Questions about penalty, 301 & canonical (long post)

Hello -

Used to be fairly regular here for help on my own site but now I’m in-house SEO and have to remain anonymous. I’ve gotten a lot of help here in the past and hoping to get some quality second opinions.

In a nutshell, I’m trying to determine whether we (e-commerce) rank poorly for a very competitive term due to penalty, under-optimization or other.

A little background -
Trying to tackle a very competitive term that is similar but not closely associated with terms that already rank well on our PR7 site.

First attempt involved using subdomain and unique navigation. We began to to gain some traction in serps but ran into dup content issues with subdomain urls also resolving on www. counterparts. Worth noting that the Google sitelinks we had for the subdomain we conspicuously absent of a core keyword we were optimizing for which indicated to me keyword level suppression. Example, if we were optimizing for the term “brick fireplace” our sitelink would say simply “brick.”

We attempted to fix situation by adding canonical tags to pages. Once Google crawled the tags, pages (primarily most competitive term) dropped severely and never recovered (4-6 months).

To clean up the dup content issue, we recently re-launched with the content moved from subdomain to a directory. All pages were 301 to the corresponding counterparts.

Our primary landing is now structured like:
We immediately got indexed and began ranking again within 48 hours, each day showing improvement until I noticed that someone had changed the canonical tag on to

Since all internal linking was to we decided the best bet was to correct the canonical. Very soon after the canonical was crawled we fell off the map again.

The good news is we just reacquired sitelinks which include our coveted keyword but no ranking improvements to go along with them.

In two separate occasions, we began to rank well for a very competitive term only to make mistakes which seems to have impacted us severely. Since we’re squeaky clean on the SEO side, it appears that Google has a zero tolerance policy on this particular term. It strikes me as very similar to a keyword/page level sandbox that we should eventually emerge from (rest of site is established and ranks very well).

Because we’re wary of a penalty, our on and off page efforts have been exceedingly conservative. A concern of mine is that the power of our domain carried us temporarily only to settle where we rightfully belong. One page sits 600+ deep in Google but, when I evaluate the surrounding pages, many are also of high quality.

Today I noticed that during migration somehow we implemented some screwy 301s. We now have some 301s that go something like this: 301 > 301 >

In a browser it works fine but could something like this appear black hat to the algo?

Could the original penalty have finally caught up with us through the 301?

Or, perhaps there never has been a penalty but we never deserved to rank higher than we do now.

Keep in mind we’re very accustomed to ranking top 5, being outside top 100 is not something were terribly familiar with.

Sorry for being long winded but even this amount of data is high level.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts and let me know what questions you may have.

I’m not sure that you’ve had a penalty because it doesn’t sound like you’ve done too much wrong.

But if you’ve moved content around a few times from subdomains to subfolders then you’ve probably messed up the internal linking structure you had and now Google is re-indexing all your changes and trying to figure it out again.

The canonical is a signal to the SEs not a conclusive directive (like a 301 is) but I think it is better long-term to have them there to help consolidate your link value where you might still have dupe content.

I would start out by checking your 301s, try to get them into a single redirection rather than a chain (like the example you’ve given) for each link.

Then check you internal link structure and make sure internal links are pointing to your current URL for the page, with the right anchor text. Does your site have a natural crawl to all the deeper content? Check the navigation links and make sure your html sitemap is updated.

If you can, get an XML sitemap for the site also. That will help google with crawling the site and sorting out your updated URLs.

If you haven’t already, register your site for Google Wemaster tools so that you can get an oversight on all the link errors and get clues for other things to fix up.