So your site is chugging along. You're feeling happy. Organic visits are through the roof and your converting users into happy customers at well over the standard percentage.
Then one day it happens. You walk in, open your analytics and discover your traffic statistics have fallen off a cliff.
At first you're convinced it's a mistake, but after a few stressful checks you find out no – this is real. Your site is down 25 percent, 30 percent, or maybe even 80 percent!
Days stretch into a week, then weeks. Now you know what happened – you were hit by Google – either manually or algorithmically you aren't sure yet, but you know it happened. Now what?
Maybe you're lucky and the action was manual, so you can go into the manual viewer and see what you did wrong, what pages are affected, and what you need to do to get out of the pits of Mordor. Or maybe it was the result of an algorithmic change, which means you have to figure out which one, or ones, and then wait until the algorithm comes back around to recrawl your site. If it is a Penguin problem, you could be waiting a while.
Could This Kill Your Business?
Penalties come in all shapes and sizes. Some actions only affect a page or two. Some penalties remove main keywords, others sections from your site, and then there is the big daddy of penalties, the homepage removal.
Homepage deindexing is just that, your homepage won't be found for your site name. Now, it may be found for the full domain, so "domain" brings up nothing, but "domain.com" will bring up a listing. In the worst of the worst, neither will bring up anything in the search results.
Homepage removal also usually results in a significant deindexing of your site in general. So where you might have had several hundred pages indexed you now have less than a handful.
So whether it's a page removal, keyword removal, link devaluation, or the harshest homepage dissolution, where does that leave you? For many it means the end of business, as they know it, for some it means the end of business.
What Happens After a Penalty?
If you see you received a penalty and you know you did something against Google's Webmaster Guidelines drop everything and I mean everything you are doing and go fix it the moment you see it.
Sometimes and just sometimes for some things, Google has what I call the "you didn't mean it" or "we all do stupid things sometimes" grace period, meaning anything can happen by accident and if you get your stuff correct fast and I mean hours not days, fast, they might just go ahead and readjust you.
So let's say that didn't work or you didn't notice it until a month or so later. (Yes it happens all the time.) This article isn't about writing reconsideration requests and how to remove links or replace thin content, this is about how you survive if the worst happens.
So the question to you is – if your livelihood relies on the Internet and your website is a significant piece of that income, how will you survive? Where is your SEO rainy day fund?
SEO Rainy Day Fund – What?
As SEO consultants we hear it so often, too often. My site lost X traffic, we need your help, but we have no money and oh yeah it's been like a year. Can you help us?
Well see here is the thing – we want to help you, we feel for you and we often offer you some advice for free, but we have to eat too and so we can't do it for "free", "exchange of services", "shares", or "part of your profits".
So what is a desperate site owner to do? You need an SEO rainy day fund.
How Much Will Recovery Cost You?
Unfortunately, many site owners, usually out of ignorance, or hiring cheap or unethical SEO firms damage themselves unintentionally.
You don't have to have this money tied up in savings, but make sure you have an empty line of credit, savings, or rich uncle. Big firms make sure it is added into your discretionary funds.
If you're a "site that should be in Google" (e.g., a big brand) you are less likely to suffer the huge losses we're talking about here. You have to be very brazen or just not address your issues.
Cost: Variable cost depending on keywords
Do a review of your main money-making key phrases and search terms every six months and find out what it would cost you to survive, if you had to, on the paying for every one of those terms. Now not every term that converts, the ones you need to survive a penalty situation. Also make sure to know if your keywords are seasonally dependent.
Google makes this pretty easy for you in the AdWords Keyword Planner (it's free to use but you must have an AdWords account) and there are other tools out there like SEOquake that will pull in keyword values for you.
Know how much it costs you to keep your company a float if you were to suddenly nose dive off the organic cliff. Now this is just organic terms, don't go and look at every term on your site, you will give yourself a heart attack and we don't want to do that.
Make sure you have access to enough of this money to survive six months. Most people won't even know for one to two months why they lost their traffic, let alone how to recover, then few get their sites back in the first reconsideration request if it is manual or even longer if you have to wait for the algorithm to come around and fix it. Make sure you have six months in reserve.
Site Audit Fees
Costs: $2,000 to $7,000+
When dealing with a penalty situation, cost shouldn't be your determining factor. Not that you should throw cost to the wind, but if you're price shopping instead of expertise shopping, you're setting yourself up to fail.
With the addition of the manual action viewer it would be easy to think that all you have to do is go in, click, voila! There is your penalty and apply the one solution fits all to your site and everything will be all right, but this isn't the case.
- The Manual Action Viewer only shows manual actions, so any cute little animal penalties or algorithmic filters that resemble penalties won't show here.
