The Dark Knight Rises: How Being Bruce Wayne is Not Enough to Save Gotham

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The Dark Knight Rises: How Being Bruce Wayne is Not Enough to Save Gotham
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Patrick Hathaway, a renowned Digital Marketing Manager working in-house for Ideasbynet, gives us a personal view of how Google penalties such as Penguin and Panda are affecting SMEs in the real world and highlights how the human effects of penalisation are often overlooked. Many Google penalty reports and analyses are written from a technical standpoint but here Patrick uncovers just how hard these penalties are hitting businesses day-to-day.

Please feel free to share your own Google penalty experiences and opinions with us in the comments below.


During the last few months, several earthquakes have rocked the search landscape, as ‘Bigfoot’ and various iterations of Panda and Penguin have left many SERPs in an unpredictable mess. With Google cracking down on unnatural links and the syndicated blog networks, they inadvertently gave spammers the keys to Gotham by effectively enabling negative SEO.

Fortunately the hysteria surrounding negative SEO seems to have died down, and the large majority of SEOs would have to agree that most of these changes are for the greater good. The frustration right now is that the good SEO companies, the ones that have been delivering content strategies for years, have ended up having to fix problems caused by others – wading through decayed and corrupted backlink profiles and trying their best to clean up the streets.



I work in-house for a company called Ideasbynet and on April 7th this year we received a message through Google Webmaster Tools that we had ‘artificial or unnatural links’ pointing to our site. And I don’t mean the ones that may or may not have been bad, I mean the ones that were definitely bad. Sure enough, we appeared to suffer a penalty as rankings for some of our major terms plummeted from page 1 to page 5 or 6 and traffic took a significant hit.



We Probably Deserve It

I only got properly involved in SEO around September last year and up to that point the majority of our SEO had been handled by external agencies. We paid them, they went off and got us links, and we had good rankings. When we analyse these links now, it is easy to see we had directory links, article submissions, link exchanges, blog commenting and probably a fair number of paid links.

So it would certainly be inaccurate to say that we did not profit from the ‘unnatural’ links that were developed on our behalf. Does that make it our fault? I don’t really know, we were only really doing the same as everybody else, just perhaps a little more aggressively. But I guess we probably do deserve it.



We Tried To Clean Up Our Act

Either way, we accepted that at some point down the line agencies contracted by us had developed unnatural links and that we’d have to try and fix it. For anyone that has done this, they will know it is a thankless task. Since we no longer had contracts with the external agencies, we didn’t have any source or contact information. We were literally starting from scratch.

For a start you are completely guessing as to which links are bad, you then spend ages finding contact details for the site, only for the majority of your emails to be completely ignored. We found loads of sites that had been abandoned, and plenty of others with literally no contact details available whatsoever.



On the advice of Pierre Far, we compiled a comprehensive list of all the hundreds of website owners we had contacted, along with details of the links that had been removed. For all the people we couldn’t get through to, we took screen shots of contact forms and bounce back emails. We wrote a very sincere, honest and thorough reconsideration request that detailed exactly who we had worked with previously and what link building efforts we had been doing since.

It took around 6 weeks to get a response. It was not good:

Google Reconsideration Request Response

A Manual Penalty, Yet an Automated Check?

Shortly after this, Matt Cutts did a You & A session at SMX Advanced, where he answered the following questions:

So, despite all the time and care we had taken to compile lists and screenshots, and writing a very detailed response, no one has looked at our request, they had simply checked a few links automatically then sent that response out.



We’ve Been Working Towards The Greater Good

One of the points we raised in the reconsideration request was that any agencies we’d contracted had not built any unnatural links for us in over 2 years. Then, last September, we stopped outsourcing our SEO and tried to take control of it ourselves. We started following the advice of companies like Zazzle Media – the new breed of ‘content-led marketers’ – and begun creating content that our users would appreciate. We started blogging, we built resources, we redesigned our whole website, we added loads of videos to the site, we encouraged customer reviews, we made infographics, we embraced social – anything that might improve the user experience on our website.

