This case study was created using an LRT Superhero account.
Some of the use cases explained in this case study are not available in lower plans.
The LRT Superhero Plan (and higher) includes all our 24 link data sources and allows you to perform link risk management, competitive research, professional SEO and backlink analysis for your own or your competitor's sites. You get to see your website's full backlink profile picture and this can make all the difference for your SEO success.
302 Not Passing Page Rank? But they DID harm this site...
...until Derek recovered it
Today I am proud to present a highly interesting, detailed and insightful case-study by our Certified LRT Xpert Derek Devlin.
This is the success story of lifting double Google Penalty (Sitewide and Partial Manual Action) in multiple reconsideration requests.
In addition, we now have proof that 302 redirects CAN be harmful.
Some key takeaways for you are:
- Detailed analysis of the Google penalties applied and surrounding problems
- Great explanation of the different types of Google Penalties applied and discussed, including a history of Google Penguin filters the site tripped
- Highly detailed descriptions and communication logs in the reconsideration process with the Google Spam Team – Derek and his client revealed it all
- Detailed analysis with Link Research Tools, Link Detox
- Lots of detailed examples of spammy links found
- Full list of different link schemes against Google Webmaster Guidelines found
- Proof that 302 redirected links also caused harm
- Successful removal of two Google Penalties
Especially the part of 302 redirects causing troubles is outstanding and was to my knowledge never known or documented, especially not in such a detailed fashion.
We would appreciate you join the discussion, share your findings with us and
spread the word on this master-piece of SEO analysis. Thanks Derek!
Enjoy & Learn
Christoph C. Cemper
Table of Contents
- Google Manual Actions Explained
- Phase 1 – Link Evaluation
- Phase 2 – Outreach & Link Removal
- Phase 3 – Reconsideration
- Final Thoughts
It’s bad enough waking up to one manual action from Google but waking up to a double whammy is about as bad as it gets. That was the prospect faced by David, from US Telecoms website - Freedom800.com.
David approached me in October 2013 to take advantage of my www.backlinksurgeon.com penalty removal service – 270,000 links and 3 reconsideration requests later we were able to successfully revoke two manual actions from his site.
A number of aspects of this penalty removal make for interesting reading. Not least the fact, that Google cited 302 redirects as unnatural in a response to one of our reconsideration requests. For me, this was very insightful given that I always perceived that 302 redirects did NOT pass PageRank. In my opinion, this says a lot about how Google is viewing links to your site these days regardless of the traditional theories about whether the link passes PageRank or Not.
I want to thank David for letting me share this process and findings with the Link Research Tools community. My hope is that this insight will help you in your own penalty removal efforts.
Let’s start by getting some background on the site itself…
Here is the brief written by my client, David:
The site in question is http://www.freedom800.com.
The site provides a business-to-business service providing toll-free numbers and service primarily to small businesses in the US. The site has been around for about 10 years, but only started 'SEO style link building' in the past 2-3 years.
I have had a relatively short cycle of SEO link building for the site but unfortunately my do-it-yourself approach was a combination of bad advice and bad timing. I got started right before the hammer was coming down from Google with Panda. My site didn't get affected much because my link building had been so new.
In any case, the bulk of my link building at the time was buying horrible comment and profile backlinks from contractors on oDesk. But rankings increased so I naturally started, getting more aggressive with continued bad tactics.
I started with link networks and then really saw the rankings jump. I got hit by Penguin for some of these bad link tactics so I cancelled all my oDesk guys, switched to SEO Maximus (an automated version of the same bad links) and cancelled my involvement in link networks only to try others a few months later.
I saw rankings go up so I joined another and another against my better judgment. No need to say what you’re thinking, I know it was stupid :-).
Good news is that the bad link building is relatively short and more recent when compared to the age of the domain. This might help.
My rankings for some key terms have maintained fairly well and traffic is coming in. So the site is not dead and I'm hoping this means there are still several trust factors Google sees, but they just may not be sure what is going on recently. Also ALL my involvement in any paid link networks has been cancelled and by the time you run your link analysis, all those links should be removed if not already. Unfortunately, I do not have reports of these links. After penguin, all the link networks stopped reporting the links to try and mask their networks better.
Another piece of good news is that I used a service where I would upload all the links from my oDesk guys so the links would be discovered quickly. I will see about going into that program to download the lists of links for you. Hopefully this is easy for me to do but I’m sure this will help.
I've been tracking some key terms through Moz for a little less than a year now and have an app on my phone that I have been using. That is about all the historical ranking data I have that would be useful.
And for full disclosure… I'm currently doing two forms of link building:
One is an active subscription with www.urlremovedfordiscrepancy.com, which bookmarks urls from different social media accounts. They supposedly use 'real user' social media accounts, but I have my doubts with automated type services such as this.
I'm using it more to get pages indexed quicker as well as bringing awareness of our service via social media. I will cancel this if you think I should. Let me know your thoughts.
Two is press releases. I had been using a third party service to send these out for me. Think they use SBWire to send out. I cancelled this service last month because I recently acquired a bulk number of press release credits through PRWeb that I need to use. The press releases I send out are again designed to bring awareness of the service we provide but I have concerns that on its own it could hurt for link building since I just about cancelled all else.