- Just because it says you have X penalty on X pages, doesn't mean you don't have Y penalty on other Y pages. Only experienced SEO professionals will know how to look through your data to see what is really there.
- This stuff is complicated, without years of expertise as well as keeping up with all the current daily information it is very easy to be led down the wrong path and wind up with empty pockets as you helplessly watch your site drown in a see of red down arrows.
For a standard penalty site Audit with actionable items, meaning things you can do to help your site, a reputable experienced SEO will typically charge between $2,000 to $7,000 (though for enterprise sites it can be much more).
This is just a general figure, some might charge a little less, some a little more and all of it is dependent on your site and its issues. However if you are not prepared to pay this rate, you are not prepared to get yourself out of penalty status. Knowing how all this works and the time it takes to truly delve into your penalty issues is a service you are paying someone to do and it is one that costs money. Be prepared.
Your site audit will outline your issues, the main items you can fix to affect your penalty issues, and possibly your reconsideration documentation if you perform the necessary changes. This, however, is completely subjective and every SEO professional has their own way of doing things, but if you aren't getting actionable items, then what are you paying for?
Unless you have time to wait for your site to get back to full health, you will need additional resources to make any real headway on your penalty issues, especially if you want to make that headway quickly.
The tricky part of a rainy day fund is, what is next? If you play in the world of risky link buys you may never get your site back, do you have the funds to create a new one? If you have a thin content penalty, do you have funds to hire content writers? If your site just got hit with an over-optimization, what will you do to get those links back?
The list is long, but here are a few of the potential costs for particular scenarios. Note: these are general costs and are variable on city, state, country, size type and vertical.
Type: Algorithmic or manual for thin (shallow) content.
Solution: All new, unique, original informative content. Sometimes you need to develop all new site architectures and navigations, this can also incur design and development costs depending on how deep your thin content issue runs and the flexibility of your site.
Costs: Expect to pay $5 to $100 a page for freelance and copywriting houses or $25,000 to $60,000 a year for a full-time writer in-house.
Solution: Reduce optimization across site, links or anchor text. Sometimes you need to develop all new inbound links, internal URLS, rewritten title tags and content.
Costs: Expect to pay $5-$20 per link acquisition (we aren't talking buying the link, just costs associated with you or your firm getting the new link to your site); or $1,000 to $10,000+ project costs to eliminate the spammy tactics, depending on site size and level of issue; $45,000-$65,000 a year for a junior level SEO in-house who can take care of these tasks for you
Solution: Identify bad links, remove bad links, create disavow list, submit request for reconsideration. To remove links coming into your site you will need to contact site owners and ask them to take the link down. This can often take 3 or more "passes" (communications) with the site owner, as they have no incentive to take the time to remove these links. Many will ask for money.
Costs: Expect to pay $1,000 to $5,000 in either consultants or tools to identify/document link issues; $1,000 to $10,000+ project costs to make the removal requests; $500 to $5,000 to create your reconsideration request and supporting documentation; $75,000 to $150,000 a year for a senior to expert level SEO in-house who can take care of these tasks for you; then $5 to $20 (on average) per new link acquisition after you're reincluded in the index (again, just costs associated with you or your firm getting the new link to your site).
- Agency Recovery Plans of any Type: This is where you forgo the a la carte, in-house plan and you purchase retainer services from an SEO agency or firm to help walk you through each and every step of the process at a set fee per month. They do the audit, the recovery plan, help you with the resources, the reconsideration and the site rebuild after reinclusion or what to do if that never happens.
- Monthly Retainer Rate: This will vary widely and by who is helping you, but remember you're paying for experience and experience costs money – often a lot of money. Being able to get a client out of a penalty situation takes skill, and SEO professional who do this are highly sought after and paid well. If someone is willing to do it for cheap and not a friend, lover, or family member, better look elsewhere.
- Giving Up: Getting a New Site: You might decide that recovery is impossible and your only solution is a new website. Even a small site, if done right with proper content and design, is looking at a minimum of $2,000 to $3,000. A large site can hit the seven-figure range.
Penalty Survival Isn't Cheap
Penalty survival is always talked about in terms of how to recover your website, what to do to get back in Google's good graces, but rarely does anyone mention the very real costs of what a penalty can cost your company in hard dollars, for those who are not prepared it can mean the end of the line.
So just like you keep a personal rainy day fund, make sure to have access to an SEO penalty fund. Otherwise, if your site gets in trouble with Google, you might find yourself in the very uncomfortable position of handing out pink slips and sadly closing the doors. And yes we know it was probably unfair, but there is no Google reconsideration request for that.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!