Circa 2011: Your online business is crushing it. You’ve adopted all the latest and greatest digital strategies and you’ve invested heavily into SEO. The agency or “guru” you hired is building you links and getting them placed on high pagerank websites. Organic traffic is increasing everyday; life is good. Then one day, you log into your analytics platform to realize that your organic traffic from Google has been cut in half! Crisis, you’ve been struck by Google’s Penguin Penalty!
Website owners and businesses have been struggling to regain their organic integrity ever since the initial launch of Penguin 1.0 on April 24, 2012. This post will aim to explain the causes of the penguin penalty, using an actual case study from one of our clients, as well as present a strategy for Penguin Penalty Recovery using 8 crucial steps.
What is the Google Penguin Penalty?
Before we begin, lets clarify what exactly is the Google Penguin Penalty? The penalty was first released on April 24, 2012 and affected 3.1% of English queries. The goal was to separate websites that had been manipulating Google’s algorithm by conducting practices such as buying or attracting unnatural links. A detailed definition is below:
Google launched the Penguin Update in April 2012 to better catch sites deemed to be spamming its search results, in particular those doing so by buying links or obtaining them through link networks designed primarily to boost Google rankings. – Search Engine Land
Case Study: 8 Steps to Recovery
Our story begins in 2011, when website owners were quickly finding spammy ways to maneuver up Google’s rankings. Meanwhile, Google was watching and learning, waiting to sweep their SERPs (search engine result pages) clean of over optimized results with one fell swoop. In April 2012, our client happened to fall victim to Google’s purge. Below is our client’s true organic search traffic from Google (visitors with a bounce rate of 100% were excluded).
It is important to disclose that up to the penalty, our client had been working with an outsourced SEO agency based out of India. The primary tactics used by this agency to build links consisted of known blog networks such as buildmyrank.com, article submission sites, as well as thousands of low quality directories.
Step 1: Ensure you are in Penalty
Before you begin cutting down all your links, first make sure you understand what type of penalty you are in by checking your messages in Google Webmaster Tools. If the penalty is a manual penalty, you will see a message in your Webmaster Tools account (Search Traffic>Manual Actions). In this case, it was indeed manual action and a reconsideration request was necessary. However, if you only have an algorithmic penalty, then you may skip step 8 in the process. – Thanks Casey Markee for the input.
There are a series of different messages you may receive from Google, the one our client received was the “Unnatural inbound links” message pictured above.
Step 2: Conduct a Link Audit
The best link audit tool on the market right now is Link Research Tools by Chris Cemper, however Open Site Explorer (Moz), Majestic SEO, Ahrefs, or a free download of Webmaster Tools Backlinks will do just fine. The image below was our client’s backlink profile as rated by the Link Detox Report within LRT.
We also reviewed our client’s ranking reports before and after the penalty occurred. In March of 2012, there were 67 keywords rankings on the first page of Google. After the penalty hit, 31 keywords fell off the first page while 74 of their keywords lost ranking.
Step 3: Build Your List
After reviewing as many sources as possible, the next step is to compile a list of all historical backlinks. If you are dealing with thousands of links, a good way to prioritize would be to start with Webmaster Tools and add in 3rd party data as you have more bandwidth to tackle more spammy links. You will eventually want to disavow as many spammy domains as you can identify. Another way to prioritize would be to start reviewing the time range the spammy link building began. After you have compiled your list, it’s time to filter and categorize.
Step 4: Filter/Categorize
There are several attributes to use to categorize your links. Setup an excel doc with keywords as the first column and the following categories as the subsequent columns:
- Anchor Text Distribution – Is the link using an exact match keyword, partial match keyword, brand keyword, or other?
- Site Type – Is this a blog, article submission site, news site, directory?
- Site-Wide vs. In Content – Is the link in a site-wide location such as the sidebar or footer?
- Bad Neighborhood Sites – Does the linking website belong to a traditionally spammy niche such as pornography, drugs, payday loans, etc.?
- Guest Blog – Is the link coming from a guest blog?
It is important to document each of these traits as you visit each linking website. There are automated tools such as Link Research Tools that can automate this process, however to get the most accurate results, a manual process is the way to go.
Step 5: Outreach
The outreach process can be very tedious and time intensive. Tackling 1000 links a month is a good pace to aim for, however this does not include all the follow up that may be necessary. When reaching out to webmasters there are a few different ways to obtain their contact information:
- Whois.net – These services can lookup the registered users of a domain name along with email & phone number.
- About Page – Try scanning the website for about pages or anywhere a webmaster may have left his email.
- Contact Forms – Often contact forms will be your only solution. Fill these out and make sure to document the date you submitted the form.
Don’t be discouraged if you never hear back from a webmaster. Chances are they have been contacted numerous times by other site owners in the same predicament that they have stopped responding. Usually three attempts to contact a webmaster will show Google that you’re putting in the work.
Remember to never pay anyone to remove a link on their site. You may document the request in a separate Google Doc and inform Google of all the webmasters extorting for links.
Step 6: Document Your Efforts
Perhaps the most important step to a successful reconsideration request is to thoroughly document your efforts. A template for documenting your efforts can be found here. A thoroughly documented link removal effort is key to getting your request approved. The comment column in the provided template should be used to document the most recent progress. Use layman’s terms so that it is easy for reviewers to understand.
Step 7: Disavow
Equally as important as the outreach and documentation process is the creation and submission of the disavow file. Throughout this process you will notice that not every bad link can be removed for various reasons. The disavow file was created by the Google Webspam Team to give webmasters the opportunity to disavow unnatural links to their sites that are unable to be manually removed for whatever reason. The links that are disavowed would no longer pass any pagerank to the site. This link will tell you all you need to know about formatting and submitting a disavow file.
Top Disavow Mistakes you Can’t Afford:
- Wrong File Format – Use a .txt file in plain text to ensure a smooth upload.
- Cut the Domain not the Link – Matt Cutts, Head of Google’s Webspam Team said to approach disavows with “a machete” instead of “a scalpel” to clean up backlink profiles. there are times when a single link is more appropriate than the entire domain but more times than not, the whole domain needs to be disavowed.
- Syntax – Ensure proper syntax when disavowing such as “Domain:website.com”.
- Skipping Steps 5 & 6 – Don’t just skip to the disavow file. Google wants to see you put in the effort to remove the bad links. They will not lift the penalty until they know you have been sincere.
Below is Matt Cutt’s video on the topic.
Step 8: File for Reconsideration
The last step to Penguin Penalty recovery is to file the reconsideration request. Remember that only Google Docs with share settings set to “Anyone who has the link can access” can be used in the actual request. The request itself has a 500 word limit or a 2850 character limit (including spaces). The main points you need to address in the reconsideration request are as follows:
- Tell Your Story – Be honest about how you got into penalty. Don’t be afraid to list any agencies or vendors who may have put you in that position.
- Show Your Efforts – Link to your Google Doc that documents your efforts
- Grovel for Forgiveness – Let Google know that you have learned from your mistake and that you will follow Google’s Quality Guidelines.
With this particular client, we were able to remove over 1000 links and disavowed over 2500 domains. The final link detox report is shown below.
How to Avoid Penguin Moving Forward
Similar to the Panda Penalty, Google has noted that over optimization or spammy link building penalties are “baked” directly into the search algorithm. This means that site owners and webmasters will need to be especially careful about future link acquisition practices. Gone are the days of paying for backlinks. If you are choosing an internet marketing agency to help with your link acquisition strategy make sure they are doing so in only the most organic of ways. Many digital marketers are also turning to content marketing for help. Whether you decide to bring link building in-house or partner with a digital agency, keep in mind that organic and natural links have been and will continue to be the building blocks of SEO. Tell us about your experiences with Google penalties in the comment section below.