Update: 15th June 2015 : Penalty Recovery in 6 Days – Thumbtack rankings seem to have recovered after only 6 days of penalty.
You can skip the Penalty Analysis if you are interested in the Recovery Analysis only.
This is the very interesting penalty and surprisingly fast recovery story of Thumbtack, an online platform that allows service providers and consumers to find each other and negotiate jobs online. We don’t know if it has something to do with its swift rankings recovery or not, but incidentally, Thumbtack benefit of a massive $100 million investment led by Google Capital in 2014.
Thumbtack is a consumer service for finding and hiring local professionals, a marketplace that connects consumers with local service professionals such as photographers, yoga instructors and bartenders. What Thumbtack does is allow service providers and consumers to find each other and negotiate jobs online. What kicked off as a garage start up at the beginning of 2009, developed to have over 50,000 service providers signed up on the website in 2010 and has grown to over 240,000 service providers by January 2012.
We always keep an eye on the big search engine in order to keep you and ourselves updated with the newest findings in digital marketing. Being watchful with what happens with the major search engines, we are among the first to spot interesting and dramatic penalties, from famous banks to big brands from the travel industry. Regarding Thumbtack, aside the fact that it’s a very successful business we are talking about, what is interesting is the fact that a massive $100 million investment was led by Google Capital in 2014. This, in itself, is nothing unusual. What makes it so is that the project led by Google Capital begs the question: will Google punish a site if they have their hands in its pocket? It certainly looks like they will.
Currently Thumbtack doesn’t rank for their own brand name, nor does it rank for the 25,000 keywords they used to rank. As a site which connects lawyers to customers, massage therapists to people with back problems, wedding photographers with soon-to-be-newlyweds, Thumbtack ranks for all sorts of keywords, from bolts and drill presses to marketing and yoga. Given the site’s profile, there is (or should be) nothing shady about that. The problem is that they weren’t just ranking on „various” keywords, they were ranking on mostly commercial ones, such as “best photographer Ohio”, “cheap dentist” and so on.
Official Announcement of Google Traffic Drop
Thumbtack recently apologized to their users on their blog for the low number of visits from customers. They referenced Google traffic as a potential issue and promised to fix the issue. There is no certain way to verify that this is a penalty case, but the numbers in our analysis surely seem to indicate so.
A further sign that we’re dealing with a complicated matter is that none of their blog posts has any comments or shares – kind of weird for a website with 35,000 referring domains.
And besides, how many websites brag about a penalty… voluntarily?
$1mil Rankings Value – Pre Penalty
One of the reasons this case is so interesting is that this is not just any run of the mill scheming scenario. On the one hand, this is tied to Google Capital. On the other hand, the ranking value (pre-penalty) was estimated at around 1 million dollars. How do you get to that value with so many commercial keywords and so little organic activity?
Most of the value of Thumbtack stays in its traffic. Most of it seems to be coming from Google and since they were penalized their entire value dropped.
Thumbtack Shady Link Tactics
Well, one way to get to that high point is to ask your users to include a link to your website on their own sites. In return, users get points, which in turn help them rank higher in Google. A classic tit-for-tat strategy. Is it legal though? That’s what one of the users asked on Twitter. Thumbtack said yes, because there’s no financial exchange. Google, however, begged to differ, perhaps because while no actual money was exchanged, the transaction was still commercial in nature. As you can see from the screenshot below, taken from a blog post that tackles the same appealing subject, Thumbtack’s website wasn’t very shy in what concerns its link building tactics.
The bottom line is that if you receive or give any good or service in return for a link, then that link is considered unnatural.
Let’s say that a company selling frying pans sends one of their products to 100 cooking bloggers, encouraging them to write about the frying pan they received as a gift. Will Google consider the links bloggers will generate as unnatural? It will surely do. But if the frying pans company wants to stay on Google’s good side, they have to prove that they didn’t have the intention of manipulating their rankings. Thereby, they should ask the bloggers to mark the links as nofollow so they cannot pass PageRank.
cognitiveSEO’s Penalty Validation
It’s fairly clear that what they did had a high chance of being considered foul play by Google. Did the search engine actually act on this by applying a penalty? There’s no way to positively confirm, as we haven’t seen the penalty message itself, but we can definitely infer with a high degree of certainty based on facts. So instead of using the word “penalty”, let us, for now, refer to “the incident”.
