of Panda.

          Heres more about Panda:
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaZtvm54r_M

      • http://level343.com/article_archive Gabriella Sannino

        LOL you deserve a gold medal and yes a muffin!

      • http://www.sap.com Linda Caplinger

        Thank you for stating what I was itching to say Joe!

        Also, Colin’s griping about being PENALIZED by Google for being on the 7th page was starting to grate on me. I could see one complaining about being removed from the index entirely (now THERE’S a clear penalty, Colin) but the 7th page? Come on!

    • http://www.arcanasphere.com MrAndrewJ

      This is awesome. I wish more companies had this kind of courage and hope to see it from you on a greater scope. Here we all poking at every flaw in your system, and you came to explain your side of things.

      I’m a coder, not an SEO. It’s been that way for around 15 years, now. I need to know SEO and have a light background in traditional marketing – which I honestly prefer. I also want to be clear with these credentials.

      I have seen a lot in fifteen years. I have seen countless small and medium businesses fail by depending on the search engines. The ones who grew made names for themselves. They went above and beyond the search engines. They took risks. They got their names seen. SEO is important — it does bring traffic. These companies who went for name recognition also optimized for the serch engines. SEO was another tool, however. It was not a depedence.

      Google needs to do what is best for Google and no one else. We shouldn’t trust their opaque policies nor that they will or won’t change again in the near future. Doing what’s best for us means understanding and respecting Google’s responsibility to itself. We should be incorporating that into our big picture views. I don’t say to dwell on it or ignore it, but certainly incorporate it. I hope I am speaking a common language with a libertarian, even if it’s a different dialect.

      Back to the 44 higher quality sites. That limit can provide a different set of opportunities. How are you exploiting them? Are there any increased non-Google efforts in the markets served by those 44 sites? Ads in the free entertainment rag? Street teams?

      How about leaflets for the tourism racks in local hotels? Hotel WiFi is as complementary as the tiny bag of peanuts someone called lunch on his flight over.

      One SEO expert talked my boss into stuffing a full kilobyte of keywords into his meta description information. There were video games on my first TI computer that took less disk space than that. “Expert,” regrettably, is a much abused word in our industry.

      I’m glad to see you taking the risk to come chat with us.

    • http://www.arcanasphere.com MrAndrewJ

      Hi!

      First, I love to see people actually interacting with their fans & critics. I think it’s one part of the courage that more small/medium/growing business owners need.

      I want to now clarify my credentials, whatever they are. I’ve been coding web pages for trade for the last 15 years, and have light experience in marketing along the way. Learning SEO was a requirement. I’m effectively someone who has been creating sites for a long time. My experience is as follows: companies who depend on and hide behind search engine rankings will be overshadowed by competitors who are making their names known. The name is important for a whole host of reasons.

      Google needs to do what is best for Google. We need to incorporate that into doing what is best for us.

      “Expert” is a horribly abused word in our industry – especially where SEO is concerned. I’ve seen nightmarish penalty-bait come from alleged experts for years.

      I wasn’t kind to the 44 sites of quality information before – but now I have to ask if they can be exploited. With a smaller pool of sites needing your attention, why not hype them up in the real world? Ads in the free entertainment rag near the food reviews? Flyers in the tourism section of local hotels? Free WiFi is almost a requirement in most hotels, and the visitors do get hungry.

      How can you productively address your target audience just like you’re here addressing your critics? Wouldn’t that keep your name out among the public?

      Thank you for facing your critics. That was a wonderful thing to do. Even if we disagree on some issues, I still wish your business the best.

  • http://www.goteq.com Goteq

    @colin – the word “Penalized” is leading the reader, or maybe just me, to assume that your sites once had a favorable ranking and then disappeared from that ranking. Is this the case?

    If not the case, one must operate under the bias that your company simply ‘thinks’ your site should be #1 or close to for your keyword terms. Because you haven’t been moved ahead doesn’t mean you are penalized, just means you haven’t earned the starting QB spot yet.

    The sites are great, and hyper-local is the future of SEO, but it’s really just a guessing game, what is it that google did that “penalized” your sites?

    I think the feedback here would be a good place to evaluate and attack from a different perspective. Google is a guessing game, nobody will ever know the true answers. Best snyonr can do is try something, test it and try something else.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      @Goteq – thanks for your comment.

