How to Recover From Google Penguin: A Case Study

This is an all too familiar tale. Once upon a time in a land not so far away a company hired an SEO firm (not us) who did a quite comprehensive job of link building and it was successful. All concerned were delighted and there was much rejoicing.

Then, one day, it wasn’t successful anymore. In fact their organic traffic looked like this:

Penguin Penalty
If you’re happy and you know it, you’ve missed something here.

It was October 5th 2012 and organic traffic quickly fell off after the site dropped like a stone overnight for all it’s major keywords. 60-70% of organic traffic was gone. The big bad Penguin #3 had struck. The fairytale was over.

Rapid Recovery From Penguin

We have had some speedy recoveries from Penguin using the disavow tool, but look at this graph:

Analytics graph 2013
2013 was a rather glum year

There was no rapid recovery for this company. A few great offline campaigns drove some traffic spikes for short periods, but other than that, if anything the site was in further decline. This is despite the disavow tool being launched in October 2012.

Enter Serpstone

We were contacted in March of 2014. I’d love to say that we fixed it instantly, but we didn’t as the next graph shows:

Slight recovery
Two years of living with a Google Penalty now.

We made some progress over the rest of the year compared to the previous one, but while it was better than nothing, it was far from a proper recovery.

At the end of March we had uploaded a new disavow file to Google. There was already one in place but it had been created software by Link Detox. We did ours manually. It was absolutely no fun. We went through every link in Webmaster tools as well as some other tools for finding backlinks.

The company provided us with one of their email addresses and we got what links we could actually removed. We requested the email address because removal requests sounds better coming from the actual company rather than an agency that says they are representing a company. We got a reasonable response with this method.

There were a few links in there that I would have rather kept, but the key to Penguin is to be ruthless.

The problem was there were thousands of links on directories that, when link building worked were charging for building cheap links. Now that link building was “suddenly” bad, they were trying to charge sometimes exorbitant fees for removing them. On principle I decided not to advise paying for their removal. No need to encourage that sort of practice, plus it would have been extremely expensive with no guarantee that it would a) work or b) that they wouldn’t put the links back up again a week later.

So, finally we had our disavow file, with notes commented out for each domain or link telling us when we had tried to contact the site and what response, if any we had. We uploaded it and crossed our fingers.

Those fingers lost circulation after a month or two.

There was no Penguin refresh. Not even a hint of one bar a few unfounded rumours.

Penguin Case Study
What do you want to study my case for?

The problem/s with Penguin recovery is this:

1. Google will not count the link as disavowed until it has a) read the disavow file and b) re-crawled the actual link. So, in a situation like ours with some really, really awful directories that themselves were penalised, re-crawling takes forever (or close to that sort of timeframe).

In fact Google themselves say that it could take up to a year or more! It’s the “or more” bit that I really didn’t like.

2. You have to wait for a Google Penguin refresh for penalties to be lifted. That could take some time too.

Finally, a Proper Recovery!

Any client would have been well within their rights to drop us, even though we were doing good work on other fronts. We had failed to produce the goods in the main area we were needed for. Luckily for us they listened to us when we told them it would not be possible to do a more comprehensive job of disavowing links. In fact our worry was that we had removed so many that there may be no recovery due to a lack of links. They stuck with us.

At last, on October 17th 2014 there was a Penguin refresh. We got excited. Then we got very quiet. Again, nothing happened.

Then we had a glimmer of hope.

After hearing reports that the update was complete, Google’s Pierre Far said “it’s a slow worldwide rollout, so you may notice it settling down over the next few weeks.”

After a month we thought that was it and went back to being glum and miserable.

Then, we saw a sudden jump in our Moz keyword rank tracking (6 weeks later!) and backed that up with a lot of manual searches. Was this it?

It certainly was. Look at the difference in the moz positions:

keyword positions in serps
A bit of a heart in mouth moment the week of December 4th, but then continued improvement.

What you don’t see in that graph is that there were some massive jumps from page 2 and 3 to positions 1-3 on page one for most of the important keywords.

Christmas Messes With Traffic Stats (but we enjoy it anyway)

Unfortunately, because it was Christmas time the site was going into it’s natural slowdown period. Even the first week of January on the analytics graph looks like the normal return to normal traffic that normally happens in any normal year. That is until you compare it to the previous year:

Penguin recovery
A very substantial increase in traffic year on year.

Thursday 8th of January is showing a 180% increase in traffic over the previous year. It is still a little off the 2012 figures, but it is early days still and there was bound to be some downside to disavowing so many links. Overall it’s conclusively showing a recovery.


“It’s gonna take time
A whole lot of precious time
It’s gonna take patience and time,
To do it, To do it, To do it, To do it, To do it,
To do it right child”
-George Harrison

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Ian Wortley

Ian knows a thing or two about SEO... and Adwords... and UX... and a few more things besides that. If you're feeling social add him on the following social networks: | Linkedin | Twitter