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.