After putting all this work in to do things properly, we couldn’t give up, so we went back to the drawing board and tried to remove as many ‘manipulative’ links as we could. We dragged up old article site logins and deleted almost 20,000 articles. We removed site-wide links from other web properties we owned. We contacted another 400 or so webmasters manually, yet suffered the same issues as previously.

I don’t understand how Google expects you to deal with this issue – you can’t force people to take links down. I guess you can pay them to, as one response indicated:


We are receiving too many requests like yours on a daily basis and simply can’t manage the volumes so we came up with a simple idea to charge a modest $1 fee per listing change.

So, if it works for you, please:

1) pay $1/listing amount (if you have 10 listings to change in 1 directory that would be $10, if you have 10 listings to change in 10 directories, that’s $100, and so on) to shk@*****

We are sorry we have to charge for the requests but at least we can guarantee the removals/changes across our entire network of directories, so for many of you it’s a win-win.

If it doesn’t work for you, we’ll still do our best to work on your request but it would take quite some time since we’ll first process urgent/paid ones.


The world has turned on its head! We are now having to pay people to remove links from their websites and malicious site owners can harm their competitors through linkbuilding, whilst others are questioning if they are legally ‘allowed’ to link to someone. As Ian Laurie points out, Google has somehow given spammers all the power.



We can’t get every bad link down. It is impossible.

Despite this, we submitted another reconsideration request. We were clear once again about the number of links we had removed, and how many people we had failed to elicit a response from.

Last Friday, just as I was leaving the office, an email popped up from Google. And it was exactly the same message as last time.

So Much For The Greater Good…

Once again, we have to go back through our link profile, hoping we can identify the culprits, and hoping we can contact them to remove the links. Our days of producing good content are on hold, as we don our capes and return to the murky underworld.

The main problem I have with this situation is that it flies in the face of ‘what Google wants’. Since we received the first warning, most of our efforts have been redirected to link removals, which is an incredibly time consuming job. We are also worried that if we do produce content for our site, any links we get will have no impact (or the negligible traffic improvement of a rise from 65 to 47 in the listings). What this basically means is:

Google is preventing us from producing quality content.

Our time is no longer taken up in content creation or website enhancements to improve user experience, it is instead taken up fruitlessly trying to undo other people’s linkbuilding.

We have reformed, we have rebuilt, but we are still being shunned by Google.



We Are Not Alone

There must be thousands of other small businesses like ours, trapped in this information vacuum and begging for guidance. There must be thousands of SEO agencies who have been producing great work for years, yet are now being distracted by these frustrating link-unbuilding processes.

But why did this happen in the first place?

I guess the problem is that unnatural links worked:

  • Business owner wants more business through the internet
  • They contract an SEO firm, who recommend an aggressive link-building campaign to achieve rankings and traffic
  • Links are built, rankings are achieved
  • Business owner can see results, and doesn’t ask any further questions. Re-invest.



The problem is that most business owners have no idea about the right or wrong ways to do Internet marketing. What they can see is a clear correlation between budget, links, and rankings.

Business owners weren’t aware they should create a ‘natural profile’ and in most cases were simply not aware of the risks. SEO companies had a provable way of showing ROI to their clients and it is easier to stick with easy, proven methods than it is to start over with a totally new strategy. And both companies are happy that the money is continuing to roll in.

Is the Business Owner Ultimately Responsible?

I have heard the argument many times that the ultimate responsibility lies with the business owner as they should investigate the company they are dealing with and find out if they use dodgy tactics or not. To some extent I agree with this, but how does this attitude relate to the wider business world?



If an electrician or a plumber comes to fix something, you don’t question their techniques or examine their work. When you get into an aeroplane, you don’t interrogate the pilot to ask him what route he’ll be flying or how fast he’s going to go. You have to trust them. At least in these cases it is made easier because they are registered, have a license or have passed examinations.

There is no authority body or Google accreditation an agency could get to say ‘we are Google approved’, so how could a business owner really have any clue what kind of links a company might develop on their behalf?

I am now aware of dozens of companies that I know do the job right, as I’ve seen their case studies, read their blogs, or watched their presentations. Wil Reynolds wrote a lovely piece on how he’d pick an SEO company, but that is Wil Reynolds – most business owners simply wouldn’t know where to start.