We looked at the rankings on 917 top words from Thumbtack before and after the presumed penalty. Before the incident, for most keywords their site ranks in the top 20 and a lot even in the top 10 search results. And the keywords are not really all that of a niche. “atlanta personal injury lawyer”, “Houston movers” or “carpet cleaning Denver” all seem like fairly sought after keywords which might entice quite a bit of competition. Good on Thumbtack, then, right?
Yet after the incident, the shift in ranking is visible to the naked eye. 113 of the analyzed keywords don’t rank at all anymore (that’s 12% of the sample). Out of the rest, no keyword ranks above the 40th position. The probability of this happening from “natural” causes or even algorithm changes that were not specifically targeted at them is fairly close to zero. It’s safe to say, by looking at the numbers, that “the incident” was, in fact, a penalty.
Thumbtack Brand Search Volume
Normally, penalties are bad for business. But the online world is a tricky one. Just because Thumbtack may have been unorthodox in some of its practices does not automatically mean it only had dissatisfied customers. In fact, a lot of them had to be pretty satisfied with the site. That would be the only way to explain why the number of search for their website only increased after the penalty. People were looking specifically to find the Thumbtack website and when it didn’t show up for any of the keywords (there are no results after the third page of Google results, remember?) they kept on searching.
This implies that at least some people (their users included) were quite content with Thumbtack’s services and were perhaps doing a search on a keyword but hoping to find this specific site where they once found a solution to their queries.
Perhaps an illustration of the Streisand effect: the more you try to remove something from the forefront of the web, the more it tends to be brought back there by the very act of removal.
Though in Thumbtack’s case, this might not be that helpful: their site is still buried in the depths of Google hell (i.e. beyond the first page of results), meaning that search as they might, at least some loyal fans might have to abandon all hope and look somewhere else.
Why Were They Hit By a Manual Links Penalty
So what prompted Google’s reaction now? At the time of the penalty, Thumbtack’s ratio of unnatural to natural links was pretty much out of balance. 58% of the links could be considered unnatural, with a further 14% being considered as suspect. This left only 28% of their links showing up as OK. With less than a third of your total number of links being sound the penalty was probably inevitable at some point.
This was not an accidental situation, but was rather indicative of a faulty business model. Moreover, a lot of the unnatural links were traced back to instances of low authority and thin content posts, not to mention heavy presence on web directories and blogs. Admittedly, their business is of such nature that a variety of domains and ubiquitous presence was unavoidable, but that hardly explains the disproportionate prevalence of commercial anchor text, clearly noticeable in the visualization below.
The Thumbtack Link Building Story
Thumbtack’s link profile largely tells the story of how they got here. A combination of blogs, personal sites and web directories is not indicative of a strong and healthy presence. Add to that the fact that most of these entries were short paragraphs or texts or simply images and it becomes clear why this model was not sustainable in today’s Google’s world.
To add insult to injury, we even found cases of SEO marketing – really shady instances of blog comments with thin content and large quantities of anchor text. By all accounts this is one case where the penalty seems justified.
Thumbtack is based on a bazaar model, where users can find everything and anything and the site is just the middle-person.
So maybe they could have brought this to their defense to justify their hectic web presence? Maybe, but then someone more careful (and well-intended) might have had a more sensible do-follow to no-follow distribution. But with a 9:1 Do-follow to No-follow distribution, there’s even more evidence that their heart wasn’t necessarily in the right place.
Not only are most of their links do-follow, but most of their image widgets are do-follow as well. This takes us right into the “knew about it and planned it” territory. Sure, a lot of the evidence for this claim is circumstantial. But when enough of it gathers, it’s pretty difficult to still assume good intent.
The closer you look, the more obvious it becomes that what we see in the analysis was part of a strategy, not the result of carelessness. To add just one more example, look at the anchor link in the two instances below.
Same keyword, obvious commercial intent and no actual content. There’s really no good alternative explanation to the obvious one: the strategy here was based on an antiquated vision of what SEO is and how it works. And after a while, all these cases amass and pop up as unnatural links.
The Doubtful & Ultra Fast Recovery Story
How much does it usually take for a site to recover? Depends. From our researches and our clients’ experience it may take a couple of weeks, a month or more. Google does not give a fixed timeframe or a maximum limit and very fast recoveries are usually myths. Also, from what we knew so far, there is no way through which you can influence the Google Penalty Recovery process externally. Or at least this is what we thought. Well, Thumbtack might prove us wrong. Most of the site (until today, we would have said that “all sites”), after they’ve completed the whole process would impatiently wait for one of the three different replies:
- Yes, we think you are in good shape
- No, you still have some work to do
- We have processed your consideration request – meaning that they might have found multiple issues, maybe one issue is solved but there are other issues that still need to be checked.
