Learning to Carry Your SEO Baggage

Everybody’s got baggage. Everyone has things they carry with them from their past. The things we’ve done, for better or worse are what make us who we are now. Our websites are no different.

There’s a quote from Steel Magnolias that I love where Truvy says, “If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past.” If your website has been online about a year or so, then consider it an adolescent, with enough history to make it interesting. Whatever your long-term plans or goals may be, you have to take what’s behind you into account. Your baggage will determine how you need to move forward.

A Suitcase Full of Links

Links are one of the biggest sources of complicated baggage for a website. They may be what helped you get the rankings you have, and they may also be your downfall. Whether you’ve been hit algorithmically, manually, or maybe just you know there’s some sketchiness behind you and you’re nervously waiting for the other shoe to drop, you have to deal with the links from your past.

Nothing stays buried forever. Maybe the link exchanges you did in 2006 seem harmless enough. But they could be an 8-year-old ticking time bomb. The directories you got listed in may seem innocuous enough to slide, but they may also be the underlying reason you’ve spent over a year under Penguin’s thumb, or is it wing?

Even if you’ve given up those practices now, like that protest that got a little out of hand in college. the arrest record stays with you and so does the potential effect of low-quality links. Your website’s past extends far beyond what you’ve done in the last year.

If you’ve been hit, and you’ve lost your placement for the phrases that you Google every morning to see whether or not it will be a good day, look to those links. At one point they may have been the reason for your top placement for your favorite head terms. But now, they may be the reason you’ve lost that spot and that anchor text may be the anchor keeping you from having a shot at reemerging.

Re-Think the Way You Pack

The truth is, in the new landscape, it may take years for you to fight your way back to the top for phrases you once took for granted. It’s even possible you’re out of the competition on a few phrases for good. Where you get your business now may have to be from more long tail phrases, more social activity, and more online PR initiatives.

But refusing to remove links because they once did something good for you is like keeping an old friend from high school that you don’t really like anymore. Sure, 15 years ago she brought you Ben & Jerry’s at midnight to help you get through your first break-up, but now she’s a constant complainer who is bringing you nothing but down. We hold onto things from the past that are toxic for a lot of reasons, but sooner or later we have to do the Elsa, and let it go.

It’s true that when you’re disavowing or removing links, things may get worse before they get better. There may be unreachable sites, rankings may drop again before they rise, and certain partner sites may find it offensive that you insinuate a link from their site is something less than a wondrous gift. But sometimes, the hard thing now, is the right thing for your future.

Everyone deserves a chance to “start over” now and then. But just because we get to call a do-over doesn’t mean we are instantly free of everything behind us. A makeover is just on the surface, we still have our past to deal with, the good and the bad.

New Luggage, Same Contents

Creating a new domain, but 301 re-directing an older domain into it, is like legally changing your name; the records associated with the last one still exist. A new name on an old life isn’t the same as a new identity. When you bring old domains into a new one, there will be risks and reward. The positive history, trust, and authority from the old site will go into the new one, but so will the baggage. A low-quality link profile from an old domain could bring with it, inhibitors to the growth of the new site.

Those could be penalties or the after-effects of Penguin. Red flags and negative signals don’t go away with a re-direct. The new domain name may cover some sins for a little while, but eventually they could rear their ugly head and make problems for the new domain.

If you’re going to start again with a domain and a promise not to make the same mistakes again, you’ll need to face your demons first. When you don’t deal with the past, you can never really move forward. That means the baggage from old domain needs to be cleaned up in order for it to offer its full value to the new one. You can’t start a new relationship until you’ve dealt with the wounds of your last one. That’s life, and that’s SEO.

Your baggage doesn’t need to define you, but it does play a role in the steps you need to take to move forward. The mistakes of your past don’t necessarily disappear with time. Sometimes you must take corrective action in order to have the future you want. For some websites, that may mean letting go of links either via disavow or through a “please remove this link” email. Does it mean that you may never be where you once were? Sure, but in the grand scheme, that’s OK because there are so many other opportunities. Sometimes it means scrapping everything and starting again armed with nothing but wisdom of experience. The chance to rebuild can be a gift, whether you’re trying to rebuild a torched profile, rebuild a new site, or even rebuild an entirely new vision based on new circumstances. You will always have your baggage, but you baggage is also full of the lessons you’ve learned and those become the foundation on which we create something new.

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