Recovering from a Penguin Penalty requires a great deal of time and effort and the story may not always have a happy ending.

I have been battling with a Penalty and will show you how I used Majestic to identify toxic links – I recently told the story at a presentation in Tuscany – this is the translation of the post I published on my blog.

The sudden fall in traffic

That’s where it all starts – it was end of march 2012 and the “kiss of death” arrived in the Google Webmaster Tools … although you may argue the date of the GWT notification occurred before the bulk of penguin penalty notifications, I am pretty sure this was an anticipation of things to come because this website was on the radar.

At first I didn’t loose my cool because the website had been subject to penalties related to unwanted run of site linking or site wide backlinks (see our guide on toxic backlinks). This can be seen in the backlinks discovery panel of Majestic – there were sudden unnatural bursts in link growth over a very short period of time which drew (unwanted) attention by Google and caused a penalty.

What had happened? This is a good story. The Client had a link on the home page of a website. It was an honest and in theme link I had encouraged them to implement. Some time later (early 2008) the owner of this website used that template to create a “network” of sites with thousands and thousands of pages – the run of site was obvious and we were punished with an automatic penalty – automatic penalty which was lifted when the run of site links were removed – as you can see there was a second episode late 2010 – again we contacted the website owner who excused himself and said it would not happen again …

The history of your website is important!

I’m ready to bet that we were hit but this early penguin manifestation because of this past history which put us up on the radar – it’s like being a crook – once convicted you have to be very careful – our track record had been ruined.

At first I didn’t give this notification too much importance: together with the Client, we took a close look and found a few new run of site “friends” (gee don’t you love these guys …). They were reported via webmaster tools – we waited for weeks only to see our request for inclusion knocked back …

This happened a number of times and the effect of the penalty was devastating to say the least!

Now things we beginning to look bleak – we had outed everything we knew – mind you there were a few shady links and they too were listed in one of the Requests for Inclusion we had written: there was nohing else we could think about. I had asked to Client ad nauseam “are you sure there isn’t something you should be telling me?” and guess what the answer was? No.

At this point there was only one thing left to do – look at all the links one by one to understand where the “offenders” were nested and report them.

Once the run of site links were eliminated I was left with just over 7.000 links to review.

Using Flow Metrics

It was obvious that a review of each and every link would take nearly forever – it meant reviewing thousands of pages. I decided to review them based on their Citation Flow Value.

In principle sites with high values of trust and citation are less likely to carry the offending links (that was the reasoning driving my theory). If this were to be true then it would be easier to cluster the links based on homogeneous values of citation flow, and review them.

It didn’t take long to identify a cluster of links which carried 2 suspicious websites with hidden links. I identified 8 links in all coming from these 2 websites. I was amazed as they were near copies of the Client’s old site. When contacted they told me they actually owned the sites but had left them online and had “completely forgotten” about them.

You can imagine my reaction to this news … on a more cheerful note the links (along with some suspicious pages) were removed and yet another Request for Inclusion submitted – the reply from Google was:

What does than mean? Where did we stand at this point? Difficult to say at first when I wrote the italian version of this post – today things are looking much better, however there has been significant lasting damage to the overall visibility – the aftermaths of penguin.

I am still at work on the clusters carefully reviewing links based on their citation flow and website value of trust flow: I am finding many old links dating back years and using the Disavow tool to remove them from the link profile – it seems to be working.

It would have been (almost) impossible to identify these links without Majestic.

How you can use majestic to stay below the radar

Link building still plays a role in SEO but Google has changed the rules with Penguin – this is what I learned and you should take home with this post:

  • Each market segment has a metric you should study and respect. Trust and Citation flow are high level parameters which can assist you. Benchmark your website by comparing your values of Trust Flow and Citation Flow to those of your major competitors. If you are much higher chances are Google will frown upon your link building strategies and you may need to reconsider past link building and change ongoing activities .
  • Monitor your external link profile constantly. Ranking for competitive keywords will draw “attention” and might trigger attempts to knock you off the SERPs – you need full visibility on what is happening day by day and thanks to fresh links you have full visibility of what is happening around you and take action to avoid problems.

If you’ve been hit by penguin there’s no quick fix – it’s going to be a long and arid walk through the desert before you’ll see any changes in your rankings. Only a careful and meditated step by step link cleansing can help lift the penalty, but this will not guarantee a return to the rankings you (once) had, but there are no alternatives, unless you scrap the domain name and start from scratch – a difficult call that will require careful analysis, experience and good judgement. Good luck.

Sante Achille
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  • Jesse Leimgruber

    Excellent information. Majestic is one of the best tools to determine if a client has had previous (bad) SEO work done to their website — Figuring out where they stand would be nearly impossible without the help of Flow Metrics.

