Interflora and when SEO turns ugly: why brands need a social approach

Interflora had a bad week last week. Previously, the florist was easily one of the most high profile brands online in terms of search – as of Wednesday, Google has effectively wiped it off the internet, removing it from search results for common search terms like ‘flowers’ or ‘flower delivery’, and even for its own brand name.

While Google is yet to comment officially about why it’s so annoyed with Interflora, it’s not hard to guess why. It seems as though Interflora has been indulging in some suspect link-building, both by sending flowers and other products to bloggers and demanding that they link to them in return, and by buying advertorials without nofollow tags on newspaper sites.

The florist (or its SEO agency) has been outed on Twitter by bloggers who have been approached with the rather strange request that they remove links in their posts, indicating that Interflora is aware of its wrongdoing and trying to remedy the situation.

While this is a big industry issue that should be discussed regardless, I must admit I have a particular interest in this case, as Interflora is a former client of ours. Between September and October 2010 we created and executed the award-winning ‘Random acts of kindness’ campaign for them.

The campaign was about using creativity and insight to generate advocacy and word of mouth. We monitored Twitter to look out for people having a bad day, then offered them a bunch of flowers to cheer them up. And for bloggers in need of cheering up, we sent them customised bouquets which matched their own blog colour schemes, without asking anything in return. This wasn’t about creating back-links to Interflora (although that was a beneficial side effect) – the focus was on doing something genuine and nice – which in turn, generated a real buzz and positive sentiment towards the brand.

Which is why it’s disheartening to see that two years on, an SEO agency has destroyed this good work by bastardising this approach and apparently buying off bloggers with flowers in return for links. This is an interesting variation of a common ‘black hat’ SEO practice, but its certainly not the only one – it’s a small part of a bigger problem. These dubious SEO tactics generally rely flooding the internet with irrelevant links and needless information rather than focusing on creating conversation that actually interests and engages people.

Don’t get me wrong – SEO done ethically and executed well can be good for business. But it shouldn’t be forced. There’s a perfectly good (and legal) way of getting links for your business. They will come naturally if you take a socially-led approach to your marketing, creating content that people actually want to read and share, and becoming a member of the community by engaging in conversation. Yes, taking this approach is not easy and takes commitment, and buying a link may seem like an easy way to cut corners, but just ask Interflora if they think it was worth it in the long term – if you can find them.

Robin Grant is the global managing director of We Are Social.

  • Matthew Marley

    Not sure if you have seen Interflora’s social approach recently. Most of its been dealing with complaints from angry customers. Between what has happened on their twitter account and this penalty its not been a good week for Interflora’s marketing department.

  • Craig McGill

    It’s interesting that you point out that (apparently/allegedly) it’s the result of them sending flowers and not payments to linkers because – being blunt – you could argue that it was no different from what you did.

    Now – and I’m not looking to start a row/fight here as I love the work of We Are Social – you may say ‘we didn’t ask for anything’ but you must have been hoping (at least) for positive word of mouth and mentions on their websites and Twitter as well as other channels.

    What’s to stop others doing the same now and pleading innocence to Google? I suppose the Nofollow code is the difference here isn’t it? If you guys were doing a similar campaign now would you code it up Nofollow so as to avoid falling foul of Google?

  • Chris Norton

    Hmm Robin, very interesting I have to admit I find this disheartening too. This is the problem with hiring a company to manage your online reputation that doesn’t actually specialise in public relations or reputation management. Is this where the lines are being drawn now? Where does a marketer turn now? Do they select the SEO agency that promises them to get them onto page one for their search terms or do they select the PR agency that promises to raise awareness of them with online influencers? The truth is there are still a lot of people out there that are totally confused as to which way to turn and with more and more SEO agencies opening PR divisions the lines are becoming even more blurred.

    I am from the online PR side and believe that ethical SEO has a role to play but paying for posts without declaring is plain wrong and should be outed. However, if a campaign is ethical and approached the right way I have nothing against it. The only thing I would say is to date SEO has had much higher fees than PR, as normally PR fees are fairly low in comparison in my experience. So why then are so many SEO agencies moving into this space? I believe the answer to this is they know that online reputation is the future and not quick link baiting tactics. Some things will work well in the short-term but a clever well-thought through strategy that creates both word of mouth online as well as offline will deliver the long-term results.

    This is all still being played out and I for one am interested to see how it turns out.

  • Phil Ohren

    To be fair, brands just need to focus on making a good product & SEO & social will come naturally. I don’t believe a social approach to SEO can be applied to all businesses, especially when the value of Social still can’t fully measured or fully crawled by Google.

  • DB

    …But Google is happy to take their ad spend. First ad on flower delivery? Interflora…

  • Todd

    “There’s a perfectly good (and legal) way of getting links for your business.”

    I’ve not passed the bar, but I’m pretty sure buying links isn’t illegal.

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  • SquareFish Inc.

    I agree with this. Link Buying is not illegal per se. But nowadays, LB is not as effective as before. So at this point in time, it would be better to adapt other SEO strategies.

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