Google Un-Slap Case Study

Pandas, penguins, backlinks, anchor-texts… whoever you blame, chances are that you’ve experienced a Google slap or two, if you’ve been doing SEO for a while.

The same is true for me: several of my niche sites that were previously ranking and earning well were slapped from their SERP perches at one point or another. Is it possible to recover a slapped site and get back to previous rankings and traffic levels?

I don’t know, but with this case study, I intend to find out.

To Niche or Not to Niche

First, let me clarify the term “niche site”, as I use it. To do so, I’ll borrow Pat Flynn‘s terms “involved marketing” and “uninvolved marketing”.

To me, a niche site is a site created mainly because I found some promising keywords on a certain topic. I outsource most of the work done on niche sites, rather than doing it myself. And while I do always aim to create good websites with good content (some details on this here), I’m not personally involved with any of the niche sites. The sites are not associated with my name, I don’t update them regularly, I don’t create personal videos for them etc. The sites are built and updated for a while and then I move on.

That, to me, is the main difference between a “niche site” and a website such as IM Impact, where I am continuously and personally involved.

Initial Situation

You Are HereThe initial situation is that for much of 2010 and part of 2011, I created and developed different niche sites of varying quality. Some were very cheaply outsourced, while others were more carefully crafted.

For a while, affiliate commissions and AdSense checks were my main sources of income and my sites were ranking in the top 3 spots for practically all of their target keywords (ah, the good ol’ days…).

Over the course of the last 12 months or so, my sites started dropping. At first, my crappy sites got slapped and this didn’t surprise me at all. But unfortunately, while my more carefully created, higher-quality sites weathered the storms of the Panda updates, they also fell victim to slaps once the Penguin and further Google updates came along.

I suspect that my crappy sites (i.e. sites I wouldn’t want to visit myself, because the content is rubbish) are beyond recovery, unless I completely re-write everything and do a 100% overhaul of the sites. However, some of my higher-quality sites would “deserve” higher rankings, since they really do serve the purpose of their target keywords very well and since they lack low-quality or filler content. For this case study, I will try to recover two of these higher-quality sites.

What We Know

Let’s look at what we know about the current state of Google rankings and the recent updates.


A big focus of the early Panda updates was on-site content. We know that having excessive duplicate content, thin pages with tons of advertisement and low-quality “filler” pages can lead to a site being slapped. This is how Google got rid of content farms. So, the first step in any recovery is to make sure we don’t have any of the above content types on a site.

User Engagement

We also know that user engagement on the site as well as social signals have become a lot more important, recently. For more of this in detail, check out the new rules of SEO.

The bottom line is that your page needs to keep visitors interested, if you want to have any hope of sticking in the top positions, once you reach them. Conversely, if your site is more engaging than the competing ones, you’ll see your rankings rise.

Backlinks and Anchor Text

We know that blog networks, previously one of the most effective backlink sources, have been targeted by Google. Some of the big ones were wiped out with large deindexation sweeps. While some blog networks may remain untouched, we have to assume that they are all on the chopping block, even if the axe may not have come down yet.

Based mainly on this great analysis, we can also be pretty sure that Google changed the way it looks at backlinks and anchor text. It used to be fine to create links with your target keyword used almost exclusively as the anchor text. Now, you need to mix up the anchor text and ideally keep the target keyword well below 50%. Basically, don’t try to get your target keyword as the anchor text anymore. Use almost only your on-page content to signal what keyword the page matches best.

The Recovery Plan

Based on the above, I’ve come up with the following recovery plan, that I will test on two sites.

Step 1: New Domain

First, I will register a new domain.


Because I suspect it’s easier to get good content ranked on a new domain than to try and recover a domain that has thousands of identical-anchor-text links pointing at it.

I’t possible that there’s no actual penalty for those kinds of links and that, instead, they just “don’t count”. But I’m not sure about this. My suspicion is that for sites that don’t have very high authority, there is an actual penalty for a one-dimensional link profile.

