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The Full 250% Deep-Dive into Unnatural Travel Link Schemes of Expedia.com
Expedia has been hit hard with a Penalty and lost 25% of its visibility. Even a Negative-SEO attack was suspected. This FULL deep dive by Bartosz Góralewicz which now contains 250% more details and content than the preview looks into the backlink profile of Expedia and reveals tactics they got away with for quite a while. Bartosz walks you through the reasons Expedia experienced such a traffic drop.
We look forward to your feedback and always appreciate you sharing the work of our Certified LRT Professionals ;)
- Enjoy & Learn!
Christoph C. Cemper
PS: As usual in our deep-dives, we try to give site owners, customers, and interested SEOs, clues on what to look for and how to use LRT to identify backlink profile risks. We assume Expedia is currently cleaning up a lot of their backlink profile. Therefore, we hope this case study helps them also.
Bonus PDF: Bartosz Góralewicz also put together a "Tutorial on how to process 120M link exports".
Table of Contents
- Expedia - Google Penalty for black hat links?
- Expedia’s Google ranking drop in press.
- Quick look at the backlinks
- What did they do wrong?
- Was it really a negative SEO campaign?
- “Negative SEO WordPress-Theme”
- Did Expedia only get punished for the WordPress theme link injection?
- Black hat links used by www.expedia.com
- How can you spot a link networks behind www.expedia.com with LinkResearchTools?
- Keyword-targeted manual penalty?
- Hypothesis – why did www.expedia.com have such a traffic drop?
- Flight keyword
- Travel keyword
- Cars keyword
- Daily Directory Drop
- Expedia’s current SEO “situation”
- Is Expedia changing their SEO strategy?
- Link removal
- On-Page changes
- Expedia’s link profile
- Competitive research
- Link Detox
- Expedia’s subdomains
- Good things at expedia.com
Expedia - Google Penalty for black hat links?
It all started with a single post of an angry SEO – Nenad at http://nenadseo.com/new-seo/. After receiving a manual penalty from Google for 2 small sites (according to his post, one of which had only 3 links, 2 being no-follow). He started pointing out that “big players” could buy low quality links and get away with it. As his example, he used www.expedia.com.
The post gained huge popularity in the SEO community, but it looked like Matt focused on AngloRank during that timeframe.
Exactly one month later, there was a large drop of 25% in Expedia’s visibility in SearchMetrics around Jan 19.
Expedia’s visibility dropped from 773,776 to a low of 551,548 (SearchMetrics visibility metrics).
And actually on Jan 26 we saw another drop of ~5% to 521.568.
In Sistrix, the drop was visible a couple days later due to index refresh intervals. They’ve noticed almost a 20% visibility index drop.
Expedia’s Google ranking drop in press.
The mainstream press covered this penalty like no other before. Some examples are:
- USA Today - Expedia hit by bug drop in Google search traffic
- The Wall Street Journal – Expedia Stock Tumbles on Web-Search Concerns
- Entrepreneur – First It Was Rap Genius. Is Google Punishing Expedia Now, Too?
Quick look at the backlinks
What did Expedia do wrong?
Just after some quick research, I’ve found some really suspicious links. First I thought it was a clear negative SEO attack on Expedia.com. There were loads of link networks, sponsored low-quality articles, and WordPress Themes with a hidden link to www.expedia.com etc.
Soon enough, somebody else found the links too – and suspected a negative SEO campaign as such links are really high risk these days.
Was it really a negative SEO campaign?
You can find the links mentioned above, by simply googling "Designed by the Expedia Cheapest Flights Team." At the time of writing this case study, there are 3.650 pages indexed in Google with “Cheapest flights” links inserted.
By Googling that, you will find WordPress blogs with a “Travel Blogger” theme. Some of them use an old, old SEO “trick” of using black text on a black background (!). Example below.
Isn’t that a little bit “last season?” Matt Cutts wrote a post about Hidden links on April 17, 2007 (!). It was so odd that I actually believed that it might be a sneaky, negative SEO attack by their competitors. But when I looked closer at those WordPress blogs with “negative SEO” links, something wasn’t quite right.
I looked closer at the WordPress Theme. It was created in 2011. Why would somebody build negative SEO for 3 years? WordPress theme “Travel Blogger Theme for WordPress” was created March 18, 2011 and from day one it had PHP code to inject into Expedia’s links.