Trapped in a Pit of Darkness

So how are we expected to proceed? Our content creation is on-hold until we get out of this mess, so effectively our users end up suffering, which is surely not Google’s intention. Of course we are not the only ones, there must be thousands of small business owners thinking ‘what now?’ and thousands of agency staff thinking ‘not another one’ as their link building budget is replaced with one for link removals.



I would like to think that it’s not just scaremongering, but after our latest response I’m not so sure.

So what could they do to make people like me a little less suicidal? A few ideas:

  • An actual manual check. If they are going to hand out a manual penalty the least they could do is manually check what removal work you’ve done.
  • The much vaunted link disavow tool– there would still be issues with identification of bad links but at least the nightmare of contacting webmasters would be over.
  • Give an indication of progress – Maybe a percentage of links they consider unnatural, particular anchor text issues, or some sample links.
  • A separate tool that allows us to declare which webmasters we have been unable to contact and for that to be taken into account along with the reconsideration request.
  • Simply devaluing the unnatural links – if a site only has these types of links, when they all get devalued then it would have the affect of a penalty anyway.

Google is, apparently, all about transparency. It is their ‘transparency’ that has led SEOs of late to run around chasing their tails and website owners confused and worried. I hope at some point they will start to give us more information than simply ‘you have not done enough’, even if it is an indication that there is simply no point proceeding with a site that is beyond reprieve.



Image courtesy of

Nick Ker
Nick Ker

For the most part, it seems like those who were hurt the most by Penguin did in fact deserve it.  However, there are plenty of sites that had stopped doing shady stuff years ago and can't really do much about it. The disavow tool would be great for them - even if it only partly removed the penalty.  I am sure many webmasters would love to be able to just disavow all but the links they know are NOT a problem just to get halfway back to where they were before, since it is pretty difficult to tell sometimes what the problem is.

And that is another big problem - Sometimes there is no good way to tell what is wrong.  Since mistakes do happen and not everyone is intentionally trying to game the system, Google could really do a better job of explaining what the problems might be.  

I have been working with one site in particular that has mountains of useful content, good site structure, nothing spammy on page (anymore - it was a little keyword heavy about 6 months ago), no paid links and not a significant number of keyword anchored links.  Yet on Penguin day, the site dropped.  We found and removed a few links that may have been a problem, but there were really only a few and they weren't glaringly obvious. Months later, reconsideration request replies still say "no manual action" and there has been only a slight recovery.  Basically it is almost back to April 23rd rankings, despite the addition of lots of good content, a serious fine-tuning of on page technical stuff, and a decent number of genuine, good links - especially when compared to the competition.   So it seems like there must be some kind of filter holding the site down, but no clue as to what is wrong.  

It is frustrating for me as an SEO, but even more so for the client whose only "crime" was making a few rookie mistakes and got a little keyword-happy. 


At this point, if I got a reply from Google that said "There is nothing wrong now, but we are penalizing you for the next 6 months/year/eternity..." I could accept that and at least I would not feel like I am in some parallel universe where good optimization and legit links mean nothing. 

A life sentence because someone thought they would do a favor and put up a few exact match keyword site-wide blogroll links? Really?!


Yikes.  This is a scary read.  It sounds like you guys have spent a lot of hours working on this and it's still not resolved.  Did you get your list of latest backlinks from WMT or use another source like OSE?  I worked on one site where there were 37 bad backlinks in OSE but 167 in WMT.  Could that be the issue?


I really hope you can get your penalty lifted soon!


Great post @HathawayP  - thanks for sharing!


"We have reformed, we have rebuilt, but we are still being shunned by Google." - It sounds harsh but maybe Google has its own sentencing guidelines.


As an offline example, if you drive a car under the influence of aclohol then you get a ban for 2 years, have to declare it to your insurance company for 5 years and it remains on your driving licence for 10 years.


I'm sure after the 2 year ban, these drink drivers will have reformed but are still discriminated against.


Are Google taking the law into their own hands? Maybe so; but one could argue that they ARE the online law...


What's really unfortunate though is that it seems like you were the passenger in the vehicle and wasn't aware that the driver had been drinking. (Your outsourced SEO company being the driver). Now I don't know what the law is about travelling in a vehicle where the driver is under the influence, but I'm sure that the sentence wouldn't be anywhere near as harsh as the 'punishment' you're receiving at the moment from Google.


Like you say, Google are limiting the amount of good content available to the user by penalising yours which is disappointing to hear.


Maybe they should be penalised for assisting an offender?


Thanks for the post.




First off, thank you @HathawayP for sharing a very honest post about your situation. It lends a lot of clarity to your overall point.


Google has and will always have the upper hand in controlling an industry it essentially created and polices. In no way do I think they have to be transparent, but I do think they should. Not necessarily for the benefit of the agency or in-house SEO, but for the benefit of the SMB business owner that is not sure how to "...ensure your contractor got the right permits before doing the work on your house."


Most businesses want to place trust in an agency that they will act in the businesses best SHORT and LONG term interest. As mentioned, there is no governing body other than Google Guidelines. Many business owners (focused on running a business) may not know where to look to retrieve or what exactly is being stated, or may receive a bad referral, etc. It's not as easy as "Hey, I want to just double check to see if this agency is reputable or not." even though it seems it should be.


I don't necessarily agree with @ajkohn in that you shouldn't be able to get to undo the bad stuff quickly. Easily, no. It shouldn't be easy, but if you make the effort to reform and are honest about it, why remain punished? If you have changed and are now good at what you do, and DESERVE rank well NOW, than why do you have to remain in the doldrums b/c someone in the past (maybe you, maybe not) violated a guideline (essentially TOS)? It's not that I think anyone is wrong or right per se, but I have a different viewpoint.


Getting to your point, it seems that Google is essentially punishing it's users/doing them a disservice out of spite (laziness?). 


Maybe I'm wrong here. Maybe I'm underthinking the situation, but based on what you've said, you're reformed. I don't like the part of our culture that wants to punish instead of reform. It doesn't make sense to me. Reform helps everyone. Google should reward that behavior instead of ignore that behavior. They're cutting off their nose to spite their face.


I empathize with your situation but, ultimately, I don't sympathize. I know that won't win me a lot of popularity contests but there it is. Because isn't this how it's supposed to be in the real world? You don't get to just undo the bad stuff you've done in the past so quickly or easily.


Why shouldn't business owners be held accountable for those they hire? This would be like saying you shouldn't ensure your contractor got the right permits before doing work on your house. 


And if it sounds too good to be true it probably is, right? Yet, many just wanted to whistle by that particular graveyard. Now that the chickens have come home to roost, now they suddenly care? I'm not saying that's you personally but just a general observation.


How many years did these companies benefit from these activities at the expense of others who did not? Years in many cases. Yet we're getting grumpy that things haven't turned around in a few months. We're upset that we have to work (hard) to earn back that reputation.


Now, I get that it's wickedly difficult to undo what I call these zombie links. I'm not sure how to handle that. But there's simply a bit of personal or ... corporate responsibility at play here. I originally liked the idea of a disavow tool but have changed my mind. Because all that would do is allow businesses to attempt corner cutting and when it goes awry call a mulligan and start over. 


I'll stop now so you can all tell me how heartless I am :)


- Ensure you're not relying on just a single index of backlinks (read: OSE).


- Ensure that each time you send a reconsideration request, you can show that you have made a significant effort and have *actually effected change* since the previous request.


- Keep pestering webmasters. Don't give up after one attempt at contacting them.


- Good luck. :)


Refreshing to read such a "real" post and actually get some value out of it @HathawayP . Appreciate you sharing this journey with everyone. Wish you and your employer the best of luck with attempting to resolve the penalty.


I think the quotes and the overall Batman analogy really helps drive home the points you make, @HathawayP ... Hopefully this post can help a business experiencing similar problems by not only being informative but also easy (and fun) to grasp!


