SAN FRANCISCO — Expedia may have been hit by a “negative SEO” campaign that hammered the travel website’s rankings on Google searches, according to an analysis by the firm that uncovered the problems.
Expedia’s website lost 25% of its visibility in Google search between Jan. 12 and 19, after Google clamped down on efforts to boost its online traffic through paid links from other sites, third-party search analytics firm Searchmetrics said on Monday.
Expedia shares fell on Tuesday on concern about the impact to its business and the stock was down again on Wednesday.
Searchmetrics Founder Marcus Tober completed a deeper analysis of the episode on Wednesday and shared the data and his conclusions with USA TODAY.
The main take-away: The techniques used to increase Expedia’s search visibility were so clumsy and out-dated – and used in such high volume – that it would be very surprising if the company alone was responsible for the scheme.
Instead, Tober reckons there are three possible reasons for the scheme. First, Expedia may have used artificial link building techniques years ago and the company forgot that they did this and left the links on the web.
Or, some department within Expedia, or a third-party hired by the company, is still using these out-dated techniques, Tober said. Expedia is a big company, with many search engine optimization, or SEO, teams that work with different agencies, so it is possible that one one rogue department was responsible.
Lastly, an Expedia competitor built these links in the past, over a long time, to hurt Expedia, Tober said. This strategy, known as “negative SEO,” has become more common in recent years, he noted.
Dave McNamee, a spokesman for Expedia, declined to comment on Wednesday.
Whatever the reason, Expedia’s rankings in important travel-related search results have been hit hard. For example, in a Google search using the word “hotels” on Wednesday, Expedia’s website appeared no where on the first few pages of results. In the past, expedia.com would have appeared in the number three spot on the first page, according to Tober.
The word “hotels” was used more than 15,000 times as an anchor text on many websites to create links back to Expedia’s main website, according to the Searchmetrics analysis shared with USA TODAY.
In one example – http://www.vngarden.com/w/ – a website about traveling in Vietnam was created and at the bottom of the page it says “Designed by the Expedia Hotels Team.” The word Hotels links to the hotel section of Expedia’s main website.
“This is very unusual and never done anymore in search,” Tober said. “This is completely obvious to Google’s search engine that these sites are made just for the links.”
In another example, a German-language blog – http://internet-maerchen.de/blog/ – was created. At the bottom, it says “Designed by the Expedia Cheapest Flights Team.” This time, the link is to the flights section of Expedia’s main website.
However, the font used for this links is white on a white background, so most visitors to the site would not see the words and the link. Tober uncovered it by highlighting the area with his computer’s cursor.
“I don’t know why Expedia did this. This is a technique that stopped about 10 years ago,” Tober said. This adds to his suspicion that the episode may have been caused by negative SEO.
“In the last year or two there has been a lot of movement within the black hat industry to use negative SEO to hurt rankings of companies with these kinds of techniques,” he added. “Hopefully Expedia will recover soon.”