Rank Theory #10

Back to your regularly scheduled SEO bullshit...

ANYWAYZIES…

Welcome to issue #10 of the Rank Theory newsletter.

That’s right, I’m playing the newsletter game on hard mode alienating subscribers by leaning into my bullshit.

How’s YOUR week going?

In This Weeks Newsletter

A reader question

The holy grail of affiliate sites

An important PSA

Reader Question

Question:

Question for you regarding <website that I picked up from auction that is redacted>. I’m looking at 2 options currently.

1)  It still ranks for 150+ keywords, I’m tempted to simply do a wayback restore and then redirect it to my site in a few weeks (possibly annoying the good people of the real <organization it used to be>).

2)  Build out a <related niche> site with fresh content, cherry pick some low difficulty keywords around these topics and get it to rank for that - then redirect a bit further down the line.

Which should I do, or is there a third option I haven’t thought of?

Answer

So I actually got two questions similar to this. It’s a popular topic! Basically,

I bought this expensive-ass expired domain, now wtf do I do with it?

Ok.

I’ve talked about this before. My most direct experience with this (though I have quite a few) is that I bought a domain with a ton of relevant links ranking for many keywords.

I spent many and many of dollars upon this domain name.

The people asking this question have as well, I assure you.

As such, I never risk losing a domain name over stolen content.

Content is easy. It’s so cheap and plentiful, like the ocean. Full of plastic micro beads and toxic, killing millions of fish per year…

No wait, lost the thread.

Just put some new content up, it doesn’t have to be magical.

However, you just paid out the ass for this asset, and now you want to be super stingy with the budget on content, literally the thing that will give this new domain all of its future value?

(I’m not accusing you, dear question asker(s) of this, for the record. Just framing a way of thinking that you work against).

I am super hesitant, personally, to put old content on valuable expired domains.

In this situation what I would do is:

Put up 10 new blog posts, soon as I can. Some of them would target keywords I’d like to rank for eventually, some would just be relevant filler that wasn’t bad but doesn’t have to be 3,000 word killers. Others would target the pages still ranking for keywords that I would like to prop up with a live page.

I’d look at the top 5 pages by links in Ahrefs (Ahrefs, sponsor me!) and find the ones with the MOST INCOMING LINKS and then publish something on that URL. Specifically something that I could internal link the other pages to. Pass that link juice along, awww yiss.

Finally, I’d take a handful of the next-most powerful pages by links (specifically those that makes ZERO sense to rebuild, like if it was a page for a conference from 2017) and just redirect that to the blog, passing out link juice to the site like

Whether you 301 it to your main site in the future or not will probably be a function of how good the brand/domain itself is, and how well the site ranks for old and new content alike.

For me, the brand has to be A+ tier, and the site has to start ranking on the first three pages for some longtail keywords.

That site’s a keeper.

The Affiliate Site Holy Grail

…is to not be an affiliate site.

You know something sucks when you just want the better version of it.

Caterpillars? Sucks

Butterflies? Amazing

Or the reverse—

Chickens? Sucks

Dinosaurs? Amazing

So it is with affiliate sites.

Now look, I’m skipping over a lot of nuance here. I found a ton of success myself by building a selling affiliate sites. It is absolutely a legit business model, and I don’t disparage or look down on anyone doing affiliate site stuff (which, for the record, I still do as well).

The point of this is that you have to think beyond the affiliate site model.

Why?

Because when your site is …ring-ring

ring-ring…

Hang on. Let me just take this call real quick.

ring-ring…

Hello?

It’s for you. It’s Google’s algorithm and it’s calling from INSIDE THE HOUSE.

Google’s algorithm is wearing a scream mask and hiding behind the couch with a very long knife while you eat popcorn and get high, watching Rick and Morty.

It’s going to murder the shit out of your affiliate site, eventually.

The solution?

Turn it into a brand.

Before they inexplicably put it behind a paywall, how many of you have ever searched for a product review like “best vacuum Wirecutter?”

That’s money in the bank.

Or like “<literally any keyword> + reddit.”

sure, ok, I’ll just turn my affiliate site into Reddit, real quick…

That’s not the point.

The point is: what can you do to turn something that’s a commodity into a unique brand?

