Portent.com: Under manual penalty
Ian Lurie Mar 20 2014
This is an hour-by-hour, day-by-day narration of Portent’s time in the Google Penalty box. If you want to read in order, read from the bottom up. While our time under penalty was very short, the lessons are good ones. We did the same work for ourselves that we’d do for other clients, with the exception of a lot more noisemaking, and it appeared to work OK.
Update: 3/21/14 2:45 PM
Screaming Frog’s Dan Sharp correctly pointed out that other sites seem to be recovering, too. This might all be a readjustment, in which case all of our work did exactly nada. Sigh. Thanks Dan. I’ll go slam my head in a drawer for a bit.
…upon further consideration, I’ll spare myself the drawer-slamming. We did receive a manual penalty notification. I know there’s precedent for incorrect notifications, but still, it feels legit to me. Let’s see if we get a notification that’s it all fixed.
Update: 3/21/14 2:10 PM
We’re back! At least it looks that way. We’re back at number 3 for our brand name in an incognito search:
And we’re showing up for ‘seattle internet marketing:’
Don’t take us as an example. Do NOT EXPECT you’ll get a penalty lifted in 24 hours. We were able to make a fair amount of not-totally-negative noise: I think there were 200+ tweets, a bunch of Facebook posts and a lot of traffic on Google+ about this. Plus, we’re reasonably well-known internet marketers. So the Google web quality team probably noticed we were scrambling. However, here’s what we determined:
- We think Google penalized us for keyword-rich links in guest posts. The ones we found were pretty old, and there weren’t many. Maybe less than 2% of our link profile? Not sure, but since we know there’s a declining tolerance for spam, be warned.
- Chances are big changes to our site (we did a relaunch in late January) and our link profile (the hacked site that suddenly added tens of thousands of keyword-stuffed links to our site) triggered the review.
- Age of post did not matter. Not too surprising.
- I’m sure the 2 sites with 70,000 keyword-stuffed backlinks pointing at us didn’t help. But those were easy to get rid of.
- All of this stuff has been around for 1-2 years, minimum.
What we did:
- Developed a theory as to what happened.
- Planned out what to do.
- An enormous disavow. At least 1200 domains.
- Removed all keyword-stuffed links from all sites we controlled. This took us about 20 minutes, seriously.
- Submitted a reinclusion request.
- Continued cleanup.
What we’ll do now:
- Continue cleanup. In my experience sites that are post-penalty are far more likely to get another penalty. Plus, why not?
- Write a few scripts to make this kind of detective work easier. When consulting clients come to us for a reinclusion request, it’s usually pretty blatant SEO spam. Subtler stuff like this is a serious pain in the buttocks to detect.
In short: We didn’t do anything that different than we do for reinclusion clients, with one exception: We did make a lot more noise, without any temper tantrums. I do NOT recommend doing the same for yourselves. It was very risky being this transparent. I’m sure the rest of Portent’s leadership team considered hitting me with chairs.
What you should do:
- Scour — I mean SCOUR — your link profile for guest posts with exact-match keyword rich anchor text, and remove them.
- Look for sitewide links, also with exact-match anchor text. I still think this really hurt us.
- Do this BEFORE you do a site relaunch or some other major change.
And, after a marathon 30 hours, I’m going to go for a walk, after renaming my guinea pig SERPy.
Update: 3/21/14 12:21 PM
We are again appearing on page 1 for some queries, but using our old portentinteractive.com domain. That 301s to our site. Yesterday, the old domain didn’t appear, either. The connection between the two domains is blatantly obvious, so I’m sure Google knew to push both down in the rankings. We’ll keep an eye on things and keep everyone posted.
Update: 3/21/14 11:58 AM
Just finished a hand inspection of domains we could find, and removed all sitewides, accidental or otherwise. 14 domains still had them. Now for the fancy stuff: We’re checking all 9000 or so domains Google has listed as linking to us for response codes. Then we’ll pull a whitelist of the obvious ones. Then we’ll check the rest for links back to us, and inspect those linking pages for exact-match anchors.
