The Definitive Guide to Recovering From a Manual Search Penalty

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The Definitive Guide to Recovering From a Manual Search Penalty

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.

  1. 15 minutes to read this article
  2. Google Webmaster Tools
  3. Google Drive, Spreadsheets
  4. 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:

google penalty email

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
      • “http://www.yourdomain.com”
      • “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.
  • 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.

By this point, you’ve identified all the bad backlinks to your site. You have a spreadsheet to prove that you’ve done it.

Now, it’s time to take action.

6. Create a new list of all your bad links.

Copy the yellow highlighted list from your “low-DA links” spreadsheet tab (step 3) , the highlights from your “spammy links,” (step 4), and the highlights from your “spammy backlinks” (SEO violating backlinks). Paste all of these into a new tab, titled “links to remove.”

7. Request removal for every link.

In your new “links to remove” tab, take the following steps.

  • Visit the website from which you have received a backlink.
  • Find a contact form on the website or an email address.
  • If you find an email address, place it into your spreadsheet in a new column titled “email address.”
  • Send an email or use the contact form to request a removal of your website. Simply state the information, the page you found the link, and the link to your site. It can read something like this:

“We have discovered a link from your page [LINK] to our site [LINK] that may be causing an unnatural link penalty from Google in violation of Google Webmaster Guidelines. Please remove this link at your earliest convenience. Thank you.”

No need to go all Rambo on them here. Just say it and be done.

  • In your spreadsheet, create a column entitled “Date of removal request.” Enter the date and time when you contacted each site.

In 50% of the cases, you’ll find a contact form or email address on the website. In 5-10% of these cases, the webmaster will honor your removal request.

Making this effort to remove links in this way is crucial. Do not just flee to the disavow tool. Instead, try to get links removed the natural way first.

Google’s John Mueller said this regarding manual penalty removal and backlink removal: “They just want to see that you’re really spending a significant amount of time to clean up this problem so that they can kind of be sure that you’re not going to turn around and do it again.”

8. Identify removed links.

It’s a good idea to wait one to two weeks to let webmasters honor your removal requests. Once you’ve let a reasonable amount of time elapse, you can move on to this step. Open up the spreadsheet tab, “links to remove.”

  • Find out which sites have honored your request. The reliable way to know if this has happened is if you receive an affirmative response to your email. If you have, locate the link of the site that removed your link.
  • Highlight the link in green to clearly mark that the link is now gone.
  • In your spreadsheet tab, “links to remove,” create a new column, titled “link removed?” If the link has been removed, enter the date of removal in this column.

9. Disavow all remaining links.

In this step, you’re going to use a very powerful web resource, called the disavow tool. You should only disavow links when you have made a good faith effort to remove them in another way — i.e., by contacting the webmasters of the sites containing those links. You can access the disavow tool here: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main

There are some warnings on the page. The reason for the warnings is simple:  This is a powerful tool. You can either ruin or improve your site by using it.

  • Copy every link except the green highlights from “links to remove” spreadsheet tab. Paste into a new tab. Title this tab “disavow list.”
  • Copy every link in this list, and paste it into a text file. Make sure that your file complies with the instructions provided by Google.
  • Go to the disavow tool. Choose your site, then click the scary red button, “disavow links.” You will only be granted access if you are the site owner.

Screenshot taken 01/29/2014 of www.www.google.com/webmasters/tools/.

  • Upload your text file list of links.
  • Go back to your spreadsheet tab, “disavow list.” Create a column titled “date of disavowal.” Add the date in this column.

In this step, you’ve performed a disavow. Breathe a deep sigh of relief. Tweet about your awesomeness, then take a break.

10. Request a reconsideration from Google.

You’re in the home stretch. This is the fun part. (Especially, if you think that groveling in front of Google is fun.).

  • Go to the reconsideration request page. You can access this in Google Webmaster Tools: search traffic → manual actions. Google’s tutorial on the issue is important here, even though its slightly less awesome than my discussion in this article you’re now reading.
  • Click “request a review.” You will only have access if you are the site owner.

