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Penalties & recourse for grey hat SEO practices — Joe Sinkwitz // Digital Heretix

Episode Overview

In the final episode of Grey Hat Week, we take a look at the how to diagnose, define and adjust to the full range of penalties doled out by Google as they catch up to Grey Hat tactics over time.

Topics covered include:

  • The impact of Google’s shift from manual penalties to algo updates and the concept of ‘ghost penalties’
  • The importance of monitoring site and SEO performance when it comes to penalty triage
  • Penalty severity levels, from death sentence to slap on the wrist and the tools at your disposal to remedy the penalties


Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome back to the last episode of Gray Hat Week on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro, and this week we’re going to discuss the balance of ranking optimization and risking your domain’s reputation. Joining us again for Gray Hat SEO Week is Joe Sinkwitz who is the Principal at Digital Heretix, which is a brand reputation management agency, and he’s also the owner of the Advanced Search Summit and a co-founder and CEO of Intellifluence, which is a SAS tool that helps brands discover the right influencers for the right products to pitch them and get honest reviews that turn into content and sales. Today we’re going to wrap up Gray Hat SEO Week by Joe talking to us about some of the penalties that he’s seen for gray and black hat SEO practices.

Before we hear from Joe, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary consultation, where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free consultation, go to

Okay, on with the show. Here’s the end of Gray Hat SEO Week with Joe Sinkwitz, Principal at Digital Heretix. Joe, happy Friday and welcome back to the last episode of Gray Hat SEO Week on the Voices of Search podcast.

Joe:                  Thank you for having me. Let’s talk penalties.

Ben:                 We’ve covered a ton of ground, and we’re going to get just into that. The take away for me for the entire week is there’s lots of ways that you can use sort of the big buckets that people consider to be gray hat SEO, whether it’s buying links, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, your content strategy and keyword stuffing, and even using personalization, which some people might consider cloaking. At the end of the day, the line is moving constantly. What have you seen be the penalties for gray hat SEO tactics? What is definitely a black tactic, and how do you avoid getting yourself into trouble, and what can you do if you do get in trouble?

Joe:                  Wow, so that’s a lot of questions all rolled into one.

Ben:                 That’s like six questions in one. Maybe I should take it back.

Joe:                  No, that’s all right. Actually I want to start with the penalties themselves. We used to see it shift where it was very heavy on manual penalties and it’s kind of rolled more into algorithm penalties. The reason that is important is because with a manual penalty, you generally knew about it. You might have a message. You might have a very specific action that’s taking place. As Google started to mix in the filters and the specific penalty pieces of the algorithm into the core algorithm, it’s become a lot harder to necessarily say, “Hey, I think this particular site was hit by this particular penalty on this particular day.” Because it becomes harder to do that, fixing it becomes hard. You ended up having to spend a longer time at analysis and recovery trying to fix all the things that might have been a problem.

Now the worst that happens, pure spam. If your putting out pure spam, your domain is dead, burn it, move on. Beyond that, the worst that I had was Penguin 1.0, because with Penguin 1.0 on April 24th, 2012, a day that will live in infamy within my companies, it basically just torched it and it torched it for over four years. I mean, we were able to get out with 1.1 by doing a redirect trick, and then we were able to get out again doing another type of redirect trick, but ultimately they caught up. The penalties were passing domains. We just couldn’t get out anymore. It took a long time. Even after the linked profiles were cleaned up, they refused to rescind that penalty. With the more algorithmic penalties that have kind of shifted now, like Penguin and Panda are essentially pure algorithmic now, as they’re assessed, you end up having to be more scalpel-like. You have to look at it and say, “Okay, where did this go wrong?”

Ben:                 I guess my takeaway here is that there’s a couple different types of penalties, right? You can have a manual penalty. If you’re marked as spam, you’re dead, it’s done. There are some manual penalties which are pretty clear when they happen. Hopefully there’s some messaging. The algorithmic penalties are the ones which are like the ghost penalty. You just all of a sudden see that your traffic goes down and you don’t know why. What do you do when you start to see your traffic decrease? Whether it’s manual or an algorithmic penalty, how are you evaluating it and how do you figure out what the right course of action is?

Joe:                  This actually goes back to the importance, I think in the first episode we talked about it, on monitoring. If I’m constantly using something like Searchmetrics for visibility and I see a big drop in visibility, you jump on it. That’s where the analysis starts. Then you start looking into the Google search console data, because of course you’re going to want to see, do I have any messages? Do I see that I’m no longer being shown for phrases I expect to be shown for, yet alone clicks? Do I see fewer clicks but same amount of impressions? Do I see even more impressions and fewer clicks? Maybe that 410s to another type of problem. Then I also look into the analytics as well to try to determine whether or not that the traffic patterns have changed, if the source of traffic has changed, trying to get to the root of that.