I really like this post - great to hear it from an 'in-house' perspective. It certainly seems like you guys have gone to serious lengths. Hopefully you start to see the fruits of your labour soon.


On a slight tangent, when I see you mention about videos, I wondered @hathawayp  if you had seen the presentation from MozCon by Jeff McRitchie who heads up marketing at MyBinding and talked about how to create awesome videos on a budget. It was a superb, highly practical talk and kind of made me think of you guys because Jeff was operating in a similarly "dry" industry - slides are available at


Thanks for sharing this @HathawayP. It's rare that a business opens up like this and tells the story of the impact large scale Google changes have on people's lives. If anyone else reads this and has a similar story please share it here...


 @Nick Ker Thanks for sharing this and taking the time to include so much detail. I'm sure @HathawayP will appreciate it. I sense some real frustration! If you want us to take a look for you let me know. Happy to try and help.


 @Marie_Haynes thanks for commenting Marie. I know a lot of work has been done across multiple indexes. I think what hurts for @HathawayP is the fact that these links are many years old and the result of poor practice by long gone employees in an era where many perceived it 'acceptable' to build bad links!


 @KyleRLelli  Thanks for the comment and for adding to the debate, it is good to see various angles from the community. 


I am glad you can appreciate the issue I have raised, as I actually feel now that I am not in a position where I 'should know better', but I have been in that position previously, as have my colleagues and predecessors. And the problem is that, whatever situation we are in and whatever we are doing to try and get out, we are probably still in the minority of SMEs who actually understand WHY they are in this situation in the first place.


Given the amount of data that Google have, I don't see how they could possibly come to any conclusion other than that we have indeed reformed. The quantity, quality and type of links we have received recently would be very difficult to achieve unnaturally. I don't think that Google are ignoring our behaviour, moreover, they are ignoring our request to actually examine our behaviour. This is possibly the most disappointing thing for me - as we acted on advice from @simonpenson and @james_perrott of Zazzle, both of whom had spoken to @pierrefar  at Brighton SEO. The advice was that we should be as open and honest as possible about our past and our future plans, and document through Google Docs our efforts at link removal (both successes and failures). It is my belief that neither our reconsideration request nor our supporting documentation has been reviewed at any stage by anyone at Google.


 @ajkohn To be honest, I agree. My predecessor did a lot of article marketing, generating thousands and thousands of links. The syndication operation itself must have actually been quite impressive. We accept the penalty, we think we deserve it. The point I was trying to make is that we want to move on from it, but with the level information Google give us back it is practically impossible.


What I'm trying to say is that being in a penalty is not benefiting anyone. We are spending all our time doing things that don't add to the user experience - Google at least claims that is what it wants.


Of course businesses should be held accountable for those they hire, but what permits can an SEO company show you to prove they are white-hat? When I first got in the game I made some bad decisions with agencies because I had NO IDEA how to differentiate. You can't know what you don't know.


I should add that I have great admiration for @HathawayP in sharing this story.


 @ajkohn I think the point is that when the "bad stuff" was done, it wasn't really considered to be bad, and that's why perhaps businesses affected by penalties are feeling a little hard done by - being punished for things which, at the time, were "the done thing"


 @michaelkovis Thanks for the comments and the tweet - I hope it helps someone somewhere and we can eventually move on with our lives!


 @jamesagate  @hathawayp thanks for the share James. Dollar Shave Club proved the power of 'cheap' video and this is really useful. Thanks!


 @jamesagate Hi James thanks for the comment. In some ways I think that the penalties are a good thing as they make you take stock of your position (and your reliance on one traffic source), so hopefully we will eventually end up in a better place because of it.


I was not lucky enough to go to MozCon but that presentation does look useful, might have to get the video too though to get the full impact. I find case studies of content strategy in these dry industries very useful - great for making you think from a different perspective.


 @simonpenson  @HathawayP Totally agree. It's nice to see a bit of honesty in the SEO blogosphere :) - As an aside I really enjoyed reading the quotes in the characters voice. I was wondering what would break first... your spirit, or your body?


 @HathawayP Sorry to have commented and run off. I'm actually on vacation and we were off to Legoland. I'm just now back which means I'm absolutely dusted. But I wanted to jump back in to add to the dialog.


