How we helped a prominent retailer recover from a Google penalty
In April 2012, Google rolled out one of its biggest algorithmic updates in web history. Known as Google Penguin, this web spam fighting update hit the majority of websites where it hurts: their rankings. Almost one year on, many websites haven’t been able to recuperate – and some do not even realise that they have been hit at all.
Here at Receptional, we are one of very few agencies that not only managed to re-include a client in the search results, but also achieved a full recovery.
94% of websites still haven’t recovered
Barry Schwartz, the CEO of Rusty Brick and the Executive Editor of Search Engine Roundtable conducted a survey in May 2012, asking his readers how they had been affected by the Google Penguin Update, which was straight after Google confirmed that they had indeed released a new algorithmic update after weeks of speculation The results showed that 65% of the 1,000 polled had been negatively affected by Penguin.
At the beginning of this year, he carried out another survey against those initially polled to calculate how many people had recovered since the first, second and third updates from Penguin. The results showed that 94% of Google Penguin victims had not fully recovered.
Receptional achieve a full Penguin recovery for a client
Unlike many brands, websites and professionals that have claimed partial recovery, Receptional managed to obtain a full recovery, which according to Barry Schwartz’s report has been a tall order for the majority of websites.
As we near the one year anniversary of Penguin, we would like to share with you how we managed to get our client back into the search results as well as the overthrowing the penalty entirely.
Objectives and strategy
Two days after we took on a new client, their website was hit by a link-based penalty after receiving an “unnatural link” warning message in Google’s Web Master Tools. Their website traffic plummeted by 62%.
Rankings for traffic driving keywords as well as their brand name had dropped by as many as 50 places in the search engine results. This was a potential financial worry for a UK retailer that receives around 70% of their total annual searches from their brand name.
After investigation, we discovered that this drop in traffic was not only due to the manual link penalty against ‘link spam’, but it was also due to a search algorithmic penalty, later confirmed as Penguin, by Google’s head of Search Spam, Matt Cutts, on the 24 April 2012.
Figure 1 Screen shot taken from Google Analytics showing drop in traffic for our client due to two link based penalties.
Our team decided on two main objectives:
1. Create alternative traffic sources to replace lost revenue
2. To recover from the penalties as quickly as possible, regaining lost positions in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
The initial plan was:
1. Our PPC team aimed to recover the lost brand traffic through a dedicated “brand only” campaign.
2. To build a new website on a fresh domain and rank this for our key traffic driving terms using “white hat” link building techniques. Traffic was then referred to the old domain through clear calls to action
3. To investigate the existing site’s backlink profile as well as any on page issues to determine the exact nature of the penalty.
With these criteria established, the team began to investigate our client’s link profile against Google quality guidelines to ensure that best practice was employed throughout.
Receptional began a backlink review to uncover where the set of penalized links originated. Utilising data provided from Majestic SEO, and their experience of identifying penalties, they discovered that the brand had become part of a targeted negative SEO attack upon a partner site that was directly linked to our client. This particular attack planted hidden links within the style language that defines HTML (CSS) on a handful of websites, and used very specific anchor text that a search engine spider would categorise as spam.
We made contact with the relevant webmasters, who removed these links. We then submitted a re-inclusion request to Google, which was shortly denied. This forced the team to analyse less obvious areas in the backlink profile to determine the nature of the penalty or if there was another penalty at play here.
This is where we discovered the second penalty
We found a group of sites that hosted paid links. After further investigation we found that other websites suffering from slipped rankings had been linked to from this group of sites using the exact same terms. However, the targeted websites were not suffering a penalty on their brand name like our client, so we concluded that there must be two penalties at work here. Speculation within the industry pointed to an algorithmic penalty, Penguin- confirming our underlying suspicions – which hit in conjunction with the distribution of a manual link spam penalty.
Adapting the strategy in line with this new Google update
Google’s main objective with this algorithmic update was to improve the quality of its search results. Websites with an unnatural back link profile – often due to black hat techniques – were penalised with lower rankings.
