How Google pulled the plug on the Peak District

Mike Cummins set up a website to promote the beauty of Britain’s first national park. One morning it disappeared from the internet.  Despite a 14-month fight he still doesn’t know why

It seems an improbable candidate to incur the wrath of Google: a website promoting the beauty of the Peak District, featuring divine images of the rolling moors and articles by writers who know its acres best. But the creators of the site, which has done more than most to draw tourists to stay in Britain’s first National Park, are on the verge of closing down, having being blacklisted and wiped from search results. Google has deemed them to have broken the search engine’s opaque rules but not told them how to make amends.

The story of the ‘Let’s Stay Peak District’ website was one of simple entrepreneurial flair before it was wiped from the Google map overnight, in April last year. Established by businessman and photographer Mike Cummins in 2001, it was an attempt to seize the growing opportunity of website business by advertising Peak District holiday accommodation all in one place. It was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the UK’s first National Park and hundreds signed up, each paying about £100-150 a year. Cummins produced most of the content, took the photographs and commissioned quality articles from, among others, the well-known Peak District specialist writer and broadcaster Roly Smith. Within two years, hundreds of cottages, b&bs, hotels and campsites were listed and the site was turning over £30,000– enough for Cummins, 59, to jack in his other work and run it full time.

 The position the site commanded on Google searches made all the difference. The top few 'sponsored’ listings pay Google for the privilege but a place in the natural top three generates the highest results. Cummins’ site earned top ranking for all the key Peak District searches, year after year, ensuring that the quality of his site content was high enough for pubs, hotels and tourism organisations to link from their sites to his. Links from other sites are the vital component of a top ranking.

By 2005, new site, Let’s Stay UK, was spun off from the orignal and franchises were sold. Let’s Stay was soon a portal for accommodation from Kent to Lancashire, Snowdonia to Suffolk.  The pressure to stay top grew and Cummins, whose wife Bridget, 56, began to work with him, examined how search engine optimisation (SEO) could help him, spending 10 per cent of his marketing budget, from 2011, to engage a specialist company in the field, Super Mango.

And then the sky fell in. Cummins, who knew that his position in a key number of search results was vital, awoke to his nightmare 14 months ago, switching on the computer to undertake his usual routine of 20 check searches to find that Let’s Stay Peak District had dropped dramatically and almost vanished overnight. “In the UK, over 85% of searches use Google and suddenly we have gone and there is no way to find out why,” he says.

It was the Super Mango founder, Antony Murray, who directed Cummins through the back alleyways of the site – Google’s Webmaster Tools area where the search engine occasionally corresponds with messages and alerts. And sure enough, there was the message which told him that he had been in contravention of rules governing “unnatural links” to his site. Those two words have dominated the Cummins’ lives in the last 14 months, a period during which they have been no closer to understanding what they have done wrong.

The rules governing what Google likes and dislikes when it makes its automated, algorithmic assessment of which sites should sit top of the search results are very opaque. But one dislike is sites which massage the traffic by placing links to them on other sites which have no connection to it: effectively ‘fooling’ Google. In the competitive search result environment, this does happen. Links can end up on obscure overseas sites, porn sites or even sites with no content, set up only to provide links. They call it “black hat marketing.” A Google trawl of its system, codenamed Penguin, was undertaken to uncover this at around the time Cummins was blacklisted.  

Cummins didn’t see how his site could be offending in this way – “I was convinced the whole thing must be a mistake,” he says - but he engaged another specialist, SEO Thing whom he knew had personal contacts with Google, to go through every available link. All those that might be deemed high risk were removed and Cummins submitted what is known as a ‘reconsideration request’ last December, asking to be reinstated.

Google emailed back five days later to say no. “We still see unnatural links,” they said. Cummins threw out links Langton deemed a medium-risk of offending Google, aware that by doing so he may reduce traffic to the site which had given it such a high ranking and fall outside of the all-important first search page. He submitted another ‘reconsideration request’ in February. “I could hardly bring myself to look at the reply,” he says. “Accommodation owners were calling to ask why the bookings had dried up and many stopped renewing their listings.” ‘No’ was the answer, once again.

More links were removed – “virtually anything pointing to us,” says Cummins – and another request to be removed submitted in April. Same response. “It’s like a prison sentence for our business,” says Cummins. “And the agony of it all is that there is no-one we can ask for help on the inside of Google. The experts told us that a manual (human) reviewer would have considered our second request to be reinstated. But we can’t get an understanding of how we’re at fault”

SEO specialists have been reluctant to discuss the case with The Independent this week because they fear they will damage their own working relationship with Google. Barney Jones, the former employee who lifted the lid on Google’s tax avoidance told The Independent that the hundreds of staff Google employ in the UK are employed in engineering and advertising sales, with little support for search systems. “There is limited power of comeback in a situation like this – yet potentially millions of people who could feel aggrieved. The difficulty is how you would deal with them all.” He rejected the idea that that Google may have acted to force the tourism businesses, or the website, to buy Google AdWords. 

In desperation, the Cummins continue to investigate how they might be at fault. The Derbyshire Dales MP Patrick McLoughlin has taken up the case, with no results yet. “We’ve lost about £60,000 in business,” said Mike Cummins. “It feels like 12 years of very hard work have come to nothing.” Google did not respond to requests to explain about the Cummins' problem.

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