We are back with our fifth installment of our SEOlutions Guides series. This time we want to educate you on the most effective ways of recovering a website which has been penalized by Google.
A lot of businesses and websites rely quite heavily on organic search rankings as their main source of traffic. But achieving high rankings in the big search engines (especially Google) has become increasingly difficult, as the algorithmic processes are getting more complex and sophisticated. Subsequently, a lot of websites rely on advanced link building methods to achieve their desired goals and rankings. However, with a lot of link building methods comes the risk of a potential penalty (algorithmic or manual) to your site, knocking it out of the top rankings. Especially during large algorithm updates, like Penguin and Panda, many webmasters are left trailing in the dust, as their websites lose all of their previously very profitable rankings.
The likelihood of a penalty obviously varies greatly, depending on the kind of link building you do and the quality of your own website. But it is nevertheless a good idea to be prepared and have a solid understanding of the options available to you in the event of a penalty, so you can get back to business as usual without skipping a beat.
So let’s get down to it. For easy reference, the guide is structured as follows:
- Type of Penalties
- Manual Action
- Algorithmic Penalty
- How to recover your website
- 301 Redirect
- Start Fresh
- Ways to minimize the risk of a link penalty
Type of Penalties
A huge drop in search traffic almost always indicates a subsequent loss in your organic rankings. By using an accurate rank tracking tool, you can almost immediately confirm such suspicions.
But how does a penalty look like in your rank tracker?
If you see something similar to this (and we hope you never do), it is very much certain that your website has been penalized in one way or another. Your next course of action is to identify what type of penalty has been applied to your website and begin the recovery process.
Most penalties are essentially split into two categories: manual action or algorithmic. There is also a third type, which penalizes your site for thin content, but we will cover it in another installment of this series. Needless to say, the advice in this guide can be applied to a thin content penalty as well.
- Manual Action
To find out if your website has been manually penalized, you have to log into your Google Webmaster Tools account (recently changed to “Search Console” but we will refer to it by its former name for the sake of familiarity) and check your notifications. If your website is not submitted to GWMT and you suspect it may have been penalized, you can still retroactively submit it to GWMT to check for a manual action.
A manual action is usually accompanied by a message in your GWMT account. The manual action can either affect your whole website or individual subpages of your website. In most cases, manual actions are applied to the whole website (affecting all of its pages).
In the image below you will find an example of what a message for a manual action typically looks like:
Google does frequent manual checks of their index for highly profitable and/or spammy niches to ensure that quality sites are displayed at the very top. Sites with spammy link profiles are the most prone to being affected by a manual action.
There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that manual actions are in fact not manual at all, but are part of the algorithm, but that is a topic for another time.
- Algorithmic Penalty
An algorithmic penalty means that your website has been “automatically” affected by Google’s search algorithm. Most algorithmic penalties typically happen during large algorithm updates or refreshes (e.g. Penguin and Panda updates). However, it is possible to be affected by an algorithmic penalty as a result of setting off one of the many filters in Google’s search algorithm (for example, duplicate content, poor anchor diversity, having malware on your site, etc.).
Large algorithm updates are usually announced within a couple of days on popular IM/SEO forums and search engine journals, and are often confirmed by Google themselves. But you can also use tools like Algoroo to check the current volatility within the SERPs themselves (the more movement there is, the higher the likelihood of an algorithmic update/refresh happening).
Algorithmic penalties are harder to identify, as you will not receive a message in your GWMT account. Having said that, if you see the majority of your rankings drop like flies at roughly the same time without any notification in GWMT, then your site was likely affected by an algorithmic penalty (especially if there was a large algorithm update/fresh rolling out during that period).
How to recover your website
Everyone knows that large Google updates, and penalties in general, cause a lot of heartache, as affected webmasters lose valuable assets and income. With search engines becoming increasingly complex, penalties are a by-product which can be adapted to. Those that successfully adapt to the dynamic search engine environment, have a bigger share of the rewards than before.
Before we dive into the methods we have found to be effective in recovering your rankings and traffic, we would like to mention what you should not do in most circumstances.
Do not disavow your links !
A lot of so-called experts and websites advocate disavowing your links as soon as your website is penalized. In our experience and that of many other people, this never leads to the desired result. Disavowing your site’s links essentially acts as a confirmation of Google’s suspicions that you have been actively trying to manipulate your site’s rankings. Moreover, you will potentially be destroying valuable link sources which you could have used for future websites/projects.
