Remember way back in 2006, when Google penalised BMW Germany for undertaking shady SEO practices and trying to cheat its algorithm? That was really when Google ‘penalties’ became public knowledge.
After a slap on the wrist, BMW cleaned up its act and everyone let out a sigh of relief.
Every year since the BMW Google penalty inauguration, there have been one or two big name brands that have been penalised by Google, either for black hat optimisation practices or for buying and/or selling links.
In 2008 it was GoCompare. Soon after, it was Kwik Fit Insurance that felt Google’s wrath. In 2011, both Overstock.com and JC Penney were the high profile Google penalty cases that made the news. In March 2013, Interflora set tongues wagging in the search world after they went missing for both generic and branded search queries for 11 days. In December last year, Google floored lyrics site Rap Genius with a search ranking penalty, and whilst they now rank again for brand terms, it seems their recovery is far from complete.
After all those high profile cases (and SEO playing such a pivotal role in driving traffic and revenue), you would think brands would have learnt their lesson.
Perhaps the highest profile case (and the most damaging results) of a Google penalty were felt by Expedia in January 2014. According to Searchmetrics, Expedia lost around 25% of their search visibility in Google, which then resulted in a 3.9% drop in their share price.
Whilst that initial press and share price may have been damaging, Expedia appear to have recovered quickly. Following their Q4 earnings call last week, Expedia’s shares are now the highest they’ve been for 5 years.
Following Expedia’s high-profile Google penalty, Irwin Mitchell and Music Magpie followed closely behind with penalties of their own.
Identifying A Google Penalty
According to Google’s head of web spam, Matt Cutts, Google dishes out 400,000 manual penalties or ‘actions’ every month. That’s a lot of people trying to cheat Google.
So how do you find out if you’ve been the recipient of a Google penalty? The first thing to look at is your analytics and Google Webmaster Tools (WMT) dashboard. If you see a sudden drop in traffic and search impressions, you’ll need to continue investigating.
It’s important to note that, beside manual actions and penalties, Google undertakes a raft of algorithm updates every year, which have an impact on both search queries and certain sites. In April 2012, Google initiated a major update to it’s algorithm, affectionately named Penguin. This initial update followed by several other Penguin updates spanning every 6 months or so, has affected around 6.8% of all search queries. The Penguin update was an attempt to cleanse Google of sites using ‘black hat SEO techniques, and spammy link building.
Following Penguin, Google then launched another major algorithm update, named Panda. Many sources state Google has been rolling out the Panda update since early 2011, but the biggest update in recent years happened in September 2012, affecting around 2.4% of English search queries. Panda is designed to reward ‘high-quality’ sites, whilst penalising low quality sites.
After looking at your analytics and WMT, check and see if Google’s algorithm updates correspond to your drop in traffic. The next thing is to conduct a few Google searches for your brand and high-ranking generic keywords. If your brand doesn’t appear at the top (where it normally would), you may have a penalty.
Head to your GWT dashboard and navigate to Search Traffic >> Manual Actions. Here, Google will inform you of any ‘manual actions’ against your site, and you may see something like this;
Google may tell you which pages the manual actions affect, or why manual action has been taken.
Removing The Google Penalty
When we’ve helped brands recover from Google penalties in the past (after taking the appropriate steps), the manual actions are rectified in 30 days or less. So the first point is don’t panic, get your ducks in a row, and work with an SEO specialist to help you recover.
Most Google penalties these days are related to bad link practices, so the steps to recovery will most likely be focused on either neutralising those links, or removing them completely. Google wants to include you in it’s index, but it needs to see you are making a concerted effort to go back and right the previous wrongs your site has taken.
Step 1 – If you’re not appearing for your brand name, ensure you are covering any brand keywords through PPC ads in Google Adwords. This may involve adding or moving budget, but paying for brand traffic is better than not receiving any at all.
Step 2 – If your penalty is anything other than links, it’s time to clean up your act. Change and remove any content that is causing the problem. If your penalty is link related, it’s time to start digging through some data. You might have an inclination into which links are causing the problem, and if so, great. But it’s worth being as thorough as possible. In Google WMT, navigate to Search Traffic >> Links to your site, and click on ‘more’. Here you can download a table of a large majority of the links pointing to your site;
Save the spreadsheet somewhere safe, as documenting your progress will help provide important evidence when asking Google to review your actions later.
