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Did Google Just Wipe Out a Big Law Firm with a Huge Link Penalty?

Top UK law firm Irwin Mitchell just disappeared from almost all search results. They are no longer appearing for even branded terms like Irwin Mitchell, except in paid results:

Folks looking at the situation tell me this is likely a link based penalty.

Given this is a high-profile law firm, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Will the legal firm push back with legal action? Was the penalty justified?
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I don't believe Google has any legal obligation to include their website in any search results. 
I feel a fight coming on. And the layers SEOs will be in deep trouble too! 
They're lawyers. They deserve it. 
Google changes the algorithm all the time and, to be fair, regularly warns website owners that certain practices will adversely affect the SERPs.

Lots of companies, big and small, are regularly affected but that alone doesn't give anyone a right to legal action against Google. Legal action against any SEO advisor who recommended a course of action that resulted in a foreseeable penalty maybe, but Google? 
+John Ioannou sure but this type of action won't probably go unnoticed by EU if the law firm makes enough noise about it... currently the EU unlike the US is still exploring Google's dominance of search
Just as +John Ioannou commented above, google search is actually a free service and the only thing they want is to follows the rules. I think it would be more interessting to know if they have a seo agency in contract... Thanks +Cyrus Shepard for the post.
Just looking at the link it appears that their site still shows up 4th on the organic search results so maybe the penalty, if there has been one, isn't as serious as the graph may suggest?
+John Dietrich Exactly. They should have the moral imperative to be impartial and not be swayed by a certain ideologies  But definitely punish those who don't follow their rules.
That's actually rather interesting, +David Iwanow. I wonder how the EU will react to this situation?
+Donna Beckett looks like the #4 position is their The graph above & their PPC ad are for .com. I haven't looked in to it, but I imagine they've chucked their site on a new domain to get brand term rankings back.
For me it is first position when logged in Google, and not on first page when using private browsing. (There is no reason why there should be a connection at all, no idea why this difference.
+Cyrus Shepard because of this news there will be a spike in search for their firm, which may or may not affect things depending on how big a story it becomes
If someone's strategy is based on only one source of customers then... sorry. It's like one of the first lectures of economics.
The issue from an eu perspective is not Google demoting a site, but of the consequences of them doing so when they have such a monopoly on search.
I feel like this is popular discourse lately! I just finished a small blog on a list of major companies who have got penalized by Google. Oddly enough, it seems like sometimes the publicity of the penalty can help the penalized company get more attention! 
I'm glad Google is doing that.I have nothing against Irwin Mitchell.But Google guidelines are obligatory for all.Including big firms.And the most important  including Google.
Agreed with +Richie Lauridsen,Irwin Mitchell's popularity will grow now.And if they are suing Google,their popularity will skyrocket.But I sincerely doubt they can win.
Very interesting.   The main thing that stands out for me is the number of incoming sitewide links.  Using over 50% of their incoming backlinks are sitewide.  Looks like there are a lot of exact match anchors that make up the majority of the backlink profile as well.   +Cyrus Shepard any early theories? 
This is interesting.  So the 301s to the .com and Google is ranking the version of the site as number 1 for their name for me.  Do you guys see that?
@Barry Yes same happening at my side but there website is coming at no 1 in
They would have spent a fortune on the link-building, I would have thought. The really painful thing here is that the punishment is final.
This is why I tell SMB Professional Services clients to buy multiple domains IrwinMitchell.DivorceLaw, IrviwnMitchell.MalpracticeLaw.  Then, if you are going to have your marketing team "try something out" regarding link building, they can try it on only one domain first, wait for the results to come in and if it is a failure it does not take down your entire web presence.
The site is a bit spammy. Haven't checked the link profile but their architecture sucks
Having worked in the digital team at Irwin Mitchell I feel for the in-house digital marketing team, I know it will have been the digital agency that will have caused this but the team will be under a hell of a lot of pressure.

Shows just how hard it is to chose a good agency and to keep a handle of your back link profile, let's face it what was a good link 3 years ago could be regarded as a bad link now so you end up spending as much time trying to get good new links as requesting poor links are removed.

As for the agency in this case, I wonder if they have this covered in the professional indemnity insurance and if Irwin Mitchell have it in the contract for the agency to cover losses? That is the only legal recourse I could think they would have here.
 +Adreana Langston, I would respectfully argue that "trying things out" on any number of domains is still not a viable long-term solution. SEO's need to get out of the mindset of trying to find ways around Google's guidelines to get a site to rank as high as possible as quickly as possible. Using any marketing strategy that relies solely on getting a website #1 in SERP's is sure to fail. This law firm is a good example of what happens when you don't just focus on building an online presence legitimately that should support the real (and quite successful, in this case) work you are doing.
+John Rowa, you are right, I know for a fact that Irwin Mitchell do have several micro site that do well and are focused on niche areas of their business. If you have number of domains to see how close to the wind you can sale at some point you will sale too close. What is the point in that! Isn't it just better to have a website and SEO / SEM tactics that generate an organic feel to the site. I look at it this way, if 10 years ago you developed a site and just didn't give too hoots about SEO / SEM and couldn't care less about being #1, just developing good, unique content today you would have a great natural profile and probably rank really well.

Most people that manage website / agencies are unpicking bad link profiles that used to work really well for them and clients, because as you say the strategy was about being #1, chasing your tail.

So how long does everyone think it will take them to get this turned around? I think the best they can hope for is 3 months.
3 months is a good shout +Steve Simpson. I suspect there will A LOT of late nights up in Sheffield ... 
+Steve Simpson
Steve, reading this brought back some memories for me too! Not sure whether the SEO changed agencies at the same time as the PPC - as I'd be VERY interested to know how the agency in question will react.
+Arianne Donoghue, I would be surprised if the agency keep this account, it's quickly becoming a case study and has generated a lot of noise.
This looks like a manual action penalty across the whole site.

The backlinks profile is spammy - articles on low grade sites with repeated anchor text phrases, which are also used for comment spam on blogs, and the same anchor texts are used in some site-wide blog roll links.

Google has an absolute right to say, "No, you cannot do that because you are manipulating results to gain an unfair advantage."

It's against the rules. Break the rules and you get penalised - it's as simple as that. In terms of cleaning up, they need to spot the things that are obviously bad (easy to find with Majestic), then resubmit to Google to show what they've done. It could take a month or it could take a year.
Good point +Steve Masters, I just can't believe that an agency would still be using such outdated practices, I know the team at IM and they wouldn't let this happen if they had known.
It is interesting to see how few comments there are around the methods used by the SEO agency. Yes, the internal team will be under a lot of pressure but that doesn't mean they can pass blame to an SEO agency. Any digital marketer should be on top of the methods their SEO agency are using. The agencies work under your instruction. I've seen and heard enough pitches from SEO agencies to recognise a decent one when I see one and maybe this is a lesson to keep your agency on a short leash and review all their tactics. 

This will be an interesting one to follow.
+Graeme Smillie Yes, any in-house need to know what the agency are doing and keep knowledge up to date, it's the risk of trusting an agency 100%. I hope that they covered it within the contract that any issues of this scale are covered how they can do this though within SLA's is difficult. It makes picking your partner agency so hard. 
Guess now we'll have a wall of shame here in Google+ all those guys who built relationship with black hat seo will be exposed !
+Serbay Arda Ayzit that article, if you can call it that is shocking, they (Irwin Mitchell) can not have known about that, all external content should be quality to attract reader first and sharing opportunities second, social, links etc. Oh dear.
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