In August 2013 I took over the SEO and Social Media Marketing for a letting agency which specialised in student accommodation in Liverpool – Liverpool Student Lets. They were somewhat unhappy with the company that had been providing their SEO.
The first thing to do was to perform a full audit of the on-site and off-site optimisation. What I found was not an entirely pretty picture. The website was visually engaging and very professional, although with a few tweaks needed to optimise it for Google, such as adding H1 and H2 tags.
The website was performing moderately for its targeted keywords. It had a domain authority of 21, which was perhaps a bit low, but the website had only been live for a year.
Things got interesting when I started to look at the link profile of the website. Unfortunately I found it to have a lot of very spammy links. For instance, links from blog comments on irrelevant blogs in the USA, and numerous links from low quality bookmarking sites. However, as the website’s rankings did not seem to be suffering I decided to prioritise other aspects of the site such as optimising the keyword usage across the site’s pages. My intention was to come back later and analyse each link individually, before deciding what to do about them.
Another surprise came when I examined the on-site blog. Approximately 50 posts had been made over the course of a year, however I was quite shocked to find that the blog was not indexed in Google. This meant that all the hard work that had gone into the blog had been for nothing. Looking further into the blog, I found that many posts were less than 300 words, and some were quite repetitive and badly written. Any images were not optimised. I wanted to index the blog, but first I had to remove some posts and optimise others. I used knowledge that I picked up on the SSMM course to optimise these posts, and on October 4th 2013 at approx 5pm, I submitted the blog page to Google for indexing.
I was quite horrified to find that a few days later the site had dropped in the rankings, moving from page 1 to page 2 for the most important keywords! I decided that I had not optimised the blog posts well enough and started trying to improve them further. This had no effect on the rankings.
When Penguins attack…..
I later realised that at almost the exact same time that I indexed the blog, Google announced and rolled out the latest update to their Penguin algorithm – Penguin 2.1. For those who don’t know, Penguin is the part of Google’s algorithm that deals specifically with links – periodically Google roll out an update which is meant to spot bad linking practises and penalise sites accordingly.
The realisation that 2 things had happened at the same time (indexing of blog + rollout of Penguin 2.1) created a problem. Which was to blame for the reduction in rankings? There was no message about bad links in Webmaster Tools, although Google does not always advise penalised sites in this way.
Having looked at the blog I decided that the more likely culprit was Penguin 2.1. Therefore the bad links became the priority. I compiled a list of the links in Excel, recording the url, the domain authority, TrustFlow and CitationFlow (MajesticSEO’s own measurement systems of link value). I also made a note of how to contact the webmasters, where possible. It is important to keep good records of efforts made to remove links, because if you later wish to use Google’s disavow tool, then you must follow Google’s advice ie. that you must provide evidence of all efforts undertaken to remove links. So I began contacting the webmasters, of which only one has replied to me and removed the link. Many of the links had no contact details available. Once I have attempted contact three times to each webmaster, I can add them to my disavow list, either as a url or an entire domain. The use of the disavow tool itself is somewhat risky; Google clearly advises that using it could result in worse rankings for your site. I intend to use it soon, though, in the hope that it will put the site back on page one where it belongs.
Although we will hopefully see some improvement after this process is completed, there has still not been any confirmation regarding which of the 2 events on Oct 4th caused the drop in rankings.
There are a few lessons to take away from all of this :-
1. Beware SEO practitioners who use bad linking practises! There are still plenty of them around it seems….
2. Stagger your SEO strategies. If you implement 2 changes at the same time, then you cannot easily separate the effects from each of them. It is worth keeping a note of when you implement strategies, so that you can see the effect on traffic they have on traffic.
3. Once Penguin hits your site, it is not simple to recover. Indeed some SEO practitioners state that any penalties will not be repealed until the next Penguin update (which is usually every 6 months), whilst others think that a proper link removal campaign, followed by use of Google’s disavow tool, and finally submitting reconsideration requests, can result in the removal of penalties sooner.