About four months ago, a man named Isaac approached us with a problem. His site had fallen victim to the one of the most gut-wrenching experiences a webmaster can face in the world of SEO: an unnatural link penalty. In fact, it turns out, he was dealing with more than one. Four months later, we’ve helped Isaac eliminate the penalties, and his site is on its way to recovery.
Here is the story of how that happened.
Isaac was a victim of the opportunistic side of SEO, the “thought leaders” who trained him to believe that SEO wasn’t a marketing strategy, just an easy way to circumvent exposure through rankings in Google. Like many clients who approach us, we can’t blame Isaac for this mindset, especially since it all started three years ago, when this was arguably the majority SEO view.
It all started with a site called ThunderFap.com. ThunderFap was Isaac’s place to capitalize on what seems to be a universal consumer desire: the desire for free stuff. The plan was simple: link to legitimate companies offering free giveaways, and monetize with ads. For exposure, he would get the site in the public eye with overzealous link building, because as far as he and most people with a passing knowledge of SEO knew, that was how you did things.
Things went sour rather quickly as Panda and Penguin reared their ugly heads, dashing ThunderFap against the rocks, and sinking it for good. He fell from the top 3 for his target keyword down to the third and fourth pages. And so he moved on.
He relocated to FreeSamples.org, changed his link building mindset, and redirected his traffic. Within two months the site rocketed its way to the top for its target keyword. It held steady in the top two positions for 6 months. Things were looking great.
Then it happened.
About five months ago, FreeSamples took a hit. Isaac was notified that his site had been manually penalized for unnatural links. Isaac was surprised, to say the least. In the wake of Penguin and Panda, he had switched to link building through guest posts. He learned the hard way that Google doesn’t always consider this practice “white hat.”
Then, a day before contacting us, FreeSamples took yet another hit. His old site, ThunderFap, picked up an unnatural inbound link penalty of its own, and FreeSamples fell even further in the SERPs.
Isaac discovered us, what we do, and asked if there was anything we could do to help him. He expressed a desire to “move forward in a completely white hat way,” and we were happy for the opportunity to help.
Isaac was, however, very cautious. His site was sitting in a very precarious position. It was still bringing in six figures, but it was on the verge of losing all its traffic.
Identifying the Problem
We knew that we wouldn’t be able to get to the bottom of the issue until we took a look at Isaac’s backlink profiles firsthand. We weren’t about to ask him to pay us just for the initial consultation, so we asked for his account info and took a look at his links in Webmaster Tools.
We immediately recognized red flags in the link profile for ThunderFap, his old site. Most notably, several of the sites were sending site-wide, exact match anchor text links. We had no doubt that, coupled with the redirect, these links were threatening his new site.
Isaac was a bit concerned about record keeping, understanding the important fact that manual penalties are only removed after a human being decides that you have taken the actions required to lift the penalty. We clarified that we keep meticulous records of where we request the removal of links, and when we are successful. We share those records in a public Google Doc when we file the reconsideration request.
Isaac was satisfied with what we had to offer, and asked to be signed up.
The very first thing we asked Isaac to do was remove the redirection from ThunderFap to FreeSamples. We were sure that the unnatural link penalty pointed at ThunderFap was being carried over to FreeSamples, and we wanted to prevent this from hindering our progress. Isaac was understandably concerned, for several reasons:
- Why clean up ThunderFap’s links if we were going to remove the redirect?
- ThunderFap had been running for 6 years and had built up a considerable number of links, and was still sending a great deal of referral traffic
- FreeSamples was bringing in 6 figure revenue, and he was worried that cutting the redirect and other actions might ruin his existing rankings and his income
Needless to say, we had some explaining to do:
- Our original plan was to recover both sites, and to reinstate the redirect after ThunderFap recovered. In the meantime, ThunderFap was just hindering the rankings on his new site.
- We had no desire to cut referral traffic. We would identify the links that were sending referrals, and if they were paid or spammy, we would replace them with nofollow links to retain the traffic but eliminate the appearance of SEO manipulation.
- We were 100 percent confident that the redirect from ThunderFap to FreeSamples was harmful, not beneficial, the way things currently were.
At first, Isaac was hesitant to remove the redirect. We can completely understand this. When revenue is at stake it’s hard to think dispassionately, and fears of loss can make us invisible of the risks we are taking. (We’ve discussed this phenomenon of loss aversion before, and touched on how you can take advantage of it in marketing.)
Unfortunately, very soon after we got started, Isaac noticed that his site had lost rankings for its primary keyword.
