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.


Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?

Mike Tyson branded 'superhero' after a surprise good turn

A Rutherford Raiders shirt with the PornHub sponsorship

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would

Charlie Sheen could be set to revive his role as a hedonistic womaniser

Life and Style
Jamie Oliver’s version of Jollof rice led thousands of people to post angry comments on his website
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Apple CEO Timothy Cook
Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’

Review: Mike Leigh's biopic is a rambling, rich character study

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Teacher Cornwall

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Early Years Teacher - Jan 2015 - China

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Position: Early Years TeacherRequired: J...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes