Over the past ten months it has become increasingly common for search practitioners to be called upon to undo the sins perpetrated by website owners and their agents in years gone by. Trapped in the past, these practitioners find themselves leaping from link to link, putting things right that once went wrong and hoping each time that their next re-inclusion request will bring the traffic home.
This is very often a time consuming and, for the client, costly process which involves manually recovering and trawling an entire backlink profile to make sure that every last attempt at manipulation, every last hidden link, every last spun article and every last link network submission is banished henceforth from this place. It is not unusual to see link profiles built almost exclusively on such tainted connections; websites up to their knees in exact-match anchor text. It is not always a quick process and, having removed swathes of ill-gotten links, what remains may not amount to much of anything. In that case reconstruction work will be needed.
The question is: how do you know whether the recovery should be attempted. How can you tell at an early stage whether resuscitation is feasible? It is surely madness to allocate significant expense to that recovery process if the end result is a barren, tainted domain when there is a simple, cheaper alternative available from the outset: burn it.
Starting afresh is frightening, sure. Building from scratch means forgoing any goodwill you have built up in the existing domain, but as AJ Kohn explained in Max Minzer’s ‘maximpact’ Hangout on 14th February:
“Your brand equity is tied up in a bunch of garbage links. Really? I’d say you have a pretty crappy brand at that point. Go, do something different. Restart and start doing it the right way.”
Not only that, but he suggests that in some cases a new domain will have significantly more potential for success than its damaged predecessor, referencing a site with 90% ‘bad’ links:
“The site is probably [held] in such poor estimation by Google- it doesn’t have a good crawl priority, it’s going to take a lot of time – it really is a better option for a lot of those people to simply nuke that domain, move it somewhere else and start building good links, doing real marketing and you will actually get to a level of traffic that you could not get to with the other domain.”
In the same discussion Distilled’s John Doherty suggested a similar approach:
“From what I’ve seen there are a lot of sites that should just take a new domain name, pitch it as rebranding their company and start over with their website, move their content over and kill off their old domain.”
The question, then, is how to make this decision before you commit to spending money on the wrong option. At what point is your domain dead in the water, or not economically recoverable? Doherty addresses that point also:
“Do your research first, against your competitors…if you have 500 linking root domains [with exact match anchor text]…if your next closest anchor text has ten [and that is] way outside of where everyone else is it’s not going to be worth your time to go ahead and try to get it removed.
If you’re not sure why you got hit…you’re not seeing anything in your link graph or in anyone else’s link profile then you’re probably going to make an effort to recover your site.”
In January, Rory Lofthouse shared a troubling case study over at David Naylor’s blog. He explored an actual client scenario where extensive efforts were made to recover a domain before ultimately calling it quits and starting anew with a different domain (in this case adding a hyphen sufficed). The key takeaway here is that four-word snippet “extensive efforts were made”. Time and money invested in an ultimately futile effort to salvage a domain. Without commenting at all on the process followed in that particular case, it is generally imperative that consideration of whether recovery efforts will prove worthwhile is weighed near the outset of the project when you are dealing with a client who has suffered from penalties.
Clients have the potential to be emotional about their brand, but strong, measured, dispassionate advice is what they require. If their brand is irreparably damaged online then no amount of wishful thinking is going to bring it back. Investing in a recovery process that has no realistic prospect of success is bad practice. Of course there will be borderline cases – perhaps including the company featured in the Lofthouse case study – where you assess that recovery is possible but are proved wrong, none of us is right about everything all the time, but making the assessment at the right moment is crucial and learning how to get it right as close to one hundred per cent of the time as possible is simply another skill we as search practitioners need to develop.
Removing links is not fun work. Spending time and money stripping back a website, submitting a series of reinclusion requests, preparing a disavow tool submission, rinse, repeat. It’s a frustrating cycle and there is a clean, blank canvas available which in many cases is not an easy out, is not quitting, is not avoiding work. It’s being smart and taking an economic, unemotional decision at the appropriate moment. Contemplating a change of domain has to form part of your process and it needs to be considered at the earliest possible opportunity.
Stop. Don’t jump in. Take the website and weigh it. If it weighs the same as a duck – burn it.