Can There Really Be 85 Types Of Unnatural Links?

I apologize upfront for the title bait. If it worked, good. What’s ironic is I think if every link builder got together in the same room we actually could come up with 85 different types of unnatural links. That is assuming we could all agree on a definition for the term in the first place. But stick with me for a bit here…

I don’t want to make light of an issue that is impacting livelihoods, but at the same time, there is a certain aspect the this current “unnatural links” meme that is just silly.

I think I realized we’d reached the tipping point when a client asked me why the links he had pointing to his main site from the 25 other sites he owned was unnatural, since after all, he owned all the sites and wouldn’t he thus naturally interlink them? And you know, even if they aren’t about the same subject matter, he had a valid point.

Unnatural Links

Removing those unnatural links isn't always easy

Isn’t ‘Unnatural’ In The Eye Of The Beholder?

Think about how many products there are manufactured by Proctor & Gamble. On grocery store shelves, every single one of those products, in the fine print on the packaging somewhere, it says Proctor & Gamble. And indeed, this is logical, and “natural”.

But on the Web, the rules change, and it’s all because of the signals that links throw off. Any given link can send off multiple signals depending on where it’s located, how often it appears, what it says, who it points to, how long it’s been there and on and on.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then unnatural links are in the eye of the algo.

Further complicating matters is the definition of “unnatural” as it pertains to off-site versus on-site.

If you sell Titanium Ball Bearings, I would naturally assume these words, as clickable links, ought to appear on your own site. It would be hard for them not to. But if those words appear as a clickable link on 275 blog rolls, something is not kosher. I’d go so far as to say if the words Titanium Ball Bearings appeared on 15 different blog rolls, something is fishy.

I’m going list some of the more obvious unnatural links, and include a few of the less obvious unnatural links. I hope you will comment below and add your own definitions well as examples.

As a preface, if there had never been a Google, never been a links based algorithm, and if the terms anchor text had never entered into SEO lexicon, my hunch is 75% of the links on the Web would say “click here”, 10% would say “read more”, and 14% would be company names and/or URLs.  The remaining 1% would say “buy Viagra”.

Since Google does exist, we will never know. I do know that the average Web user who does not work in a Web marketing related field hasn’t a clue what the signals are that impact search rank, meaning that this is all a very SEO centric subject.

15 Types Of Unnatural Links

Because I do not believe in absolutes (except that one), each of these below could have exceptions, and I can argue those exceptions all day, but in general, these below mean trouble. What are your thoughts?

1.  You have a link to your Atlanta based tanning salon site from an Alaska based Halibut fishing charter site. This is the classic unnatural link. When there is no plausible connection in subject matter or location between two websites, I think we can agree it didn’t happen by accident. And if anchor text is involved, it’s even worse.

The example I just provided does actually exist, but it would be unfair to categorize all Alaskan Halibut Fishing Charters that way, so here’s an example of a honest natural one: (I bet that fellow is wondering why he’s getting so much traffic today).

2.  On any interior page of your site, if the title tag of the page as well as the page’s main heading text is an exact keyword match for multiple anchor text links from other sites pointing to that exact page, it’s unnatural.

Caveat by example: A niche glossary, like this It’s titled as such, and linked to by other sites using the words Birding Glossary. This makes sense. It’s natural.

3.  The link says Orlando Limousines and it appears on 60 school newspaper websites, including one from Montana State Technical College. Actually, any site with a link from 60 school newspaper sites islikely unnatural. Or even 6. And has anyone else noticed the current migration of school newspapers from .edu domain space to .com? Wow. I wonder why?

4.  You have ten times the blogroll links as your nearest competitor. Don’t jump me on this one. I agree that blogroll links are often totally legitimate and reflect outstanding content, especially in narrow verticals. But when I can see the world’s worst Forex site has links on over 100 blogrolls, I call it manipulated and unnatural. Poor quality content should not attract links from quality sites in numbers.

5.  Out of the 3000 unique TLD backlinks your site has, 375 of those 3000 TLD’s contain a directory or file named /resources-links.html or links.asp, or /exchange-links.html (I know you must be thinking “surely nobody would do that”, but yes they would). When half your inbounds originate from links pages, that’s unnatural.

