Portent.com: Under manual penalty

Ian Lurie

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:

back - branded

And we’re showing up for ‘seattle internet marketing:’

back for 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Age of post did not matter. Not too surprising.
  4. 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.
  5. All of this stuff has been around for 1-2 years, minimum.

What we did:

  1. Developed a theory as to what happened.
  2. Planned out what to do.
  3. An enormous disavow. At least 1200 domains.
  4. Removed all keyword-stuffed links from all sites we controlled. This took us about 20 minutes, seriously.
  5. Submitted a reinclusion request.
  6. Continued cleanup.

What we’ll do now:

  1. Continue cleanup. In my experience sites that are post-penalty are far more likely to get another penalty. Plus, why not?
  2. 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:

  1. Scour — I mean SCOUR — your link profile for guest posts with exact-match keyword rich anchor text, and remove them.
  2. Look for sitewide links, also with exact-match anchor text. I still think this really hurt us.
  3. 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:

The hack

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.

The site-wides

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:

  1. Contacting the owner of the recently hacked sites
  2. Removing any site-wides we control, no matter how small (and even if they show only 1 linking page)
  3. Writing the re-inclusion request
  4. 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,


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  1. Wow, that’s crazy. I think you’re on to something with thinking it’s that hacked site causing your headaches. Best of luck with your reconsideration request!

    1. I am SURE we did something wrong. I’ve never seen a penalized site that didn’t have an issue (except maybe SEER way back). So there’s a skeleton in there somewhere.

  2. Blimey…this is going to be a ride.
    I wish you well folks, and will continue to read with relish!
    Good luck!

  3. I had to doublecheck and make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s. Google is really just taking a spray and pray approach now. Clearly no one is safe. If they are going to continue taking actions that seem flat out silly when given the least bit of scrutiny, they could at least implement a human customer service team to have these bogus penalties looked into in a timely manner. People have no real recourse right now when they get it wrong.

  4. Sorry to hear about this Ian. I recently had my site penalized by Google a few months ago. Luckily, we were able to resolve the issue in a timely manner. I have some experience with this, as do you, but if you need any help, I would be happy to throw in a hand. Not literally, but I think you get the point. Good luck!

  5. Well done for going public on this as many companies would sort this out in a darkened corner for fear that people might think bad of them.
    Penalties are a way of Google assigning blame somewhere, so may or may not actually be your fault.
    Good luck with the reinclusion – document everything!

    1. @saralingafelter says ‘transparency is insurance.’ I took it public in part to share and teach, and in part to own the conversation. Thanks!

  6. “Penalty” seems to be a bit of a misnomer here: page 60 for branded queries?
    C’mon, that doesn’t help users – it just reveals a glaring flaw in Google’s algo.

  7. Hey Ian,
    I think the bad stuff simply outnumbered your good equity lately. While I know it’s BS to have to proactively “disavow” stuff instead of creating great content and getting good links and traffic, it’s simply a cost of doing business.
    Youv’e already spotted the spammy sites from a mile away. I’m sure you guys will recover just fine.

  8. Wow.. this is hilarious.. if it wasn’t just sad. Why not also add the weird spammy linking domains to a disavow.txt file just for good measure even before contacting them? Can’t hurt.

  9. Wordstream posted on inbound today how they found 63k links coming from inbound.org in GWT. Connection? Maybe, maybe not.. That is crazy to have so many links coming from 1 page though. When you checked the page, were the links really there?

