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How SEMrush Helped Me Identify Severe Google Penalties

Adam Dince

Recently, a good friend asked me to help with a website he managed for a major brand. He mentioned the website used to generate significant traffic and revenue; however, over the past few years it dried up. Specifically from the organic channel. He lamented to me that his team was never able to get their heads around what caused the drops.

So, what happened?


Before we get in to the analysis, note that SEO had never been an important part of this website’s marketing mix. Initially, somehow, the site performed in organic search results without any active SEO strategy. But as most of us know, that only lasts so long.

Google Webmaster Tools

First off, I asked for Google Webmaster Tools access.Unfortunately, it hadn’t been set up for the site, so I had no way of checking for a manual penalties or notifications from Google.

Takeaway: I highly recommend implementing Google and Bing Webmaster Tools. These free tools from the major search engines can help you identify problems with your website(s).

Missed Opportunity on Analytics

Secondly, I requested 2012-13 analytics data. My goal was to find a point in time that performance started to decline. To my dismay, his analytics wasn’t set up properly and the data wasn’t helpful.

Takeaway: Make sure you’ve got your site tagged properly and you’re constantly mining your data for insights. Yes, it’s true that SEO analytics data isn’t as helpful as it once was, but there is still a ton of insight if you know what to look for.

Website Review

Next, I audited his website. The site itself was only +/- 100 pages and most of it was template driven. I didn’t feel the need to use a crawling tool like Screaming Frog or Xenu (Shame on me). I manually audited the Web pages, looking for duplicate content, HTML issues and anything else that might have caused Google to take action. There were no smoking guns.

Takeaway: Always use SEO auditing tools as a supplement to your manual reviews.

Current Keyword Rankings Reporting

So often I hear that rankings aren’t important, and that’s a bunch of hooey. Keyword rankings are an important part of SEO diagnostics. Because SEO had not been a priority for the site, there were historical keyword rankings reports to review.

The best I had was Advanced Web Rankings to run real-time keyword ranking reports on mission critical keywords. Based on the site’s content, Google PageRank and domain/page metrics, there should have been at least a few rankings on the first three pages of Google SERPs. But alas, nothing — my first clue this site had been penalized.

Takeaway: Keyword rankings reports are an invaluable asset to use in SEO diagnostics.

Historical Keyword Rankings Reporting

I knew the only chance I had to figure out what was going on was to get my hands on historical keyword rankings reports. This is when I turned to SEMrush. I looked at 2012, 2013 and all-time organic rankings to find points-in-time where rankings unnaturally fluctuated.


Confirmed. Something gnarly hit my friend’s site. But what was it and why did it happen?

To hone in, I exported the 2012-2013 keyword data to look for clues. I wanted to see if the domain had ever ranked for important mission critical keywords. And if they did, I wanted to see when the terms dropped.

The answer was yes — the mission critical keywords did rank but dropped off the SERPs in early 2012. As I dug deeper into the SEMrush data, I noticed there were hundreds of awkward subdomains ranking for terms unrelated to my friend’s website.

I then audited the subdomains and discovered that for years, hackers had been taking advantage of a flaw in the site’s security. The hackers created these subdomains to:

  • Host cloaked pages;
  • Facilitate link spam networks; and
  • Inject Malware on to people’s computer.

Bingo! Jackpot! In less than two days, thanks to SEMrush, I was able to deliver a list of items for remediation.

Takeaway: The Force is with you, young Skywalker. Use SEMrush site audit to defeat the darkside.

In Closing

Because the penalties assessed were algorithmic and not manual, there’s no way to know for sure which animal bit his site. However, based on the issues SEMrush helped me uncover, I’m 100% positive that both Panda and Penguin were the culprits.

My friend is still in the process of remediating his site’s technical issues. I hope to have an update to share as soon as things are fixed and rankings/performance return.

Also, if you’re a brand that hasn’t yet invested in organic search, I recommend you do. SEO isn’t just a proactive approach to performing well in natural search results; it’s also a highly effective tool for defending your website(s) against potential risks to your online visibility.

Author bio:

Adam Dince is Director of Earned Media at Deluxe Corp. You can find him on Twitter and his website at adamdince.com. His last article for SEMrush was "5 Reasons Why Keywords Are Still Important."

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Adam Dince is Director of Earned Media at Deluxe Corp. You can find him on Twitter and his website. His last article for SEMrush was "What I Learned About Content Strategy Through Twitter Chats."
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Adam Dince
Hi Victor,

Thanks for the response. It actually wasn't WordPress. WordPress is pretty easy to secure if IT has done its job right. Let's just say the CMS was a fairly expensive one. I don't want to give it any PR. If anything, these issues were avoidable if the right people had paid attention to it.

Good point and well done! I'm curious what CMS was used by your friend. Something is telling me that it was Wordpress. Wasn't it?