      Yes, that is correct. The sites have been ‘penalized’ and the Google spokesperson went so far as to admit it in their comments for the article:

      “Stricker, the Google spokesman, said an earlier automated penalty imposed against ShopCity sites by coincidence had expired at that time, but Google imposed another penalty when it received outside complaints about ShopCity sites. Local partners say they still have high hopes for their network.”

      Our site, http://www.shopmidland.com for instance, has been online since we first started working in the challenging local space back in April of 2000. It has claimed profiles for 1,400 business – more than 50% of all businesses in the area. Hundreds are using our platform to post offers to their Facebook page or using our web tools to power their custom domains. There are more than 6,000 marketplace items and many coupons and other offers.

      Up until this penalty, it was the #4 result for the broad term ‘midland ontario’ which it held for years (there are many Midlands, unfortunately, so you need to specify the province/state).

      It was always in the top 3 results for just about any category + ‘midland ontario’. Now, it is on page 5/6/7 when you search for even ‘shopmidland’ or ‘shop midland’.

      The fact that this site is nowhere to be found, even when searching for the direct site name is an indication that we are being penalized. We are not saying we should rank anywhere in particular, just where our efforts and content would naturally place us.

      There are many other sites that also used to rank highly, while there are others that have never ranked due to the initial ‘automated penalty’ that Google refers to.

      On http://www.shopcorona.com for instance, we partnered with the economic development department, every business listing is claimed, the database was provided by the city government and we have an email address for every company in the city. Despite numerous reconsideration requests, trusted links and content that doesn’t exist elsewhere, we were consistently stuck on page 7.

      So although that site didn’t really rank, save for the brief period from the end of June until the middle of July when we were re-penalized, it operated at a disadvantage that we had to overcome with heavy offline marketing (see our FB page for example photos http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.241105392583998.75830.200665143294690&type=1)

      During that period, our search driven traffic skyrocketed, and for the first time we saw the number of visitors we would have if not for the penalty…

      It is definitely just a guessing game, and we have been iterating just like everyone else. Our model evolved from a successful directory in one community into a platform that local partners could license on a franchise-like model all over the country. We have built in daily deal functionality, a marketplace, syndication tools and many other features based on customer demand and to ensure that we are not totally reliant on Google traffic like many sites.

      Unfortunately, we hit a bit of a brick wall and had already suffered in silence for almost two years due to the initial penalty. We decided this time to raise awareness about the issue in hopes that Google will change their ways and other people will not have to deal with the same lack of response, arbitrary decisions and inconsistent enforcement that we have had to endure.

      In regard to receiving outside complaints, while it is possible, we find it extremely unlikely because we are very accessible and almost never receive negative feedback on our sites – literally less than 10 times in 10 years – so it is hard to believe that they received so many complaints. Additionally, it is strange that they are so unresponsive in general, but were so quick to respond to these people.

      Anyway, as you said, it’s just a guessing game. As it stands, it’s Google’s world, and we all just live in it.

  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    Two things strike me about the article

    The first is the opening sentence which asks if Google is “abusing its dominance in search to favor its own online products….” This implies (or, more exactly, presupposes) that if was shown that Google was favoring its own products in search that this would constitute “abuse.”

    Really? It’s not like Google is a public service. If a business decides to promote its own services over those of competitors, in all other situations this would be typified as “rational” rather than “abusive.” In this case it is actually in Google’s best interest *not* to favor it’s own products when there’s a better match, because people would lose faith in the objectivity of the results and start to migrate to other search engines. But in this light this would at worst frame Google’s favoring of its own products as “unwise,” rather than “abusive.”

    Whether or not Google does this is a matter of much heated debate, as are the ethical considerations if this is indeed the case (check out Aaron Wall’s blog for an earful on the subject). But Google, as a private company, can present whatever sites it wants in whatever order it wants in its search engine. Again, it’s not in Google’s best interest to do so, as “its dominance in search” is due to the quality of its results compared to competing search engines, but Google doesn’t “owe” any website even a place in its index, let alone a high ranking in that index.

    And then there’s the actual complaint, the specifics of which are the second thing that struck me.

