Dealing with Penalized Websites

The growth of inquiries for search engine optimization services has certainly increased over the past couple of years.

In the past, businesses mostly contact SEO companies or independent consultants for help to further improve the visibility of their websites – and eventually to increase its traffic. But sadly, these days, perhaps more than half of the businesses looking for SEO help are businesses hoping to recover from algorithmic updates/penalties.


Campaigns that are mainly designed to recover from penalties (whether it’s Panda, Penguin, manual penalties, etc…) are a bit more challenging than the campaigns that many seasoned SEOs have been used to.

We all know that a one-size-fits-all campaign doesn’t exist, considering that we work with different types of sites on different verticals. Though, I strongly believe that having a “think marketing” mindset can break the barrier that sets a complex recovery campaign from a standard traffic generation campaign.

Because the optimization concepts involved in trying to recover a site from algorithmic penalties are just basically the things that SEOs should be doing to improve a site’s traffic performance in the first place.

The focus areas of search optimization these days aren’t just there to be implemented to future-proof a website. It’s already universal.

Dealing with a penalized website is absolutely the same as dealing with a newly launched or unharmed website. And when we’re cleaning up a site for it to regain its old rankings, we’re just doing what the site should have done before.

Optimize for Experience

A good site experience is the ultimate indicator of relevance. A major factor that search engines use to determine pages/sites they have to reward with better search visibility.

And apparently, analyzing and understanding visitor behavior stats are very crucial to succeed, not just in search, but as well as in actually growing an online business.

Improving the overall experience that your website can provide to its target users can be done through several optimization processes such as:

  • Information Architecture – making it easier for users to navigate and find information available from the site by categorizing topics/information into a coherent structure.
  • Optimizing for long-click – don’t just focus on increasing your search listings’ CTR, but it’s also important to improve the visitor retention rate, once organic traffic lands on your site’s pages. This can be done by ensuring that the information within the content really matches the search query that people use to get to that page. This also means blocking crawlers in accessing and indexing poor-content and duplicate pages from your site, given that they aren’t really useful when served/displayed to search engine users.
  • Technical SEO audits – while optimizing for humans, it’s also best to make certain that your site is search-friendly. Make it easier for search engines to crawl, access and understand what your website’s pages are about. Use this comprehensive SEO audit checklist by Annie Cushing.
  • Site speed – make your entire site load faster. It’ll help improve site activity, conversions, and search rankings. Use Google’s Page Speed Insights to know how your site is performing in terms of its loading speed.
  • Internal links – build more thematic internal links to increase page visits. And this way, you’ll also pass more page authority to your site’s other key pages (and help them rank better on search results).
  • UX design – invest on a conversion-oriented website design (make it responsive or have a mobile version if necessary). Like what I’ve mentioned on my last blog post, design separates successful websites from their competitors.

Sometimes, you just have to forget about rankings and to just remember that your main goal is to make sure that you please your users and be able to provide a remarkable experience for them.

Note: You can also check Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History regularly to determine if you’ve been hit or to identify what type of update have hit your site.

Improve Domain Authority

When it comes to link-related penalties, removing and disavowing bad/spammy links pointing to a site have been the popular ways to recover.

Though sometimes, outnumbering the bad links with quality and hard-earned links is the better approach.

This is also very applicable to websites that aren’t penalized, as the more you build your site’s Domain Authority, the more it will be able to compete for tough keywords (and definitely rank even better for long-tails).

There are two ways to continuously increase a site’s DA:

  • Build more useful/actionable pages that can procure links over time, so that they can improve their Page Authority. The more pages on your site that have high PA, the more it helps increase your domain’s overall authority. And internally linking your site’s pages also allows the link/ranking value flow throughout the website – which helps your other pages rank for the search terms they are designated with.
  • Get more links to your site and its inner pages from other sites that have high domain authority. You can also check this post for more tips on how to get hard-to-replicate links.

Rohit from also did an infographic last year that offers a more in-depth look on how to increase a site’s domain authority:

Increasing Domain Authority

String Entity Optimization

Search engines’ constant evolution, from indexing to understanding (keywords to context), certainly means that it’s going to be a lot more difficult for penalized websites to cope up. Not unless you strike while the entity graph is still in its developmental stage.

Being just relevant for the keywords that you’re targeting will not be enough in the future. Your brand must be synonymous to the industry terms you’re targeting to really win in search (just think of how “Bruce Lee” became synonymous to “Kung Fu” – think branding).

There are several web platforms and methods that search engines can extract data from to better understand entities. Optimizing a brand’s web presence through them could not just help regain lost rankings, but might also help build a solid foundation for a site’s future online presence.

Using the Skyscraper technique

Brian Dean wrote a comprehensive guide on using this content marketing method on his blog, and Nishank Khanna summarized how to do it on a forum thread I stumbled upon last week:

Step 1: Find link-worthy content (authoritative content that people already link to).

Step 2: Make something even better.

Step 3: Reach out to the right people (the low hanging fruit is the people who link to the content you found in Step 1).

