Over the past couple years, Google updates and penalties have cleaned up the search results. The impact has been positive for consumers, but for many webmasters it has, quite honestly, been brutal. Google continues to hold a monopoly over the search industry, though according to the FTC, it is a legal monopoly.
To protect the integrity of its search results, and its competitive advantage, Google’s algorithms are kept under lock and key. Algorithmic updates are rarely announced ahead of time (though they have given us the courtesy of warning that a major Penguin update is coming this year). Webmasters rarely have any useful details on how the next update will play out, and seldom do they get direct answers on how to recover in the aftermath. Is it possible to recover?
Yes, it is. We’ve seen this 10 step process work for many clients who were hit by updates. I shouldn’t have to tell you that there’s more than one way to accomplish just about anything in SEO, but we highly recommend, at minimum, taking inspiration from this guide if any of your clients have taken a hit.
Step #1 – Dig Into the Data
It’s important to get a handle on exactly what’s going on before you take any real action. You need to determine whether the drop in traffic is actually the result of an update or penalty, what kind of penalty you’re dealing with, and fully understand how it’s impacted your site.
Google Webmaster Tools
Start here. If your site was manually penalized, you will receive a message in webmaster tools. There are almost no exceptions to this. To clarify some of the lingo, this is the only situation that Google actually refers to as a “penalty.” If your site takes an algorithmic hit, you won’t necessarily receive a message, and while it certainly feels like a penalty, Google disagrees.
It’s also a good idea to export your link data to a spreadsheet periodically. That way, if you see a sudden drop in the number of links that Google is reporting, you know that they have been removed from your link profile.
Next you’ll need to pull up Google Analytics and determine where the loss of traffic is occurring. Are you seeing a drop in traffic across your entire site, or are you only seeing it on specific pages? Are all of your keywords affected, or are you only being hit for specific keywords? Understand that not every penalty or update hits your site the same way, and the way you were hit is going to affect which response is optimal.
Check Your Rank Tracker
A rank tracking service such the one provided by SEOmoz is also very useful to have when you’ve been hit by a penalty or update. You’ll be able to see exactly when your rankings dropped, how far, and which keywords took a hit.
This is also a good way to identify whether the drop in traffic was the result of a genuine penalty, or merely increased competition. If you only dropped a few spots, there’s a very good chance that a competitor pulled ahead of you, and no penalty or update is responsible. If, on the other hand, you see a drop of several pages, you can be fairly sure a penalty is to blame.
Check Your Competitors
If you only saw a small drop in rankings, you can’t be sure whether the change was the result of an update or merely increased competition. Take a look at your competition using a service like ahrefs, even if you have to use the small number of limited free queries to do it. You’ll be able to compare the growth of your competitors’ link profiles against your own. If you see an increase in the number of links to your competitors, it’s more likely that increased competition was responsible.
If you see a gradual but dramatic loss in traffic, this may or may not be a penalty. Google is now releasing Panda updates gradually, and gradually devaluing links across the web, so the impact of an update isn’t necessarily swift anymore. However, this kind of drop in traffic can also be caused by increased competition or simply a loss of interest in your keywords.
After checking whether your rankings have indeed dropped, you’ll also want to check Google Trends to see if there has been a loss of interest in your keywords, and especially your brand name. A decrease in searches for your brand name and your exact match keywords can send a signal to Google that there has been a loss of interest in your website. This can negatively impact your rankings.
Please understand, of course, that if your rankings haven’t dropped, it’s never a penalty. Don’t confuse a loss of interest with a penalty, but understand that a loss of interest can trigger a penalty (or more accurately, an algorithmic demotion).
Step #2 – Identify the Cause of the Penalty
Now you need to identify what caused the penalty in the first place. This is where the vast majority of clients, and even consultants, will go wrong. By failing to identify the true cause of the penalty, you can waste resources correcting things that don’t need to be corrected, and possibly even do more harm than good in the process.
Check the SEO Community for Updates
If the drop in traffic was swift, and it’s easy to identify which day it occurred on, the best way to identify the cause of the penalty is to check with the SEO community to find out what is happening. If you were hit in 2012, check our infographic of Google Updates to identify which update was responsible.
Google has said they will no longer confirm Panda updates due to Panda Everflux. However, you can check with SEO forums to see if other people are being affected and what seems to be causing the penalty. You can also check MozCast to find out if there were dramatic shifts in rankings on that day.
Identify the Patterns of the Penalty
Now that updates can hit you gradually due to Panda Everflux and gradual link devaluation, it’s not always possible to find out which algorithm is responsible simply based on the date you were hit. In this case, data analysis is the only way to find out.
It’s important to understand that there are two primary ways an update can hit you. Either you can be directly penalized, or you can see a drop in rankings because sites that linked to you were penalized. What most consultants and clients fail to realize is that the vast majority of “penalized” sites were indirectly hit.
