Startling Google SEO Penalties Case Studies [+Google Penalty Recovery Guide]

Google Penalty

Manual penalties, algorithmic penalties, unnatural links penalties, payday loan penalties, it seems that Google is obsessed with dishing out penalties.

It’s tough these days.

But no worries, this article is here to save the day – it reviews SEO penalty case studies, covers Google SEO penalty differences, and Google penalty recovery tips & tricks.

Let’s study some of the most discussed penalties and see what we can learn from them.

Case Studies

1. Halifax SEO penalty recovery case study

Chiefly two tactics were employed to get a quick increase in backlinks: HTML banner ads (Halifax Bank Google SEO Penalty) with do-follow links linking to multiple Halifax pages, and a blog network of financial blogs.

They lost positions in SERPs overnight for highly searched keywords like personal loans.

seo penalty
Halifax gets spanked

You can see a major uptick of do follow links around January 2014.

links exponential
Ahrefs link graph

Not only are the tricks quite old, they also leave an easy footprint. I guess, that was their undoing.

2. Portent SEO penalty recovery case study

Portent is an SEO firm since 1996. What was strange about their penalty was that Google wasn’t very clear on why they were handing it out. ( Under manual penalty)

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Owner Ian Lurie assumed the reasons to be:

* Keyword rich anchor texts in guest posts. The guest posts that they had done on other blogs had keyword rich anchor texts and consisted of 2% of their link profile and were quite old.  However, that could be one of the reasons for the Manual Penalty.

* They had high volume of links coming from a single domain which certainly would have raised red flags. This was caused by one of their client sites which had a link to them being hacked. It resulted in the addition of 50000 back links.

All I can say is that you need to be wary if there is a large number of links from a single domain pointing to your site. Site wide links aren’t that great for SEO these days.

3. Interflora SEO penalty recovery case study

On February 15th this year one of the biggest florist brands was found not be ranking even for its own brand name. (Interflora SEO penalty)

brand name
Interflora brand name anchors

The reasons for that penalty can be attributed to:

* Buying links

Bribing bloggers for do follow links. A quick check reveals that they used to send free flowers to bloggers to earn a do follow anchor text optimized link.

The fiasco on Twitter is an evidence to that, when their team reached out to bloggers to remove those links.

interflora seo penalty
Interflora debacle on Twitter

4. ECommerce site SEO penalty recovery case study

Francis shows how he recovered one of his client’s blogs from a penalty (A True Story: From A Triple Whammy Google Penalty To $60K/month Revenue). It took him more than 4 months of link removal emails to get the work finally done. Although the website url is not given, it can be assumed that a lot of inorganic links were accrued over time.

A lot of the links came from link sellers and as such there was an easy footprint for Google to detect.

Often, while going for link removal you’ll come across bloggers who would bargain to get a deal from you. Francis advises against paying them anything. Attaching those replies alone would be enough for Google to recognize you as someone who tried to remove the bad links.

5. Two years old manual spam action revoked

This is a case study of a 2 year old manual penalty being revoked. It was a huge retail site with 10 million monthly visits. What I learnt about the kind of links that were causing the penalty was this:

* A large number of unnatural links came in the form of un-targeted anchor texts. Posts on sites with links to authority sites had also links to the retail sites.

* Affiliates were playing a dirty game. Non related sites and expired domains were being used as link farms, and footers of sites like child developed had links to the retail site from affiliates.

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They did contact affiliates to remove the links but also came up with a creative solution to the problem in 404ing the affiliate landing page. The landing page still had the elements of a landing page but returned a 404 code the search engines which meant that no link juice did not flow. 404 is the only route to stop passing page rank. All the shady links that affiliates now created did not harm the site any longer.

Jenny Halasz Google I m thinking of trying something weird and would love the…
Jon Mueller on 404ing links

6. Cashlady SEO penalty recovery case study

In the case of Payday loan sites, one of the most well-known sites in the niche, was penalized for unnatural link building methods (case study Matt Cutts himself said that the site showed signs of long-standing, mass deliberate spam.

In their case, spammy comments dating back to 2012 were pointed out as one big factor for the manual penalty notification.

Unnatural links were built for the site over the years and it’s likely that most payday loan sites followed the same pattern. It worked at that time but not any longer.

Payday Loans is a niche prone to being attacked by spammer and as such seems to be manually moderated by the web spam team.

7. RapGenius’s shady link building tactics

In January this year, RapGenius was served a manual penalty for its shady link building tactics. They blatantly asked bloggers to link back from one of their posts in exchange of a tweet about the post. The way in which they acquired links was not suited to the name they’d built for themselves.

In receiving links from sites and posts which weren’t related to the content on RapGenius, they were openly violating Google’s guidelines.

To show you a taste of how it looks, here are the kind of emails they sent for links.

Sample link request

Source: RapGenius Growth Hack exposed

8. Could Expedia be the victim of negative SEO?

What is negative SEO?

Some SEOs consider it a myth but recent examples have clearly shown that negative SEO is a reality.

Even Google now considers negative SEO to be real.

Earlier their site read,

There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.

and now,

Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.

