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Dealing with a Google manual penalty — Dan Petrovic // Dejan

Episode Overview

Learn about the audacious site migration that allowed Dan Petrovic and Dejean marketing to escape and correct a severe manual Google penalty while dropping his link profile from 13,000 to 77 links.

Topics covered include:

  • How to carry the delicate balance of redirects and ‘duplicate’ content through simple content and design changes while effectively cloning a website
  • Which links matter and why


Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome back to Gray Hat SEO month on the Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re talking to great SEOs to learn what separates a best practice from a bad practice in search. Joining us again today is Dan Petrovic, who is the director and owner of DEJAN, A digital marketing agency offering SEO, PPC, and content marketing surfaces that is known for their technical and strategic SEO solutions for big brands and eCommerce companies. Yesterday, Dan and I started off talking about some link building strategies, and the conversation took an interesting turn talking about how Dan has managed his way through a manual penalty for his brand. So we’re going to continue the conversation and get onto that very shortly.

But before we hear from Dan, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary consultation, where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website content and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free consultation, go to

Okay, onto the show. Here’s the rest of my conversation with Dan Petrovic, director and owner of DEJAN Marketing. So I guess the question here is you started on this journey to create a new domain. You’re migrating your website, your content, your link profile to this new domain, and then you’re de-penalized right? The penalty is removed. What’s the process there after you go through and Google reconsiders and takes the penalty away? Do you continue to do the migration?

Dan:                 Yes.

Ben:                 Or do you just go back to the old domain?

Dan:                 Nope. My domain migration was a genuine maneuver. When it comes to our link profile, it is genuine. It is earned. There’s too much good stuff. It’s harder to link earn than link built. I don’t want any links that I built in the past. In fact, there’s three categories that are flagged, were the cause of the penalty, I didn’t want them. It’s like I used an analogy, you know like do you have a bathtub full of water and you’re getting a little pipette and putting little drops to fill up the bath extra. Why would I do that? I have a phenomenal link profile. Why would I be asking for random extra links because I have enough of authority links already? So one interesting thing is that John Mueller joined in the discussion. He wanted to clarify something that if I just copy my domain exactly, byte for byte, and Google goes, “Well it’s a duplicate.” They could actually change how they perceived the website and say, “Well, this new site is the new migrated site. We’ll just treat that as the same. It will pass the signals.” He didn’t say links. “We’ll pass all of the signals to the new domain.”

It was very valuable insight and something I knew about, and it’s something I wrote about. I call it or they call it LinkedIn version, is when there are multiple copies of the same document on the web, particularly PDFs, because you can’t change PDFs. It’s always the exact copy. The copy that’s seen as the highest authority copy becomes the canonical version. Every other copy falls into that. This one displays in search results, and all the links from all the other copies are then inverted into the primary canonical copy as determined by Google. You can see those links in Search Console.

I’ve seen this long time ago. For example, you copy a PDF of, say, Stanford University. You become the primary owner of that PDF as determined by Google. You can now see all the inbound links for all the other copies. It’s in your Search Console. The effect is real. It’s not like a white paper or research paper or something that’s speculative. It’s there. So I was worried about the old baggage, algorithmic baggage and link profile that I don’t want and that I failed to disavow. This is one of my mistakes. We did some experimentation in the early days that I disavowed, and I said, “I don’t need this.” But those few things slipped through, and it was a cause for the manual action. So again, my fault for not cleaning up thoroughly enough. I was relaxed. I was complacent in my belief that … and Google’s fault is that they told us that they ignore the links that they can see are manipulative. They’re just, “Oh, we just ignore those. Don’t worry about it.”

The entire industry thought you can’t get a manual penalty anymore. It’s really rare because Google’s algorithms are competent enough, and they will just ignore the bad link so don’t worry about it. When in doubt, just disavow for the ACO hygiene kind of reasons. For me, it wasn’t the case, so I’m going to leave the old domain dead and return it 410. We are already seeing the effects of fewer and fewer pages in index, and Google’s now indexing the new content as the canonical.