I do need to use the credits otherwise I wasted of a lot of money for nothing, however I recently read that any links in press releases should be no followed. Was wondering your option on this and if you have any advice for me in regards to the press releases.
I would hate to do anything to jeopardize the work I'm paying to have done by you and your team.
I have about 100 domain names, all related to the services and features provided by Freedom800.com. Most domains were acquired new or through domain auctions. Some I built out little mini sites on.
Probably have 20 or so different micro site domains. All have contextual links pointing back to Freedom800.com. The others are all 301 redirects to Freedom800.com. I can also provide you with a list of all these domains as well. Let me know if you need them.
Unfortunately the link building has been more spammy style links with blog and profile building as well as Build My Rank and some other paid high PR networks.
We received an unnatural links notice in Webmaster Tools in April 2012, but never responded:
We then just recently learned that our site has had a manual action taken for some queries because of unnatural linking:
We are now also seeing a notice that a partial manual action has been taken.
The notice says: Partial matches - Some manual actions apply to specific pages, sections or links.
“Unnatural links to your site — impacts links.”
“Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. Some links may be outside of the webmasters control, so for this incident we are taking targeted action on the unnatural links instead of on the site’s ranking as a whole. Learn more.”
That's a brief history of the situation.
My goal is to analyze the current link profile of the site to identify the problem areas. Then address the problem areas and document the actions taken so we can submit a reconsideration request to Google to try and have the manual action removed.
I logged into Google Webmaster tools to verify the partial manual action – here’s what I saw:
Observations from the initial brief
David was very frank and honest in his brief and clearly acknowledged that his company had been engaged in a lot of the spam tactics.
It’s always more helpful when clients are open about the tactics they have been using because it helps being able to identify the full scope of what is going to be involved in the link clean up. It can also provide clues as to what to look out for when conducting the full link audit.
Here’s what caught my attention:
- Blog comment and profile links have been built by contractors hired through oDesk.
- Link Networks were being used extensively but have been withdrawn where possible.
- Link building automation tools likely has played a role here given the nature of the links – (potentially dealing with many 000’s of links here if this is the case).
- Site is now carrying a partial manual action impacting links. However, search still a valuable source of traffic and site not “dead in the water”.
- Link building was still being carried out with press releases and social bookmarks.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story… Google had more surprises in store for Freedom800.com.
3 days later David emailed me the ‘good news’ with just a hint of sarcasm! ☺
So what we were dealing with now was not just one partial action, taken on specific links but also a second manual action, taken on both the www. and the non-www. version of Freedom800.com.
Here is Google’s “awesome” message for David – the notification of the site wide action received on 15th September 2013:
In David’s own words all rankings had “tanked” so it was no surprise to log in to Webmaster tools and confirm that the action taken was now also site wide, in addition to the partial action.
Google Manual Actions Explained
Let’s understand further the actions taken against Freedom800 and why these were applied to the site.
At this point, Freedom800.com now had two penalties.
One was site-wide affecting the full site and the other is a “partial” match where Google has taken “targeted action”.
But what does this actually mean?
The site-wide action is pretty much self-explanatory, it means that Google has flagged the whole site for excessive Google Webmaster violations and it is now under a suppression filter. Rankings will not improve until these violations are cleaned up and the penalty is revoked manually.
The partial action is more ambiguous but what it means is that only specific URLs or sections of a site have been flagged and suppressed. It's not uncommon for pages on a popular site to have manual actions, particularly if that site serves as a platform for other users or businesses to create and share content on.
Here’s what Google says about partial actions:
“If the issues appear to be isolated, only individual pages, sections, or incoming links will be impacted - not the entire site”.
This means that sections of the site are still free to rank as normal unsuppressed. We saw from the search visibility analysis that following the partial action the site still had some visibility in the SERPS.
In Google’s own words:
“We realize that some links may be outside of your control, we are not taking action on your site's overall ranking. Instead, we have applied a targeted action to the unnatural links pointing to your site.”
Google is therefore not counting the bad links and they may or may not have flagged the page / pages with a suppression filter.
In relation to partial actions, Google advises that no action is required, if you don't control the links pointing to your site.
It is possible for some sites carrying partial actions to carry on business as usual unimpeded, depending on the severity and depth of the action. You could feasibly just change the URL’s of the pages that have been negatively impacted and let them return a 404 error this is in some cases is a quick fix to the problem.
It is still possible to get partial actions revoked manually; the process is much the same as with site wide actions. In summary, you should remove artificial links to your site, then disavow and submit a reconsideration request. If Google determines that the links to your site are no longer in violation of their guidelines, then they will revoke the manual action.
So what has caused these actions to be taken against the site?
In both instances, Google have cited that they have “detected a pattern of artificial, deceptive or manipulative links” pointing at www.freedom800.com.
The penalties are therefore both offsite actions taken because Google believes that the site has been engaged in “link schemes”, which are against the Google Webmaster guidelines.
Here is a quick explanation of what Google deems to be a ‘link scheme’:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behaviour that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
The Google Webmaster Guidelines provides several examples of link schemes that if used excessively and detected will have a negative impact on your site’s ranking in the search results:
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank.
- Exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links.
- Exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.
- Excessive link exchanges ("Link to me and I'll link to you").
- Partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.
- Large-scale article marketing.
- Large-scale guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.
- Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.
- Creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as “unnatural links”.
Practical examples of unnatural links that violate the Google Webmaster guidelines are:
- Text ads that pass PageRank.
- Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank.
- Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.
- Low-quality directory or bookmark site links.
- Links embedded in widgets that are distributed across many sites.
- Widely distributed links in the footers of many sites.
- Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature.
In order to reverse a manual action you have to identify the links schemes that Google has penalized you for and then get those links deleted entirely or you need to make them inert, which basically just means using a technique to stop them from passing PageRank.
It is preferable to get the Webmaster to physically delete the link from the Internet but if this is not an option then Google proposes two alternate solutions that can be used to prevent PageRank from passing:
- Add a rel="nofollow" attribute to the <a> tag.
- Redirect the links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file.
Impact on Search Visibility
So that explains what was going on but let’s see how this impacted the visibility of the site in the SERPS over time.
Over the course of the last two years Freedom800.com was hit by a number of Google algorithm updates and also by the manual actions taken on the site.
The first warning for unnatural links was received on the 12th of April 2012; this coincided with the implementation of Google’s first iteration of the Penguin web spam algorithm. Prior to April 2012, the site had been doing relatively well in the SERPS and enjoyed a visibility index score of 533.
Penguin 1 and then Penguin 1.1 a month later algorithmically dropped the site to a low of 84. From discussions with David, he explained to me that at this point he ceased all blog comment and profile links but did not attempt a reconsideration request.
The site was still pulling traffic and so David started to experiment more with link networks and when things started to improve he naturally became more proactive with this strategy. Search traffic and visibility improved nicely overtime back to a high of 266.
It wasn’t until late March 2013 that the partial action was applied to the site. The impact of which was initially harsh but not catastrophic. Undeterred, link building continued and helped the site recover visibility once again back from 118 to a peak of 191 just as Penguin 2.0 was unleashed.
Google’s new and improved Penguin algorithm dumped Freedom800 down to a new low of 80, a decrease of 58% in SERP visibility from 191.
The final nail in the coffin came on September 13th 2013 when the full site wide action was applied to Freedom800.com. The result was that search visibility reduced to 0 and has flat-lined ever since.
What I find interesting about this analysis is how Google’s ability to identify and take action against the manipulative tactics Freedom800 were using got better as time went on.
With each Penguin update the site dropped further than the last suggesting that each instance of Penguin was able to find more spam than the previous iteration, perhaps because David was creating more of over time but I’m also pretty confident that Google’s spam detection has been getting better with each iteration.
After much jousting, Google got the better hand of Freedom800 and managed to uncover enough manipulative tactics to warrant dropping the site from the index citing excessive Google Webmaster tools violations – reading the brief from David, it was just a matter of time because the tactics used were never going to form the basis of a long term SEO strategy.
How to revoke a Manual Action
The concept of successful manual action reversal is simple; make your website compliant with the Google Webmaster guidelines and then submit a reconsideration request and Google will revoke the penalty.
To achieve this objective you first need to identify what the violations are. You then need to show Google that you have made attempts to correct the violations.
In the case of an unnatural links manual action this means trying your best to get the manipulative links removed. Finally, you need ask Google to reconsider your site for inclusion back into their index, by submitting an official “reconsideration request”. You will be successful if the spam team believes that you have taken sufficient action to make your site compliant.
My approach for manual action penalty removal is therefore a cyclical 3-phase process:
- Link Evaluation
- Link Removal Outreach & Disavow
Phase 1 – Link Evaluation
Client Work Reports
It stands to reason that you are not going to be successful at removing an ‘unnatural links’ manual action unless you can assess the vast majority of live links that are pointing at your website.
Google have in the past made claims that you could rely solely on the links provided in Google Webmaster tools but my experience is that this is never enough. You should start as you mean to go on by trying to be as thorough as possible. It therefore makes sense to collate as much link data as possible. This approach will increase the probability that you will be successful with fewer reconsideration attempts thus reducing your overall workload.
My first port of call is always the client’s historical link data. If it’s available, it can be a goldmine of information. You can get a head start obviously because the reports should tell you the URL for any links that were built but not only this, analysing the link reports provides a very helpful way of identifying what type of linking tactics you need to look out for. This can be invaluable for your on-going link analysis.
I was fortunate in that my client David was well organized and had maintained records for a lot of the links he had built with contractors hired through the freelance marketplace oDesk.
Combining the links gave me a whopping 208,834 Raw URLs to start off with, even before running a single backlink tool!
Manually reviewing that many links straight off the bat is pointless because there’s a high chance that many of those links will no longer be active and live on the web. It’s possible to import these links into detox and link detox will crawl the links to check if they are live but in this case I opted to first screen the links using a tool called “Scrapebox” because I wanted to keep as much noise out of my detox report as possible.
Ironically, Scrapebox was likely the same tool that was used to build many of these links in the first place! The work reports consisted mainly of links from blog comment spam and one of the core functions of Scrapebox is to auto-post blog comments at scale.
