Search Engine Optimization – SEO


A Startling Case Study of Manual Penalties and Negative SEO

Google SEO

This January, I was at a talk at SMX Israel by John Mueller – Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst – about how to recover from a manual penalty. The session’s moderator opened the talk by asking the hundreds of people seated in the room to raise their hands if they had ever been affected by or had a client that was affected by a manual penalty. Nearly the entire room raised their hands – myself included.

Setting the Plot

One of our clients, whom we are very lucky to have, is a company called Ginger Software. Ginger has a set of context-sensitive grammar and spell check tools that can be integrated with e-mails, browsers, Microsoft Office, and more. When we began working with Ginger, they were in a great state from an SEO perspective. I won’t get into traffic specifics, but their site has an Alexa ranking of around 7,000.

Ginger was getting traffic from thousands of different keywords. They had links from news portals, review websites, forums, social bookmarks – all part of a really great backlink profile. Ginger could be in a whole separate case study about the benefits of a content strategy. They have put months of work into online tools, sections about spelling mistakes, grammar rules, and more. These things have attracted great traffic and links from around the world.

The Plot Thickens

Given the above, you can imagine our surprise when one day in my inbox I found the dreaded notice from Google that had a site-wide manual penalty for unnatural inbound links. We quickly set up a call and went through the tooth-rattling ordeal of explaining to our client that they weren’t even ranked for their brand name. Organic traffic dropped by a whopping 94% – and that for a website that gets 66% of its traffic from Google-based organic search.

I’m not going to highlight where they got the penalty … because I think you can tell.

Full Disclosure

Before we go on any further with this case study, I should come clean. In the years of my working in SEO, I have shamelessly bought links, posted crappy blog and forum comments, and run programs that automatically build thousands of spam links. I have bought expired domains, created blog networks, and have ranked affiliate sites with every manner of blackhat technique.

With that off my chest – I will say with as clean a conscience as possible, we did absolutely nothing of the sort for Ginger. While everyone at yellowHEAD has experience with all manners of SEO tactics, in our work as an agency we work with big brands, the presence of which we are categorically not willing to risk. Ginger is a true example of a site that has ranked well because of an extensive and well-thought out content strategy; a strategy driven by creating valuable content for users. When analyzing Ginger’s backlinks, we were amazed to see the kinds of links that had been created because of this strategy.

I was positive that this link would be a spam forum comment or something of the sort. Turns out that it’s a page on a fishing forum about Zebra Mussels. Someone got confused and called them Zebra Muscles; a veteran user corrected them by linking to Ginger’s page about muscle vs mussel.

The Plot Thickens… More.

As we dug deeper into Ginger’s backlinks, we quickly began to find the problem. Ginger had recently accrued a large number of extremely spammy links. Bear with me for a little bit because these links require some explanation. was being linked to from random pages on dozens of different websites in clearly spun articles about pornography, pharmaceuticals, gambling, and more. These pages were linking to random marginal articles on Ginger’s website like this page always using the same few keywords – “occurred,” “subsequently,” and a few other similar words. The only thing these words had in common was that Ginger was ranked in the top three for them in Google.

I had to blur most of the text from this page, as it was inappropriate.

Now, needless to say, even if we were trying to rank Ginger’s site let’s call it ‘unconventionally,’ we wouldn’t have done it to unimportant pages that were already ranking in the top three from articles about pornography.

Now here’s where it gets REALLY interesting

Further investigation into these pages found the same exact articles on dozens of other websites, all linking to different websites using exactly the same keywords. For example:


Link to

Link to


Link to

So – What the $#@!%!#$^ are these links?!

As I mentioned in my disclosure previously – I am no newcomer to link spam, so I happen to know a bit about what these links are. These articles were, first and foremost, not created by us or by anyone else at Ginger. They were also not posted with Ginger Software or any of the other websites linked to in those articles in mind. These articles were posted by spammers using programs which automatically build links (my guess is GSA Search Engine Ranker) in order to rank websites. Each one of these articles linked to some spam website (think something like the-best-diet-pills-green-coffee-beans-are-awesome . info or some nonsense like that) in addition to linking to Ginger.

These programs find places on the internet where they can automatically post articles with links. As a way to ‘trick’ Google into thinking the links are natural, they also include links to other big websites in good neighborhoods. Common targets for these kinds of links include Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and other such websites.

Ginger was not the victim of negative SEO, but was simply caught in the crossfire of some spammers trying to promote their own websites.

We Had Doubts

Once we found these links, we honed our search to find all of them. We were able to do this using Ahrefs, which is a fantastic tool for any sort of link analysis. We organized all of the links to Ginger by anchor text and went after all of the ones with the aforementioned keywords. We removed as many of these links as possible, disavowed the rest, and filed for reconsideration as described above.

As confident as we were on the face of it all – we had serious doubts. We knew how important it was for Ginger’s business to get over this penalty as quickly as possible and didn’t want to get anything wrong. We couldn’t find any other “bad links” besides these ones but we kept thinking to ourselves “there’s no way that Google completely slapped a website due to some spam links to these random pages.” There had to be more to it than that!

Ginger themselves handled this situation incredibly. Where they could have yelled and gotten angry, instead they said, in a sentence “Ok – let’s fix this. How do we help?” With Ginger’s help, we mobilized dozens of people inside their company, trained them on finding bad links, manually reviewed over 40,000 links, contacted all domains which had spam links on them, disavowed everything we couldn’t get to, and submitted the request for reconsideration on December 17th, only five days after the site got penalized. The extreme sense of urgency behind this came both because of the importance of organic traffic for Ginger Software, and because the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We knew that everyone going on vacation would significantly increase the amount of time it took to have the reconsideration request reviewed. You can find a very long and detailed explanation of the process we used to clean up Ginger’s links here.

Despite the speed with which we were able to submit the request, it took nearly a month to hear back from Google. On January 15th, we received a message in Google Webmaster Tools that the penalty had been revoked. We, and the staff at Ginger, were ecstatic and spent the next few days glued to our ranking trackers and to Google Analytics to see what would happen. Rankings and traffic quickly began to rise and, as of the writing of this article, traffic is at about 82% of pre-penalty levels.

Lo and Behold – Rankings!


The (Very) Unofficial Response from Google

Getting over the manual penalty, in some ways, was almost as surprising as getting it. The fact that all we did was remove and disavow the negative SEO links and the penalty was removed indicates that, indeed, the penalty may have been caused entirely by those links.

At the manual penalty session of SMX, towards the end of the talk, I crept slowly towards the front of the room and as soon as the talk was over, as unexpectedly as a manual penalty, I pounced to the front of the speakers’ podium to talk to John Mueller before everyone else. I explained to him (in a much shorter version than this article) the situation with Ginger and asked if they were aware of this at Google and what they plan to do about it.

John responded with something along the lines of the following:

“You mean like when somebody creates spam links but also links to Wikipedia? … We have seen it happen before. Sometimes we can tell but sometimes it’s a little bit harder… but [if] you get a manual penalty from it you will know about it so you can just disavow the links.”

I have to say, I was pretty surprised with that response. While it wasn’t exactly an admission of guilt, it wasn’t a denial either. He basically said yes, it can happen but if it happens you will get a manual penalty, so you’ll know about it!

So What Does It All Mean?

One wonders if Google understands the impact a manual penalty can have on a business and if they truly accept the responsibility that comes along with handing out these kinds of punishments. Ginger, as a company, relies on search traffic as their main method of user acquisition and they are not unique in that sense. There are a few important takeaways here.


No matter who you are – big or small, this is crucial. This kind of thing can happen, seemingly, to anyone. We have instated a weekly backlink scan for Ginger Software in which we look through all of their new links from Webmaster Tools, AHREFS, and Majestic SEO. If we find any more spam links (which we still are finding), we try to remove them and add them to the disavow list. Time consuming? Yes. Critical? Yes.

2.) Negative SEO is Alive and Real

It has been my thinking for a long time that links should not be able to hurt your website. At the most, a link should be discounted if it is considered bad. The current system is dangerous and too easy to game. With Ginger, it was obvious (to us at least) that these links were no doing of their own. The links were in absurd places of the lowest quality and linked to low-benefit unimportant pages of Ginger’s website. If this was actually a negative SEO attack, imagine how easy it would be to make it look like it was the company’s doing.