Here’s the answer: I don’t know. But it’s something I’m gonna be thinking a lot about over the next few months. I’m sure I’ll write about it again. Do you have thoughts about this? Email me. I’ll repackage them and share them with the newsletter as my own and take all the sweet sweet credit (unless you want it, happy to give you a shout out).

A Sexy Example:

This is something I stumbled across this morning. Now, it’s not the exact same thing—this is not an affiliate site that transitioned to a brand, but it’s mind blowing.

Teachers Pay Teachers is a lesson plan site where teachers create lesson plans and sell them to other teachers.

Look at the top Keywords they rank for in Ahrefs (Ahrefs, sponsor this newsletter!):

Over a million brand name (version) searches.

That’s impressive as hell. That’s being able to do the moonwalk in middle school (there was always that one kid who could).

Anyway, I think that’s the biggest single metric (besides dollar bills in yo pocket) to measure the success of your efforts. How many people are searching for your BRAND each month (assuming you didn’t name your site the exact match KW)?

Let’s take this journey together in future editions…

Remember Kids

Say PIZZA to drugs.

Say NO to yes.

~

That’s it for this week.

Did you love it? Send me electronic words letting me know.

xo

Sean

A Quick Follow Up to #9

So you're doing this SEO bit.

It gets away from you and people start reaching out to make sure you're ok...

I want to take a second to assure everyone reading this and everyone who reached out that I'm fine. Things came off sounding a bit darker than I intended when trying to do some kind of commentary on newsletter expectations and the endlessness of SEO. I did not mean to worry anyone, and I would never joke about something so serious as depression or suicide.

If you are struggling there is help! Visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call

800-273-8255 24/7.

Thanks for reading my dumb newsletter. Back to regularly scheduled SEO bullshit next week.

Rank Theory #9

this is why we can't have nice things

Let’s say you’ve got this newsletter.

Every week you sit down and write on the same topic. SEO: a zero-sum game, and here you are, teaching the enemy how to beat you.

So you convince yourself you’re playing a longer game. Someday a big publication will invite you onto the team to publish to a grand audience. Or maybe there’ll be a lucrative Director of SEO gig somewhere down the line just because someone loves what you write about each week.

You’re lying to yourself, but no one knows you better than YOU, so it is easy to keep the lie going.

You’re not just shouting at the void each week, no. You’re helping real people—delivering real value! Just enough truth to make it convincing. Just enough humor in the telling to make the poison taste good going down.

It won’t pay off in the short term, you tell yourself. There’s a lot of work in building an audience and earning trust, but you’re going to put in that work, you’re convinced, because the payoff is going to be amazing.

You’ve got to track algorithm updates, take them apart like a body on the autopsy table, putting the vital organs in embalming fluid to preserve and use to teach. Look at how they all fit together inside a body. Look at the intricacies of the capillaries, the specialized function each individual one provides to the whole.

Diving deep into a keyword or a niche, telling everyone “do this not that,” showing the raw tactics laid bare. You’re giving it all away just to build some credibility and trust—but this air of authority is just a sleight of hand where you distract with pretty words and a clever turn of phrase. The buildings on this street are just facades, a face with painted on lips that, up close, makes one wonder how they were ever fooled into thinking it was anything else. You have the same lack of vision as everybody else. You’re an imposter, but you hide it well.

It happens over time.

Build a persona that sounds real, a point of view that’s relatable or catchy. “The cynical guy,” the “self-hating SEO.” Share the newsletter with friends and friends of friends.

It happens over time, people come to trust you and rely on your advice. Under your recommendations their sites move like celestial bodies, from protostars to main-sequence stars, the elements fusing together in a spinning core, heavy metals forming and bending space around them with a weight that becomes gravity for high rankings, which drift in steady orbit like satellites.

Your audience grows over months of hard work. What began as a way to give back to the community that helped you when you were young and wild-eyed, dreaming of something more than the 9-to-5 grind became a way to distinguish yourself in a very crowded space. You shared the kind of SEO tactics no one was talking about, marrying a love of building websites and domain names with a reckless creativity. If you killed a site, you learned something that helped nurture the next one.

But the board changes beneath your pieces, becoming a different game entirely. The energetic thrill of discovering a new tactic is now just a repetitive motion like hands on an assembly line. You do SEO experiments just to say you did, so you can write about them to an audience of strangers. The Darwinian tests begin to eat their own tails. The currency of your life becomes numbers on a graph. Two steps forward, three back. Subscribe. Unsubscribe.

There are only so many different ways to say the same thing, but you push on because the dopamine hit when someone shares your newsletter on Twitter is the only flash of color in the increasingly grey palettes of your work life. The statue you built of yourself becomes your actual self; the myth you perpetuate becomes the reality of you until you no longer remember who you really are and what you set out to accomplish.

And for what payoff? A prisoner tied to a pillar but the prisoner built the pillar, braided the rope, and tied the knots himself. You walk around in circles, wearing a path in the land that you walk and walk and walk.

Anyway, here’s this weeks newsletter:

(that’s it for this week! See y’all next Friday :) )

Rank Theory #8

The world wide web's most SEO newsletter

Hello!

Welcome to another edition of the world wide web’s most SEO newsletter.

How’s things?

I’m good. I tried to get this thing finished before I had to leave for an appointment midday. As this is now going out after 5pm, that clearly didn’t happen.

I’ll try not to schedule any more appointments for midday Friday, as I need hour upon hour to write this DIGITAL GOLD for your smiling faces and hungry eyes.

At least it pays well…

This Week’s Newsletter

Affiliate sites are dead, long live affiliate sites

The Philosophy of “Paying for Potential”

The NYTimes puts Baby in the Corner

Affiliate Sites Are Dead. Long Live Affiliate Sites

Okay, this one is a little out there. I was digging into Telehealth.org, which announced a rebrand from TBHI to Telehealth.org.

However… they have always been located on Telehealth.org, they just used to be known as the Telebehavioral Health Institute, or TBHI.

But they redesigned the site and made a new logo, according to this press release. Aside from what I’m about to talk about, this seems like a really confusing rebrand “We’re going to call ourselves Telehealth.org, which is the URL our business has always been on. But we don’t want to confuse people, so we should interchangeably also refer to ourselves as TBHI on the homepage of the site.”

It’s kind of a mess.

When I first read the press release I was like “oh, this site is moving from their old TBHI domain to this slick new .org” but no! They are just calling themselves something different than used to. Sometimes. On their website… if they feel like it.

Okay, so why am I telling you about this?

I was going to throw this story right out of the newsletter, because it’s not actually a study in a big company rebranding from one domain to another, which I thought would be interesting and informative.

Instead, I found something else when looking at the keywords this site ranks for.

So, Telehealth.org, according to their homepage, focuses on evidence-based telehealth training, credentialing, consulting, and staffing.

They’ve got a bunch of products in their course catalog. They don’t have enough traffic to show up on similar web (Ahrefs shows about 2k visits/mo, so probably 50%-100% above that is their actual organic traffic).

CLEARLY they’re main business is selling these telehealth courses, and they’ve earned hella links (DR 64) by specializing in this niche.

But they’ve also published a “review blog” onto their site for products that relate to “telehealth conferences” and it isn’t doing that bad! Despite how it really feels just stapled on to the site. They are ranking in the top 10 for terms like:

  • best pulse oximeter

  • best microphone for zoom

  • bluetooth speaker with microphone

  • conferencing speaker phone

  • best light therapy lamps

Alongside terms like:

  • telemedicine cpt codes

  • hipaa password policy

  • hipaa security risk assessment template

I’m not trying to throw shade--opposite! I love how they have a relevant-to-their-niche affiliate blog alongside their main product offering.

They for sure could benefit from an expert affiliate marketer punching up their content, and would definitely benefit from some deep SEO work, but it’s working for them!

Here’s how the content looks--typical AMZ review copy:

It’s not the 2,000 word behemoth you typically see on purely affiliate sites.

I don’t know, it was just surprising, like, god damn, everything is an affiliate site now we’ve jumped the shark for real.

But also, this feels like a rare “natural use-case for affiliate recommendations.”

Weird.

So what can you take away from this? Lots, but here’s a few. I’LL JUST DO THE WORK FOR YOU, YOU’RE WELCOME.

