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Penalized in Google?
Unwinding Google Penalties

This page was posted as a resource in 2024. The information in these legacy posts is still relevant.

This document is a text-only archive of's 2012 RSS feed, primarily focused on various aspects of search engine optimization (SEO) and the strategies used by businesses, particularly in highly competitive industries. It includes detailed discussions on topics such as link velocity, gaming Google in the gaming industry, SEO disasters and solutions, the concept of negative SEO, and Google's responses to various SEO tactics.

The content is technical, aimed at SEO professionals and businesses seeking to understand the nuances of search engine algorithms and how to navigate them effectively. It offers insights into both legitimate and questionable SEO practices, providing a comprehensive view of the SEO landscape as of 2012.

Key themes include:

  1. Gaming Google in the Gaming Industry: It explores how some businesses in the gaming (gambling) industry use off-guideline strategies to achieve high search rankings, and the implications of these tactics. Google devalues links.

  2. SEO Disasters and Solutions: Various SEO disasters are highlighted, along with potential solutions to these challenges.

  3. Negative SEO and Google's Response: The text delves into the concept of negative SEO (where competitors use harmful tactics to lower a website's ranking) and how Google may be acknowledging and responding to this issue. Bing is the first to recognize this problem with a disavow tool.

  4. Analysis of Specific SEO Cases: The document provides detailed analysis of specific cases, showing how different websites have manipulated SEO to gain high rankings.

  5. Discussions on Google Penalties and Enforcement: There's a focus on how Google penalizes websites for using unethical SEO strategies and the implications for businesses.

  6. Ethical Considerations in SEO: It touches on the ethical considerations of using various SEO tactics, discussing what is considered fair or unfair in the pursuit of higher search rankings.


Link Velocity : Bogus Sales Argument

To read all the articles, visit:  This website was Bob Sakayama's enterprise search performance site.  Read strategies and conversations directed at businesses with very large sites or very large numbers of sites.

Gaming Google In The Gaming Industry

Have you ever looked at the top of the search results for your industry, seen successful, clearly off-guideline strategies working for some seemingly inferior site and thought, "WTF!! Why hasn't Google caught these guys?"

If you never have had that reaction, you probably need to pay closer attention to what your competitors are doing, because the more competitive the search, the more likely there are players successfully gaming the results.

Here in the US, with the gaming (ie. gambling) industry preparing for the legalization of online casinos in some states, the searches associated with the most valuable keywords are set to become super competitive - you would think (incorrectly) that they already are and have been for years. What's really changing is the importance of the USA geo component for the longtails. We know these searches are valuable because this is one of the fields that gets plenty of enforcement action from Google, and at the same time, plenty of black hat activity that goes undetected for long periods of time. What's really surprising is the low bar for entry in these searches.

Take this search: "online slots usa"

Since the results will very likely have changed by the time you read this, here are some screen shots from 23 March 2013: (click for larger views)


Note that positions #3 & #6 are held by two urls from .edu sites. Anytime you see a school domain ranking very high in a gaming search, that's usually a sign of a successful rank insertion. Look more closely and you'll see these are single pages, not websites. Even closer and you'll see they're supported with hidden links from other school related (possibly hacked) sites.

Here are the one page casino affiliates that the clicks reveal: (click for larger views)



The top of this search is actually very weak in terms of link numbers. The reason for this is that Google's enforcement actions killed off the sites with huge numbers of links with the advent of Penguin. The #2 site has only 8 links from only 4 domains (Majestic), and the #1 site has 450 links but from only 3 domains!

The #3 rank is supported by, among other things, only 15 links from only 8 domains (according to Majestic), some of those links are on, a seemingly innocent site. A look at their source code shows 2 sets of hidden links with this structure (for clarity we removed all but the money link):


We can also see that by hovering over the links to the casinos involved, that the affiliate code associated with these urls is the same - it's the same entity that achieved both of these results.

This is impressive. These are big money terms, and from our experience, at a minimum this is probably worth a 2-5 grand per month in affiliate income. So there's plenty of motive here, and if you can keep this rank or keep swapping out pages as they get discovered & penalized, it's clearly worth some dev expense to keep these balls in the air.

What's really counter intuitive is the small number of links it took to pull this off - this is clearly a link driven insertion, since the content is no way going to hold this rank on its own. But using only 8 domains?

If you think that's surprising, take a look at this next example. Here is the top of the search for "online slots" as of today:


This is NOT the geo search - this is the global search for online slots. Using link data from Majestic, the #1 url, has 11,065 links from 889 domains. The #2 url is with 8,482 links from 247 domains. These numbers are more in line with what we would expect - lots of links.