3.) Google is making themselves look REALLY bad.

The action that Google took in this case was far too drastic. The site didn’t receive a partial penalty, but rather a full-blown sitewide penalty. According to the keyword planner, for the top four branded terms for Ginger, there are 23,300 searches per month. In this case that became 23,300 searches per month where people could not find exactly what they were looking for.

Google has an amazing amount of work on their hands staying ahead of the spammers of the world, but they have also become the foundation of the business models of companies worldwide. To quote from FDR and Spiderman(who can argue with that???), “with great power comes great responsibility.” We can only hope that Google will heed these words and, in the meantime, we will be happy with the fact that Ginger are back up and running.

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The Beginners Guide To LinkedIn


LinkedIn is considered the non-sexy, sleeping giant of social networks. It keeps a low profile, perhaps due to the professional nature of its users. Nonetheless, LinkedIn continues to exert a powerful influence on connected job seekers, brands, recruiters and industries.

Founded by Reid Hoffman in 2002, LinkedIn has grown to 225 million members in over 200 countries, making it the world’s largest professional network on the Internet (by comparison, Twitter has more than 500 million registered users, and Facebook has surpassed one billion). Currently available in 20 languages, LinkedIn remains a relevant platform the world over.

That being said, we doubt you spend 20 minutes on LinkedIn per day, like Facebook’s power users do. So, if you need a crash course on what LinkedIn has to offer, browse the network’s most prominent features below. Or send this to your recent grad as he or she prepares to enter today’s daunting job market.

Have you used LinkedIn to find a job, network with professionals or research hot topics in your industry? Please share your own tips in the comments below.

1. Profile

LinkedIn Edit Your Profile


Like most social networks, LinkedIn hosts your personal profile, a page on which you may list information like job experience and professional skills.

However, unlike many other social networks, it’s important to complete your profile to the best of your ability — especially if you’re using LinkedIn for the job hunt. LinkedIn measures your “profile strength” from 0-100%. The higher your profile completeness, the more likely you are to appear in search results. For instance, when you list skills like “Final Cut Pro” and “Photoshop,” potential employers may come across your profile when they perform an advanced search based on those keywords. Handy.

To ensure that your profile is 100% complete, LinkedIn recommends including the following information.

  • Industry and postal code
  • A current position with description
  • Two more positions
  • Education
  • At least five skills
  • Profile photo
  • At least 50 connections
  • A summary
  • Work samples or projects
  • Volunteer experience

2. Connections

Of course, to get those “50 connections” mentioned above, you’ll have to expand your network on LinkedIn. Don’t worry — LinkedIn’s algorithms and data mining make it pretty easy.

I recommend first performing a series of basic searches to find people you know by name. (See the search box at the top of each LinkedIn page.) Click the “Connect” button next to people’s names to add them to your network. You may send a custom message along with that invitation to make the connection more personalized.

Once you have made several connections, head to the “People You May Know” page. LinkedIn’s algorithm will likely have begun determining additional suggestions based on your connections’ networks. LinkedIn labels these connections by degree. People you’re already connected to are “1st degree” connections. People you’re not yet connected to, but who are linked to your 1st degree connections, are 2nd degree connections. And so on. You’ll see a blue icon that says “1st,” “2nd” or “3rd” next to their names.

You may also choose to connect your email’s contact list to LinkedIn for the purpose of finding additional connections. Head to “Import Contacts” and allow access to your contacts to pull up a list of potentials. Be aware, however, that this may generate a huge list of people, especially if email services like Gmail tend to save every address you’ve ever contacted.

3. Groups

LinkedIn Groups


LinkedIn groups are spaces in which professionals and experts can share content, ask for advice, post or search for jobs and network with others. Groups are tailored to brands, associations and societies, support groups, causes, publications and industries in general. That can mean anything from “On Startups – The Community for Entrepreneurs” to “Cal Alumni Association | UC Berkeley.”

On the other hand, don’t confuse LinkedIn “groups” with “companies.” Coca-Cola has a “Coca-Cola Current & Former Employees” group, but its business lives on “The Coca-Cola Company”company page. More on that later.

With over 1.4 million groups to choose from, you’re likely to find at few that fit your field and interests. Keep in mind that many groups require authentication before the manager permits you to join. However, nearly one-third of groups don’t require review, and are labeled “open.”

