Sun-soaked beaches, cheap hotels and panoramic city views are a staple of online travel sites worldwide. So too are those wicked widgets, clickable badges with multiple links back to anchor text – the visible and clickable text in a hyperlink. While some are useful, rental and travel sites quickly learned they also could be profitable. It’s easy to juice a company’s page rank through all those links.
Enough, Google says, is enough. In a recent posting on its Webmaster Central blog, Google reminded website owners that it will continue to crack down on any wicked widgets that manipulate a site’s page rank.
“Widgets can help website owners enrich the experience of their site and engage users. However, some widgets add links to a site that a webmaster did not editorially place and contain anchor text that the webmaster does not control. Because these links are not naturally placed, they’re considered a violation of Google Webmaster Guidelines,” the posting said.
In fairness, widget links provide a quick and easy way to gather large amounts of medium-quality links. Additionally, one could argue that the practice as it is commonly used by travel sites helped vacation rental owners get a quality seal of approval on their personal websites. It’s the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats.
A Sinking Feeling
While backlinks still correlate highly with rankings, they’re decreasing each year, according to our Ranking Factors study. Travel websites need only to take a look at their visibility numbers to get a sinking feeling about Google’s stance on wicked widget links.
Take flipkey.com. The site, owned by TripAdvisor, is a competitor to Airbnb, providing vacation rentals across the U.S.
So what happened there? Let’s take a deeper dive into their backlink profile.
Looking at their loser keywords for 03/06/2016, we’ll noticed that the “destin florida vacation rental” URL suffered most:
Hogging the Spotlight
Digging deeper into the backlink data, looking only at the “destin Florida URL,” notice that the share ratio of keyword rich anchor text vs non-keyword rich anchor text is very high:
If we look at the “Destin Florida” URL SEO Visibility, notice that the entire Destin Florida page no longer ranks for keywords.
Can You See Me Now?
By zooming out a bit and looking at FlipKey’s entire backlink structure, you’ll notice a very similar trend.
Lots of image links, and keyword rich anchor text links. Of course, having lots of image links is not a cause for penalty, however using keyword rich anchor texts / alt tags on a large scale can be. Especially if those are used within badges or widgets.
Here’s an example of one of the badges that Flipkey used with a keyword rich alt tag:
While FlipKey has tried quite a bit since to clean up its backlink structure, it (so far) hasn’t resulted in anything positive.
Inside Trivago’s Links with Wicked Widgets
Like FlipKey, Trivago.co.uk suffered a huge penalty of its own in 2014, resulting in a nearly 95 percent drop in its SEO visibility.
When trivago.co.uk was penalized, I was very focused on the European SEO landscape. A few colleagues and I wondered if they’d ever recover and, if so, by how much. Since, they have done a lot of clean up (nofollow, disavow, link deletion) in their linking structure and have seen their rankings rise.
Even some of the biggest names in travel aren’t immune from Google’s wrath. Again in 2014, Google imposed a link penalty on Expedia for buying links, including many widgets. Expedia has removed and no-followed many links but still hasn’t recovered fully. Looking to dig deeper? Our excellent blog post on this delves further into this blast from the past.
To Airbnb or Not to Airbnb
You’re probably asking yourself why I’ve included them in an article aimed at penalties; SEO visibility looks great, right?
After a little bit of digging deep down in the interwebs, I found they seem have been flirting with disaster for a while. yet. While their backlink strategy seems similar to TripaAdvisor, Trivago, Expedia and Flipkey, for various reasons Airbnb hasn’t been penalized.
Home, Home and Homeaway
Some of you follow the weekly or monthly winners & losers. You might be thinking, well, what about homeaway.com? They sure look like they have been hit, right?
Much as it looks like an SEO penalty, it actually isn’t (at least, fully). So far, it appears to be mainly an onsite technical issue because of de-indexing multiple pages. More on that in another post.
The upshot of all this? Google increasingly is crying foul on wicked widgets. Online marketers need to clean up their act quickly if they don’t want to face larger visibility penalties than they’ve seen in the past.