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Site Can’t Rank on Google: Is It a Legacy Domain Penalty?

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Site Can’t Rank on Google: Is It a Legacy Domain Penalty?

Google’s John Mueller was presented with a peculiar situation of a website with zero notifications of a manual action that cannot rank for its own brand name or even a snippet of content from its home page.

Mueller analyzed the situation, thought it through, then concluded it was taking too long to rank and offered to escalate the issue internally.

The issue that was presented resembles a problem that I have seen before and has existed for a long time, from before Mueller worked at Google. It’s a penalty that’s associated with a domain from when it was registered by someone else in the past. Apparently the penalty remains after the domain is registered by someone else years later.

Description of the Problem

The site with a penalty has not received notices of a manual penalty.

And that’s what makes it weird because how can a site be penalized if it’s not penalized, right? And if a site is not penalized, why can’t it rank for the name of its brand or even a snippet of content from the home page?

Over the course of three years, the site had an influx of natural links due to word of mouth popularity and extensive news coverage. Yet even with those links, the site still cannot rank for its own name or a snippet of content from its home page.

Had those natural links or the content been a problem then Google would have notified the site owner via the Google Search Console. But that never happened  So the problem is not with the links or the content.

Nevertheless, the site owner disavowed old inbound links that dated from before he registered the domain name. Yet for all that effort, the site still did not rank.

Here is how the site owner described the problem:

“We bought the domain three years ago to have a brand called Girlfriend Collective, it’s a clothing company on the Shopify platform.

We haven’t had any… warnings from our webmaster tools that says we have any penalizations… So I was just wondering if there was any other underlying issues that you would know outside of that…

The domain is girlfriend.com and the query would be Girlfriend Collective.

It’s been as high as the second page of the SERPs, but… we get quite a few search queries for our own branded terms… it will not show up.

My assumption was that before we bought it, it was a pretty spammy dating directory.”

John Mueller’s response was:

“I can double check to see from our side if there’s anything kind of sticking around there that you’d need to take care of…”

It appears as if Mueller is being circumspect in his answer and is rightly assuming that there must be a problem on the site owner’s side.

Many clients who are unable to rank tend to believe there is nothing wrong with their content or links. But a closer look  can often reveal issues that the site owner is unable to see.

Is There Something Wrong with the Domain Name?

The way to check the past history of a domain name is to visit Archive.org. Archive.org downloads and creates an archive of websites throughout the Internet.

I checked Archive.org to see what the history of Girlfriend.com was. It became evident that the domain was linking to adult sites prior to 2004. Then, around mid 2004 the domain appears to have switched its monetization strategy away from linking to adult sites to displaying Google ads. It resembled a parked domain.

A parked domain is a domain that does not have a website on it. It just has ads. People used to type domain names into the address field to visit sites like Girlfriend.com. This is called Direct Navigation.

The parked domains would monetize the “type-in” traffic with Google AdSense, often with a parked domain service that shows ads on the site owner’s behalf in exchange for a percentage of the earnings.

In My Opinion This Domain Has Issues

Based on the evidence, which I will further elaborate on below, I will offer my opinion on what the problem is. John Mueller did not offer an opinion on what may be happening, presumably because he was being circumspect.

It is my opinion, based on my experience, that some domains have in the distant past received a kind of penalty that remains with the domain even after the sites were removed and the registration passed to someone else.

The fact that Girlfriend.com was at one time linking to adult sites makes the domain a candidate for having this kind penalty attached to the domain.  This could, in my opinion, be a factor that caused Google to more or less blacklist Girlfriend.com and keep it from ranking.

Legacy Domain Penalties are Real

A similar issue happened a few years ago to ZDNet. One of their domains was hyphenated (CXO-Talk.com). So they purchased the non-hyphenated variant (CXOTalk.com) from a third party domain auction.

ZDNet was unaware that the domain had been used by spammers.  Soon after ZDNet migrated all their content from CXO-Talk.com to CXOTalk.com, their website was banned from Google.

According to Bill Hartzer’s article, ZDNet Buys Domain Name: Immediately Gets 2 Year Old Trusted Site Banned in Google :

It turns out that the domain name was a “throw away” domain name, used by blackhat spammers to generate gibberish content on the site. The content on the CXOTalk.com domain was so bad that it got banned in Google.
So, once they were done using it (and spamming the heck out of it), the owners of CXOTalk.com sold the domain name to an unsuspecting buyer.

It was the backlinks of the domain that gave it all away: it was linked from all sorts of other spammy websites, hosted in other countries.

ZDNet wrote an article about what happened to them, and based on things they learned from Bill Hartzer’s article, ZDNet updated their article about the domain fiasco (When Google errs: A Cautionary Tale of Great Power) with this statement:

I did further research into the history of the cxotalk.com domain that I recently purchased. Based on many spam backlinks, there is no doubt this site had a bad history before my purchase. This leads to several conclusions:

  • Before purchasing any domain at auction, be sure to check its history using backlink tools
  • If the domain has a bad history, use Google Webmaster Tools to do a clean-up before putting the domain into service
  • Google’s system of problem remediation lacks transparency and responsiveness. They can and should do better. I still don’t really know what caused the problem or how to fix it.

Legacy Domain Penalties are Real

This has happened many times over the years. An experienced search marketer knows to check the background of a domain before purchasing it.

The Search Query

Is the Search Query Too Generic?

Google’s John Mueller referred to the search queries the site owner wanted to rank for as being “generic” and commented that ranking for those kinds of “generic” terms is tricky.

