How my internship got screwed up by Google
A while ago, my mostly-virtual-friend asked me to blog about my internship. Why this would be interesting for anyone else besides me is because of what happened to the company while I was working there. In this blog post, I’ll explain what happened and maybe make someone realise how much is at stake when an online business is dependent on big players on the internetz. It could also help someone who is searching for or starting an internship through Erasmus programme to get a bigger picture on what he or she is getting herself into.
In my final year of studies I decided to do an Erasmus internship in another country for which I would get a stipend from my university. I decided for it mostly because I was bored of the system of student jobs in Slovenia, which is ran by student services and is very successful in diminishing young graduates’ opportunities of finding a regular job. Also, it is not a system that would allow students to get a great deal of experience in a short amount of time, which I believe is one of the goals of an internship in the first place.
Since I didn’t want to work somewhere where I will feel useless or be just a small piece of the puzzle, I decided to apply for a job in a small start-up company in the suburbs of Barcelona (for Erasmus, a student has to find an internship in a EU country by him/herself). The task description seemed interesting enough and I fitted the profile (my studies were social informatics and after that, strategic market communication). A good thing was that they also offered payment for interns, around 500€/month, plus I would get the stipend from University of Ljubljana, 400€/month for a minimum of three and maximum of four months. This amount is given regardless if your internship lasts longer than four months or if you go to Sweden or Czech Republic - implying the GDP difference and cost of living.
I started working in Barcelona in January this year. Let’s call this start-up company Pepe’s Discounts. We were four people working there, my two superiors – who were also the founders – one programmer and me. They had a small office where I worked on my laptop. Since it was a start-up company, they depended greatly on funding from investors, but they did make some money with their business model too.
So what does Pepe’s Discounts do? It’s an online service that collects discounts from online shops around the world. For example, if you search for »Nike shoes«, it will give you results for shops that deliver to your country, including the shops that have discounts on Nike. When I started working there, one was able to choose between a custom made webpage for 6 different countries: UK, US, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Spain. Spain was doing best; there was a lot of traffic coming from Spain since Pepe’s Discounts had a lot of popular Spainsh shops in their base. The model was Cost Per Action, so whenever someone bought something at an online store, going through Pepe’s Discounts first to look for a discount code or an offer, Pepe would get a commission from that purchase.
There was also Pepe’s blog, Pepe’s Facebook page, a Twitter and Pinterest account among others, and managing them was my task. I also wrote contents for landing pages which were special subpages with offers related to different seasons or popular items (for example, I wrote a product page for Game of Thrones in Spanish, like where to find GoT posters with a discount and crap like that). This was fun, since a lot of research through Google Insights and following Google Analytics was involved (did I mention I like research? I like statistics too). This was done in order to figure out what are the trends in online shopping world and which are interesting searches on products. Finding that out, I wrote contents for landing pages, blog posts or posted on Facebook, and used specific keywords for search engine optimization.
You can imagine that most Pepe’s Discounts’ traffic was coming from Google. They were doing well in Spain, concerning page ranking. For example, there was a point when »Hunter discount Spain« search result in Google would give you Pepe’s Discounts website as the first result. Hunter is a famous brand for boots, so yes, this was a good thing.
Everything was going well, we had a Facebook prize game to boost the fan base, we planned other social media strategies for Easter sales, already got funding for that, and then something bad started to happen. The site »got banned« by Google (my boss used the word ban, but I think “punishment” would be more suitable). First, Pepe’s Discounts got punished in search results in Sweden, US and UK and later in Germany and Spain. All this in the time span of one month (or perhaps a bit more). This punishment meant much lower page ranking in search results and consequently, less traffic and less money. It was a blow since it was so unexpected, especially when it came to Spain which had the most traffic, and there was little that could be done about it at that point.
One of the reasons why this punishment happened is because of website’s content. Each shop had a shop description, but since there were so many shops from all around the world, there was an automatically generated description for most shops on the website. Simplifying, there was one common description for all shops in Clothing & Accessories category, which is bad for page ranking since it’s not custom made content. There was also a programme that searched for and published discounts from all those shops, most of it hasn’t been done manually. And more importantly, content for different countries that weren’t one of the six mentioned before – content seen from Slovenia or from Burkina Faso – was exactly the same. I was not in the meeting with SEO people so I am not sure if there were some other things contributing to this Google ban as well, but it’s just to give an idea what were the main reasons for a lower position in Google search result.
As a consequence, traffic decreased, in one month Pepe’s Discounts went from having an average of 8000 visitors per day to having 80 per day. No traffic also meant no money from investors. It was a dilemma for my superiors if they should even continue or close down, but finally they decided to try and get back into place as far as page ranking is concerned. That meant making a lot of changes, like keeping only three countries for custom made sites, writing a lot of store descriptions manually (done by freelancers and me), uploading discounts manually and a lot of programming work. In order to make their business survive, they cut down all unnecessary costs, which included my internship payment, cancelling the rent contract for the office and other changes. The only thing left to do was to resubmit the site, losing all links made by link building and to start over from the beginning. They resubmitted the site on May 2nd 2012.
Finally, I stayed in Barcelona, working for them for four months because the contract I had signed with my university was binding me to do so (or else I would have to give the stipend back). I also stayed because I wanted to see what will happen to the company and because I liked what I was doing. Even though I got paid less than half of what I was »promised«, it was a valuable experience and, of course, a valuable lesson.
First thing I learned is that Erasmus internship programme is very rigid and lacking a safety net in terms of guaranteeing that the company is stable or that they actually stick to what they offer. But since a student has to find a company by himself, it’s his own fault if he chooses a crappy company. How convenient. A student has absolutely no guarantee if the company is going to pay him/her or not, and is on the other hand bound to work for this particular company for the time period assigned, unless he wants to return the stipend to the university. As far as this programme is concerned, I can only advise students to be careful and determined when it comes to agreements on working conditions, but not in any way to be discouraged to take advantage of this opportunity. Of course changes should be made in conditions set up by the university as well: for example, allowing students to change companies during their internship period, which is not allowed at the moment.
Second, an important lesson learnt was how dependent all these online businesses - start-ups or not - are on Google. It has to be really tricky to have predispositions for coming up on the first page of search results and complying with these secret rules Google has for putting your website on the map. And once Google decides that your website doesn’t fit the criteria, well, there’s not much you can do. Is it even possible to have an online business and not to be dependent on Google?
That has also made me wonder about how much of this reality one calls Internet is actually constructed by Google itself. What do I have the power to find and what is »served« to me? Do I want to have my own custom search results, consisting of Google+ your world, things my friends like appearing on top of the list and other »social searches«? I think the answer is no. This realization has made me more careful about what I like and what I post and - scary but true - who my online friends are. I can proudly say that I am not friends with any brand on Facebook and I intend to keep it that way. Just to keep my search results less spammy.
All in all, it was a great experience. I am still a young girl and know nothing in the ways of SEO, but at least I started to discover what is under the surface. It’s becoming more visible how things are functioning and if I haven’t had this internship a lot threats and weaknesses of online business world - if I can call it like that - would remain hidden.
- Google Analytics Now Shows You Who’s Linking To You (seroundtable.com)
- Finally learned how to say ‘I don’t speak Dutch’ in Dutch. IRONY!! (glasgowuniversityabroad1112.wordpress.com)
- My Placement at Drimlike (publishingdegree.co.uk)