But here's the amazing part: The #3 position is held by with only 15 links from only 8 domains (Majestic) supporting this position. Now granted we don't have access to WMT, and the numbers might be much larger there. But I've been watching this for a while and this rank has been holding, and those link numbers have not increased during that time.

Again, very impressive, both for the high rank and for the low overhead to achieve it.

Another very important point, especially if you're a Google believer. If you've been reading about authorship trust, you know that Google has been touting authorship as a way to 'confirm' your legitimacy. The claim is that people (and Google) might 'trust' your content more if attribution is present. And by placing your name & image as the author of the content within the search results, your content is supposedly more credible. With that in mind, take a close look at that #3 search result and tell me if you have more trust for that author, identified as Jess Pitt, because of this attribution - looks like a cartoon character to me.

It often seems as if there's a basic unfairness in the search that our penalty work makes very obvious. Most owners of penalized sites are victims (of seos and ignorance) and are not criminals or intentionally evil implementers of internet fraud. They lose their ranks when penalized and then spend large amounts of time and resources to recover, while these brilliant outliers run circles around them by gaming Google and either not getting penalized, or having plans to deal with those penalties when they occur. It's obviously not a model that a stable commerce site can rely on, but it does make one stop and think about it.

In closing, remember that whatever you think about the way these ranks are attained, it's not illegal, and not necessarily unethical. I always get flack for saying that last part, because most people associate gamed ranks with some kind of evil. And if the ranks are attained by putting content & links on hacked sites, then there might be some argument on the ethical front. But the gaming of Google by itself is not unethical - everyone wishes they could pull this off. The guys who succeed are doing it for the money, and will continue until Google is able to detect and enforce more robustly - these are the players that keep Google on its toes. You might even be able to argue they're doing us all a service. But if I were Google, I would see this as a huge & continuing embarrassment.

Related older post on gaming Google in the gaming industry here.


2012 SEO Disasters | Solutions

The 2012 Disasters

2012 was a truly disastrous year for sites penalized in Google. The length of time sites remained in penalties jumped from 1-6 months to a scary undetermined time frame. The majority of medium to large sites (10,000+ urls) that were harmed by Penguin are still penalized, and those that have seen their ranks return have not fully recovered. Many of these sites watched as repeated updates to both Penguin and Panda continued to tank their ranks even as efforts to correct the problems were underway. Smaller sites fared better, but only because the smaller number of links meant that their link profiles were easier to cleanse.

SEOs Are The Problem

From my vantage point, seos were always the primary cause of the penalties, and this was no different in 2012. More than 90% of the penalties we see are triggered by the "experts" and those experts have paid a price. Depending on the news source, between 60-75% of seo agencies were forced to close their doors in 2012 as clients abandoned these contractors who crashed and burned their ranks. Those that survived have had to dramatically alter their claims and strategies, especially link building services.

Outsourcing SEO : Caveat Emptor

2012 was also a disaster for most sites that relied on outsourced seo. And of the 90% mentioned above, almost all were hiring offshore services to do the bulk of the work. As a result, using cheap, offshore workers to guide the optimization of a site is now a deprecated strategy. Unfortunately the agencies and individuals that triggered the penalties are still advertising their services, and we can see that they have not really addressed the problems, only the sales messages. This is most likely because they don't fully understand what caused the problems for their clients in the first place. But also because site owners, intent on saving money, continue to look for cheap, outsourced seo, and continue to hire based on price. Clueless business owners will continue to suffer the consequences of focusing on the low cost providers - and they are abundant. A search for outsourced seo services reveals a huge number of companies and individuals making claims of seo competence that do not line up with the specific services they list.

Negative SEO

The disasters of 2012 would be incomplete without mention of negative seo, the use of strategies aimed at destroying ranks of a competitor. The door was opened to this evil by the indiscriminate enforcement actions of Google. Since no one can know who posted the unnatural links that Penguin flags, the same outsourced work that once pushed your ranks could now be used to harm your competition. Once denied as possible, the evidence is in and victims have finally been heard. The numbers of naysayers have collapsed - negative seo IS possible.