Once you’re familiar with group functions, you may choose to create your own group. That means you’re the group owner, but you may also appoint a group manager and moderator, who are responsible for supervising discussions, subgroups, settings, etc.

4. Companies

LInkedIn Company Page


Just as you have a personal profile page, many companies choose to represent themselves on LinkedIn, too. Like Facebook brand pages, you may choose to follow the activity and updates of companies on LinkedIn.

Company pages contain general information, such as a business overview, list of employees and press mentions. Many companies also choose to list job openings on their pages, and some even encourage applicants to apply through LinkedIn, a very handy tool of the network.

Once you follow a company, you’ll see its updates appear on your LinkedIn homepage alongside those of your connections. Mashable, for instance, tends to post business-related articles on LinkedIn, since that seems to be the content most pertinent to the network’s audience. Businesses also use LinkedIn to post company announcements, such as acquisitions, new hires or updated policies. LinkedIn warns against update spam, however: “Businesses that post updates excessively are subject to review by LinkedIn and could risk having their page deleted.”

If you’re interested in adding your own company to the network, LinkedIn advises you take the following steps.

  1. You’re a current company employee and your position is on your profile.
  2. A company email address (e.g. [email protected]) is one of the confirmed email addresses on your LinkedIn account.
  3. You associate your profile with the right company. You must click on a name from your company name dropdown list when you edit or add a position on your profile.
  4. Your company’s email domain is unique to the company.
  5. Your profile must be more than 50% complete, ranked Intermediate or All-Star.
  6. You must have several connections.

5. Jobs

Job search and recruitment tools are among LinkedIn’s most valuable features. More and more companies are encouraging candidates to apply for jobs via LinkedIn, due to the social network’s credibility and ease-of-use.

Head to the “Jobs” tab, where you’ll find options for applicants. Perform an advanced search for available jobs by keyword, title, location, company, salary and industry. (A search for “developer” within 50 miles of Manhattan turned up 1,697 results.) Save jobs to review later, and even save searches to check back later for updated results.

As an employer, you may post an available job to LinkedIn for $395 for a 30-day period. (Bulk packages are available for better deals.) Once posted, these jobs will not only appear in search results, but also in the “Careers” tab on your company page.

Finally, recruiters may “find talent” on LinkedIn, but they must upgrade to a premium subscription plan to search for potential hires.

6. Updates

LinkedIn Updates

Unlike content shared on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn updates tend to be industry- and professionally-focused. Keep that in mind if you’re attempting to increase engagement.

You can share updates from a number of different places, both on and from outside web properties. Post a status update from the LinkedIn homepage, and it will be shared as well as posted to your profile under the activity feed. Also, when you engage in discussions in LinkedIn groups, that activity counts as an update.

Post updates from sites like The New York Times by clicking the LinkedIn social share button next to an article. Or add the LinkedIn sharing bookmarklet to your browser toolbar to quickly share most sites as an update.

Finally, you may also connect your Twitter account to LinkedIn. This not only expands your network, but allows you to post tweets on LinkedIn as if they were status updates. Once tweets post to LinkedIn, users can interact with them as if from, by retweeting, replying and favoriting. Like updates, tweets post to the homepage and live in the activity feed on your profile.

Just as LinkedIn advises brands to cool it on excessive updates, you should practice the same self-control. Users appreciate information, not excessive traffic on their feeds. That being said, you can mute certain connections, if you choose. Hover over a user’s update on the homepage and click the “hide” button to stop receiving updates from that user.

7. Applications

Applications allow LinkedIn users to customize their profiles and share content in different ways. For example, you may choose to add the WordPress app so that your latest WordPress blog posts share with your LinkedIn network. Do the same for SlideShare presentations you or your company have created.

Keep in mind that most apps require permissions to access some of your basic profile information, such as your name or job title. However, all applications must abide by LinkedIn’s privacy policy, which means they’re not allowed to reach any private information not easily accessible by browsing the site.

8. Mobile

LinkedIn MobileLinkedIn has mobile applications for iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Windows and Palm devices. The app is useful for posting status updates and checking group updates on-the-go, but its inherent advantages lie in networking.