Many knowledgeable specialists actually believe this to be one of the primary functions of the disavow tool – for Google to collect link sources and render them ineffective.
Finally, and this bit ties in with our advice not to disavow your links, we have found that trying to get the penalty lifted from the affected website is generally not worth the amount of time and effort involved. Even if you successfully get the penalty lifted, it will be very difficult to get the site ranking again for any meaningful keywords and it will always be subject to extra scrutiny from Google. A perfect analogy for this would be like trying to apply for jobs with a criminal record.
So, just take a deep breath and relax a bit. We will now show you an effective method to recover your lost rankings and traffic. Although it is not guaranteed to work 100% of the time, this method has been proven successful many times and should be the first thing you try.
2.1. 301 Redirect Method
In the event of a penalty, the 301 redirect method is usually the first course of action for many experienced webmasters to see if the lost rankings can be recovered.
How does it work? Well, it’s quite simple.
YOUR PENALIZED DOMAIN -> 301 redirect -> COMPLETELY NEW DOMAIN
Step 1: Register a new domain
Buy a completely new domain (let’s call it Domain B) that has never been registered or used in the past. A great match would be the same domain name but with a different TLD extension. For example, if your penalized website is http://www.website.com, it would be absolutely perfect if you can register the corresponding .net or .org extension, so that you don’t have to change a lot of things. But a completely different domain name works too.
For this to work effectively, you want to register a domain which is squeaky clean with no prior link building activities. You can use Wayback Machine (WBM) to check if that domain name was previously used by someone else and Ahrefs or Majestic to check if the domain is clean and has no active links. Once you are certain that you have a clean domain, you can register it.
Step 2: Create a backup of your penalized website
Now you have to create a backup of your penalized site (let’s call it Domain A), that you can easily install on Domain B, which you just registered in step 1. If you use WordPress, you can use tools like Duplicator, BackupBuddy or WP Clone to easily move your entire site to the new domain.
Step 3: Set up a new hosting account for Domain B
Now that you have your new domain B and the backup of domain A, it’s time to set up a new hosting account for domain B. You do not want to reuse your old hosting account and IP addresses/nameservers for the new domain B.
We recommend to hide in plain sight and use a well-known shared hosting account for a smaller website – e.g. InMotion or HostGator. If you run a larger website, you should use a good (preferably managed, unless you are tech savvy) Virtual / Dedicated server provider like KnownHost, Liquidweb, Rackspace or Nexcess. Cloud hosting with providers like DigitalOcean is another option you may consider.
Please note, that you will also need to keep your old hosting account for your penalized site (domain A), in order to correctly set up the 301 redirect.
Step 4: Install the backup of domain A on the new hosting account
Configure your new hosting account for domain B. Once that is done, you can install the backup of domain A. If you are unsure of how to do this yourself, you can ask your hosting provider to help you out (most provide this kind of service by default).
Your new domain should now be an exact replica of your previously penalized website. Change the aesthetics (database update if needed, permalinks, logo if need etc.) to reflect the new domain name.
Step 5: 301 Redirect Domain A to Domain B
Once you have your new website up and running, it’s time to 301 redirect your previously penalized domain (Domain A) to your new and exact replica (Domain B).
This is easily done by changing the .htaccess file for domain A.
If you are unsure how to set up a 301 redirect through htaccess, we have prepared an already-configured .htaccess file for you to use below. Simply replace the text “domainA” with your old domain name address and “domain” with your new domain address.
Once you have made all the necessary changes, upload the .htaccess file to the root directory of your hosting account for domain A. Use a site like http://redirectcheck.com/ to check if the 301 is working correctly – but also confirm manually that every page and subpage is being redirected properly (all of the pages of your old site should be redirecting to the new domain).
If everything works properly, you’re done. Update your rank tracker with the new domain (domain B) and wait a few days. From experience, if the method worked successfully, you should see the new domain begin ranking again within 1-2 weeks. Your old ranking positions may return entirely for the new domain or partially. Either way, it is a great start for the new domain and further link building should get the site ranking higher.
