Discerning Between Penalties and Recovering From Google Purgatory


Author’s bio: Jameson Ballinger has been published widely for his work in online marketing, design and SEO. Jameson is currently working with Z Networks Group in beautiful Miami, but lives to sample craft beer and travel to colder climates for a little snowboarding.

Blogs, hundreds of articles and whole sites have been devoted to shuffling through the destruction Penguin and Panda left in their wake, but still so many site owners and even SEO’s are struggling to identify penalties and recovery strategies. Honestly, many SEO companies have said it has been rare that a site fully recovers after being hit by an algorithm update, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

What penalty were you hit by?

If the doctor prescribes you the wrong meds, chances are you’re not going to get better, especially if you were misdiagnosed in the first place. Recovering from an algorithm update or manual penalty with the wrong strategy is like taking the wrong medication and it often starts with site owners or even SEOs stabbing in the dark as they attempt to make changes they hope will fix the problem.

Unfortunately, determining exactly which penalty hit you isn’t based on science like medicine is and is more of a guessing game—or an art—at best.

Was it Penguin?

The absolute clearest indication of being hit by penguin is a traffic drop on or right after April 24, 2012. Penguin was made to target link-building strategies that were unnatural, aggressive and excessive in terms of unnatural anchor text.

You can also look at your anchor text distribution as another indication of whether you’ve been hit for unnatural anchor text. Open Site Explorer can be used to check out your backlink profile by entering in the URL for your sites. Filter out nofollow and internal links so you are viewing just links that could be the cause of your penalty. Examine the Link Anchor Text column looking for similar or identical anchor text—this is a big indication of an unnatural link profile.

You can also look at the pages that suffered a drop. For example if a  page called has a number of links pointing to it all containing ‘miamidesign’ as the anchor text, you are safe to assume this is the reason the page is no longer ranking well for ‘delicious chips.’

Was it Panda?

Unlink Penguin, Panda targets thin and duplicate content produced by things like content farms and scraped content. The update basically shoved low quality sites down in the rankings to produce better search results. If your site is linked to other company owned sites that uses the same or very similar content this could have resulted in a panda penalty. Pages on your site that display very little content (i.e. thin content) also could result in a penalty. The panda penalty can affect an entire site—unlike penguin which may just hurt specific pages.

Was it a manual penalty?

Manual penalties are by far the easiest to identify. In Webmaster Tools under the message page you will have an email from Google saying your site has been detected because some pages may be using techniques outside of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

So how do you recover?

A common misconception is that if you’ve been hit by a penalty of any kind you should file a reconsideration request. You should only file for reconsideration 1. After you have removed unnatural links and 2. Only if you have been hit with a manual penalty meaning an actual human being penalized your site and has to take action to lift the penalty.

Penguin and Panda are algorithm updates and evidence at this point seems to show only after an algorithm refresh will you see signs of recovery IF you have made the necessary changes to your site.

Panda recovery entails beefing up thin content pages and removing duplicate content and Matt Cutts has said Panda is being regularly refreshed in the algorithm which is good news for sites looking to recover as it will cut down on the wait after clean up.

Penguin recovery is more difficult and can take a long time—although there hasn’t been an official statement saying so, many people believe a site won’t begin to increase in ranking until Penguin refreshes—the last refresh was October 5.

To prime your site for recovery you will need to change unnatural anchor text, so to use the example from earlier, changing ‘miamidesign’ to ‘miamiwebsitedesign’ would allow you to begin getting new and quality links to the page. Unfortunately it will still take time to earn those new links and it could be a substantial amount of time before the page begins to recover again.

Recovering from a manual penalty isn’t as easy as filing a disavow request. Before even considering using disavow you need to try to manually remove links yourself. This can be exhausting and time consuming, especially considering you need to keep a spreadsheet or Google Doc. Well documented on your efforts. One link removal request is not sufficient. You need to attempt to contact webmasters around three times to show Google you attempted to get the link removed.  Only after you have made sufficient attempts can you upload your file to disavow.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind this isn’t a completely conclusive guide to recovery. There are additional tools and steps that can (and in some cases must) be used. Additionally, don’t expect to see instant changes in ranking. Recovery is a slow and painful process and without earning quality and natural links it will most likely be impossible for your site or pages to ever recover.

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