This is a question I get asked a lot. I would say that if your site was doing great without using any black hat SEO and then you hired some old school SEO company who fired thousands of worthless links at your site which got you penalised the answer is no. If however your site was only ranking because of the black hat links, then it is going to be near impossible to get your rankings back and you should consider starting over again.
In a Google Webmaster hangout last week Josh Berg asked John Mueller about this. I have a transcript of this part of the video that you may find interesting. It certainly helped me to decide what to do with an old domain that was built on just black hat links.
“Another one was that you’ve mentioned in uh one hang out, you were talking about a web site that might be too far gone to, that it would just be uh better of starting from scratch,”
“Uh, what kind of scenario do you think that a site has gotten to that stage, where we could look at a site and just say quiet easily, oh might as well start again, would it be something that is then repeatedly hit by a variety of algorithms over time?”
“Um, it’s really tricky, I don’t think there is any totally obvious signal where you could look at it and say oh they should just start over again, but I think if a website has really been doing problematic things for a very long time then that’s something where you can start thinking about that at least and the tricky part is of course, trying to find the right balance there, in the sense that if a website has been active for a really long time, it might have this kind of older brand attached to it that people know.
Whereas where a website is fairly new maybe it’s a little bit easier to switch to a different domain, to switch to a different brand, but at the same time they probably haven’t done that much bad stuff in the past either, if it’s still fairly new.
The situations where I think you kind of need to look out for is where if you’re starting a new website on a domain that has been used for really spammy things in the past, then we can to some extent kind of take those spammy things and ignore them because we recognize that this is a completely new website, but some of those spammy things may still be associated with our website for a fairly long time, for instance if they’ve been building spammy links for five (5), ten (10) years now and someone starts a completely new website on that domain then that’s a lot of really problematic history that is going to be hard to clean up.
And if you’re just starting new on that domain name, then probably it’s not that much effort to actually pick a different domain name and just start on that one instead.” 59:34
“So, just going with everything wouldn’t be…”
“Well, sure you can, it’s not that it’s impossible to clean those things up but you kind of have to balance the amount of work and the amount of amount of time it takes to clean that up with what you’re trying to achieve and if you’re a completely new website then spending a couple of months on disallowing old links that you’re not even involved in is probably not the first priority on your mind when you’re building a new business.
Whereas if you’re like an older established website maybe it would make sense to spend a bit more time to actually clean up all of those old crumbs so it’s something where there is no obvious easy answer and I know that makes it hard to sometimes make the right decision there and uh, one tricky aspect of that as well is that you don’t really know how things will change in the future. Where maybe you’ll clean up all of the links now and you don’t really know if the next algorithm update is going to take place next week or maybe it will take place half a year, so that’s something where it’s sometimes hard to find the balance between when you should kind of cut loose and say okay this is going to be way too much effort for us to actually clean up completely whereas it might be a little bit easier for us to start over on a new domain.
Some people have started over on a new domain and have made really great progress there; other people have cleaned up the website: managed to clean that up and get it back into good shape again. So, it’s not that it’s impossible to do one way or the other, it’s just that you have to at some point make essentially a business decision on where you should focus your energy and where you should put your money and your time.”
“Okay, alright thanks a lot.”
“And I think that’s something that you guys that have a little bit more experience with cleaning up issues around links, with cleaning up issues around spam, you’re in a good position to help these websites make the right decision and to look at their business model over all and say hey you’re a completely new website and if you’re on this domain that’s been spammed by previous owners in crazy ways in the past maybe it just makes sense to pick a different domain name and start on that one instead and most of the time you manage to clean up the domain name. Maybe you can put something on there as well; maybe you can move it to…Uh..,”
“I know you love Web Masters so much but would the bigger challenge be that the website had like an external links and stuff pointing back to it or uh say it was eh a really poor quality website previously for a long time?”
“Uh, I would say most of time, it’s the external factors which are harder to clean up but sometimes these like uh, if it was like a really spammy website in the past, sometimes it might have gotten stuck on a really kind of catching low quality content type of algorithms which takes a really long time to be updated again.
Usually I would look more at the problematic links in that situation but I would still take a look at uh what is it…archive.org to see what the old content was and if the old content was really problematic or if it was great content, content from feeds like scramble then that’s something worth taking into account and with all of the new top level domains that are coming out maybe it just makes sense to grab something that’s completely new.
Where you know you don’t have any anchor attached to your website that’s kind of dragging you back or you don’t have to worry about that at least where even if you clean up these links now you never really know what could be dragging you back a little bit there. Whereas if you start out with something that’s really completely new then you don’t have to worry about that and you can spend all of your time, all of your energy on making a fantastic website instead of having to clean up old things that might potentially be pulling you down.”
“John, before you go. There was an article about how Google for Web Masters it’s only going to get worse but not better, that was the title. Can you clear this for the SEO community? Is that true? I mean, is this, you know having these kind of articles, its not depressing, you know, it’s just people writing of course they can write whatever they want.”
“Well, I think one thing to keep in mind is that the web is constantly evolving and in the past it’s been kind of a niche marketing area and in the last couple of years, it’s been really mainstream, so it’s something where maybe five (5) or ten (10) years ago if you opened an online book store like one of the first five (5) people to do that, you’d have it really easy to rank for online books online.
Whereas now they’re tons of companies that are offering these services, a lot of the traditional offline businesses are also active online and it’s just going to be harder to compete online.
It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, there’s still a lot of room for these really kind of these niche market areas where you are targeting an audience that is too small for these bigger websites and I think there’s a lot of potential there, buts it’s not the case that from Google’s point of view that it’s going to become much harder, it’s just that the whole market is maturing and its obviously going to be harder to rank number one (1) for something where there are hundreds of other sites that are already competing for that slot.”
“Okay, but the other day I mean you have to know what you’re doing, I agree with whatever was stated in the article but uh, we’ve clarified this before but I see this is here to stay, you still need it…I mean, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, definitely there are lots of technical things that are apart, I think what I like to see as a part of a SEO is essentially make sure the website is accessible to search engines and those are things that have to remain there.
Matter a fact you can take a photo of a brochure and put that online as an image file and suddenly that will rank number one (1), you have to know what it involves to put up a website up to make sure that’s its crawl able, to make sure that its accessible by search engines so that they can read the text on there, that they can index that content properly and that’s something that’s definitely not going to go away and all of the understanding on the marketing side of search engine also, also work what people are searching for, how you can create content that matches what they are searching for, how you can create content that works well for users and searches on engines.
Those are things that are not going to go away and uh because there are more people who are online doesn’t mean that it’s going to become like impossible to do that or unnecessary to do that, there’s still a lot of, essentially craftsman ship involved in making a website that works well in search.”
“Of course, oh okay.”
“To be honest with you Berg, I actually think that it’s going to get easier and it’ll get easier once Google actually deals with the ‘churn and burn’ site to bond that Google deals with. There’s a quick ‘churn and burn’ spam issue, there’s going to be places in the top ten (10) that were never available, that are available. I actually think it will once those issues are resolved. Right now in my niche, the number one (1) site, we even talked about it six (6) weeks ago; it’s now gone from number two (2) to number one (1) and just a complete spam site ‘churn and burn’ …things will change. When things get dealt with, things will change and it’ll be a much better place and it won’t be much difficult, it’ll be much easier.”