Penalized & Sad: When To Abandon The Sinking SEO Ship
Sometimes the captain can’t afford to go down with the ship, no matter the temptation or emotional investment.
Every few weeks, I receive another hopeless phone call from another desperate webmaster. Since Penguin, I’ve seen more ships go down than I care to count.
Websites that have delved too deeply into black hat SEO and spam tactics of the past have paid a heavy fine — for many, the ultimate price.
So, how do you know when it’s time to abandon the sinking ship?
Well, let me walk you through it the same way I do on calls. But please, bear in mind that this is only my professional opinion — there are no guarantees and no 100% black and white answers.
A Risk Vs. Reward Mindset
There are multiple factors that go into determining a course for penalized websites. It always boils down to risk versus reward. Honestly examining the risks, the likelihood of reward and the true value of that reward is vital.
The problem with a lot of sites penalized by Penguin is that they’ve been penalized specifically because someone’s put so much work into them — albeit work in the wrong direction. No matter what you’ve heard, spamming isn’t easy. Real work goes into creating all those many thousands of backlinks that have since become toxic.
So, whether it was time, hard work, money, and/or years of attachment, there’s baggage that goes along with these penalized sites. No one wants to dump the baby out with the bathwater, and sometimes that unfortunately equates to the captain going down with the ship.
Enough mixing of metaphors. The point is to explain the emotions that go along with websites like these, which is a truly essential step in the examination of a penalized site. Although much of what we deal with involves websites, robots, technology and search engines, at the end of the day, we’re all still human. Logic gets tangled with emotions.
The Factors To Examine
I use a specific set of factors when examining a penalized site, making an assessment, explaining my reasoning, and giving my recommendation.
These factors are:
- The amount of money invested into the current site
- The number of toxic links
- The severity of the toxicity
- The potential of revenue the site generates (when not penalized/Penguin smacked)
- The amount of revenue the site is currently generating
- The age of the site
- The traffic levels from other sources
- The competitiveness of the niche
- Whether it’s a manual action (penalty) or Penguin/Panda (algorithmic drop)
It’s very important to remember that search traffic isn’t – or shouldn’t be – the end-all-be-all for a website. True, it’s typically a very large piece of the pie, but with search marketers, there’s a tendency to forget about other sources.
The Difficulty Of Link Removal & Recovering From Penalties
The sad fact of the matter is that link removal is difficult in the best of circumstances. Recovering from a penalty is an arduous, uncertain task.
For link removal, you have to:
- Run a full backlink analysis
- Determine toxic links
- Extrapolate contact information for websites linking
- Contact the owner of said website requesting the link be removed
- And again
- And again
- And one more time to prove you’ve done everything possible
- Disavow any links you’re unable to have removed
- Document all progress including links removed, websites contacted, links disavowed
- Provide a reconsideration request to Google
- Wait for response
- Rinse and repeat until Google is satisfied
All of these steps take hours upon hours of work. And the real doozy is #9 — because there are no guarantees with Google. I will say, however, that having a manual penalty removed after one attempt, regardless of the amount of work put in, is exceedingly rare. Especially if link removal is necessary.
There’s no realistic way to estimate the amount of work it will take to successfully have a penalty removed. And, because there’s no ROI until you overcome the threshold and actually have the penalty removed, it can create a resource sink. The more you put in, the more important it is to actually have the penalty removed. Simply said, it’s not a great situation and definitely not a project you want to underestimate.
Quality Versus Quantity – Wiping The Slate Clean
One of the most important questions I ask when evaluating a link removal situation is this: “How competitive is the niche, really?”
I would almost always rather start fresh with a brand new website than work backward with link removal. There are only a few reasons why I wouldn’t:
- The site is vast, with a substantial investment of resources
- The site still receives significant traffic from other sources, and recovery looks possible
- The site owner is unwilling to abandon a site, understands the risks, and we have a strong relationship of trust
I always hear about how competitive the niche is, but the truth is that a few powerful links can make a website competitive. If you invest the time, energy, and resources into building links the right way, the results can be absolutely amazing.
Dealing with Google penalties (or Penguin/Panda) is one of the hardest parts of my job. Although SEO is often portrayed as a technical skillset, I can tell you that what we do is very much intermingled with the human elements of emotion.
When offering advice to a webmaster of a site struggling with either a penalty or algorithmic loss of rankings, I follow a step by step process:
- Establish a risk-versus-reward mindset with the client
- Do a deep dive analysis on the website, including:
- Investments into the site
- Likelihood of recovery
- Potential cost of recovery
- Cost of starting fresh
- Ensure client understands the difficulties of link removal and recovery
- Have an honest conversation centered around wiping the slate clean and starting fresh
- Make an honest recommendation, explaining my reasoning
Making a recommendation requires an honest explanation and clear expectations, along with an understanding that the client might not agree or accept the recommendation.
Giving bad news is a terrible way to start a project, but you’ll deeply regret any sugar coating down the road when expectations aren’t being met. Don’t skimp on the truth; give an honest assessment.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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