Given the fact that I specialize in forensic SEO audits, it’s not unusual for site owners and managers to come to me for help in recovering from a Google penalty or algorithmic losses.
The heaviest question to me in recovery audit work is “How long before we recover?”, and then after work has been started “How come we’re not seeing major improvements?”.
The hope they have is for an “overnight rebound”.
I understand why these questions come up. And I do my best up front to set expectations, both in my proposal process as well as in my audit action plan documentation.
Yet inevitably some clients come back again with similar questions because they just haven’t seen any major improvements since they got my report and began the work to clean things up. Or they’ve invested months in clean up and are still waiting for the miracle.
So I thought it would be helpful to write this article. It’s a combination of the up-front expectation setting I communicate before I start and audit, as well as various responses I’ve provided to clients and after audits have been delivered when some clients don’t yet see real major results and get discouraged.
Google assesses manual and algorithmic penalties as a way of “leveling the playing field”. There are typically two scenarios regarding the extent of the impact of a given penalty.
Remove the Artificial Boosts
When a site has been penalized, in most situations, its Google’s way of saying “This site was being propped up artificially until now”. The penalty is designed to manually or algorithmically reset the site’s rankings and visibility to what Google’s internal system determines that site “should have been” in regard to ranking and visibility without those artificial signals.
In some situations, a penalty will go even further – taking a site even below “what it should have been all along”. This is done to “punish” those who created the artificial signals, and to elicit a response of changed behavior.
Penalty Recovery Limitations
If a particular penalty was assessed to the point of not only removing artificial boosts, but to actually work on social engineering, once those issues specific to the penalty itself have been rectified, it is possible to see an immediate boost to at least some of that site’s rankings and visibility. That would come from Google’s believing the site no longer needs to suffer from both the “leveled playing field” and the “further artificial losses”.
Except it’s most often the case where gains that come at that point are ONLY a return of those “further artificial losses” type and not a total recovery back to the “Glory days” of “artificial” scoring strength.
The site at that point is still typically only going to be back to the “level playing field” level. Rarely would a site bounce back to his “glory days” highs at that point.
So in this scenario, even after a penalty has been lifted, if in fact a site gets back to “level playing field” status, and no longer has the boost from those “artificial” signals, its a long-haul process to only then be able to begin to build new, trustworthy signals to “earn” higher rankings.
If a site was hit by Panda or any one or combination of several other algorithmic “quality” type changes and that site suffered significant losses in ranking and visibility as a result of those, the ability for the site to “recover” is going to depend on the complexity of those algorithmic factors as well as the extent to which the site can go to communicate a different combined signal set to address those issues.
When a site has any single major “quality” problem, if ranking losses came from that solely or primarily, if that one issue can be addressed, then once Google has been able to identify the change across the site, the next time Google runs the algorithm involved, it is possible to see a return to previous high rankings and visibility.
Where this can be a problem is if it’s a Panda related issue, that means needing to wait for the next Panda update to take place after Google has recrawled and reindexed the site once those changes had been made. As of the date of this post, Panda has not been refreshed since October of last year.
That means that IF the issues that caused a site’s loss of rankings / visibility were solely or primarily Panda related, and if those were all addressed properly, significant gains from that work are not likely to be seen for an unknown length of time given that Google hasn’t, at the time of this writing, re-processed Panda.
If a site has several issues, this is where everything becomes even more complex – are all the issues algorithmic? Are they all penalties? Is it a combination of penalties and algorithms? If it’s multiple algorithm types (Panda, “above the fold”, “over-optimization”, etc.), then it means potentially even longer delays from the time all of those are resolved until 1) Google has recrawled and reindexed the entirety of the site and 2) until Google refreshes through each of those algorithms.
Eventually, with enough leverage, recovery is possible even in these situations. Maybe not back to the height of the “glory days”, yet compared to the bottomed out tragedy “real” recovery that’s “sustainable” is possible.
Waiting Isn’t An Option
Because recovery can be a long slow process, it is vital to not just sit around and wait.
First, if there was a manual or algorithmic penalty that took away artificial signals, it’s critical to get as much leverage going across multiple facets of a site’s online presence as can be afforded based on financial and human resource limits to show “This site now really does deserve stronger rankings and visibility”.