Basically, the more you provide extensive content that supports the core keywords that your site is targeting (or the content topics that are frequently searched in your space), the more search engines will understand how important your brand is in its industry’s ecosystem.

It’s also the best approach to be an authority in your chosen niche, as well as to demonstrate your brand’s unique value proposition.

This is actually the core of my own strategy for this blog, where I only focused on creating foundational and evergreen content to eventually establish expertise, relationships, and my brand as a publisher.

So if you have existing content assets that can still be enhanced, updating them could really be a big game-changer.

Structured data

Schemas and Microdata helps search engines better understand what websites and webpages are about (specifically for Semantic web). Implementing these on your website can prepare your campaign for the inevitable advancements that search engines (particularly Google) are currently working on.

Relationships and associations

Social connections also play a big role in evaluating authority, web popularity and in the categorization of entities (industry, location, etc…).

For instance, it’s easier for search engines to determine what industry you’re in when you’re also actively contributing content or participating on discussions from other industry-specific websites.  These interactions can simply tie a brand to the market it belongs to.

It’s imperative to build relationships and a strong social following base nowadays.

Get coverage or mentions from authoritative publications

Search engines rely on other authoritative sites for data and information. Getting mentioned by a-list publications can certainly be a big lift when it comes to understanding more about what your brand is about (co-citation and co-occurrence also matters).

Use HARO to get connected with journalists or influential content publishers.

I’ve been spending more time in using this service to get more brand mentions (not just links) these days. Nishank Khanna (again) shared a great tip (plus the email template he uses) on how to efficiently use this method for getting press mentions:

1. Sign up to get HARO leads (free) and/or PR Leads (paid). Both these services provide you leads on what journalists are writing about.

2. Pick the leads that are relevant to you. Don’t waste your time responding to or pursuing leads which you don’t have expertise in.

3. Write 2-3 bullet points with data that would help the reporter on the article they’re writing. Keep the email short, and DO NOT promote yourself in this email — that will come later. Your goal here is to get quoted as a source in the article. The reporter is not going to write an entire piece dedicated to you right off the bat.

4. In the subject line for the email you’ll be sending, use this simple formula:

(HARO|ProfNet): (The title of the lead)

So, for example, if a HARO lead is a journalist writing an article about “how does data loss effect businesses”, your email subject should be: HARO: How data loss effects businesses

Journalists get a gazillion emails a day, so keeping it 100% relevant is the only way you’re going to get noticed. And again, don’t promote yourself in this first contact with the journalist / blogger. Can’t stress that enough. You will build rapport 100x faster when all you’re doing is offering help.

5. For the content of your email, here is what I send (and I’ve split tested this again and again over the years):

Hi Tim,

My name is Nishank Khanna, founder of Bright Journey. Here is how data loss effects businesses:

  • 1-2 sentences.
  • 1-2 sentences.
  • 1-2 sentences.

I’d love to talk more and help you with your article. Just drop me a line or (800) 555-1234.

– Nishank

Connect with me on

That’s it! All it takes is responding to 4-5 targeted leads a day to get press. 15-30 minutes is usually all it took me to pick the leads and craft the message.

Once a journalist quotes you, they’ll be way more receptive to what you have to say in the future. And I don’t mean send them a press release. Press releases must die! Use your valuable time to craft content that journalists want to use, not writing generic press releases.

With this strategy you can start getting a few mentions that’ll lead to traffic and sales. The next way to get press is creating useful content (for example, put a spin on data that your business generates as an industry report). Send this first to the journalists that quoted you earlier. Again, keep the emails short and too the point.

Final thoughts

Whether you’re working on a penalized site or not, we’re all here for the long haul. Today’s best practices may change tomorrow, but what’s important is to always have the right mindset, in order for you to get the right actions to get to your objectives.

If you liked this post, you can subscribe to my feed and follow me on Twitter @jasonacidre

Jason Acidre

Jason Acidre is the Co-Founder and CEO of Xight Interactive - a digital marketing agency based in the Philippines. He's also the sole author of this SEO blog. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonacidre.

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32 replies
  1. Panagiotis Kontogiannis
    Panagiotis Kontogiannis says:

    I have experiment with html 5 templates that have the correct structure, but to take out a site of punishment requires much more work than removing bad content and the addition of new quality content. I would like to read a case study about remove manually google punishment.

  2. Dana Flannery
    Dana Flannery says:

    This has been a total headache for two of my clietns. We have done everything under the sun to try to recover their sites, I’ll pick through your suggestions and see if we missed anything 🙂

  3. Nishank Khanna
    Nishank Khanna says:

    Nice work Jason!

    The biggest benefit of putting efforts into the “press leads” approach is that with each media mention you benefit in all aspects:

    – You get direct traffic from the article (small to medium publications can easily drive several thousand new visitors, larger ones can drive 100K+ in a weekend).
    – You build an authority link which adds to your SEO rankings over time.
    – Other bloggers end up writing about you once you read your quote in the article.

