SEO Penalty and Algorithm Recovery Timelines

by Alan Bleiweiss  |  Published 9:44 AM, Wed January 22, 2014

As someone who performed about seventy forensic SEO audits this past year, one of the more commonly emerging questions I hear from clients is “how long is it going to take for my site to recover?”

With the onslaught of severe manual and algorithmic penalties impacting sites the past couple years, this question has come up more and more. And, as the severity of penalties has increased, the pain site owners go through has driven their desire to find real solutions – solutions that counter the work they previously helped them ride to success, and where that previous ride was cut short in extreme ways.

As much as I would love to be able to inform every prospective client “you can expect your site to recover within X weeks” or “x months”, every site and every situation is unique.

The Rare Quick Fix

What is common to the overwhelming majority of sites I audit, is that its rarely a case where just one issue needs to be addressed. For a lucky few, rebound can be as simple as addressing crawl efficiency. As this chart below shows, the site in question took a massive hit in organic traffic seemingly overnight. And once crawl efficiency was addressed (nothing else was done), those came back even stronger than they had been previously.

Crawl Efficiency

Note – end of year peaks are due to this being a seasonal eCommerce site.

Easy Manual Penalty Recovery

Other times, sites have a fairly decent layer of SEO all around, yet they have been hit by a single manual penalty. In this scenario, you get slapped for manipulative tactics that violate Google policies. When this happens, once you clean up the mess, you can begin to recover.

Recover from a single manual penalty

The Multi-Faceted Problem

Other times, you can get a penalty lifted, yet what you need to deal with is the fact that whatever got your site penalized to begin with, once cleaned up, is no longer available to send what would now be deemed as “artificial” ranking signals. Or, you get algorithmic penalties in layers.

When those happen, you need to replace those previous signals with brand new signals and you’re essentially starting from scratch. And in almost every audit I’ve performed where there had been a manual penalty or a major algorithmic penalty, the site itself suffered several weaknesses in their overall SEO.

So, not only do you need to address the manual penalty, and create new “quality” signals, you need to strengthen a few or several other areas that, because they were weak to begin with and left your site vulnerable all along. Those “artificial” signals had been the primary “value” Google had “seen” previously.

When that’s the case, the recovery effort takes a tremendous concentrated effort on all fronts.

SEO Penalty Recovery Timeline

As this chart shows, this site took a massive algorithm hit in the spring of 2012, followed by another massive hit in the fall, followed by a long steady slide downward as it encountered one hit after another. From the first trigger, algorithmic chaos ensued.

And once recovery began, there was even a subsequent algorithmic drop while other issues began to communicate “we’re trustworthy now”.

Organic Traffic Timelines Aren’t Enough

So, how do you know what the exact cause of your unique problem is? Can you simply look at your analytics timeline and instantly know “this drop occurred around the same time as Google announced Penalty X or algorithm update Y”?

Unfortunately not, at least for most sites. Even if you see that your site lost massive rankings or organic traffic on a specific individual date, if your site is like the majority of sites out there, that happened because your site was already vulnerable due to other issues, and the “overnight” loss was actually made WORSE because of that.

What is required is to understand that several factors may or may not be involved; a drop in rankings may appear to be timed to a known Google update or change, and it may only appear that way, while in fact being coincidental. Especially if several other issues brought you right to the edge of quality, only to have an algo change or penalty cause a cascading effect.

And you need to understand that recovery may be quick, or it may take a long time.

Why Big Brands Get Special Treatment

I’ve covered this topic previously in my post over on SEJ about the 5 Super Signals to SEO, however I want to be sure and touch on it here because it bears repeating. Big brands don’t have a baked-in unfair competitive advantage as far as being treated differently just because they’re big brands.

Well okay, they actually do. Not from some “Google favors big brands” conspiracy perspective. Instead, it’s because big brands, in order to succeed, need to provide things consumers really want. They generate mostly high quality content. They provide product or services based content driven by teams of people who, for the most part, generate content and marketers who promote the brand based on non-SEO factors.

