At one time if you wanted to build a web site, you looked for a good domain name, registered it, set the nameservers, and built the web site. That may no longer be the case. We are finding out that domain names need to be scrutinized before registering them, because penalties are sticking with the domain.
A case in point is a recent web site we built for a financial services company. This is not an affiliate site, or a fake review site, or anything even remotely spammy. The company is legitimate. We built a WordPress site using a domain name they registered a few months earlier. The site is starting out small with only six pages. All the content is absolutely unique and the site is squeaky clean.
The site was set up for a few weeks and then the client decided to use AdWords to drive some initial traffic. As we were setting up the ads I noticed that the ads were being Disapproved, which means they are rejected. The reason given was because the web site did not fit AdWords standards. That surprised us because we had built several other starter sites very similar to this in the past, and never ran into an issue with AdWords.
I contacted the AdWords Support team and talked with a rep who did some research and came back with a list of Webmaster Guidelines violations that were attached to the site.
Here is the the list of violations:
- keyword stuffing
- doorway pages
- spamming social networks.
Huh? This is a litany of serious violations, none of which applied to this site.
I explained that this was a brand new site and there is no possibility that any of this applies. The rep could not find any indication of the violations with the site, but insisted they must be there. She said she would resubmit the site for evaluation. Later that day we received a response that advised us to submit the site for a Reinclusion Request through Webmaster Tools. Rather than going through a request process that can take several weeks, we decided to dump the domain and set the site up using another domain that we know is clean. We changed the domain name for the site and changed the URLs on the ads. The Disapproved messages disappeared.
My conclusion: There was nothing wrong with the site. The problem was the prior use of the domain name by an egregious spammer. Google applied a manual penalty to the site that was never reset when the domain was dropped and then re-registered. Another indicator is that the original site never showed up in Google’s index even after a couple of weeks had passed since the site went live. The WordPress site was set up to ping Google whenever a page or post was added, so the site should have been indexed rather quickly. A site that does not show up in Google’s index is an indication that the domain name had been banned, which is fully in line with the violations the rep cited. When a site is banned, all URLs are removed from Google’s index, which means zero traffic from Google.
How To Check The Past Use of a Domain Name
It is not easy to determine if a domain has been penalized by Google. There are few ways to determine how the site was used in the past. One useful resource we found is the WayBack Machine at Archive.org. The WayBack Machine has been keeping random copies of web pages going “way back” to 1996. These days, they usually only take a couple of samples per year, but at least you can get an idea what a web site looked like and can view the quality of the content.
We are looking for other sources that can be used to identify past spam sites. If you have any suggestions, please post them here.
Google Holds a Grudge for Spammers
Something else to keep in mind if you have a heavily penalized site or if you are trying to get one to recover through strict adherence to Webmaster Guidelines and the submission of Google Reinclusion Requests through Webmaster Tools. According to Matt Cutts, some penalized sites may never recover, regardless of what you do.
Google: Sites Penalized for Long-Term Spam Tactics Might Never Recover.
This is not good news for anyone who sets up a new web site using a domain name that may have been penalized in the past. We know that millions of websites were hit hard by the Panda and Penguin updates over the past couple of years. Most spammers never tried to fix the sites, but rather let the domains expire, which are now being picked up by innocent site owners. It’s now a “buyer beware” situation when registering domain names.
Hi Jonathan, good write-up. I am sure most companies aren’t aware that many domain names, even those that are currently available to register might have a history and can be previously used by companies that used black hat SEO techniques to promote their sites. The Wayback machine is a good way to determine how a site was used in the past, content wise but it won’t help you to identify if a site have used spam or shady SEo techniques to promote the content on that domain. So it can happen that the content is relatively normal/clean but the domain is still blacklisted by Google.
My advice is to check for back links to the domain you consider using/purchasing. No backlinks means you’re 99% good to go because it’s safe to assume no-one previously used the domain. If you do find get some backlinks for the domain you can easily find out if the link are good or bad. Bad link are blog & comment spam, cloaking farm links or from adult sites for example.
A easy tool to check for backlinks is http://www.opensiteexplorer.org/ or https://www.majesticseo.com/
I hope this helps!