The dust has now settled after Google’s Penguin update, offering us a clearer view of the damage sustained by affected sites. We can now clearly see the multi-faceted effects of–and reasons for–the update.
If your website was affected, the questions you’re probably asking are, “When will I recover my rankings?” and “What do I need to do to recover my rankings?”
Algorithmic Penalties vs. Manual Penalties
The good news is that Google Penguin is algorithmic, and algorithmic penalties are not permanent. Take a look at the video below, in which Matt Cutts discusses algorithmic penalties and how they work.
At the 0:46 mark, Matt Cutts says:
So, if your site is affected by an algorithm, for the most part, if you change your site, whatever the characteristics are that’s flagging, triggering, or causing us to think you might have keyword stuffing, or whatever, if you change your site, then after we’ve re-crawled and re-indexed the page, and some period after that when we’ve re-processed that in our algorithms, for the most part your site should be able to pop back up or increase in its rankings.
Starting at the 1:10 mark, Matt Cutts discusses manual penalties:
Now, on the manual side, as far as I can think of, the vast majority of the time, what we try to do is we try to have, essentially a time-out. So, if it’s hidden text, you might have a penalty for having hidden text, and then after, say, 30 days, that would expire. And then if you’re doing something more severe, if you’re doing some cloaking or some really malicious stuff, that will last for a longer period of time, but eventually that will also expire. So we try to write things such that if you improve your site, if it’s affected by an algorithm, or even if you’ve done something within your site, eventually that would normally time out.
If you received an unnatural link warning from Google, you may have a manual penalty. Here’s an excerpt of Matt Cutts’ interview during SMX Advanced on June 5th, 2012, in which he discusses the unnatural link warnings that were sent out to webmasters:
Danny Sullivan: If you submit a warning for unnatural links do you submit a reconsideration request?
Matt Cutts: Yes, because it was a manual penalty
Matt Cutts: we want to see a real effort in that you remove those links. We want to see effort. We look at a random sample to see if those links are removed or not. If you remove 90% or so, you are in better shape. We understand it is difficult and we are talking to the webmaster tools to add a disavow link feature.
Danny Sullivan: If you were hit by Penguin and Panda, should I just give up?
Matt Cutts: Sometimes, but both are algorithmic and if you change the site and your signals, then you can come back.
The Road to Recovery
If your site was hit, there are a number of activities you can engage in to help unwind the effects of Penguin. But before you can begin doing these, you first need to know the reason why you were hit by Google Penguin. The two core non-Google Penguin compliant activities include:
- Unnatural linking (onsite and offsite)
- Keyword stuffing (over-use of exact-match keywords in your onsite copy)
Affected site owners who were quick to identify these problems and implemented Penguin compliant amendments have seen varying amounts of time it took to recover their sites’ rankings. Some recovered within a month, and others are still on the road to recovery, with no end in sight.
The answer to our question on how long it will take to recover rankings post-Penguin depends on the following factors:
- How frequently Google crawls your site
- The level of access of you have to your site
- How quickly you can identify and fix the problems
Webmasters with sites that have years of manipulated linking relationships with other sites may find themselves entangled in an especially tricky mess. The only options are to either clean up or start over from scratch (ouch!). The problem is that on April 24th (the day Penguin was released), Google abruptly “changed its mind” on over a decade of previously established best practices. Literally overnight, anchor text became a dangerous weapon rather than a strategic tool for savvy SEOs. This midnight shift in policy left millions of webmasters in the dust; websites that had long held top rankings for competitive keywords saw their rankings fall into oblivion, wiping out website traffic and sales. The longer webmasters had been engaging in manipulated linking practices, the more severely their sites were hit; and the more difficult it is to undo the penalty.
But if your site is relatively new and you got hit, you may be fortunate, depending on how far you are into your link building strategy.
Let’s take a look at the factors I mentioned above that could determine how long before you see your site or pages return to their previous rankings.
How frequently Google crawls your site
Google’s crawl rate is an algorithmic process, meaning it’s not determined by any individual at Google. A lot of factors are at play to alert crawlers on how often they should visit a site. These factors include, but are not limited to:
- Number of parameters in a URL
- Number, source, and recency of links to a page
- Site’s PageRank
- Frequency of content updates
- Date of last page update
However, you can “train” crawlers on how often your site should be visited. Google crawlers frequent sites that are updated with fresh content. News sites, for example, get visited more often than other sites, while some sites that offer real-time information such as live-score sites (for sports broadcasts) are visited every second.
If your site is set up for Google Webmaster tools, take a look at the Sitemaps section to give you a good picture of how often Google visits your site. If you’ve kept your site updated with fresh content daily for at least several months, there’s a good chance that Google visits your site on a daily basis.
The level of access you have to your site
Your role on your site plays a vital part in its road to recovery after Google Penguin. If your site is a blog and you personally take care of on-site optimization, you can easily clean things up. But then again, that depends on the number of pages and posts your blog has.
For off-site linking activities, you may need to check your Google Analytics (if set up for your site), Google Webmaster Tools inbound links, or a 3rd party link data provider such as Majestic SEO or Open Site Explorer to see which sites link to you.
Identify websites linking to you with exact-match anchor text and reach out to the webmaster, asking to remove or change the link. Here’s the exact email template I have developed, which works well for this purpose:
Subject line: Link Removal Request
My name is Jayson, and I represent [your website URL]. I wanted to thank you for linking to our site from [linking page URL] However, it has come to our attention that this link may have been acquired against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. It is important for us to bring our site into compliance. Additionally, the link points to a website which Google has penalized, which could cause harm to your website’s rankings. Could you please remove our link from this page and any other page on your site?
If you’re operating a large website with many pages, hire an SEO professional to do a total site audit for you. Also conduct a backlink profile audit to identify any external links that may be bringing you down.
How quickly you can identify and fix the problems
The sooner you can identify and fix problems that may be affecting your rankings, the sooner your recovery will be. It’s currently unknown whether websites affected by Google Penguin will need to wait until the next Penguin refresh in order to recover their rankings. Unfortunately, if that’s the case, then it may be a while until you recover, because Google has only pushed out two known Penguin updates: The original (on April 24th) and Penguin 1.1 (on May 25th).
As soon as it becomes more clear whether Penguin recovery can happen between Penguin refreshes, I’ll update this blog post. My intuition says it can, but the jury’s still out for now.
Obviously, the time it takes to recover from Google Penguin is not set in stone. Your rankings could be back in a matter of weeks or months, depending on the level of commitment and work you put in.
I hope you find this post useful in understanding how long it should take for your site’s rankings to recover if you got hit by Penguin, as well as what steps you can do to speed up recovery.
If you need help in making your site Google Penguin compliant, please leave a comment or contact us to set up a consultation.