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.

Penalized and Sad

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:

  1. Run a full backlink analysis
  2. Determine toxic links
  3. Extrapolate contact information for websites linking
  4. 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
  5. Disavow any links you’re unable to have removed
  6. Document all progress including links removed, websites contacted, links disavowed
  7. Provide a reconsideration request to Google
  8. Wait for response
  9. 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:

  1. Establish a risk-versus-reward mindset with the client
  2. Do a deep dive analysis on the website, including:
    1. Investments into the site
    2. Likelihood of recovery
    3. Potential cost of recovery
    4. Cost of starting fresh
  3. Ensure client understands the difficulties of link removal and recovery
  4. Have an honest conversation centered around wiping the slate clean and starting fresh
  5. 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.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO | Google: Panda Update | Google: Penguin Update | Link Building: General | SEO: General


About The Author: is CEO of Page One Power, a white hat custom link building firm located in Boise Idaho. He is an expert at link building strategy and implementation. If he's not doing link building he's photographing or mountain biking in the beautiful wilderness of Idaho.

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  • JakubHanke

    Well, why not just buy a different domain and 301′s it?

  • Andrew Stolpe

    This will temporarily work and then pass the penalty to the new domain.

  • Pat Grady

    I’m pretty sure Jakub was joking. :-) I’ve seen this “thinking” before.

  • ashear

    Great write up! It’s a hard choice to make, however if a domain has had a history of abusive spam. It’s going to be a hard case to get it released, especially as the emotions of the protective spam team will come into play. No one likes their hard work messed with, developers are also human beings with emotions. Sometimes its hard for us to see that.

  • Sha Menz

    “I will say, however, that having a manual penalty removed after one
    attempt, regardless of the amount of work put in, is exceedingly rare.”

    I’m afraid I would have to disagree slightly there Jon. If you follow the correct process without deviation (which does involve considerable work) lifting a penalty on the first attempt can be a familiar occurrence. The real trick I think, is in convincing a client to jump off of the emotional roller coaster and trust in the process so you can do what needs to be done

  • beulah752

    what Dawn responded I’m dazzled that a person can profit $6441 in four weeks on the computer. did you see this web page w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • Antti Nylund

    If toxic links have not turned your home page to a waste land you might consider republishing pages with most toxic content and make sure your 404 page serves visitors the lost content with ease. This in the case that captain is chained to the mast…

  • Swayam Das

    If the domain is related to a Brand then it’s not a good idea to bunk the domain and go for a new one just because Google hates it. If it’s non-branded there is a way as you mentioned.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    I’ve had to have this discussion with site owners as well—are you willing to put in the work and wait and hope that Google lifts the penalty? Can you afford to wait that long? If it’s an algorithmic penalty you have to wait until at least the next update to see if you’ve done everything write. Sometimes as site is worth saving but that’s a bigger business decision than just looking at SEO.

  • Jon Ball

    So true ashear! This is the most overlooked aspect of dealing with penalized sites – the emotional attachments site owners form. Websites require a lot of work, and after years of this it’s hard to think objectively and make logical conclusions. We’re all only human after all.

  • Jon Ball

    I’m glad you’ve had good experiences Sha. Always happy to hear someone having a positive interaction with Google.

    With recent changes Google’s made (actually reporting the exact penalty in webmaster tools) I hope to see more of this in the future. ‘The emotional roller coaster’ – apt words.

  • Jon Ball

    Hey Swayam, thanks for pointing that out. I would agree that if your domain is directly tied to your brand then that definitely plays into the factors to examine.

    However, you can always make a new domain that still ties into the brand. For example, my company Page One Power, we have the domain If we needed to move domains, for whatever reason, there’s other options still., for example. Not ideal, but still doable.

    However, as you’ve said, if your domain is well known and associated directly with your brand you should think twice before moving.

  • Jon Ball

    Absolutely Nick. Thanks for your comment. I think the importance of being upfront and honest about the amount of work can’t be overstated. Because, as you said, this goes beyond SEO and is truly a business decision. Oftentimes we’re talking about someone’s livelihood.

  • Jon Ball

    Thanks for your comment.

    You’re right, I did focus pretty heavily on links since that’s primarily what I specialize in.

    However, as Nick said below often times the question of what to do about a penalty goes beyond an SEO decision – it becomes a business decision. And often times businesses don’t have time to wait and see about recovery.

    But again, the age of the domain (not to mention the overall investment) is definitely something that should be considered before making any decision.

  • Jon Ball

    Great story! I love seeing a little humor brought into the SEO world – I think we all need it from time to time.

  • Charles Floate

    I’m all for throwing away something that’s unfixable but if you can remove the penalty, then I’d sink my teeth into that 10 year old business domain with a branded authority.
    Not to mention businesses IRL marketing with the likes of business cards, flyers, adverts etc.. that are all based around that old domain, it can be more expensive to not recover from the penalty.

  • Jon Ball

    Hey Charles,

    I’d absolutely agree – a lot of times I see websites that are still receiving traffic even when nuked out of the SERPs for these reasons. Definitely one of the factors I consider, along with overall investment and likelihood of recovery.

  • Charles Floate

    Yeh, Google SERP traffic makes up 40% of my blogs traffic.. Majority comes from referrals (35%) then social ^.^
    I’d prefer a sticky thread on a big forum in my niche over ranking #1 for the KW related to it any day, would get more traffic, build brand reputation and have a community backing :)

  • Charles Floate

    Yeh, Google SERP traffic makes up 40% of my blogs traffic.. Majority comes from referrals (35%) then social ^.^
    I’d prefer a sticky thread on a big forum in my niche over ranking #1 for the KW related to it any day, would get more traffic, build brand reputation and have a community backing :)

  • Trisha Agarwal

    Great article. I am working very hard to recover from all of these cute little beasts! I had a lot of duplicate issues due to my content 2.0 pages, which I tackled too late to feel any benefits from the July 15th update. I am quite curious about what you mean by unnatural links? Do you mean linking to your own internal pages or to other sites? Or both? I have some ‘resource pages’ that have a very small list of sites on them. Should I dump those? And what can you do about exact match anchor texts that already exist? my blog was hit by Panda on 24th August 2013


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