The online travel agency has seen its page rankings drop 25 percent for travel-related searches on Google in recent days, according to Searchmetrics, a search-engine research firm. Losing that much visibility in search rankings almost guarantees a drop in traffic of at least 20 percent to Expedia, says Marcus Tober, Searchmetrics’s founder and president. Such a rapid, sharp drop suggests that Google is penalizing the company for so-called “unnatural links” to Expedia.com that are posted on many travel blogs and other websites.
The Google-angering technique in question typically involves anchoring a link to a website or posting keywords such as “cheap flights” or “cheap hotel deals” on a Web page in an effort to artificially boost Expedia’s search rankings. The practice of such sponsored links, link farms, and other paid linking had long been a part of corporate search-engine optimization efforts but have fallen out of favor with Google. “You can be sure that if there’s a drop that’s measurable, like 25 percent,” Google is making manual efforts to penalize Expedia results, Tober says. Expedia’s falling rankings prompted a 4 percent drop in its stock price on Tuesday.
An Expedia spokeswoman says the company has no comment on the subject, and Google won’t discuss search results for particular companies. But Searchmetrics isn’t alone is questioning the travel website’s approach. Last month the blog Nenad SEO called out Expedia for its search-engine optimization practices and posted screen shots of problematic links.
One example of the type of link that tripped up Expedia was found on the bottom of AirSnark.com, a travel blog run by Walter Hopgood, a software consultant in Portland, Ore., who works in the medical software industry. “Designed by the Expedia Cheap Flights Team” was linked for several years at the bottom of Hopgood’s home page, with a link to the flight section of Expedia.
In an e-mail interview, Hopgood says he downloaded Expedia’s WordPress template theme in August 2011 and had not updated to the latest version, which does not have the coded links. He updated his website today after learning of the issue from a reporter’s inquiry. “Expedia could probably do well if folks would update to the latest template, alleviating at least part of their problem,” Hopgood says. “As for their strategy, I’d say that, because this is one of the best travel templates for WordPress, that Expedia is a victim of their own success.”
Hopgood, who hosts several websites from a server in his garage, noted one factor that could be a sign of lingering trouble for Expedia: “I’ve noticed with most of my WordPress users is that once the site is up and running, there’s very little that gets done to it. Even my few sites that I run, I don’t always update everything on a regular basis.”
In February 2011, Google released a major revision of the algorithms that power the search engine’s results, called Panda, designed to lower the rankings of what the company calls low-quality sites. About 12 percent of websites were affected by the changes, which Google has tweaked several times since. The company says its efforts have improved the rankings for sites with original content “and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.” A little over a year later, another Google search effort, named Penguin, sought to target the rankings of sites that artificially boosted the number of links pointing to a particular page. The number of Web links to a particular piece of content is considered a marker of that item’s quality, such as numerous links to an article in the New York Times.
A similar scheme caused Google to demote annotated lyrics website Rap Genius in December as penalty for proliferating a hodgepodge of links across the Internet. Rap Genius released a lengthy message earlier this month about its “misguided” SEO strategies and apologized to Google and the company’s users. “We’re sorry for being such morons,” the company’s founders wrote in a message that went into intricate detail about the efforts Rap Genius took to scrub low-quality links to its site from the Internet. “We regret our foray into irrelevant and unnatural linking.”
Expedia and others may have forgotten one clue about just how seriously Google considers efforts to thwart exemplary search results for commercial gain. Two years ago, Google assessed a 60-day ranking penalty for its own Web browser, Chrome, after detecting a “sponsored post” campaign that violated company rules.