So, it would be nice if Google were more specific about which links were the offending ones, particularly after you've made a concerted effort to remove a whole bunch of links already.


A lot of the chatter (even from Google) is that it takes a certain percentage of the bad links to get that penalty removed. It probably differs by site to some degree and I'm thinking it's probably a ratio of bad to good to a degree but again, it would be interested to have a visual gauge that you had 15% of the bad links left until you were sprung from Penguin jail.


But at the end of the day I think this type of penalty is meant to hurt. It's meant to push companies to be more inquisitive about who they're hiring. And it scares a lot of companies from even thinking about engaging with the rank-high-quick type of SEO shops. 


I don't have an answer on your question about how to determine a good SEO company from bad except that a company should be doing a lot of homework on it. 


I try to tell people that if they had a local Yogurt shop and someone came and said they could drive a ton of foot traffic and that every other Yogurt shop in the tri-state area (if you have kids you get that) won't stand a chance, well, you'd probably think they were full of it, right? So, the Internet isn't that different.


In some ways Penguin forces companies to really ask hard questions. I think that's good. Will some get burned still? Sure. And that does suck. But that's when you truly can and should include that in your reconsideration request. While many won't believe it, there are people (good ones too believe me) who read them and are willing to listen.


What's difficult for you @HathawayP is that you're really dealing with the sins of your predecessor and so your job is doubly hard in trying to undo the harm while building the good at the same time. Here's the silver-lining, you're getting a tremendous amount of awesome experience. 


 @HathawayP  @ajkohn "What I'm trying to say is that being in a penalty is not benefiting anyone" - except your competitors who weren't penalized... the demand is still there :\


Are the links pointing somewhere besides your homepage? If so, 404 them and comeback into the Google light :)


 @ajkohn Thank you. I don't mind being told we deserve it anyway as I know we do. It is just an incredibly frustrating experience when Google basically blank you every time!


 @markba55 I think most of the stuff lumped into Penguin is clearly bad. It may have worked for a while but it was always sketchy. And it was tough to see competitors win doing the bad stuff while you lost doing the good stuff. I get that. But to claim it wasn't bad ... I'm not sold on that. 


 @s_rvll  @simonpenson Yeah that was the best part! Reading all the quotes and finding ones that echoed the point I was trying to make - practically read the whole scripts! I can't read that one without Bane's crazy voice in my head. Scarecrow one is my favourite though.


 @ajkohn Well thanks for interrupting your holiday to revisit the discussion - I hope you enjoyed Legoland!


Regarding the good SEO company thing, it seems this is the point we disagree on. I have recently had an electrician re-wire my house. He had all the necessary accreditations and was also recommended to by a friend, so I felt suitably confident I'd done my 'due diligence'. Once he finished the job, all the lights and sockets seemed to work, so I paid the man and got on with life. Is it incumbent upon me to then go and check all the wiring myself? Even if I did I wouldn't know what I was looking at.


Regarding your Yoghurt shop analogy - yeah you might think they are full of it, but if this person/company then started to deliver said traffic, would you be unhappy? And if they could point to the foot traffic equivalent of Number 1 rankings for relevant search terms, they would be able to explain why you are getting the traffic. Why would you spend lots of time digging up the wires, when even if you found them you wouldn't know what they meant?


I think it's a fair point that big companies should be taking this seriously, and should have people in place with experience to ensure search traffic longevity. But these companies are more likely to be less dependent on Google/SEO in the first place. 


The real losers here will be the smaller companies who have been hit but can't/don't know how to get out of it, and end up simply going under. I think that @KyleRLelli is right, Google really needs more transparency for their sakes, if not ours.


 @JamesPiper90   @ajkohn Ok, I meant that being in a penalty isn't benefiting us, it isn't benefiting our users, and it isn't benefiting Google (assuming Google wants to see good content).


Unfortunately the large majority of the problem links are pointing to our homepage, so that isn't really an option. I also wonder if 404ing definitely solves the issue, particularly if Google can spot a pattern of manipulation.

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