    In order to rank for “Palo Alto restaurants” you’d want a decent target page for the query. Okay, so where is the Palo Alto category page for restaurants on shoppaloalto.com? It took me a while to find it because it’s only linked through the drop down menu at top, which I didn’t notice, and in any case its nofollow (which Google has said it ignores internally now, but nonetheless it is an explicit instruction to the search engines *not* to follow a link, so this can hardly be considered helpful to their cause).

    But wait, this link is to a query string URL (probably why they nofollowed it). When you hit this page, you’ll see it has rel=canonical tag to /categories/restaurants. So there’s no direct spider path to this page, and no decent indirect spider path too.

    Furthermore, the breadcrumb on the different restaurant subcategories points to /categories/restaurants/, which is different than the canonical form /restaurants (no trailing slash). So on top of making it difficult for Google to spider this page meaningfully, they’re also requiring Google to do some gymnastics when they’re figuring out which URL to use. Even worse, on individual restaurant listings there’s no link of any sort back to the restaurant category, in a breadcrumb or otherwise. So the 176 Palo Alto restaurants they have listed aren’t helping support – as they should – a query for “Palo Alto restaurants.” And, of course, as a regular browser would have problems finding the restaurant category page to begin with, it’s highly unlikely that this page is going to see many links built to it.

    In short, the site architecture sucks, at least at it pertains to this specific query. So while the question of whether or not Google is favoring its own products is an open one, the question of whether or not shoppaloalto.com “deserves” to rank for this query isn’t. It doesn’t.

    Finally, the complaint suggests Google is going in there and deliberately suppressing their page. Unlikely, to say the least: even if Google is busy doing nefarious things, deliberately demoting this site for a single query wouldn’t be the best use of their engineers’ time.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      @Aaron – you are exactly right about people losing faith in the objectivity of their search results, and that is why we are raising awareness. If no one holds them accountable, then we are left 100% to just trusting that they aren’t squashing competition.

      We are definitely being penalized, Google admitted it themselves in the article:

      “Stricker, the Google spokesman, said an earlier automated penalty imposed against ShopCity sites by coincidence had expired at that time, but Google imposed another penalty when it received outside complaints about ShopCity sites. Local partners say they still have high hopes for their network.”

      This quote quote from Larry & Sergey’s dissertation on Backrub, the project that lead to Google says it all:

      “Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious. … This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market. …we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.”

      http://infolab.stanford.ed​u/~backrub/google.html

      Google started off much closer to the pretense that it was an academic project, and then slowly evolved into a business that started dominating many different industries and having more and more influence over our lives.

      I do not disagree that they do a great job in general, but there’s no disputing that their customer service sucks, that there are obvious conflicts of interest, and that at the end of the day, it is all enabled by our trust.

      If no one ever raises a flag to question if this trust is warranted, because they are scared to speak out against Google – and believe me, most people we encounter that compete with them are terrified – then is it trust, or is it fear?

      Prior to this total penalization, we were too scared to speak out ourselves for fear that they would also penalize our successful sites that served consumers through Google search.

      Now that they have taken that little carrot away, we have decided to raise awareness and see what happens. There isn’t much to lose on the Google front and everything to gain.

      • http://www.goteq.com Goteq

        @aaronbadley makes the most compelling arguement here. First he announces to you a URL structure that in itself is causing the problem, or the “penalty” that you are seeing. Maybe you should be ranking higher and simply cannot because Googles algorithm and bots cannot decipher the URL structure properly.

        Sencondly, it leads to a UX/UI issue in which google sees a site, that might possibly have some authority on the subjective searches yet they feel it is not as easily navigated as some competitors. Or better yet, the algorithm sees it as hard to use.

        Those 2 things being said, the term algorithm is used many times here on purpose, the google algorithm, and its decision to rank your site is just that, – “A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, esp. by a computer.”

        Lastly, @aaron says it best at the end. Google is not deliberately suppressing your pages. They upgraded their algorithms, your site took a hit. Evidently their upgrade in usability standards no longer appreciates your sites un-usability. They clearly have better things to do than worry about one site in one market, regardless of how much people complain.

        Google has deliberately supressed other sites in the past. see JC Penny
        http://www.searchenginejournal.com/jc-penny%E2%80%99s-black-hat-seo-backfires/27925/

        Unless you are doing this type of stuff, then I doubt you are unfairly penalized.