The second, and perhaps more important reason, is keywords in the domain name. Both of the sites I want to recover have long, keyword-based domain names. I suspect that short, brand-type domain names are a better choice. Even if Google itself doesn’t care about domain names, the name shows up in the Google listing and short, brandable names are more trustworthy and may get a better CTR than long keyword domains. After all, what are you more likely to click in the Google results: a page on or one on

Step 2: No Redirect

no 301 redirectingWill I redesign the old sites on the new domains and then do a 301 redirect?


Why not?

Because a 301 redirect tells Google: this is the same site as before, but in a new location. So, Google’s reaction would logically be: we hated the site before and we still hate it now. In other words, I don’t see any reason why a 301 redirect wouldn’t pass on the penalty from one site to another, as well. As long as the content on old and new sites are very similar, anyway.

Step 3: Mild Rewrite and Redesign

I will redesign the websites, with usability in mind. Both of the sites in question are already quite nicely and effectively designed, so I don’t think any radical changes need to be made.

The same goes for the content. I will rewrite some of the main content, but in a fashion of “polishing up” rather than completely rewriting. I want to give Google something fresh to index and cache, but since the content is already good, I don’t think it should be necessary to completely revamp it.

In addition, I’ll also add some fresh content (i.e completely new articles). Again, this is to give Google something fresh to index and to show them the site is “alive”.

Step 4: Social Signals

This is something I still need to do some research on. Basically, I want to get some social signals going to the new sites, but I’m not yet sure how best to do that. One thing’s for sure: I don’t want to do any spamming. Crappy fiverr services and the like are out of the question.

Step 5: ????

I’m not yet entirely sure about how to transition from old to new sites. Maybe I’ll link from the old to the new sites. I’ll definitely remove the articles that I rewrite and add to the new sites, as I don’t want there to be near-duplicates out there. I might just scrap the old sites entirely.

Step 6: Profit!

In case any of the above works out, I’m hoping to get rankings and traffic back.


Now, you’re probably thinking…

Shane, you’re being an idiot.

No, I’m not. Well, I’m probably not.

You’re saying that to “recover” a site, you’ll move it to a new domain and rewrite some of it? That’s just creating a completely new site!

There is a significant difference which is that I already know that the content converts well and that the target keywords bring in lots of quality traffic. This makes it very different from starting a site completely from scratch.

Also, much of the content was ranking well on it’s own merits, without too much off-page SEO, before the sitewide slap came in. The slap was mainly caused by thousands of anchor-text links going to the sites.

Will you privately register the new domains and move them to their own c-class IPs, log in through proxies and wear a ninja-mask at all times?


I’m not trying to hide what I’m doing from Google. I also won’t rewrite the content to the extent where it isn’t clear that it’s mostly the same content. I’m trying to acknowledge that there are some issues with the old sites, fix those issues and start over. This should be cool with Google. But then again, who the heck can predict what Google is up to?

What if this doesn’t work?

Tough luck. This is a “live” case study, in that it’s happening as I’m writing this. I don’t get to cherry pick and only talk about good results. If this doesn’t work, then at least you’ll know what to avoid.

Can you provide more details on what exactly you’re doing?

Stay tuned for part two of this case study! I’ll be going into more detail on what exactly I’m up to and report on the results, as things progress.

To get a more general idea of what I’ll be up to, also check some of my recent posts such as the New Traffic Paradigm, this post about conversion rates and this one about mailing lists. The principles discussed in those posts, many of which emphasize the importance of not being dependent on Google alone, will play an important role in all the updates and changes I make to the sites for this case study.

Ultimately, unslapping the sites and getting Google traffic back is a secondary goal. The primary goal is to make the sites profitable again.

If you have any input, ideas, questions or comments about this case study, please let me know by leaving a comment!

Shane's Signature

About the Author Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • brian says:

    Talk about timely! I have this morning purchased a Panda/Penguin course I have been sitting on the fence about for the past few months.

    It’s called “Panda Breakthrough” by a Canadian guy called Eric Lancheres. I am literally on the first DVD so I will let you know how I get on. You have probably heard of the course, it costs $497 and it took a bit of a leap of faith to commit to it but there is a 60 day refund so if there are no results then I will get a refund.

