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BMW.de has been banned from Google – at least in the short term. What is perhaps worse is that they have also received international publicity for their antics. This article looks at why their site was banned but also looks at the wider issue of the pitfalls of choosing a search marketing partner.

Why BMW was banned, how bad is the publicity and how can you avoid the same fate?

BMW was banned from Google for delivering different content to Google’s spider (the program that is used to index web pages) than was delivered to humans. Google get pretty annoyed at this kind of behaviour. This may have been almost forced upon a search engine marketing team who are told "We are BMW – you must get us high on the search engines" and at the same time BMW’s Media agency say "BMW’s brand in sacrosanct, you cannot make changes to the website".

These two orders from on high are diametrically opposed. The search marketer involved should, of course, have said "no – you can’t have it both ways" and then walked away from the job. Alternatively, they should have made it extremely obvious to BMW what risks they were taking. The problem is that most big brands – and brand managers – do not have the level of knowledge and experience required to understand these risks. Luckily for the rest of us, we can now use BMW as an illustrative case study.

Once a search engine marketer is faced with having to deliver different content to the search engines than they do to humans, they are more or less committed to a technique called ‘cloaking’. Since they are already violating one principal guideline set down by Google, the temptation is then to go further – stuffing the cloaked page with keywords and phrases with often scant disregard for how this text would read to the human mind.

These pages were online, apparently, for two years before the news broke and the pages got banned. So let’s not delude ourselves. BMW had a good run. They will have received large amounts of traffic leveraging brand equity with sharp search marketing tactics. They have got their money’s worth and have nothing to complain about. But search marketing is now a more mainstream medium. The reports got beyond Matt Cutts’ blog and into the Timesonline and the BBC. The SEO community is obviously taking an interest, but when the news gets to a wider audience, brand starts to suffer. Ethical search marketing companies, like ourselves lose pitches on the basis that the competition promises less disruption to the client site. Experience suggests that this is a metaphor for getting around company politics rather than getting stuck right into the middle of it. A good search engine marketer now needs to be a politician, a mathematician a negotiator and understand brand values to succeed. This doesn’t come cheap.

Update:Well – you have to be impressed by the power of Branding. The company (BMW) have cleaned up their pages and – on this occasion – Google have reindexed BMW.de and restored their good name in Google’s index.