        Now that you have opened their eyes, and managed to get into some of the best free SEO advice I have seen from the reader of this, I see an opportunity to get back into the good graces of the Google algorithm.. not the company Google,.. simply the mathematical equation that decides how useful a website is.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Aaron,

      As per your suggestion, we have updated the rel=canonical tag to include the trailing slash. Thanks for pointing that out.

      The link to our restaurants page is on the /businesses/ page, which is linked from the top level ‘browse business directory’ navigation link.

      The breadcrumb link on business profiles is in the ‘categories’ pod in the bottom left corner of the profile homepage. Our categorization system has all of the restaurants listed in the ‘All Restaurants’ subcategory of the ‘Restaurants’ top-level category. For the breadcrumb on the business profile page, we have overridden the link back to the subcategory so it goes to the top-level page now. It is an important category in all of our markets, so it makes sense to do it that way.

      There are a few other improvements that we have implemented that I will credit the appropriate people with by commenting directly.

      Unfortunately, in our view, none of these issues are the real reasons for the penalties as Google has stated themselves that it’s the number of domains, but hopefully they help, and certainly, having all of our ducks in a row makes our point that much stronger.

      Thanks again,

      Colin

  • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

    @Frank – sorry, really didn’t mean to hijack this post.

    Please everyone, tear us apart and we’ll make all the improvements we can!

    Thanks all,

    Colin

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      @Colin – If you call participating in the discussion hijacking I would ask for a new definition! These issues and concerns run throughout the industry and the discussion / examination is good. Heck, we may even learn a thing or two when it’s all said and done!

  • http://www.localseoguide.com Andrew Shotland

    Hey @Colin,

    I am a resident of Pleasanton and dabble in SEO, particularly for local directories like yours. Are you guys the ones who have your URL on a bunch of storefronts in town? If so I get you confused with the Facebook Pleasanton shopping campaign that is also going around. What I am getting at is along with the some of the technichal issues identified by my colleagues above, your marketing program probably could use some work. I have almost zero awareness of your service and I live in one of your markets and pay a lot of attention to local online initiatives.

    Your partnerships with sites like PleasantonWeekly.com could be a helpful source of inbound links but it doesn’t look like they are doing a very good job of this (a standard newspaper site partnership issue the world over) – here’s a perfect example http://www.pleasantonweekly.com/news/show_story.php?id=6600 and not sure what’s going on here – http://pleasantonweekly.com/restaurants/ – but you might want to familiarize with difference between 302 and 301 redirects and how they work vis a vis SEO.

    http://webdesign.about.com/od/http/qt/tip301v302redir.htm

    You’ve got a lot of great advice here. Based on what I see on your site, a little work on fixing technical issues, a bit more focus on how to use your partners for links, some decent marketing and content targeting and you guys could be out of the doghouse.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Hey Andrew,

      I think we’ve crossed paths at a couple of conferences. I read your blog and appreciate your response.

      The Pleasanton campaign is just getting off the ground, and I agree that there’s still a lot of work to be done. You will see more of a presence in the community in the coming months. I’ll make sure the campaign manager gets this message and that we step things up… Would love to be able to impress you in your own back yard… :)

      We are not the ones in control of their properties, but have asked them to change the links to 301s from 302s. I believe they’ve gone ahead and done that now.

      We shall see how the ‘doghouse’ situation goes. I really don’t think we should be there to begin with, but at this point, removing the penalty would be a welcome improvement.

      Thanks,

      Colin

  • http://cbsurgereviewer.com Stratman

    I’m fairly new to SEO and I guess I know enough to get by (or I wouldn’t be able to make a living as an affiliate marketer) but after reading all these intelligent comments, I feel like I’m back in kindergarten! I actually learned quite a bit – clearly this is a good crowd for me to hang out with :).

  • http://www.shopcity.com Kris S.

    @Alysson, @Colin, I think I can explain some of the confusion with the robots.txt and /locations/. I was reading some comments earlier and changed it on-the-fly to try and help. Didn’t get back to the comments until now – sorry for any confusion! (I work with ShopCity.com).

