SEO Salvage Operation: Saving Websites Hurt by Google Updates

surgeons at an operating table

In the last year, Google really changed the game. Things that never used to "hurt" a website are now bringing businesses to their knees. Leaving most people with more questions than answers and scrambling to find a way to reverse whatever has gone wrong.

Enough people have covered Panda and Penguin to make it pretty common SEO knowledge that things like content, links and usability, some of the exact things that can elevate a site, can also be the things that cut it down.

But sometimes, cutting is what it takes. Everyday doctors have to make difficult calls about when to take a limb to save a life. When it comes to your site, sometimes you have to amputate.

Content

If thin content is your problem you can add new content to all of your pages, you can try to flush out all of those pages that you created to make them into something worthwhile. But sometimes like a bad relationship you’re better off admitting that there’s nothing there really worth saving. If you have a huge site, a massive reduction in size may be exactly the signal you need to send to Google that things have really changed.

You may also need to let go of some of the postulating as to "why". A lot of sites, with thousands of product pages have tons of "thin" content. So why did they get spared and you got hit? There aren’t a lot of good answers to that, you may never know why.

But if it’s Panda, you know what got hit: your content. So action needs to be taken; some pages need to go, and others need to be made more valuable through the addition of assets. Whether those are words, images, visitors or other elements that add worth and depth to a page that at some point Google deemed of little value.

Salvageable:

Finding sections of a site that don’t really serve a purpose or need to be indexed are both great opportunities to make some reductions. Blocking sections of the site in the robots.txt is a completely viable way to hang on to content that serves on-site users but that doesn’t, or doesn’t really need to, rank.

You may also be able to find pages that don’t really need to exist on their own. If you have multiple pages that cover similar keywords but don’t really represent a unique intent, those pages can often be combined and consolidated.

Links

With links making the World Wide Web go round, most people are neck deep in the link acquisition game, and over the years, it’s gotten pretty ugly. Think NFL replacement refs ugly. Google has blown their whistle, thrown a yellow flag, and called it Penguin.

Now, everyone is revising, revaluating and in some cases regretting their former link strategies. That started a wave of re-inclusion and link removal requests. But then Google gave us the disavow tool.

The disavow tool lets us sever our relationships with all of those links we shouldn’t have gotten in the first place. That means it’s time to make some tough decisions.

Which links should go, and how do you find them? You can use some link reports and tools that will "grade" or "evaluate" your links based on automatic criteria. And you can take the tools at their word. Or you can make the choice to sit down and filter through your links, to take the time to look at them and decide which ones really do need to go.

It’s actually somewhat ironic how quickly we turned to automated link removal solutions to a problem that automated link buying caused. Tools and reports that flag links for triggers like Toolbar PR, Links on a page or determining that a domain is not indexed, when a manual cache check would show that it is.

Sure, there are lot of links it will be easy to say goodbye to; cheap directories, site-wide footer links, paid blog post links on blogs linking to everything from dog toys to canned ham.

Side note, when in doubt over the quality of a link, run a site: command and look for words like "Payday loans" or "diet pills". If they show up, your choice just got a whole lot easier.

But you’ll have to make some harder calls too. You’ll have to lose links with anchor text; you’ll have to unload inks you paid good money for. But you may not have to lose everything.

Salvageable:

I’ve actually seen link removal requests for perfectly legitimate links. But because it’s on a commercial site, or because there are other links on the page someone thought "this one has to go". That’s not always the case.

If there’s any question over the value of the link, consider the other links alongside yours. If they are completely unrelated links bearing keyword anchor text, yeah I get why it’s a goner. But if the co-citation is somewhat relevant or at least authentic then maybe it’s a keeper, at least for now.

Also, any links that send you traffic you may not want to remove so quickly. If a site shows up in your referrals, it should at least survive the first wave of link layoffs.

In the wake of updates, you see a lot of what we call collateral damage – sites that weren’t trying to scam the system but got hit anyway. Google may have decided that it’s an acceptable cost of their war on paid links, but it doesn’t have to be in yours. It’s more time consuming, and takes more effort, but it may be worth taking a scalpel to your back links instead of a machete.

Some people are OK with using a digital grenade. If that’s you, you likely know who you are. If you don’t; see the "pay day loans" test above to find out.

Big Impacts Call for Big Changes

Whether most of your problems lie in your content or your links, the one thing that’s the same is that if you want to get back to where you were, or even close, it’s probably going to take something major. So if you’ve done a few minor tweaks, added a little content here and there, or only distance yourself form a few links and are now just waiting for the next "refresh" to restore you to your former glory… you may be waiting for a long time.

Husbands buy their wives flowers when they screw up, not because pretty plants fix problems, but because it’s a grand romantic gesture. If you want to fix your site’s relationship with the Google rankings, it may take something extreme.

You can try sending roses to the Googleplex, but you’re probably better off turning those pruning shears on your site instead. It may hurt a little, but it’s also your best shot at recovery.