6.  Your site has a high number of links, but they all come from just 8 other sites. This one is pretty easy to understand.

7.  82.5 % of your backlinks originate from,, and/or The remaining 17.5% of your links come from

8.  One word: sitewides (or is that two words?)

9.  Your blogspot site about hummingbirds launched a month ago and has already 60,000 links. Caveat: You are Lanny Chambers, hummingbird expert extraordinaire.

10.  Blog networks. No more to say here.

11.  Article networks.  Ditto.

12.  Mass directory submissions outside your vertical.

13.  A site linking to you does not provide an about section, author name, or means of contact.

14.  Blogs with posts of about 400-500 words with 3 links per post, one of them to a .gov site, one to an .edu site, and one to the client site. Easy pickings.

15.  You never used to offer discounts, but now you have student discount links on 50 different University discount program pages. This one is tricky, because the original intent of those discount pages was not to manipulate.

It’s that link builders spotted an opportunity and abused it. When you see a discount link for a GED tutoring program on a University discount page, somebody somewhere is not paying attention.

Remove, Fix, Recover, Repeat…

I believe that some sites, but not all, can recover from unnatural links. There are numerous variables.

A site that’s been around for a decade with 100% natural backlink profile that made a mistake by hiring a shady SEO firm that adds a few hundred unnatural links has a much better chance at recovery than a brand new site that has nothing but spam in its profile. That’s an easy comparison to understand.

Unfortunately, the Web (and links) are all shades of grey, and nobody can predict with certainty the outcome. Your position in the rankings may never return to where it was.  Then again it could, if you have the content to earn it.

If we’ve learned anything with the J.C. Penney and Overstock situations, it’s that Google will forgive, especially for those who are willing to pursue a legitimate content creation and link building strategy.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building | Link Week Column


About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via

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  • Adam Thompson

    I’m not sure I agree with your “honest natural” halibut linking example. That’s a link exchange page (granted they are mostly related sites) on a site that also uses keyword stuffing. With a “link scheme” and keyword stuffing, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google is less than thrilled with that setup.

  • Scott McKirahan

    Nice list and good post!

    As far as the Alaska halibut fishing site that may have seen a spike because of the link you provided in #1 goes, it is likely the most traffic he will see ever to that page. Surely, that is the exact type of page that Google was targeting in its last Panda update (can you possibly stuff more keywords at the top?). I sure would hate to see the bounce rate he is experiencing there at the moment! – LOL

    #2 has been shown to only be an issue if that is the case in 50% or more of the anchor text links coming to the page are exact match for those title and H1 tags, although I agree with the general sentiment here – for the most part, a totally impartial site would likely almost never use exact match anchor text links to link to your page.

    #8 would suggest that even one blogroll link (not a bunch, like is mentioned in #4) could be a very bad thing. They are sitewide links and I have removed mine everywhere that I possibly can now. The jury’s still out one that one; though, I’m not sure the role signature links on forums play now. I would hope that they would still count as one and only one link if the forum they are located on is relevant, but who really knows?

    #13 is an interesting one and something I have never thought about. It is likely that any site that omitted those types of things would not be passing much authority anyway. Unless, of course, it was a government website (have you ever tried to find contact information on one of those?).

  • John Beagle

    16. Your content has been scraped over the past 10+ years so it looks as if you are link spamming, but you’re not. Someone else is.

  • Ian Lockwood

    Great list Eric, thanks. Some ideas about “webspam” identification that are a bit wider than most have been discussing in the wake of Penguin. I think your final point makes measurement/testing of what consitutes linkspam very difficult – the more authority a site has, the less impact “bad” links will have on it. Not only that, but it seems that it is not necessarily a site-wide penalty, but page or keyword dependent, i.e. you can still rank well for some keywords whilst being heavily punished for others.

    Then there is the “is it a penalty or just loss of links” debate!

  • Ray Stein

    Great post, Eric!  I don’t agree 100% though.  I do work for a site that prints posters and a lot of the links they get are from business sites that purchase/receive the posters.  For example, a bar gets posters printed then mentions their printer in the bar’s blog with a link.  Most B2B companies receive links the same way because competitors are probably not going to link to you.  The Limo service you talked about seems completely natural to me too (I am assuming these are high schools).  A major portion of students that attend prom get limo’s so why wouldn’t some schools list some options for students.  I am sure the limo company asked for the link and in return gave a discount to students, but I do not see that as being shady or manipulative. 

