Have you ever looked for your domain in search only to have that sinking feeling it has been removed? It can be a strange feeling when there is literally no trace of your domain in Google search. It can also be distressing if you receive a lot of leads as a result of Google referrals. Irwin Mitchell Solicitors1 felt that sting in early 2014 when Google removed all traces of the business from its index.
If you were to search for the brand name in early 2014, you would have seen no results at all. Irwin has since made it back into the SERPs but at that time, all you could find were profiles on third party sites and Wikipedia articles. Not a great way to start off the year.
So what on earth would cause Google to take such harsh measures against a company trying to market itself online? Some experts2 are saying that the damage (from lost revenue) could be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. We may never know for sure why Irwin Mitchell was penalized but there are a lot of interesting theories related to aggressive spammy SEO and over optimization3.
Any time you are building links, you run the risk of drawing unwanted attention. For the most part if you don’t display any erratic behavior and build links that also create a good user experience, you may be able to avoid manual penalty actions.
However building links on pages that have nothing to do with your website and/or that are low quality is a dead give-away for search manipulation. Serbay Arda Ayzit4 raises a valid point in a comment on a Google Plus post when he mentions a link that Irwin Mitchell had leading to their domain from a spammy no-name blog with irrelevant fluff content.
Will one link of this caliber cause the result that happened to Irwin Mitchell? Probably not but making hundreds of these kinds of links (especially in a short period of time) could potentially get you penalized5 and/or de-indexed. Building up these types of links can have a negative effect on your site and could have been the reason Irwin Mitchell’s URLs were effected.
The concept is simple with Google when it comes to link building. They want links to happen naturally and the average webmaster making a link for non-search optimization related purposes is not necessarily using anchor text that the target domain needs to rank well for.
Of course there could be a small percentage of the overall link profile that contains exact match anchor text but when that percentage is large, it raises red flags.
In reality, exact match anchor text is the furthest thing from someone’s mind when they are making a link. If a person is linking to another site because they think the content is good, they are probably not paying much attention to the specific anchor text being used.
So Google understands that links do not occur that way naturally. They know that the majority of people making a link will make it to the home page of a website and they will use whatever text is convenient or logical, not what helps that target site to rank well.
The screenshot below is from Ahrefs6 and shows the anchor text distribution for Irwin Mitchell’s domain. As you can see there are quite a few links with perfectly optimized anchor text for both branded keyword terms as well as words and phrases the company is probably trying to rank for.
Needless to say they (or the agency that did this) were not being bashful about how they built their links. While we cannot be certain this is what caused the manual penalty, it certainly isn’t helping things. The above screen shot from Ahrefs was taken in mid-2014. Below is one taken about a year later and as you can see, they have cleaned up their anchor profile quite a bit.
Another interesting phenomenon is the loss of referring pages for Irwin Mitchell. The screenshot below shows pages that contain a link to the IrwinMitchell.com domain that are no longer present. Why on earth would that be happening?
One possible explanation is that Google is no longer giving those links a vote for Irwin Mitchell’s domain.
Something else is happening here too. A quick search for the exact page linking to Irwin Mitchell (the same URL mentioned in a comment by Serbay) reveals that it is not present in the index and it is a Blogspot blog (a Google blogging platform). Odds are Google removed a bunch of other URLs like the one below.
Fast forward one year later and things are looking a bit better. The beginning of 2015 showed the lowest referring pages information at which time it began climbing.
Just like Google has a lot of factors it takes into consideration when ranking a website, there are also a lot of reasons it boots companies out of the SERPs. Without a public statement from Google saying yes this is what happened to Irwin Mitchell, we can only speculate.