Thank you for calling the Google Penalty Hotline servicing your Panda, Penguin and Manual Penalty needs. How can I help you?

This is how I feel sometimes when I answer the phone. Diagnosing and fixing Google penalties is becoming a larger part of our business and affected owners are reaching out to us in an effort to see how we can help them wiggle out of the tremendous jam they are in. They want to talk about the situations leading up to their penalty. They want to detail the steps they’ve taken since the hammer of Thor came down. But mostly, a lot of them just want someone to listen. Google’s lack of transparency regarding penalties and the utter absence of anyone to talk to concerning their penalty has left a lot of website owners searching for answers.

This brings me to a call I received this week. In a nutshell, bad SEO courtesy of an ocean of spammy links had blown away a once profitable site. The caller was trying to connect the myriad of dots as I was piecing together strategies for how we could help him. As I sifted through the facts, I discovered that this was a site he recently purchased on Flippa. This wasn’t a couple hundred dollar sale he was taking a flier on either. He had laid down some solid cash to secure it.

The sickening fact of the matter was the website traffic was completely propped up by a spammy link profile on steroids. In the span of a month, the Flippa seller had pointed over 34,000 low quality links at this site. As you would expect, traffic soared to dizzying heights — 65 times the traffic they did just three months prior. We are talking the early days of Twitter-type growth.

From the sale date on Flippa, it was clear the seller saw the penalty set in and all those ill gotten gains were being crushed before his eyes overnight. Instead of sucking it up as a painful life lesson or trying to repair the mountain of link spam he’d created, he decided he’d offload it for a pretty penny on some unsuspecting buyer in the Flippa marketplace. After all, the traffic and sales reports were still intact from the month before so the buyer wouldn’t know that they had bought an empty shell of a site until it was too late. The month the new owner took over, traffic had fallen 75% and three months later search terms from the site would be scrubbed from Google index almost completely.

This case really bothered me. In life, I try to follow a moral compass in an attempt to treat others as I’d want to be treated. Its not a religious thing, its a human thing. For the most part, I tend to reflect those values onto my fellow man so when I run across a scam as obvious as this, it becomes hard to shake free of.

I felt bad because the signs were all there, but I don’t know that the buyer was savvy enough to see them. Maybe he overheard his friend at the neighborhood barbeque talking about how well his Internet business was doing, bringing in $6000 a month while he only worked 10 hours a week maintaining it. If they’re giving away ATM machines on the Internet, why not go pick yours up?

Some will say its ultimately the buyers fault for not performing his due diligence prior to the sale, but you can’t tell me the seller doesn’t shoulder the larger share of the blame here. The seller watched his traffic fall off a cliff and sold the site for an inflated value before it became worth little more than a wooden nickel.

When I first discovered Flippa, I thought it was an ingenious concept. I’ve owned a few websites myself over the years, and what a great idea to be able to sell a site just like you would any other business. Life has a funny way of taking you in directions different than you had originally anticipated, or perhaps you can’t give the website the attention or the cash it needs to take that next step forward. Why not hand it off to someone else to take it where you couldn’t, and you get fair value for the time and effort you’ve devoted.

I’ve bought a site off Flippa several years which I grew, but ultimately abandoned. I was always on the lookout for that next purchase. There were a lot of interesting sites that flashed across my radar, but ultimately I never pulled the trigger again. I haven’t looked at Flippa in over a year and this case highlights the real dangers of dealing with a third party that you haven’t met and who you ultimately have no recourse with should the deal go south after money has exchanged hands. That being said, there are usually signs that alert you to stay away or, at the very least, keep moving onto the next listing. Here are a few things to look for with Flippa website listings:

1) Look at the link profile – For the sake of anonymity, let’s say that the website in question was selling motorcycle helmets. When you see that the site was registered five months prior to being thrown up on Flippa and in that time the site has accrued 34,000 links, red flags should start waving violently in your head. Unless this site is the next social networking hub on the verge of greatness, those numbers just don’t make sense. They certainly don’t compute for a guy hocking motorcycle helmets.

Even if the link profile was comprised of 200 backlinks, you should still dig further to make sure they are quality links. I’d recommend plugging the URL into Majestic SEO and taking a hard look at the link profile. The $49 monthly fee you’ll hand over to be able to look at every single link that is pointed at the domain is well worth the cost of admission when you consider the kind of money you’ll be dropping on the business itself. When looking at a link, you should ask yourself, “does it make sense in the context of this page or does it just look spammy?” Avoid the later because it will come back to bite you at some point.

2) Has the website seen a sudden burst of traffic or sales? – You know that old adage that if things sound too good to be true? This certainly applies to web businesses who go parabolic. Unless they happen to be run by a PR genius with a product that customers can’t wait to tear out of his hands, web traffic and sales don’t multiple exponentially in the span of a month or two. It just doesn’t happen.

If you see a Flippa sales listing where traffic has spiked like a Roman candle, it most likely signals that heavy link manipulation has been unleashed on the site. Things too good to be true in Google’s backyard always get found and ultimately get buried on page 67 of the search results. Try running a web business without 70% of the web’s search engine traffic. Its about as fun as using your head as a battering ram against a brick wall. Google penalties are rarely a quick fix and once you’ve removed all those false signals that were propping your site up, it won’t magically return to your previous glory days in the SERPs.

3) How much is the site making versus how much is it selling for? – The last metric I’ve heard is your standard brick-and-mortar business sells for around 5 to 7 yearly earnings depending on the industry. A website should run you in the 1 to 3 year range and closer to that 5 to 7 for a more established brand. Let’s not even get into some of those vapor evaluations of Facebook buying out company XYZ who wouldn’t know a profit if it hit them in the face.

Regardless, if you see a listing on Flippa making 3 grand a month, and it looks like the sale is going to settle out around $9,000 you should be very skeptical as to why the seller would let his business go for such little return. Why doesn’t he just hire a college kid for minimum wage to run the day-to-day operations of the business while he collects fat checks for doing little of nothing?

4) Ask lots of questions and then when you think you’ve asked too many, ask some more – Money isn’t the only commitment you are making when you purchase a web business. Your time is also a considerable cost item as well. Consider the time involved to move the business to its new virtual home, and make sure everything is operating correctly. The time involved to train with the seller to discover the nuisances of running the businesses’ day-to-day operations. The time involved in growing the business to meet the potential you saw when you originally spotted the listing. This equates to a very large investment you are making in this online venture. You can’t ask enough questions to make sure you get this right. If the seller is slow to reply or something feels off with their answers, I’d suggest taking that as a queue to walk away. There will be other businesses ripe for the taking, and you just gained a little more experience in the process.

Its healthy to be skeptical of the sales listings on Flippa. A lot of times, the promises made by sellers just don’t add up. It can be a great marketplace if you know how to navigate it, but I’d recommend going through months of research and asking questions till you are blue in the face before you actually pull the trigger. I’d easily say there are more scammers on Flippa than legitimate sellers so be wary of anything that doesn’t add up or seems too good to be true.

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