case study

Google Penguin Recovery Case Study

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September 12  |  Link Building  |   Ryan Clark

Lucky for us, we’ve never targeted anchor text or sought out links from questionable sources for our clients. Since the Google Penguin updates started we’ve had an *insane* amount of new clients seeking our help and since we only take on a dozen clients at a time, we were not able to take a lot of the extra work. We did, however, have one  brand, very well known in its vertical, pursue me quite aggressively for help until I finally caved. The majority of other sites coming to us for help were more of a headache to try and sort out, and this well known brand had one important thing going for them – they didn’t need to be building the types of links they had!

So how did this brand go from killing it in sales to literally 1-4 sales per week? Well about two years ago as the company was scaling and the owners decided to push the online marketing angle a lot more. They did what most businesses do and headed to Google to search for a reputable SEO company. They did make a choice from the various firms that were ranking well in the SERPs at the time and signed a year contract with this firm. Sadly this was their first mistake as they let this reputable company take their SEO efforts, both on and off site, into 6th gear for almost two years. While they got reports back with what was done, almost nobody in their marketing department had any idea that what they were getting was piles of spam.

Penguin hit them like a ton of bricks, and while you shouldn’t rely solely on free Google traffic for your business, we know that it’s a hard thing to get away from. As you can see from the anchor text levels above, they had a major focus on the big keyword in their vertical and not much else. In fact, they only had 3 site/brand styled links in their entire portfolio. We all know that link spam still works just fine and they were in sales heaven for a long time so they never questioned their SEO’s methods.

When I dived into their link profile I was thrilled with the fact that only about 400 links were pure garbage. A lot of the other troubled companies emailing had thousands upon thousands – not a mess easily cleaned. What I found was the usual stuff: forum profile spam, low quality blog comments on random blogs already spammed to death, crap article marketing, low quality directories and, of course, blog network posts. To say the least, this “SEO” company has ruined their business  and deserves a kicking in the bollocks!

Penguin Symptoms

This brand was knocked down to floating within the 5th-7th page region for their top 3 main keywords, which resulted in 5000 UV’s a day being reduced to just 50-80. That’s a huge drop that no one wants to experience! We ruled out Panda, as they’re an ecommerce site with all unique descriptions, tons of reviews on product pages, a lot of social votes and all around sound on-page SEO.

They were still ranking fine for the long tail, sadly this is what was trickling in the small amount of traffic. They started seeing a lot of shuffling in their SERPs on the 25th of May and by the morning of the 27th, it was clear that the weekend was a bad one. The date, combined with how their top keywords were thrown past the fifth results page, confirmed for me that this was definitely a Penguin hit. I should also mention that they received no manual penalty at all via their Google webmaster tools.

Removing the junk!

The main reason we never offered a link removal service was mainly that we don’t have any clients getting into “link trouble”. Secondly, it’s extremely time consuming. We only take on a max of a dozen clients at a time and we don’t outsource anything so our time is limited. Thankfully, there are services out there for nothing but link removal. I know a lot of my colleagues in the industry scoffed at the idea but I sure as hell won’t be emailing people to take down links! Here are a few that I’ve heard do a good job:

I recommended this service first as they have partnerships with a lot of directories and you can tackle a bunch of low hanging fruit quite easily. As you can see, for our client we didn’t have a whole lot to remove but that’s 3 emails we didn’t have to send!

This service we didn’t use but it has a really great interface in addition to a reasonable pricing structure. If we decide to help out another client in this area, I will definitely give them a try. If you’ve used their service, please let us know how it went in the comments below and I’ll add them to the post here.

This is another tool we didn’t try but I know it’s being used quite a bit lately. It’s a tool that allows your to import a .csv list of links and Rmoov will pull the contact data in for you. They also have customized email templates for harassing these webmasters! You can also email from their system and Rmoov will send reminders to them automatically – that’s pretty slick. To top it off, they’ll keep that spreadsheet up to date and provide reports on how things are going. Here’s the pricing:

This is perhaps the most well known service of the group and it’s who we hired to handle the tedious link removal work. Remove Em has two options: You can either do the self-serve method and get to work, or there is the full service option, which we opted for. It costs anywhere from $10-20 per link removal and that depends on how many links you have to remove. I imagine it’s on the cheaper side if you have a lot of links to remove. There is also a $1000 setup fee as they’ll have to sort your links and your campaign which takes a good amount of time.

A lot of these services say once the bad links are gone your rankings will return to normal. This is, in my opinion, no where close to the truth. Once the links you had propping you up are gone, expect to not rank as well. Makes sense, no?

