In a Google Office-hours hangout, John Mueller answered a question about how long it takes for Google to re-rank a website that disappeared and returned. Part of his answer revealed an insight into a rare problem at Google that stops a website from ranking for any keywords at all, not even the name of the domain.
John Mueller described it as a state of limbo, an in-between state.
Background Information About Legacy Domain Penalty
Something I’ve only encountered a few times that is so rare that it doesn’t have a name, so I call it a legacy domain penalty.
Legacy software is old software that can’t be replaced because so many people use it. For this domain related issue, it’s a penalty that is attached to a domain but does not show up in Google Search Console so it cannot be removed.
There is no way to detect that a domain is affected by this kind of penalty other than the site cannot rank for anything, not even its own domain name.
But because Search Console doesn’t register the penalty there is no way to submit a reconsideration request because search console reports that there is no penalty.
John Mueller was presented with a legacy domain penalty in an office-hours hangout two years ago. He asked the person who managed the site to pass along the URL.
I monitored the URL for a couple months and after about a month and a half the domain began ranking normally.
I wrote about that issue here: Site Can’t Rank on Google: Is It a Legacy Domain Penalty?
This kind of penalty showed up around 2004 on the domain of a marketer who was new to SEO. He didn’t know why his new site couldn’t rank.
Superficially the site looked fine because the Google toolbar showed that it had PageRank, indicated by a green bar on the toolbar.
The domain didn’t display the telltale sign of a penalized domain, which is no PageRank, displayed on the Google toolbar as a gray bar instead of the normal green bar.
So I and others looked at it and determined that it had been previously used by someone else as a spam site.
A Google engineer, Matt Cutts, was contacted on this marketers behalf and Matt had the penalty removed.
But Matt never explained what this weird penalty was that was attached to the domain but didn’t show up as a penalty.
Over the years no Googler ever explained what this penalty was and it was so rare that many SEOs weren’t even aware of it.
So the mysterious domain-level penalty continued to be hidden in mystery …Until a few days ago.
John Mueller recently discussed a rare domain-level penalty that sounds exactly what was observed in the past.
Site Gets Stuck In A Penalized State
John Mueller was answering a question about how long domains take to recover being unavailable. He discussed temporary outages due to technical issues and also a full-site update where a website undergoes extensive changes.
Then he began talking about this “weird” penalty limbo that appears to be an old bug in Google’s algorithm.
The bug happens in reaction to spammy activity on a domain and according to John it can last for many years.
That matches the description of the mysterious legacy domain penalty.
This is how John Mueller describes it:
“The other thing that I’ve very, very rarely seen, is that a site gets stuck in some kind of a weird in-between state in our systems in that…
…at some point our algorithms reviewed the website and found it to be absolutely terrible and uh for whatever reason those parts of the algorithms just took a very long time to be updated again.
And sometimes that can be several years.
These are things that I’ve seen every now and then but they’re extremely rare.
So the chances of any random website kind of falling into it is fairly low but it is something where if you struggle and you really see that you’re doing a lot of things right and nothing seems to be working then do reach out to use and see if there’s something on our side that might be stuck.
But, I would say, at least technical things, they resolve very quickly.
Kind of the weird things stuck in the algorithms side, I would say that that’s a lot rarer nowadays, especially if something happened …five, ten years ago and your site is stuck in a weird limbo state then that’s something where like reaching out and seeing if there’s something weird is always worthwhile.”
Symptoms of Ranking Limbo Penalty
The site that Mueller previously discussed two years ago was unable to rank on any keywords, not even its own domain name. The weird part that case is that once a month for a few days the domain would be able to rank for its domain name for a few days on the bottom of page one or the top of page two. But after the few days were over it would disappear back into limbo.
The telltale sign of this kind of hidden penalty is that it doesn’t show up on Google Search Console, the site cannot rank for anything including its own domain name and the site was previously used for spam purposes.
Verifying the previous use of the domain is possible through a free service provided at Archive.org. Archive.org saves snapshots of websites taken in previous months and years.
With any luck the previous state of the domain will be shown.
Many domain names have been previously used. So it is a good idea to check if the domain was previously used before registering and using it.
Rare Google Bug Puts Sites in Ranking Limbo
Watch Mueller Discuss Rare Ranking Limbo Penalty at 24:48 minute mark: