TfL revamped its website recently, and little commented on but quite noticeable is that slap bang in the heart of the main page is space for an advert.

At the moment, it is promoting the Year of the Bus, but last week it had a paid advert there.

Advertising on websites can help fund a service, and TfL has wisely opted for a model where they host the advert on their own website, so they have complete editorial control over it.

This avoids the problem of using an agency serving ad banners, which are a) hidden by nasty ad-blockers, but also can occasionally serve up very inappropriate adverts, leading to all sorts of amusing stories in the press.

So far, so good.

tfl home page

However, TfL was inadvertently playing a very dangerous game and could have come to the attention of Google’s spam team.

Google has a very strict policy that no website that wants to appear in Google search results should sell adverts on its website in a manner that passes “pagerank” from one website to another for payment.

Basically, TfL has a website that thanks to being very popular has a pagerank of 8/10. Any link from the homepage will acquire some of that link-juice, and benefit from it. So someone might offer to pay TfL to put a link on its website to theirs, so that they benefit from the association.

And Google does not like that. Not at all. No, really, they do not like it.

Websites selling paid links are allowed to do so, but only under a very specific situation, where they add a special tag to the code to tell Google “please no not consider this link”. Then Google will ignore it, but we humans can still see it.

<a href="...">I am a special offer</a>

needs to be:

<a href="..." rel="nofollow">I am a special offer</a>

TfL hadn’t done that.

A conversation with TfL last Friday confirmed that this was just an oversight and not meant to happen, and as of today, the link to the advertorial page has been removed from the website.

TfL has done the correct thing — and it was just a little mistake that only us nerdish sorts would have actively noticed. However, Google’s automated tools would have picked it up fairly quickly, and might have slapped a search ranking penalty on the TfL website.

Had that happened, then TfL’s website might have been downgraded in the search results, which would have lead to lots of people struggling to find it when looking online.

Sometimes, as I know only too well, it can take ages to recover in the Google search results, even when it was just an innocent mistake — or maybe as I am suspecting, innocent oversights are actually harder to recover from.

With today’s 6-monthly major Panda update at Google, TfL has just avoided that.

Which is fortunate for all of us wanting to check the weekend engineering works.


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  1. Greg Tingey says:

    “Which is fortunate for all of us wanting to check the weekend engineering works”

    Because the ghastly still-“new” TfL web-disaster shows the weekend map as totally unreadable -as it has done from day one.
    The whole web-site still, after how many months (?) does not have tube timetables, nor first & last tube train times.
    An utter disgrace.

  2. Sam Jones says:

    Ian interesting article, and it made me think that it can’t be that easy to be knocked down a page or ten by Google because we all know some of the most difficult to navigate and non conforming sites are those of the Government and other such bodies. I remembered a conversation about delivering a website with two Government departments both had high rankings and little content or any linking I asked why this happened. The weight given to a .gov site makes it somewhat resoliant to the errors that we are used to. I do however imagine there may well have been a friendly account manager to point it out if it had remained.

    As for the site I really find it is cleaner is much more about the information you need rather than all information nobody needed to see hiding it! Greg I have to say I think your criticisms are a bit harsh. First up you can get a first and last train from the more section under the tube pages you will see it there – it has always been on the site but before I could never remember where it was hidden away.

    As to the timetables are you looking for you to print out or to do what with. We all know what its like stuck on tube and we all know that not one two jour eya are the same in London. Tfl by using a start and finish search function make it so simple and a timetable would only serve to annoy customers as they could see how late they were whereas before it was a delay!

    I think we should applaud tfl for being brave – once we get rid of paper tickets and cash on the network I will be pleased and it’s not easy for a beast of an organisation to modernise quickly and it cannot fall behind or it will loose out. So far from being a disgrace it should be applauded and held as a an example of a good government site!

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