Can a Site Recover From Google Algorithm Updates?

In this article, I’ll walk you through a few different situations in regards to Google updates and whether or not you should buy a website, including: 

  • Is it a manual penalty or a change due to an algorithm update? 
  • If it’s a penalty
  • If it’s an algorithm update

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation here, and it depends on the specific lay of the land with the website itself. 

Is it a Penalty or an Algorithm Update? 

Before we go any further, let’s confirm what a penalty from Google is. A human reviewer has come to that particular domain and determined the entire website, or a specific portion of the website, is in violation of Google’s spam policies

The easiest way to determine if the website has been penalised is if there is a notification of as much in Google Search Console. If you have a penalty, there should be some documentation on what to do to remediate the issue.

Of course, if you’re only considering buying a site, you likely won’t have access to Google Search Console. In that case, two main options come to the fore: 

  1. Check the website is still indexed in Google Search – type in site:yoursite.com and see if there are any results that show up. If no pages, or significantly fewer pages than there are on a website from a manual search, show up in Google, then the domain is likely penalised.
  2. Use a third-party tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush to check historical rankings and estimated traffic. If at any point you see a sharp drop (which isn’t associated with a known event like a domain migration or otherwise), then it could either be an algorithm update or a penalty – you’d want to map out the dates of known algo updates to the data you’re seeing (most tools will have this already embedded in their own graphs).  

Sometimes, manual penalties can also be related to the technical foundations to the website, where there may be a back door, a lingering hack or some other unethical manipulation of users or users data. This is probably the most difficult to manage for your average Joe looking to buy a website, and the one I’d be most wary of if I saw there was a manual penalty, because in order to resolve you would need a smart and savvy developer or engineer, as well as a bit of luck.  

If a website is penalised, it’s usually quite a big risk to purchase it. This is because you essentially have to prove you’ve done everything in your power to address the problems (keep the receipts, folks – screenshots, emails, all of it, you can’t just say “oh, we did a disavow of those spammy links”). Beyond that, there’s no guarantee the manual penalty will be lifted after you submit a reconsideration request – I had a client once who ended up submitting a reconsideration request three times, each time with more detail and effort than the next. 

If you’re happy to take the gamble, there’s nothing stopping you, you’ll just want to be aware it will likely be a lot of work up front to resolve, with no guarantee it will work in your favour. 

If it’s an Algorithm Update

If it’s an algorithm update, while it’s often a sharp drop, sometimes it can be more gradual, usually if it’s related to what’s referred to as a “core update”—that is, one which affects a number of different parts of the Google algorithm. While industry publications will have details about the updates as they happen, you can also get some detail straight from Google at the Search Status Dashboard.

As we can see below, some websites experienced a sharp drop then a slow decline, and others more of a gradual decrease in traffic from the date of the algorithm change. 

Example website traffic affected by the Helpful Content Update (source)

Example website traffic affected by the Helpful Content Update (source)

In some ways, if the website you’re thinking of purchasing seems to be affected by an algorithm change, it’s more difficult than a penalty. This is because with a penalty you have explicit feedback on what the issue is; if you’re affected by an algorithm update, you may have a general sense of the changes which are needed, but not to the same level of specificity. 

In 2024, Google is working hard to flag and demote “unhelpful” content. Google suggests website owners evaluate the helpfulness of their own content by asking these questions: 

Content and quality questions:

  • Does the content provide original information, reporting, research, or analysis?
  • Does the content provide a substantial, complete, or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond the obvious?
  • If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources, and instead provide substantial additional value and originality?
  • Does the main heading or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
  • Does the main heading or page title avoid exaggerating or being shocking in nature?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Would you expect to see this content in or referenced by a printed magazine, encyclopedia, or book?
  • Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • Does the content have any spelling or stylistic issues?
  • Is the content produced well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?

Expertise questions

  • Does the content present information in a way that makes you want to trust it, such as clear sourcing, evidence of the expertise involved, background about the author or the site that publishes it, such as through links to an author page or a site’s About page?
  • If someone researched the site producing the content, would they come away with an impression that it is well-trusted or widely-recognized as an authority on its topic?
  • Is this content written or reviewed by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?
  • Does the content have any easily-verified factual errors?

If I were looking to purchase a website and in my perusal I found content that seemed like it would answer in the negative to even a few of these criteria, I’d add a black mark to the tally. It wouldn’t necessarily keep me from purchasing the website, but it would give me a sense of the weaknesses I’d need to rectify or shore up almost immediately after purchase if I wanted the site to be successful. 

If it’s a sharp drop, and a pretty clean one, it’s likely related to one of the more fit-for-purpose algorithm changes. Sometimes these are aimed at specific high-risk industries, particular Search verticals, like Local, or some element or another of spam. If the site has been affected in that way, you have a pretty clear direction for the solution, most times. 

For either penalties or algorithm updates, there should be a knowledgable expert at the helm, helping prioritise and direct the changes required to do your best to address either situation. And with all that, it’s important to acknowledge there’s no guarantee the website will recover, even if you do everything right. But if you’re willing to carry the risk, invest in smart people to help you and give the time and effort, it could be well worth it.  

Amanda King has been in the SEO industry over a decade, has worked across countries and industries, and consults through her business, FLOQ, with a focus on the product, the user and the business. Along with a passion for solving puzzles, she's incorporated data & analytics, user experience and CRO alongside SEO. Always happy to trade war stories, find her on Twitter or LinkedIn for intermittently shared advice and thoughts on the industry.

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