If you've been affected by Google's Penguin algorithm, the results can sometimes be devastating. I speak regularly with business owners who are distraught because they have done everything they know to do and have still not recovered.
Does this mean that you still have to do more work? Does this mean that your site is never going to recover? Does it make more sense to just scrap the site and start with a new one?
It's very important to note at this point that in most cases a site can't recover from Penguin until Google refreshes the Penguin algorithm. The last time that this happened was October 2013.
Even if you've done a fantastic cleanup, you're likely still seeing a flatline when it comes to Google traffic. My last Search Engine Watch column gives more information on reasons why a site hit by Penguin may not recover.
Is it a good idea to even try recovering a Penguin-hit site? When Penguin last updated, there really weren't many documented cases of recovery. This is quite concerning.
Many people decided at this point that recovering a Penguin-hit site was not possible. However, I have seen Penguin hit sites make partial, full, or even better than pre-Penguin recoveries. But, I have to be honest and say that recoveries don't always happen, even if a good link cleanup is done.
This article will help you decide whether you should attempt recovery on your Penguin-hit site or whether you should give up and start fresh with a new URL.
How to Tell If Penguin Has Affected Your Site
The first thing that we need to talk about is how to determine whether it is actually Penguin that is affecting your site.
For most sites that are affected by the Penguin algorithm, taking a good look at your analytics data is the key to determining whether you've been negatively affected by Penguin.
Ideally it's best to look at analytics data that separates out organic traffic. If your site gets a lot of direct traffic, referral visits, or PPC hits, then it can sometimes be hard to see the drop that comes along with a Penguin hit.
If you use Google Analytics, here's an easy way to look at your organic traffic only:
Click on Acquisition > Keywords > Organic.
If you want to be even more accurate, you can filter the data so that you're only seeing organic traffic that comes from Google. For most websites, this isn't necessary, as usually only a small percentage of search traffic comes from other sources, such as Bing and Yahoo.
If you get a lot of people searching for your brand name, then it may also be helpful to only look at non-branded traffic. To do this, click on "advanced" and ask Google to exclude the terms that are associated with your brand.
The next thing to do is to change the date so that you are looking at traffic that goes back prior to April of 2012, which is when Penguin first rolled out. This is, of course, assuming that your website has been in existence for this long. I usually like to go back to early 2011 so that I can see evidence of Panda hits as well, as Panda first rolled out in February of 2011. Once you've done this then you should have a good picture of how much love Google has given you in organic search.
If you were directly affected by the Penguin algorithm, then you should see an obvious dip in organic search traffic that happens on one or more of the following dates:
- April 24, 2012
- May 25, 2012
- October 5, 2012
- May 22, 2013
- October 4, 2013
Now, it is still possible to see a gradual decline in search traffic that isn't associated with these dates, if you have bad links that are just being devalued by Google. There are other algorithms that Google uses to deal with links than just Penguin. But, for the most part, if you are affected by Penguin then you'll see a dip that corresponds with one of the above dates.
A note for smaller sites or sites that were never ranking in top positions: If you don't get a lot of search traffic, then it's possible you can be affected by Penguin and not see any changes in your analytics.
For example, if you were ranking number eight for your main keyword and Penguin dropped you to number 48, you might not see much change in the number of people clicking through to your site because you probably didn't get many clicks sitting at position eight.
Other Ways to Look at the Data If You Don't Have Access to Analytics:
Do you have any ranking reports that were given to you by your SEO company? If so, then you can:
- Look for or a drop in rankings that corresponds with one of the above dates.
- Look your server logs if they go back far enough and see if you can connect a drop. However, keep in mind that your server logs are generally going to show you all traffic and not just search traffic, so it may not be as obvious that a drop had happened.
- Review your traffic on SEMrush. Under "Organic Research," hit "positions" and you may see something like this:
Are Other Factors Causing Your Site to Not Rank Well?
I can't tell you how often I get contacted by site owners who want a link audit so that they can escape Penguin when really their site was never affected by the Penguin algorithm. A lot of business owners will confuse the Penguin and the Panda algorithms.
Panda is a Google algorithm that deals with on-site quality and really doesn't look at link quality. Some common reasons for a site to be affected by the Panda algorithm are:
- Large amounts of content in the Google index that is never clicked on and not really useful to most readers.
- Lots of content that is copied from other sources.
- A website that is difficult for users or search engine crawlers to navigate.