Path To Penguin Recovery

While there hasn’t be a Penguin 1.2 launch yet, we did start to see movement breakout beyond the fifth page for two of the most important keywords. I told our client to wait until the next run of the algo to see if we managed to shed the junk and create some real authority. The Linkbuildr approach to building links is to do as much natural attraction as possible, although not every link is going to be “editorial”. For example, if our client should be listed at, we’re going to make that happen.

Stop worrying about anchor text!

This is the one mantra we’ve employed here at Linkbuildr since we started consulting 5 years ago. Your website, and I mean every different page, should be easily read by both the search engines and your users and be clear on what exactly is going on. If it’s confusing, over optimized or junky looking then why should either bother? With that being said, if that part is spot on then you shouldn’t need mass amounts of targeted anchor text to rank for your desired keywords.

While it’s still just as easy (post Penguin) to spam the junkiest links for a couple anchors and rank within a few weeks, don’t bother. If you want your business to stick around for years to come, do it right the first time and enjoy the long term benefits.

For those that do a lot of link analysis like I do, you’ll have noticed that sites who’ve ranked for years have one thing in common link wise, a link profile that looks like this:

  3. brandname
  4. brand name

By now you should be getting the fact that I think Penguin had mainly to do with anchor text ratios. It has been the most common factor, in my experience. It’s also a pretty simple algorithm to determine for Google and a strong indicator of manually built links. I have seen spammy sites ranking well with junk links but their anchor text levels mirrored to what you see above. I don’t think this will last, as I imagine Google is testing ways to determine what’s a junk link and what isn’t.

“Really Ryan?”

Sure, why not?! How hard would it be for Google’s algorithm to determine that your link profile consists of 300 forum user profile pages, 150 blog comments and 400 directories. Cut those numbers by 2/3’s and you still have a crazy bad link profile that’s nowhere near natural.

What it all comes down to? Set your brand/company apart from the rest by doing the things that make you stand out. This never fails and lets you have fun being creative. Take a look at your competition, make a big list of the things they’re doing and then set out to do them better. No one is going to notice or care about another identical company coming into the vertical, not really offering much else. I am, by no means, referring to just link building. Think beyond the link and offer amazing customer service, mind blowing content, digital media and highly engaging social media that shows your customers who you really are.

Stop Building Links And Start Attracting Them

This, this and this! If you’re link profile consists of the junk I’ve mentioned and no editorial/earned/natural links what-so-ever, then I’d be afraid. For the client we’re helping out in this case, they had less than 5 links that were given naturally so they wanted to know what we could offer.

Starting in June, we kicked off a content creation machine that would be taken over by their team beginning January 1st. This gave us a lot of time to create, try and test what worked for them in their niche. For this we chose to “think beyond the link” and tackled marketing efforts that would also bring in social followers and build brand awareness. To do this we put them on a steady diet of:

  • high quality blog content on a bi-weekly basis
  • one piece of link bait on their blog every 2 weeks pushed hard through their social channels
  • iPhone and Android shopping apps with tons of unique features
  • an iPad app for shopping as well as a built-in magazine with their own unique content
  • press releases from all the major services over time for whenever they launched something
  • Facebook contests/give-aways, which brought in hundreds of links and thousands of social followers
  • interviews in a couple podcasts from within their niche
  • guest blogging on high quality sites from within their vertical
  • two really stunning and useful infographics
  • crowd sourced interviews on their blog with industry leaders (got them links and social followers)
  • sniffed out broken links on authoritative and old pages and built content to offer a good, laser targeted replacement
  • got authoritative bloggers in their niche to review their products in an unbiased manor, and then give the product away to one of their followers
  • awesome video marketing
  • showcased customer pictures and videos and offered coupons for sending the media in

This is not for everyone, as you can imagine the budget for this client was tens of thousands of dollars for a 6 month time period. Not everyone has that, but for those that do and don’t market heavily in a competitive space, they are going to fall far behind. I think it’s safe to say “slow and steady wins the race” when it comes to building a natural link profile, but it takes doing the unique things to get there.

Client Results

While they haven’t had a full recovery, we’ve managed to bring them up to the 2nd and 3rd pages for all their keywords. I don’t think we’ll see a full recovery until the Penguin algo rolls out again here any week now. Traffic levels are back up quite high thanks to the constant content marketing and social media traffic – by this time next year they won’t depend heavily on “free Google” traffic for their business. This is key!

Building up a huge social follower base is also ultra important. The client has over 20,000 Facebook Page fans as well as nearly 8000 Twitter followers and about 100 new ones per day. They’re engaging customers and addressing issues such as delivery inquiries and bad experiences right out in the public eye. The best part of having that many followers? The next time they have a contest, publish some link bait or add a new product they have a huge reach.

Now let me ask our readers this; How many of you have heard, seen or experienced a “Penguin” based infraction? Lets hear about it in our comments below.

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