The resulting presence those brands have online is based almost exclusively on the 5 super signals – Quality, Uniqueness, Authority, Relevance and Trust.

So when a big brand is caught cheating the system, while that aspect of their online marketing clearly needs to be dealt with, it’s almost always so heavily outweighed by very strong important signals that they can rebound rapidly.

Big Brand SEO Advantage

The Worse The EcoSystem, The More Painful The Challenge

Conversely, when a site has egregiously erred in their effort, and when that work has completely missed the mark from a sustainable SEO perspective, or more importantly, from a “think like a big brand even if you aren’t” perspective, the situation can be so difficult to address that nothing you do helps.

SEO Recovery not possible

In this example, the site was slammed with a manual penalty, as well as multiple algorithmic penalties. This is the type of scenario you see where a site owner expends a great deal of effort to try all sorts of ways to climb back up, to no avail.

Fortunately, this is a rare situation. Oh sure, it’s not rare if you spend any amount of time in one or more of the various webmaster forums out there, because that’s where worst-case scenario site owners often go to complain, rant, or otherwise express frustration.

However it’s rare compared to the overwhelming majority of sites that see SEO ranking losses. And for me, it’s rare in that out of those seventy odd audits I performed last year, only a few of those sites fall into this classification.

Time and Leverage

Even when all seems hopeless, it’s often as much about a lack of resources to leverage change properly. You may be doing every single thing properly. And yet, if you aren’t capable of doing ENOUGH you may find you aren’t able to gain enough ground. If that’s the case for you, it may be time to consider whether you need to change your business model, abandon organic SEO entirely, or find ways to just hang in there.

Because if you can hang in there, you may wake up one day to find that slow and steady over long enough time was all you really needed to begin seeing positive results.

Slow and Steady SEO

In Conclusion

Every site is unique. Every site’s SEO footprint is different. Every market within a given site resides is also unique. That’s why I love performing audits as much as I do. I get to explore the entire realm of factors and signals, market conditions and issues, and I get to help site owners find a path to healing. Yet because there are those rare situations where recovery just doesn’t want to happen, it keeps me humble.

Because site owners are people, they have businesses to run, families to feed, and employees to pay. So I take my work very seriously and while I have hope for their situation, I do not allow myself to become arrogant in thinking there’s an absolute known or knowable solution. That drives me to research even more, to stretch my own capabilities, and to encourage site owners to find ways to go even further in their sustainable efforts.

About 

January 2014 marks Alan's 20th year as an Internet Marketing professional. Providing SEO solutions to clients since 2001, Alan specializes in forensic SEO audits and related consulting services to select clients around the world. Visit his site for more information on how he might be able to help you.

Comments
  • http://www.seoweather.com/ Jamie Knop

    Hi Alan,

    Interesting article. I wonder what your view point is on recovering, specifically penguin/manual.

    Do you think it is required to actually remove the links or just disavow?

    Branded3 claim they have recovered from 50+ penalties without removing a single link. Do you think simply disavowing unnatural links and building quality natural links is enough?

    From my experience I would rather a manual penalty over a algo penalty. As with algo penalties you never know when they are going to reevaluate your site, but as with a manual penalty you know that happens when you submit a reconsideration request.

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      Jamie,

      I live in a world of best practices – maximum effort. In that light, a straight disavow without clean-up may work for an algorithm based penalty, however there are a problem with that
      approach.

      First, I had one client who did that, and shortly after the disavow,they got a manual penalty. Correlation is not causation so it may be coincidence. However that meant they then had to go through all the links they didn’t disavow and more aggressively work
      to clean those up. And Google’s manual reps expect (yes, they EXPECT) site owners to take serious action – so if you disavow many links without attempting to clean them up, that can hurt your chances of getting the manual penalty lifted.

      And that means you have a better chance for a lifting of the penalty if you then go back through the disavow and do outreach to clean those up.

