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Thumbtack, a Startup Backed by Google, Returns to Google's Graces After SEO Hiccup

A murky SEO tale reveals Google's continued Web dominance.

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As the world’s most powerful Internet force, Google invites a wealth of conspiracy theories.

Here’s one: When Thumbtack, a Web startup that connects consumers with home service professionals, disappeared from Google’s search results last weekend, rumors began to swirl. You see, Thumbtack has raised nearly $150 million in five rounds, the last of which came, in part, from Google Capital, the search engine’s late-stage investment arm. But Google is also reportedly building a home services product, a direct competitor to Thumbtack. Nothing is confirmed from Google’s end, but many in the industry see it as inevitable. That’s conspiracy theory one.

Then, number two: On Friday afternoon, Thumbtack came back into Google’s good graces. Search for “San Francisco home cleaning” and its results show right up near the top along with rivals like Yelp and Homejoy.

That is a notably swift fix after an SEO handicap. Most SEO recoveries require manual actions (which happen often) and take multiple weeks, if not months. Last Saturday, Thumbtack received a notification from Google’s webmaster — what’s called a manual action — that the company was being punished for soliciting paid links to its site to juice its SEO results. Co-founder Jonathan Swanson confirmed this to Re/code, but declined to comment further.

Thumbtack awards its clients, such as a home cleaner, with website “progress points,” such as background checks or social media verification. Some come with anchor text pointing back to Thumbtack’s site, an SEO no-no. The company reportedly sent out notes to its clients asking them to halt this practice earlier this week. It’s unclear if Thumbtack was unaware it was violating SEO rules and amended its behavior immediately, or if it — like Rap Genius two years ago — knew what growth hacking it was doing. People familiar with the manual action rules say is it an arduous process, which typically takes longer.

So one conspiracy has Google nuking a competitor as it prepares to enter a market. And the other has Google doing the opposite — abetting a portfolio company that felt its algorithmic wrath.

Neither is likely true. Google’s search machine and gatekeeper operates independently from its investment arm. It has meted out penalties to companies small and large, including J.C. Penney and BMW, and even its own properties, such as Google Japan. Google Capital openly backs startups that compete with Google in some Web markets, or may soon.

Still, Google’s opaqueness on the already murky world of its algorithm does not help. It unnerves startups dependent on Google’s referral traffic who often find it difficult to get a direct line into Google, particularly as the company accelerates the refashioning of search pages away from its original ten blue links.

“This one and Rap Genius make me skeptical of Google’s claims that this is all fair,” said Rand Fishkin, co-founder of the SEO and marketing company Moz. “Even if there is a perfectly legitimate reason, it just looks awful and I wish Google would just provide some transparency and comments behind it.”

Representatives from Google, Google Capital and Thumbtack declined to comment.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.