Despite this fact, “Scrapebox” can also be a force for good. I use the live link check module on Scrapebox often - it’s a fast and lightweight way of pre-screening client work reports to check their status.
Sure enough, a run through ‘Scrapebox’ revealed that out of 208,834 URL’s analyzed only 77,729 URLs were still live!
NB: An interesting aside is to consider that David had paid contractors to build 208,834 links and only 37% had stood the test of time.
This clearly proves that the machine gun approach to link building yields a low return on investment over the medium to long term.
Next we are onto Link Detox.
First, I incorporated full link reports from all of the main link data providers including Google Webmaster Tools, Majestic SEO, Ahrefs, Sistrix and Moz Opensite Explorer and uploaded these into Detox along with my custom URL list of 77,729 links found to be live from the oDesk work reports.
The number of unique links uploaded into Link Detox totaled 242, 416.
Running the report automatically aggregated and de-duplicated the external link reports along with my custom URL list and the 24 link sources used by Link Research Tools.
The final output of links to assess was 120,868 this reduced significantly because site wide links are restricted to 5 per site by DTOX.
A crude way to assess Freedom800.com’s link profile as a whole is first to look at the “Domain-Wide Link Detox Risk” (DTOXRISK™). This is the risk score of all of Freedom800.com’s links combined and then weighted by a variety of factors.
The link profile was at this point in time classed as “High Domain DTOXRISK”. The scoring calculated with 1348 DTOXRISK was actually far less than I expected given that the site had two manual penalties.
On the other hand, a DTOXRISK link risk score above 1000 usually indicates a Google Penalty as the team Link Research Tools tuned their algorithms towards that boundary. Just recently they launched a feature where users can fully tweak and tune the link risk calculation based on their experiences and opinions.
Let’s see how the link profile was broken down:
Only 4% of links are marked as “Low Audit Priority”.
10% were in the most damaging bracket, i.e. most likely toxic and need immediate inspection. The remaining majority of 104,040 links were flagged as medium priority, so not the worst obviously bad links but still suspicious and in need of a closer inspection.
Google Webmaster Violations
Our team manually reviewed Freedom800’s links starting with the highest priority links and using the Link Detox Screener to make a judgement call on whether we agreed with the assessment made by the tool. DTOX is designed to provide metrics and insights to help you make an informed decision about a link but you still need to
First, rate each link as Good or Bad.
Good Links - These are healthy links that we wanted to on the basis that they were not in violation of the Google Webmaster guidelines and were earned links.
Bad Links – If the link is unnatural and does not meet the Google Webmaster guidelines then you need to decide whether you want to disavow the link, either on the domain or the page level.
Disavow (Domain) - Take this decision when the whole linking site is spam and should not be trusted. When you can categorically say, you don’t ever want a link from this domain. This was our decision in most cases with Freedom800 since the majority of domains were off-topic and not going to add value anyway.
Tip: Google prefers you to disavow on the domain level because there are a number of scenarios where there may be multiple URLs for one page. So you think you have disavowed the link but you actually haven’t because Google can still find it from another URL on the domain.
Disavow (Page) - Take this decision when the domain is possibly one that you want to get links from in the future (if they are earned) but the specific link you have pointing at your site was built in a way that is unnatural and needs to be removed. Therefore, you just want to get rid of this specific linking page, although the domain is decent.
An example of when this could be considered an appropriate decision to take is when you have spammed a relevant authoritative industry forum. A specific thread may contain manipulative links, such as a rich-keyword anchor text signature link but there’s a chance you could get some good earned links from industry related influencers on the forum so you wouldn’t necessarily want to disregard the whole domain. In this type of scenario, disavowing the page would make sense.
Though Google would like us to believe that the world of link building is black or white, my experience is that it is far from so. Often when auditing links you are dealing with shades of grey, therefore I find it useful to use the tagging features within DTOX to add additional notes to aid in our link clean up.
Tags I use:
Change Anchor Text - The link in this instance is one that I feel would add value to the site if it were not overly optimised for a “money keyword”. Therefore, I feel it would make sense to take steps to try to get the link amended rather than taking the more drastic action of removal and disavow. Of course, if this cannot be achieved then the link poses a risk to the site and should be disavowed.
Make “NoFollow” - This is my preferred decision for links where there is a chance that the link is sending referral traffic. This usually applies to paid links and adverts, banners, etc. We most certainly don’t want the advert taken down after all we’ve paid for it and it’s sending referrals but we also don’t want the link to pass PageRank since it’s against the Google Webmaster guidelines to pay for links.
If you can spot that this is a paid link placement, then so can Google so in this scenario, I prefer to tag the links as “make nofollow”. When outreaching the site owner we will ask them to add the rel=nofollow attribute to the link, as opposed to removing the link altogether.
EDGE CASE - These are borderline links. They look good but could subjectively be considered unnatural by a Google employee. This is often the challenge with reconsideration requests. Often times, you are trying to balance what you get rid of with what you think you can get away with!
I find this is often a good tag to use when your client is attached to a specific type of link. You know they are no good but the client requires a little more persuading, so the compromise is to tag these links as “Edge Cases”. That way you can keep this segment of links for the first reconsideration attempt and then add them to your disavow file should the first attempt fail.
Any link where the decision was taken to disavow, either on the domain or page level is added to an outreach campaign. The purpose is to contact each site to ask for the link to be removed, this shows Google your intent to comprehensively clean up your Webmaster violations and is a show of good faith that you have genuinely reformed.
After an extensive link audit, analyzing all of Freedom800’s 120,000 links we were able to uncover and classify many different links schemes that constituted major Webmaster violations – in order to reverse the double manual action penalty these would need to be rectified.
Link Schemes - Findings from Manual Link Review
Instances where Freedom800 were in violation of the Webmaster guidelines because Google would consider the links to be part of a link scheme:
David made me aware of the microsites that were active. There are a number of issues with the microsites that make this an easy tactic to spot.
Microsites as a strategy for promotion are not inherently wrong; the issue is that they have been used to pass PageRank to the main site and done at scale. Therefore, these links need to be made “nofollow” as a priority.
A Google spam engineer will spot these a mile off.
A key issue is that the same template has been used for all of the microsites sites. Not only this but it was the same template as the Freedom800 site itself, so these microsites were effectively clones. This is a very obvious footprint that Google can trace. I’m sure Google is able to “fingerprint” a site and using the same visual layout and template is a dead giveaway.
Any links from the clone microsites where had to be made inert by adding the ‘nofollow’ attribute to them.
There was a chance that before the penalty these clone sites were providing an SEO benefit but there is no way that the manual action would be revoked if these sites continued to link to Freedom800.com with ‘followed’ links.
Bing still ranked these sites and they did still send some conversions so we didn’t want to delete these sites all together so, the best course of action was just to add ‘nofollow’ to the links.
Highest Priority Microsites to ‘nofollow’ – ones with backlinks:
Second priority microsites without backlinks (still need to be done even though they have no links):
Redirects to Microsites
Based on my recommendation of adding “nofollow” to the microsite links – we don’t need to worry about the redirects in place that are pointing at the microsites themselves:
Phone sites Link Network
It was the same issue with this phone related link network / microsites I found. These links were obviously manipulative and needed to be removed or made nofollow. Most of these are even on the same IP, which goes without saying is far too obvious.
- IP Address.
- Website Template Footprint.
- Domain Theme Footprint – similar domain names.
Article Emporium Link Network
Freedom800 used the Article Emporium service in the past:
I was able to identify this by tracking back ‘helpful’ footprints left by the owners of the network on many pages linking to Freedom800:
- Links on many pages linking to Freedom800.
- Sites falling within close proximity IP ranges.
- Similar domains used.
- Small selection of templates used.
All of these sites are prime candidates for link removal.
This is a big link network linking to the site extensively and all of these links need deleted. These links were also added to the disavow file. Many of these sites were caught by Google and de-indexed already.
Site Wide Link Exchange (Links Now Removed)
I was able to identify another link network because I noticed a peculiar pattern in some of the anchor text; many anchor texts were prefixed with a number follow by a % symbol. Grouping these sites and then inspecting them showed that this was likely a network and a tactic used.
- Links were missing – must have been taken down at the same time.
- Random weird off-topic theme of Sites.
- Anchor Text Footprint – Use of % in Anchors.
- Mainly Site Wide Links.
Weak Link Directories
There were a significant number of link directories linking to Freedom800. These have zero authority or value for users. They are an obvious link scheme and often use repetitive templates. These links were all added to the ‘remove’ category and disavowed.
- Site Type
- Template Used
- Domain Names
Forum Signature / Profile Links
The majority of these links were most likely built using an automation tool such as Xrumer to mass submit comments to forums, which can also be used to create profiles.
The forum profiles and messages have been posted all over the place on very obscure off-topic forums ranging from pregnancy to gay rights and gaming with the sole purpose of leaving a link, which in most cases had a rich anchor text money keyword.
The forums come from all different countries and are at times not even English language based. This tells me that Xrumer was used extensively.
Examples of money anchor text forum signatures:
Examples of Profiles used:
Example of Russian Forum Profile – not in English:
Example of forum comment signature link:
Web 2.0 Blogs
Web 2.0 sites allow users to create an account and create their own blog.
This tactic has been employed by link builders for some time as a way to get IP diversity without the cost of building and hosting your own network of sites.
Software synonymous with SPAM, such as SEnuke was built to automate this process. Looking at Freedom800’s links there are a lot of web 2.0 sites built specifically for the purpose of getting link juice. The sites are easy to spot since they are very thin on content, usually one page deep with obviously made up personas.
Here is a tiny example of the Web 2.0 blogs that were set up on the Swedish Web 2.0 domain Bloggy.se, alongside some of the sites that were created on Cuzo.com:
Example of a Cuzo Micro Blog:
DoFollow Press Releases
Google changed their link schemes policy to include Press Releases because this is a tactic that was being used specifically for link building and not for PR outreach.
The technicality is when the Press Release contains money anchor text links that are ‘DoFollow’. The articles are then syndicated round sites on the web, much like the way a link network works.
Links in press releases should now be ‘NoFollowed’. At least that’s the official statement from Google, our Certified Professionals had varying experiences on that – but that’s for another case study that we’re collecting data for HERE.
Dofollow Press Release Example:
Weak Bookmarking / Voting Sites
Social bookmarking at scale is a well-known tactic for gaining links. The majority of social bookmarking sites pointing at Freedom800 were created for the purpose of gaining links. Most have very little traffic, except amongst SEO’s! These are bookmark sites that you will never heard of, let alone visited - not popular and authoritative sites. Most were Power*Trust 0.
These links clearly fall into the link scheme category and were added to the link removal outreach program and disavowed.
Some Example of weak bookmark links pointing at Freedom800.com:
Excessive use of “Rich” Anchor Text
It has been well documented that excessive use of money keywords (or “rich anchor text” as Matt Cutts likes to call it) on inbound links is one of the easiest identifiers of a self-engineered link profile since ‘natural’ link profiles do not contain a high density of highly commercial “money” keywords.
Penguin 1.0 was developed to penalize aggressive use of money keywords as anchor text by webmasters and SEO’s. Penguin 2.0 has likely been more aggressive in terms of the threshold tolerance and most likely also looks at the spread of money keywords across all the pages of the site.
Given that Freedom800.com has been hit with “unnatural links” penalty, it’s highly likely that excessive use of money anchor text is an issue. I confirmed this by looking at Freedom800.com’s link profile anchor text, first in totality.
This word cloud is a snap shot of the sites backlink anchor text including all site wide links.
Let’s look at how this tag cloud actually breaks down:
The dominant anchor text is the site’s URL, which is great. What’s not so great though is that the second most visible anchor text is “toll free numbers” at 13.8%, which is very high. This is most likely an unnatural signal to Google.
“800 Numbers”, “Virtual phone service” and “800 numbers for business” also appear in high concentration.
It’s worthwhile comparing the total concentration of anchor texts by classifying them in to categories:
- Brand – Only terms that are related to Freedom800, such as URL or “Freedom800”.
- Compound – Keyword that contain a mix of brand and commercial intent ‘money’ keywords or multiple money keywords in one phrase.
- Money – keywords you would want to rank highly for, strong commercial intent, such as “Toll Free Numbers”.
- Other – Generic keywords, such as “here”, “see website” and “read more”.
Here we can see Freedom800’s anchor text profile versus competitors in the “Toll Free Numbers” keyword vertical analyzed in the Competitive Landscape Analyzer (CLA) of LRT.
It’s clear that the site overdid the use of money keywords as a total proportion of links versus what is being tolerated for competitors.
Here’s the same graph, showing the absolute number of URLs:
You can see there is a clear disparity in the number of branded keywords your top competitors were using.
Money anchor text links had to be reduced significantly. The problem was that now the site has a manual action, they had to be reduced substantially since this is the most obvious indicator of an unnatural link that the search quality team will be looking for.
Tiered Linking to Redirects
David made me aware of a large number of 301 redirects pointing at Freedom800.com. Having reviewed these I believed Google would view these as being in violation of the Webmaster guidelines.
The issue is not the redirects themselves but the fact that manipulative links have been built to the redirects. They were all permanent 301 redirects so passing maximum link juice. This is commonly used as a tiered linking technique. If the links that are bad point at the redirect then this poses a threat to the integrity of the site since all the characteristics of the links pass through the redirect and into the main website.
I recommended taking action against all the redirects that have had links built to them. The easiest way to do this is to turn the redirect off. However, some of the redirects still received referral traffic so we decided to change these specific redirects from a 301 protocol to a 302 redirect. My theory here was that this may be enough to stop the flow of PageRank through the redirects and in turn satisfy the search quality team.
I prioritized the redirects on the basis of those that have links pointing at them versus redirects that had no links; this gave David a hit list of ones to tackle first.
Highest priority redirects (partially obscured at the request of the client):
In total, there were 125 complete domains 301 redirected to Freedom800.com.
Here’s a sample of the redirects that posed the least threat to Freedom800, since there were no links pointing at them:
Do Follow Paid Links
There are different types of paid link but in the case of Freedom800, these were “text link ads”.
Speaking to David, it was clear that the intention with these links was not to manipulate page rank but more to create an awareness of his company and to actually drive clicks through to Freedom800.
I felt that these links would be outed by the manual team as ‘paid’ given that they were dofollow and very obviously positioned on areas of sites that are considered to be commercial.
The best course of action was to reach out to the sites where these links were placed and get the nofollow attribute added to them for the avoidance of doubt.
Example of a dofollow text link ad, which we made nofollow:
Link Evaluation Action Plan
Having identified the issues, the priorities before reconsideration where three-fold:
- Remove all link schemes from the link graph.
- Rebalance the site’s anchor text.
- Make the ‘sneaky’ 301 redirects from microsites inert.
The actions taken had to be deep and aggressive.
It would naive to think that we can let some of the bad links remain in the hope that we will let some slip under the radar. The truth is that most of these links were not passing much PageRank anyway; the forum profiles for example, are very weak.
For October the traffic sent from organic search was 303 visits, resulting in just 10 conversions so there was little risk to existing traffic by removing these links. The links were in fact a hindrance, not a help.