Even with steady effort, it can take several months to a year or more to build enough momentum to push a site over the threshold of “level playing field” to finally “deserving” much stronger rankings and visibility.
If other sites in a given niche are simultaneously working on their own efforts, the ability to prove a site is “deserving” can be even more difficult.
Even if there was no manual or algorithmic penalty, and the site lost rankings only through algorithmic changes to the “quality” threshold, It’s dangerous to assume that new work and new signals don’t need to be generated, and that we can simply wait for algorithm refreshes. For true long-term sustainable growth and success, enough signals from enough signal points need to exist to overcome that new threshold and since none of us has access to Google’s proprietary algorithms, we can’t just assume “x” is enough.
We also cannot ignore the fact that the web is constantly growing, and most niches have competitors and “perceived” competitors that themselves are continually marching forward, if for no other reason than to maintain their visibility through other channels and marketing methods (which result in new content, new off-site citations and new links).
Complexity of Fixes Factor
Even once we understand all of the factors on Google’s side of the equation, and regarding competitor considerations, we also need to deal with internal site considerations.
Not Enough Positive Force Applied
By the time someone comes to me for a site audit, especially when it’s not just a review but a full blown forensic SEO audit, a site is quite often so severely toxic from Google’s perspective for so many multifaceted reasons, that the volume of work needed to address the problem can be more than many site owners have the resources to apply in a short enough time frame as to make enough of a positive signal impact to move the needle in the growth direction in a sustainable way.
Pain Before Healing
In many situations I encounter the reality that things had gotten so ugly algorithmically as to render Google’s ability to “figure it all out” a pure crap-shoot of a mess. This is more often true for large to very large sites (hundreds of thousands to millions of pages), though it can also occur on mid-size sites as well to a certain degree.
When this is the case, not only do all the “typical” clean up issues need to be dealt with, but a site is likely to need a major to sometimes complete overhaul of site structure and content organization.
The Full Reevaluation Life Cycle
In those situations, recovery delays can be even longer due to the fact that even if a site were to be completely revamped overnight, Google isn’t going to see those changes overnight.
The Crawl Factor
Let’s say a site has 100,000 pages. And lets say Google crawls 10,000 pages a day on average. Well in that case, Google is NOT going to recrawl the entire site in 10 days. It’s going to take longer. Because each time Googlebot crawls the site, it repeats the crawl of at least some pages that were just crawled. Important pages get recrawled more often under the premise that they may have changed very recently. Conversely, very deep pages aren’t going to be recrawled as frequently.
The Reindexation vs. Algorithmic Update Factor
So in my example, it’s a 100,000 page site. Let’s say Google’s recrawled and reindexed 10% of that and then an algorithmic update takes place. Well heck — 10% of the site has the “new” signals, and 90% still shows “still the old signals”.
Or maybe its “30% shows the new signals” and “70% still shows the old signals”.
That can cause even more confusion, or at the very least, may show “some improvement but not enough to get past the “this site finally deserves higher ranking and visibility” threshold.
Throw in the fact that several algorithms exist, and each of THOSE needs to run, against some unknown portion of a revamped web site, and it may just remain suppressed, or could see a roller coaster until everything settles down and gets fully caught up.
The Failed to Execute Factor
One last consideration I need to communicate is one that pains me more than all the others. No matter how much time, effort, experience or skill into providing recommendations for various issues that need to be fixed from a priority perspective, all too often site owners, managers, developers or designers fail to do the work needed and called for.
I can’t tell you how many times in the life of my career site owners or their staff have come back to me six months or a year after an audit to say “why haven’t we seen improvements?” only for me to dig in and find that vast swaths of my recommendation plan were either barely surface scratched or not touched at all.
Since I only include issues and task recommendations I believe to be priority, high priority or very high priority in my action plans, if you’ve barely lifted a finger or haven’t lifted a finger to address one or more of those, I don’t even know what to say at that point.
The Bottom Line
The length of time it can take for a site to see a real recovery from a Google penalty or a Google algorithm loss is going to be dramatically different site to site, situation to situation. If a site owner or management team is not prepared to or capable of riding out the storm, or applying enough leverage across enough signal points, there really can be no valid expectation of dramatic recovery, let alone a return to “glory days” living.