Pull up the mobile app to find LinkedIn connections and exchange information at events. After meeting someone, you may choose to email that person a link to your profile, so he or she may connect with you later — no business cards needed. Or search for that person on your LinkedIn mobile app and add him as a connection then and there.

You may also choose to download LinkedIn connections to your smartphone’s address book for later contact.

9. Upgraded Account

Once you’ve explored LinkedIn Free, you may choose to upgrade to a LinkedIn account with more features. Starting at $19.95 per month, LinkedIn has premium subscription plans forbusinesses, job seekers, recruiters and more.

One of the distinguishing features of most upgraded accounts is the ability to send InMail to anyone. InMail is an internal LinkedIn message sent to a person with whom you are not connected. You can message people you are already connected with free-of-charge, but you can’t message non-connections; you must InMail them — and those InMails are limited. Users with a Basic (free) account can purchase up to 10 InMail credits. The basic business premium account allows you three InMails per month, while the Business Plus plan allows 10, and the Executive 25 per month. So, choose your InMails wisely.

Upgraded accounts also have access to more search results, which can be a huge bonus for LinkedIn recruiters. You also have access to additional tools for saving and organizing profiles, and you can view the full list of people who have viewed your LinkedIn profile.

By Rebecca Hiscott

Get On Top Today! Call On The Maps Digital Marketing Agency. 866.610.5977

A Beginners Guide To Facebook

Facebook Marketing for Beginners

Facebook Marketing for Beginners

Against all odds, you likely know someone who still hasn’t succumbed to the lure of Facebook. Maybe you’re a beginner yourself. Or perhaps you just haven’t had the gosh darn time to explore every last corner of the world’s most expansive social network.

Below, we offer a refresher course for those eager to learn more about the basics of Facebook. Let’s take a social stroll through the network’s main features, policies and culture norms.

Even if you’re a pro, it’s fun to look at the platform through a beginner’s eyes. If you were a Facebook virgin, what would you think of the social network?

1. Timeline

Before you begin searching for friends, it’s important to complete your Timeline (aka your personal profile), which includes everything from uploading a profile picture and cover photo to outlining your employment history to determining your relationship status (OK, that’s optional). It’s called a timeline because you can include information, important milestones and memories spanning your entire life. Timeline is incredibly nuanced, and encourages you to include as much detail as possible, and many, many people do — so, don’t be shy!

2. Friends

Once you’ve filled out a healthy portion of your Timeline, start searching for and adding “friends.” Trust us, you won’t be at a loss. Chances are, many of your co-workers, family members, classmates and neighbors are already on the network. Search for them in the search box that appears on the top of the site.

As you accumulate friends, Facebook will be able to suggest additional contacts as its algorithm generates connections among your growing network. You’ll see a list of suggested friends on Facebook’s homepage, in the “People You May Know” sidebar.

3. News Feed

Finding friends on Facebook is incredibly important, not simply to connect for connection’s sake, but to stay up to date on their latest news, thoughts, activities, whereabouts and tastes. And the place to access that information is the News Feed.

Once you’ve logged into Facebook, the first thing you’ll see is the News Feed. There you’ll view friends’ status updates, new photos, links to articles, etc. One of the most recent changes Facebook made to its News Feed is the order in which updates appear. Facebook’s algorithm and your own activity determine what “news” is most important, and thus, whether it makes the top of your News Feed. Think of it like the front page of a newspaper, determined by an algorithm rather than an editor. Therefore, you won’t necessarily see updates in the order they’re posted, but in order of timeliness and “importance.”

If you prefer to see things in chronological order, simply click the “Sort” option at the top of your feed and select “Most Recent.”

Facebook Most Recent Stories

4. The Status Update

A status update is anything important to you at a particular moment in time that you deem shareable with Facebook friends. Through a status update, you can communicate your present activity or whereabouts (via a “check-in”), post a link to an interesting article or site, share photos and videos, and even create a poll.

Create a status update either from the News Feed or from the top of your Timeline.

However, I recommend first taking a look at many of your friends’ status updates before launching into your own. Each person has his or her own style and frequency, but many newbies aren’t aware of typical Facebook “etiquette” when it comes to updates. In general, Facebook users resent “spammy” updates — in other words, sharing every single activity on your schedule and thought in your brain (“I just boarded the 6:05 train”). Boring. These days, Facebook is a space for sharing valuable information and fostering conversation. It’s not a platform for minutiae.

