When Google errs: A cautionary tale of great power

When Google makes a mistake, the results can be catastrophic and leave website owners with little recourse. Here's what you need to know.

Update 4/28/15: Based on comments in response to this post, I did further research into the history of the cxotalk.com domain that I recently purchased. Based on many spam backlinks, there is no doubt this site had a bad history before my purchase. This leads to several conclusions:

  • Before purchasing any domain at auction, be sure to check its history using backlink tools
  • If the domain has a bad history, use Google Webmaster Tools to do a clean-up before putting the domain into service
  • Google's system of problem remediation lacks transparency and responsiveness. They can and should do better. I still don't really know what caused the problem or how to fix it.

The web runs on Google search and woe unto any website when Google makes a mistake and thinks your site has done something wrong. This story is a personal tale of woe and my own plea for help.

We started cxo-talk.com about two years ago to present video discussions with some of the foremost business leaders of our time. These interviews include top executives from companies such as Microsoft, Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, Workday, Kroger, Ford, Adobe, Harvard, Federal Communications Commission, White House, General Services Administration, and many more leading organizations. Today, we have almost 110 long-form interviews and cxotalk.com has built up one of the most important video libraries on innovation in the world.

Everything was great until I purchased the domain cxotalk.com at an auction. Without the hyphen, I hoped the new web address would make the site just a bit easier for users to find. Little did I know that this change would serve as a catalyst for Google to incorrectly take a "manual action" and classify the entire cxotalk.com domain as "pure spam."

Here's how the announcement of pure spam looks in Google Webmaster Tools, the company's control panel for site owners and administrators:

Google Webmaster Tools

Google takes manual action "on sites that use spammy techniques, such as demoting them or even removing them from our search results altogether." Since the manual action, in this case, affects the entire site instead of only some pages, we can presume that someone at Google believes cxotalk.com is the worst kind of horrible offender.

Here's what I think caused the problem, although in truth I actually have no idea. Although Google Webmaster Tools offers some help, in cases like this it basically opaque unless you know their secret incantations and interpretations.

After purchasing the new site at auction, we implemented 301 redirects to push incoming traffic from old to new site. However, only later did I complete a Google change of address, due to my ignorance. As a result, I suspect Google views the old and new sites as unrelated; therefore, whomever took the manual action may believe that the new cxotalk.com is merely scraping all the content from the old cxo-talk.com. Incidentally, I submitted the change of address last week, but Google shows the move as still in-process.

In contrast, Bing Webmaster Tools accepted the change of address immediately and showed no problem with the site.

Unfortunately, this is all speculation because I have no idea what Google actually thinks is the problem. Some people suggested that perhaps the domain I purchased was a spam site, but it does not seem to be blacklisted anywhere. In addition, Google reports, "we haven't detected any security issues with your site's content."

I did submit a request for Google to review the manual action, but five days later have not heard a thing. I am at Google's mercy. So, if you can suggest anything, please let me know.

Steps you should take

Obviously, when Google makes a mistake, there may be a severe negative impact on your website. To avoid this, it is imperative that site owners follow Google's webmaster guidelines for issues such as content, structure, and domain changes.

Unfortunately, Google has become like the IRS: a complicated system that requires experts to help you navigate it.

Like the IRS, making a simple mistake -- or even no mistake at all -- can cost you dearly when something goes wrong. At least the IRS has a call-in telephone line; despite Google's vast size and importance, webmasters facing a Google error can do nothing except wait and hope Google responds.

Before setting up a site or making significant changes, I suggest getting advice from experienced developers to guide you properly regarding the ins and outs of making Google happy.

When you do have questions, try the Webmaster Central Help in the Google Product Forums. In this case, the appropriate section is "Crawling, indexing & ranking."

All this begs the question of Google's responsibilities to webmasters. Given its power, Google should be more transparent over these issues. At the least, it should hire more support technicians to help rectify its own errors.

If you have suggestions for fixing this problem, or can refer me to someone at Google that can help, please share your ideas in the comments.