      So for me, it’s best to start right out the gate with a clean-up effort regardless of whether it’s manual or algo based.

      Of course, every site owner has only a certain volume of resources and thus it may take a lot more time, energy and money to clean-up rather than short-cut to a disavow. Yet this is the world we live in now.

      • http://www.seoweather.com/ Jamie Knop

        Cheers Alan.

        It just baffled me when Branded3 said this. I thought I had wasted a lot of time doing full link clean ups when it was not required.

        On the basis of completely disavowing every unnatural link to a site, leaving all the totally natural links, how long would you expect the site to recover from a penguin penalty/treat it as a normal site? (with very little link building done during).

        • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

          Jamie,

          Unfortunately its not a consistent process common to every site. As my article states above, if there are not enough strong signals in place, the link clean-up may not result in seeing a significant increase once it’s seen by Google. And since they don’t announce penguin updates these days its not known as to how long it would be before they even re-process and reevaluate those signals.

      • http://docsheldon.com/ Doc Sheldon

        Hi, Alan- I agree… with a manual penalty, it’s always advisable to go through the process by-the-numbers. Trying to sidestep the removal request process isn’t likely to satisfy Google’s desire to see an honest effort.
        I have used a poor disavow process on strictly proactive periodic cleanups where no impact to rankings or traffic had yet been seen. And I’m inclined to think that it might work on a purely algorithmic slap, as well.- I just haven’t had a situation where testing the theory seemed like a worthwhile risk. Besides, it’s sometimes difficult enough to determine when/if an algorithmic impact has been cured… no sense in injecting another variable.

        Something that confounds me is seeing other SEOs, when writing their “recovery tips”, say that if a sudden traffic hit doesn’t coincide with a known or suspected update run, then the site hasn’t suffered an algorithmic penalty. Really? I can see that usually being the case with Penguin, but with Panda? Sorry… ain’t buyin’ that! Since Panda now runs constantly, a site can hit a threshold any time.

        • jeffwend

          But what do you do when webmasters ignore your request to take down a link? I have had one response out of hundreds of requests. The disavow alone will not help for manual penalty in this case.

          • http://docsheldon.com/ Doc Sheldon

            Unfortunately, Jeff, that’s not uncommon. Some won’t respond, a few will refuse and some may even demand payment for removal. In any of those cases, simply document your contact efforts and responses (or lack thereof) and add that link (or domain, if appropriate) to your disavow list. When submitting a reconsideration request after a manual penalty, you can provide a link to that spreadsheet on your Google Drive as corroboration of your efforts to get links removed.

          • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

            Jeffwend

            In most situations it requires a step by step process that is well documented (as Doc Sheldon said) to show you’ve put in the footwork to do the best you can. Manual reviewers expect the sincere effort to be taken seriously. Beyond that, if other problems exist, once you do clean up the links and get a manual penalty lifted, you need to take other actions to finally earn back the trust from an algorithmic perspective as well.

  • http://www.mediawyse.com/ Casey Markee, MBA

    Great, great overview Alan, as usual. As someone who performs a similar number of penalty site audits this is all very spot-on. Although personally, I’ve only ever had two instances (accidental robots file issues) where the “rare quick fix” was ever a remote possibility. Oh, if only we had more of those.

    By far the most problematic issue I experience when consulting with clients who have triggered either manual or algorithmic issues is the managing of expectations. As you stated correctly, recovery can happen quickly, or take a long time (it’s usually the later). Most of the consultations I’ve done involve the client fumbling around initially and either submitting a reconsideration request blindly, or running out and exacerbating an algorithmic slap by wildly over-compensating with paid links or untested site changes. Clearly, neither are good practices.

    And I agree, a straight disavow (especially for algorithmic issues) may have some effect but if attention isn’t paid to actually REMOVING the most suspect links or changing on-page user metrics going forward any recovery is going to be short-lived. I especially like the site owner who contacts me after submitting multiple reconsideration requests and a huge disavow file (for an algorithmic penalty) yet has a site that sports a 80%+ bounce rate, 65 second site visits, and no engagement and wonders why his traffic and rankings still haven’t bounced back. Good times.