5. Brands

Although a major part of Facebook, friends are not the only entities with whom you can interact. Most major brands and a growing number of small businesses use Facebook to engage with, share deals and seek feedback from consumers and fans. Companies like Coca-Cola and Disney have tens of millions of fans interested in the latest company news and culture.

Take stock of the brands you’d like to follow, search for their timelines and “like” them on Facebook. You’ll start seeing their updates appear in the News Feed right alongside those of your friends. Feel free to interact with brand updates.

6. The “Like” Button

One of the most powerful tools on Facebook, the “like” button not only communicates your support of activities, brands, articles and products to fellow users, but also to Facebook and third parties. The “like” button lives on nearly every piece of Facebook content: status updates, photos, comments, brands timelines, apps and even ads.

However, you’ve probably also seen Facebook “like” and share buttons on external sites: shopping, news publications, mobile and social apps, and ads. These sites are utilizing Facebook’s social plugins. When you “like” something outside of, it appears on your timeline, where friends can comment on the activity.

When Facebook expanded this functionality outside of, it opened up a rich social layer that most social networks had never before imagined. On the other hand, keep in mind that Facebook keeps track of your “like” activity and uses it to “improve the quality” of ads on the site. If sharing that kind of data makes you nervous, you’re not alone. Just be mindful that Facebook can share this behavioral data with third parties. For more information, see Facebook’s full data use policy.

7. Tagging

Facebook Tagging

Facebook tagging means you can mention and directly link to another Facebook user, whether in photos, status updates, check-ins or comments. For instance, when you tag someone in a photo, that user will receive a notification, and the tagged photo will appear on his timeline — that is, unless he has disabled the tagging feature.

The tagging tool fosters conversation and creates additional connections among users. If I want my mother to see an article I posted on Facebook, I’ll tag her in the update by typing her name — Facebook autofills with friend suggestions for easier tagging (see above). “Hey Anne Warber(a.k.a. mom), I thought you’d like this article about pandas!”

Check-in and photo tagging work a little differently. When you check in at a location, you can add Facebook friends who are with you by searching for their names, and thus, tagging them. Tag friends in photos by selecting the “tag photo” option at the bottom of the selected image.

Facebook Photo Tagging

It’s important to remember that everyone has a different preference when it comes to tagging. Some people will instantly view content they’ve been tagged in and subsequently remove it, for any number of reasons: They don’t like how they look in a photo, they don’t like people knowing where they are, etc. Be aware of their concerns for privacy and your own.

Head to Privacy Settings > Timeline and Tagging to adjust your own settings, should you wish to review tags before they’re posted or control who can see your tags.

Facebook recently introduced a hashtag system similar to Twitter. A hashtag can be added to any post — a status update, a photo, a link, etc. Just know that any status, photos or other Facebook updates with a hashtag will be visible in searches. You can search for posts with specific hashtags by typing the hashtag in the search bar at the top of the page.

8. Privacy

Facebook Privacy

Frankly, we could write an entire book on Facebook privacy. But in the interest of time, we’ll mention the major types of privacy you need to be aware of as a Facebook user.

  1. Inter-user privacy: Friends with your boss on Facebook? Consider adding him or her to a “list.” Then you can choose what updates they can view. You may also choose to limit certain lists from viewing posts other people tag you in by visiting the basic privacy settings.
  2. Public profile: You can control the information non-friends can see on your public profile. Almost every feature of your profile has an edit option, which allows you to select who can view that information (public, friends only, only you, etc.). Learn more here.
  3. Third-party access: In order to use Facebook Open Graph apps like Spotify and Pinterest, those companies need to access certain information on your profile. They’ll ask for permissions before you begin using the app. Be aware that each app has different privacy risks. If you don’t want that information to be accessible through Facebook’s APIs, learn how to turn off access. Similarly, you can also opt out of Facebook social ads — the ads that appear to you based on brands your friends like.

By Stephanie Buck

Get On Top Today! Call On The Maps Digital Marketing Agency. 866.610.5977