    With this in mind, surely the 8 links from 2 websites was not the cause of the penalty. Perhaps this would be possible if the site only had a couple dozen links, but the site in the post had over 7,000. Im curious to know if these were the only links Sante removed, or if they were just an example of the many bad links you can find.

    November 20, 2012 at 6:32 am
    • sante

      these were the ONLY links removed prior to receiving the message that the site had been reviewed. This is a very long story and rather complicated too. There had been a number of previous RFIs which all came back negative and only after these links were removed did we receive the “sort of” positive feedback. What we can see from all this is that a very small number of links triggered all this: w did 4 RFIs and removed maybe 20 links in all (including the 8 I mentioned in the post) – that’s all.

      Today what we witness is not a full recovery, but a partial one (I hope this was clear in the post). In fact I mentioned that more work is necessary to remove many of the old incoming links and see how rankings evolve in the post penguin world …

      November 20, 2012 at 7:41 am
  • Marcus

    I have been working with several clients in the UK to help them get out from under manual and algorithmic link penalties and it’s right to say that often, this does not have a happy ending.

    Even when we have managed to remove the penalty as such and keywords that were aggressively targeted are ranking again, many of these clients may find that 80% + of their link profile was based on spammy or manipulative links and whilst we remove the links, we also remove a lot of the ranking equity at the same time.

    Certainly, in many cases, the same sites that got hit by Penguin were also using spammy or weak content practices and may also have suffered on the back of that and again, recovery, often does not mean a return to pre penalty traffic volumes.

    One case often held up is the WPMU recovery but we have to look at this as being different to many small business sites. WPMU has a legitimate level of very strong content and it’s traffic is warranted. Where this is a small business that has little in the way of content and a highly manipulative link profile – recovery, may not be quite what the client expected.

    Certainly, it is worth following this process and getting to a point where we can start some good, honest content driven link building & outreach but we are now being clear from the off for new clients that recovery from the penalty may not take them back to pre penalty traffic levels.

    November 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm
    • sante

      I totally agree with your analysis and point of view – it is a fact that at least a certain percentage of rankings may have been compromised depending on the amount of “low quality” links used to achieve the objective. Most small sites (such as the one I used as an example in the post) hit by this update can clean up their link profile and move on to a new and improved SEO strategy, where by SEO we should take into consideration the importance of the social media signals …

      November 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm
  • Tiggerito

    I’m a little confused.

    As far as I understand the first time Penguin was introduced was on April 24, 2012. After you got hit.

    It is also an algorithmic penalty and not a manual one. AFAIK Google does not issue notices for algorithmic penalties like Panda and Penguin.

    You also state you had some recovery. Penguin, like Panda is updated at specific times. So far we have April 24, May 25 and October 5. Unless it is confirmed that a Penguin update has just happened I suspect your recovery is nothing to do with that algorithm.

    As far as I can see you actually got hit by a manual penalty for having unnatural links. You received a message indicating that and your recovery is based on them approving any reconsideration request you send them. Your first request failed.

    November 20, 2012 at 1:43 pm
    • sante

      Yes you are right, in fact I mentioned this (I know I did in the Italian version of the post if I didn’t her please excuse me). As penguin was rolled out thousands of notification in WMTs were received announcing the new ranking criteria. I gave my opinion on what happened providing insights on how events unfolded – you may be completely right, but please allow me one further consideration to corroborate my theory: Those bad links had been sitting there for years – we are talking like 7, maybe 8 years if not more and they caused no problems – like I said they had been put there before I joined the team. They suddenly became bad as google powered up penguin – coincidence? Perhaps. In essence I believe this was a combination of events: the rollout of penguin which signaled the bad links and triggered a penalty ahead of the Penguin rollout – the links were identified and removed but rankings did not recover completely because of the legacy of links still to be removed (I mentioned this in the post). If we take things from here the natural consequences and course of acton have been summarized by Marcus in his comment – Thank you for your thoughts!

      November 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm
  • Oscar Gonzalez

    Is a blog network considered a “link scheme”? I’m running a 30 day blogging challenge for example. Part of the challenge includes a central curation location and also each member may have links to other blogposts and participants on their own sites.

    I know the scale is very little in this case, but would these links be frowned upon by Google because the blogs might seem unrelated?

    In your example, you also mention about how the theme with the link was then used thousands? of times… Is there an approximate number of links when Google may look more closely at those potentially toxic links?

    November 27, 2012 at 10:52 am
  • Oscar Gonzalez

    Oh and before you approve my previous comment, I just noticed my auto-filler filled a different url for my comment, feel free to edit to keep them consistent if you’d like and you can delete this comment.

    November 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm
  • Eleven rabattkod

    Does anybody know if the Google webmaster tool notice is also active in the european countries – and especially in Sweden?

    December 5, 2012 at 7:24 pm

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