Think You’ve Been Penalized? It’s Not Google. It’s You.

Here’s a tale I’ve seen too often the past year. It goes like this.

The traffic drop

traffic dive organic

Someone in your organization takes a look at Google Analytics and sees something like the above. Oh %$#&! Something’s gone wrong, but what? Surely there’s an easy fix here, it’s just a matter of identifying the issue. This goes one of two ways.

  1. Someone (their SEO/”computer guy”)  logs into Google Webmaster Tools and sees a manual action has taken place. Someone’s head explodes and/or someone starts getting blamed for destroying their website. This can include the SEO guy, the old SEO guy, Google…maybe even the janitor in a pinch. But someone has wronged the company and now they’re losing money. ANGER!
  2. Inspecting data points just shows that traffic took a dive, but no manual actions from Google, just a loss of traffic. After doing some research and reading someone discovers the Panda/Penguin updates and realizes one or both of these is to blame. At this point, the blame and anger game mimics bullet number one.

What happens next

The first scenario is actually the better one to have. When you receive a manual penalty from Google you only need to follow Google’s rules and under the right circumstances, you can get back to normal in a few weeks (as we did for one company recently). In this situation, you get the luxury of getting feedback from Google after you remove/disavow links or fix up your site’s content. Submit a reconsideration request, get more feedback, and fix again. Of course, if your site was a load of crap outside of your spammy links or duplicate content, you probably won’t come near your previous traffic, but at least you’ll have a clean slate.

Situation number two is a trickier one, and a sadder one to watch people deal with it. In the case of Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithmic penalties, it seems more often than not these are followed by serious cases of denial. I’ve seen websites with virtually no content, nothing but spammy links, duplicate content, etc. get nailed by these algorithmic penalties and the owners of these sites refuse to accept their reality.

The conversation

The site owner says, “We were getting zillions of visits a week, what is Google doing?”

SEO pro responds, “Well, that’s because you had a bunch of obviously purchased links, spammy links, your pages have spammy content that’s not valuable to anyone, and your site structure sucks.”

Site owner panics, “So we just need to get rid of those links then? How do we do that?”

SEO pro tries to explain, “Many of these links are on some kind of network or they’re spam comments in forums and blogs, do you have access to any of these sites, or can you get in touch with your old provider to see if you can get these removed?”

Site owner confusedly responds, “We don’t have their contact info/we fired them/they went out of business. Let’s just disavow them. That will get us back where we were, right?”

SEO pro tries again to explain, “You see, Google wants you to try to remove them. You’ve benefitted from cheating the system so long, they want some blood and sweat to get back where you were. You need to try to contact all these places, document it and show that you tried to get them removed. THEN you can try disavowing them…and it might work.”

Site owner gets angry, “That seems like a lot of work, and there’s no guarantee we get all that valuable traffic back? That’s ridiculous! How long will this take?”

SEO pro explains further, “Had you done MORE work in the first place, you wouldn’t be in the place you’re in now. So, rather than feel cheated about what Google’s done to you, maybe you should look in the mirror and thank your lucky stars you made money blatantly breaking the rules this long. If search is such an important part of your business model, you might want to know how it works.”

Site owner finally gives in, “Well, do what you need to do to get rid of the links so we can get our traffic back.”

SEO pro shakes head and pushes back again, “The bad links aren’t your only problem, didn’t you hear me? You don’t have any GOOD links. Just because you won’t be punished any further doesn’t mean what you’re left with will make you rank. Even if you had some good links, your content still sucks, so you need to add new content to all of your category and product pages. New, unique, REAL content. It would also help to add a blog and regularly write new content and push it out to target users via social media.”

 Site owner sways back towards anger, “I don’t buy this. There has to be an easy fix. This sounds difficult and expensive. I bet I can find someone who will fix this for a couple hundred bucks.”

SEO pro laughs, “It is hard, and it is expensive. Do most lucrative businesses get there by spending only a few hundred bucks? I think being cheap and lazy is what got you here in the first place. Here’s my card if you’re still in business when you finally come to your senses.”

The lesson

If you’ve been hit by Panda or Penguin it’s time to realize you need to get serious about your organic traffic. You may have actually passed the point of no return and just rip up the site and start over. But you need to accept your situation, make a plan and go fix it. It won’t be easy, blaming Google won’t help. Whether it was you or some shady company/person you hired is responsible for where you’re at, whining and getting angry aren’t going to fix anything.

Adam Henige

Adam Henige is Managing Partner of Netvantage Marketing, an online marketing company specializing in SEO, PPC and social media. Adam heads the SEO and link building efforts for Netvantage and has been a contributing blogger for industry publications like Search Engine Journal and SEOmoz.

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