Harsher Enforcement Triggers More Significant Google Penalties

One of the most value pieces of information that I am privy to comes in the responses to reconsideration requests. Google will sometimes (when you've filed many recons and can show progress with each) send you some examples of your unnatural links. This is where we can see the changes occurring in the way Google perceives these problem links. For example, we assumed that links from certain kinds of very widespread listings were probably being discounted. We were surprised to learn that links in directories or on reciprocal links pages, if on valuable anchors, are considered unnatural. Many of the directories charged listing fees which makes the links considered paid, so that one is completely understandable, but the harmful reciprocal link examples were a stunner - because at one time Google encouraged reciprocal links. Imagine, if you took that suggestion in 2001, worked it, and did nothing else, your site could be penalized in Google right now. These recent penalties are the harshest ever, but by observing the changes in enforcement, we have important clues as to how Google now views links.

Solution: Centrally Manage Your SEO Strategy

The starting point for managing the risk associated with search is to recognize and accept the fact that SEOs are at the root of the problem. Examine the way your enterprise views optimization. If your business is search dependent, optimization is EVERYTHING, so handing over the responsibility for ranking a site to someone offshore is probably the riskiest thing you can do. The decision makers need to bring accountability for optimization to rest WITHIN the organization. The smart way to exploit cheap labor is not to hand them the keys and walk away, but to limit the work executed by that labor to specific, measurable tasks that originate from a central seo authority within the enterprise. This will increase costs & workload, and may require the hiring of a high level expert you can trust to oversee and be held accountable for the work. That will definitely require more resources, but this change in approach will also decrease risk, which has become one of the new mandates for any work done on a website.

Solution: More Transparency From Google

2012 saw a significant increase in messaging from Google, via Webmaster Tools. For the past 2 years, those messages have included warnings of doorway detection and unnatural links, in addition to technical warnings of server issues. But the most valuable messages are now sent via email from WMT, something you won't even see unless you connect an email address to your WMT account and request email notification. These emails often carry significant details specific to your case. We discussed above how these messages contribute to our understanding of what are now the new standards for a search compliant environment. We applaud Google for any new effort toward transparency, but feel there is huge need for much more transparency - for all manual actions, and especially for long penalized sites.

Solution: The New Google Link Disavow Tool

The disavow tool is an intended solution, potentially critical. Although Google claims the tool is to address bad seo, I see it as also an attempt by Google to address & downplay the outcry caused by the proliferation of negative seo as a consequence of Penguin. We don't believe it's fully implemented as yet - still waiting for evidence of efficacy.

But there's a catch. Nowhere on the disavow tool is there any messaging about a requirement to first attempt to remove links as suggested by Cutts in the video (url below). But information from responses to recon requests confirms that disavows will not be honored until you make an effort to remove the links first. The money paragraph:

"Once you have updated your site, reply to this email noting the specific changes you made. Only after there has been a significant decrease in unnatural linking will we consider reviewing your reconsideration request again. If there are links to your site that cannot be removed, you can use the disavow links tool. Please note that simply disavowing links will not be enough to make a reconsideration request successful; we will also need to see good-faith efforts to get inorganic links removed from the web wherever possible. For more information on the disavow links tool, see this blog post:"


2012 was a dreadful year to suffer a Google penalty, because those penalties are now harsher, and as a result more enduring and difficult to unwind. But very important markers have been laid out by Google, signaling that new rules are now in play, not all of which are known. This makes the risk of inadvertently crossing one of those invisible red lines significantly greater. Robust, technical search knowledge has always been an advantage, but now, even more than ever, competing in the search requires risk management as a first step. Internal accountability is key. Can you say for certain who is the one person within your organization responsible for the search performance of your enterprise? If you're managing the risk properly, you can answer this question.


Google May Be Quietly Acknowledging Negative SEO

In the past month, we've been filing 2-6 reconsideration requests per day, so we've seen a very large number of responses to those requests. And since Penguin we've noticed a significant change in Google's messaging concerning unnatural links, which I've mentioned in previous posts. The strongly accusatory message is now a much more gentle suggestion that you may have screwed up.

But I've lately noticed something that I believe is even more significant. Previously, when you received the unnatural links warning, you were pretty much guaranteed to receive a penalty within 3 weeks - not enough time to preemptively address the problem. So basically, everyone who received the warning eventually got penalized.

But since the warning that went out on 19-21 July 2012, a strange thing happened. Very few sites were harmed, and I believe this signals a paradigm shift within Google. Something major has changed, and I believe it is connected to a problem that Google has been in denial about in the past - negative seo.

We have always known that negative seo was possible. Penguin only made it more obvious because Google really has no clue who is actually responsible for the garbage links pointing to your sites - and triggering the penalties. Yet Google continued to claim it was not possible for 3rd parties to harm sites, even in the face of direct evidence (that we provide to them on a regular basis) that proved it was not only possible, but occurring with some regularity. Once it came under public discussion, many seos picked up that challenge and ran their own experiments.

