Chatter recently came my way both from a few clients and on Twitter from Matt Landau that a big listing site may be facing a Google penalty. Is it possible that a HomeAway Google penalty is happening?
Searches in many of my clients’ main areas indicate that HomeAway has dropped out of the search results in lots of popular areas. This is a classic sign of the quality updates from Google called Penguin or Panda. Typically, these search engine algorithms from Google can remove a website from organic search results due to bad backlinks (Penguin) or thin and poor-quality content (Panda).
For many vacation rental owners, marketers and managers, HomeAway dropping out of the Google search results would make a huge difference to their website traffic. After all, HomeAway ranks on the first page for tens of thousands of keywords and many of those overlap with lots of other websites that are run and owned by managers.
I’m Pretty Sure I Have Discovered The Cause
After doing some digging, I am pretty confident I have the answer: HomeAway.com was not penalized by Google. Instead, the reason for the drop in many search results was something much more simple (and completely self-inflicted): HomeAway told Google to not crawl certain pages.
Below is a link to HomeAway’s robots.txt file. A robots.txt file tells search engine crawlers like Googlebot, Bingbot and more what pages they can and cannot crawl. HomeAway’s recent drop is the result of one thing: Google trying to crawl pages that HomeAway did not want to crawl. As a result, the robots are not crawling pages (and thus, removing these pages from the index), leading to the drop in search results pages.
How To Fix The Phantom HomeAway Google Penalty
Fixing the dropped pages from Google search should be fairly straightforward: remove the needless query strings from their internal links to various landing pages.
In the example above, the following query is appended to the URL of the normal Deep Creek Lake landing page.
This query string allows for the analytics manager to view how many times this particular link was clicked. However, it also let Google crawl the wrong version of the page and then try to index it. Based on my sleuthing, HomeAway was using these links on tons of various internal linking structures throughout their website. As a result, their most popular pages (like to Deep Creek Lake, North Myrtle Beach and tons of others) are getting noindexed and blocked by Googlebot. It appears that HomeAway has since removed their robots.txt rules, but the recovery may be slow as search engine crawlers take awhile to reindex results.
My expectation is that Google will recover and reindex all of the dropped HomeAway pages within two to three weeks.
Lessons Learned From Indexing Large Websites
If you do SEO for a large vacation rental website, cut out tagging internal links: it’s a disaster for SEO and leads to issues just like this. Internal linking for SEO is great, especially on large websites, but it needs to be done carefully and thoughtfully. Make sure that you are aware of modifying a robots.txt file and the impact of how it can seriously impact how Google indexes and crawls your entire website. One small change caused HomeAway to lose tens of thousands of dollars in bookings over the past few weeks: don’t make the same mistake.