What we did do, though, is change as many bytes of the two documents as we could. So site-wide navigation, footer, header. We added the author boxes on one site, and they weren’t on the other site, to create the biggest change in what Google remembers was the old site and the new one, just to make sure that we’re not passing any signals through that link inversion, and Google’s own canonicalization efforts.

Ben:                 Right. So let me ask you, now that you’ve migrated your site and it’s essentially a duplicate of your previous content, you’re reformatting it so it is not an identical copy, how have you seen the performance of the two sites?

Dan:                 So the old domain is stubbornly successful still, and I don’t seem to be able to get rid of it. So it shows me that when a website is authoritative, even if you returned 404 pages, Google will still persistently try to show you in the results. However, what I’m seeing is a decline in traffic and rank for the old domain, and I’m seeing a cross-fade effect. The new domain is gaining authority and is gaining rank, and it’s increasing the number of queries that it’s being ranked for. It’s current performance for certain queries is better than the old domain.

I have migrated, in total, 77 links. These are really, really good links, like top industry authority links, and the other domain has something around 13,000 links, so 77 links versus 13,000 links. And the new domain is currently ranking better than the old domain did when it wasn’t penalized. What does this tell us? This tells us that Google did me a favor by issuing a manual action because there was some thing on an algorithmic level choking the old website. It was the old baggage. It was the random internet junk. It was the old techniques. It was the old stuff that was injuring the progress of the old website in results on an algorithmic level. Now that I’ve gotten rid of all that, I can finally be free.

Ben:                 I guess these are the problems that you run into when you’ve been working on the same domain for 15 years. What’s interesting and concerning to me is that you’re trying to be a good actor, right? You’re trying to follow the best behaviors and optimize your site to be effective, but you’re not going out of your way to do black hat SEO strategies because your domain is so important. And then Google looks at a strategy that was implemented, what, five 10 years ago and is saying, “Okay, well now we’re going to penalize you for something.” So now you have to think back about what did I do 10 years ago, right?

Dan:                 Yes. Yes, that’s right.

Ben:                 It’s like even the government here in the United States only requires you to keep your tax information for seven years.

Dan:                 Same here.

Ben:                 Google can actually require you to remember your SEO strategies since the beginning of time, which is 20 years ago.

Dan:                 Yep. That is exactly the problem, and things that weren’t a problem five years ago are a problem now. We joke in our office, “This is why we “SEOs can’t have nice things.” You have a nice technique that you pioneer, and people ruin it by spamming it for you. In fact, one of my genuine scientific initiatives was ruined by the SEO community who scammed my backlinks. I sponsored a Year of Science website. I think it was maybe 2009 or something like that, and we raised funds, huge amount of funds for this organization. I was really happy. They showed us the photos of their posters and t-shirts they print. It was a genuine relationship. But then we ended up getting links from them, and it ended up in our link profile. Suddenly, my competitors from Australia, just random people, started sponsoring this organization. I mean, the lady was overwhelmed with support. She’s like, “What’s going on with all this money coming through?” And I’m thinking-

Ben:                 Must be nice.

Dan:                 “Oh my God, my competition is suddenly …” Okay, imagine this. Of all the billions of things on the web that these guys, my local competitors, could have sponsored, they’re ruining my thing, my very favorite science thing. This was personal. I was really upset. I wrote to the lady, and I said, “You know what? You don’t understand what just happened. Something on an industry level. I need you to remove my link.” And she was really hurt. She was like, “Why Dan? You’ve been such a help to us.” And I’m like, “Too hard to explain. I’ll just let it go.” And I actually wrote to her, this was maybe 2010, ’11, I don’t know, and I said, “Please remove all my links. You can still mention me. Just take that link away.”

And this is the problem because this happened very soon after that sponsorship, within a year, so I think it was on my radar. If something I did seven years ago get spammy now, I wouldn’t know about it. So the best links you can get is the ones that are really hard to get. Let’s talk Gray Hat now. You really want to get some link, and you think it’s a good link to get and you do get it. Is it a good one? Well, it’s a good one if your competition can get it. If your competitors can get that link then it’s not worth getting. That’s the key. If your competitors can do the same thing to get that link, don’t get that link.