OK, somebody might say, that it was a “long running” negative SEO campaign.
However, I found the owners of the site with the WordPress theme for download. It wasn’t too hard. After checking the registrant in DomainTools.com, this is what came up:
http://myersmediagroup.com re-directed me to http://www.enterpriseseo.net/. After a quick look around the site, this is what caught my attention:
So unless this site is a huge scam, there was not any “negative SEO” attack. Creating a WordPress Theme with a keyword rich footer is not new, it is actually a little bit of 2008 – 2009 SEO. Definitely black hat and definitely outside of any Google Webmaster Guidelines – back then and more than ever today.
“Negative SEO WordPress-Theme”
The WordPress theme changed recently after the ranking drop was noticed. Also, there is one more interesting thing. The day after www.expedia.com dropped in rankings, there was a “Travel Blogger” theme update. Some might think it is a coincidence, but let’s see exactly what changed between versions. There is a nice comparison online that reveals the exact changes (removed/changed code is red. New is green).
Let’s see what has changed in version 1.7.
“Sponsored links” was removed. Now it is a little bit more white hat.
Also, 20 keyword rich links were removed here:
Actually now, the word “expedia” is not present in this updated theme at all. So basically, on January 20, 2014, the theme was “wiped” clean from everything that could have brought Expedia into trouble.
Did Expedia only get punished for the WordPress theme link injection?
The answer is simple – NO. There were so many black hat techniques used to get/buy links for www.expedia.com.
Black hat links used by www.expedia.com
Expedia’s Link network 1
Shady auto-generated hotel sites, usually with domain names that are exact matches for the keywords they target. The low quality of those sites might even make it more of a link farm, than a link network.
I’ve noticed that they are removing these links from this network. Some of them disappeared while writing this case study.
Expedia’s Link network 2
There are many link networks behind www.expedia.com. In fact, LinkResearchTools makes it so easy to spot them, that I will just reveal two of them and show you how more can be easily found.
Looking at many of the backlinks, I’ve spotted sites, which were clearly part of a network. For example - http://thejokeshop.org/. It is pretty clear to me that it is not a real joke site. Mainly, because there are many jokes with 2 keyword-rich links. One to Wikipedia or some other authority site (the classical “co-citation link”), and a second one to, for example – www.expedia.com.
How to spot a link network behind www.expedia.com using LinkResearchTools?
It is an easy 5 – minute process. All we need is only 1 site linking to www.expedia.com that you are sure is in a link network. Now, we just need to take 6 more external links from this site. Now, let’s paste those 7 links into CBLT (the Common Backlinks Tool).
After that we click Run Report
And we get our link network on “display.” I always feel a little bit like Matt Cutts while doing that.
After 5 minutes, I found more than 700 domains that we are can be sure, a lot of which are a part of a link network (of course excluding feedburner.com). All of that out of only 1 domain.
Examples of sites in this network:
Also, there are some examples of the links that would be definitely out of Google Webmaster Guidelines.
Clearly a paid link or advertorial. Paid links should be no-follow and not pass Page Rank.
Paid guest blogging with low quality posts.
Buying links from “bloggers”, as it was pointed out by NenadSEO, is usually a keyword – rich anchor simply “injected”, even if there is not much logic in it. NenadSEO described that technique in-detail in his post.
Real spammy, submissions in free or paid online directories. On the screenshot below you can see English description and English keyword-rich anchor in a directory from Argentina. The directory is based on a popular PHP Link Directory. In this case site that is not even fully configured and translated.
Sponsored articles or Press Releases with do-follow, keyword rich links
Links below are not as bad as link networks above, but clearly out of Google’s guidelines.
Looking at the data above, it is pretty clear that www.expedia.com is not a case of a negative SEO attack. Most of the actions are run by an agency that they’ve hired or even in-house.
Some of these tactics might have been implemented years ago. As recommended since the launch of Penguin in 2012 it’s crucial that you perform an ongoing link risk management on your backlink profile and even disavow on a cautionary, pro-active basis, which has even been confirmed by Matt Cutts.
Keyword-targeted manual penalty?
After releasing first part of this case study, I started wondering if I missed something. If they have a manual penalty from the Google Search Quality Team, and it is a partial penalty (not like in the Rap Genius case study) then it might be “assigned” to a keyword that dropped in rankings. Let’s investigate a little bit into that.