  10. This is unfortunate. 🙁 Portent is a company that I really respect.
    I wanted to give my thoughts on your penalty…not sure if it will help as you probably know what you need to do to recover, but it can’t hurt.
    “2 days ago, they suddenly added 59,000 pages of spam, all pointed at us.” A while back, in a webmaster forum hangout, John Mueller mentioned that Google is good at recognizing that a sitewide link is not thousands and thousands of separate links but rather one vote for a site. I am doubtful that this triggered a problem for you.
    “A lot of scraper sites link to us. Thousands. Could that trigger a manual penalty? I don’t know. It seems awfully unlikely.” I agree. This is not the cause of the problem. There is one exception and that would be if you had managed to get a Dmoz listing with exact match keyword anchor text. It doesn’t happen often and I don’t think it has happened for you.
    “here’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.” – That’s a little odd. It’s hard to comment without seeing some of the sites, but I suppose it is possible that someone is trying to negative SEO you.
    With all of that being said, while I don’t know what triggered the manual review, I think that cleanup shouldn’t be too difficult for you guys. I took a quick look at your backlinks and I see links like these listed below that are definitely ones that Google wants to see gone:
    Again, I don’t know what triggered the manual review. I think that Google is trying to hit some high profile companies to make an example of them. If people see that Portent was hit today and yesterday My Blog Guest was hit, the goal of Google is to make people afraid to do anything to manipulate their Google results. But, what is happening is that people are terrified to do ANY kind of promotion or marketing of their site which is kind of sad.
    Best of luck. I’m sure you guys will be recovered in no time.

  11. I suspect it’s the large amount of keyword anchor text pointing at the site after you redirected the conversation marketing .com site into portent.com. These are all now unnatural as Google sees them as non-brand.

  12. Ian,
    I am so sorry to hear about this. You all are a really great company and this is just horrifying to hear!
    I have had the same happen to our agency in the past:
    -hacked clients that affected us (we now are on our own server)
    -tons of scraper sites scraping our content / links
    I think Google has a special algorithm or manual team for SEO companies and SEO blogs. Really sorry to hear about this Ian again.
    Thanks for being open and transparent about this, I am sure you will get this cleaned up without a problem!

  13. Nearly 60K links – 1 page… interesting, that!
    I can see why you’d like to know what triggered this, Ian… should be interesting to watch it unfold. Kudos for sharing your pain. 😉

  14. A few months back I took on a new client and a similar pattern appeared about 20.000 links from a single domain to a single page.
    I disavowed that and a few others in the order of the hundreds (I later found these others to be link building from the previous SEO UK/India).
    There was no manual penalty, but the site had recently taken an algorithmic hit.
    Within a few weeks we recovered, I assume that and cleaning the site were the causes of the recovery.
    There’s another one with 5.000+ lurking in WMT.
    When I follow that url is not even registered apparently as I get the following.
    “You have reached a domain that is pending ICANN verification.”
    How is this even possible.
    Out of interest what are you doing about site wide footer links, just removed them?
    Is creating a “credits page” and link to that in the footer an option.

    1. Google penalties have nothing to do with how ethical a business is any more. Do not let their actions affect your beliefs about Portent or any other quality site they damage in this manner.
      How many small businesses have penalties and don’t know it? Why should any business have to invest time and resources in protecting themselves from Google? They have too much power. We need to encourage Internet users to take some of it away from them by using other search engines and alternate solutions.

      1. Hi Gail,
        It’s definitely NEVER been about ethics. Google isn’t an ethics resource. They’re a private company with a terms of service.
        Technically their penalty against Portent was correct. Technically. It’s a question of degree. The penalty against Doc Sheldon makes even less sense.

  15. I have had a lot of sitewide links pointing at me from crappy websites, but never received a manual penalty notice. Been hammered by Penguin though.
    So, unless my mega links (7500 from one website, 10 websites each with over 1000 links pointing to me) are different to yours, I suspect the manual penalty is indeed something else.
    Still do not understand why Google won’t just say what we do “wrong”.

  16. I admire the spirit behind it. Any other SEO company would have gone hush-hush over it. You went public. It requires a lot of courage and a lot of conviction that you know you are on the right path!!.
    No matter what the outcome is, you are good SEO company to deal with!

  17. I just Googled you here in the UK, you are currently coming up at spot 13 for ‘portent’ (broad match)
    Hope you guys get this sorted!

  18. I really like the way you are handling this by acknowledging there is something not right, rather than kicking & screaming about how unfair Google is like most seem to do.
    Things like this are a great opportunity to be fully transparent in how you go about dealing with the manual action and reconsideration process.
    I tried to handle the attempted negative SEO attack on my site in the same way by giving details of what happened, what it was like before & after, what was done about it, etc.
    Good luck, but I don’t think you will need much luck. There couldn’t be so much wrong that it would outweigh all the good on the site and the things you do elsewhere.
    Looking forward to watching the recovery!

