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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.