Below you can see a screenshot of “lost” keywords from Expedia. If there was a manual penalty, then it is definitely connected to the keyword “travel” and “flights”.
Now let’s look into Sistrix index.
As we can see below, http://www.expedia.com/Flights got hit really bad, losing almost 50% visibility. http://www.expedia.com/Cars lost almost 60% visibility.
Hypothesis – why did www.expedia.com have such a traffic drop?
In my opinion, www.expedia.com got a manual penalty for 3 keyword “groups”.
Also I think the penalty was “connected” to Expedia’s WordPress theme. If my hypothesis is right, there are 3 kinds of WordPress themes by Expedia. For Flight, Travel and Cars, the keywords that lost visibility in Google.
Let’s see if we can prove, that this hypothesis is right by analyzing keyword by keyword.
It is clearly connected with the WordPress theme links, pointing to http://www.expedia.com/Flights, like this one http://www.hudsondogpark.com/
Let’s take a look at the link.
“Flights” related keywords got penalized most probably after “discovering” the WordPress theme by Googlers. Expedia’s recent actions seem to confirm this hypothesis.
Now, let’s find links with “Travel” anchor. If my hypothesis is right, we should find another WordPress theme with “travel” keyword in footer.
How to find only backlinks with a defined anchor?
For that all I need to do is run a Quick Backlinks Tool (QBC). And look for a “travel” keyword.
Now we can have a look at the links found. Let’s look if there is any pattern that could cause a manual penalty for the “travel” keyword. If you look closely at the screenshot above, there are links with “/Links.html” and “/Resources.html”. If I were a Google employee, those are the first ones I’d look at.
Let’s take a closer look at those links.
Looking at the sites above, there is a clear connection between all of them. But I got some mixed feelings about the nature of those links. They're are not “clearly” black hat links. That is why I would like to dig deeper into “travel” and “flight” keywords.
I still want to find a WordPress theme with a “Travel” keyword. Doing it with a site that has more than 130,000,000 backlinks to go through would take me days.
What if the keywords are not there anymore? Let’s remember that this whole story started in December 2013. Expedia is probably reacting to their organic visibility drops, including the bad publicity and dropping stock prices.
I started looking at the “source”. When I opened the site http://www.freetravelwebsitetemplates.com/ offering the Travel Blogger WordPress theme with Expedia’s links, I didn’t find any links to www.expedia.com. That got me thinking. They use so many black hat links, why wouldn’t they link to their website from Page Rank™ 4 travel site?
As you can see above, there is NO FOOTER. Now let’s take a look at a footer in the screenshot below. It is a screenshot from site in Google's cache. Snapshot of a site from 9th January 2014.
Do you remember the screen with www.expedia.com keyword drops?
Now let’s compare it with their WordPress free theme update.
We have a “Travel” keyword.
We found more than 3600 links for “cheapest flights”
All we need now is “Cars” keyword.
This one was actually the hardest one to prove. I was getting close to giving up on my hypothesis.
I’ve decided to start a backlink profile (BLP) only for the sub-page http://www.expedia.com/cars. This way I will only get the links to the page that dropped in Google.
Again, as in example above, I search only for links with “cars”, “car rentals” etc. in anchor.
Now, let’s take a look at one of the links:
Daily Directory Drop
Look at the address above: www.expedia.com/daily/cars and now let’s check it in Sistrix. If my hypothesis is right, expedia.com/daily should have dropped significantly.
A second “bonus” is that we can now track all the other related WordPress sites.
Now we have a “footprint” of Expedia’s Rental Cars theme. Let’s check if we can find more of them.
Great (not for Expedia though), we got 1160 more links within 0,37 seconds .
Expedia’s current SEO “situation”
Bingo! My hypothesis was right. In my opinion Expedia’s main problem is and was WordPress themes created for footer links from Travel sites. There are many other factors, but none of those are as serious and as black hat as this one. Also they’ve lost only ~ 20 – 25% organic visibility, what makes me suspect keyword-targeted manual penalty.
It is hard to show a full “spectrum” of Expedia’s linking profile. Not only because the site is so large and complex, as LinkResearchTools really helps in sorting it out, but mostly because most of the links in “their power” are now being removed.