It’s very likely that there was a delay between the time that Thunderfap was penalized, and the time that the penalty was transferred to the new site. These kinds of unexpected delays are very commonplace for anybody who’s spent time dealing with the nature of Google’s algorithm.
He immediately realized the need to move quickly, and eliminated the redirect from his old site to the new one, replacing it instead with a nofollow link.
At this time, we decided to submit a reconsideration request explaining the situation:
Google’s response to the request came back in a week. The response will be familiar to almost anybody who’s dealt with penalties. Our request had been denied. They said there were still artificial links pointing at the new site. Being an unusual situation, we had jumped the gun a bit, and failed to show reasonable efforts.
But we weren’t done yet.
On July 16, three and a half weeks after removing the redirect, FreeSamples.org rebounded. As should be expected, we weren’t back up to original performance, but traffic had taken an indisputable turn upward.
This wasn’t over. The manual penalty was still on the account. FreeSamples.org was still penalized for inbound links.
We now had hard evidence that removing the redirect was the right move. The old site was doing nothing but hinder the growth of the new site. We were headed in the right direction.
The Nitty Gritty
It was time to dive in and eliminate the unnatural links pointing to FreeSamples.org. We used every tool we could:
- Google Webmaster Tools
- Majestic SEO
- Open Site Explorer
- Link Research Tools
The most important issue: once again, site-wide links. These are the bane of modern SEO. Even innocent sites can take a hit from these if they don’t have strong link profiles. Three sites were responsible. We started with these.
In the meantime, we filtered and removed duplicate links that weren’t adding any value. Then we submitted another reconsideration request. This time, we hit pay dirt:
That is excellent news indeed and just what I’ve been hoping to hear! Thanks so much for all your efforts in this.
Anyways thanks so much and I’m sure we’ll be working together for a long time to come.
Needless to say, this is only the beginning for the rebirth of FreeSamples.org. Eliminating the bad is, as always, only half the battle. As we put together a content strategy and hammer out more effective UI and UX issues, we can expect to see long term growth and success.
What You Can Learn
This isn’t the first or last time we’ve helped a site recover. Before we go, we’d like to review some important concepts and takeaways that you can use to recover your own site.
There’s More Than One Kind Of Penalty
At Search Engine Journal, we discussed in depth some important misconceptions surrounding algorithmic updates and the disavow links tool. A few things have changed since then, but you can use it to understand some of the basic kinds of penalties that are out there. Here are a few things you absolutely need to know:
- Today, Google flat out tells you if you have been manually penalized. Unless you have received a message saying just that, you are dealing with something algorithmic, like Panda or Penguin.
- If you have been manually penalized, Google will now tell you what kind of penalty you are dealing with. Here is Google’s list of manual actions.
- Regardless of how you were penalized, removing negatives is not enough. You must improve your site and your SEO in order to achieve the same rankings you once did.
Why did it happen?
If you misunderstand the kind of penalty you are dealing with, there is a very good chance that you will end up doing more harm than good with your actions. Here are a few ways to go about doing that.
- As we said, Google now tells you if you are dealing with a manual penalty, and will tell you what kind. We discussed in great depth how to recover from manual penalties just recently.
- With algorithmic penalties, it’s more difficult to identify what needs to be done, and it takes in depth data analysis using Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics, at bare minimum. Rank trackers, statistical software packages, and related tools are also recommended.
- It is important to uncover whether your site is actually being penalized, or if specific ranking factors have been devalued. These are not the same thing. If, for example, inbound links have been devalued, they do not hurt your rankings, and eliminating them will not help recover rankings. That said, if you have been manually penalized, even when links don’t count against you, it is wise to get the penalty removed, to stay in Google’s good graces.
- Algorithmic “penalties” aren’t really penalties at all. Instead, algorithm updates cause certain kinds of sites to stop ranking as well as they used to, or, equivalently, they cause certain other kinds of sites to rank better than they used to. You must understand the essentials of how that algorithm works and make changes to your site so that it no longer falls within that category if you want to see an improvement in your rankings. In other words, recovery from an algorithmic penalty is in many ways much more like “regular” SEO than penalty recovery.
- The most important aspect of this is identifying whether any ranking factors are working against you. This is the primary goal of asking “why” questions after a penalty. If factors are working against you, a great deal of SEO work could be pointless if a penalty prevents any of it from helping. If you have merely lost the power of your ranking factors, link trimming and so on will at best do nothing at all, and only positive actions can help you recover.