    I have read many negative comments about the course mainly from SEO Experts who claim you can do it all yourself. That is probably true if you have weeks to put into research, which I haven’t! None of those guys actually appear to have bought the course so perhaps they are not in a position to judge after only watching a webinar.

    The course covers Panda & Penguin and claims to give you repeatable steps which are pretty much guaranteed to get your site back to somewhere near or better than it was before.

    I have 10 sites I am going to try it on, all are affiliate sites and all have had page 1 rankings previously and are now languishing in the 100s.

    One other thing I have heard is that Google is now reserving places on the 1st page of the Serps for Brands & e-commerce sites. If that is true then Amazon affiliates will be pretty screwed I fear and no end of SEO is going to combat that! Trying to find physical products not being sold by Amazon, eBay & the gang is not going to be easy!

    I will report back!

    • Shane says:

      I think for certain keywords it’s true that the front page is pretty much reserved for Amazon, Wikipedia and big brands.
      But this doesn’t apply to all keywords, only a fairly small subset. If you look beyond product-name keywords, there are still many result pages that aren’t dominated by corporate sites.

  • This is an awesome case study – thanks for sharing. I am following a similar approach. Right now I am building new sites based on content from the old ones where that worked well. I have two authority sites that have been Panda and Penguined to near death. You might find it interesting to know that both sites have brand-name domains. I think a partial-domain match might be a good way to go for many sites as it is a happy medium between what works well for humans and machines. In your example or I would go for This name assumes you want to pick up “knit” and “cosy”. So far this strategy seems to be working as I am picking up traffic for my keywords two weeks after launch. Look forward to your future posts! Cheers, Quinn

    • Shane says:

      Yeah, agreed. The domain example is mainly for illustrating the two extremes. In reality, “” and similar names are almost never available anyway, so the actual domain name is usually a little longer and may contain more of a target keyword.

      However, I don’t care about keywords in the domain, because I don’t want to rank for just one term, anyway.

  • Michael says:

    Thanks Shane – I am already riveted. I really appreciate your thoroughness. Your thinking and links to source material has already assisted me in clarifying my strategy. Very helpful post.


    PS Brian, I am hoping you will let us know how you get on too, and what worked for you!

  • Alex Newell says:

    thanks for the case study Shane. I have a seriously Penguinated site and of course I’m wondering how to recover. Part of my answer is to set up a site within the same niche with “mild” on and of page SEO.

    We’ll see eh?

  • Rex Turner says:

    Hi Shane,

    Yes this is fun stuff. You read my thoughts…except for the “Shane you are being an idiot part”. I DID think, well this is not even the same site now. Who KNOWS what will happen?

    Good vs Bad. You lose Domain age, Lose backlinks (which may be a good thing) and now you have virtually NO backlinks (votes) or as you acknowledge … social proof. BUT, you get to re-purpose the content which is one of the more painful aspects of a website and as you say you KNOW the conversion characteristics of these particular keywords etc.

    So… all in all a very interesting test.

    My own resurrection of two TOTALLY DE-INDEXED sites came by fixing the problems and throwing myself under the bus with a request for re-inclusion at Google. Both were granted. SURPRISE!

    One was a link juice site (automated content) which had ALL content removed and HAND written by yours truly. Two articles were placed before the request was sent out. I explained it had been a non-monetized site with only a link back to my wife’s site. Now it had NO link.It was re-included in less than a week. It is now a PR2. Now it has a link back to my wife’s site. :)

    The second site is not a fair comparison because some evil bastard injected some code on a dormant site with NOTHING but a coming soon kind of home page. It took me awhile to realize what had happened. After I got the crap code removed and submitted a request for re-inclusion. Bingo, it popped up and has started working fine again. I put a plain WP blog on it & it is now a PR1

    So my two sites don’t compare directly but I wanted to point out that in *some* cases, Google WILL hit the reset button and let you live again.

    Thanks for the case study.

    • Shane says:

      Thanks for the reply!

      Good to know that the re-inclusion worked for you. For deindexed sites, it seems like this is a good way to go.

      I suspect it doesn’t work for sites that just got a rankings-slap, though. After all, they can’t be re-included, since they still are present in the SERP, just not on page one.