Here’s a blog post (CASE STUDY: Negative SEO – Results) which details how a site that ranked for the keyword “SEO” was derailed with Scrapebox. It took just two minutes to set up the software and a few hours to blast a million spam links.

Expedia’s SEO penalty recovery case study

In the case of Expedia, when it received an unnatural links penalty it was said that the link building tactics used were so cheap and outdated that it could be the work of a third party.

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They lost a quarter of their search visibility.

But as Forbes author Joshua Steimle concludes (Expedia, Negative SEO And Google Penalties),

“All of this leads us to ask how Expedia’s SEO team(s) didn’t detect what was going on a long time ago. Such a large company certainly has the resources to pay attention to the types of links that are pointing to their site…”

When spammers try to promote their own sites they also link out to legitimate and authoritative sites like Wikipedia to make it appear legitimate. Here’s a sample site that we dug out.

9. Let’s see one more SEO penalty.

Though this site isn’t a victim of negative SEO it still did suffer the same fate.

See, how it links out to irrelevant words in a blog post on Car financing.

According to Jon Mueller of Google,

“You mean like when somebody creates spam links but also links to Wikipedia? … We have seen it happen before. Sometimes we can tell but sometimes it’s a little bit harder… but [if] you get a manual penalty from it you will know about it so you can just disavow the links.”

So, it seems that Google has no way of knowing whether the links have been purposefully built in an attempt to rank a site. As far as I can see, I call this penalty going overboard.

Most of the links were to inner pages like this one - and for terms that aren’t even the anchor texts.

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Irrelevant anchors and links

It could be clearly made out as an example of spam which was done for some other sites.

According to SEO consultant Yontan who was behind the recovery of the site,“No matter who you are – big or small, this is crucial. This kind of thing can happen, seemingly, to anyone. We have instated a weekly back link scan for Ginger Software…” (A Startling Case Study of Manual Penalties and Negative SEO)

Now,it’s difficult to manually scan your back links every week but we have something better at Linkody which checks your site for anything harmful every single day.

Are links alone responsible for penalties?

Penalties, especially Penguin and Manual penalties don’t arise from just bad links. There are a lot of internal and external factors that could be considered as webspam.

Automatically generated content

Also labeled as thin content, if your site uses scraped content from RSS feeds or blogs it’s web spam. This kind of content may not be useful for a person as he/she would see content that is already there on other sites.

automatic content
Auto generated content


It’s a technique where the site content presented to the search engine spiders differs from the content shown to users. The content is delivered based on IP addresses.

Sneaky redirects

Using scripts, a meta refresh redirect a visitor to a different page with the intent to show the user a different page than a search engine crawler sees or where he/she has landed. According to Google, it’s a deceptive practice.

Hidden text or links

If links are hid by changing their color from blue to something that matches with the background it’s considered as web spam.

Loading pages with irrelevant keywords

Users have landed to your site searching for some info. If your site is merely a mumbo-jumbo of keywords providing no value to the user it will probably be deindexed.

How to recover from Google penalty?

Step 1:

You can use different tools like Open Site Explorer, Google Webmaster tools, Bing Webmaster tools, Ahrefs, Linkody etc. to get a list of your back links.

Step 2:

Try to see if the link is a bad link. In most cases you’d recognize a bad link just by where it’s from, example forum posts, automated comments, links from different languages etc. If you’re unable to determine that, look at the Domain authority, and Majestic SEO metrics like Trust and Citation flow. If they’re low, the link is probably not good.

Step 3:

Find the contact information. Use Boomerang for Gmail to remind yourself to send follow ups to people who haven’t responded.

Step 4:

If they don’t respond to mails, just twist the mail a bit saying that the domain would now be included in a disavow file. Being on a disavow list is not great for any domain.

Step 5:

If you find no response even by now upload it to the Disavow file. If however the webmaster demands money, Google suggests to disavow domains rather than paying.

Step 6:

You need to upload the work that you have done, the emails sent, screenshots of responses or screenshots of contact form submissions in Google docs and share it with the Google team. Googlers are wary of downloading external attachments for fear of viruses. They need to see that you’ve really worked on it. See the example below:

Reconsideration Request

Step 7:

Draft a well thought out reconsideration letter detailing all that you have done in response and then submit it.

In some cases, if there are a lot of spammy links pointing to a page of yours then the only way to stop the page rank juice from flowing to your site is by making the page a 404.

If the page is disposable then just get rid of it.

Should I Disavow Links?

When you disavow links Google sees those links as “no-follow” and doesn’t pass any page rank to your site. So there is no need of including no follow links in your disavow file.

You can watch this video for more information.

A study by shows that Google’s tolerance for spam is decreasing by the day. They found that in the initial Penguin updates, sites penalized had link profiles with 80% spammy links. After two months the bar was lowered to 65%. In October 2012, Google began penalizing sites with just over 50% spammy links.

In most of the cases above, you can see that if the back links were monitored then the penalty could have been avoided. It’s high time you get a link audit done. Prevention is always better than cure.

For more SEO fails and penalties this article is a must read. Good laugh guaranteed.

1 thought on “Startling Google SEO Penalties Case Studies [+Google Penalty Recovery Guide]

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