    1. Thanks Nick. Yeah, we’re narrowing it down. My ONE brief whine: If the stuff we’re finding is REALLY what got us banned, we’re going to jail because of a busted taillight. But I’ll stop.

      1. Kudos to Portent for doing this publicly. I agree that the penalty is far out of proportion to the ‘crime’. Reminds me of the people jailed for overdue library books.
        Too many are drunk on their power and destroying individuals and businesses only because they can. That the actions of others outside your control can get you penalized means no site is safe.

      1. Not doubting that you’ve removed a bunch, because I can clearly see that’s been done. But you might want to recheck your list.
        I still see a number of domains with footer links (as reported in Ahrefs) to both portentinteractive.com and portent.com live and present.
        Those remaining could potentially continue to be a liability.

        1. We just removed them last night. Any chance you’re seeing lag?
          Also, a few had to be disavowed because we don’t control, or because they just grew out of control because of a site hack that occurred earlier this week.

  19. It could be I’m seeing some lag. But I don’t think so.
    Here’s a short list of the top (by sheer link numbers) I still see:
    Naturally these could have been disavowed and I wouldn’t be able to see that.

  20. Ah, I see what’s happening now. Looks like my browser was retaining the footer from the homepage where you still have a link on those sites.
    A hard refresh has confirmed the deeper pages are void of the link.

  21. Have you signed up the Superhero account of LRT? You can associate your Moz, Google WMT and other accounts with them to get a complete listing of all your backlinks. You can also check out their new Link Boost tool to try to undo your penalty faster.
    I checked http://www.portentinteractive.com in LinkDetox and since you redirect that site to http://www.portent.com, you are transferring all your bad baggage in that redirect. Over 90% or your backlinks are labeled as toxic and suspect. You may want to reconsider this redirect and ask all your healthy external links partners to update their links to the new domain. Good luck.

    1. Thanks Irving. We ran a similar check and didn’t find the same level of toxicity.
      Also, 301s decay a lot over time. It’s unlikely they’re passing all of the juice – negative or positive – that they used to. Other precedents for this in our industry were for new redirects, not old ones.
      That said, we’re busily cleaning things up.

  22. Really appreciate you sharing this with us Ian. I find it even more valuable to see someone else’s thought process behind it, not just the surface actions.

  23. Ian, you just wrote the best “penalty recovery” post of all time! I think you’ve stumbled on an all-new blog post format (real-time) for case studies. 😉

  24. I’m looking forward to seeing how quickly you can recover from this. One of our own sites got the same penalty & it was all down to sitewide footer links – website design by …….
    Good luck, I really hope this doesn’t stick to you for too long.

  25. Impressive work Ian, unfortunate, but impressive. I just met with a new client on Friday who had no idea they were in a manual penalty.
    Thanks for keeping us posted!

  26. Regarding the trigger for the manual review, and your thoughts about the relaunch being a likely cause, am I right to assume you mean the URL changes that were made as part of the relaunch being the cause, rather than the visual changes?
    Your old main PPC landing page url /services/services-ppc-advertising.htm now points to /services/ppc, for example, whilst /services/services-ppc-advertising/portent-ppc-management-packages/ppc-complete.htm now points to /services/ppc/ppc-solutions.
    It’s an important distinction for anyone reading this who is considering a visual redesign of their site, but nervous of an unintended impact.
    It is also cruelly ironic that changing urls to less keyword-heavy versions might have triggered a review. Hope you get the penalty lifted soon.

  27. This has been interesting to read-thank you for sharing. I got hit by the MBG thing which was disappointing on a few levels. I was notified of both bad incoming links and bad outgoing links. Given I only published 6 articles from MBG in 2 years I was a member over there, it seems like the line was pretty low for a penalty.
    My process has been much the same as yours, well without the social media outcry on my behalf and the whole, previously innocent thing (yes, I spammed in the past I can admit it).
    In any case, here is hoping the disavow tool works well (again!)

  28. Ian,
    In a word… brilliant.
    No, your not a Guiness commercial, but the way you handled this was al that and… genuine and authentic. What else would Ian do? (sans duck a few chairs 😉
    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for adding a little inspiration to my day… thanks.

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