The Tale of Two Penguins: How We Helped One Client Avoid an Attack and Another Recover From Theirs

The stories you’re about to read are important. The lessons you’ll learn from them can help protect your online presence, and can affect the success or failure of your business. And when you’re done reading these stories of how backlink problems trashed the web presence of one attorney and nearly destroyed another, I want you to take action: to follow the advice we give, advice that could very well save you months of work, headaches, and loss of business.

A Very Important Note

Before we go further, it’s important to note that while the two stories are different, they have one glaring similarity: both came to us from the same attorney-centric marketing firm. And these two aren’t alone. Many of our clients have left this other firm, showing up on our doorstep with major backlink issues. At this time, I am not comfortable naming names, but if you’re worried about the attorney marketing firm you’ve hired, or are thinking of hiring, watch our recent webinar, Shady Web Marketing Tricks Used by Unethical Providers.

With that said, let’s meet the subject of our first tale, the Chicago-based personal injury law firm, Lane & Lane.

Lane & Lane: A Cautionary Tale

Lane & Lane came to us with serious backlink issues in hand. While this is not a rare occurrence (a woefully high number of our clients come with loads of backlink baggage) their issues were particularly bad.

When they signed on as a client their website had over 9,500 backlinks. That’s great, right? Links are good; they’re indicators of your site’s authority, they’re “votes of confidence” from other websites, right? Not always. Much more important than the number of backlinks your site has is the quality of backlinks your site has. It doesn’t matter how many sites link to yours if they’re low-quality, irrelevant to your practice/industry, or even worse: exist solely to provide links without contributing anything of substance.1

The vast majority of Lane & Lane’s backlinks were coming from these “link farms” or blog networks (read more about what they are and how to spot one here). The links were total junk, and had without a doubt contributed to Lane & Lane’s site losing authority (and traffic!) over time.

What We Did

At the time we didn’t know that Google was about to release its big Penguin update; nobody did! But we did know that the Lanes’ terrible link profile had the potential to tank the website and that it was already negatively affecting their search presence. So before we did anything else, we went to work fixing their profile.

Our team disavowed some 400 referring domains. This was a time-consuming, tedious task, but it was absolutely critical to the success of the clean-up. The majority of the 9,500 links in their profile came from these 400 domains, so getting rid of them was the only way to scrub their link profile clean.

Pro Tip: We disavow at domain level instead of going after individual links. Are you fuzzy on what a referring domain and the other thing are? Read our very popular FAQ: What is the difference between a referring domain and a backlink?

Pro Tip Part Deux: Google says that disavowing a link or domain is sufficient, but we still recommend actually removing as many offending links as possible.

All of the work we did for Lane & Lane was done to ward off an attack. It wasn’t that what we did increased their search presence dramatically; it was so that when Penguin hit, their website didn’t disappear into the search abyss, as it did with Cuddigan Law, the second story featured in this article.

Lane & Lane’s Majestic screenshot showing domain’s historical data. The 52,500 external backlinks represent all of the links they’ve ever had. What’s important to note here is that in the before, trust flow (a measure of the quality of backlinks) was low, at only 9. The after shot, below, tells a totally different story.

Check out this healthy snapshot! This post-clean-up screenshot shows that the trust flow has increased dramatically, signaling that backlink quality has improved greatly. Also, check out the topical trust flow “Society/Law”; relevant and natural!

A Disaster Averted

When a referring domain is disavowed the links don’t instantly disappear from a link profile. In fact, it has historically taken up to a year for Google to run an update and remove these damaging links2.

Fortunately, by the time Google released its Penguin update many of the disavowals had been accepted. So when Penguin hit, Lane & Lane’s website was spared from “algorithmic dampening” (Google reserves the term “penalty” for when it’s manually and purposefully dinged a site); their search presence remained intact. But if we hadn’t disavowed these referring domains—if those 9,000-plus links had stayed on their profile—I can guarantee their website would have tanked, which is exactly what happened to Cuddigan Law.

It’s worth nothing that we continue to monitor the firm’s link profile, disavowing when necessary and building better, authoritative links. This is an important step for anyone maintaining the health of their link profile; it’s not enough to fix and forget, you need to keep checking back, as our next story proves.

Cuddigan Law: Back from the Brink

Unlike Lane & Lane, the backlink issue for Cuddigan Law didn’t rear its ugly head until after they were on board with us. As we do with each potential client, we had done a thorough website audit, including a close look at their backlink profile. However, when they came to us, it simply wasn’t very bad. They didn’t have thousands of bad links, and many were from reputable referring domains; they were in good shape! So we pressed on with their new design, began writing content, and all was well…for the moment.