These experiments were trying to prove that 3rd parties could indeed get sites penalized using spammy links - and in the last month many of those tests succeeded in triggering the unnatural links message. The most visible is Rand Fishkin's challenge to negative seo his site - he has been a mouthpiece for Google claiming it could not be done and even offering a $20,000 prize if someone could do it to his site. He got the warning earlier this month, like every other site that's under attack.

The fact that the attacks are succeeding in triggering the warning is a bad sign for Google. If they were to now penalize all these sites, they now have to know that they will be harming innocents. I believe this is why they have not acted as they have in the past.

Contrast Google's behavior with Bing. Bing has had a link disavow tool in their version of WMT for over a month. This is a tweak to Google's nose that little Bing is more functionally robust in recognizing the problem of negative seo and providing tools to address it. We have been asking for a disavow tool from Google for many years, and we're now expecting Google to deliver on this, especially since they have no options other than to harm innocent sites if they don't.

We have to balance all this against the probability that Google will act on the warnings anyway. But some sites that are under attack have several million links - so many that a granular analysis could be prohibitively expensive and still not address the problem in time.

Given all of this, the approach we're taking is to focus on the most obvious of the problems - the goal being to be able to message Google that unnatural links are coming down but to limit the financial burden in a way that will be seen as reasonable and warranted. We're doing this by concentrating on the most egregious links - site-wides, links from penalized sites, malware distributors, obvious spam, etc.

Even though most sites have so far not been harmed after the last warning it's really not responsible to advise clients to ignore those warnings, but there is a significant consequence that is going to follow any release of a disavow tool in WMT. Like many site owners have already done, just imagine spending thousands of dollars discovering and removing links only to find that it was all unnecessary.

Google, everyone still wants and needs the ability to disavow the links pointing to our sites so we can't be harmed by negative seo. It's the right thing to do. Bing already did it and it's way past time for you to follow suit.


Unnatural Links Warning

In the past several days, Google sent out a huge number of messages from Webmaster Tools. Many site owners received 3 or 4 messages within a few days. If you very recently (19 July 2012 or later) received a warning of unnatural links from Google it was very likely starts with one of these sentences:

"We've detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques outside Google's Webmaster Guidelines."


"We've detected that some of the pages on your site are using techniques outside Google's Webmaster Guidelines."

These warnings are very, very similar to previous ones sent out in advance of penalizing your site, or to explain why you've been penalized. These have always been scary messages to receive.

And you're probably trying to parse that message against this one from Matt Cutts, which is trying so hard to play down the seriousness of it.

In my view, the message can easily be interpreted as a fishing trip to see if they can trick you into removing some links, and it will probably work. Cutts' post explaining it seems so innocent and lighthearted, given the background that surrounds it. He's saying that this time it's different, doesn't mean you're about to lose your ranks. He starts by trying to downplay the message - even says, "don't panic."

But put this in the perspective of what's really going on and it will appear much less innocent. Very simply, and because of factors outside of Google's control, they are much less certain about what you are actually doing. Negative seo has cast a huge shadow over the certainty of responsibility regarding links pointed at your site. This is reflected in the language of the warning, which is much less accusatory than previous warnings.

"We don't want to put any trust in links that are artificial or unnatural. We recommend removing any unnatural links to your site. However, we do realize that some links are outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole."

The History Of Warnings

Couple of things to point out here. First is the history behind this message. Previously, this message sometimes appeared in WMT almost exactly 21 days prior to very granular rank suppression. Sometimes it appeared after rank loss. So in the past, this message was always connected directly to an enforcement action. So why is it different this time, exactly?

Then there's this: "If you are able to remove any of the links, please submit a reconsideration request, including the actions that you took." If you remember the penalty types, you'll know that only manual actions require a reconsideration request. Automated suppression does not. So Google is messaging us with the threat of a manual action on our sites if we don't remove some of the links deemed unnatural by them.

I read this new message as a weird kind of threat: 'we see that you're very likely using unnatural links, even if they are outside of your control, and if you can remove them we won't harm you. But if you do remove them, be sure to treat this as a penalty and file for reconsideration.'

Seems like Google's messaging is tangled up in contradictions arising from their real agenda conflicting with their desire to do the right thing. But if you received this warning, you may have to provide a sacrificial offering to satisfy the beast. Most people will read it that way which is why this fishing expedition will probably succeed.

Conclusion: If you received the warning, unless you are under negative seo attack, sacrifice some links.