Step 3 – Time to trawl through the data and identify the links that are causing the problem. Depending on the number of links pointing to your site, and the number of months or years those links have been built, this can be a long, tedious process, so after you’ve had an initial look at the data, it’s worth allocating you and your team some man hours to help clear up the penalty. It may take time, but it’s worth it to get back into Google’s good books.
This is a very important step. Whilst you want to identify the spammy, low quality links, you don’t want to remove the good links, and any hard work that has gone into generating them. By rule of thumb, if you know a link has been placed on a particular site purely for SEO purposes, then it’s most likely an unnatural link. This is the point where you may need to source extra expert help to trawl through all the links and check if they are low quality. Check if the linking domain is indexed in Google. Check if the linking domain has spammy links pointing to it (type the URL into Open Site Explorer and see what you can find). Check forum links, blog comment links, and most definitely paid links.
Doing this process manually can be hit and miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but the SEO community are generally a helpful bunch, so Barry Schwartz from Search Engine Roundtable has done a brilliant write-up on link tools which help to identify spammy links, which should help your clean up work.
Step 4 – Next, you’ll need to find the contact details of the webmasters behind the identified linking domains. This may involve delving deep into company emails to look for link submissions and payments, as well as link authorisation for forum and blog posts. If can find the details in-house, great. If not, you will have to start Googling domain registration info, and contact details for the linking domains in question. Save all the details next to the domains in your spreadsheet to keep track of your work.
Step 5 – Time to get into contact with the webmasters to try and get the links removed. Moz.com have a nice template to use, to keep the emails short, sharp and to the point. Sending all the emails, waiting for a response, and waiting for the webmaster to take action can take time, so be patient. Some of the emails will be used as evidence for Google to consider lifting your penalty, so be polite, be friendly, and most importantly, don’t slag off Google.
Step 6 – Hopefully your webmaster requests have been successful, and you’ve managed to remove many of the low quality and spammy links. If you’ve done as much work as you can to remove the problematic links from the web, and are unable to make further progress on getting the links taken down, you can disavow the remaining links. As a way of helping you out, Google has two-step disavow process, which you can use to ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing your site. All the information you need about using the disavow tool can be seen on the Google Webmaster Support pages, but – a word of warning. If used incorrectly, and you disavow many good, natural links, this process can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google. Google have made a point of saying that you should make “every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough“. Don’t try and cheat Google again!
Step 7 – Depending on the size of your brand, and who has noticed your penalty, it is probably time to do a little PR. The best response is one that both acknowledges there is an issue, AND that you are currently in the process of doing something about it. The most recent example was from Irwin Mitchell, who simply said: “We are aware of the situation and are working closely with our digital agency to deal with it“. And that was that.
Step 8 – Your final step is to request a review from Google. Remember in Google WMT when you first looked at manual actions, and saw that big red button? Now is the time to use it. Using all the data and evidence you’ve collected in steps 1 – 6 above, you now need to tell Google what you’ve done wrong, that you’ve stopped any naughty practices, what you’ve done to fix the problems, the steps you’ve taken to ensure it won’t happen again, and lastly, apologise. Be as honest as possible. State when the bad practices happened, who was responsible, and how you won’t be making the same mistakes with your domain again.
Only submit the request once you feel you’ve done all you can to fix the issues, and you have enough evidence to show you’ve actively tried to rectify the situation, and that it won’t happen again.
Again, Moz.com have a nice reconsideration request template, which uses Google Docs and Spreadsheets as the evidence method, so they can be linked to from the submission request.
Matt Cutts has recorded a useful video, telling you what should be included in a proper reconsideration request, which is worth a watch if you’re still not sure.
With the request submitted, it’s now time to sit back and wait. Google reviews generally take a few days, but in our experience some can take weeks, depending on the number of requests Google are having to deal with.
Fingers crossed your penalty is lifted! If you need any other advice or support, don’t hesitate to give our SEO team a shout at hello@8MS.com.