I Think My Law Firm's Website Suffered A Penguin Penalty. What Should I Do?

Jeff Berman
May 16, 2012

Perhaps you have no idea what Google's Penguin update is. If that's the case, let me give you a little background. As Ian Lurie explains on the Portent blog:

The engineers at Google constantly tune their search software to provide (hopefully) more accurate results. Most of these tune-ups are pretty small, and go unnoticed by anyone except us hardcore search geeks. They’re like thunderstorms: You don’t name them.

Every now and then, though, Google rolls out a humungous change that throws the search world into a state of meteorological higgledy-piggledy (that’s a lot of Gs). Those are named updates. Panda was one. Penguin’s another.

Google rolled out the Penguin update April 24th. It appears to target artificial link acquisition, or ‘link spam’.

In Google's own words:

In the next few days, we’re launching an important algorithm change targeted at webspam. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines. We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content.

....Sites affected by this change might not be easily recognizable as spamming without deep analysis or expertise, but the common thread is that these sites are doing much more than white hat SEO; we believe they are engaging in webspam tactics to manipulate search engine rankings

In short, Google is penalizing the sites it feels are manipulating search results by using tactics that are against its quality guidelines. More specifically, it seems to be targeting people that are building links to their sites in manipulative ways. This might include:

  • Links intended to manipulate PageRank
  • Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
  • Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging ("Link to me and I'll link to you.")
  • Buying or selling links
  • Using the same anchor text for many of your incoming links (ie: if you have a bunch of links pointing to your site and the words that comprise the links are all "Chicago Personal Injury Lawyer" this sets off red flags with Google)
  • Participating in link networks
  • Getting links from sites that aren't relevant to your legal website

I've Been Hit and I'm Freaking Out!

It's important that we dive a little deeper to understand the nature of the update and the reasons your rankings and/or site traffic may have been impacted. I have already run into situations where law firms are rushing to try and "fix" the problem without an understanding of how the update impacted their firm's website.

Is Penguin A Penalty or A Devaluation of Links?

There is debate in the SEO community over whether Penguin is an update that penalizes sites with manipulative incoming links or simply allows Google to do a better job of filtering out the links that should be ignored. In other words, are you actually penalized for having these bad links pointing at you or did they just stop counting?

In my opinion, some of the law firm websites I've looked at, were not penalized outright by Google's Penguin update. Rather, many of the links pointing to the firm's website simply stopped counting. In other words, your rankings before the update were being propped up on the backs of suspect links. Once Google stopped counting those links, your rankings dropped.

Some Things To Look For

There is no full-proof way to assess whether you've been penalized or had links that stopped counting. However, here are a few things to look for:

  1. Did you receive an email warning about unnatural links in your Webmaster Tools account?
  2. Did your keyword rankings drop off the face of the earth (did you drop 30, 50, or 100 spots) or just move down from the first page to the second or third?
  3. Did you rankings drop across the board, affecting many if not most of your keywords, or just select ones?
  4. Did you website traffic drop after April 24th?
  5. Do you still rank in the top 10 for your brand name, website name, and/or law firm name?
  6. Are your website pages still indexed in Google (you can check this by performing an search in google using "site:yoursitename.com" for instance to check on AttorneySync I would enter "site:attorneysync.com" directly into Google)?

If you go through these items and find that you are on the wrong side of the answers, there is a good chance you have been penalized. However, if a few of your keywords have dropped in ranking but everything else is still holding up, there is a good chance you have links that stopped counting.

What Should I Do Next?

In the event that you think you've been hit by Penguin, here are a couple of reputable resources that discuss next steps to take:

Google Penguin Update Recovery Tips & Advice
What You Ought to Do If You’ve Been Punished by Google’s Penguin Update

If you think that your drop is a result of links that stopped counting it might be a good time to do an audit of your current SEO strategy. Are there on-page elements you can clean up? Have you or your SEO professional been engaged in shady link building practices? Are you focused on creating content that people in your sphere of the web want to share, comment on, and link to? If not, it might be time to reassess your strategy moving forward.

If you aren't sure what is going on, feel free to reach out to me and we can schedule a time to take a look at your site.

Jeff Berman
Jeff Berman, is co-founder of AttorneySync. "Properly marketing a law firm online is about producing relevant content that helps a prospective client understand your expertise and how you are able to help them. Finally, it’s about getting that content found by the people you are trying to help."
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