    I also wanted to comment quickly on the discussions we had with webmaster forums:

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=266cfb1a0c f60c3a&hl=en
    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=75afa2ec4c13ae8d&hl=en

    @John Mu, we do appreciate the guidance we we’re able to receive through the two discussions you posted (also linked above). We did take your advice on both accounts removing all interlinks as well as blocking pages with your method. I specifically remember removing the /locations/ folder from the robots along with other folders and opted to use the no-index meta tag. This was based on your comment in the later of the two discussions. To quote:

    “Ultimately, if you’re not sure, it’s probably better to let us crawl (and to serve the content with a noindex robots meta tag if you really want it out of the index) than to disallow it in the robots.txt — if we can’t crawl, we won’t know, and we might assume that it’s useful content worth indexing (we can’t crawl, so we couldn’t know). ”

    We do appreciate the guidance you’ve given us and have done what we can to take that advice and be actionable with it.

    Thanks for everyone’s comments and great ideas with this. Sorry for any confusion with the /locations/ folders @Alysson and @Colin.

    Thanks,

    Kris

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      @Kris, thanks for clarifying on the robots.txt question. It wasn’t your eyes or Firefox @Alysson.

    • http://www.seoaly.com Alysson

      @Kris S. – thank you for your honesty. It was not incumbent upon you to admit that and I applaud your integrity for choosing to do so.

      I hope that small tweak, along with the other advice shared by those who have chosen to comment, help your team begin to resolve the issues impacting your network of sites and illustrate that this is far more likely a case of a weak overall optimization strategy & implementation than it is Google playing favorites with their own products or imposing unfair penalties.

  • http://www.jimbanks.co Jim Banks

    Google owes nobody a living and the sooner any company realises it the better.

    There are a lot of moving parts and many of those parts can have positive or negative effects.

    Google provide more tools, tips and advice now than they have ever done before.

    A lot of people who I know to be expert SEO’s have been giving some pretty solid advice here, for free.

    That being said, you will always get conflicting opinion on what is right, what is wrong.

    Of the 1400 claimed profiles how many link to your site?

    If your social sucks so much and many of the better SEO’s are saying that social is the new search, that can’t be helping your cause. +1′s, likes, tweets will all add strength to your presence. Panda will be causing some effect, maybe not to your site network but to other links you might have.

    Sometime SEO’s will tell you that your baby is ugly, but reading your comments it’s like you keep looking for someone to confirm your baby isn’t.

    Focus on implementing some of the free advice, enlist as much expert help as you can afford, but threatening the Google with legal action is, as many SEO’s would put it, “turning up to a gun fight with a sword”

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Hey Jim,

      They don’t owe it to anyone, but if they want to be a business that’s around in 20 years then they should probably learn how to play nice with everyone else on the playground and choose a core competency and stick to it.

      I agree that there are many moving parts, and in general Google has done a good job, however, as their dominance grows, they need to be increasingly careful about using that dominant position unfairly in a way that hampers legitimate competition.

      Not sure how many are linking back to us yet. As our campaign progresses (and this penalty is lifted) hopefully the number will increase.

      Is our baby ugly? Maybe. But prior to being penalized, Google sure didn’t think so. Bing & Yahoo don’t think so. Neither do our partners and our 20,000+ local business members. We are not just looking for praise, and we have already implemented many of the suggestions we’ve received.

      The ‘gun fight’ comment is the crux of the matter. Who has a gun capable of matching the firepower of Google’s? There’s no one with as much pull and as many network effects as Google right now. Are we crazy for thinking that we of all people can hold them accountable? Maybe. But there are quite a few people cheering us on and we feel that we have to try to do something to ensure that there is a free, fair search market for all to participate in.

    • Donald

      “Of the 1400 claimed profiles how many link to your site? ”

      Idiotic comment. He’s on page 7 (SEVEN). He’s not complaining about #3 or #4, but PAGE SEVEN.

  • http://www.ushomebusiness.com/ US home business

    They have some strong backlinks. and you just gave them another one
    But on page SEO is lacking
    I am just starting to look in to it and also am writng a post about should finish it up this weekend.
    Great PR stunt suing google will bring some traffic got thim front page of Bussiness section on friday.
    Colin Pepe contact me I can fix your ranking problems :)
    My post will probly out rank his site LOL

  • http://google.com paisley

    I LOVE YOU ALYSSON!!!