    I have a client right now that has quite a few of these unnatural type links., tons of blogs that you can just tell were created to be link farms in disguise and a number of other shortcut links.  I would love to hear how you think it is best to go about cleaning these up. 

    Thanks for the great article!

  • Mikkel DeMib Svendsen

    > If we’ve learned anything with the J.C. Penney and Overstock situations
    We also learned that a bunch of really crappy links CAN indeed bring a site to top rankings and will stay there untill your shady strategy hit the main medias. The algo did not detect it :)

  • Kim Tyrone Agapito

    Or get your website spammed, hacked and violated for irrelevant keywords then later make you rank for top some hard (pun intended) and expensive keyword like “buy viagra”


  • fantomaster

    Well, as you don’t really need me to tell you, for just about every bit of advice you’e listing it’s dead easy to come up with a ton of legitimate exceptions, not to mention a myriad of borderline cases. E.g. “blog networks with three links per article (incl .gov & .edu)” – geez, based on that sort of criteria you can probably rule out about 75% of all links or, for that matter, content on the Web.

    Don’t get me wrong: your article is a pretty substantial and well written overview but in terms of practical advice I’d admonish all inexperienced readers that based on it alone they are very likely to fall into that awful ”a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” trap. Not because you the author lack the apposite knowledge, but because the real rub lies in accurate overall weighting and assessment, which is definitely not beginner’s stuff.

    And as for that inane “natural/unnatural” concept in the first place: how “natural” is it for a site of more than half a year’s life to have absolutely no link at all from some deindexed pages? Not to RSS feed lists? Or from utterly crappy scraper pages? Happens all the time. And yes, you’re right: it’s a question of appropriate ratio etc. Which, unfortunately, isn’t written in stone anywhere and probably differs dramatically from one subsubsubsubniche to another…

  • Jaan Kanellis

    Eric so what about branded keywords as anchor text?  Obviously a majority of your back links and anchor text will contain branded keywords.  Does this trigger the unnatural trigger or because they branded maybe it is identified as such by Google?

  • SilvaDesiree

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  • Jacob Klein

    I see what you’ve done here but I’m not sure we’re looking at the most important part of the question at hand:  ”Is Google actually checking for these things?”  And is it even possible to blanket penalty sites who get links from seemingly unrelated sites?  As an SEO and/or webmaster I’m sure you’ve seen links roll in to your site in from forums and blogs all over the net.  Some are from neighborhoods that make sense and others don’t (such as your halibut link on this SEO article).  Should the halibut site be penalized because someone found a creative way to cite their page in an “off-topic” article?  I just don’t see how a SE could pull the trigger on such a clumsy filter.  

    Sure, as a human being I can go through a link profile and discern which links were most likely “unnaturally” obtained through guest posts or affiliate marketing but does that mean every link in a 500 word article alongside an EDU link should be discounted across the board?  Mechanically?  I just don’t think it can be done through an algo change in a way that doesn’t over-correct on legitimate articles.

    I suppose your overall point is a sound one: try to build links as naturally as you can because SEs are getting more intelligent every day and will eventually be able to make these calls.  But I think there are too many exceptions to your above rules.. hence why Google hadn’t deployed any of them as of yet.

  • Fionn Downhill

    I had a blog tank which had several links from scrapers I did not create one of those links.  Now the same scrapers rank for my content.  What is logical about that As fantom says this is not a simple thing and each site is its own project there is no one golden rule.  There is common sense and staying away from the obvious but what is obvious for one site is not necessarily obvious for another.

  • Daryl Quenet

    Remember Google penalizes people for excessive link exchanges, they say so on their paid links webmaster resource page. I thought it was that website, but I remember at one point a Halibut website with an automated link exchange / link wheel that hundreds of websites in their link exchange (I thought it was this domain).

  • Jenny Halasz

    Ha, a spam link on a link spam article. Or is it a joke?

