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.
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.
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.