It wasn’t until after they fired their old provider (the same provider as Lane & Lane, perhaps not coincidentally) and signed with us that their backlink profile became toxic. And while I wish we could say this was a singular case, we’ve seen this happen time and again: a bad link profile rearing its ugly head only after a new client comes on board. There are two potential explanations for this:

  • Website updates. These link farm type sites aren’t updated often. So if your provider added your link to the website as far back as a year ago, these links may not have shown up yet. That is, until the website updates. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you have hundreds of links, all from the same domain. It’s like killing a spider in your house, only to have hundreds of baby spiders hatch from an egg sac and take over your home!
  • Shady providers. After ten years of getting new clients who seem to have a decent link profile, only to have to it blow up in our faces, we started to notice a trend. These clients all come from the same provider and they almost always get an email around the same time from this provider. It says, in so many words, “We noticed that your web presence has tanked. It could be that your new provider sucks! Please come back so we can fix the damage they have done!” The timing is suspect and it’s happened often enough that we keep an close eye on every new client who comes from these providers, warning the client that they may expect link issues.

But no matter why the law firm’s backlink profile went bonkers, it did, and with the worst timing possible. You see, we had heard rumors of a Google update, and as always were working to improve the link profiles of our clients. Unfortunately, these bad links cropped up just as Google released the first of its Penguin updates in October, 2013.

Before the site was nailed by Penguin, the Cuddigans were ranking extremely well for the top keywords in their local market. They were killing it in the search rankings and business was booming. But after, well…let’s just say it wasn’t good.

The Penguin Aftermath

Almost overnight, their website went from page one to page three. The effect this had on their website traffic was devastating. And even worse, it had a terrible impact on their business (Read more about how to make the connection between online traffic and foot traffic here).

This screenshot is from the Panguin tool. It shows’s organic Google traffic; the blue line indicates when Penguin hit.

After Penguin cut the legs off the Cuddigans’ search engine rankings, we quickly began attacking all of the bad links that had popped up right before the killer update. We worked carefully but quickly to disavow the hundreds of new referring domains, leaving no stone unturned. And then? We waited. This is the most frustrating part of cleaning up a link profile. After we have submitted the disallow files, it becomes a waiting game. You see, Google doesn’t do any disavowing until it runs another update. And while some updates occur soon after the initial release, in this case Penguin didn’t update for one year—a full 12 months.

While we waited we didn’t just twiddle our thumbs. Instead, we were more aggressive than normal with paid ads. We also continued to add quality content to the website, ensuring that when Google updated again the site would be ready.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

In October of 2014, Google finally ran its updates. The moment it did, Cuddigan shot back up to page one. All of the work, the wait, and the worry paid off.

However, it didn’t feel good to be running defense. We work, every day, to stay on the offensive: to fix link issues well before they derail a website’s success. But in this case the sudden proliferation of bad links and the timing of the Penguin update forced us to be reactive. It was a painful lesson both for us and for the law firm.

So, what are the lessons here? How can you, a business owner, protect your website from toxic backlink profiles and position yourself for long-term success and a healthy web presence? What can you do if you’ve already been affected? Here are some helpful tips:

Actionable Items for Business Owners

If you’ve been hit by Penguin, and have already disavowed the bad referring domains, you shouldn’t sit idly by, waiting for the next update. While you wait, you should be:

  • Using the Panguin tool. This will help you identify damage done by Panda, Penguin, and other Google updates.
  • Monitoring your backlink profile and continuing to disavow if bad links pop up.
  • Building your good link profile. We have recommendations on this website for naturally augmenting your link profile.
  • Paying for ads. If your natural search traffic has dried up, you’ll need to supplement with paid ads. We’ve had success with both GoogleAdWords and Facebook paid ads, but make your decisions based on the demographics of your client base and your available budget.
  • Writing awesome content. That way a Panda doesn’t sneak in and give a one-two punch to your website. Nothing worse than a Panda-Penguin TKO!

 Haven’t been hit yet? Great! But this doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. You still need to:

  • Get to know your backlink profile. Link profiles are like lawns: they get out of hand if you don’t tend to them. To see who’s linking to our sites, we use Google Webmaster Tools. While this doesn’t rate the quality of the links, it does show all the external links pointing to your site. For a more in-depth look, we use Majestic. WARNING! While you can and should check out your website one of these sites, I do want to warn you that you taking action based on what you find can be hazardous to the health of your web presence. Disavowing links should only be done by an SEO professional. If it’s done incorrectly you could do more harm than good. So use the tools above to check in on your site but contact your webmaster before you make any changes based on the information they provide.
  • Build a better profile. This means searching out authoritative sources for link-building opportunities. Here’s one effective way to do so.

Let’s Keep This Conversation Going

If you’ve been hit by Penguin, or if you suspect that your former (or current) web provider is participating in shady link strategies, please let us know below. The more that’s shared, the better prepared we all are to avoid the traffic-destroying effects of bad linking.

1Jamie’s Corner of Tangentially Related Supplemental Info for Those Who Want to Learn More: SEO is a rapidly-evolving—and more importantly, a reactionary—practice. Successful SEO hinges upon properly utilizing data points deemed important by Search Engines at any given moment in time. When the “important” pieces change, SEO strategies and tactics must change too. When Google mentioned that links are treated as “votes”, the knee-jerk reaction of many within the industry was “Acquire all the links!” This is where the myopic “more is better” attitude comes from: people losing sight of the user-experience forest for the link trees.

2It’s just been made public that Google will now be updating the Penguin algorithm on a “continuous” basis, meaning that recovery times should be much shorter in the future!

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