Our regular readers will know that I have written a couple of blog posts about the headaches we experienced in May and June with a Google penalty. If you haven’t seen them, it may be worth looking at the original blog post and a follow up ‘open letter‘ for the background to this post.

I wanted to share our experiences at the time as I felt that there were some issues that were relevant to all website owners and we pride ourselves on our transparency so I was happy to risk the possible ridicule to explore what I felt (and still do) was a hiccup on Google’s part.

I don’t want to revisit the possible reasons for troubles we experienced but thought that it would be interesting to share some real data to show the impact of a Google penalty and explore what recovery looks like, as I feel confident that we have sailed through the troubled waters and can be confident that it is a painful memory. If you are currently suffering, is there any hope of bouncing back to where you once were or are you doomed to obscurity forever?

What is a Google penalty?

We are often approached by webite owners who believe that they have been hit by a Google penalty but it is usually the case that they have been affected by algorithm changes rather than a true penalty. It is very important to assess whether you have been penalised or just had an adjustment affecting your rankings.

A penalty is typically very severe and you will feel its effects pretty quickly if it happens. At its worst, your site could be completely de-indexed, which will basically turn off the tap to any organic search traffic. There are less severe forms of penalty, but it is not something that I would suggest you try to investigate with your own site!

It is quite old, but http://www.searchenginejournal.com/10-ways-to-diagnose-a-google-penalty/10566/ is a good article to read to see ways of diagnosing a penalty. For us, the most obvious signal was the drop in rankings that we saw for our own brand. It was fairly depressing to witness a massive drop in visibility for our own company name and that alone convinced me that something bad was afoot.

Another clear alarm bell was ringing when looking at the ‘Search Engine Wars’ report in Statcounter (my weapon of choice for real time web stats for our own site – pretty much always open in a tab somewhere…) for May 2012:

Search Engine Wars

*Search engine traffic for May 2012 (souce: Statcounter)

Anyone with any experience of search engine marketing will know that something is up when you are getting that much more traffic from bing than you are from Google!

What does recovery look like?

The intention of this post is to show what recovering from a Google penalty looks like rather than labour the point that it is painful to find yourself being penalised, so I want to share some graphs with you that help to highlight what you may expect to see.

The first chart is a record of our site’s organic ranking for a brand search:

 

Browser Media Rankings

*Google organic search rankings for ‘browser media’

There was a clear ‘dropping off a cliff’ moment when the penalty first struck, followed by several weeks of languishing in an invisible position before total obscurity for a couple of weeks. Once the penalty was lifted, I am pleased to say that we bounced back to where we were previously.

I often think that looking at brand search terms can be misleading as you would usually expect to rank pretty well for your own brand and it may lull you into feeling good about things when the overall picture is less positive. One of the phrases that we track for our own site is ‘seo agency uk’, and you can see from the graph below that the ranking performance was very similar to a brand search:

SEO agency uk rankings

*Google organic search rankings for ‘seo agency uk’ and associated traffic

I have included organic search traffic (shown in green) to show the impact of the drop in rankings. The volumes are never huge (the traffic scale is missing from the right hand side of the graph) but the quality of traffic is usually fairly good and we would naturally want to be found by anyone looking for a UK based SEO agency.

These are two specific examples of keywords that saw a drop in ranking, but we witnessed similar drops across the board and the following graph shows the impact on organic search overall:Organic Search Traffic

*Google organic search traffic (source: Google Analytics)

It is this last graph that is the most interesting. On the surface, it would appear that traffic remains lower than the ‘pre penalty’ days but I believe that this is partly skewed by seasonality as summer is often a bit quieter.

Overall, I am pleased to say that our rankings have largely returned to where they were before ‘the troubles’ and in some cases they are actually stronger. Whilst I have seen examples where recovery has been less strong, the evidence in our case shows that there is no hangover from the penalty.

I am very encouraged by this and it shows that you should not give up on a site that has been penalised. I read an enormous amount of opinion during May and June and the view that you should give up on a domain that has been penalised was a common one.

I don’t want to start a debate about whether any particular site deserves a penalty or not (and many do), but I do feel that it is a positive step by Google to acknowledge that once the cause of a penalty is removed, a site should not be subject to an ongoing devaluation. You may argue that this allows people to test spammy approaches and then just undo it when they get spanked by Google, but you will not recover from a penalty if you continue to use dodgy / spammy techniques and you will need to show that you are making real efforts to concentrate on improving your site and overall online PR.

Lessons learned?

Whilst not much fun at the time, I feel that we have learned quite a bit during the process and wanted to share my thoughts on the positives we can take from the experience:

  • Google is not perfect
    • You can’t rely on Google to get everything right
    • It is a complete nightmare trying to communicate with Google
    • There are major question marks in my mind about the reinclusion request
  • Do not panic
    • You are bound to panic a bit (I did) but this is not going to help
    • Be methodical in your process to diagnose the most likely cause of the problem. Talk to us if you are struggling – we are now experts…
  • Shout in the right places to get noticed
    • You need to be confident that you have got things right, but sometimes you have to shout loud and shout at the right people
    • This is how we managed to get noticed and the penalty lifted

I hope that the graphs give you confidence that recovering from a Google penalty can be complete and that you don’t necessarily need to give up on your domain. We have worked very hard to build a brand and I really didn’t want to lose it, so it was a relief to see the recovery be so complete.

Whilst it is not an experience that I wish to revisit any time soon, I would love to hear about your experiences and would be especially interested to see whether this recovery picture fits with your journey. If you have a story to share, please feel very welcome to leave a comment below.