As I’m sure you’re well aware, Penguin is an algorithm that was introduced by Google to fight spam on the web. We can debate night and day over whether everybody who gets hit by it deserves it, but at the end of the day, it makes little difference. Getting hit by Penguin is no laughing matter. It jeopardizes careers and entire businesses. We’re here to prevent that from happening, and to repair the damage for those who come to us after going through it.

In November of 2012, CBAC Funding reached out to us. Their goal? To revolutionize their link building strategy with high quality links, and to grow their business. As we discussed their situation and where they wanted to take things, we soon learned that their site had been hit by Penguin just a few short months prior.

We could scarcely blame them. For those who first learn about SEO, there is no shortage of “gurus” claiming that spam is the way to make it, and a terrifying abundance of SEO “professionals” who hide what they are doing from their clients.

Before reaching out to us, they had already successfully removed 3 or 4 hundred spammy links. We also confirmed with them that they had never received an “unnatural links” notice from Google. But when it comes to Google penalties, it’s important never to move forward without being sure you’re making the right moves.

To cross verify, we asked CBAC Funding to file a reconsideration request to determine if there had been a manual spam action. (This was before Google notified webmasters directly if they had been manually penalized.) The response was unambiguous and should be familiar to anybody who’s been in this business as long as us: “no manual spam action found.”

Now things were clear. CBAC was suffering from a Penguin demotion.

As we continued our analysis, we discovered that the majority of the links pointing to CBAC were spam. They had been misled and abused by former SEO “professionals.” A common problem. We put together a detailed recommendation and advised them on how best to move forward.

Here were a few of the things we found (as you’ll see later, not all of these were detrimental):

  • The whole website was being run on HTTPS instead of HTTP. HTTPS is typically intended for pages where payments and personal information are being collected. It indicates that the page has an SSL certificate. HTTPS doesn’t inherently damage SEO, but the encryption process does put extra load on the servers. This can effect loading times, which ultimately can hurt rankings. This is an increasingly common problem as more people use mobile devices, which have slower connections. However, it’s not mission critical by any means.
  • We found a large number of nofollow links from blog comments. This wouldn’t be bad, except that the comments had sloppy text, and the links contained exact match anchor text. The fact that these links were nofollowed wasn’t enough to make them “safe.” A huge number of links with exact match anchor text signals creates an obvious footprint, nofollow or not. This taints the entire link profile and makes it more likely to be flagged.
  • The majority of their followed links contained exact match anchor text. It didn’t matter where the links were coming from. The sheer quantity of links containing exact match anchor text is a dead giveaway that the links were created artificially. Since the anchor text wasn’t branded, it was also clear that these links were created by their previous SEO only to influence search results.
  • We identified several paid listings in directories. These paid listings weren’t nofollowed, though they were clearly labeled as sponsored listings. While this is, unfortunately, a fairly common practice, it’s a clear “no-no” in Google’s terms of service, and it likely played a role in the Penguin demotion.
  • We found several links from free directories. Directories themselves aren’t necessarily a bad place to get links, but when they make up a large portion of your link profile, and they aren’t the kind of directories that people actually use to find things, they start to become risky. Around the time that Penguin hit the landscape, Google had banned and penalized multiple directory websites that contained spam or junk links. These were undoubtedly playing a part.
  • A large portion of the links were coming from article directories. Using article directories alone isn’t enough to get you penalized, but we’ve never found them to be a source of useful SEO value. The links that they had obtained from these directories were almost entirely exact match. The sheer quantity of links from article directories combined with this fact was undoubtedly sending a red flag to Google.
  • While CBAC had put in quite a bit of effort to remove low quality links, there were still quite a few links left behind that we felt should have been removed. In particular, a massive proportion of the links were coming from blog comments. Again, the links were exact match. The comments were clearly, automated. We saw links coming from Japanese blogs, and containing English content. The data trail was overwhelming. We couldn’t help but wonder what the previous SEO had been thinking, and how they slept at night knowing what they were doing to their client.
  • Finally, we found several links coming from pages and sites that weren’t even tangentially related to the subject of their website. This isn’t always bad, but it’s only justifiable if the audience is huge. In this case, it was quite clear that these irrelevant links were coming from sites that were not sending traffic at all, let alone relevant traffic. This sends a surefire signal to Google, and places your site at great risk.

Upon discovering all of this, we contacted CBAC Funding to let them know what we had found. While they had already removed a great deal of backlinks, we felt it was imperative to remove the remaining spam links. It had only taken a few hours for us to find the issues in question, and we felt it would be extremely risky to move forward leaving a single spammy link in place.