Building an Action Plan
It’s a very bad idea to go into this without a plan. While I don’t believe these kinds of efforts can or should be planned out in granular detail down to the letter, I do believe that you need a strategy in place. We’ve developed our own ten step recovery program (which this very guide is loosely based on) and you are free to start with it in your own efforts:
- Dig into the data
- Identify the cause
- Immerse yourself in data about the penalty/update
- Seek out case studies and concrete examples
- Build an action plan (getting a bit meta in here, isn’t it?)
- Take advantage of tools
- Submit a reconsideration request (maybe)
- Embrace quality tactics
- Consult with a professional
- Monitor the results
Take Advantage of Tools
If your penalty involves links, you’re going to want a link tracker. We highly recommend:
- Google webmaster tools (the only “official” record of your inbound links)
- Majestic SEO
- Link Research Tools
And these link tracking tools can also be very helpful:
- Open Site Explorer
In addition, you’re going to want to use a link removal tool if removing links is part of your recovery plan. This is pretty much a must to keep resources in check:
The Top Linking Sites in Webmaster Tools Are Priority One
Assuming (again) that the penalty is link-based, and that the links are actually counting against you, the top priority links are the ones coming from the sites that link to you the most. This is where your inbound site-wide links are coming from, and in most cases, this is where the bulk of the problem lies.
While messages from Google have been a bit mixed, the overall message seems to be that if you only remove links found within Webmaster tools, this should be enough to get the penalty lifted. Of course, it may be easier to convince Google that you have changed your ways if you go above and beyond.
You shouldn’t necessarily remove all site-wide links, but any site-wide links that have targeted anchor text are probably going to be viewed with suspicion. Remove as many of those as you can. Among the “legitimate” site-wide links, try to get them replaced with front-page or contextual links where possible. Site-wide links don’t offer any SEO value over front page links, and are often counterproductive.
Keep in mind that Google doesn’t need you to remove all of the bad links. Instead, Google wants to see that you have made a good-faith effort to remove as many of the negative links as possible. After doing that, you can use the disavow tool to get rid of the remaining offensive links.
The Reconsideration Request
With algorithmic penalties, it is no longer possible to submit a reconsideration request. This is a good thing, because such reconsideration requests were always a waste of time. This reiterates the importance of understanding the difference. Getting a manual penalty lifted is about convincing a human being that you have changed your approach to SEO and that you do not intend to manipulate search results. Beating an algorithmic “penalty” is really just about understanding how the search engine now works after the update, and building a comprehensive marketing strategy around that understanding.
Please keep in mind that Google does not take simple or half-hearted reconsideration requests seriously. You must make an effort to demonstrate that things have changed and that this won’t happen again. Here are some of the things we recommend doing in order to make that happen:
- Start from the beginning and explain how your site was penalized
- Explain the reason why the infringing actions were taken, and be honest. Do not point the blame elsewhere. Take personal responsibility and explain the changes you have made to prevent this from happening again.
- Generally speaking, you will want to make at least three efforts to get a bad link removed before resorting to the disavow links tool. It may be worth providing an example of emails between you and one of the linkers who refused to remove the link.
- Prepare a spreadsheet and share it in a public Google Doc. The spreadsheet should list every link that you successfully removed, and every link that you tried to remove but had to resort to the disavow tool for.
- Please remember that the disavow tool is a last resort. It’s a good idea to include a reason why you couldn’t remove these links manually within your spreadsheet. For more on this, here’s what we had to say about the tool when it was first released.
Don’t Just Wait Around
It generally takes about a week for Google to respond to your reconsideration request. Don’t waste this time waiting around and biting your nails hoping for a positive response. Use this time to promote your site ethically:
- Start producing epic content that offers unique value
- Start working on UI and UX that will differentiate you from the competition
- Start building relationships with influential people on the web
- Seek out ways to bring in long term, massive referral traffic
- Spread brand awareness through ebooks, videos, images, and original research
Doing all of this will pump your SEO far above that of your peers, and it will virtually ensure that even if your reconsideration request gets shot down the first time around, you will have massive ammo to get it removed the second time around.
If your request does get denied the first time around, pump up your positive SEO, and repeat the steps outlined above.
Remember, patience is a virtue. Using SEO to build a business is a long game. You need to be thinking not just about how the algorithm works today, but about how it will work in the future. Build marketing strategies that are conducive to SEO but justifiable in their own right. This is the only way to secure a future online.
Hopefully you’ve learned something new from this case study, or at least reminded yourselves of some important principles. If you’ve got your own example to share, we’d love to hear it. If you have any questions about all of this, please reach out to us, and if you need help with a recovery of your own, we’re always here to help, just like we did for Isaac. Thanks so much for reading.