  • Erim says:

    Very cool. I will be interested to see how this goes, since I’m doing a very similar thing right now. I tried it before, actually, but with a 301. That worked for a couple weeks, and rankings/traffic came back a bit before totally tanking.

    I’m curious about one thing though. Are you doing to deindex the old site at some point? If not, are you worried about duplicate content, or do you figure since the old site is penalized, the new one will take precedence?


    • Shane says:

      I won’t have any duplicate content between the two sites.
      I’ll take the best articles from the old sites, rewrite them a bit and add them to the new site.
      Those articles will then be removed from the old site.

      The old sites will ultimately contain a few of the lower-quality articles, probably a few links to the new site and nothing further. The new sites will have some re-written content from the old sites and some original content.

      • Michael says:

        Why would you add links from the old slapped site to the new site? What is your thinking here Shane? – Michael

      • Shane says:

        I’m thinking that a 301 redirect passes a penalty, but a simple link doesn’t.
        With a link, I might still be able to pass some benefit from the old to the new site. Not sure though.

  • Hi Shane.

    I’ll be following along closely.

    Interestingly, I’ve been planning steps that are quite close to yours. I have an Amazon Affiliate store that’s pretty much dropped off planet.

    It has a very long EMD, and I really just want to experiment and pretty much copy the existing content to a new domain AFTER I get rid of the old domain and make sure it is deindexed.



    • Shane says:

      Hi Peter,

      I’d love to know how your recovery attempt goes, as well!

  • Tony says:

    I think you should keep one of your old domains as part of the case study and attempt to dilute the anchors to see if the site bounces back as a result i know a few people who have gotten good results from doing this.

    As far as social proof is concerned i am not at all convinced it places a part in ranking at all, despite what many people are preaching, i think it plays a part more in keeping you at the top once you get there.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Tony, I’m going to be trying to resurrect one of my sites as a case study and so if I get any interesting results from that then I’ll definitely share it as a post on the blog.

    • Shane says:

      That is an interesting idea.
      I’m considering doing this, but I’m not quite sure how. Both sites had massive amounts of anchor-text links built to some of the pages. Most from blog networks.

      Would you suggest creating thousands of (essentially) spam links with different anchors, for the dilution? Basically, my issue is that I don’t know how to build enough links without using spammy sources, because there are so many links that need to be diluted.

  • Josh says:

    This is exactly what happened to my site. I had 8 of my best keywords ranking on page 1 on each and around late august it just dropped off to 5-10 visits a day from about 100(small market site). The 5-10 visits a day are from direct traffic and not google. All my links are still indexed but no keywords show up now.

    • Shane says:

      I’m sorry to hear that.
      A quick look at shows that you have a high percentage of certain anchor-texts in your backlinks, so this could have been a Penguin slap as well.

      • Josh says:

        Thanks for the reply. I had only followed you program from a year ago when I bought it and since have only done anchor text on “angela’s back links” for the past year which has gotten me to page one for all the major keywords I wanted. I haven’t paid any attention to penguin or panada as it didn’t affect my site until Aug28 there abouts. Im glad you mentioned I have only a select amount of anchor text as I have only done those anchors over and over. So in a nutshell I need to diversify my anchors now instead of concentrating on my favourite keywords?

  • Reg says:

    Social proof! I got rid of twitter and fb etc on personal accounts as they are distraction machines that lock us to our pc’s and there’s more to life than mindless chit chat with many people that in a lot of cases you’ll never meet. Twitter and others are bot driven by many people I’ve checked including myself. I only use social accounts for marketing, never consumption of content.
    who’s got time to sit on twitter and fb all day.
    So how on on earth social signals will ever rank as a measure of popularity is beyond me.

    I suggest time on site as a result of high quality content a good signal … I spent longer than 3 seconds reading your post Shane quality as always!

    • Shane says:

      I’m the same way. I have an fb page for IM Impact, but I don’t actually use fb privately. Same for twitter and Google+.

  • Lucky Lie says:

    I think I was fooled ;)

    This is not a case study as well as “how to” un-slap from penguin. But your post is about how to build penguin proof site. Right?