One interesting observation is that of the sites that have contacted us with this message, all have large numbers of links coming from individual domains. Most of those are site-wide. We're focusing take downs on these, especially if the anchors are high value targets. Too early to know whether this is enough. In some cases, where automation was used to build the links, it probably won't be.

LSF Interactive & Netmark Demonstrate Google Penalty Incompetence

Because we oversee and task seo agencies on behalf of our clients, we often find ourselves in the role of 'client.' This gives us insight into the murky world of the retail seo sales efforts, where outrageous claims of expertise often fall flat when agencies are required to actually perform in the client's interest.

LSF Interactive and Netmark are 2 firms where we have witnessed incredible incompetence. The strategies sent to the client in both of these cases revealed plans that actually create greater risk, and in one case that strategy triggered further suppression. While we insist on stopping all link building until the penalty is resolved, LSFinteractive and Netmark both believe that pointing more links is a penalty solution. Netmark had a plan to throw 9,000 links at the site in one month, and actually started that campaign, collapsing the ranks further.

Lack of knowledge & experience leads to mistakes that harm businesses. The longer your ranks are gone, the scarier the world becomes, and every business owner, large and small knows that time is not your friend when your sales engine is broken. Enough time without sales results in first layoffs, then infrastructure triage, then shutdowns, business over. Time matters critically when you've lost your ranks.

How Long To Unwind A Google Penalty?

Those who follow our advice know to never point links home, mostly for performance reasons, but also because that strategy can save your enterprise. We've seen several instances where because the links were pointed to landing pages, and the fact that Penguin is automated, that merely changing the filenames instantly discarded all links, reviving the site in a matter of days. We have many instances where more severe penalties were lifted within 2-3 weeks, and we have a couple of Penguin unwinds that are beginning to unwind around the 30 day mark. But this is what Christopher Johnson of LSF Interactive emailed me when I requested a status report, "Anything less than a 90 day timeframe to see anything from a site penalized is unrealistic, although we have seen results within 60 days."

Perhaps this 90 day attitude is why, after over 2 weeks, they were still not able to report any progress, or even any work. Chris kept repeating to me that the site had been maliciously hacked and that prevented from doing anything. But if you are this technically challenged, you should not be messing with Google penalties, because your ignorance just keeps the client penalized longer. When I insisted that LSF complete the link vet in a week, I was told that it was impossible - on that call were LSF employees Chris Johnson, Fumi Matsubara, Dan Summers, & Jenna Allison. As I pushed them to expedite, I kept hearing that the penalty work that I needed them to perform was beyond the scope of the contract. It became clear that they viewed this project as just another seo job, not an urgent penalty unwind.

What Should Have Happened

At that point, we fired LSF and my teams took over. We removed the hack on the first day of engagement, and repaired the server environment by the third day. It did not require specialized skill sets, just basic knowledge of directory structure, what to look for, and communication with the host. Within 4 days, we had the links completely vetted and the list of problem links in the hands of our take down team.

But for me, the real issue with lsf interactive is the sheer misrepresentation involved in the sales effort. I am now a partner in the firm that hired LSF, so I have access to all the correspondence prior to their engagement. My partners had made a very specific request: help with a Google penalty. For six weeks prior to their engagement that was what the conversation was about - the penalty and the urgency of addressing it. Penalty help was what promised. But while they talked about link removal, LSF Interactive did absolutely nothing toward penalty remediation. Instead, they then offered a link building proposal, and then a proposal to optimize a completely different and irrelevant site. Their agenda was more sales.

Locking You In - Ripping You Off

To top it off, once fired for incompetence, LSFinteractive began using a legal argument which reveals another obnoxious fact about this agency. Their contract permits cancellation with 30 days notice, but only after 60 days - so you're locked in for 3 months. In this case that meant that the wasted $7,000 would become a wasted $21,000. We want them to attempt to defend that in court.

The New, Instant Penalty Experts, Looking For Work

One of the sad consequences of Google's recent enforcement actions is the mad scramble of retail seo agencies to attempt to exploit the opportunity created by large numbers of penalized sites. Unknowing businesses who've been penalized are vulnerable to the exaggerated claims of penalty expertise, and have no way of knowing if those claims are mostly hype.

Penguin provides a great opportunity for low level seos because in many cases the problem is just bad links. A couple of successful penalty fixes involving nothing more complex that take down notices sent to the webmasters where the links exist, leads these seos to feel empowered - and ego does the rest, creating penalty experts instantly. And more black marks for seo.

Caveat emptor.