    “Google does not freely publish the specific criteria included their ranking algorithms. To do so would be idiotic, as the webmasters who would most benefit from knowing that information are those whose intent is to maliciously manipulate the search results.”

    pure wisdom baby!@

  • http://www.bighelpconsulting.com Bill Bean

    Wow! Some really rich discussion going on here, even if it is a bit painful for some more than others. Could be that ShopCity has gotten better consulting in this set of comments than what they’ve been paying for.

    My biggest question, why rank for “shop menlo park” ?

    Seems to me that ShopCity is simply trying to DIRECTLY compete with Google in serving up local businesses to searchers. That’s an ambitious mission, regardless of who you are.

    Social and paid would seem to me to be their only opportunity. It won’t be organic.

    My advice, ditch the lawsuit (expensive link building campaign) and invest that money in a new idea.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Hi Bill,

      Yes, definitely a great discussion and lots of excellent feedback that we will look to incorporate.

      You don’t think that a site called ‘ShopMenloPark.com’ that contains Menlo Park shopping information, links from the city government and chamber as well as a number of other community organizations should rank for ‘shop menlo park’? Maybe I’m missing something, but I would think it would be exactly the type of content Google would want to serve up.

      You’re right, we are competing with Google, and that is the issue at hand. We are hardly the first to question whether they are using their dominant position in search to unjustly block competition in the marketplace. The FTC has begun an investigation into Google’s practices, so this isn’t totally out of left field. Your comments are pretty much summing up our issues.

      Do you think it’s smart for a company with 70%+ market share, that built their model around getting people off their search engine onto end-user websites as quickly as possible, to block competition just because they can?

      Would you feel the same if Google was blocking your access to the market?

      • http://michaelhalvorsen.com Mike Halvorsen

        @Colin Pape:

        The SEOs who have commented on this piece have given you a wealth of free advice. It is not enough that you think your business model aligns with what searchers want. Your site(s) have some serious issues that need to be addressed. Many of the SEOs I respect on here have pointed their finger to the Panda updates and not a manual penalty.

        Google is not lowering your rankings because they are worried you threaten their business model. I am pretty sure they would never have the time to worry about your sites. They have lowered your rankings because you are competing against other sites that have SEOs on board or actually pay for consulting. Regardless of what you think about your business model, you do not deserve rankings. You have to earn them.

        Instead of pointing your finger at Google, get serious about SEO. You do not understand it. Hire someone who does. End of story.

  • http://increasewebtrafficnow.net/ Tim Ellis

    I tell my clients time and time again. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I would never invest all my resources into just trying to optimize my site for Google. Google is as finicky as a new born baby. The premise of this story is diversify! A great optimized site is optimized for all the search engines!! The site should also have other channels to drive targeted traffic to it as well!

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Well said, Tim. That’s why utilize other channels so heavily and partially why we partner with organizations that have existing audiences.

  • Mark W

    I’ve been an SEO for 12 years and what dumbfounds me the most about the advice here is the claim this isn’t a penalty but a ranking adjustment. I’ve had sites, directories, and individual pages hit with the exact same -50 whatever penalty. The fact that @Colin quoted a Google spokesperson should be enough :) Most SEO’s don’t like to ‘admit’ to a site penalty, that’s something that takes more time and thought to correct, but it can be done.

    My advice is to come up with a several detailed plans to address the content issues in your network. I can tell you with certainty that the cause of this penalty is not ugly urls, dup content, robots.txt or a ‘ranking adjustment’. A good start would be to pull every site down that doesn’t have valuable unique content. Then take the top properties and treat them as individual businesses. Also take 20-30k and use it to get some better press.

    Plan D should be take all your employees up to Mountain View and picket ~ now that would really get you some good publicity if you have the numbers!

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Thanks for the comments, Mark.

      There are two issues for us, the traffic loss, and the principle.

      If all goes as planned, our PR campaign around shopping locally and strong local economies will catch on and you’ll hear more about us in the press. Unfortunately, this issue is high priority and has taken our attention away from going after better press.

  • http://www.weboptimizationconsultant.co.uk web optimization consultant

    Nice information thank you everyone I am trying to build on my knowledge of SEO to offer consultancy and its discussions and sites like this which help me to help my clients more.thanks for all your good advice I am a tadpole in this roller coaster river ride of SEO but want to learn to swim with the sharks;)

  • http://justindupre.com Justin Dupre

    Just another one of those company’s who think they can get what they want by hiring lawyers.

    • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

      Not at all true, Justin. If you want to catch-up one-to-one sometime we can swap philosophies and I think you’ll see that’s not the case.

  • http://www.coseom.com David SEO

    Why do they use the service then? The businesses are always shouting on Google, but use and depend on their service. Why?

  • http://www.localseoguide.com Andrew Shotland

    So I have not done even a minor audit on your site but if John Mueller of Google is telling you the problem is with your network of sites, then there’s a good chance that’s the big issue. Let me know the next time you are in Ptown.

  • http://fragerfactor.com owen frager

    Another way to look at it is what if Google bought these domains and bought this company out? Where would they end up in the results then? And example for reference exists in the case of Like.com who used decoy display names like Shoe Department to rank high in shoe department searches only to link to Like.com/ShoeDepartment which was a robotic ops or cap site.

  • http://www.goteq.com Goteq

    @Alysson says it correct ““Google does not freely publish the specific criteria included their ranking algorithms. To do so would be idiotic, as the webmasters who would most benefit from knowing that information are those whose intent is to maliciously manipulate the search results.”

    Google doesn’t want people to know how they rank, because people will game the system. FACT, its not unfair, its as fair as it can get.

    And what part of Link Farm doesn’t make sense here? personal penalty or not, they don’t like what you are doing. I imagine if you stop doing it, they will gladly put you where the algorithm believes you fit.

  • http://docsheldon.com Doc Sheldon

    @Colin Pape-

    While I haven’t performed an in-depth site analysis of any part of your network (there’d be an extra charge for that, and there are many already present here that are infinitely more qualified than I to do so), I think your frustration is misplaced.

    What you have is nothing more than a link network, plain and simple. All the other issues pointed out by Joe, Allyson, Goteq and others are hurting you, but probably aren’t sufficient to bring a penalty down on your head, when looked at individually. The link network, however, IS. Somebody should have seen that on the horizon.

    Also, looking at your first comment in this thread, I was struck by the fact that your stated mind-set seems to be one of conventional marketing, not Internet marketing. You pointed out a number of aspects that can have benefit to a business, but not to a website. Users might be impressed by links from the Chamber of Commerce, but Google isn’t. I dare say I could probably get one from them myself, given a few days, and I’m in Mexico. ;)

    You have a good business, and have obviously spent time and money getting it there, as well as trying to fix the issues that exist. But in my opinion, you were misled at some point, to believe that a link network would serve you well. I suppose it did… until Google noticed it. But I’d say that your risk/reward analysis was either missing or faulty.

    You have a tremendous amount of work to do on that site, before it will be in what I would call good shape. If Google traffic is a concern to you, then I would suggest that you concentrate on conforming to Google’s guidelines. They owe you nothing more than a fair shake, and IMO, you had that.

    I do wish you luck in achieving a rapid recovery.

  • http://itstheroi Jonah Stein

    My 2 cents is that shopcity.com is definitely, absolutely and indisputably penalized with a serious manual penalty (try to search for shop + city.com if you don’t believe him). I cannot be sure about your other domains but the fact is that Google has profiled your domain portfolio as being controlled by spammers. My guess is that Google is unhappy with your whole network because it IS a network, which looks like you are trying to manipulate SERP.

    This is a complex case, but I would also weigh in that instead of joining the chorus of people accusing Google of (rightly or wrongly) uncompetitive behavior you can instead find a creative way to aggregate all of your unique content under a single domain while maintaining all of your individual city domains for marketing purposes. If you untangle it correctly, follow the other recommendations put forth by consultants AND THEN submit a re-inclusion request, you can likely generate significantly more traffic than you do no. (although you may never rank #1 for Palo Alto Restaurants).

  • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

    Hey everyone,

    Thanks for your great comments and feedback!