Here’s a summary of my recommendations following the manual link review:
- Contact all sites on the “remove” list with link removal requests.
- Contact all sites on the “change” list to ask to have the link changed, if this cannot be achieved then these need to be disavowed.
- Boost all “dead” links so that Google re-crawls and sees that the link is now missing.
- Make all links from the microsites ‘NoFollow’.
- Disable all manipulative redirects from microsites to the main Freedom800.com. Any redirects that send traffic make a 302 so that they still work but don’t pass any bad link juice.
- Add the list of dead URLs to disavow on the page level, just as precautionary measure in case any of these pages come back online.
Phase 2 – Outreach & Link Removal
Throughout phase two, the objective is to contact all of the websites that were identified in phase one as links that should be removed.
The key here is to show Google that you are making attempts to resolve your Google Webmaster guideline violations.
It’s important to keep a log of all communications with webmasters to be used as evidence to show that you have taken action to get the links removed – this helps persuade the manual action reviewer that you did your best.
Prior to doing any outreach, I always go ahead and compile all of the bad links into the disavow tool and disavow them.
These are links you don’t want anyway so in my opinion there’s no point in waiting. Even if you are successful with getting some of these links removed, you still identified that they were bad so best to be transparent with Google and log your intentions in your disavow file as soon as possible.
Pro Tip: Remember to DTOX BOOST your disavowed links.
I also include links that are dead in order to ensure that Google re-crawls these sites. The reason for this is that Google may well still think that these links exist; especially if the link was created on a deep nested page, say for example on a forum profile or similar.
These are most likely pages that haven’t been crawled in a long time and it’s possible that Google still thinks they are linking to Freedom800.
We have found this to be an effective technique for ‘removing’ these links from a sites backlink profile.
Phase 3 – Reconsideration
Successful reconsideration requests rely on a well documented a methodical process.
The reconsideration request will be written and sent as if from a member of your team. We therefore need a dedicated company email address to be created for this part of the reconsideration process.
Here’s what I like to include in the first reconsideration request:
- An acknowledgement that we understand what we have done wrong;
What steps we have taken to fix the violations (including a link to a Google Docs file containing our communications log);
- A repentant message stating that it won't happen again, along with steps we've put in place to ensure that this is the case, for example, training taken, etc.
- An apology for the issues and inconvenience.
If the first attempt does not work, then we simply rinse and repeat the process. Reassess the link profile, remove any new links you find and try again a second time and again a third time if required.
On average we are able to remove a manual action with two attempts.
Reconsideration 1 – 1st Link Audit
Here is a copy of our first reconsideration attempt.
It is a bit longer than we usually go for but in this case, we felt that it was important to give a lot of detail given the volume of SPAM that was involved:
Notice how we were very frank with the issues and the cost to the business - I feel it’s important to show you’re a real person.
Also, notice that we told Google:
“I have also taken action by deleting / changing unnecessary redirects”
Though we didn’t realize it at the time, this was going to be very important. We removed the ‘301’ redirect that was in place for some old domains owned by David. However, instead of removing the 301 redirects that were active from the microsites, we decided to change these to a 302.
The rationale here was that there were some visits and conversions still coming through these channels and so getting rid of them altogether would cost the business money.
I felt that it was worth a shot to change the 301 redirects to 302 redirects to see whether Google would treat these in the same regard as ‘nofollow’ links because they are technically only supposed to be ‘temporary redirects’.
I think it’s fair to say that most SEOs have the perception that 302 redirects didn’t pass PageRank. This has caused many SEOs to speculate whether 302 redirects would pass penalties.
There’s an interesting discussion on the Moz Community where some guys are debating the issue of redirects passing penalties with conflicting opinions.
Geoff Kenyon wrote an insightful article detailing the results of his own test, where he concluded that 302s do pass PageRank but not as much as 301s - an interesting perspective.
Ian Bowden has also challenged the notion that 302 redirects do not pass PageRank. His observations lead him to believe that Google will decide. Consider a 302 redirect that has been in place for many months, even years, over time it would make sense for Google to treat this 302 as a 301 redirect.
This brings us back to the case of Freedom800, would Google consider 302 redirects to be unnatural – I was about to put this theory to test.
Reconsideration 1 Response – Site Wide Action Removed
Here is the response from Google to the first reconsideration request:
Partial success! We removed a sufficient amount of spam to have the site wide action reversed but the partial action still remained:
I felt this was a good achievement considering it was our first attempt as well as taking into account the volume of SPAM that the site was guilty of.
That being said, the spam team still felt that aspects of Freedom800’s link graph were in violation of the Webmaster guidelines. It was not immediately obvious exactly what aspect of the remaining links Google had an issue with because annoyingly, they did not provide any example links. This meant we were still shooting in the dark.
When we re-ran Link Detox (DTOX) and pulled new links from Google Webmaster tools and other third party link vendors, we found that many new links had been discovered. It was no surprise that Google had rejected our first reconsideration because there was still a decent portion of spam links actively pointing at the site that we did not initially know about and so had not been disavowed.
At this point, I wondered if we would ever get to the bottom of this case because each time we ran DTOX we found hundreds of new links! Nevertheless, we persevered.
