The contents of the following column are based on real circumstances. Certain elements have been changed to respect the privacy of each site.
Imagine there are two websites. Here are their basic profiles:
Site One is an e-commerce company and website launched in 2013 that sells nutritional supplements, based in Atlanta, Georgia. They sell to anyone in the US and are heavily dependent on PPC and organic search traffic for their revenue. Due to their insanely high monthly PPC spend, they have also been link building since the day the site launched.
They hired a local SEO firm to do their link building which then (secretly) out-sourced the link building work to a third-party company. At first, things were working great. Their site started ranking well in Google for a number of money terms, only to drop and then vanish completely from the top 100. The site received notification of a manual penalty from Google.
A review of the backlink profile of this site shows it does not have a single link from any site in the Atlanta area. It does not have links from any reputable health, fitness or training blogs. It has paid product reviews and hundreds of anchor text forum links, is part of a link network, and is listed in several hundred directories that most of us have never heard of.
Site Two is for a Summer Camp for special-needs kids, also located in Georgia. The camp itself was founded in the 1980s and launched a website in the early 2000s. They, too, hired an SEO firm to help them (a different SEO firm than the one Site One hired), and that SEO firm did the work themselves.
This work included conducting outreach to many kids’ organizations and businesses in the Atlanta metro area as well as in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, and Alabama, which is where most of their campers come from. Their SEO firm ended up merging with a larger SEO firm, and the camp stopped working with them due to increased cost. The camp then hired the same SEO firm as Site One above. Within six months, Site Two received notification of a manual penalty from Google.
A review of Site Two’s backline profile showed paid reviews and hundreds of anchor text forum links. The site was part of a blog link network and was listed in several hundred directories that most of us have never heard of.
However, Site Two had something else. From the work done by the first SEO firm, they had links from sites such as the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta, Atlanta Parent, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Autism Speaks, Chattanooga Parent Magazine’s special needs camps directory, and at least 50-75 more links similar in theme and credibility to the ones I just mentioned.
Again, both sites have received a manual penalty. They no longer receive any appreciable traffic from Google.
If you were to consult with both of these sites, what would your recommendations be? More to the point, are the sites salvageable from a Google rankings perspective? Would it be possible to get the manual penalties lifted? Is a reconsideration request worth the time and effort to pursue?
For most of us, the answer to the above scenario is fairly obvious. The new nutritional supplement site with zero credibility in its backlink profile (Site One) has a long, long road ahead of it if it ever hopes to receive organic search traffic again from Google.
This road would involve link takedowns, detoxing and disavowal, as well as a content initiative that would actually be worthy of earned links — and that’s all before you can be sure any of it will work. The fact is, some sites are just too far gone to waste more time, money and resources to salvage. I would say that Site One has nothing to salvage, anyway. Kill it.
Site Two is a different story altogether. Here we have a long-standing organization in Atlanta with a 12-year-old website that has attracted many highly credible links, and then made a mistake in hiring an SEO firm that did not have their best interests in mind. The new SEO firm polluted a pristine link profile with junk — enough junk to cause a manual penalty.
My advice to Site Two is that it’s definitely worth it to try to salvage and repair the damage done. I believe they could see their rank restored and reclaim the high positions they once had before the bad links appeared.
If both sites were cleansed of the toxic links, Site Two would still have highly credible links pointing to it, while Site One would have nothing credible pointing at it (because it never did).
This particular example is much easier to evaluate and make a decision about than others. One site was nothing more than a new pure-play e-com site in a highly-competitive niche, while the other site was the online representation of a well-known and highly-credible business that had been in existence for many years, with an established website that had earned many great links.
If only every manually penalized site was as easy to evaluate!
The decision to kill a site can be a painful one, and on more than one occasion I’ve looked at a backlink profile and advised that killing a site was the best move. I have also advised some sites to engage in salvage efforts.
Like so many questions related to links, there is no perfect answer. Numerous factors enter into the equation, perhaps most important of which is history. What was there before the junk arrived? What links will remain if others can be removed?
Nobody can tell you with 100% certainty that a site can be salvaged. It might be worth seeking the help of a third party who is comfortable and experienced with analysis of large backlink datasets.
And, I take no pleasure in reporting that of the many site histories and backlink profiles I’ve studied, in almost two-thirds of the cases I advised that the best move was to kill the site.