That's a really simplified explanation of Panda. There's a lot more to Panda that I'm not going to cover in this article. Here are some good resources for more reading:
Many sites have been affected by Panda and Penguin. If you've got both issues, then if you want your site to be able to rank again, you'll obviously need to put resources into addressing both the Panda and Penguin issues.
It's conceivably possible that you can do a full Penguin cleanup job and when Penguin refreshes, if Panda is affecting your site, you'll either see a very slight increase or possibly even no increase at all. So, if you aren't willing to do a thorough investigation into whether your site is affected by Panda, then it might not make sense to pour time and money into Penguin recovery.
Are You Married to Your Domain Name?
For some businesses, it may not be an option to start over. If you have extensive branding tied to your URL, then starting fresh with a new URL might not be an option. There are ways that you can redirect your old URL to your new one and not pass the bad link equity to your new site (such as passing the redirect through a page that is blocked by robots.txt), but this can be tricky.
Similarly, if you start over with a new site and you're using the exact same content as the old site, Google will usually detect this and can apply your old links to your new site even though there is no redirect. You'll know that this is happening if you click on your links in Webmaster Tools and see a note that says, "via this intermediate link: [your old site]." This means that starting over isn't just as simple as buying a new domain name and slapping up the same content that existed on your old site.
Creating a new site with new content can be an expensive venture. Also, if your old site has good, naturally earned links alongside of the unnatural ones that cause you Penguin troubles, then you're tossing those links in the toilet. You may be able to reclaim some of those with creative outreach and begging, but in reality, most of those links will be lost if you start over.
Are You Able to Do a Really Thorough Cleanup?
The way I understand Penguin, is that it is a measure of trust that Google puts on your site in regards to webspam. So, for example, if Penguin detects that you have a large number of unnatural links pointing to your site, then essentially what happens is that Google decides that your site isn't as trustworthy as your competitors and as a result your rankings are suppressed.
Google's John Mueller has said several times that Penguin is a sitewide issue. In other words, if they've detected that they can't trust links to some of your pages, it likely will affect the ranking of all of your pages. There are different degrees to this ranking suppression depending on how untrustworthy your links are and how many good signals you have as well.
Bottom line: it's probably not going to cut it if you do just a little bit of link cleanup. The only sites that I have seen make Penguin recoveries are ones that did really thorough link cleanups.
If you've just scratched the surface and picked out a few unnatural links to disavow, you likely won't see a recovery. Similarly, you need to make sure that you've had a thorough look at your site for on-site webspam issues such as keyword stuffing, hidden text, cloaking, and other ones that I have listed in this article.
If you're going to make a go at recovering from Penguin, then you need to be really thorough to get Google to trust your site again. For most sites, you also need to be committed to continually monitoring your backlinks.
Many sites that have had low-quality links built to them will continue to get new low-quality links even if you are not actively building them. Some of these may be links that were made years ago but are just surfacing in Webmaster Tools and the other backlink checkers now.
In other cases, some links can continue to replicate. An example of this would be if you purchased a link building package that promises a whole bunch of links or directory submissions for $100. Some of these are gifts that just keep on giving.
Do You Have Good Links and a Good Site?
This is extremely important! Was your site only ranking well in the past because of the power of unnatural links? When you remove or disavow all of those links do you have any good links left?
Here's a way that you can tell if you have good links. If you subscribe to Ahrefs or Majestic SEO (which is free if you verify your site), or Open Site Explorer (also free), you can view your links by quality metrics that are determined by each of these companies. In Ahrefs you can list the links by "Domain Rank." Majestic ranks sites according to "Trust Rank" and Open Site Explorer lets you list your linking domains according to their "Domain Authority."
For each of these, you'll need to filter them to make sure that you are looking at only followed links because while nofollowed links can still be important for traffic generation, they won't help boost your rankings.
Look at your top links. Are these links that an SEO company made for you that were obviously exists just for the purpose of manipulating Google? Are they links that you purchased? Or, are they links from valid industry partners, or even better, links that you did not make but rather, earned?
If you don't have many good links pointing to your site, then there may not be much benefit in trying to do the work necessary to escape Penguin.
The decision on whether to attempt Penguin cleanup or start fresh is rarely easy. If you have a good site that is able to attract links naturally, and if you are willing to put in the time, effort, or money to have a thorough cleanup done, then Penguin recovery is indeed possible. But, in many cases, the ROI is not worth the effort.
What do you think? Are there other factors that you look at when trying to decide whether to start over with a Penguin hit site? It often isn't an easy decision!