  1. About page has just one person listed (a doctor, though), and you can talk about E-A-T on-page all day, but it was never just about that. Look at their link profile. THAT is the E-A-T Google cares about. Always has been.

  2. The site is a DR 64 with a ton of health-related authority, but they are not getting much organic traffic because the site is a bit unfocused. It’s a telehealth course site with a blog that talks about HIPAA compliance and also recommends telehealth conference equipment. Just amazing to see the potential of a site like this just begging for some SEO work.

  3. Your bluetooth speaker affiliate site or your standing desk review site doesn’t stand a chance, over the long term. Build yourself a brand.

  4. Multiple revenue streams FTW

The Philosophy of Paying for Potential

I should make this a blog post so Matt Diggity or Ahrefs can put me in a future SEO round-up--that’s definitely the only thing holding me back from being featured...

You see a lot of sites for sale on places like Flippa talking about “this turnkey site in an amazing 60 billion dollar a year industry, tons of potential!” And that is clearly bullshit. I don’t have to tell you the difference between buying a “dropshipping CBD site” for $299 is so far away owning a profitable site in the CBD space that if it was a physical distance Voyager 1 wouldn’t reach it for another fucking thousand years.

But there is a specific case to be made for buying sites on “future potential” rather some multiple of earnings. It’s one I’ve done several times now, and that is acquiring sites for the future SEO potential.

For example:

Earlier this year I paid low/mid five figures for a site that was making zero monies.

The brand/domain wasn’t super special.

The content was a bit of a mess.

On paper, not worth the money.

But as an acquisition for a big project I was working on, it was an authority and relevancy BOMB, and had been active and publishing fresh content for 5-7 years, which in the niche I was working in, represented an actual long time.

So, because I had a plan, and a very specific use case, it made it a worthwhile acquisition, even though it is not the kind of acquisition you bring back to your Mastermind Group like “look at what an amazing genius I am.”

I did the same thing a month ago, bought a site for high four figures that was making $0, but had the relevancy and age I wanted--plus a bunch of content.

So, no, your investors wouldn’t be happy with a purchase like this (probably? I’ve never had investors, I just assume they are unreasonable and strict). But if you know what you’re doing, and you absolutely need a site with authority, relevancy, age, and maybe some content to roll into a project you’re working on, buying a site for “potential” is one way to go--and something that has worked super well for me several times now.

What do I look for when buying a site based on “potential” only?

What KIND of keywords is it ranking for (info, buying, both?) and how many long tail keywords does it rank for?

What is the general KD (ahrefs) of these keywords, and how have the rankings moved (looking at the individual historical rankings of a KW in ahrefs, like this):

^ that’s a good sign

Just like buying an expired domain, what’s the backlink profile like? Looking for a good mix of general high authority + super niche relevant links.

How long has this site been live?

That last one is a big one. You can’t fake age, but you can rip its head off suck the juices out (metaphorically speaking… your site can, by 301’ing it). I love to 301 an old af site if it ticks all the other boxes.

Anyway, that’s what I tell myself when I’m lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling like fuck, did I really spend $25k on a site that makes zero dollars? What’s wrong with me? Do I feel, deep down, that I’m not WORTHY of success? Is this some perverse self-sabotage to make sure I’m always struggling because I identify as someone who struggles and I’m terrified of the therapeutic work involved to embrace this part of myself like a child, unconditionally loved and say it’s okay it’s all right you deserve success and then we go out for ice cream, me and my inner self and I’m like HEY MONEY BAGS, SPENDING $25K ON A GODDAMNED SITE THAT MAKES $0 YOU’RE PAYING FOR THIS ICE CREAM STOP WASTING MONEY.

And then we ride the shame spiral into restorative, peaceful sleep.

NYTimes Puts Baby in the Corner

News came out the other day that the New York Times was going to limit access to The Wirecutter to 10 articles per month for non-subscribers.

Immediately, everyone wants to know WTF ARE THEY DOING and WHAT ARE THE SEO IMPLICATIONS OF THIS? You can picture every affiliate marketer like “I hope Google flushes their rankings down the toilet like yesterday’s taco salad,” even though that probably won’t happen.