    It’s the most effective old-school tactic to build traffic for traffic’s sake — and not Google’s. Ironically, you end up with more traffic from Google as a side effect.

  4. Brady
    Brady says:

    I’ve had pretty extensive experience working with penalized sites. The largest being a client who owned a network of sites where close to 50% of those sites either had keyword penalties or were blacklisted entirely- he came to me asking for help to get some of them back up. Keyword penalties arent very much fun but at least you can target other keywords while trying to clean up the rest. Full blacklisting is a beast in and of itself. This is a pretty good write up of some things to do to start getting these issues resolved. Since that client, google has introduced disavow- which can help quite a bit to clean up spammy links that you cant get removed.

  5. Hang Pham
    Hang Pham says:

    Hi Jason,
    I really love this post. The information in this article is really unique and useful for me. After reading this article, I think I have some ideas for myself. I do follow your articles recently. Thanks for sharing this post. Hope to read more interesting information from you. Great job!

  6. Edward Chung, PMP
    Edward Chung, PMP says:

    It especially like this sentence: “And when we’re cleaning up a site for it to regain its old rankings, we’re just doing what the site should have done before.” I am currently trying to clean up a website hit by a recent unnamed Google algo change. It’s a hard work though. Thanks for your tips.

  7. Samfrank
    Samfrank says:

    Google considers more than 200 factors while rankings sites in search results. One will have to dig into Google webmaster & Google Analytics data very carefully to determine the exact cause of the penalty.

  8. Matt
    Matt says:

    As panda updates are rolled more softly in the algorithm, however does Penguin updates require to be refreshed to recover? As penguin updates are much less frequent.

  9. SEO Arbiter
    SEO Arbiter says:

    Hi Jason,

    Nice post.

    I agree with you that while disavowing bad links and that sort of thing can be kind of helpful, I definitely think people should spend more time on improving their link profile by building new links instead.

    The skyscraper approach you mention is very powerful and Brian has a lot of good ideas.


  10. Kaloyan Banev
    Kaloyan Banev says:

    Very true, though recovery is very much a private case for every different website. Actually website might not even be penalized and in this cases the above tips fit perfectly.

  11. Kenneth Shaw
    Kenneth Shaw says:

    I think the best thing any business out there can do to set them up for long-term health is to avoid relying solely on Google. You can do 100% of the right things and get some kind of penalty by random tomorrow. Their algorithms are far from perfect and get false positives all of the time. And recovery from this can take a lot of time, during which your income plummets. I think it makes sense to foster multiple sources of traffic so the failure of any one wouldn’t be fatal to you. Work on your site’s SEO. Try and use email marketing effectively. Experiment with display ads. Try and develop a successful community via social media to get more social media followers. Experiment with everything that’s available to try and make sure you can withstand the decline of any one network.

  12. Travis
    Travis says:

    Amazing post. I really enjoyed the infographic on boosting domain authority. Do you think that using HARO is effective for SEOs since there is a ton of them all trying to use that services for link building purposes?

  13. Marcus Maclean
    Marcus Maclean says:

    Hey Jason,

    To be honest, I was a little disheartened to read this post.

    It seems like any of my competitors can come along and blast crappy links at me all day long, and it would be like fighting a never ending battle to try and stop them.

    It seems like it would take a lot of time and effort to disavow negative links if someone’s spamming the crap out of your site, is there any faster or easier way, or is this it?


  14. Spook SEO
    Spook SEO says:

    If you have increased the domain authority of your site then for sure you can strenghten the your online visibility and it can also drive more traffic to yuor website.

  15. John Talbot
    John Talbot says:

    “But sadly, these days, perhaps more than half of the businesses looking for SEO help are businesses hoping to recover from algorithmic updates/penalties.”

    I don’t believe I can find this any more true. I feel that the penalties are because most people might of taken shortcuts with their SEO techniques and they were backfired. SEO is a tedious task, and I feel that if handles with care, rather than “greed” you can have a more solid foundation, although it may take [a lot] longer.

  16. Enrique Vega
    Enrique Vega says:

    Thanks for the wonderful tactics you shared Jason! Well I completely agree with Jason that domain authority is an excellent choice for an alternative of Google Pagerank as it shows your value in the eyes of Google and Alexa in combination. if your website has good Domain Authority score, you are likely to receive lots of interesting deal offers from advertisers.

  17. David Barrera
    David Barrera says:

    If the end customer only wants positions, and will do anything to get them shortly take Google’s algorithm to give back drop to the lowest. Be very careful what you ask the customers and try to evangelize the work of the SEO’s.

    A hug from Spain.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] can check out this post by Jason Acidre to learn how to recover from a penalty recovery and this guide by Neil Patel for negative SEO recovery (negative SEO happens when someone attacks […]

  2. […] Dealing with Penalized Websites According to Jason Acidre, dealing with a penalized website is absolutely the same as dealing with a newly launched or unharmed website. Here are some aspects to focus your SEO efforts on all the time and especially if you want to regain your site’s old rankings: optimize for experience, improve domain authority, string entity optimization. […]

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