There were many examples that I wanted to expose in this case study, but the links “disappeared” over the weekend, which is a good sign that Expedia is acting on this. Fortunately in many cases, Google Cache was there to help us show some indicators for us researching tough.
Is Expedia changing their SEO strategy?
At the moment of creating this case study, it really looks like there are some drastic changes “in process” at Expedia.
Clearly, there are some changes visible you can see while looking at their SEO strategy and existing links. E.g. MajesticSEO shows a lot of lost links starting from January 12, 2014.
This could be a crawling issue also, but most likely Expedia is already on a cleanup-spree for weeks.
I don’t know how quick they are reacting, but after spending many hours looking at their backlinks and changes, I think, they’ve started a cleanup around 12th January 2014. Before this date, most of the links, that they had a full control of, were still visible. After 12th, most links started disappearing.
With site this big and this many links, link profile cleanup could take months, but I guess Google will not “hold” the penalty for too long. Recent cases such as Rap Genius did show us, that everything goes quicker with big brands.
Below you can see their link removal with up to almost 40,000 links per day.
Changes in a WordPress theme they’ve created are really going to impact their link profile. As soon as WordPress owners update their theme, links are going to disappear.
The WordPress “link strategy” might also backfire in this case. Many of the sites using this theme seem to be abandoned. Removing the links from them might be difficult. Expedia will of course disavow them, but we all know, that the showing effects and effort is crucial to lifting a penalty.
If you use the “TravelBlogger” theme, you can be almost sure that your site which helped Expedia’s visibility for years may now “land” in an Expedia.com disavow file with “domain:” in front of it.
I am not going to get in-detail into their on-page changes, I just want to mention some of the things I’ve noticed.
The agency working for Expedia.ca site left many minor “bugs” that they are now fixing. A couple days ago, www.expedia.ca was linking out to a staging site with do-follow links. It seems to be fixed now, but you can still see the links in Google Cache (I don’t think they are cloaking, it just looks like it was not indexed and cached yet). This for example is a cached page - This for example is a cached page -
Also, there are staging sites left by the agency “on display” with links pointing to them.
And the “real” one:
I checked the IP for the staging site. It is on Expedia’s server. That is a 100% proof that the agency responsible for the WordPress theme is officially working for Expedia.
Expedia’s link profile
What I covered above, was more of an “investigation” than a real look at Expedia’s link profile. I must say that after checking all the stuff “manually”, I cannot wait to see how it looks when looking at the whole link profile.
After what I saw above, I wouldn’t expect the DTOX to be “bad”.
OK, let’s run it then.
Have in mind that we are only running a small, representative % of links here. Full DTOX of 120,000,000 we got would take a long time to process and even longer to analyze. We even had problems with processing 120,000,000 links on a regular PC.
— Bartosz Góralewicz (@bart_goralewicz) January 25, 2014
— Bartosz Góralewicz (@bart_goralewicz) January 25, 2014
We all know that travel, hotels and flights are not a “clean” niches. Let’s see how Expedia looks compared with the competition.
Competitive Landscape Analysis
CLA (Competitive Landscape Analysis) for “cheap flights” top 10.
Now, let’s take a look at 11 domains we got listed below.
Farecompare and Momondo got a score of 12 CEMPER Power*Trust™ which is really low for such a competitive niche. It is definitely a factor worth looking into in these companies.
Expedia has a a CEMPER Power*Trust™ score of 35 with CEMPER Trust™ higher than CEMPER Power™ so I wouldn’t look for any problems here and focus on further increase of those numbers.
Tripadvisor is a clear winner with CEMPER Power*Trust™ of 63, and a really high CEMPER Trust™ of 9 (!). If I were creating a new SEO strategy for Expedia, or even mentioned before Farecompare and Momondo, I’d definitely take a closer look Tripadvisor’s backlinks and strategy.
Let’s take a look at comparison by CEMPER Power*Trust™. Even a quick look shows that, Expedia doesn’t “fit” into average score from top10.
Why would Expedia have such a “spike” in that area? I can only guess, that it is connected with a linking strategy mentioned earlier. I am suspecting, that the spike is caused by links from WordPress theme with injected links. But at any rate, it sticks out and looks a bit unnatural.