  • NetSpeak Solutions

    Great post and great comment Ian. Everything points back to the fact that Google truly believes it can eradicate bad links (which really is an unreasonable belief). There are so many subjective “gray” areas in back-linking (as this article clearly shows) that Google would be better served to simply “stop while they’re behind”, stop pissing-off SEO’s and site owners, and focus more on making a better “social search engine” – oh, and one doesn’t depend on herding us all into Google+.

  • NetSpeak Solutions

     Amen! This is exactly what I mean. An algorithm can’t deal accurately at this level. Thus, Google is barking up the wrong trees. I think they are trying to “scare” us into believing they can do anything, but it’s absurd.

  • vicshoup

    you owe me 70 unnatural links

  • Tom Petryshen

    Don’t kid yourself. When you combine the large amount of data collected with the raw computing power and internal data platforms, the level and type of of cross analysis that is possible is extremely granular. The algorithm is just one part of the equation. Today’s “big data” platforms are making the impossible, possible.

  • Graphic & Web Design

    OK, so what if you want to remove all those “unnatural” links pointing back to a site . . . is there an easy way to do it other than to try and contact the owners of those blogs/link directories etc and ask them to remove them? Any alternatives?

    I can’t help but think that those “unnatural” links are going to be really hard to remove as the owners are probably not even reading their mail.

    If that’s the case, is this not a really easy way for competitors to perform negative SEO on their competitor sites?

  • Alan Rabinowitz

    Sounds like if you “believe that some sites, but not all, can recover from unnatural links.” then you agree that its so easy to negative-seo a site into oblivion in Google!

  • Ankit Sharma

    2.  On any interior page of your site, if the title
    tag of the page as well as the page’s main heading text is an exact
    keyword match for multiple anchor text links from other sites pointing
    to that exact page, it’s unnatural.

    Caveat by example: A niche glossary, like this It’s titled as such, and linked to by other sites using the words Birding Glossary. This makes sense. It’s natural.

    How is the above eg natural ?

  • Johndx

    Eric, let us know some of your small business clients so we can show you how easy it is to do a negative seo campaign on them and tank their ranking.

    The shameful thing is that you pure white-hatters are avoiding the obvious: it is evil on the part of Google to penalize sites based on links because it’s easy for a competitor to send them. Most of the links you outlined can be done for less than $100 in a huge scale.

    Start being honest and talk about the real issue: as long as there is negative seo, Google should be branded as evil.

  • Dr Ian Smith

    One of the most thought-provoking articles on the Google updates. Not to mention the varied responses above.
    I cannot get my head around the concept of ‘penalising’ rather than ‘discounting’  such unnatural links. I would never have predicted Google would have done such an action – but my assessment of a few websites would suggest they have indeed done so. Weird!

  • Michael Curtis

    If you sell Titanium Ball Bearings, I would naturally assume these words, as clickable links, ought to appear on your own site. It would be hard for them not to. But if those words appear as a clickable link on 275 blog rolls, something is not kosher. I’d go so far as to say if the words Titanium Ball Bearings appeared on 15 different blog rolls, something is fishy. ”

    What if your company is called ‘Titanium Ball Bearings Inc’ and is hosted on though?

    Actually, I think Google do operate like the way you describe , which is why exact/similar match domains often seem to get away with so much blatant abuse.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    ” 82.5 % of your backlinks originate from,, and/or The remaining 17.5% of your
    links come from”

    Ha! Unfortunately I have come across sites with link portfolios that kind of look like this. While I applaud them for trying, you’re just going to hurt yourself more in the long run,.

  • Eric Ward

    It’s hard to argue with your points.  I will say that my goals with link building are to help people have less reliance on Google search for their traffic by pursuing linking strategies that are not designed solely to improve search rank.  But I don’t think Google is evil.  I just think rank chasing has become such a moving target it’s in any site’s best interests to seek links that can help them regardless of Google.  On the hat color issue, if I am honest, there is no such thing.  I call myself white hat because I avoid what my personal compass feels like deceptive techniques, but the reality is that the moment I request a link from a site, I have technically done something that could be called unnatural, and thus not white hat.  The very act of link seeking can be viewed as an attempt to alter the natural link graph that could/should/might occur on its own.  I am willing to accept that no matter how meritorious the content, the process of actively promoting that content means the link profile that emerges will not be natural.  It’s always been the elephant in the living room.  You can’t call something naturally occuring if you asked them to put it there and they never would have if you hadn’t asked them to.

