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 At the Mercy of Google: How to Handle a Penalty

At the Mercy of Google: How to Handle a Penalty

Many companies are suffering as a result of Google penalties, with ever-changing rules and regular updates leaving the majority of online business owners guessing. This is not a rare occurrence.

In addition to this, a growing part of online strategy is to take down competitors by launching an attack on their SEO. This is done, usually quite efficiently, by buying a batch of cheap, bad links and directing them towards the rival site. This will cause Google to either drop the rankings of the target site or apply a penalty, which would effectively remove the target site from Google until the issue was fixed.

Unfortunately, many businesses find themselves under penalty for whatever reason, suffering the consequences and falling down the page rankings as a result. Their business may suffer substantially, with very little they can do to boost it until a full SEO recovery is made. But how is that done? And how can they begin to climb the slippery Google ladder once again?


Recently, we were approached by a holiday rentals company, which was insistent that it had been the target of a negative SEO attack.

Google had applied a manual penalty to the company’s site, meaning it was not listed on Google anywhere at all – it had completely vanished from search results. The team was frantic; enquiries and bookings had dropped dramatically as Google refused to show their site to potential customers searching for holiday rentals.

An initial analysis revealed their link profile as below:

The bad links were indeed appearing very high up on the breakdown. By considering the anchor text on the links from each site, we could identify a lot of ‘adult terms’ listed.

Again, this corresponded perfectly with the company’s suspicions; adult terms can often be chosen during a negative SEO attack and they will make the links appear even riskier to Google.


This case study is a prime example of why analysis is so important. It’s no good to devise a strategy to improve SEO without understanding what has caused the problem in the first place. The issue must be identified and directly addressed.

As we investigated the links further to discover precisely what had happened, it became clear that the sites fell into a few categories:

  • Adult themed forum posts.
  • Classified advert sites.
  • Poor quality free hosted blog style sites.

This was where things began to stop adding up. Although forums can be used as part of a negative SEO attack, it was unusual to find classified adverts directing to a site as part of one of these campaigns. Intrigued, we read a handful of the posts, which showed us precisely what had caused the penalty – it was certainly far from what was originally expected by the client, demonstrating exactly why it’s so critical to properly investigate the cause.

The posts and adverts were listings by ‘ladies of the night’ who had rented the holiday apartment or home as a base to work from. The client then performed an internal investigation of the situation, coming to the conclusion that somewhere around 10% of their recent bookings could possibly have been from prostitutes. We even found a forum for escorts where they had discussed locations to work from and named and linked to the client.


Whilst the client sorted their booking procedures to vet for people abusing their properties, we conducted a thorough link audit of the links in their profile and went through every link to make a decision about whether each was within or contrary to Googles Webmaster Guidelines. The basic rule we use in determining good from bad is “what was the intent when this link was placed”. This work ended in us having to disavow a large proportion of their worst links.

Once we cleaned up, we waited for Google to crawl the sites we disavowed, which took around 10 days, and then submitted a reinclusion request to Google. This clearly explained that the rentals company understood why they had a penalty applied and that they had taken corrective action to put processes in place that would try to prevent the issue occurring again.


Here is how the risk looked after we had completed our work:

By Paul Madden, director of data intelligence agency Kerboo. 

Mark  Jones

Mark Jones

Editorial Executive at PerformanceIN. Mark reports performance marketing news and manages PI's network of guest contributors.

Originally from Plymouth, Mark studied in Reading and London, eventually earning his Master's in Digital Journalism- before making his return to the West Country to join the PI team in Bristol.

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