Buying a tainted business: how to overcome a past of bad SEO

Buying an established online business can be an excellent investment. You’re buying a ready-made brand, with loyal customers and a dedicated social following.

And from an SEO perspective, it can often make sense. Over the years your new business will have grown its link profile and built trust from search engines – giving it a naturally stronger organic presence than a brand new domain.

But what if the business you’re buying doesn’t have a healthy reputation online? Several search algorithm updates over recent years have discriminated against sites that offer a poor user experience or seek to unfairly influence search results.


It could be that you’ve bought (or are looking at buying) an online brand with a dark past, bad links and tainted search rankings.

How can you tell if a site’s been jettisoned by Google? More importantly, how can you recover from it?

“Have my rankings been affected by updates?” – How to check

The clearest way to check is to log into your site’s Analytics account and see if your traffic has been affected by dodgy marketing techniques. If you have any significant drops in traffic, particularly around April 2012 (the date of Google’s major Penguin update), then you’ll know you’ve been hit. This Search Engine Journal screenshot shows a classic drop in traffic after Penguin:


Conversely, if you’ve seen a gradual depreciation of organic traffic since early 2011, you could have suffered from Panda.

What to do if you’ve been hit by Panda:

This algorithm primarily focuses on on-site issues, so you need to answer the following questions:

  • Do you have pages with duplicated content?
  • Do you have any pages with identical content to other websites?
  • Do you have pages with very small amounts of text?
  • Is spelling and grammar an issue across your site?
  • Is meta data unique on each page?
  • Are there too many adverts on a page, particularly above the fold?
  • Does your site look trustworthy?

If you find yourself answering “yes” to any of those questions, then it’s recommended to right those wrongs as soon as you can. Work through the site and start ensuring that you’re providing web pages that offer a good online experience.

The good thing about Panda is that it doesn’t always affect your entire site. Duplication issues, for instance, can sometimes only have negative consequences for specific pages.

And once you’ve ameliorated your problems, there’s every chance you can start to see improved search rankings – and improved traffic. What’s more, you should start to see onsite improvements too. If you’re making pages more engaging, more detailed and more relevant, there’s every chance you’ll enjoy lower bounce and exit rates, longer average visit times and more conversions.

What to do if you’ve been hit by Penguin

While Panda went after web pages that provided a poor user experience, Penguin focused more on off-site issues – namely the links pointing to your site. If your site has a lot of links from untrustworthy, irrelevant or ‘spammy’ websites, then your search rankings will be greatly affected. So you need to convince Google that you have nothing to do with the links.

That means identifying the bad ones and either removing them or disavowing them to Google so that it doesn’t associate your site with the links.

Step 1 – Check your links

Visit Google Webmaster Tools. In the ‘Search Traffic’ section, select ‘Links to Your Site’. At this point you’ll be able to see which sites link most to yours – upon clicking ‘more’ you’ll be able to download an exhaustive list of your links.

Depending on the size of your backlink profile, you might be able to analyse it yourself and ascertain which sites aren’t relevant to you – and which ones are dangerous. Any adult sites or those removed from Google are an automatic no-no.

Step 2 – Find the bad links

There are tools to help you find bad links. One of the best is Monitor Backlinks, which you link with your Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools data to take a look at your links. You can then sort through the entries in a number of ways to ascertain which sites are trustworthy and which aren’t.

Step 3 – Stop the bad links

Now you know which links could be adversely affecting your search rankings, you have to get rid of them. That means:

Contacting webmasters – here you get in touch with the owners of the sites to request the removal of any links pointing to your site. Hopefully, they’ll comply with your request. However, some may ignore you.

That means you should…

Disavow the links – this means supplying a file to Google that shows that you don’t want to be associated with a specific domain. Again, Monitor Backlinks allows you to create a file that’s easily uploadable to Webmaster Tools. Google’s preference is that you try to remove the links yourself first, though.

Is it worth buying a ‘tarnished’ website?

Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast answer. The circumstances of every website that’s been hit by a Google algorithm will vary. Some will only require minor tweaks to get their rankings back on track, while others will need significant work (and significant investment).

But there’s no doubt that it’s possible. Like most things in digital, a combination of astute strategy and dogged persistence will help you grow your business and get the results you need.

Liberty Marketing is Wales’ fastest-growing marketing agency. Combining award-winning technical digital expertise with creative content and social campaigns, Liberty helps businesses connect with users across the world.

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