Sante J. Achille

If you’re not familiar with the term forensic SEO that’s good – you haven’t suffered from manual or algorithmic penalties by the hand of Google who is cracking down on a growing number of websites cutting corners in an attempt to dominate the SERPs by all means and at any cost – be that the very rankings that are being pursued.

The name (forensic SEO) fits this activity very well: the art of collecting all the clues or evidence in order to build a case against a clique of links which intoxicate a link profile, ultimately leading to a manual or an automatic (algorithmic) SPAM penalty. While in the first case the website will suffer a sudden blow in rankings and dramatic loss in traffic, in the latter it will often manifest itself as a slow and relentless drop. In both cases we are dealing with a penalty and positive action is required and must be undertaken to recover from this situation.
Looking at things from this perspective, it is easily understandable why the term forensic SEO is so widely used amongst those who are heavily involved in technical SEO issues. This is a very challenging task, with no guarantee on the outcome, where every shred of evidence is an essential part of the puzzle, as the forensic SEO expert must identify the right direction, and establish the roadmap to (hopefully full) recovery.

It’s all in the Link Profile

When the Google Penguin Penalty manifested itself in April 2012, thousands of websites were wiped off the face of the SERPs, and notified of their unnatural backlink profile: it wasn’t all about low quality links coming from bad neighbourhoods, rather the introduction of an over optimization penalty devised to punish those websites who had engaged in heavy (artificial) link building. Toxic links were now backlinks with laser sharp anchor text, used to successfully boost rankings by artificially enhancing reputation with keyword rich anchor text. There is no indication, no hints, and no help provided by Google: you got yourself into this mess; it’s entirely up to you to get yourself out of it.

This is where the forensic SEO expert comes in and can make the difference.

Understanding the Scenario

It is like walking onto the scene of a crime: there is a body, (the website), and hundreds, (if not thousands or tens of thousands), of clues which require close examination in most common cases. There are a few blatant scenarios where is it painfully clear the offending website simply went to town and exaggerated in acquiring over optimized backlinks, triggering a massive penalization. This was very common in the early days of penguin, and it was rather easy to identify the offending links and come up with corrective actions – in many cases a matter of minutes to examine the evidence, find the culprits, and define a corrective actions strategy.

As penguin evolved and became more aggressive, things got more complicated – it’s no longer a black or white situation, but thousands of shades of grey, bringing the analysis to a new level of complexity with the obvious increase in resources and skills required to perform such a task.

Collecting the Evidence

Unless you have been notified of a manual SPAM penalty, it will start when you notice a small but constant fall in traffic for no apparent reason. Your money keywords will slip away from the first SERP, and you will start worrying and asking the question:

WHY?

A well-prepared forensic SEO activity will start by tackling the problem at the root and review your entire backlink profile. Not only will your recent backlinks be examined, but also your entire backlink history, because your history is an essential part of your present.

Anchor text will be the first area of investigation to identify macroscopic unnatural link building activities. As you may have understood by now the toxicity of a link is not determined only by the quality of the link; (hence the website offering it), rather the nature of the link itself – a link that doesn’t look as though it was offered spontaneously from an excellent website can easily turn out to be toxic. It will be a very lengthy and laborious activity led by the forensic SEO to identify these links, which may have led to a penalty.

In many cases links with unnatural anchor text are coming from bad neighborhoods, websites with a very poor reputation and no authority. These links can be identified and clustered by running an advanced backlink profile using Majestic SEO. Recent implementation of topical trust allow the analyst to group links by Trust Flow, Citation Flow and Topical Trust: as links coming from websites which are off theme, will most likely be primary suspects in the toxic link hunt…

The Clean-Up Process

Without doubt this is the most challenging and time consuming activity which can take months of man power to perform. Once the list of possible offending links has been identified, they must be removed.

Easier said than done.

Unscrupulous Webmasters who once took your money to add a backlink to your website are now asking for more money to remove that very link. You’ll be lucky if someone on the other side of the line is there and will take the time to reply to your request for link removal – in most cases you will not get a reply: there are countless websites sitting out there with nobody looking after them. Mailing each and every website, (once you have found an email), is a must in the attempt to clean up your profile: this is especially important if a manual penalty is in place – you will need evidence to submit via the Request for re-inclusion form where you make your case and ask for the penalty to be lifted.

If the penalty is algorithmic, the request for removal step can be avoided, although it is recommended that you do reach out to those websites and request they remove the links.

Cleaning up the Cache

I mentioned early on in this article that your history is an important part of your present. When possible, it is good to go back and clean up your backlink profile and do it thoroughly. Each website has a crawl budget: the more you are famous and hit by traffic, the more Google, (and other search engines), will crawl your site – ultimately the spiders, (or bots if you prefer), will live there, awaiting updates that will be published in a matter of minutes. Most websites are not that popular: to see how important your website is and how it is considered by Google, check the cached version of it and verify the timestamp, i.e. the last time it was crawled. This is a very strong signal of how Google is seeing it; (the more recent the timestamp the better). In most cases there is a (very) limited amount of crawl allocation and at times pages remain uncrawled for months (to say the least). When this happens even if the link has been removed there are good chances that Google still sees the page carrying the link and this can be a difficult situation. Ideally, along with the toxic link, the page may also be removed. In this case it would be beneficial to have the webmaster physically remove the page from the search engine index via the Remove URLs in Google Webmaster tools.

The outcome of a Forensic SEO Activity

It takes a very skilled and experienced professional to deliver a top quality, reliable forensic SEO activity. Only years of experience dealing with search engines and search engine penalties of various kinds forge professionals capable of delivering results. Unfortunately a penguin recovery activity will release the website from the penalty, but leave it lacking backlinks that were supporting it in the rankings: The links were good until the penalty was applied – when they are removed the link juice is also gone, causing a link deficit which will cause a natural loss in organic placement:

You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

An effective, efficient forensic SEO audit and clean-up will deliver a website with a clean backlink profile that you can build new links upon to gain lost positions. In other words a penguin clean up will have the penalty removed, but that does not imply rankings will return as they were before the penalty was inflicted. This is rarely the case and you need to know this before you undertake such a clean-up. In some instances a clean-up may exceed the effort required in starting from scratch. It’s a tough call, and here again, you need an honest professional to advise and guide through the entire process, allowing you to make an informed decision. Like everything else in life it’s never clean cut – there are always PRO’s and CON’s and it is your ultimate decision.

Conclusions

Dealing with a penguin penalty is very challenging, time consuming and expensive. If you have undertaken shady link building to rank in the search engines and were hit by penguin, it can be very difficult to recover in both cases; (i.e. if the penalty was a manual action or algorithmic). In more fortunate cases, recovery can come around after a few weeks and as little as 10 days with a substantial recovery in rankings. In more difficult cases where the historical backlink profile is not of high quality, the analysis and identification of toxic links will require a considerable amount of time and effort, hence significant costs to bring the website back onto the SERPs. A quality penguin clean-up does not imply automatic and/or full recovery of organic rankings.

Comments

  • Greg Gillespie

    Hi Sante,

    Congratulations on a fine article explaining the complexities of deciphering a loss in rankings due to Google Penguin issues.

    You are right in pointing out that a removal of toxic links from websites with low crawl rates could take months to have affect and therefore an important factor in deciding which action is most likely to produce the desired results, either reclaim or rebuild.

    Often is the case to apply a client’s SEO budget to a brand new domain with a clean slate and begin the quality link building process from scratch, than to try and clean up the old site.

    Important to point out here, that it is not necessary to “throw the baby out with the bath water” so to speak when it comes to the old website. Many times clients are devastated when facing the prospect of having to build their entire site from scratch, when they may have spent over $100k building it.

    My advice in such a situation is to keep the original brand based site, often it still ranks for a lot of longer tail terms, and only build a “mini site” based on the keywords that have been lost.

    This approach can greatly reduce the time, money and effort for regaining the previously lost forever, keywords.

    Hope this tip helps.

    Greg Gillespie
    Seo Consultant

    June 24, 2014 at 4:22 am
    • Sante Achille

      Thank you Greg for the feedback and for pointing out this aspect I didn’t cover in the article – you too are right, this can be an approach that may work well. In fact there is also another aspect I did not cover in the article regarding the duration of the penalty. We do not know HOW LONG they are going to last… we know they are not forever so at one point in the future the site should give signs of life again and at that point there could be an opportunity to use it again going beyond the branding terms. This is all in uncharted waters :)

      June 24, 2014 at 7:46 am
  • Abhijit M

    Hi Sante, great piece of information in humorous way about google penalty and recovery of the website. I agree with Greg, building new website again from scratch may be costlier affair. Using mini site for lost keywords may help to keeping traffic for your website.

    June 24, 2014 at 12:43 pm
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    The author written a great article on Forensic SEO, I am really impressed from the articles and its really helps a lot.

    June 27, 2014 at 2:09 pm
  • coup d'oeil

    Thank you for this post that summarizes the complexity of SEO, it takes a lot of tricks and skills!

    July 11, 2014 at 6:19 am
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