    Let me know if you are making a Pubcon NOLA experience this year so we can catch-up during a Speaker’s function. And hat tip to Carlos for adding you to the site. A worthy addition indeed.

    Best Wishes from San Diego. I hope to connect with you in March.

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      Thanks Casey

      Yeah – a lot of time is spent helping clients understand tasking needs, then coming back later and helping them further refine their efforts. Or saying “well yeah you tried another shortcut there and now that needs to be fixed as well” :-)

      Won’t be at Pubcon NOLA this year – local commitments won’t accommodate it. Hoping to get to SMX Advanced this year, then Pubcon Vegas.

  • http://www.1918.com/ 1918

    This is probably the best article I’ve read on the reality of recovering from a Google penalty. The days of reconsideration and immediately rebounding back are behind us. Like a jilted girlfriend, Google needs you to prove you’ve changed and promise to stay on the straight and narrow.

    The GA charts are fantastic. When I explain to sites in pain that redemption is a year away, they often move to a different consultant that promises a quicker fix.

    This article will now become my go-to explanation – thank you for that!

  • ViperChill

    Interesting blog post Alan. I’m not sure if I missed this but I don’t actually see any timelines.

    I can work out one from the graph, but could you give some actual figures. You saw it varies, but from what? 1 week to 2 months? 4 weeks to 8 weeks?

    After 70 of them done, do you have an “average” recovery time, even if it doesn’t apply to all of them?

    Also, can you expand on this please:

    “So when a big brand is caught cheating the system, while that aspect
    of their online marketing clearly needs to be dealt with, it’s almost
    always so heavily outweighed by very strong important signals that they
    can rebound rapidly.”

    I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at. Are you saying they just get recovered faster because of their quality content? Which signals are these (you say trust and authority, but surely they’ve gone already if they’re “gaming the system”.)

    Appreciate your time…

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      not sure why you don’t see timelines – are the images you’re seeing not displaying their dates (at the bottom of each)?

      As for variation – it’s a radical range – every site is different. The 1st graph is for the “crawl efficiency” fix and with that one, recovery was literally overnight. The “easy” type of recovery typically shows instant gains, however they also typically require steady new signals to keep the momentum going over a period of a couple months before the big gains show up.

      More complex sites where several issues exist can often take six months to a year or more to see recovery. That’s tied to both the depth and complexity of problems as well as the need to expend more energy to finally earn trust and ranking signals.

      In the worst cases, it can take 18 months or more if the site owner doesn’t have enough resources to build the new high quality signals in a more consistent heavy-lifting way.

      • ViperChill

        Hi Alan,

        Thanks for the reply. Sadly, I’m still unaware what signals you’re referring to?

        Also, more specifically trying to work out why you think this helps big brands get recovered faster.

        • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

          big brands expend the vast majority of their resources on creating actual content and doing things via traditional marketing and public relations channels that is designed to engage their audience, regardless of SEO considerations. They continually look to educate, inform, provide value. They give things away, do things to support community, and otherwise work to create a positive attitude toward their presence.

          The result from those efforts is quality, uniqueness, authority, relevance and trust – the five super-signals to SEO. And they do it regardless of SEO. Sure, they sometimes totally fail on some things, like trying to force viral content. Yet that’s only a very small fraction of their overall effort.

          Smaller companies can emulate that, and as a result, create the same super-signals that are relevant to SEO.

          Focus on brand building, and SEO benefits as a secondary recipient of just being smart in business.

          Since big brands expend so much energy on those things, it far outweighs the 5% or 1% of their resources that sometimes go toward “fast and cheap SEO gains”. So if they do go for fast and cheap, and get caught, they never had all their eggs, most of their eggs or any real significant portion of their eggs in the unsustainable basket.