In adherence with Google’s emphasis on quality, the team decided that a “back to basics approach” – one involving a manual review and categorisation of all backlinks – was needed to attain a clean recovery. 30,000 links later, I’m sure even the purest white hat SEO would consider the dark side!
Created a unique process for link removal pre Disavow tool
Reviewing 30,000 links manually may seem unnecessary when software can check your backlink profile for you. But in this circumstance, manually reviewing where all of your links are coming from allows for greater control and filtering. The team wanted the second re-inclusion request to succeed, so they invented their own link categorisation process.This included:
- A manual review of 30,000+ backlinks
- Dealing with blackmail: webmasters attempted to cash in on the removal of malicious links, requesting fees to take them down.
- Uncooperative and non-communicable webmasters
Compiling a second, thorough re-inclusion request
A second re-inclusion request was uploaded to Google along with a covering letter meticulously documenting everything along the lines of:
- All links found – categorised by type and given a quality rating
- All links for removal – including emails and responses, contact times and Webmaster contact details
- All links they had managed to remove
- A list of links we couldn’t remove so we asked Google to please ignore these links
- A list of paid banners and links that Webmasters refused to mark up as “no follow”
Unfortunately, this request was rejected. The team decided that there must be a threshold of removed links must be surpassed for re-inclusion to be granted; therefore the removal of further links became nearly impossible due to lack of co-operation from third party websites and because the majority of low quality web spam links are out of a webmaster’s control.
At this time, many webmasters were taking to the forums highlighting the unfairness of the penalty.
Aware of these inconsistencies, Matt Cutts announced in July 2012 that Google would be launching a disavow tool as part of its Webmaster Tools suite.
Google releases the Disavow tool
As soon as the tool became available, the off page team immediately a list of links at both domain level (domain:sample.com) and link level, they also used the # symbol to add comments. The team concluded that the disavow.txt file worked in the same way as a robots.txt, and that it was really just a list of domains/links. You could ask a search engine crawler to ignore the SEO effect (positive or negative) just as if the links pointing to your domain didn’t exist.
The team allowed six weeks for Google to re-crawl all of the links in the file submitted to the disavow links tool page. Almost to the day, a message was received informing them that the manual (brand) penalty had been revoked.
Use the Disavow tool wisely
The release of the disavow tool did not negate the entire backlink profiling carried out by the team; the tool gave back the control of the minute percentage of troublesome inbound links to webmasters.
Google cannot algorithmically tackle link spam, so a thorough backlink audit with the isolation of bad links should be your first point of call. Use the disavow tool with caution: if you abuse the tool and simply ask Google to disavow all of your incoming links you could potentially undo a great many years of hard work – worse still, you could damage your site in the process.
Studies have actually shown that if you simply disavow everything or a large percentage of your links, your website may not return to its original position. This is why it is always best to ask an expert to review your backlinks. Overlooking the importance of a link from an authoritative source can have an irreproachable effect on Pagerank.
Our client was re-included in the Search results!
Our efforts gave our client’s website a clean bill of health and the search term that directed the most traffic (their brand name) was no longer being penalised.
Before the release of the disavow tool, it was the team’s strategy that laid strong foundations for improving the back link profile. Their bespoke, manual reviewing process, not only led them to identify what sort of penalties were at play, but allowed them to see the variety of backlinks that the website had.
Unfortunately, the majority of these were link spam from bad sources, so when these links were eventually removed, they were able to advise and implement better link building strategies for their client.
Both penalties were lifted. Our client not only started to appear in the search results again, but there has also been a 48% increase in their organic traffic, surpassing its original position before the link based penalties were imposed.
Figure 2 Google Analytics image showing increased organic search traffic to our client’s website.
Stick to a strategy and investigate
Every website is different; therefore performing thorough investigation was a major factor in the success of this re-inclusion case study. The team stress that documenting your research and communication with webmasters is a full-proof plan that will guide you through the course of your strategy.
Get in touch
If you think you’re website has fallen victim to Google Penguin, we can help. Just use the contact form below to get in touch: