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Just Like Detroit: SEO Bankruptcy Is Always Painful; Sometimes Necessary

Chances are you’ve heard by now that Detroit is trying to declare bankruptcy. There’s a few significant obstacles in its way: pension funds and other creditors insist that the city’s constitution doesn’t allow it to escape paying debts to city employees and that any bankruptcy declared would be invalid. But Detroit’s emergency financial manager (a former bankruptcy lawyer, natch) decided that bankruptcy would be the best move for the city in the long run, and he’s making a strong bid for it.

It made me think a lot about an article I read four or five years ago called How to Declare SEO Bankruptcy. It basically laid out all of kinds of ‘SEO attachments’ that we develop over the years of trying to promote a website, and how to sever all of them.

At the time, when I read that article, I didn’t think that it was terribly worth reading. The idea that it could possibly ever be appropriate to give up on everything you’ve been working on and start over was absurd to me. But I re-read it recently after reading a whole host of articles about Detroit’s bankruptcy and what bankruptcy is meant to accomplish.

Essentially, bankruptcy doesn’t mean you don’t ever make money and you don’t ever pay anyone you owe. Chapter 9 — the type of bankruptcy that Detroit is filing for — in particular essentially just buys you time to put together a plan, holding off your creditors for a set period of time while you get on top of your finances. There’s no selling off of city resources or anything; the big danger to the people is that bankruptcy allows the city to renege on its contracts, including contracts like “we’ll pay for city workers’ pensions.” It gives the city the ability to get out from under potentially harmful obligations.

Like that of Detroit, SEO bankruptcy has much the same function. It took me a while to ‘get it’, but reading that article again under the context of the Panda/Penguin Dynasty has put it in context for me: SEO bankruptcy allows you to ‘get out from under’ the potentially harmful practices you’ve been engaging in and start over in a way that will let you rebuild your site’s reputation within Google’s parameters.

If your site has been around for more than a few years, you almost certainly have some form of ‘grey-hat’ practice in your background, even if you’ve always been ‘white-hat’, just because Panda and Penguin grey-ified so many formerly white-hat practices. There’s no “grandfathering in” under the Black-and-White Tyrants, either — a bad practice is a practice, even if you paid for it way back in 2001.

That’s why it’s not always a bad idea to “go broke” in your SEO. Wiping the slate clean and starting over isn’t actually all that bad, either — there are some things you’ll always keep, like your domain age, URL, and of course any natural backlinks, social mentions, and so forth. Those things will make it much quicker to build back up from zero, and when you do so without all of your prior ‘sins’ holding you back, you’ll be able to build much higher than you were before.

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