Does Thumbtack + Google Ventures = Conflict of Interest?

A couple of weeks ago, Thumbtack.com was nailed with a manual penalty by Google. They had violated one of the Webmaster Guidelines; “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”

Many people are under the impression that if money isn’t involved, then it’s not breaking the rules. Clearly, that’s not the case. The “funny” thing about thumbtack is that Google is their largest investor.

Google Ventures led a $100 Million round of Thumbtack financing last August. Most VC firms are looking for a 30 – 40 percent year-over-year return on their investment. As you can imagine, that tends to create a lot of pressure to figure out a way to grow fast.

Of course, one way to grow fast is to increase your visibility in Google organic search. Semrush data shows an organic traffic improvement of 33 percent since the Google investmentthumbtack-traffic-2

That really should come as no surprise, because money is actually the second most valuable thing that Google brings to the company. Websites owned by Google Ventures have direct access to Google. Quoting from an archived version of their own site “We provide unparalleled (and real) access to Google’s massive network of employees and alumni.” If that includes access to people that know how the algorithm works and how to optimize for it, that knowledge is virtually priceless.

In all fairness, it should be pointed out that Thumbtack was enjoying hockey stick growth a full year before the Google investment. And how was this growth accomplished? They did it the old fashioned way – with link spam.

Thumbtack’s link scheme of choice was a badge program. In exchange for placing a badge with a do follow link on a website, the webmaster would be rewarded with “progress points”. This scheme was originally discovered and outed by @DonnyStrompf. In reaction to the bad press, Google levied what appears to be the sweetest manual penalty ever.

Barry Schwarz reported this timeline: Thumbtack received their manual penalty around Saturday, June 6th. On Tuesday, June 9th, they sent out a request to webmasters to remove or no follow their badge. On Friday, June 12th, Thumbtack sent an email to clients indicating they “resolved the issue related to Google Traffic.” I guess Google now understands the pain of business owners impacted by these penalties after “suffering” through it themselves for that handful of days (yes – that’s sarcasm).

It’s not unheard of to have a penalty removed within a few days of submitting a reconsideration request. The “fishy” thing here is the penalty was lifted almost immediately after a single link removal request was mailed. Best of all, a single link removal request is likely produce less than 10 percent compliance, so they get to keep all the link juice. Yay for them! All I ask is that I get the same level of response & consideration the next time I file a reconsideration request for a client.

Oddly enough, I haven’t seen anyone report on the rest of the story. As someone who specializes in both link building and Google Penalty recovery, experience tells me that where there’s one link scheme there is probably another one (two, ten 50…), so I decided to do a little digging.thumbtack-ctld-3

First stop was the CTLDs Distribution Map found in the Ahrefs dashboard. One look at this map and I was able to spot the “Fiverr Footprint” – a relatively high number of links coming from Russia, China and Brazil. I’ve seen countless sites get hammered by Penguin after using Fiverr for link building scheming.

The number of foreign language sites with a legitimate reason to point to an English language lead-gen site is very limited. Most, if not all of these links are unnatural. They break Google webmaster guidelines. But here’s the interesting part – Thumbtack has nothing to do with these links (directly) and it’s not a case of negative SEO.

Instead it’s a case of parasite hosting. Parasite hosting refers to websites with high trust and authority that allow the self-publishing of content. The benefit lies in the ability to leverage the host domain’s authority and trust to get your content ranked.

In the case of Thumbtack, a business will set up a profile page. Then they will go to Fiverr and order a bunch of exact match anchor text links pointing to their page. One example involved a number of Russian sites linking to a Texas-based pressure washing company. Kind of a red flag. I even discovered some digital marketers in the mix. Imagine that.

This presents a conundrum. If I were Google and had no relationship with the site, I would think it would be an easy call: institute a manual partial penalty against the spammed urls. These urls would be easy to profile and de-index. Of course, if I were Google and thought this may impact my VC exit plan, I would probably just ignore it.

If I were advising Thumbtack.com I would suggest monthly link audits and updates to the disavow file to combat this. If they had inside knowledge these links wouldn’t hurt them, I would expect them to ignore my advice.

It’s complicated.

The takeaway? It’s good to have Google as an investor

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