  • Eric Ward

    Agree on the keywords, but specific to the links on that page, at least he’s kept it halibut specific. :) 

  • Eric Ward

    Finding editorial contact info on a .gov site for a specific page is any link builder’s worst nightmare. I usually end up on the phone. 

  • Eric Ward

    Amen John!  And don’t you just love the sites sites that “report” on an article you’ve written by summarizing it almost verbatim?

  • Eric Ward

    Good point about the limos. I’m not a big fan of the “link cleanup” approach because many of the sites vanish or don’t answer emails.  If a site has been deindexed, then it makes sense to at least make the effort to try, and document that effort so you can show you tried.  My gut tells me it’s better to pursue higher caliber content and pursue merit based links than it is to remove junk that Google may just be ignoring anyway.

  • Eric Ward

    Excellent points and sadly, I do think the web would be a better place if 75% of the content on it went away :)  In the column I used completely made up percentages as a way of illustrating how challenging it is to put a specific number on any signal.  What makes sense for one site’s link profile could be obvious manipulation for another site.  That’s where those generalizations are so dangerous.  I remember participating in a session at a conference where a panelist said to keep your reciprocal links to less than 25% becasue you are likely to trigger a red flag if you go over 25%. I sat there thinking that was the most insane bit of advice I have ever heard, yet people were writing it down. I didn’t want to refute another panelist in front of 500 people, so I just bit my tounge.

  • George Michie

     Such a good thread.  Environmentalists seem to miss the point that human activities are part of nature as well — we’re part of the ecosystem, not separate from it.

    Arguably all of marketing is attempting to get consumers to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, but you can make the case that that is a natural activity of a business.  To me the black hat/white hat distinction is that if the activity is geared towards humans it is a natural marketing activity.  If it’s geared towards machines it is an attempt to game an algorithm.  That’s what Google is constantly trying to thwart.  Differentiating between the two is hard because it is really all about content quality which is hard to measure algorithmically and any signals they look for can be gamed.  Hard problem for Google.

    Effective long term SEO is a product of good marketing presented in ways that people and the bots can find it and get the value.

  • Eric Ward

    That’s a great example of why their can’t be a fixed trigger for anchor text.  When linking to  the Coca Cola web site, wouldn’t it make sense to use the words Coca-Cola rather than carbonated cola flavored beverage?  So then the percentage of exact match anchor text links to the Coca-Cola site using the words Coca-Cola is probably a lot higher than for another not-as-famous brand or product. And that’s natural to me.

  • Eric Ward

    I think we would all be amazed at what Google can detect if they decide they want to detect it.  I think once a signal gets in their cross-hairs, it’s over.  It’s just a matter of triage for them.  What they decide matters, and whether we agree or not, we have to adapt.

  • Eric Ward


  • Eric Ward

    I do believe it is possible to negative SEO a site, yes.  

  • Eric Ward

    It the content is a “Birding Glossary”, then it makes sense that those who link to it may be more likelky to do so using the words “Birding Glossary”, thus creating an exact match.

  • Eric Ward

    Exact match domains that rank with no real content has always baffled me.  It seems like it should be so easy to fix.

  • Ralph Tegtmeier

    It’s only technically easy to fix but less so from a strategic/policy point of view. I mean, what else should a company named “Titanium Ball Bearings Inc”, hosted on, rank for if not “titanium ball bearings”? Let’s not forget that G is still abiding to a large extent by that stupid “when not crawled, let the links tell us what a page is about” policy which, in an adapted manner, applies to keyword domains as well.

    Yes, on site factors (including content) may be on the uprise again now, but let’s not forget that deep crawls are pretty expensive…

  • Jon Wade

    Unnatural is a funny word really when it comes to link. You could argue that every single link that you had some input in getting is unnatural. Whether you created content for a web 2 property, sent an email to ask for a link, shared on a bookmarking site or social media – if you do it, it is “unnatural”, at least in the sense of the first version of PageRank.

