irs.com, dmv.org suffer Huge Visibility Losses. Suspected Google Manual Penalty.

Steve Paine
Steve Paine
12. February 2019
Steve Paine
Steve Paine
Steve 'Chippy' Paine is the UK country manager for SISTRIX. "I've been learning about the Internet every day since 1988."

Two huge domains, one of which previously sold for $12.5m, have been hit this week with huge organic search visibility losses. While we can't completely rule out a technical issue, we suspect that 'copycat' or 'ghost' activity has been officially penalised. irs.com and dmv.org have effectively been removed from Google Search.

Developing. Updates at end of article.

Copycat websites can take different forms. At one end of the scale there’s the content-scraping activity that is used for phishing. At the other end of the scale are websites that piggyback off existing businesses to add value. In some cases it works well. In others it can lead to customer confusion, or worse.

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is the state-level US organisation that handles the complex tasks of vehicle and driver registrations. They are organised at state level and their websites are distributed amongst .gov and .com domains.

dmv.org, on the other hand, is a for-profit website owned by Online Guru Inc. in San Diego. This week their organic search visibility was cut by 80%

The IRS is, of course, the Internal Revenue Service, the government organisation charged with handling all matters of tax in the USA, another highly complex task. Their website is at the domain irs.gov.

irs.com, on the other hand, is a for-profit website owned by Remark Media in Las Vegas. This week their organic search visibility was cut by 85%.

We’ve taken a close look at these two domains to see if they have made any technical SEO mistakes and we haven’t found anything obvious. We’re even quite impressed at the long-term strength of the domains and, what appears to be, truly helpful content.

Searching in the USA for common terms such as “tax return form” however, return nothing for irs.com.

Just one week ago, irs.com was at position 7 for this search term.

Google has, at least for now, cut the two domains from their search results. Whatever the reason is, both these domains would have just lost a huge amount of organic traffic. irs.com has lost 83% of their top 10 ranking keywords. Only long-tail, low-traffic keywords remain in the top 10.

History of issues

Interestingly dmv.org has already been through a legal case with the official DMV in California. E-driver, the owning company at the time, was hit with an injunction in 2008. Plaintiffs brought an anti-competition case to trial and dmv.org was forced to display a splash page before customers could use the content. Today, that’s just a site-wide banner explaining that the site is not ‘owned or operated’ by a government agency.

Bad press and official warnings clearly doesn’t help either. Partnering with YoGov, dmv.org has created awareness of their activities. Could this have been the straw that broke the camels back?

It looks like dmv.org, over time, have built up a great website of information and just taken it too far as a commercial operation.

IRS.com. End of a long story?

For irs.com, also known as USTaxCenter, this could be the end of a long story. In September 2005, Intersearch paid $12.9 million for the domain name and immediately attracted attention from lawmakers wanting to clamp down on domains that were similar to official government agencies. The domain was eventually acquired by Remark Holdings, the Las Vegas company that also runs banks.com (VI 0.01) bikini.com (VI 0.16) sharecare.com (VI 1.926) and vegas.com (VI 10.29) along with Kankan, a social media and AI operation.

Just weeks ago, Remark Media (part of Remark Holdings) announced an expansion project for IRS.com. “Our website now offers a robust platform for self-directed tax preparation.” announced CEO Kai-Shing Tao in a press release. The following ‘forward looking’ statement is also taken from the press release.

“The USTaxCenter attracts a large volume of organic and direct traffic, thanks in part to its strong URL.”

Press release.

What happens next?

You can be sure that Remark Media and Online Guru won’t sit back and let this happen without a fight and we wouldn’t be surprised to see this hit the main news channels as the story unfolds. Is there a government action behind this? Will the two domains be able to recover? Do the two companies even know this has happened?

Yes, there could be a technical explanation that we’ve missed so we advise caution. It is possible that the content inside the pages has been made invisible to Googlebots. But for two three companies, both running ‘ghost-like’ US government-related websites, to see the same pattern seems like too much of a co-incidence to us. ‘On hold, pending investigation’ seems like a more likely answer.

Don’t ‘ghost’

Whatever your intentions, if people come to you thinking you’re the real thing and walk away with bad service and the knowledge that you’re not the real thing, you’re going to get bad feedback. The bad feedback is going to lead to bad reviews and will damage the brand, leading, at the very least, to potentially bad signals in Google search. Be careful with unofficial piggyback and ghost-like web operations.

Updates

12th Feb 22:22 – medicare.com, an ehealth inc. domain has also been hit. (Thx Tony Spencer) The desktop loss was similar at 83%. Note that the losses on mobile search are greater. In this case 95%. From their website:
“eHealthInsurance Services, Inc. acquired Medicare.com from MedX in March 2014. “

16 March 2019. irs.com are still removed from Google search in the USA. Interestingly we haven’t see any news about their problems, which could be financial given the huge drop in important Google visibility.

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Comments
zeejott   
12. February 2019, 15:14

“We’ve taken a close look at these two domains to see if they have made any technical SEO mistakes and we haven’t found anything obvious.”

Blocking Googlebot (in case of irs.com) and provide a 403 status code is a technical SEO mistake in my opinion. 😉

Tao   
13. February 2019, 11:11

There have been cases in the UK where sites have positioned themselves to “help” people submit passport applications, charging for the privilege and not really offering any added value. The sites don’t tend to piggyback on domain names like these have, but they do look almost identical to the official sites apart from some small print if you can be bothered to scroll down that far.
I think this move is a good thing – and another example of Google implementing their EAT guidelines to keep searchers safe.

john   
13. February 2019, 22:38

google: obeys media, which worships govt.

Google: largest lobbying budget in US, and yet wipes out small enterprises with no recourse.

Ghost sites should be clear in non-affiliation. dmv.org does.

YoGov is useful in increasingly inefficient, bureaucratic, bloated govt. When will laws be passed to stop stop from passing more hoops to jump through? its suffocating.

ps your form deletes itself if I make a mistake, so retype the whole thing.

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