It is coming up to a year ago now that we were employed by a big company here in the United Kingdom to recover their website from a crash in Google rankings following the Penguin update.
On 17 April 2012, their website was hit by the Google Penguin update. Unsurprisingly, their traffic plummeted, losing more than 50% of their daily visitors which were in the 10s of thousands. Screenshot from Google Analytics below:
A penalty notice was received in Webmaster Tools on 18 April, by which time we had already started our investigative work.
First things first, to help counter the loss in traffic we immediately set up a PPC campaign, particularly for their brand name which they had previously not been bidding on.
The first part of our investigation uncovered a number of hidden links that we believed to be a negative SEO attack on a partner site that directly linked to our client.
We had these links removed after discussions with the website owners and filed a reconsideration request with Google. After a short wait, the reconsideration failed. It was around this time that more and more discussion of the Penguin update and speculations became widespread across the internet, as well as talk of an anchor text over-optimization penalty.
We promptly had a look into this and noticed the overly-aggressive anchor text links our client's previous SEO agency(s) had built, notably in the sidebars, footers and within content. We also noticed that other sites targeting similar terms on the same websites as our client had were also being penalized.
An extensive manual link review followed. We pulled data from Majestic SEO's Fresh Index and link data from Google Webmaster Tools (90% of the Webmaster Tools links were being reported by Majestic SEO). This was a very large list by any link building campaign standards. All of the links we reviewed were categorized by Type, and then by Quality, like so:
- Banners, followed vs nofollowed
- Obvious paid
- Spun content
- Links on penalized sites
- Websites that have direct links from/to penalized 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 here; Page Rank to us can't always accurately represent the quality of a linking domain or page. We even checked if the linking domain was suffering a penalty itself, or even totally removed from Google's index.
The contact details for each website were recorded in a spreadsheet along with several notes; where the link was, why the link is bad, the anchor text used and if the link was still active etc.
Following The Clues
The previous agency(s) had built a large number of dodgy links; spun articles (to the point of nonsense), mass paid directory submissions, paid followed links, links in the sidebar and footers of sites, hidden links on pornographic sites. How could an agency be so careless and reckless with such a big brand name?
Webmasters, hosting companies and ISPs of the sites we wanted to remove links from were all contacted. This was a long-winded but necessary task and was more than a one-person job.
In total, there were 8,000 links to remove. This accounted for 25% of the entire backlink profile for our penalized client.
All emails that we had sent to these were recorded in a spreadsheet for reconsideration request, as well as any responses (even those that were abusive). Blackmail was commonplace, with Webmasters requesting from $1 per link to be removed, up to nearly $1,000 in some cases.
We didn't negotiate. Not a single penny was spent on removing those links. Instead, we recorded all of the responses we had received into the spreadsheet, with appropriate contact details, dates and times.
By this time, we had created a temporary domain on a new domain name and had it ranking in #1 position in no time at all for the clients brand name with a small link building campaign. This enabled us to reduce the PPC spend. The new domain was a very basic website with a link through to the original, penalised site to keep a steady flow of referral traffic.
We succeeded in removing about 10% of the links we felt were needed, and once again all the details were added to our spreadsheet.
The reconsideration request took a while to compile, listing the following information on separate tabs:
- All links found - categorized 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 - we asked Google to please ignore these links
- A list of paid banners and links that webmasters refused to nofollow
This spreadsheet was uploaded to Google Docs along with a covering letter to explain how to read the spreadsheet.
But once again the reconsideration request was rejected. And yes, we were getting a little annoyed by this stage.
Sometime later, Google released the Disavow Tool and immediately we uploaded a list of links at both domain level and page level. Then we waited 6 weeks to let Google re-crawl all of the links in our file, and pretty much 6 weeks to the day we received a notification in Webmaster Tools informing us that the manual (brand) penalty had been lifted.
Back In The Rankings
The client's website then began ranking. Some keywords even ranked higher than before, although a few didn't return to their original positions in Google.
This allowed us to switch off the temporary domain, but we agreed with the client to continue running the PPC campaign as it was successfully generating additional revenue for the brand name alone.
Here's a list of the process we went through:
- Initial investigation
- Identify the type of penalty(s)
- Download link data
- Review all links manually
- Attempt to remove poisonous links
- Disavow those links you cannot remove
- Wait 6 weeks for Disavow file to be processed
- Submit reconsideration if necessary
Your investigative phase should shape the approach you take. Each website and its backlink profile are different, so there's no blanket approach.
And finally, some tips:
- Use both Majestic SEO and Google Webmaster Tools data
- Use Majestic SEO Clique Hunter and Neighbourhood Checker tools to identify link networks
- Look for patterns in links and identify problem areas
- There is no guaranteed way to do this. Investigation is the key. If you disavow everything, or a large % of your links you're unlikely to return to your original rankings.
- We disavowed 25% of the entire link profile, leaving many low quality links still in place, but none that violates Google Guidelines...!