However, as with anything in SEO, please keep in mind that the 301 method does not always work. But we definitely recommend to give it a shot, before moving to another method. You can also play around with internal 301, e.g. re-directing to subdomains, www to non-www. etc. – be creative and try a few unique redirect approaches to see if you can recover your site. If your rankings are not visibly returning after 2 weeks, then it’s time to move on to the next method (see point 2.2.).
2.2. Start Fresh and Repoint
If the 301 method did not work for you, it’s time to start fresh. The steps are almost the same as with the 301 method, except for Step 5. To make everything clear, we will post the exact routine below.
Steps 1 – 4 : they are exactly the same as with the 301 method.
Step 5 : Close Domain A and repoint your links to Domain B.
Once you have your new website up and running, it’s time to discontinue your penalized domain. Cancel your hosting account and repoint the nameservers to the default address. Now that you have an exact replica of domain A on domain B, it’s time to repoint your links and SEO campaigns to domain B.
Of course you won’t be able to repoint all of your links to the new domain – but for those links that you can control/access, you should definitely do it. If you want to reduce the risk of a penalty, consider using buffers for your links as described below.
Furthermore, if you rent links, like our High PR Solutions, you should send the link provider a request to change the links to your new URL/website.
Ways to minimize the risk of a link penalty
To minimize the risk of a possible link penalty, we recommend to use buffer sites in between your backlinks and your website. Buffer sites can come in many forms and variations and they usually work as a “shield” layer to keep your site relatively safe from penalties and future algorithmic updates, as the bulk of your link building will be pointed at the buffers instead of directly at your site, while the buffers themselves link to your site.
Personally, we prefer to use free blogs on premium Web 2.0 sites with great authority base metrics (i.e. WordPress, Tumblr, Blog, etc.) for our buffer properties, as they are easy to set up, can take quite a bit of backlinks volume and allow for a lot of customization, with on-page factors in mind. However, small satellite sites (think personal PBN), guest posts, infographics, press releases and parasites / feeder domains work just as well. In addition, we always use 100% unique and engaging content written by native authors on all of our buffer sites and we make frequent content updates in order to increase their authority and freshness metrics.
Furthermore, we try to keep the OBL from the buffers to a maximum of 5 per buffer property to not dilute the link juice too much, but this can be increased as you build more links to the buffer and add more content. It is also a good idea to include 1-2 links from the buffer to relevant authority sources to make the buffer site appear even more natural.
In all of our years providing SEO services, we only had a handful of our manually-built buffer properties deleted or penalized and even less instances where a money site which used buffers in-between its link building get penalized. This goes to show that a careful approach to link building can result in sustainable rankings (even if you use black hat link building for your buffers).
As for link building to your buffer sites, we recommend to use a mixture of primary keywords, generic terms and raw URLs as anchors. The results are usually a bit delayed compared to directly pointing the links at your website, but this approach will keep your website fairly safe from future updates and you can still reap all the benefits of your powerhouse/blach hat links without jeopardizing your money site.
If you are interested in outsourcing the creation of buffer sites: our high PR solutions service offers the option to add either 5 or 10 buffer properties in the first tier. You can also look into our Premium Solutions service, if you just want to order some buffer sites with a mixture of different tier 2 links.
Besides buffer sites, another great way to minimize the risk of a penalty for your money site is to make sure your site’s anchors profile is sufficiently diversified. To avoid anchor over-optimization penalties, you need to be mindful of the anchors/keywords you use for your link building campaigns. Always keep an eye on your site’s anchor ratios to make sure no single (main) keyword is making up too high of a percentage of your site’s anchor base. A great tool for checking anchor ratios is ahrefs.com.
As a general guideline, you should strive for the following anchor text distribution to avoid having your site negatively affected by one of the many Google updates:
– Main Keywords: maximum 10-15% (combined) of your entire anchor base.
– Secondary / Longtail Keywords: 10-15% (combined)
– Brand Keywords / Raw URL: 40-50%
– Generic Keywords (click here, more information, etc.): 25-35%
If your search engine traffic has plummeted and your rankings have been destroyed, it’s time to check Google Webmaster Tools for manual actions and / or the big IM forums to see if there are news about a recent algorithmic update. Once you have identified the cause of your penalty, it’s time to take action.
We would recommend to try at least one of our methods outlined above to recover your rankings. You’ll be surprised how well it works. Needless to say it helps if you have perfect On-Page Optimization to make the most of any link building you do.
If you would like to share any other methods which work for you, feel free to leave a comment!