In the past few years, we’ve encountered a number of scenarios where we start working with a new client, and 2-3 months later the client gets hit with a penalty. When we look deep into the link history, we can see that these links were built from another SEO company.

Pointing the Finger

No, we were not the ones who built the backlinks or did any of the SEO but we may be the ones that get the blame.  Our accounts department is very well trained in SEO and they all know how to look for a bad backlink portfolio and signs of a penalty. In fact, as of 2017 all of our SEO account staff do a link audit to look for signs of a penalty, or an SEO penalty to come.

When starting work with a new SEO client, is is important to receive reports from past SEO clients. This way, if the day comes where you inherit an SEO penalty you can identify exactly where the links have come from.

Having “the talk” With Your Client

It is probably the hardest phone call you will ever make, or receive. It goes something a little like this:

[quote] “Sir, we are sorry but your site has been penalized and it is due to the tactics that your previous SEO company employed.” [/quote]

What are they supposed to say to this? Our client hired us to make their site better in the search engines and it is now way worse. A lot of business owners don’t even realize you could be “banned from Google” for backlinks, so this is a tough conversation in and of itself.

Having to deal with this issue pop-up as a surprise without prepping your client first can be extremely difficult to say the least.

Some clients want to cancel right away, and rightfully so.  They want to go to another SEO company and pretend this did not happen.

The best thing to do is to be completely straight with your client:

  • Show them cold hard evidence of what happened.  Including copies of the Google Webmaster Guidelines and highlight the parts that apply to them.
  • Send abridged copies of their backlink portfolio highlighting specific backlinks that might be causing this.
  • Put a star next to the dates when the backlink(s) were created, indicating that these links were created by another SEO company.
  • Attach a plan of action with references of similar case studies and other white papers.

SEO Scare Tactics

Ok no, I am not implying that we manipulate anyone by using scare tactics.  However, it is in our & our clients best interest to be upfront at the beginning of the agreement and disclose that there might be bad backlinks in place that must be attended to.

Most of the time if you show your clients cold hard facts paired with recent posts & videos by Matt Cutts that talk about sites that receive penalties, this is enough to at least get them on board and on track.

Using a fear based approach is perfectly legitimate as long as you are being forthright, honest, and you have the best interest of your client in mind.

If it is a large website / company and the risks are extremely high that they will receive a penalty, you may even want to put this in writing. The more documentation, the better.

Hold the Previous SEO Accountable

In a few cases, we contacted the former SEO company on behalf of our client and spoke with them about the penalty.

This also is not an easy conversation.  Most of the time the other SEO company is extremely defensive and will not take any accountability for what was done under their watch.

In my opinion, it is at least worth a try to attempt to get them to remove some or all of the links that were built by them.  A lot of times you can simply ask them if they have login access to these properties or contacts for webmasters of the offending domains.  Something is better than nothing.

In a best case scenario, the previous SEO company will take full responsibility and remove or disavow all of the links.

Assessing SEO Risk Pre-Contract

Since this has happened a few times in the last few years, we knew we had to take action in a major way.  No longer could we blindly accept clients without regard for how risky their backlink portfolio might be.

In the past few months we made a bunch of changes.  The first change we made was contractual.  We added an addendum to all contracts that released us of any liability for any work that was done by other SEO companies.  But the goal is not to simply cover our own ass, we ultimately want to help our clients to the best of our ability.

The next change we made was treating every new client as if it is at risk for a penalty, and educating our clients on this fact up front. This starts at the very first phone call we make to our clients.

In the past when we were courting a new client we would primarily create a plan of action that focused on building their brand organically in an offensive way. While we still incorporate this strategy in our pre-contract phase, we now also focus on any risk that might be in place as a result of links built by another SEO company.

SEO: The Future of Deliverables

Gone are the days where you can simply provide a set of static deliverables in a contract and hope your clients website will move up in the SERPs.  Every website is a dynamic enttity and must be treated differently.

To ignore the fact that a new client has a troubled history would be irresponsible and will most likely only harm you.

It is our duty to fully assess our incoming clients for any signs of a penalty, whether it is spammy backlinks or duplicate content.