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Mueller Discusses Why Websites Enter a Strange Limbo State

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In a Google Office-hours hangout, an SEO asked Google’s John Mueller about how long it takes Google to re-rank a website that vanished and then reappeared – a process that could cause website SEO rankings to drop massively. A portion of Mueller’s response shed light on a unique problem with Google that prevents website SEO experts from ranking key phrases and domain names in the search engine results pages (SERPs). He said this problem was caused by the website entering an in-between state – a sort of “limbo”.

Legacy Domain Penalty

A legacy domain penalty is something that happens so rarely that it doesn’t have an official name. There is something that’s called legacy software, which refers to old software that can’t be replaced since many people rely on it. It’s a penalty applied to a domain but isn’t visible in Google Search Console, so it can’t be removed.

There’s no way to determine if a domain is penalised in this manner other than the site being unable to rank for anything, not even its own name. There is also no way to submit a reconsideration request because there is no penalty recorded in Search Console, and the search engine reports that there are no penalties.

In a Google Office-hours hangout two years ago, Mueller was asked a question regarding legacy domain penalties. He requested that the site’s administrator give the URL to him, and the scenario was monitored by another SEO for several months. After a month and a half, the website began to rank normally.

Around 2004, a marketer who was new to SEO received this sort of penalty on their domain. They had no idea why their new site was having issues with website SEO rankings. The Google toolbar indicated that the site had PageRank, which is represented by a green bar, and everything looked okay superficially.

The domain didn’t have the tell-tale sign of a penalised website, which is no PageRank, shown on the Google toolbar as a grey bar rather than the usual green. So, at that time, the SEOs who had a look at the website concluded that someone else might have previously used it as a spam site.

They contacted Matt Cutts, one of Google’s engineers at that time, and told him about the issue. Cutts had the penalty removed, but he never explained what this odd penalty was; it appeared to be a penalty linked to the domain but didn’t seem one at the same time.

ZDNet had a similar problem in the past as well. They had a hyphenated domain: CXO-Talk.com. As a result, they obtained the non-hyphenated variant (CXOTalk.com) through a domain sale by a third party.

The company was unaware that the domain was previously used by spammers. ZDNet’s website was subsequently removed from Google after the company migrated to CXOTalk.com.

After analysing the situation, they found out that the domain name was a “throwaway” domain name that black-hat spammers used to publish poor content on the website. Because the content on the domain was so bad, Google had no choice but to ban it. After the previous owners were done using it for spamming purposes – linking it to all kinds of spammy websites hosted in other countries – they sold it to an unsuspecting buyer.

There have been no explanations for the domain-level penalty since the beginning, and it’s so uncommon that many SEOs were unaware of it. So, until recently, the mysterious domain-level penalty was hidden in obscurity.

Mueller recently addressed a rare domain-level penalty, which is the same one that occurred in the past.

A Site’s Penalised State

Mueller answered a question about the time it takes for domains to recover from being unavailable. He discussed minor outages caused by technical problems, as well as a full-site update, which entails extensive modifications to the website. Then he began talking about this “strange” penalty state that appears to be an old Google algorithm bug.

According to Mueller, this domain penalty can last for many years as a result of the bug. His explanation seems to correspond with the description of the enigmatic legacy domain penalty. He said he witnessed websites that get stuck in an odd in-between state in Google’s system, which is a very rare occurrence. At some point, Google reviewed the website and found it to be so bad, that for whatever reason, it takes so long to update again.

So, the chances of any random website being affected by it are slim, but it’s something to be concerned about if the site owner is doing everything they can to fix the problem, but they aren’t getting anywhere. In that case, one can contact Google and see if there’s anything on the company’s side that is stuck. But, in terms of technical issues, they seem to solve swiftly.

Signs of Ranking Limbo Penalty

Mueller previously spoke about a website two years ago, which it was unable to rank on any keywords and even its own domain name. The oddity of the situation is that the domain would rank on the top of page two or the bottom of page one for a few days every month. However, after the few days were up, it would return to oblivion.

The tell-tale sign of this rare penalty is that it doesn’t appear in Google Search Console. The site can’t rank for anything, whether its own domain name or the key phrases. Moreover, the domain was previously used for spam purposes.

Since a lot of domain names were registered in the past, one should double-check how a particular domain was used before registering it. One way to do this is through a free service at Archive.org. One can see the snapshots of websites taken in the past months and years at Archive.org, and with luck, the previous condition of the domain may be shown.

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