    Just wanted to let you know that we have gone ahead and implemented the following changes:

    - changed the title tags on about 10 top-level categories to remove additional keywords
    - changed the standard category meta description from:

    ‘Browse Restaurants in Palo Alto, California. Find local business listings for %category% related businesses in Palo Alto, California, including online descriptions, contact and email information. Get all your Restaurant related needs in one place.’

    to:

    ‘Browse Restaurant-related businesses in Palo Alto, California, including descriptions, photos, videos, contact info, email addresses, shopping carts, Facebook pages, Twitter links, coupons, reviews and more.’
    - changed the title tags on our gift certificate page from ‘Buy Instant Gift Certificates and Email Gift Cards in Palo Alto, California at ShopPaloAlto.com’ to ‘Buy Gift Certificates Online from businesses in Palo Alto’
    - changed all title tags to no longer show the state name
    - fixed an issue with the rel=canonical tag on category pages to add a trailing ‘/’
    - changed the breadcrumb on business profile pages for businesses in the restaurants category so it links to the top-level category and not the ‘All Restaurants’ sub-category
    - completely blocked Google from crawling our /locations/ page instead of relying on noindex as suggested by John Mueller

    We are working on rewriting the URLs for the marketplace items, but that might take a couple more days. We’ll keep you posted.

    Any more feedback/issues you guys can think of?

    Thanks again,

    Colin

    P.S. This crowd sourced SEO might be the future of the industry! Much better to rely on a whole bunch of competing/complementary opinions than just one or two I think… Anyone monetizing that model in some way?

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      @Colin – Hence the rub. This is not the norm for sure and it’s while it’s been good to get this kind of input for free it’s not something that will continue because these folks can’t work for free.

      It has been very cool as Andrew Shotland pointed out on his blog that the community has done what it has in this case and it just goes to show that SEO’s don’t all hold everything back!

      Thanks for your openness to the process as well. One way you could show your appreciation is hire someone who helped you in this thread. I’m just sayin’…………..

      • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

        @Frank – makes sense, and it definitely was not our intention to solicit free advice, but we do appreciate everyone’s input.

        That’s a good idea! We’ll look at doing that for sure and were particularly impressed with a few of the posters who focused 100% on constructive criticism and got right to the point with the technical details.

        Thanks again for providing the forum. We’ll see how things go with Google and will keep you posted.

  • http://www.seothomas.com SEO Thomas

    Besides all the content/duplicate farm stuff, it seems the backlink profile is mainly from one site. In fact of the 16k inlink to the home page, there are only 33 linking root domains. Meaning the cast majority comes from one site ie: palo alto online.

    That fact right there should speak volumes!

  • Donald

    Shopcity = you are competing with Google.

    The rest is spin from the likes of Matt Cutts and Google fanboys

  • http://www.visitrio.rog don

    Dont see the big deal here, they have a model that is hard to manage without thousands of editors, the google guidelines are pretty black and white, duplicating content across a few sites, maybe not a huge deal, going to hundreds to thousands is a big no no and with their 8k sites, potentially linking and leveraging they squeeze out other businesses as well.

  • http://www.realseocompany.com/our-services/seo-marketing/ Phill Braken

    Anywhere to begin with SEO? If you are fresh site or a long establish site the method of SEO is very related, it is just the rate at which you do effects must differ. What you feel like in you SEO is to preparation at keywords which locate the most passage. Impossible you power feel; I am a quite new company, I will never build it to the top of Google for the trendiest keywords in my business. Well although what mainly the most significant factor in SEO is what site you have linking to you. Thanks!

  • http://mahoganyseo.com/miami-seo Miami Seo

    Of course Google plays favorites… Prime example is the way JC Pennys maintained 1st page ranking for so long until a reporter spilled the beans on their black hat tactics…. They were spending 100,000′s of dollars on adwords so of course it let them get away with it…. If they would have caught one of us they would have deindexed our sites….. But because of their adwords budget all they got was a a slap on the wrist…. So YES I can believe Google plays favorites…. I would be naive to think otherwise….

  • http://www.acnedietsreview.org Anthony Vanwhy

    Having been online for a while, I’d love to see Google bite the dust every now and then, however, I doubt this is likely to happen. As far as I know, Google has no contractual obligations to provide traffic to anyone at all. They’re big enough to do whatever they like, and they will. Google might even withhold all traffic to these sites just out of spite after the litigation, assuming if the person made a big enough fuss.

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  • http://sitemanagers.co.nz/ Andres James

    Social media marketing! It continues to grow in
    importance and scale. Like SEO it is
    hard to grasp at times the huge influence that social engagement has in the
    commercial world.