I’m going to share with you three opinions of three people smarter than me, and their reaction to this news. The first two are really smart SEOs, and the third is someone that writes a B2B media-focused newsletter and covers stories in this space all the time.

Matthew Howells-Barby, Co-founder of Traffic Think Tank:

I find this a crazy decision. There’s only two reasons I can think of as to why they did this:

  1. The revenue they’re generating from affiliate has diminished to a point where subscription revenue would yield a better return (I’m skeptical of this).

  2. It was an internal decision focused on brand alignment and delivering more value to existing users to drive retention.

Easy to criticize from the outside, but … I just can’t see how this makes sense in my head?

Ian Howells, Co-founder of Traffic Think Tank:

They may also be ‘running out’ of high value stuff… they published ‘the best instant noodles’ recently… feels like scraping the bottom of the barrel now.

Jacob Donnelly, A Media Operator:

To entice people to remain subscribers, the Times might be looking for various add ons that appear to be valuable, but are actually a rather low risk for the company. Again, if only 60 people out of 1,000 are hitting the paywall, it's more than monetizing Wirecutter from an affiliate perspective. Any lost revenue because that 6% bounce can be thought of as a marketing cost.

If we look at it, it's a very simple strategy. Wirecutter is not giving up its affiliate business. The vast majority of people are likely never going to hit 10 articles a month. Therefore, the paywall doesn't exist for them. Bring on those sweet, sweet Amazon affiliate checks.

(BTW, A Media Operator is one of the few newsletters I read every edition of. Recommend subscribing if you are interested in similar topics. Like with Traffic Think Tank, I’ve been a paying subscriber of A Media Operator since it launched).

~

All right, kids.

That’s it for these week’s newsletter.

Reader questions return next time.

Have a good one, and be sure to ride this positive energy into the weekend like

✌️

Sean
sem@hey.com

Rank Theory #7

Hey,

It’s another edition of I’ve got 99 problems already WHY DID GOOGLE DEINDEX MY ENTIRE SITE, the newsletter.

Y’all still reading this thing?

Hmm. That’s unexpected. Okay… guess I’ll still dance at the end of my strings and produce this newsletter. How did I get here? Who am I and where am I going. WHAT DO YOU PEOPLE WANT FROM ME

Keep it light, Markey, people just want to read some SEO stuff and go about their day.

Okay, small talk. Banter.

Hey, how’s the weather?

Floods in the northeast you say? Tornadoes in New Jersey? The gulf coast devastated by unprecedented storms strengthening to catastrophic levels in the blink of an eye. On fire out west or blanketed by the smoke that lays heavy on the land, choking everything in its—

—God damn, the weather. I’m trying to keep it light.

Well, up here in Vermont, fall is in the air! Temps in the 60s, brisk October-feeling breeze blowing the early-turning leaves off the trees. My favorite time of year.

A time of winding down, of reflecting on the previous 8 months and making peace with a year that’s entering its final act.

Also? PUMPKIN SPICE, BITCH.

Haha. Pumpkin Spice Ranch Dressing!

Talk about a visceral reaction.

I’m pretty sure that picture’s fake, but here’s an actual recipe from Hidden Valley called “Pumpkin Spice Empanadas” if you hate yourself or want to suffer to help clear your mind…

Wow. Okay, no more banter.

This Week’s Newsletter

Reader Questions

Random Site Deindexation For No Reason

Miscellaneous Buttons

Breaking News

Reader Questions

Question 1:

My friend bought a site that has thousands of pages that is just HTML and not running on a CMS. The site has been getting about 300,000 page views per month recently and he'd like to add display ads, affiliate links, and be able to customize everything on WordPress instead of HTML.

The web dev question: What is the best way to convert a site from HTML to Wordpress? I did some googling and didn't find any tools that do this automatically. I ran into some services that will do it but it cost thousands of dollars. Do you know of anything?

The SEO question: let's say that the above problem is solved in the site is now on Wordpress. What are the implications of doing this on the site's rankings?

Answer 1:

Because I’m a shit developer, I asked Kris Roadruck, a WP dev I’ve worked with on several different projects to weigh in.

