Tales from the crypt – 5 shocking SEO horror stories

Nov 1, 2019 by
Tales from the crypt – 5 shocking SEO horror stories

It’s the time of year again where every blogger under the sun attempts to skirt the fringes of legitimacy by breaking out the ‘spooky’ superlatives and trying (and most likely failing) to pin some soft scares on something just not that scary, all in honour of Halloween.

However, when it comes to the world of SEO, the practices that now strike fear (or at least mild discomfort) into the hearts of all good and true content creators were once commonplace. This leaves SEO in a tough place when it comes to singling out ‘horror stories’. Because, until a few years ago, it was all pretty much a horror show!

So here, I thought I’d instead focus on a few ‘spooky’ situations (couldn’t resist, sorry) where brands were hoisted with their own petards. Consider these SEO horror stories cautionary tales for any readers who still yearn for the ‘good old days’ of keyword-stuffing content spinning and link buying.


Back in February 2006, brands commonly engaged in a practice known as ‘cloaking’, that enabled a site to show one thing to a site crawler and another thing to an actual visitor. It’s a shady tactic and even back then, Google was having none of it and decided to punish German auto-manufacturing kingpins BMW for engaging in the practice.

The BMW website was completely removed for three days, which might not sound like a particularly harsh sentence, but when you’re one of the world’s largest automotive brands, it means millions in potential lost income.

Demand Media

Ok, this one is only a rumour, but it certainly is a doozy. The story goes that there were so many SEOs complaining about the poor quality content being released by SEO content company Demand Media, that it almost single-handedly resulted in the now-infamous “Panda” update specifically targeting bad content.

Of course, in truth, it was probably more than just one bad apple that spoils the bunch, but it certainly caught Demand red-handed, to the extent they even ended up changing their name. Today they trade under the “Leaf Group” moniker.


Back in the days when WordPress was still finding its feet in the world of approachable content management systems, they were in the (bad) habit of allowing an aggressively spammy third-party to host on their system. The hidden links included on these doorway pages resulted in two days where WordPress was completely unranked.


Back in 2011, this online retailer was banned from ranking their own name for two whole months after they were found to be trading backlinks.

The brand was offering discounts in exchange, which might sound perfectly benevolent (particularly given the educational factor) but with such a severe sentence, it’s obvious that Google did not see it as small fries. That was 8 years ago too. If a brand were to try something similar today there’s no telling how far they would go!


In a similar manner to Overstock, the US department store was exposed by none other than the New York Times back in 2011 as dirty link buyers. Many of their pages were downgraded as a result and their reputation took a significant hit. How did they react? By blaming the whole thing on their SEO company. If that doesn’t read as a cautionary tale for SEOs then I honestly don’t know what will!