If we’re checking your site, we’ll be gentle, I promise.
Update: 3/20/14, 6:56 PM
Portent appears to be showing up again for branded searches. It’s our old domain, though: www.portentinteractive.com. Further updates as events warrant.
Update: 3/20/14, 6:30 PM
Just submitted a re-inclusion request. I found two potential reasons for a manual penalty: A nice fresh set of 50,000 links, plus an older set of 40,000, with the anchor text ‘An Internet Marketing Company.’ Oy. The fresh set came from a hacked client site that ballooned from 500 to 50,000 pages, all with the guilty text.
www.portent.com’s Majestic Trust flow for our site is 60, 59 Citation Flow. Still seems like a stretch that these things got us penalized, but…
Total, 14 domains out of 2,500 linking domains, total.And, we had a few keyword-stuffed links from other sites still floating around from pre-2012 days. We disavowed 1200 domains out of an excess of caution. If it works, I’ll fill everyone in on the what and why.
Update: 3/20/14, 2:00 PM
Turns out we’ve never published a guest post via MyBlogGuest. Or at least, if we have, it’s not in my personal or Portent’s company MBG account.
The original story: 3/20/14, 9:00 AM
I’m not joking. Google has seen fit to give Portent a manual penalty:
I’m not angry. I’m… amused
I’m not angry, really.
I’m actually laughing really hard at the irony. We’re so white hat we’ve been repeatedly fired because of poor link acquisition. The only person I know in the industry who’s a bigger white hat tactics proponent than me is Rand (sorry, Rand, if you get penalized by association).
What we think is going on
We have three theories for why we’ve been slapped:
An ex-client’s site has been hacked. They’re a non-profit we helped out years ago. 2 days ago, they suddenly added 59,000 pages of spam, all pointed at us.
In addition, a second domain of theirs now has 27,000 pages of spam pointing at us.
I highly, highly doubt this was ‘negative SEO.’ But with our site redesign going live 6 weeks ago, it could be a nasty coincidence. I’ve wondered for a long time whether site redesigns can trigger manual reviews. If it did, and they just looked, well, I’d be suspicious, too.
Scraper sites and duped pages
A lot of scraper sites link to us. Thousands. Could that trigger a manual penalty? I don’t know. It seems awfully unlikely.
Some domain-based publishing sites, like WordPress, have lots of pages pointing at us, probably because of scrapers.
A few social voting sites with duplicate content issues link to us. That’s led to about 150,000 links.
I should note that the anchor text for these links are either branded or fairly random.
Oh, we also have 3200 links from some site called ‘Google.’ I wonder if that did it.
We used to have many, many pages on client sites that pointed back at us with branded links. Stuff like “Site by Portent.” Most of those are gone, and have been for a while, but there are still some out there.
There are also non-spammy pages on 5-10 sites that still have exact-match links like:
“Internet marketing by portent”
I suspect this is the real problem.
There’s something very strange. In Google Webmaster Tools, there are sites with tens of thousands of links pointing at us that also show a single linking page.
This was me, tired and stressed, writing without thinking. The ‘linked page’ below is the number of pages on our site that are linked.
I’m not protesting innocence
I will not protest innocence. Clearly something caught Google’s attention. But the marketing nerd in me is really curious as to exactly what’s causing this penalty.
Our next steps
Here’s what we’re doing:
- Contacting the owner of the recently hacked sites
- Removing any site-wides we control, no matter how small (and even if they show only 1 linking page)
- Writing the re-inclusion request
- Laughing hysterically while consuming mass amounts of chocolate
I plan to do all of this fairly publicly. Clients (understandably) don’t want us to share their re-inclusion stories. I’ll post ours so folks get a decent idea of how this works. Even if we got busted for something legitimate.
I’ll keep you all posted
So, irony of ironies: No Portent client’s been penalized (knock wood) and we’ve helped a few folks get un-penalized. But we’re now on page 60 for our own brand name.
I’m going to treat this as the ultimate case study. I’ll post updates as new blog posts, as time goes by, to let you know what we’re doing and why.
Bye for now,
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint.He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More