After Google bought Nest, it removed one of the company's biggest competitors from search results

By James Robinson , written on May 29, 2014

From The News Desk

UPDATE: Google’s head of webspam calls Pando’s reporting “silly,” wants you to know that Google is totally transparent

In the middle of January, Vivint, the Utah based home automation company that also produces smart thermostats, found itself with a surprising new rival. Google bought Nest and by virtue of acquisition Vivint was suddenly competing head to head with the Silicon Valley search giant.

But Vivint -- which was purchased by Blackstone in 2012 -- certainly didn’t expect what happened next. Just two weeks later, Vivint was delisted from Google’s search results.

According to Vivint, Google said it had found external links into Vivint’s website that sat outside of its "quality guidelines," but Google wouldn't  confirm what those links were. The company was left to fish in the dark to figure out what it had done to upset its rival, to identify the offending links were and make repeat requests for reinstatement.

When Rap Genius was removed from Google’s search results last year for getting bloggers to link to its website in exchange for social media exposure, everything was ironed out within two weeks. Vivint’s exile was much, much longer. The company finally started showing up on Google again this week -- four months after it had disappeared.

At a PR-organized dinner in San Francisco last night, Vivint’s CEO and founder Todd Pedersen and VP of Innovation Jeremy Warren spoke with frustration about the ban, saying that Google never communicated to them exactly what they’d done wrong, or how they could fix it. He said that Vivint had managed to survive its time in the Google wilderness (its Bing and Yahoo search standing was unaffected) because of its extensive offline presence and large door-to-door sales force.

“Our recent experience with Google search results was difficult due to a lack of transparency,” Vivint’s Jeremy Warren said via email today. “We were provided with vague descriptions of Google’s preferences and requirements, which leaves lots of room for interpretation.”

When asked for comment, Google wouldn’t go into any detail about the length of Vivint’s sentence, its lack of search transparency in helping it fix its wrongdoings and any perceived improprieties at it locking out a competitor for such a lengthy amount of time.

"We typically don't go into details on specific sites, but we're always working to improve the quality of search results for our users," a Google spokesperson told Pando.

“We work hard to encourage an ecosystem of successful publishers and high-quality content.”

Mike Templeman, the CEO of SEO search specialists Foxtail Marketing, followed the Vivint delisting closely as it happened. The timing and the severity of the punishment jumped out at him, even if it wasn’t entirely undeserved.

“I view it as a very suspicious coincidence,” Templeman says. He says that according to the search data analysis tool SEMrush, Vivint’s delisting had begun by January 29, just 16 days after Google’s Nest sale was announced.

Templeman found in his research that Vivint was delisted for all but three of the 3300 search terms that were linked to its website, something he said was abnormally severe.

Vivint was technically guilty of improper linking, but it didn’t benefit the company. Analyzing the site’s traffic information, Templeman says that the offending links seemed to come from banner ads placed for the company’s charity and sport’s sponsorships which weren’t coded properly and therefore came up as paid links to its site, something that Google strictly prohibits.

“It looks like it was just sloppy marketing practices,” Templeman says.

For that mistake, Vivint was wiped from the face of Google for four months. Other companies that have been caught making far more overt attempts to benefit by gaming the system -- like Rap Genius, or which offered discounts in exchange for site links -- received far lighter punishments, usually just finding themselves bumped down the search results.

According to SEMrush, for the past four months, 80 percent of Vivint’s search engine traffic has come from paid ads. It has had to pay Google to show up in results.

Templeman says that these incidents can have long term effects on a company’s standing.

As Google diversifies far outside of its beginnings in search, with how dominant Google is as a search engine, Vivint’s experience -- whether deliberate sabotage on Google’s behalf or not -- is a warning sign of the massive anti-competitive sledgehammer the company has at its disposal. It can hold rivals down, while letting its own team peak at the closely guarded search rules and algorithms.

“After something like this, it can be 18 months before your search presence repairs itself,” Templeman says. “And, as they say, there’s no greater place to hide a dead body than on the second page of Google’s search results.”

UPDATE: Google’s head of webspam calls Pando’s reporting “silly,” wants you to know that Google is totally transparent