With no “word of God” notification from Google, it would be impossible to determine if the penalty had been lifted. If promotional activities in the future failed, we would never be able to determine if it were Penguin working against us, or if it was simply the result of inferior strategy.

This is the nature of algorithmic demotions.

With all of this in mind, we approached CBAC Funding with two alternative visions for the road forward.

Option 1

We would completely link detox the site. Our primary focus would be on removing low quality, unnatural, and spammy links to the home page. To avoid creating unnecessary work, we wouldn’t bother removing links to the internal pages. Instead, we would 404 those pages and effectively disavow them.

We felt this would be an acceptable risk. It wouldn’t be worth it to leave a single low quality or unnatural link behind, especially those that contained exact match anchor text.

This might sound drastic, but it wasn’t based in conjecture. We were speaking from experience. Our previous attempts at recovery told a recurring story. Our interactions with other SEOs on Quora, SEOmoz, and various other sites led to the exact same conclusion. We have spoken with plenty of people who have had reconsideration requests denied 4 or 5 times even after removing a large portion of their links.

In an algorithmic penalty, you don’t have the virtue of seeing a denied reconsideration request. You can only move forward, hoping that you have removed enough spammy links for the algorithm to take your future promotional efforts seriously. We only felt comfortable doing this if we removed every last spammy link. The alternative was to waste countless resources trying to recover a site that would never recover.

Option 2

From a pure SEO perspective, we felt that a second option would be ideal: do a hard reboot. We would set up a brand new website with a clean, effective, powerful promotional strategy. We recognized that CBAC Funding would need to think long and hard about this one, but we had a few concerns with option 1:

  • The sheer number of backlinks that would need to be removed was horrendous. We were concerned that a large number of them could never be removed, and that our disavow file would be so enormous that Google wouldn’t take it seriously. Many of the links were coming from sites that no longer had active webmasters.
  • Until the website was recovered, we couldn’t guarantee any positive movement in keyword rankings.

Our main concern was that we would end up wasting our client’s time. We consider our client’s assets, and we felt that the site in its current form was a liability. This is why we spend so much time digging through the data before arriving at a conclusion regarding how to move forward.

We felt that we could move directly into promotion sooner and get more done if we started with a clean slate. There’s nothing we fear more than getting paid without showing results.

Their Response

CBAC Funding first responded by telling us that they were committed to keeping the site on HTTPS for non-SEO, perfectly understandable reasons. Being a B2B business, and targetting highly educated, tech-savvy individuals, they felt that the site-wide security would send signals of trust to their audience. That trust would inevitably help their rankings, and in the meantime it would do a lot to bolster consumer confidence. We completely agreed with their assessment, and wouldn’t challenge a word of it.

For branding reasons, CBAC Funding decided to turn down option 2. They clearly understood the SEO benefits, but they ultimately felt it would be better to remove the obvious spam links, and get started on a high quality SEO strategy.

“I know it may take years to get the site organically OK with Google. I don’t mind waiting. I’m building a brand, not just a lead generation site. There are many other avenues besides Google that are important and need to be taken into account for the business rather than Google.”

They went on to say that it was far more important for them to get featured in newspapers, magazines, and websites than to show up in Google. This is the kind of thing we love to hear, because it’s the mindset that is actually most conducive to long term success in the search engines.

Now we knew for sure that these guys were the real deal. We were excited to get to work with them.

Ultimately, we decided to divide our efforts. CBAC Funding would take care of removing and editing links wherever possible. In the meantime, we at E2M Solutions would get started on a promotional strategy. We would start building high quality links, and do everything in our power to get them featured on industry leading platforms for their niche.

The Plan

Now that we knew our ultimate goals, we defined our strategy, a piece by piece plan that would ensure high quality links and successful brand building activity. Here is how we broke it down:

  • We would use comprehensive market research to better understand opportunities in their niche
  • Identify and fix any crawling and indexing issues
  • Optimize their on-site SEO
  • Identify the respected blogs in their industry and start guest blogging for traffic, brand impressions, and reputable links
  • Reach out to top tier blogs that don’t publicly request guest authors as part of an effort to gain a competitive advantage over mediocre SEOs and web marketers
  • Promote CBAC Funding through the best Small and Medium Business Platforms on the web
  • Get started with content marketing like mad with various media, including:

◦     PDFs

◦     Slide Presentations

◦     Whitepapers

◦     Video Marketing

◦     Infographics

◦     Press Releases

◦     Case Studies

  • We would develop an integrated social media marketing strategy that would include:

◦     All relevant platforms on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+

◦     Any noteworthy social networks for the financial and capital funding industries

  • Take part heavily in discussions on Q&A sites like Quora, forums, and others

In addition to this promotional strategy, we provided CBAC Funding with a list of low quality and over-optimized links that we felt should be removed.

