A local “pick-a-quote” startup wanting in early 2012 to emulate the success of its U.S. equivalent, thumbtack.com, engaged an SEO expert. Methods considered to aid an “aggressive SEO strategy” included spam-building over 200k inbound links, linkwheel spinning and buying “aged domains”, all of which were regarded by Google as disapproved “black hat” tactics.

By May 2013 the number of visits to the oneflare.com.au (think hipages.com.au) site grew to about 26k each week but then suddenly plummeted, discovered later to be by reason of a Google Penguin 2.0 algorithmic demotion.

Then in July 2013 Google sent an email to oneflare stating it had detected “a pattern of artificial or unnatural links” pointing to the site and that as a result of an attempt to manipulate page rankings, a “manual spam action” had been applied.

Almost immediately, all organic traffic to the site disappeared.

The company and its SEO expert Nicholas Chernih concocted a story for Google blaming the “black hat” tactics on a fictitious rogue consultant and claiming to be innocent requested the manual action be removed. Google rejected that request but accepted a second reinstatement plea made a month later.

Oneflare’s Adam Dong and Marcus Lim sued Chernih for the company’s million-dollar sales loss for allegedly advising and implementing the doomed strategy that put it back to the bottom of the pile in terms of building web authority – a setback conservatively calculated to have cost $1 million.

Chernih had certainly given them instruction but it was not he that decided on the aggressive plan, ruled Justice Robert McDougall in the New South Wales Supreme Court after 6 days of testimony. Fortunately for the web-whisperer, all insights he provided came with a warning of a search engine penalty if such a scheme was detected.

Deciding it was oneflare that gave overall direction to the project and even performed some of the link building itself, its lawsuit was dismissed and it was ordered to pay Chenih’s legal costs.

Google’s search engine is driven by a complex and confidential algorithm. Sites gain ranking from high on-page quality and the authority imputed by inbound links from other sites of highly ranked sites. Its guidelines – which change from time to time – discourage “tricks” such as automatically-generated content, participating in link schemes and landing pages with the relevant keywords. Sites caught out in breach of the guidelines can – by the imposition of a “manual action penalty” – be demoted and at worst de-indexed.

Oneflare Pty Ltd v Chernih [2016] NSWSC 1271 McDougall J 13 September 2016


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