If I cannot determine that there’s any noticeable change in terms of like the traffic I’m getting other than I’m just getting less of it, then I have to start looking at, okay, let’s look at the site itself. Does the site look like that it’s grown too much? Does the site look like I have pages that are not supported by external links? Maybe I tripped a line wherein I had 1000 pages, but only 10 of those pages have really good links. Everything else is just kind of essentially orphaned. Well, crap, that kind of goes back to usage signals. It shows that it may be not relevant. Maybe I need to go and get more links. If I go and I take a look at the links themselves and I start to see that, okay, I have too much bad stuff, maybe I tripped a keyword filter. Maybe I just simply tripped a quality filter. There’s too many untrusted links coming in.

Then I have to determine, okay, now am I going to go ahead and load these up for like a reconsideration request, put them into a disavow file? Am I going to contact Webmasters and make a big show of it for Google, say, “Here’s all the extreme effort I went into to get into your good graces, my liege,” bow and scrape the ground? It all starts though with looking at the actual user data that we have that we’re collecting because of our analytics, and then from there taking a look at the site itself. In doing so, that’s when you start to notice like, “Was I hacked? Is this whole problem because of a hack? Is it because of someone else’s work versus my own incompetence?” If it’s not my own incompetence, then it goes in that direction.

Otherwise, if it’s concert related, we can fix it. If it’s link related, we can fix that too. Nothing outside of pure spam is completely permanent. It just becomes an ROI calculation of, “Am I going to be better off creating something new or should I go through this temporary pain to get back to where I once was?”

Ben:                 I understand that the first step in evaluating your domain is monitoring and figuring out what actually caused the penalties. You mentioned that if there’s a linking problem, you can fix it. If there’s a content problem, you can fix it. Walk me through once you understand and have evaluated your site and know what the problem actually is, how do you go about fixing it?

Joe:                  Sure. Well, I guess it depends on what the problem actually is. If it’s the case of Panda, there was a simple calculation we talked about a couple of days ago where I look at the totality of the domain and I break it down on a page level basis of, does this page answer a query that’s answered somewhere else better? I start tabulating all this in like an Excel spreadsheet because I don’t use Google Docs. From there, I could start to say, okay, it looks like I have too many pages that are essentially, effectively duplicate content from the consideration of a user’s query and expectations. If so, then I need to collapse the site somehow. I’m either going to fold that content into a better page and set up a 301 or [inaudible 00:08:59], I’m going to just kill the page and 410 it, remove it from navigation, I might just need to expand the page quite a bit to make it more authoritative.

If I look at it and say like, “Wow, my entire domain’s really thin. I need to really, drastically create more content for each page,” that is a very time intensive and expensive process, but that’s how you could get out with that particular penalty. If it’s more link related, then I’m probably running linked research tools. I’m looking to see like, okay, [Christophe 00:09:29], what do you have for me today? How much of this is because of extremely low trust links?

Here’s the beauty of this. At the time that you got those links, they might’ve been perfectly fine, but what happens five years later if those domains got expired and some nasty gray hat Joe Sinkwitz buys those domains and turns them into a [inaudible 00:09:51]? Now all of a sudden the quality of those links is going to be way lower if they even exist still, and they probably would because I like to retain the history as much as I can. Then all of a sudden like you’re potentially no longer on the right side of this line. You have to go and get those links removed. You contact the webmaster, try to get it removed, take screenshots of your conversations, put it into a disavow file with a reconsideration request. It’s not a sexy process and it’s not a really difficult process. It’s just a really time consuming process.

Ben:                 I think the thing that sticks out to me the most about what you said is that there’s an evil version of Joe Sinkwitz running around buying domains and repurposing them for payday loans, which brings up definitely a black hat strategy that we haven’t discussed, which is what happens with expired domains.

Joe:                  Yeah. There’s no getting around it. Where I have a problem with Google, and I started to have this problem about the time Vince rolled through right before Panda, they shifted from a positive perspective to a negative perspective, meaning that all things being considered equal, that one point in time they assumed that every domain that they first encountered was benign and positive. That has shifted to now assuming it’s no longer benign and it’s possibly negative. That simple philosophical shift has resulted in a situation where you’re not in control of all the signals that come into your site. They can be manipulated and they can be manipulated in such a way where it’s easier to tank a site than it is to link a site. That’s scary because domains expire.

We all went, well, not all of us, but most of us went through this stupid period of time where we just had a ton of domains. I know that we had over 5,000 or so like payday sites for a period of time. We had a very large portfolio there. A lot of those have expired. I don’t know who owns them now. I bet a lot of them got picked up. Did they become payday sites again or do they rehab and turn them into dog treat sites? Who knows?

Ben:                 Probably payday.

Joe:                  You don’t have control over it.

