A search penalty is a fearsome thing. It’s the grown-up equivalent of “come to the principal’s office,” but the consequences are far worse. Once you’ve been hit with a manual penalty from Google, what do you do? Here is your answer — the definitive guide to recovering from a manual search penalty. This is the give-it-to-me-like-it-is approach to doing one of the toughest tasks in the business — recovering from a penalty.
The Tools You Need to Recover from a Manual Penalty
The tools are simple and free.
- 15 minutes to read this article
- Google Webmaster Tools
- Google Drive, Spreadsheets
- A lot of time (Sorry, the truth hurts!)
Where We’re Headed in this Article
Let’s make sure we understand what we’re talking about when we talk about penalties. There are two broad types of SEO penalties — “manual” and “algorithmic.” The short of it is, if you have a manual penalty, you will know about it. I’ll explain.
- Manual Penalty. A manual penalty occurs when a real live human at Google penalizes your site, causing you to be delisted or lose rank. Contrary to urban legend, this doesn’t happen due to whim or vengeance. In actuality, most of the time, the offending site is flagged for review (by an algorithm) and then looked at by someone in the webspam team in Mountain View, California. Some SEOs call this type of penalty an “unnatural link penalty.” The easy way to know whether you’ve been manually penalized is if you’ve receive a message from Google via Google Webmaster Tools. It looks like this:
Screenshot taken 01/29/2014 of www.gmail.com.
If you think you’ve been penalized, but haven’t received a message, then you are experiencing an algorithmic penalty.
- Algorithm Penalty. To sound nerdy-but-cool, you can also call this an “algo penalty.” This refers to a penalty that the all-powerful Google algorithm inflicts upon your site automatically. The “penalty” — a loss in search engine rank — is caused by SEO factors on your site that conflict with the quality standards of the algorithm.
The consequence for both penalties is the same. Your website loses rank. The road to recovery from the two penalties is slightly different.
What you’re about to read is the definitive guide on how your site can recover from the first of these penalties — the manual penalty. If you follow the steps outlined below, you will most likely achieve recovery. I offer no guarantees, but I do provide a clear and comprehensive path to recovery that has worked for other sites.
How to Recover from a Manual Penalty: A Step-by-Step Guide
If you get the dreaded message that you’ve gotten the Google kibosh for a manual penalty, it’s time to take action. I encourage you to begin this process as soon as possible. The longer you delay, the longer your site will languish in penalty prison. The manual penalty will not magically disappear. It’s up to you to solve it.
1. Get your site ready.
One thing should be obvious. If you have been penalized, stop doing what you’re doing (whatever it is). Start cleaning up your site — fixing 404s, deleting duplicate content, updating your blog, eliminating keyword stuffing, etc. The focus of this article is on removing the penalty, not improve onsite SEO. However, it’s important that your website be ready to get back in Google’s good graces. Clean it up.
2. Download a list of backlinks.
The main reason why sites receive a penalty is because there are “artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site,” according to the form letter above. It’s time to find these toxic links. You can download links easily and for free. There are plenty of other options for gaining backlinks, but we’ve found that the list from GWT is the only one that really matters for penalty recovery.
- Go to Webmaster Tools.
- Click “search traffic.”
- Click “links to your site.”
Screenshot taken 01/29/2014 of www.www.google.com/webmasters/tools/.
- Click “more >>” under “who links the most.”
- Click “Download latest links.”
Screenshot taken 01/29/2014 of www.www.google.com/webmasters/tools/.
Now you have the information you need to search and destroy the offending links.
3. Identify low-quality backlinks.
From this point forward, you should document every move that you make to clean up your site. This is important, because Google wants documented proof of your labor. If you downloaded the list of links from GWT into Google Drive, you already have your starting point.
- Copy the list of links in your spreadsheet to a new tab. Title this tab “low DA links”.
- Identify the domain authority of all links. I recommend using www.bulkdachecker.com because it is free, quick, and allows you to check the DA of a lot of links at once.
- Export the list of links with corresponding DAs to Excel. Copy the list back into Google Drive in your “low DA links” list.
- Sort the list by DA to find all the linkbacks that have a DA below 25.
- Highlight in yellow all the links that have a DA below 25.
What you’ve done in this step is determine which links are low-quality and should probably be removed. As I will discuss later, I take a pretty hardline stance about getting rid of spammy links. However, if you see any links in the below-25 list that you know you can trust, go ahead and keep them. Be careful, though.
4. Identify other spammy sites.
- Create another tab, titled “spammy links.”
- Copy every link not highlighted yellow from the above step, and toss it into this spreadsheet.
- Visit every site. Yes. Every one. One-by-one.
- Carefully review each site. On your spreadsheet, highlight each one that looks spammy. Here’s your quick-and-dirty:
- Porn or gambling sites
- Directory sites or listing sites
- Sites in a different language
- Sites with garbled code
- Sites that are totally different from what your site is all about (e.g. a link from a rattan furniture review site, when your site is actually a web design firm)
- Freehost sites
- Sites with spam or keyword stuffing
If you’re eager for backlinks, I know what you’re feeling. You don’t want to cut out anything that could be giving your site value. But what if it’s not giving your site value. What if it’s actually ruining your site?
Here’s a dumb little mantra that you should repeat as you do this exercise: “When in doubt, get them out.” You would rather get rid of a single maybe-okay backlink than retain a backlink that could be keeping you from breaking free from your penalty.
I’m a proponent of the machete approach. Here’s why:
Screenshot taken 05/14/2013 of http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/what-to-expect-in-seo-in-the-coming-months/.
Be brutal with your backlinks. Get rid of the junk and stuff that is junk suspect. Your goal is a clean site. This is your chance.
5. Identify keyword-stuffed or exact-match anchors.
- Create a new tab in your Google Drive, and title it “SEO violating backlinks”.
- Open up your “spammy links” tab from the previous step. Copy all the links that you didn’t highlight. Paste them into your new tab.
- Open up every link in the new list, one-by-one. Here’s what you will do on each page:
- For every linking page, view the source. (In Chrome for Mac, you can press ⌘ + option + u to see the page source.)
- Search for your site’s domain. (CRTL + F + yourdomain).
- Identify the anchor text used to link to your site.
- Decide whether the anchor text is bad or good. Put on your SEO hat (the white one), and figure out if the anchor and/or link is hurting your site. Here’s your quick-and-dirty guide.
- Good anchors
- “your brand or company name”
- a sentence fragment with no keywords. If you need to brush up on what constitutes healthy anchor text, I recommend that you read this article.
- Bad anchors
- Exact match anchors. If the link has the term “what tennis shoes are best” and the page on your site is toptennis.com/what-tennis-shoes-are-best,” this is considered an exact match anchor. It’s a red flag for spam. This is a dangerous backlink.
- Keywords, including longtail keywords. Anchors containing keywords are also toxic. For example, a link with just the term “tennis shoes” is dangerous, if your site is about tennis shoes. Also, an anchor that contains a longtail keyword like “how to choose the best tennis shoes,” and links to your site could be compromising, too.
- Good anchors
- Highlight in yellow any offending links.
If you do this for every link, you will successfully analyze every single link that could be hurting your website. You’ll have a lot of yellow highlights in these lists. Don’t be surprised if you end up highlighting most of your spreadsheet. Again, I’m taking a hardline, brutal approach to backlink cleansing, because I’ve seen that it’s the most direct route to recovery. I think Matt Cutts would agree.