    But I’m still get benefit from this post. I think rewording our old ranking post and social signal will be nice idea..

    p.s. pardon my english

    • Shane says:

      Not quite, no.
      I’m not building sites from scratch, I’m just doing the modifications on different domains. The only difference is the $10 cost for a new domain. :)

  • Stanley says:

    Good stuff Shane. I believe a lot of people are interested in discovering ways recover their Google Slapped sites. I look forward to following this case study.


  • Joe says:


    I’m sure you have been asked this many times but would you be kind enough to tell me who you use for pictures on your posts.

    Many thanks


    • Shane says:

      Hi Joe,

      I “make” them myself. Usually using free icons, stock images and a bit of picture editing.
      I wrote a detailed post about this, here.

  • Matthias says:

    Hello Shane,

    This is indeed an interesting case study.
    Do you also plan on trying to get a slapped page back into business to see if it is even possible to get such a site ranked again? Not on a very comprehensive keyword, but as I said just to see if it is possible.

    Do you think typical linking strategies as you explained in your free courses or even your backlink battleplan are near to useless or can they still be applied just with the focus to have a natural looking pattern.

    In your video you said google could not look at when a link was placed so it wouldn’t matter much but I think this statement is false.
    The typical blogs as WordPress and other sites automatically ping an update to all major services. Google can easily capture such pings, look at the pages and see what’s changed. So they would have a time pattern to a new link.

    I last did SEO in 2008 where all this stuff wasn’t a big problem and I want to get back into business again and I’m a bit unsure on how I shall build backlinks now.

    One last unrelated question:
    I want to rank a site from germany (.de domain), are only backlinks for german links valuable to me or doesn’t the origin of the backlink matter?
    I’m asking because most of the web 2.0 properties are US sites and I’m wondering if the language or even geo missmatch would make any difference in terms of link juice.

    Thanks for your great resources on internet marketing!

  • JohnTheJock says:

    Hi Shane,

    Thanks for this post, and I get your point on the 301 redirects. I agree a simple link will be much better. But what about Big G, who knows. It seems these days you can only get to page 1 with a youtube video or a headline containing the word “scam”.

    A week ago I brought a dormant site back into play.

    There’s no original content on it, I’ve filled it with youtube videos and the original excerpts, just for the hell of it to see what would happen.

    Well you know, it’s getting a steady stream of traffic, and I’m just scratching my head.

    Good luck with the project.


    • Shane says:

      Interesting. I can see how that’s pretty frustrating, especially when you have carefully built sites with original content getting slapped.
      As you say: you never know, with Google…

  • Raed says:

    Hi Shane,
    I really like your posts, they show how much you pay attention to details and that you like to have a system for everything you do.

    I have some notes:
    ~ Regarding the new domain thing dont you think this will put you in google sandbox period which will deprive you from good ranking and results for what you are doing untill u pass atleast a couple of months.
    in my opinion this will be a major issue
    maybe you can try to find an expired domain that has some non spammy old links and buy it.
    ~ you said you will keep some of the old content on the old domains and rewrite the the rest without a 301 redirect.
    I think if you dont have alot of direct traffic to your website or from linkbacks then this will be a good step but if you have a good amount of traffic from sources other than google and your mailing list then I think the best thing is to put a simple “we’ve moved” landing page with a big picture and a link to the new website and put the robots.txt not to index your old website so it doesnt follow your link or transfer the panda penalty.
    ~ Regarding using social signals I have wittnesed in my own eye how fast it can get you indexed at the top but not for long if u have bad content but it will be a lot of help.
    also im surpirsed of how little people use facebook ads and fans to advertise their products they just focus on Google which is not a evergreen source.
    I think you should try to encourage your mailing list to join you social network profiles so they keep hearing from you.
    I hope my comments will be benificial to your process and I can wait to hear your results.

  • Gustavo says:

    Hello Shane,

    I visited your blog in the last months and after the blog networks deindexation (ALN, BMR, etc) you did not talk about an alternative to build links that works now.

    Is traffic kaboom still valuable for SEO? I saw that you removed the link from the “Recommended” section! What kind of technics do you use after penguin and panda?


  • Frankie says:

    Hi Shane,

    Im thrilled to see the outcome of your study.

