On April 17th, 2012, a leading UK brand and new client of Receptional's was hit with a link based penalty. Rankings for target keywords and their brand name dropped as many as 50 places in Google SERPs, which caused alarm bells to ring. Google Maps / Places were not affected in the same way, but there were daily shifts in positioning and choice of store locations shown. Traffic had dropped by around 50% and a penalty notice was received shortly after on the 18th, by which point we had already began our investigative work.
We immediately set up a PPC campaign to regain a proportion of the lost traffic, particularly for their brand name.
Initial investigation uncovered a group of hidden links that we believed to be part of an obvious negative SEO attack on a partner site that directly linked to our client.
These links were removed after discussions with the webmasters, and a reconsideration request filed. After a very short wait, the reconsideration failed, and it was about this time that the Penguin update and speculations as to the causes became a talking point across the internet (there was also talks of an anchor text over-optimisation penalty).
Some investigation revealed that overly aggressive anchor text links in side bars, footers and text, but other sites targeting similar terms on the same sites were facing penalties for those terms and not their brand name, so we deduced that we had two independent penalties here - one for over optimisation of anchor text, and one for the types of links that the Penguin update was targeting.
What followed was an extensive manual link review. We used data from Majestic SEO's Fresh index, as well as link data downloaded from Google Webmaster Tools (WMT) - although over 90% of WMT's links were already reported by Majestic SEO. We categorised all links reviewed by type, and then by quality:
- Banners, followed vs no followed
- Obvious paid
- Footer / sidebar
- Spun content
- Links on penalised sites
- Websites that have direct links from/to penalised sites
- Scraped content
- Hidden links
- Gateway / iFrame etc
- Domains set up for fake companies linking to the site
- Good (keep)
- Passable (low quality, but natural)
- Bad (low quality, removal desirable but not essential, might appear to violate, but might be natural)
- Priority for removal (damaging to ours and other sites linked from it)
We weren't looking at metrics; Page Rank and the like can't always accurately represent the quality of a linking domain. Other factors needed to be taken into consideration, as well as if the domain was suffering a penalty itself (or had been removed from Google's index).
We recorded the contact details for each site in a spreadsheet, as well as making notes about where the link was, why it was bad, the anchor text and if the link was still there.
Following the Clues
We began to see patterns in links, and used Majestic SEO's Neighbourhood Checker and Clique Hunter to begin to identify link networks. A previous agency(s) had built many dodgy links including spun articles (to the point of nonsense), mass (paid) directory submissions, with followed links, text links, side bars, footer links and hidden links on pornographic sites.
Contacting all webmasters, hosting companies and ISPs of the sites that needed to have links removed was a long winded, but necessary task. Often, more than just a standard email was needed and we allocated this task to two or three team members.
We ended up with 8000 links that needed to be removed, this accounted for 25% of the entire backlink profile of the penalised site.
All outbound emails were recorded in a spreadsheet ready for the reconsideration request, as well as any responses (no matter how abusive). Blackmailing was commonplace, with webmasters requesting anything from $1/link to be removed, up to almost $1000 dollars in some instances.
We didn't negotiate; instead, all of their responses were recorded in the spreadsheet, with their contact details, dates and times.
During this time, we created a temporary domain on a new domain name and after a small link building campaign we had the temporary site ranking for the brand name in no time, allowing us to reduce PPC spend. This domain had some basic content that linked to the penalised domain in order to keep a steady flow of referral traffic.
We managed to remove about 10% of the links we needed too (about 800 links) which we put all details of into our spreadsheet, ready to turn into a reconsideration request.
The reconsideration request took some time to compile, we listed on separate sheets:
- All links found - categorised by type and given quality rating
- All links for removal - including emails & responses, contact times and webmaster contact details
- All links removed
- 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 no follow
This reconsideration request was uploaded to Google Docs, along with a covering letter explaining how to read the spread sheet.
The reconsideration request was rejected. We figured you must have to reach a threshold of links removed to stand a chance at recovering. This wasn't possible with the responses we were getting and so we decided to wait it out for a tool to be released by Google to remedy this.
Sometime later, Google released the Disavow Tool, and we immediately uploaded a list of links at both domain level (domain:sample.com) and link level, we also used the # symbol to add comments. It was obvious that this was more for our own reference, as all details had already been submitted to Google in the previously failed reconsideration request. We 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 that when Google crawls a link from that list, pointing to your domain, it would chose to ignore its SEO effect (positive or negative), just as if the link didn't exist. We gave it 6 weeks to let Google re-crawl all of the links in the file, and near enough 6 weeks to the day, we received a notification informing us of the manual (brand) penalty being lifted.
Just The Beginning
Rankings for most keywords improved, although a few didn't completely return to their original positions. Some even ranked higher than before.
The temporary domain was switched off, but we left PPC to run as it was generating good, additional revenue for the brand.
So there you have it, this concludes how Receptional overcame Penguin and a link based penalty.
Here's a breakdown of our process, however your investigative phase should shape how you approach the task. Every website is different, and so are its links, so there is no blanket approach I'm afraid.
- Initial investigation
- Identify the type of penalty(s)
- Download link data
- Review all links manually
- Attempt removal
- Disavow those you cannot remove
- 6 week wait
- Reconsideration if necessary
And finally, some tips:
- Use Majestic data AND Google Webmaster Tools data
- Use Clique Hunter, Neighbourhood Checker to find link networks
- Look for patterns in links and identify problem areas
- There is no one, guaranteed way to do this, investigation is the key, if you disavow everything, or a large % of your links you may find you don't return to your original positions.
- We disavowed 25% of the entire link profile, leaving many low quality links still in place, but nothing that violates Google Guidelines...!
If you are still having trouble recovering from Penguin, please call the experts here at Receptional