Let’s move forward to CEMPER Trust™ metric. We got a dangerous factor here, worth looking into. If we look at the chart, it’s quite obvious that Expedia “stands out” with Trust metrics much higher than competition’s average in range between 8 and 12.
The problem I would try to solve here is with the many sites with 0 Trust. Expedia has 31% sites with no trust metrics, when competition average is 16%. That is almost 200% more. It is definitely a factor worth fixing in future by Expedia’s SEO team. Sites with 0 trust are usually new, or really low quality. This is definitely the worst “area” of the chart to have this much more links than competition. Sites with 200% weaker or lower quality links than average can definitely raise flag in Google, which we obviously don’t want.
Now there is one more interesting thing I found in this CLA.
We can clearly see above that there is a huge difference to the average in every type of Keyword. The most worrying is only 6% Money keywords, comparing to 34% average for Top 3. That means that Top 3 average has 560% more money keywords than Expedia.
Do-follow to no-follow distribution is also worth looking into. Expedia’s got 6% more do-follow links than Top 3, Top 5 and Total average.
Some more image links than competition, but I wouldn’t worry about the score here. It is pretty close to top 10 average.
40% Startpage Link to Deep Link proportion. Also a little bit different here than average. From what I saw in the links, it is mainly because of the Expedia’s site structure with many landing pages like www.expedia.com/Flights for flight related searches and http://www.expedia.com/Hotels for hotel searches etc. I think we shouldn’t look at this factor as good or bad. Expedia.com must be more complex site than Cheapoair.com as Expedia offers also hotels, cars etc.
In my opinion, here CLA “reveals” what NenadSEO wrote in his post about Expedia buying articles from bloggers. Bought links from blogs are a large part of Expedia’s SEO strategy what we can clearly see above.
The Sitewide Ratio for this domain confirms the WordPress theme links strategy of Expedia.com sort of, and while there are quite a lot of site wide links popular in the travel space as we can see, Expedia sticks out again.
CLA (Competitive Landscape Analysis) for “Travel” top 10.
Expedia.com had also a huge traffic drop for “travel” keyword. Let’s see the competition in the field and how Expedia’s link profile fits into it.
As shown above, Expedia is a leader in here in amount of referring domains. Only TripAdvisor has a better score.
What should raise a flag here is that Expedia has more than twice as many referring domains as Kayak.com or Orbitz.com while their CEMPER Power*Trust™ is much higher. 49 for Kayak.com and 42 for Orbitz.com, while Expedia.com has a score of only 35 CEMPER Power*Trust™. This clearly indicates that Experia.com is getting many links from low authority and power domains.
As we can see above, Expedia’s link profile has a huge spike with 76% links being 8-12 Power*Trust™. What is in my opinion caused by WordPress Theme links.
This is a really interesting screenshot that made me include “travel” CLA in this Case Study. If we compare it with the “cheap flights” CLA, we can clearly see, that those niches are completely different.
Let’s take a look at the same comparison from “cheap flights” niche.
As you see, those are two completely different niches with a different competitors. It is a challenge to compete in both of this markets and after recent Expedia traffic drops, I think they are going to look closer into this problem.
Link Detox (DTOX) for Expedia
Let’s run a DTOX then for www.expedia.com
Now, we need to classify as many keywords as possible. We are aiming at a score higher than 80% to have best DTOX accuracy.
After classifying as many keywords as possible, we need to reprocess the report with new keyword classification and we got our Average Link Detox Risk. First, let’s take a look at the scale.
The overall risk is not high for www.expedia.com. It is far from exceeding 1000, where it could be classified as potential Penguin Victim. What we learn here is that the “AVERAGE” link risk is just that, an average, weighted by a couple factors, but this is the reason why Expedia got away in the Penguin updates.
There are still many links, I would take a closer look at.
As we can see above, out of the links we checked, 6% is High Risk or higher. If we scale it to all the links we found for expedia.com, that would give us 6% out of 120 million – 7.200.000 links. More than 7 million possible toxic links (!).
Have in mind, that it is only a “partial” detox. While working on this case study we didn’t have enough time to properly process more than 120 million links. It would require more time to process and then properly analyze such amount of links.
We filtered only 4793 links out of 101.578 cause or really excessive site wide linking to www.expedia.com
What is an interesting fact is that www.expedia.com has 80 links from every linking domain on average! This is quite common and shouldn’t be worrying in travel niche, as there is a lot of partner sites linking with widgets or offers.
Link Detox for Expedia’s subdomains
But Expedia.com is a complex site with many subdomains. Some of them are worth mentioning here.
Rental-cars.expedia.com - DTOX
For example, let’s take a closer look at subdomain http://rental-cars.expedia.com/. As we know Rental Cars is one of the keywords that lost visibility recently.
Subdomain has Link Detox Risk score of 1658, making it a Deadly Risk and a potential Penguin victim. With almost 60% links with High – Deadly Risk!
Flights.expedia.com – DTOX
Another keyword that significantly lost SEO visibility.
Hotels.expedia.com – DTOX
As you can see looking at those 3 subdomains above, there is a lot of link cleaning for Expedia’s SEO team. We don’t know if those subdomains were penalized, but those are sure Penguin candidates.
Good things at expedia.com
It turns out that somebody at Expedia.com still believes that “content is the king”. After spending some time with them, I found one really good asset – viewfinder.expedia.com
After taking a closer look, I think they really focused on quality there. Hiring really good guest bloggers, creating interesting articles and offering good terms for new bloggers.
Unfortunately, many things lead me to believe Expedia’s Marketing and SEO team are in two different buildings or even states.
There are a lot of great articles. However, they are filled with keywords. Too many keywords. While reading such a “stuffed” article, you start to think this article was written as a result of an SEO saying “write an article on: Romantic winter experience, New York City, Big Apple, Jacques Torres Chocolates, La Maison du Chocolate and Pairing Classes.”
Expedia has a lot of interesting and quality content. Even the size of the site (4 million pages indexed in Google), gives them a huge advantage. I am sure after recent problems, Expedia is going to start using their potential; without the dirty tricks and cheap “keyword stuffing”.
This is a deep dive into Expedia’s linking and SEO strategy. After looking at Expedia and their competitors, I think that if NenadSEO didn't create a post that went viral in the community, Expedia could have got away with its SEO strategy for quite a while.
What we see above clearly shows that www.expedia.com is most probably not hit with algorithmic penalty, what again confirms my hypothesis about manual action after revealing their linking tactic. Some of the subdomains are a perfect candidate for a Penguin penalty, but Expedia’s traffic drops are correlated with main page and subpages.
I think that if Expedia is going to work with Google on removing the penalty, it is not going to take a long time before they come back in rankings. The Search Quality Team at Google will achieve its goal and Expedia is going to put a little bit more effort (and budget) in creating their SEO strategy.
While working on this case study I received some emails and messages from people struggling with this huge player in the travel industry. They were all trying to focus Google’s attention at what is going on in this niche for a long time.
While looking at the whole of Expedia’s link profile, I knew was room for improvement in many fields. I think that this traffic drop is going to be influential for Expedia. A fresh start with a better strategy, one that is not based on a spammy blogs or WordPress themes with link injection. These are all SEO techniques from many years ago and as we know in SEO world, strategies or SEO “trick” that is 4 – 5 years old are basically a negative SEO.
What is also important to notice, Expedia is “cleaning” its link profile as I write this post. It means that even when the penalty is lifted and their rankings come back, they are not going to regain their “old” positions and visibility straight away.
That leaves room for new players in travel industry and from the feedback I had during my work on this case study, I know that there are many new players looking for a fair chance in travel niche.
This case study was written by Bartosz Góralewicz, SEO Consultant, Online Marketing Specialist, and proud user of LinkResearchTools and Link Detox.
A word from Christoph C. Cemper
Bartosz showed proficiency in doing a SEO link audit on the current topic of Expedia's penalized SEO strategies. I am thrilled by the detail and structure he accomplished in his case study. Therefore, I'm very happy to certify Bartosz Góralewicz as the latest Certfied LRT Professional; by approving and publishing his research on our site.
Our goal is to provide our user community and clients with quality service and knowledge. Our Certified LRT Professionals are key to achieving this goal.
I look forward to his future work, and personally recommend Bartosz Góralewicz to work with you, whenever you get the opportunity!
And if you wonder what it takes in hours and coffees to put this post together and achieve the honored status of CLRTP, then you should read Bart's "Behind the Scenes of the Expedia.com LRT Case Study" post.
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