  • Rich Owings

    Thanks Alan. Have you found that Panda has hit older/deeper sites hardest? I got hit in August 2012 and just started seeing recovery a week or two ago.

    • Rich Owings

      And one other question if you don’t mind… Sites hit with Panda often see subsequent declines with each update. Once sites start recovering, are they likely to see a fresh uptick in traffic with subsequent refreshes of the algorithm?

      • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

        in my experience age isn’t as much a factor with Panda as scale – the larger the site, the more likely the organization is weak and the volume of thin / duplicate content is greater. Given that most big sites are larger due to age, it may appear that age is a factor when it’s the resulting growth that came over time. I’ve seen newer sites hit where the scale was large as well- its just that those sites happened to have a larger staff cranking out content in a shorter time-period.

        If enough issues are refined/improved/cleaned-up, a site can see either a multiple up-tick (due to rolling out layers of improvement in steps) and/or a relatively steady increase in organics simply because of the improved visibility overall that Google’s multiple algorithms come to trust more and more.

        • Rich Owings

          Thanks Alan. I’ve done a lot with the site over the last year and a half so hopefully the latter will prove true.

  • http://www.martinwoods.me.uk/ Martin Woods

    Wow how did I miss this the other week, an excellent honest article dealing with the subject. After dealing with loads of algorithmic issues and manual actions since Panda it can certainly be mind blowing for people dealing with them.

    As Jamie points out there is a lot of really bad information out there when it comes to dealing with Penguin and link removal. Specifically the advice about not removing links.

    In fact I’m going to email this to a client to print out and pass on to his team.

    Thanks Alan! +1

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      Martin,

      Glad you “eventually” found the post! “mind blowing”, “overwhelming”, “confusing” – all of these describe what can often result in needing to deal with the issues and challenges.

      • http://www.martinwoods.me.uk/ Martin Woods

        I can think of a few other words to add to that that I’ve heard clients use, most of which I wouldn’t want to repeat! I have to admit I do enjoy the challenge of dealing with penalties and the satisfaction when you get them removed, however long it takes.

  • BigFish

    Very well laid out Alan. Thanks

  • Chris Taylor

    Alan,

    Thank you for taking the time time and energy to write such an interesting article. Over the past few years, I have read many resources that I don’t think are accurate. This is very insightful and from my own experiences are factual.

    From a brands perspective, would you want to be associated with such poor websites? I very much doubt they would. So the outcome of this would be to remove it.

    I would strongly recommend making sure you analyse all your clients backlinks or brands backlinks for the long term rankings in the SERPS.

    2014 is the year of the penalty, I can see some big brands been hit. It’s going to be a very interesting 12 months.

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      Chris,

      I agree – since the first Panda rollout, it’s just gotten more and more interesting in the industry. I can only expect it to get even more intense, and I love it!

  • Jeff Moriarty

    What do you mean by “crawl efficiency”…how did you know this was an issue?

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      Jeff,
      Crawl efficiency covers a range of individual issues. From broken internal links to internal links that 301 (causing crawl delays), slow processing speed and more. There are several tools I use to determine where there might be problems, including Screaming Frog, WebPageTest.org, URIValet.com, Google Webmaster Tools, Google Page Speed Insights and more.

    • Jon Hogg

      Exactly!

  • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

    Thanks Marcus!

    And of course I agree – for some sites’ it can be done with little focus on links because the on-site factors are straight-forward when done through sustainable concepts. Yet the deeper the mess, the more complex the work just to get a clean base.

  • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

    David,

    Every site is unique, and faces unique combinations of challenges. If you have Google Webmaster Tools set up, that can be helpful in seeing whether a site was hit with a manual penalty or not (via the “site messages” and the “manual actions” tabs in GWT).

    Beyond that, without an audit it’s impossible to know with any level of certainty what might have caused either site to plummet. And even with a notice from GWT, if other problems exist, fixing the penalty issues isn’t usually enough by itself to get back on top.