I’m not aware of any official Google announcement to that effect, but our experience tells us that the vast majority of our affected clients saw a loss in traffic because sites that linked to them were penalized. Links from those sites are devalued or effectively “no-followed” by Google’s algorithm.
Sites that are directly hit by Penguin are either publishing spam links on their sites, or are identified as building spam links toward their sites. In this case, the offensive links are actually counting against you.
Sites that are indirectly hit by Penguin received links from sites that have been directly hit. These links don’t count against you, they merely lose their value.
Sites that are directly hit by Panda are publishing content that Google interprets as low quality, in that it fails to meet its intended purpose for users (or lacks such a purpose).
Most Panda affected sites are indirectly impacted by Panda. They have links from sites that were directly hit by Panda, and those links lost their value. It’s worth noting, however, that Panda updates are much more likely to hit you directly than Penguin updates are, even though most Panda victims are still indirect victims.
It’s important to understand the difference between direct and indirect penalties because the best response you should take is very different.
How can you tell the difference? A directly penalty is typically more obvious and has a more artificial pattern to it. A direct Penguin penalty, or similar “spam link” penalty, is especially obvious. These types of penalties typically take you almost entirely out of the search results, and impact your entire site.
Direct Panda-style penalties are less obvious, but still have a very artificial feel to them. Your entire site is likely to take a hit, and pages that were especially low quality will take a larger hit.
The effect of the more common indirect penalty is more subtle. You may see drops in rankings across your entire site, but these have the look of a decrease in domain authority, rather than the look of an artificial penalty laid over top your site.
There are two types of pages that will be hit hardest by indirect penalties. Pages that received most of their links from spam sites or low quality content will lose the value of those links, and see a drop as a result. Pages that had no links and were ranking because of your domain authority may also see a drop if enough of your inbound links have been devalued.
An indirect penalty shouldn’t have as dramatic an impact on pages that have high quality inbound links, especially ones that were completely natural.
An indirect penalty of any kind can resemble a direct Panda penalty as far as rankings go. The best way to tell the difference is to look at the pages that were hit hardest. If the pages that were hit hardest had low quality inbound links, an indirect penalty of some kind is probably responsible. If the pages that were hit hardest had low quality on page content, then you most likely took a direct hit from Panda.
If your site takes a direct hit, you will likely need to respond to both on site and off site factors. A direct hit from Penguin or a spam link penalty means you need to remove as many of the offensive links as possible. The on site links are easy, but off site links can be more difficult to remove.
A direct hit from Panda doesn’t require any off site action in the immediate future. Focus on removing low quality content, duplicate content, and content that isn’t designed to meet a purpose for users.
A word of caution. If your site took a direct hit, there is a good chance that Google has algorithmically decided that it simply doesn’t like your business model. This is not what webmasters want to hear, but pretending otherwise is counterproductive. If you don’t make serious changes to the way you do business, there is a good chance you will never recover. In addition, if you took a direct hit, you may want to seriously consider starting an entirely new domain with entirely new content. Not good news, of course, but true nonetheless.
Sites that were indirectly hit should focus most of their efforts on off site changes. You should almost certainly shift toward attracting natural links, building influential relationships, and focusing all manual link building efforts on high impact strategies. (All of this is true for sites that have been directly hit, of course, but it takes second priority to removing the offensive material.)
You may want to start making an effort to remove low quality inbound links, and using the disavow links tool, but tread lightly. We’ve mentioned before that you should be very careful with the disavow tool, and the same logic goes for trying to remove low quality inbound links.
In most cases, you shouldn’t bother removing inbound links unless you received a notification in Webmaster Tools, or you took a direct hit from Penguin, or a similar spam link penalty.
Step #3 – Learn All You Can About the Update or Penalty Responsible
Once you’re fairly sure you know what type of penalty you’re dealing with, you’ll want to educate yourself about it. We’re providing some resources worth taking a look at in the list below. Most consultants should already be aware of this, but many webmasters may find the information useful:
- Search Engine Land’s original post on Panda (which was called “Farmer” during some of the early confusion)
- The Wikipedia entry, which explains how Panda was created and what it targets
- Search Engine Land on the exact match domain update, which reduces ranking boosts associated with domain names that target keywords
- Our coverage of how link devaluation works (some of which we’ve already covered here)
Step #4 – Find Case Studies
Don’t work in the dark or take advice at face value. Look for concrete examples of sites that were hit with the same penalty you were, and what they did in order to recover. Here are a few examples.
- The Holy Grail of Panda Recovery on SEJ. Here a consultant reveals how he helped a client recover from Panda with even higher traffic levels than before they were hit.
- Google Penguin Recovery Case Study on Linkbuildr. This is an example of recovery from Penguin almost entirely by building new links, rather than removing old ones.
- Thankful For Penguin Recoveries During Panda Updates on SEJ. This is an example where inbound link removal did cause a recovery from Penguin. The client’s link profile was in very bad shape, which is when it is worth (carefully) removing inbound links. The consultant did just about everything perfectly, although we may not have bothered with the reconsideration request (more on this later).