Screenshot taken 01/29/2014 of www.www.google.com/webmasters/tools/.

  • Send them your entire Google Drive spreadsheet with the legion tabs, that reflects your weeks of tireless and hard work. It is imperative that you provide them with proof of your labors. Do not request a reconsideration unless you have the data to prove that you’ve done your own spadework.

11. Wait for a response.

Now, it’s time to be patient. Google will decide your fate. This is a good time to go on a short vacation to Tahiti, if you can afford it. Google will send you a message, generally within 2-3 weeks, informing you of their decision. This decision will be one of the following:

  • Penalty lifted. Success. You’re in the green. Go party, then see step 12 below.
  • Still in violation. No success. See a therapist, then see step 13 below.

12. What to do when your penalty is lifted

If you’ve filed an approved reconsideration, consider yourself lucky. You’ll receive the lucky winner email or GWT message that looks like this:

 

Screenshot taken 01/29/2014 of www.gmail.com.

Few sites are able to score a successful reconsideration on the first round. However, the game’s not over. Now, you need to rebuild your site, often from the ground up.

Just because your penalty is lifted doesn’t mean your rankings will skyrocket. In fact, you may find yourself at the bottom of the SERP totem pole. Here’s what Barry Schwartz discovered when he conducted a survey of successful survivors of a removal request:

53% – no ranking improvement whatsoever after a year
12% – ranking improvement in a few days
14% – ranking improvement within one month
8% – ranking improvement in three months
7% ranking improvement in six months
7% – ranking improvement in one year

It’s time to do the hard work of building great content and building legitimate and reputable backlinks from high-quality sites.

In other words, it’s time to get back to work as usual. But this time, you know you don’t have that pesky penalty looming over you, crushing your revenue, and creating antagonistic feelings toward Matt Cutts and the inhabitants of Googleplex.

13. What to do if your removal request is denied.

In the vast majority of first time submissions, the removal request will not be honored. This is normal, so please keep it together.

The GWT message will look something like this:

Screenshot taken 01/29/2014 of www.www.google.com/webmasters/tools/.

In my experience as an agency SEO, it takes 3-4 attempts before your reconsideration request is honored and your penalty is lifted.

If your first reconsideration request is not accepted, I recommend that you start at step 1, and go through the entire process again. Since you’ve done it before, you should be able to do so much quicker. Additionally, the links provided by GWT tend to change, so you’ll have a fresh spread of backlinks to work with.

When you’ve followed the steps in this article again, file another reconsideration request. And maybe another one. And maybe another one.

Eventually, you’ll get it.

Finally, the Good News about Recovery

I’ve seen sites recover from penalties, both manual and algorithmic. Recovery is realistic and achievable. Don’t sell your website and liquidate your inventory just because you’re penalized. Please note the following disclaimers:

  • Following the process is complicated. I’ve attempted to sum up the road to recovery in 2,800 words, complete with an enumerated list. (You’re welcome.) Although this article is comprehensive and thorough, there is no possible way of summarizing every variable that could compromise a website’s rankings. If you’re really stymied, I recommend seeking out the services of a reputable SEO agency (operative word: reputable).
  • Recovery takes a long time. Recovery from penalties is a process that can take months. When recovering from a penalty, I suggest a six-month lead time before seeing a measurable increase in rankings again. Yes, I know. That’s painful.
  • It takes a lot of effort. Digging your site out of a penalty is tough. It’s a lot of nitty-gritty, dirt-under-your-fingernails, in-the-trenches work with links, keywords, anchors, disavow tools, and other nerdy SEO stuff. Be prepared to put in the hours to get this done.

The bottom line is, your website can recover from a manual penalty. Now, you know how to do it.

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Daniel Threlfall

Daniel Threlfall

Senior SEO Specialist at Volume9
Daniel has an obsession with content marketing, a nerdy fascination with search engine algorithms, and an unquenchable thirst for good coffee without cream and sugar.... Read Full Bio
Daniel Threlfall
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