    While I’d love to be able to offer a quick fix recommendation, doing so would be a “throwing darts while half-blind-folded” method and though many SEOs offer such services, many of my audit clients have come to me after that game was played and got little to no results. I’m not saying it always turns out bad – if you’re lucky or blessed, it can work well. If not, the situation only becomes worse and costs more time and lost revenue.

  • http://www.metapilot.com/ Metapilot

    Thanks for the resource Alan. Thumbs up.

  • http://workado.com/ Justin McGill @ Workado

    Absolutely love the breakdown. Great visuals! I just wish the recovery process was more transparent. With my marketing agency we took on a couple of clients that were hit hard, and we just can’t really inform them of actual progress which is unfortunate.

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      It’s the new reality Justin – the lack of specific clarity regarding “typical” turnaround expectations is now a “it depends” reality more than ever.

      • http://workado.com/ Justin McGill @ Workado

        Yea, good luck getting clients to understand/accept that though! :)

        • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

          disclaimers, conveying expectation needs, and maybe sharing this article can help with that! :-)

          • http://workado.com/ Justin McGill @ Workado

            Haha very true. I actually did share the article so he’s probably seeing these comments lol.

  • Tony Griego

    “Because site owners are people, they have businesses to run, families to feed, and employees to pay. So I take my work very seriously and while I have hope for their situation, I do not allow myself to become arrogant in thinking there’s an absolute known or knowable solution. That drives me to research even more, to stretch my own capabilities, and to encourage site owners to find ways to go even further in their sustainable efforts.”

    Well said.

  • http://www.kernmedia.com/ Dan Kern

    This article is so refreshing. I’ve worked on about 300 websites in the past 5 years, so I’ve seen an enormous amount of Webmaster Tools and Analytics data, ranging from sites penalized by Panda, Penguin to manual penalties and other algorithmic drops. I echo Alan’s sentiment that website owners are people and we need to be careful not to be a “know-it-all” based on what we read in other people’s articles/opinions/analysis. The toughest situations are the multi-faceted penalties….where a website owner needs to realize that they need to completely rebuild their online identity. They are not going to get their traffic back. They need to “earn” new traffic. Like a cancer patient, the bad needs to be cut out and the body must be rebuilt.

    I will add that I helped a lot of websites recover from penalties, but the multi-faceted penalized sites are ones that I really struggle with. It’s very difficult to get the client to realize that they need to disavow half their link profile, remove half of their content, and rebuild everything….all during a time of severe revenue decline. Talk about tough!

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      thanks for the comment Dan – it can be painful for clients even in the best of circumstances. When it’s multi-faceted, and when they’ve already expended vast resources and thousands of dollars (the work that got them into the mess), it’s even more painful to them…

      • http://www.kernmedia.com/ Dan Kern

        Yeah that’s the tough part. For some “multi-faceted penalized” clients, it’s a hard decision. Do you spend the enormous amount of time and money to completely rebuild your online business (and actually build a brand), or do you throw in the towel and choose another venture. Those are the tough situations.

  • http://www.wilddigital.co.uk/ Rachel Wild

    Hi Alan,

    Having read a whole heap of articles regarding penalties, (since the majority of new clients I’ve taken on have some kind of algo penalty issue), I have to say that your article is incredibly useful, as are the comments. But, what I think makes your post stand apart from all others is the amount of humanity with which you have addressed the issues. Your compassion and humility are an inspiration, especially when so many others seem hell bent on overtly capitalising on the misfortunes of others. It’s really gratifying to see someone trying to appease and placate when so many others opt to scare monger instead! Thank you, much appreciated.

    • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

      Hi Rachel

      thank you for taking the time to comment, and to communicate such a kind perspective. This is the best compliment I think I’ve ever received in my blogging!

      Alan

      • http://www.wilddigital.co.uk/ Rachel Wild

        Hi Alan,

        thanks very much for responding. What you have written really means a lot to me. I’m so very glad that you appreciate my input.

        Wishing you all the very best,
        Rachel