    However, I always take the approach that if I am not willing to link to my own site, why should I expect others too? 

    Maybe all SEO is unnatural. But then, the same could be said of marketing in general. It’s a funny old business really. I guess Google is just trying to be like the equivalent of a town planning officer, making sure companies do not erect huge advertising banners all over the place for their business. Let people find your business and tell their friends about it, while you focus on running the core services.

  • Jim Watson

    Great article Eric…

  • George Michie

     Eric, I’d bet it’s also baked into a notion of “brand”.  What’s a better result for a search on “Walmart” than “”?  G needs to make SURE that result trumps all others, so they cook that favoritism into the algo. 

  • Johndx

     Hi Eric,

    I appreciate your response and honesty.

    What I’m saying is that Google has created a “Guilty until proven innocent” system where it’s possible to de-rank any small business with relative ease. I can buy 20 blogrolls on Fiverr for $100 which may be enough to tank many small business websites for their main keywords (which may be what Google wants to drive more business owners to adwords). I can also buy a package of thousands of spammy links for just $5. Will that be enough? I think so.

    All the while, if they are able to de-rank someone due to their links, they should simply devalue them. They can still deindex blog networks and other such crap, but to hurt a site for links pointing to them is immoral and should be stopped.

    I have a moral compass and I won’t do negative seo. I believe that to do so is evil. To allow it to happen is also evil.

    By the way, I also believe that some of the “white-hat” bloggers and seo agencies are lying to their customers/readers because in the age of negative seo, to work for building ranking for any site just got much more risky.

    The fact that these bloggers are not reporting on it is because some of them have a “cosy” relationship with Google on which their business is based on.

  • iboats Boating

    Eric, I’m not sure if I missed this in your 85 types of unnatural links, but in your opening paragraphs you mentioned one of your clients that had 25 outside sites he owned with links pointing back to his main website, and was asking why they would be considered unnatural.

    Are they considered unnatural? And has Google penalized sites in similar situations? I have talked with many “white hat” SEO’s who use this strategy of creating outside blogs that are owned “privately” by them, hosted on completely separate hosting companies, different IP’s, and so forth, and create content that is related to their main website, with about 75% of the links, with varied anchor text, pointing back to their main website, and 25% of the links pointing to other industry related sites. Is this considered unnatural? Or just good SEO.

  • Joshua Dorkin

    The problem is that despite your examples of un-natural links, these links still work.  I constantly find sites that rank for great niche keywords whose link profile is dominated by un-natural links.  Those sites who play by the rules continue to suffer at the hands of those that use these tactics.  

    What’s the answer?

  • Kristjan Hauksson

    My main problem with the concept of “natural/Un-Natural” is that Google must have problems contributing the implementation to the site owner. What if he/she is actually not the one that is responsible? JC Penny admitted to it, but what if it was done by the Walmart team or somebody else? There must be a correlation between the onsite and the offsite, onsite is something that site owners have 100% (I hope) control over and is the signal that should have the focus. In my books links should not be what sites are being punished for (except if they are caught red handed) as the implementation can be done by by somebody else. So putting numbers on signals is something that puts a lot of responsibility on Google’s shoulder. The bottom line is that when it comes to links there is no absolute truth – Good article Eric and even greater way to start talks about a problematic topic. Fantomeister see you in Manchester @SASconference:twitter 

  • Hazzy Paterson

    RE: 11.  Article networks.  Ditto.

    Isn’t there a legitimate reason to submit articles to article networks – to hopefully get eyeballs. And isn’t there a legitmate reason to put a resource box at the end of the article – to get someone to visit your site.

    The net is, after all, a marketing medium and if every time we create content with a resource we are creating an “unnatural link” then Google is punishing basic online marketing.

    I know that blog networks have been de-indexed. Have article directories? Is this really an “unnatural link”

  • grace viado

    This is a helpful wake-up call for link builders who effortlessly garner so much link in a day in an unnatural way. We should resolve to doing it legitimately so there’ll be more quality. But, quality and quantity can work best. If these two are combined, I think the much wanted result will come by. Thank you for sharing this wake-up call in building links unnaturally.

  • Susan Dolan

    Defo any spinned articles – they are just the worst SEO idea ever.


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