We went back to our three-phase cyclical approach and started the process again, re-evaluating and re-auditing the link profile. Then outreaching and disavowing to get bad links removed and finally, writing up another reconsideration documenting our progress.
Reconsideration 2 – 2nd Link Audit
Here is our second reconsideration attempt – you can see we found another 1495 links we considered to be ‘unnatural’:
Reconsideration 2 Response – 302 Redirects cited as Unnatural
David received the response from Google a few weeks later.
He emailed to give me the update:
The disappointment I had that the second reconsideration attempt had been unsuccessful turned to intrigue and amazement because Google provided three sample URL’s and would you believe it, they were all 302 redirects!
Here’s the official message in Google Webmaster Tools:
I ran all of those links through the SEOBOOK Server Header checker tool just to check that this was in fact the case and sure enough, Google was citing 302 redirects as SPAM links:
This is very, very interesting to me. The point being that the links they have called out as SPAM don’t actually point at my client’s site directly.
archive.ninjakiwi.com/forum/member.php/8571-almaking11?tab=activitystream&type=all&page=2 has a link “call capture system” that points at callcapturesystem.com, which in turn redirects to Freedom800.com via a 302 redirect.
www.applematters.com/profile/Jeneliya27/ has a link with the anchor text “free toll free number” that points at freetollfreenumber.org, which in turn redirects to Freedom800.com via a 302 redirect.
home-mortgage-refinance-guide.blogspot.co.uk/2008/05/why-buzz-about-call-capture.html has a link with the anchor text “800 number call capture” that points at freetollfreenumber.org, which in turn redirects to Freedom800.com via a 302 redirect.
I think the implications of this are two-fold:
- 302 Redirects must pass some degree of PageRank (or else, why would Google care).
- 302 Redirects can harm your site and by implication, most likely pass penalties too!
Reconsideration 3 – 3rd Link Audit & Redirects Disabled
For the third attempt, we once again revisited our link audit and re-ran the Link Detox (DTOX) report. This once again uncovered another group of links we had previously not known about.
It has to be said that this is just a feature of the web that us link auditors have to live with. The web is a fluid and forever changing landscape and given the scale of the Internet, no one link tool will ever be able to index every single link at any given time and that goes for Google too. Although, it doesn’t help that Google don’t provide Webmasters with every link they know about in Webmaster tools, just a sample.
For good measure, we completed another round of auditing links, link removal and disavow. The final result was disavowing 6141 complete domains that were pure spam.
Here’s the 3rd reconsideration:
Third time lucky – Partial Action Revoked
Success! Following the third reconsideration attempt, we managed to revoke the remaining partial action from Freedom800.
Undoubtedly, it was being vigilant with the link removal efforts and also removing those 302 redirects that we now know to be ‘unnatural’ that helped us succeed.
The official response from Google:
Checking Google Webmaster tools confirmed that all penalties had been lifted:
Impressions started to return to the site as the site began to rank again:
Similarly internal pages started to rank again and receive visibility in the SERPS after a total black out.
What now for Freedom800.com?
In order to get to this stage where we could reverse the two manual actions taken against the site we had to be vigilant and aggressive in the volume of links removed from Freedom800’s link graph.
Organic traffic from Google has started to come back to the site but here you can see that the site is not yet back to levels enjoyed prior to being hit by the Manual Actions in 2013:
Before getting penalized, Freedom800 had enjoyed high rankings for their target keywords. However, these rankings were based on the volume of unnatural and artificial links pointing at the site.
The challenge now is to try and rebuild the link profile with clean, natural links to restore the PageRank that will has been lost from the site. If this is done, the site can absolutely regain the traffic levels enjoyed in the past.
Another interesting point to note is that we believe Freedom800 to be still carrying an algorithmic ‘flag’ from Penguin so we are now waiting patiently for another Penguin refresh so that the site can complete the last step in recovery. It will be interesting to follow up after the long expected Penguin 3.0 update.
The wider implications of this study are that Google most definitely considers 302 redirects that are manipulative to be unnatural, which in turn supports my hypothesis that 302 redirects DO pass PageRank, whether they pass 100% of the link juice is open to debate.
The bottom-line is that you should be auditing your 302 redirects in the same way that you do your 301 redirects as these links can hurt your site.
If you need any help with Google Penalties, please contact me through my blog, DerekDevlin.com.
I look forward to your questions in the comments section below.
This case study was written by Derek Devlin, Head of Search at Made By Crunch, and proud user of Link Research Tools and Link Detox.
A word from Christoph C. Cemper
This analysis was conducted and written by our Certified LRT Xpert, Derek Devlin.
Derek demonstrated his expertise with this thorough examination into why Google twice manually penalized Freedom800. Therefore, I’m very happy to publish his research on our site.
Our goal is to provide our user community and clients with quality service and knowledge. Our Certified LRT Professionals and Xperts are key to achieving this goal.
I look forward to Derek’s future work, and I personally recommend working with him whenever you get the opportunity.
Derek has also achieved the Certified LRT Agency certification for his company, Made By Crunch. This certification allows Made By Crunch to market their brand and service with this highly sought after certification, and receive consulting leads from us free of charge.
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