Ben:                 Interesting strategies. As you think about link building today, and you mentioned that the best links are the ones that are the hardest to get, how do you think about, obviously, going and getting the most competitive, sought-after links? What’s the right strategy to actually go and do really an effective link building strategy that can’t be duplicated?

Dan:                 Well, one thing changed, I guess, in the last three to four years internally with us as an agency. With all of our clients, we encouraged them to rather than work on purely link building work on linkable assets. So in fact, this stems from my research into why links exist on the web. I will share the article with you. It’s called the Art of Link Earning, and it’s based on my survey of what people think why links exist on the web. It gave me a lot of ideas, so I started categorizing why links should exist on the web. It was quite an insightful survey that I did, and I followed up with a fresh one in 2016 just to see if anything’s changed. Interesting thing is that the public believed, and those bloggers who link, the reason that they linked sometimes it’s because of commercial intent. “I want to help my fellow blogger,” or, “I want to help them. I want to send them traffic.”

So actually, what’s against Google’s guidelines is part of the natural linking ecosystem, but there are many other linking reasons and categories that fall within natural patterns. What we like to do internally is create linkable assets if they don’t already exist or identify the linkable assets if they do exist on the client’s website, and then promote those assets in various ways through paid social campaigns, PR, and manual outreach. Still, manual outreach is still against the guidelines. So if you have a piece of content, and you’re like, “Hey, you know, link to this,” you’re breaching the Google’s guidelines. But there’s very little that Google can do about that because it’s the editorial choice. You’ve asked somebody. They said, “S.ure, I’ll write about this and I’m linking to you or I don’t link to you.” It’s their editorial choice.

For example, we, in fact, pay for organic links. Let that simmer a little bit in your mind. I pay for my organic links. How do I do that? I have a great linkable asset that I build for my clients. Let’s say my client is an accountant, and I just ran a survey on 2,000 Australians on do they cheat on their tax return? This is a real case. We published the results of that survey on the client’s website, and we invite all the local journalists to interpret the data. We have the data in a factual form. We’re not writing the article. We’re creating a linkable asset, so the community of journalists and bloggers are then invited to digest and write about that.

Ben:                 It’s almost a an infographic strategy, right? It’s obviously a little definite that you’re using and publishing the data, but that’s the intent behind people creating infographics is that they’re consumable and can be commented on and can be shared.

Dan:                 That’s right. So, how do I pay for those links? I then promote that, let’s call it, a white paper. I promote that white paper on social ads. I’ve put say $200 budget or $500 budget on social ads, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and I’m running ads for that content piece, for that data piece, and in my campaign, my little gauge is all way down into the red because I’m targeting 400 people, not 400,000. I’m targeting journalists, bloggers, people who work at specific brands in hope that they’ll pick it up. And so I’m paying for the outreach, and the content piece is in front of them, and they choose whether to link or not, which is what defends my clients against penalties.

Ben:                 You’re paying for the content’s indication. You’re not paying directly for the person to consume the content and leaving it up to them to decide whether they want to write about your content or not?

Dan:                 That’s the key. There has to be editorial choice whether to link or not.

Ben:                 Yeah. Okay.

Well, Dan, I appreciate you taking the time. I think this was a really insightful conversation. I’m really interested to hear about the manual penalty and how you worked around it and some of your link-building strategies. Thank you for being our guest.

Dan:                 You’re most welcome. Thank you.

Ben:                 Okay, and that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search Podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Dan Petrovic, the director and owner of DEJAN Marketing. We’d love to continue the conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Dan, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes, or you can send him a tweet where his handle is Dejanseo, D-E-J-A-N-S-E-O, or you can visit his new website, which is His personal profile is The domain is

If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to be a guest on our show, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you could send me a tweet at Benjshap. B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. And if you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team. If you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and check back with us next week. Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene is the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Searchmetrics. Previously, Jordan was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay. During his time at eBay, Jordan focused on utilizing eBay content to improve user experience and natural search traffic.

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