The Harsh Realities of a Search Engine Penalty

Written by Nick Stamoulis

In early October 2012, Google lived up to Matt Cutts’ promise of “jarring” updates. In about a week Google pushed out the exact match domain (EMD) update, a new Panda update, a page layout algorithm update AND the long awaited Penguin refresh. The EMD update happened first, and plenty of sites without keyword rich domains claimed they were unfairly nailed with a search engine penalty. A few days later it came to light that all these other updates went live around the same time (SEO Roundtable has this great graph breaking it down) and site owners where left scratching their heads—which algorithm update caused my search engine penalty?

As a business owner, I completely understand the terror that lurks in every business owner’s heart when they hear about another Google update. It’s terrifying to think that your entire online business could collapse because of some equation. A search engine penalty is no joke and many sites can’t survive for long after they’ve been hit. However, as a white hat SEO provider, I also believe that very few, if any, sites that were hit by a search engine penalty have a completely squeaky clean SEO history.

If you were impacted by one of these or another update and are suffering from an algorithmic search engine penalty, there are a few harsh realities you’re going to have to face before you can start on the road to recovery.

1. Even if you didn’t mean it, you’re still stuck with the penalty.

I feel bad for site owners that get stuck with a search engine penalty and truly have no idea where they went wrong. Plenty of small business owners invest in DIY SEO simply because they don’t have the budget to hire a full service provider. They may read all the books, follow all the blogs and try to do everything right, but somewhere along the way they missed or misinterpreted a crucial piece of information. You may not have set out to game the search engines, you may not have realized you were doing anything wrong, but the unfortunate truth is that you are stuck with that search engine penalty regardless.

2. It could take 6 months or two years to recover; there is no way to know for sure.

One of the most frustrating things about search engine penalties when they are caused by an algorithm update is that you have to wait for a refresh to come out before you can fully recover. I was working with a client that was hit by Penguin and even though our SEO efforts (re-optimized the site, removed low-quality links, starting building new links, etc.) helped regain some of their lost traffic they hadn’t completely bounced back in the few months we worked with them. I tried my best to explain upfront that all our efforts would help, but I could make no guarantees that any real progress would be made quickly; my hands were tied by the algorithm. Even if we fixed every single issue on their site, until a refresh went through Google wouldn’t re-evaluate their site. If the refresh did come down and their site still hadn’t recovered than we would know there was another element at play, which means we’d be back to square one. The recovery process is not quick or easy and it could take months (or even years) to fully recover. Are you prepared to wait that long? Can your website and your business survive that long?

3. It might not be worth it.

The harshest reality of all to face when dealing with a search engine penalty is that it might not be worth saving the site. Think about how much money, time, and energy you’re going to have to pour into that site to salvage it. Depending on where your site is in its lifecycle it might be worth abandoning completely and starting fresh. This is a very serious business decision and shouldn’t be made simply because of SEO, but it might be something you have to consider in the end.

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