- Recovering From an Over Optimization Penalty on SEOmoz. Originally identified in the post as a Penguin penalty, this was actually an over-optimization penalty, in which the removal of off-site over-optimized links can lift the penalty.
- Penalty Lifted: How to Use Google’s Disavow Tool Case Study on Cyrus Shepard’s blog. This is an example of recovery from a penalty where the webmaster was notified in Webmaster Tools. In this case, you always want to respond by making an effort to (carefully) remove the bad inbound links, and using the disavow tool to (carefully) remove the rest of the bad links.
Step #5 – Put Together an Action Plan
We won’t say much here, since the plan depends so much on the type of penalty you’re dealing with. Suffice it to say, you’ll want to have a solid idea of what your next steps are, and why you’re taking each step, before you take any action. Set measurable productivity goals, and measure the impact of your efforts. Impacts won’t always be immediate, especially with periodic updates, like Penguin.
Step #6 – Boost Efficiency With Tools
If your site has taken a direct hit for offensive inbound links, it can take a serious amount of effort to remove them, since you don’t control the sites in question. Google explicitly advises against going straight to the disavow links tool, and wants to see that you have made an effort to remove links first.
To do this efficiently, you’ll need tools. Use Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, or ahrefs to find the offensive links if you don’t already have a record of them. Then use one of the following tools to get your bad links removed:
But remember, we can’t stress this enough: this is only if you have been directly penalized for inbound links. Indirect penalties cannot cause links to negatively impact your site, they are simply caused by a loss of link value. We keep reiterating this because most of the affected webmasters who contact us have been penalized indirectly.
Step #7 – Submit a Reconsideration Request?
Google has explicitly stated that you should only file a reconsideration request if you have been manually penalized. So if you haven’t received a message in webmaster tools, you should not submit a reconsideration request. If you do, you will get the same message every time: “no manual spam actions found.”
If you have received a message in Webmaster Tools saying that you have been penalized, you should submit a reconsideration request. Wait until after you have taken as many actions as possible to fix the issues that would have violated Google’s webmaster guidelines. The purpose of the reconsideration request is to make your case that you have corrected any issues that would have caused a violation of the guidelines, so make sure everything is in place, and be completely honest, when you submit your request.
Try to avoid sending multiple reconsiderations if you can. If something new comes up, feel free to send an update, but don’t send multiple copies of the same letter and “spam” the reconsideration request, since these are read by human beings.
Put yourself in Google’s situation, and try to imagine what would convince them that you have made significant changes to prevent this from happening again. Show evidence and details of the efforts you have made to eliminate offensive links and other actions that violate the guidelines. If the actions were taken by an SEO consultant who deceived you or took risks you were unaware of, be specific about this.
Be completely honest and open in your reconsideration request. If you try and misrepresent things or pass the blame, you only hurt your chances of a favorable result.
If you have also used the disavow tool, be sure to mention this in your request. Again, make sure that you can prove you’ve made every effort to fix the problem before using the disavow tool.
Remember, if you receive notification of a penalty in Webmaster Tools, it means that a human being has reviewed your site and decided that it needed to be penalized. You should never talk about your site as though it was dinged by an algorithm when you submit your reconsideration request.
In short, be honest, helpful, and polite when you submit your reconsideration request.
Step #8 – Switch Toward Quality Tactics
No matter why you were hit by a penalty, it almost always comes down to quality in one form or another. We have discussed at length how to build links and win SEO in the modern era:
One thing I keep finding myself repeating: if you wouldn’t build this link if it were no-followed, you probably shouldn’t build it. Aim for links that will draw traffic and attract additional natural links.
Step #9 – Consult Professionals
This advice is meant mostly for webmasters, but it’s good advice for consultants too! No matter who you are, if you can speak with somebody who knows more about a subject than you do, it’s well worth the money and certainly worth the time to do it. Penalty recovery is an opaque process, and you should take trustworthy information wherever you can get it.
We’re not just saying this to promote ourselves! If you take the wrong steps you can really end up shooting yourself in the foot, or wasting resources taking actions that aren’t necessary. This is especially true if you have a business to run. Talk to somebody with some hands on experience. We’d like it to be us, but it doesn’t have to be!
Step #10 – Monitor the Results
If you’re dealing with a periodic update, like Penguin, the penalty won’t be removed until the next update. If you are going on the offensive by building engaging content and natural links, however, you can see positive results even before the next update goes live. Be patient. Recovery rarely happens over night.
We hope this has been an informative guide and that you’ve learned some things. Remember the difference between direct and indirect penalties, as well as between manual and algorithmic ones. Focus most of your energy on future-proofing your business with high impact strategies. Chase quality, not quantity, and build an SEO strategy that is guaranteed to succeed even in the absence of great rankings.
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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