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Nov. 26, 2013, 11:09 a.m.

OJR.org: Google’s punishment and the perils of blackhat SEO

For its actions around the former domain name of the Online Journalism Review, the Australian company Oneflare has felt some SEO pain.

ojr-2002-tiny-screenshotI hope you’ve been following the saga of OJR.org, the former home of the Online Journalism Review. In brief: When USC allowed the domain name to expire, an Australian company named Oneflare snagged the domain name and proceeded to create a fake version of the “Online Journalism Review” — adding USC and USC Annenberg logos to make it seem legit, stealing dozens or hundreds of archival OJR stories to give it heft, and generally being scummy enough to act as if it was still the legendary site that’s been around since the late 1990s.

After my first story, Oneflare did its best to take down the legally actionable parts of its scheme — removing the logos, deleting the archives — but still carried on as the “Online Journal Review,” featuring links back to the main Oneflare website. This is a common if scuzzy search engine optimization strategy: Use sites with high PageRank sites (those Google considers highly legit) to generate links to your company’s website, passing some of the Google juice earned over 15 years of publishing to the new venture. After my second story, Oneflare removed all the content from OJR.org; it’s currently a blank site.

Thanks to a little birdie, we know now that there have been consequences for Oneflare’s actions.

This thread in Google’s Webmaster Central forums tells the tale of someone named “hubfub” who has recently felt the wrath of Google’s punishment for SEO bad behavior. His post from Sunday (U.S. time, Monday in Australia):

My website received a sitewide manual action for unnatural inbound links back in July. We were able to get this revoked in August by removing about 50% of the links and disavowing the rest.

We recently hired a new SEO agency to work for us and last week they advised us to buy an high PR expired domain and put a “quality blog” on there and use it to make a link to our website. They told us that this was 100% whitehat (obviously it’s not as we are now aware). [“Whitehat” = legitimate search engine optimization; “blackhat” = scammy stuff that Google will punish if it finds out about. —Ed.]

I think this blog triggered our domain for another manual review and we were hit again with another sitewide manual action. I was surprised because other than buying that expired domain, we hadn’t done any other spammy link building since the last manual action was revoked. However after looking into webmaster tools and going to recent links I noticed that there were tons of spammy links that were built 3-6 months ago that were recently being indexed by Google.

My question is, does the the new indexation of the bad links that were built ages ago still get counted when Google is considering whether or not to take manual action? Obviously we’ve taken down the new blog that was built but what else can we do to get the second manual action revoked?

A Google “manual action” means that the search giant detected sketchy SEO behavior and decided to dock the site:

While Google relies on algorithms to evaluate and constantly improve search quality, we’re also willing to take manual action on sites that use spammy techniques, such as demoting them or even removing them from our search results altogether.

So who is the “hubfub” facing this punishment? Well, @hubfub on Twitter is Adam Dong, the CTO of Oneflare. And later on in that thread, Mister Hubfub notes that Oneflare.com.au is the website he’s worried about protecting. Dong also tweeted a plea for help at two of Google’s chief SEO staffers Sunday, too:

(Full disclosure: After I saw that Oneflare’s spammed-up OJR post were still showing up as legitimate news articles in Google News, I contacted someone I know at Google to make sure they knew about it — so it’s entirely possible I triggered the manual review.)

Dong said in that thread that this is the message he got from Google:

Unnatural links to your site

Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. These may be the result of buying links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

In other words: Google saw what they were doing with OJR, caught them, and punished them by demoting them in search results. (One way to see this: search for one flare with a space. At this writing, nine of the top 10 sites in the results are about Oneflare. But none of them are the Oneflare site itself. In fact, the Nieman Lab tag page for Oneflare ranked higher than Oneflare itself. The Oneflare homepage hasn’t been removed entirely from search, though; it’s still the top result for a search on “oneflare” itself.)

Dong’s fellow webmasters, posting in that Google discussion thread, didn’t seem to have much sympathy for his plight. Here’s a sampling:

lol another fraud “whitehat” SEO strikes again…

Feel free to name the Expert who suggested this amazing strategy so we can all point and laugh and try to protect other honest businesses from their flimflam.

For any website it would be borderline suicidal, for one with a recent Manual Action for unnatural links… Just… wow…

I’m suspicious of that claim. He’s been buying links off of warrior forum. “Penguin proof” links. Methinks he probably knows what he did and if he doesn’t, then he should probably quit the IM [Internet marketing] industry and go bag groceries…

The Warrior Forum referenced is this site, which serves as a sort of back-alley hangout for blackhat SEO types. User hubfub has posted there 29 times (sample: “Hi there, I recently purchased a bunch of expired domains and set up new blogs on them”). And on a number of occasions, he appears to have bought backlinks from higher-value websites to send more juice Oneflare’s way. (Click to enlarge.)

oneflare-hubfub-warriorforum

In other words, it’s hard for Oneflare to play the innocent here. Its CTO was already busy buying up fake links in the dark corners of the web more than a year ago. It’s apparently been caught by Google this year for bad dealings and punished — only to get back at it again. They had this coming. (The only area where Oneflare really was unlucky was in picking a website that I happened to care about.)

The SEO damage may be bad enough that Oneflare could be looking to change domains entirely. A few hours ago, user hubfub posted again:

Hi there, I have a question relating to redirecting, for example abc.com to abc.co.uk

abc.com has a ton of crappy links and obviously I do not want to 301 or 302 this to abc.co.uk as i do NOT want the link juice or pagerank to pass.

However we do still have a lot of users that would organically type in abc.com

No idea if this is the plan, but Dong also owns oneflare.net.

If you enjoy irony, you’ll appreciate that Dong wrote a piece last month for the Sydney Morning Herald. The headline? “Five simple tips for a good SEO strategy: What’s the best way to get your web site to the top of internet search lists?” One of his pieces of wisdom: “External links are important for SEO because as far as a search engine is concerned, these are considered an endorsement of your site, increasing your ranking power and making your site more visible.”

I imagine Tip #6 wasn’t “Do enough bad stuff for Google to drop the hammer on you.”

One of my favorite stories from the earlier days of the web is the tale of nigritude ultramarine.

Every so often, SEO types hold a contest to see who can build up the most SEO juice around a particular phrase in a given period of time — to see who can earn the top search result when someone looks up those words. It’s best if that phrase doesn’t already exist anywhere on the web, so a nonsense phrase like nigritude ultramarine works well. In 2004, that magic phrase was announced, and everyone had a couple of months to start gaming search engines.

Lots of competitors tried lots of tricks. A search for “nigritude ultramarine” returned zero results before the contest; it returned more than 200,000 afterward. But, in the end, the winner wasn’t an SEO consultant; it was Anil Dash, the popular blogger, who wrote a single post with that phrase as its title and simply asked his fans to link to it. “I’d rather see a real blog win than any of the fake sites that show up on that search result right now,” he wrote.

While SEO types were polluting the web with links, Dash took the prize with a single post — because he’d built up credibility through writing good content for years, and because he had actual human readers who were willing to support his efforts. I always thought of that win as a triumph for real humanity on the web.

What’s the best way to get ranked high in Google? Write good content. Be good enough that real humans like you.

As Dash told Wired back in 2004 after his victory:

“A lot of people are trying to increase their page rank unethically,” said Dash. “I think if we show them (that) the best thing you can do is to write really good material, then hopefully, they’ll spend their time doing that (instead of) spending time coming up with ways to graffiti other people’s pages.”

POSTED     Nov. 26, 2013, 11:09 a.m.
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