How do you know if your law firm website has been “penalized” by Google?


First Step: Assess The Damage

In the SEO industry, we have a few ways of defining penalties:

1-Penalty messages from Google in your Google Webmaster Tools.

There are generally two types of overt penalties communicated by Google in Webmaster Tools.

The first one is a manual penalty. This is when someone from Google actually takes the time to look at your site or links to your site, identifies something they see as wrong and messages you in Google Webmaster tools about the penalty.

The second one is an algorithmic penalty. This is a penalty identified by the Google search algorithm and communicated as such.

The frustrating thing with both of these types of penalties for law firms is that they offer no real guidance on what the actual penalty is. Matt Cutts did take the time to record a video telling communicating that there is a penalty. Of course he does it with a smile (smirk?) on his face as if he was simply telling you there is a rain delay at a baseball game due to bad whether. It is obvious from the video he couldn’t care less about your predicament, or the impact it has on your law firm. Why should he care? In his mind some SEO tried to do something tricky and got busted. The SEO may still have a very successful business because he or she changed their ways with their NEW clients, but you are the one being punished. In Matt’s mind that’s a “your problem” not a “Google problem”, sadly and legally he is right. All you can do as an attorney is get over it and move on. My next blog will be about recovering from a penalty-come back for that one to see how you can get out of this predicament.

2-The 10, 50 or 100+ penalty.

In these cases you see rankings drop significantly, with no message from Google telling you have been penalized.

SEO’s refer to this penalty when they see that a websites rankings have taken a hit by around 10, 50 or 100 or placements in the search results. All of these can be very difficult to overcome, but it would make sense that a 10 position penalty is likely going to be easier to overcome than a 100 position penalty.

However, a rankings drop over time may not be caused by a “penalty”. In some cases it is simply due to the fact that the site owner has not been keeping up with the competition. If your competitors begin to put more effort into ranking their sites, while you stop or simply continue what worked in the past without improving your efforts you will likely see a drop in your rankings.

How do you tell the difference? You have to dig a little deeper.

Is the site still ranking well on the first page of Google for any competitive terms?

If a website is still ranking well for some terms that are competitive, then it may not be suffering from a penalty. It may be less well optimized compared to the competition as the competitors began working harder to rank their sites for competing terms. There may still be some problems with the site’s SEO, but they can likely be addressed and with a new strategy the site should be able to rank again.

One of the best tools for illustrating the impact of a penalty is SEMrush. Of course you can see a similar graph within Google Analytics.

Here are two sites that have suffered from severe organic traffic declines over the last few years. One is due to a penalty; the other is due to simply not keeping up with the competition. The tool is call SEMrush, and the free version is at

No Google Penalty

The first site DOES still rank on the first page of Google for a few of their competitive terms, but for most of their terms they have dropped gradually from the first page to the 2nd, 3rd and worse.


Google Penalty:

The second site (a Denver divorce lawyer), does not appear in the first 5 pages of Google for any of their competitive terms. They still may get some long-tail search traffic, but that is all.
Google-linking-penalty (1)

Has there been any off-site optimization (link building) over the last 4 years?

If there has been a significant amount of effort put into link building for the site, and the rankings dropped significantly over the last two years with the Google Algorithm update, then it may take a lot of work to recover the site.

What is significant? Significant could mean hundreds of backlinks or even thousands. It could mean compared to your competitors who are ranking well in your space.

Is there a significant decline in link velocity?

If the number of links to your site has been on a steady decline over the last 6 months or more, it is likely due to the links coming from sites that were delisted or unattended to over time because of their low value. When cheap links from cheap sites don’t work anymore, the owners of the sites have no incentive to keep them live. They may have tried to dump the domain names like a declining to stock to anyone who would buy them or simply let them die.

In any case, the declining number of links o your site can be difficult to overcome. If links to your site are like positive references in the eyes of Google, then losing lots of links to your site over time is like your credibility declining.

Example of Losing Link Velocity and a Past of Link Building using the tool Ahrefs:

They have tried some recent work to fix this, bus as you will see below the linking profile is bad, and even if it were good it may not be able to overcome all of the bad links. They had well over 700 backlinks to their site from just under 100 websites at one point. Those are going away over the last year and they are being replaced with an additional 100+ links, but the new links are done incorrectly, making things worse


Are there a lot links to the site that do more to hurt than to help?

The challenge with this I that what Google seemed to like years ago is now being frowned upon. “Site wide” links to your site from the footers or blog rolls of other sites can be detrimental, but these were rewarded as good links as recently as 1 year ago.

“Keyword links” to your site that are too high of a percentage to your site can cause you to be penalized because they look suspicious. Here is an example of some effort put into linking by some large SEO companies who have not changed their ways. They are trying really hard to rank a site for “divorce attorney denver” but because well over 12% of these keyword links to the site are from one keyword it has a negative impact on the sites rankings.

Example of Bad Links to a Site from Ahrefs Link Cloud


Are there a lot links from Russia, Gambling ad porn sites?

Believe it or not, bad links to a site can cause penalties. In fact, we have seen law firms spend thousands of bad links to a competitors site to hurt their rankings. Hard to believe that Google lets this happen, but it does happen. Many links that were used years ago to help sites rank now hurt sites’ rankings, and many of the SEOs that used to use those bad links to rank sites now use them to penalize sites. It can be a very ugly world out there.

Is there a lot of duplicate content on the site?

Content on your site that is too similar to other pages on your site used to be something you could get away with. For example, if you did business in multiple cities and created a page for each city with most of the content duplicated you could rank a site this way in multiple cities just a few years ago. Now we are seeing sites getting penalized for this behavior.

Of course putting content on your site that is duplicated from other sites is also a bad idea.

The good news is that fixing these issues is probably easier than removing a linking penalty, because at least the site owner has control over the content. This can still be challenging when dealing with hundreds of pages.

Have the pages on the site been “over-optimized”?

Keywords – keywords are important to have on a keywords driven page of content, keywords can be fun and “keyword” cool, and if the keyword is an h1 keyword, and h2 keyword and really makes sure keywords are keywords everyone can see as keywords, then ranking for keywords is keywords-rific!

You get the point. In fact I put the keywords in a graphic so I would not get penalized for having the word “keywords” put on this page too many times. How much is too much? It usually looks obvious. You should use the title, description, H1, content, pictures, etc. in the page enough to tell the reader and the search engines what the page is about. This content will have your keywords in them if done properly, but overdoing it can have an impact. Look at the majority of the sites that rank well for your most competitive search terms and you will see the right pattern. There are still outliers that get ranked with bad content, but look for trends.
If you have lost significant rankings suddenly, and want to know what to do about it, visit my next blog post:

What do you do if you have suffered a Google Penalty?