Kicking Penguin’s Ass: a Case Study

Rob Cohen, of Cohen & Cohen P.C. in Denver, CO, came to us with a problem. His website lost all its rankings, leads had dried up, and he wasn’t quite sure why.

He’d worked with a few SEO providers in the past, and knew there had been some “link building” done. In light of Google’s Penguin update, and subsequent refreshes, the first place I look when a client comes to us complaining of a drop in traffic is the link profile.

Sure enough, I searched links to his old site on Open Site Explorer, and found a tremendous amount of spam. Link after link from sites that I wouldn’t feel comfortable linking to here. Rob’s old site had 88 linking root domains, and the vast majority were garbage.

After reviewing analytics and webmaster tools, I came to the conclusion that Rob’s site had been hit by an algorithmic downgrade as the result of link spam.

When we first started speaking, Penguin 2.0 had just rolled out. From what we were seeing, Penguin’s second iteration was nastier than the first. It was also a clear signal that Google was better at detecting link spam, and wouldn’t be backing off its efforts to punish it.

Starting fresh with a new URL

Prior to the deepening of Penguin, we’d gone the outreach, and link disavowal route for some clients, but the results weren’t what I’d hoped for. I told Rob he was going to have to part ways with his old domain.

He resisted.

Businesses get attached to domains they’ve held for a long time, and it’s understandable. Many have marketing collateral, like business cards, that use the domain. Rob was concerned about inconsistencies in email addresses, as his entire staff was using addresses at the old domain.

I pushed back, and told him to consider giving up the old domain. After thinking it over for a few nights, he decided he would part ways with the old URL, and build his web presence the right way. We gave Rob some guidance on domain selection, and he purchased a new web address.

The first goal for the new site was to re-establish visibility for bankruptcy and family law searches in Denver.

Moving content to the new domain

Rob had many pages of solid content to build on, it was just housed at the wrong domain. We decided to build a new site at, and use the library of content Rob had housed at the old site.

We then took inventory of the few good links pointing to the old site, and made notes to transfer those over when the new URL was live with a splash page. We made sure not to build any 301 redirects from the old domain to the new, so as not to risk “infecting” the new domain.

Research, organization, acquisition

From there, we inventoried Rob’s entire online reputation, and began organizing his citations through a dedicated email address. Over the years, numerous duplicate, and inaccurate accounts had sprouted up. We updated all of the firm’s social media profiles, and claimed and updated data in the most important feeder citations that supply the rest of the web with information about local businesses. We then moved through the local search ecosystem, cleaning up inaccuracies and creating new web citations specific to the Denver market.

While the new site was under construction, we got down to business researching linking opportunities. We paid special attention to links of value held by the firm’s competition, as well as local linking opportunities in the Denver area. Once we had the new site complete, we were then able to carefully build links consistent with Google webmaster guidelines.

When the new site was live, we updated the HTML of each page to target specific keywords, and built internal links so that users and search engines could better navigate the site.

Results after 4 months

Organic search traffic up over 1,000%

The results after 4 months have been very positive, and demonstrate the value of working within Google webmaster guidelines, instead of against them. The new site is healthy, and is steadily gaining organic search traffic.

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Rankings data for target search terms

Cohen & Cohen had fallen out of the top 50 search results for many of their target organic queries. We were able to rank their new site highly again in four months.

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Key takeaways

I’ve written about it before on this blog, but it bears repeating. Small business owners in particular should be very careful about investing in domains that have been tainted by spam. Small sites that have never received high volume traffic will have a harder time diagnosing Penguin. Their branded search traffic often props up overall visits, and they may even cling to a few of their old rankings (albeit with fewer overall impressions). Some internet marketing companies may tell them they can bring the site back. Maybe some can, however, I’m skeptical. The most concrete cases of Penguin recovery I’ve seen have come from established brands who benefitted from owning authoritative domains. Even if a small business site competes well in a niche, most are not known quantities on the web. They lack the strong link profiles necessary to avoid being tossed around in Google’s stormy seas. In my view, the best strategy is to ditch the tainted domain, and build new using strategies you can be proud of.

Much more to do

The purpose of this case study is both to show what is possible when a business owner invests in good quality SEO, and to discourage further investment in domains that have been tainted by heavy link spam. With the right strategy, it is possible to own a healthy website again, but parting ways with the penalized site is a necessary step.

The Cohen & Cohen campaign is far from complete, the goal for each of our clients is to build an extensive web presence that drives leads for years to come. Four months in, we’re just getting started…

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  • Luke Ciciliano

    Thanks for sharing John. I do believe a site can be rehabilitated from Penguin 2.0 but, at the same time, the level of work/time needed to do so is often going to be more than it takes to just “start over” as you mentioned. If a site is spammy enough to get dinged by Penguin then it’s simply proof of the poor practice followed by whoever was handling it. Your thoughts?

  • Luke, as we saw with WPMU, I think bigger brands can recover from Penguin, but small business sites have an uphill battle. Sites that primarily used spam to rank, have little authority after those link signals have been devalued. In those cases, I don’t think it is possible to recover. My belief is that recovery attempts should be reserved for larger sites with more established link profiles. In my opinion, building on a tainted domain with zero authority is a waste of resources. I’ve written more on the subject here:

    If you have small site recovery stories from Penguin 2.0, please share, the web is pretty quiet with data on the subject.

  • Matthew Arnold

    Great article John. Scary scenario. Congratulations on the site improvement.

  • William E

    Very informative article, great to see data-riven analysis. Would like to see before / after analytics; looks like there’s just “new site live” analytics (unless I missed something).

    Also, I quibble with saying Penquin2 “penalized” sites. When I see Google “penalty,” I reflexively think “no, it is not a penalty, it is a devaluation of what was once valuable.” That is, Google used to value links from sites that it now considers spam, so the value of those links have dropped from X to 0, not to -X. 0 is not a penalty. If that is a proposition you accept, wouldn’t the path back to rankings be the same whether or not you get rid of spam links? You’re still building from 0.

  • Thanks for the comment William. I describe the issue as an “algorithmic downgrade” at the beginning of the piece because I share the view that the word penalty can be misleading in this context. Having said that, the shifts in algorithm do operate much like a penalty in that they set previous SEO efforts back. A lot of it is semantics.

    As far as link signals being devalued causing new and penalized sites to both start at zero authority, I agree. I disagree that “the path back to rankings is the same.” Sites with link spam won’t grow, the algorithm makes sure of that now. New sites built the right way can.

  • Thanks Matthew.