Kris:

Without knowing the specifics of your site there are basically 3 ways to tackle this:

Option one - Create a new WordPress theme based off the look of your existing site, and then work on migrating all of the content into WordPress on a page by page basis manually.

Option two - Depending on how complex the site is you may be able to use a premade plugin like HTML Import 2, or write a script to parse the files and automate parts of the content importation into MySQL (the database WordPress uses to store it's content). 

Alternatively - You could always hire a company to do this for you (they may use the first or second option or some combination thereof). The price will probably scale with the size and complexity of the job. 

The unfortunate TL;DR for a large site is it is likely going to involve either a lot of someone's time, or a lot of money for someone's expertise - maybe both.

Kris has been involved in tech for 20 years and marketing for just over a decade. He runs a small marketing agency that provides technical SEO and fractional WordPress development services for affiliate marketers and B2B SaaS companies in the US and Canada. You can catch him on twitter @krisroadruck

SEO response (me):

I have limited experience changing a site from something with .htm or something at the end to… not that.

The one time I’ve done it, the site didn’t do so hot, but could be because it was not updated and not really active for a while. Ahrefs still hasn’t recognized the URL structure update, but I think Google has.

I know this isn’t very helpful, but my best advice here is:

Make sure each and every page is 301’d to from the old URL structure to the new one, and make sure to submit the updated sitemap to Google.

Question 2:

If you redirect an expired domain, do you do that also in the search console? Would you redirect only the articles even when the root domain has nice links?

Answer 2:

I have used SC *once* when redirecting a domain. It was a site doing 100k visits/mo and I thought it was worth doing it “the right way” and not the Markey Special: half-assed and just enough to get it done.

The result was a disaster. I’m not sure exactly why—I had a friend or two really smart with technical SEO look at it, and no one could figure anything out. I ended up rolling back the 301 and everything worked out, luckily.

I usually just use a redirect plugin and make sure each page gets redirected to another page. It has served me BETTER THAN FINE for a couple years now.

You can try the SC method if you want, but in my personal extensive experience, that’s overkill (and in my case, was a terrible experience).

As for the root domain: I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t like to redirect root domain >> root domain. It gets confusing with anchor text and such. Much better to 301 it to a page like /blog or /about, or a blog post that explains the rebrand. I try and redirect the pages 1:1, so url1.com/post-1 >> url2.com/post-1, etc., for every URL.

Google’s Totally Cool Random Site DeIndexer

So I have a friend that is very good at SEO email me his site URL.

“Can you look at this and let me know if there’s any reason this site would have been deindexed?”

Oh shit.

I looked and… the site was FINE. The links built were not inherently toxic. The content was solid. The site’s performance in the SERPs was very established and steady:

There as literally NO REASON it should have been completely deindexed (instead of, say, banished to page 10 or something. Stupid algorithmic penalties happen but this wholesale slaughter?) damn…

No manual penalties

No search console messages

Just carnage

Just the random, brutal destruction of a site that has existed for several years and done quite well to answer reader queries and recommend products.

Calls to mind this passage from Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe:

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

Rankings, come back again!

I’ll let you know how it shakes out. The site owner has bought an alternate domain and redirect the whole thing. Upon doing this the site was IMMEDIATELY indexed, but has yet to rank for much of anything.

Thanks, Google.

Miscellaneous Buttons

I didn’t have a lot to say this week, but I still want to deliver the usual amount of bullshit you’re used to, so please enjoy these random buttons:

Order some snacks

Read my death fiction magazine

Treat yourself to a new fancy pen

Check out my favorite band of the moment

Start a SaaS company about Butts

That’s it.

Hope you found at least one of those buttons useful!

😅😅 filler.

Breaking News

Adult Swim just released this live action Rick and Morty clip with Doc Fucking Brown aka Christopher Lloyd. I don’t know what it is, but omg

~

That’s it for this week!

Thanks for subscribing. If you have ANY SEO questions, please shoot me an email and I’ll answer them in a future edition of this newsletter.

Quick post-email favor: if you’d just fwd this email to one SEO Influencer with 50k+ twitter followers and tell them to share with their whole audience, that’d be great.

Until next week,

Sean
sem@hey.com

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