As soon as the client approved of our strategy, we got right to work. We began building high quality links, putting the focus on branded anchor text. In the meantime, CBAC Funding got to work on removing as many low quality links as possible.

Within the first few months, we were able to get them featured on popular sites in their industry, including these and others:

With a steady, decent flow of traffic coming to the website, we felt it was time to advance things. We’ve mentioned several times before that tools and communities rule the web. (Just take a look at the Moz top 500 if you don’t buy it.) We advised CBAC to take this to heart, and to start putting up some tools on their site.

They loved the idea, and we collaborated to put together a total of 14 calculator tools for businesses. You can find them here.

Tools are fantastic for outreach and wonderful when it comes to attracting natural backlinks.

At the same time, we advised them to get started on another kind of linkable asset: infographics. Together, we built 3 awesome infographics that you can find here.

Together with the calculators, these picked up quite a bit of attention and helped solidify CBAC Funding as a legitimate brand. Things were picking up as we started collecting natural links and a steady stream of traffic.

By July 2013, our strategy had fully paid off. After 8 months of hard (but enjoyable) work, resulting in 80 high quality links, we successfully restored CBAC to its pre-Penguin traffic levels.

(Yes, you read that right. Eighty links is all it takes, if you’re getting links from the right sources, and you’re focused just as much on building referral traffic and brand reputation as on search rankings.)

While we have fully recovered CBAC Funding to its previous traffic levels, we’re not done yet. We have continued to seek out new traffic and growth opportunities since July, and we won’t stop until they are king of their niche.

And really, why stop there?

The Takeaways

So, what can you learn from this case study?

  • Define a strong strategy – You’ll notice we put a great deal of effort into defining our approach before getting started. We presented the client with two comprehensive plans, and incorporated feedback from the client to develop a detailed, but not excessively granular, game plan. This makes our goals clear, while leaving us open to changes, and allowing us to set micro-goals as they become more relevant.
  • Remove as many spammy links as possible – When you’re dealing with an algorithmic, link-based penalty, it’s impossible to know whether links are counting against you, or if the links have merely been devalued. If an algorithmic penalty has been applied, you will never receive a notice from Google informing you that it has been removed. The safest option is to remove as many spammy links as possible in order to ensure that promotional efforts don’t go to waste.
  • Redefine your anchor text strategy – Exact match anchor text isn’t really a positive signal anymore. It’s far more important to focus on building high quality links from authoritative sites relevant to your niche.
  • Patience is a virtue – Long term success with SEO requires long term investment. This recovery took 8 months (though certainly not the “years” that CBAC Funding was willing to wait). If you try to win overnight, you will either dig yourself into a deeper hole with spammy SEO, or you will risk blowing your whole budget on one high-risk stunt that may or may not work.
  • Build linkable assets – Linkable assets are a relatively fast but reliable way to build links. Tools and resources can and often do earn completely natural links, and outreach becomes exponentially easier.
  • Grow your referral traffic – Other than the obvious fact that it’s not good to rely on Google alone for your traffic, referrals generate all kinds of positive signals that Google can pick up on. These “legitimize” your site and allow it to pass through various Google filters.
  • Augment your link building strategy every month – While our link building efforts are founded on basic principles, and we continue to rely on mainstays (like guest posting), we update our link building strategy each month. It’s important to experiment and use different approaches if you want to earn the hard links. Likewise, you should reevaluate your link building strategy based on where you are in the SEO cycle. Any particular strategy ultimately faces diminishing returns. You need to “move up a level” every once in a while in order to keep showing meaningful results.
  • Focus on top-tier links, rather than the number of links – As we said, it only took about 80 links for us to recover CBAC Funding to it’s previous traffic levels, even though the previous SEO had overwhelmed them with thousands upon thousands of links. This was only ten links per month. Hopefully you can imagine the quality of links we were going after to justify moving at that pace. More importantly, these links are resilient. They will never count against our client, and they can be expected to help our client’s rankings for as Google uses links as a ranking factor.

What’s Your Take?

So that’s how we recovered CBAC Funding from the actions of their previous SEO. Have any of you recovered a website from Penguin? We’d love to hear your thoughts on our strategy, and what you might have done differently.

As always, feel free to get in touch with us if you need help recovering a website, or if you need help with any aspect of your promotional strategy. Thanks for reading, and good luck.

  • Manish Dudharejia is the Founder & CEO of E2M Solutions, a full service digital agency specialized in Website Design & Development, eCommerce, SEO, Content Marketing, and Copywriting.