    For social signals try free service on SYNND . They used to have great result.

  • Jesse says:

    Hi Shane I tried to sign up for notifications for the standalone version of Hybrid Connect but the “submit” button on the form didnt do anything… just want to make sure I get on that list

  • Doug says:

    Thanks for this case study Shane.

    I ran across something of a un-slap nature that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else. This guy got his affiliate sites un-slapped by merely… cloaking his affiliate links. But this is a special code, not just a standard cloak or redirect. And to me it makes a lot of sense, since we know Google hates affiliate sites. I’d be curious about anyone else’s experience with this technique. (Not an affiliate link).

    • Shane says:

      Hi Doug,

      This would be something like GhostURL, from what it looks like.
      I would be surprised if that alone made such a difference. Certainly not for sites that were slapped because of their backlink profile.

      • John says:

        Hi Shane,

        Indeed I think also that using a cloak for affilaite links will change not much.

        I have one question about Ghost url… why you don’t you use it for your affiliate links on this site? It looks you’re using pretty link, is that right? and why?

      • Shane says:

        Hi John,

        By the time Ghost URL was created, I already had tons of links set up in Pretty Link, for this site. Transferring all the links from one plugin to the other would take a lot of work and since for this site, I’m also not trying to “hide” my affiliate links and other redirects, I didn’t bother.

  • Anthony says:


    This is the same approach that I have been implementing over the past year with my penalized sites and it is by far the most efficient and cost effective. I actually spent way more time and money trying to “resurrect” penalized sites than cutting my losses and building new sites from scratch with the old content. And there is no guarantee that the sites are ever going to come back, which in my case most of them did not.

    And add the fact that if you are constantly testing and tweaking, you should be getting better and better at SEO over time so ranking the new sites should not take as long as it previously had. This is what I have found anyway; I learn from my mistakes and do more of what worked and less of what didn’t.

    So why waste time and money when you can be leveraging your knowledge?

    The interesting point that you make is keeping the old domains up and linking to the new sites. I was always under the impression that this would “pass the penalty” so I never went this route but instead just let the domains expire.

    This can actually be a great way to slowly build a quality niche specific network for backlinking. Looking back, most of my sites were PR3-5 so getting niche specific links from these sites could have been powerful…

    Anyway, I am looking forward to your case study and the results.


  • Pat says:

    Hey Shane,

    Any update on the case study? I’m in a very similar position. I’m getting really sick of waiting for Penguin data refreshes to come along. The last one was about 2 months ago. I think my problem is that I’ve become emotionally attached to my penalized site because I spent so many hours building and writing content for it. I might have to just give in a re-build on another domain.

    – Pat

  • adam strange says:

    I’m curious about the study too. This is a great idea for a study. I have some sites that have gone through the same Google breakup. I’d love to get those two back together again.

  • Don says:

    Hi Shane,

    Has there been an update on your case study that I’ve not seen??? My sites were also mauled by Panda and Penguin, and I’ve been waiting to see whether your Recovery Plan offered a workable solution. Are there any positive (or negative) results to report?

  • J Wilson says:

    Be interesting to see how this is working for you now some time has passed.

    Personally, I think you are right to start over with a new domain, I do have an alternative strategy of what i do with existing domain that I might share with you over a beer one day.

    If I was doing your plan the only thing you missed out was the 301, NO NO NO not to your new site but to your top competitors site. Either it brings him down or it gives you some fake PR for a relaunch a few years down the road!

    I get a lot of email from idiots in a panic about being dumped, they ask me to remove links but are following the WRONG strategy.

    They all subscribe to some stupid site that generates the silly emails saying we employed some dodgy SEO guy and actually threatening me.

    My response is to run nuke/xrumer for 24 hours on their site and give them 50,000 new links to worry about.

  • Brodey says:

    This is exactly what happened to my site. I had 8 of my best keywords ranking on page 1 on each and around late august it just dropped off to 5-10 visits a day from about 100(small market site). The 5-10 visits a day are from direct traffic and not google. All my links are still indexed but no keywords show up now.

  • Janine says:

    This happened to my site recently. Do you think there has been any new updates that haven’t been announced yet?

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