Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

By Larry Kim | Small Business

As is true of so many things in life, the big boys have it a whole lot easier than the rest of us. Fishing for backlinks in exchange for money can be risky (not to mention deeply unethical), but that didn’t stop Hotels.com, an Expedia property, from sending out spammy emails asking travel bloggers for precisely that.

Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology image hotels dot com busted.jpgHotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

What Happened?

In case you hadn’t heard, a little background on this whole debacle.

Earlier this month, a number of influential travel bloggers received an email from an as-yet unnamed “SEO Manager” for Hotels.com’s Americas division. The poorly-written email was sent from a Hotels.com email address, and claimed that the SEO Manager had been reading the bloggers’ posts. The sender went on to ask if the recipients would be interested in some “brand promotion for our hotels.”

So far, so good, right? Unfortunately (for Hotels.com), the phrasing of the email soon to a detour into black-hat territory. The sender, who until the end of the email had been asking for hotel reviews or “more neutral content, such as ‘Brought to you by Hotels.com,’” then gave the game away by explicitly asking how much the bloggers wanted to be paid for helping Hotels.com acquire backlinks:

“If you agree with partnering with us on helping us acquire backlinks, I would like to discuss a package or how you wanted to compensated to perform this assignment.”

Oh dear.

What Was Hotels.com’s Response?

Predictably, Hotels.com was quick to distance itself from the shady machinations of the SEO Manager.

In a canned response shortly after the incident came to light, Hotels.com issued the following statement:

“We work hard to adhere to the guidelines which search engines have put in place. The email is not aligned with our program and was the result of an internal misunderstanding that has been quickly identified and resolved.”

Presumably, the “internal misunderstanding” was that this type of back-alley shenanigans should never have been made public, and that the SEO Manager responsible has been fired.

So What’s The Big Deal?

Aside from being risky business, Hotels.com’s attempts to buy backlinks from bloggers highlights just how often large, well-known sites get away with underhanded tactics that would otherwise ruin small businesses trying to do the same thing. Not convinced? Let’s take a look at other questionable tactics being employed by Hotels.com.

Thin Content and Link Farms

Do a Google search for “Hotels.com” and you’ll see firsthand how the site leverages its size and power to game the system:

Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology image hotels dot com serp.png 600x141Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

Apparently, the Hotels.com domain has almost 36 million pages indexed in Google. Even an SEO novice could see that something’s up. There’s no possible way that Hotels.com could have that many legitimate pages on its site. Our site is quite large and we only have 14,000 indexed results.

So what’s the deal with all those pages? Well, Hotels.com is using computer-generated pages featuring thin content and link farms to game the Google algorithm. The site has a page for virtually every city/state/region/hotel name in the world:

Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology image hotels dot com thin content.jpg.png 600x102Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

As if that weren’t bad enough, Hotels.com is also benefiting from computer-generated content with internal links to its own content, thus further boosting its rankings:

Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology image hotels dot com internal linking.jpg.pngHotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

The computer generated pages also feautres ads prominently across their site:

Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology image hotels dot com ads.pngHotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

What Does This Mean?

Simply put, Hotels.com is a content farm that just so happens to offer hotel bookings. The site is using virtually every trick in the book to boost its rankings, and many of these tactics are definitely against Google’s terms of service.

What’s worse is that, by its own admission, Hotels.com knows this behavior is shady, but has been doing it anyway. Imagine if a small business were to engage in these kind of tactics. The manual penalty resulting from this type of abuse would almost certainly relegate the offending business to the depths of page 20, or even farther back.

The real question is why Hotels.com would either a) need to buy backlinks when these other techniques were already helping significantly boost Hotels.com’s rankings, or b) why the site would hire such an inexperienced – or reckless – SEO to do its dirty work.

How Did Hotels.com Get Away With It?

It didn’t.

Although Hotels.com was quick to distance itself from the spammy tactics utilized by the unnamed SEO, the damage has been done – or, at least, Google caught them in the act and responded appropriately.

Let’s take a look at Hotels.com’s recent traffic. Both Alexa and Compete data indicates a steep drop-off in traffic to Hotels.com, beginning last summer.

From Alexa:

Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology image hotels dot com alexa data.pngHotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

And Compete:

Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology image hotels dot com compete.png 600x339Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

Are Any Other Major Brands Doing This?

You know it. In fact, according to Tnooz, which broke the story, several major brands frequently purchase nofollow backlinks to game their rankings. The practice is so common that it’s all but common knowledge among those in the know.

Yes, Google is taking steps to put a stop to black-hat tactics like this, but as the traffic data above proves, sites like Hotels.com have been enjoying the benefits of shady SEO for some time. Some might argue that management of the site really didn’t know that an SEO in the organization was up to this sort of thing. Personally, I’m not convinced. My bet is that, had they not been called out on it, this would have been standard operating procedure for Hotels.com.

Perhaps the only good that can come of this is greater scrutiny from the SEO community, and of course, the penalties that sites like this deserve for using such trickery in the first place.

This article was syndicated from Business 2 Community: Hotels.com Busted for Buying Links, Offers Weak Apology

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