Even the mighty cannot escape Google’s indiscriminate penalty system. Does that mean that everyone is equal then? Not necessarily.
Although everyone falls the same, not everyone rises the same.
Just a week after Thumbtack succumbed under the search engine’s just punishment, it miraculously resurfaced as cheerful as ever. Of course, it’s not unusual that a site would recover from a Google penalty. The time it took Thumbtack to recover, however, might raise some eyebrows, given that other sites have to work for much longer to clear up their name, sometimes even up to three months. Which makes us wonder:
Was this a case of “parental” charity (Thumbtack is, after all, Google’s “baby”)?
Thumbtack is Spreading the Recovery News
Users were quickly brought up to date about the speedy recovery via e-mail. Though short, the message ticked all the right PR check boxes of post-crisis communication:
- The crisis is over (“our request volume is back”);
- It wasn’t really a crisis to begin with (“We resolved the issue related to Google traffic”);
- You, the customer, are part of what makes us successful (“Thank you so much for your patience during this time”, “Thank you for being a loyal Thumbtack Professional”);
- We will repay you for your help and together we will grow even stronger (“We’ll continue to invest in marketing to bring you even more customers in the future”).
Classic underdog-soon-to-be-a-top-dog trope packed in as few words as possible, sprinkled with just a touch of personalization (all messages are addressed directly to just one receiver and signed with just the first name of the founder).
This is an excellent recipe for making the best out of an already pretty good deal.
cognitiveSEO Witnesses the Recovery
Remember how after the penalty you couldn’t find a Thumbtack link anywhere near the first 40 positions? Things have turned around in a big way. They now have at least 60 words for which they rank in the top 3 positions and over 200 for which they rank on the first page. That’s sort of like going from playing in the fourth Belgian soccer league one season to playing straight in the Champion’s League the next season.
The Thumbtack Top 10 SERPS Glory
Something must have happened on the night between June 12th and 13th. Though technically we can speak of some sort insurgency in Thumbtack’s case as well:
369 keywords improved their performance significantly.
And by significantly we mean they went from the fourth page of Google results (the beginning of Neverland) to the first page. The odd thing about this sudden increase in first page ranking is that other than the increase, nothing else has changed. The keywords are as commercial as they get (e.g.: “minneapolis web hosting”, “georgia auto accident lawyer”, “plumbing companies in denver”). So it looks like instead of dealing with a mysterious cause-effect relationship, we’re not dealing with a cause-effect relationship at all.
Thumbtack rankings simply resurrected.
Thumbtack’s Secret Ingredient – Commercial Ranking Keywords
Surely we can’t generalize from just a couple of commercial keywords and assume they were all like that. But it seems most of them are like that. Just take a look at some of the keywords ranked number 1 and 2: “phoenix landscaping”, “door repair”, “computer repair san antonio”, “commercial photographers”, “personal trainer”, “bankruptcy lawyer chicago” etc. We’re not cherry picking these examples, we’re simply lifting them from the list. These are all highly commercial keywords, the same type which a week ago attracted the wrath of search engine black-and-white animals. Now all of a sudden they’re perfectly ok?
Removing the Shady Links
Something is definitely not right in the kingdom of keyword ranks, but maybe the situation is improving. You can see quite a high spike in lost links, in particular since around the day of the recovery.
Since recoveries are usually awarded based on visible improvements and not wishful thinking, it’s likely that this did not play a large role in the recovery decision.
However, it does make the case that Thumbtack might want to act on Google’s good will and clean up its act, at least in some areas.
The co-founder and president of Thumbtack, Jonathan Swanson, has confirmed on record with Search Engine Land that they have received the manual action. It also seems like the company has seen a huge decline in Google referrals, ultimately impacting the leads that professionals in their network are receiving. We cannot tell if this post had anything to do with the penalization, even if its author mentioned that he reported Thumbtack’s link acquisition tactics. Nevertheless, Thumbtack’s representatives called the post inaccurate, mentioning that they never paid for links and have always strived to work within Google’s guidelines.
Looking for the best but expecting the worse is usually every webmaster’s slogan while waiting to recover for a penalty. Yet, with the miraculous recovery on the roll, probably powered by the Disavow Tool, we were wondering what was Thumbtack’s slogan these 6 days of rough penalty: We’re guessing – “A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.” We can’t say what exactly happened with Thumbtack’s site for sure; what we can say for sure is that is an interesting case study that Google would better give an explanation for the drop and the fast recovery. Who knows? Maybe the mysterious recovery can be replicated on other sites too. Or not?