Ben:                 Yeah. It’s an interesting SEO practice and definitely on the black hat side, but it brings up the point that your linking strategy is not constant, right? Some of the domains, mostly if you’re using PBNs and some of the more gray hat strategies, can come back to bite you. I guess going back to how do you fix the problem, there’s this process of monitoring, of evaluation, and then testing. At some point you have to go back to Google and say, “Look, here’s what we’re doing to try to remedy the problem,” and you’re going through Webmaster Tools. What’s the right process for begging for forgiveness?

Joe:                  Ah, yes. Everyone has a slightly different philosophy when it comes to the reconsideration requests. When it is a manual penalty, that’s the only time it really matters, because for algorithmic penalties, they supposedly do not care about the reconsideration request. When you are going through it, and I like to make the work seem more extensive than it might be, even though it’s already a big process, simply because I get the sense occasionally that they want to see a level of capitulation. Let’s say that you were essentially disavowing a unique linking domain coming into you, but there’s seven pages. I might put those seven pages as different points within a disavow file to make the disavow file seem larger instead of just disavowing the domain itself. Within the process, like showing them, “Here’s all the work that I went through. Here’s all these screenshots I did. I spent 200 hours doing this and writing all these webmasters and begging them to take down this link that I no longer wanted even though I never paid for it. I’m so sorry to be outside of your graces.”

I hate to sound facetious talking about this process, but it’s not a clean process and it’s not a particularly fair process. They want to sit on a throne and then allow you to move across the ground to get back into their court. Sometimes you’re lucky and you have a penalty rescinded on the first try. In most of my cases, that has not been the case. Usually we have to go back a couple of different times and they say, “Well, we still see bad links.” Well, crap, what now? That’s where it is handy to have like the LRT style tool for the detox to say, “Okay, we’re going to detox all the really bad stuff first.” Then you go through that process and they say, “Nope, not good enough.” You say, “Okay, well we took your advice to the heart and we went back through. We found this stuff too so we went through the same process. We worked real hard. We got these removed manually. Then here’s the ones that we need to dispel for the rest. Thank you for taking the time to look at this.”

Nope, still not good enough, and then you go through the process again and again and again. I don’t like the process but that is the process for manual stuff. For algorithmic, you can skip the whole reconsideration. You just keep playing with the disavow.

Ben:                 I think the big question here is at what point when you are penalized is it worth you going through that process? Where can you hire a brand reputation firm and when should you just move on and start thinking about opening and operating another domain? Talk to me about how to evaluate how much effort goes into resolving a penalty.

Joe:                  I think that is determined right after the analysis, where if you’re doing this analysis you say like, “You know what? We have 100,000 links coming in but it only looks like 10 are bad. We’re going to go through the process to get out because what’s the cost associated with creating a similar site and getting that level of linkage coming in? It’s going to be very, very difficult.” Those are the types of variables that come into it. If, let’s say, we have 100,000 links but 90,000 are bad, we might just be better off saying, “Okay, we’re going to disavow, but at the same time we’re going to start a new site.” If it’s so bad that we know that we’re never coming back, just drop all effort on it and start a new one. I think it happens somewhere along that continuum, but every case is going to be slightly different.

Ben:                 Last question for you, Joe. You run Digital Heretix. You run into lots of people that need domain help. What’s the most effective thing you can do when you get into trouble, when you think you’re being either manually or algorithmically penalized? Where do you go, even if you’re evaluating whether you’re going to be the operator or whether you’re going to have somebody else try to fix the problem for you?

Joe:                  What I would do is, unfortunately you’re going to need to educate yourself. The SEO industry is very large. There are good actors. There are bad actors. You’re going to have to do your research to try to determine who’s going to be able to do it. There are quality agencies, ourselves being one of them, that can assist in penalty recovery as well as reputation help when you’ve done something wrong. The first thing you can do if you’ve done something wrong is to just stop whatever bad behavior it was and try to apologize. If you’re not successful getting back to where you were going through that, then you need to bring in a fixer to start cleaning it up, but it takes very little effort to stop whatever the negative activity was, if you can determine what it was.

Ben:                 Okay. Joe, I appreciate you sharing all your thoughts. You’ve got a wealth of experience with a lot of brands that have run into some troubles and helped resolving them. You’re the perfect guest for us to have on Gray Hat SEO Week. I appreciate your time and thanks for being our guest.

Joe:                  I was happy to be here. Thanks a lot, Ben.

Ben:                 Okay, and that wraps up Gray Hat SEO Week on the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversations with Joe Sinkwitz, Principal at Digital Heretix. We’d love to continue the conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Joe, you can find the link to his LinkedIn profile on our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter where his handle is CygnusSEO, C-Y-G-N-U-S-S-E-O, or you can visit his company’s website, which is, If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a tweet @BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P, or if you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.

If you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed next week. Okay, that’s it for Gray Hat SEO Week on the Voices of Search podcast, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.


Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene is the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Searchmetrics. Previously, Jordan was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay. During his time at eBay, Jordan focused on utilizing eBay content to improve user experience and natural search traffic.

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