This is what John Mueller said:

“In general, when it comes to kind of generic terms like that, that’s always a bit tricky. But it sounds like you’re not trying to rank for like just… girlfriend. “

John Mueller rules out that the search phrase, Girlfriend Collective, is not a generic phrase.

Is the Site Poorly Optimized?

When you visit the website itself, the word Collective does not exist in the visible content (Update: as of May 21,2019 the word “collective” now exists on the home page).

The word “collective” is nowhere on the page, not even in the footer copyright. The word is there, but it’s in an image, it has to be in text for Google to recognize it for the regular search results.

That’s a considerable oversight to omit your own brand name from the website’s home page.

Screenshot of Girlfriend.com's footer
  • The brand name exists in the title tag and other meta data.
  • It does not exist in the visible content where it really matters.
  • The word collective is not a part of the domain name.

A reasonable case could be made that girlfriend.com does not merit ranking for the brand name of Girlfriend Collective because the word collective only exists in the title tag of the home page, not on the page itself.

Google Does Not Rank it for Page Snippets

However that reasonable case theory that maybe Girlfriend.com needs better optimization falls apart on closer scrutiny.

If you take any snippet of content from the page and search with that snippet of content in Google, you’ll see that the domain name does not even rank for the content.

The site is fully indexed, but the content appears to not be allowed to rank.

I searched for the following phrases but only found other pages and social media posts ranking in Google, not Girlfriend.com:

  • “Five classic colors made from recycled water bottles.”
  • “A bunch of old water bottles have never looked so good.”

That first phrase, “Five classic colors…” doesn’t rank anywhere on Google for the first several pages.

But as you can see below, Girlfriend.com ranks #1 in Bing for “A bunch of old water bottles have never looked so good

Screenshot of a Bing search result that is ranking Girlfriend.com number oneBing has no trouble ranking Girlfriend Collective for a snippet of text taken from the home page. Google does not show it at all. This is a hint that this issue is exclusive to Google and not with the site itself.

Even though Girlfriend.com appears to fall short in its search optimization, that is not the problem.

Clearly, Google is preventing any content from that domain from ranking. The reason this is happening may be because the domain may have been flagged as problematic in the past.

At some point in the domain’s history it may have been filtered from ranking. It looks like a Legacy Google Penalty, something that I have seen in the past.

Checking the snapshot of girlfriend.com via Archive.org shows that it was being used to promote adult websites prior to 2004.

This is what it looked like sometime in 2004 and onward. It appears to be a parked domain that is showing Google AdSense ads.

Screenshot of Girlfriend.com from 2004This is a snapshot of Girlfriend.com circa 2004. It wasn’t a directory as the site owner believed. Checking the HTML source code reveals that the page is displaying Google AdSense ads. That’s what a parked domain looked like.

Parked domains used to be able to rank. But at some point after 2004 Google stopped ranking parked domains.

There’s no way to say with any certainty if the domain received what looks like a penalty before 2004 when it was linking to adult websites or afterwards when it became a parked domain.

Site Can’t Rank for Its Own Brand Name

There are many reasons why a site can’t rank for its own domain name or words from its own pages. If you suspect that your site may be suffering from a legacy Google penalty, you can verify the previous content by checking Archive.org.

Archive.org is a non-profit that stores snapshots of what web pages look like. Archive.org allows you to verify if your domain was previously used by someone else to host low quality content.

Unfortunately, Google does not provide a way to contact them to resolve this matter.

Bing Ranks Girlfriend.com for Girlfriend Collective

If there was a big problem with links or content on Girlfriend.com that was keeping it from ranking on Google, then it would very likely be apparent on Bing.

Bing and Google use different algorithms. But if there was something so massively wrong with Girlfriend Collective, whether site quality or a technical issue, there would be a high probability that the massive problem would keep it from ranking at Bing.

Bing has no problem ranking Girlfriend.com for its brand name:

Screenshot of Bing search results showing that it ranks Girlfriend.com in a normal mannerBing ranks Girlfriend.com in a normal manner. This may be proof that there is no major issue with the Girlfriend.com site itself. The problem may be at Google.

Google’s John Mueller Offers to Have Google Examine the Issue

The site owner  pointed out these facts:

  • He has spent three years waiting for the penalty to drop off
  • Has uploaded link disavows
  • Has been bidding on AdWords/Google Ads for its own brand name,

This is how John Mueller responded:

“I need to take a look to see if there’s anything sticking around there because it does seem like the old domain was pretty problematic. So that… always makes it a little bit harder to turn it around into something reasonable.

But it feels like after a couple of years that should be possible. “

When the publisher asked if he should join the next Webmaster Hangout to find out any news about the site, Mueller said this (video):

I think ideally, just jump in on the next one. I don’t know if I’ll have something specific for you.

Sometimes for what happens with these kinds of escalations is the team will take a look and see if there is anything on their side that… need to change and they’ll make the appropriate adjustments.

And sometimes that means kind of longer-term changes. Sometimes that means things that you’ll see fairly quickly.”

In the end, Mueller said that he would take a look at this issue, that the “team” would have a look to check if there is anything on Google’s side that needs adjustment.

It may well be that this is a rare issue and because of that there is no formal way to get Google’s attention on it. Experienced search marketers know how to identify this issue and many site owners don’t have that expertise to diagnose something like this.

So at the very least, this article will help bring this kind of attention to the forefront of attention so that more people are aware of it and this knowledge goes mainstream.

Watch the Google Webmaster Hangout here

Screenshots by Author, Modified by Author

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Roger Montti

Roger Montti is an SEO consultant & web publisher with nearly 20 years experience. He offers Site Audits for ranking ... [Read full bio]

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