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.
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:
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.
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.
He has an engineering degree, has worked for major aerospace organizations including the European Space Agency (Noordwijk - Netherlands), and has been working on the web since the very beginning of the commercial World Wide Web in 1994.
With 20 years of hands on experience, Sante has reviewed and optimized hundreds of websites and successfully cooperated with small local companies and large muti-national corporations, offering a wide spectrum of expertise essential to the success of a project.
Sante is a seasoned bi-lingual SEO & web marketing consultant offering services in organic placement, paid search, and content creation, in both English and Italian.
Sante regularly attends and speaks at search marketing conferences and teaches, and offers SEO related courses. Sante is the Majestic Brand Ambassador to Italy.
Sante has contributed to the writing of the book "Global Search Engine Marketing" by Anne F. Kennedy & Kristjan Mar Hauksson.
A detailed and always up-to-date CV is available for download at: