Google levies thousands of manual penalties every month. These penalties are nasty and they can have a huge impact on your site
I made the decision to write this article after a grueling encounter with a really tough manual penalty on a client site. Although I’ve wrangled with dozens of manual penalties, this was by far the worst.
Plenty of people have written excellent articles on how to recover from manual penalties, but seldom have I seen an article that discusses the mindset and foundational approach required to successfully recover.
Your first couple of hours post-penalty are crucial. A penalty is a scary, and it is easy to do something rash which jeopardizes the entire process. Rather than rush into recovery mode, remember that a solid foundation is more important than hasty action.
Here’s what I’ve learned, and what will benefit you if you experience a manual penalty.
1. Don’t Panic
It sounds cliched, I know, but hear me out.
You need facts. Balance your frustrated mind with this information:
You Have Time
I recommend swift and decisive actions, but you should not rush.
If you act too soon, the manual penalty may actually be in place longer than is necessary. Why is this case? Isn’t immediate action rewarded?
Manual penalties are handed out by real people — humans at the Googleplex sitting in front of actual computer screens. The people who work on the manual penalty team are assigned to your penalty. They have a record of when the penalty was put in place, why it was put in place, and what its status is.
Now, if you hurriedly respond to the penalty with a quick reconsideration request, it will likely receive an automatic “denied.” It’s very unlikely you could have completed all the work necessary to get the penalty lifted in such a short amount of time.
Rather than assuming you did all the work of link analysis, removal requests, and disavow file creation, the Googler is going to assume the opposite — that you’re simply trying to get out from under the penalty without doing the hard work.
Now, you’re back in the penalty box. Plus, your account is now viewed with suspicion. Remember, the Googler is looking at his or her records on your site, thinking, “Hmm. This site is trying to play fast and loose with the penalty. We need to keep an eye on them.”
Manual penalty recovery takes time — possibly even weeks or months! If you fire back a reconsideration request in a day or two, you will likely do more harm than good.
Time is on your side. It’s in your best interest to take your time.
Penalties Can Be Lifted
Even though a penalty is a frightening, getting them lifted is possible. You don’t need to be an SEO genius to make it happen. With some time and a bit of SEO savvy, you don’t even need to hire an agency. All you need to do is follow some clear instructions and actually do the work.
Penalties are one of the most formidable features in an SEO’s life. But they are certainly not insurmountable.
Your Penalty Might Expire
What if you don’t do anything? You’ve got a website, but you don’t even care that it was penalized. So you don’t do anything. What next?
Your penalty might just expire after a while. There’s no hard and fast rules on this issue, but a video from Google’s Matt Cutts suggests this may be the case.
Marie Haynes explains in Search Engine Watch:
Did you know that all manual penalties from Google have an expiration date? In some cases, they can expire after just a few months. In other cases it can take years. There really seems to be no discernible pattern to help us know when a penalty is going to expire.
I don’t recommend sitting around and waiting. But, worst case scenario, if you do nothing, the penalty will eventually disappear.
Keep these things in mind as you face the situation. Penalties are nasty, but certainly not panic-worthy. You’ve got time, you’ve got power, and you’ve even got the possibility that the penalty will vanish after a while.
2. Find Out Exactly Why it Happened
Penalties happen for a reason. If you understand the reason why your site was penalized, you are one step closer to getting it repealed.
If you ignore this crucial step, you’re going to sabotage your efforts. Trying to lift a penalty you’re unclear on is like trying to fight an invisible enemy.
Your goal in this second step is to find out what Google is saying about your manual penalty. Remember, a real person is behind the penalty infliction. Yes, the penalty is algorithmically flagged, but only people press the “penalized” button.
Your goal is to find out what Google is saying about your spam penalty.
Google lists eleven types of manual action penalties:
- Unnatural links to your site—impacts links
- Hacked site
- User-generated spam
- Spammy freehosts
- Spammy structured markup
- Unnatural links to your site
- Thin content with little or no added value
- Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects
- Unnatural links from your site
- Pure spam
- Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing
Let me explain.
Unnatural Links to Your Site—Impacts Links
The first one is known as a partial penalty. The entire site is not penalized. Only a portion of your site is under a penalty.
Yes, it’s still a manual penalty, and yes, you should still do the hard work to get the links removed.
Unnatural Links to Your Site
This type of penalty is a full on manual penalty that affects the entire site. In the above case, Google is trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, and not completely lower the hammer.
In the case of “unnatural links to your site,” Google is assuming you’ve been engaged in black hat SEO. As a response, they are levying a full penalty that will squash your rankings and obliterate your traffic. (In the worst cases, they will completely deindex your site.)
You handle both penalties in the same way — thorough analysis, removals, and disavowal. However, the time and effort you pour into the respective penalty varieties will vary based on the different levels of severity.
Google Tells All
In most cases, Google will tell you exactly why you received the penalty right in the penalty report.
This message relates to a thin-content penalty:
Here is another sample message from the Google Search Console. It advises the user of “unnatural inbound links.”
The penalty message below is similar, but it lists some of the links. These, in Google’s view, are the inbound links that warrant your receiving the penalty.
This short list of links is absolutely valuable to your ongoing link removal efforts.
In the case of many of client cases, Google’s analysis has been accurate. The list of three links they provided are symptomatic of a link building effort they carried out in the past.
Google’s algorithm, true to its spam-sniffing abilities, has rooted out the scheme. In these cases, it’s a relatively straightforward task to find these links and ask that they be removed.
It’s up to you to find out exactly why you’ve been penalized. The good news is that it’s usually rather clear.
This is not the phase where you dive into all your links and look at each one in detail. This is simply a 20,000 foot view of the penalty. You want to understand the nature of the penalty at a surface level — the reason, according to Google, that you’ve been penalized.
3. Download Your Links
In this third step, we are getting into the technical side of link removal efforts. Your focus here is on getting the best possible information to carry out the removal effort in the most accurate way.
Link penalties are the most common— they constitute more than 90% of all manual penalties. To get the penalty lifted, you’ll need to analyze your links. But what links?
That is the challenge.
Every link reporting tool provides a different set of link data. Majestic is notorious for providing an inflated number of links. Moz is vilified for carrying a very limited dataset. Ahrefs gets complaints about its inaccurate data.
The fact is, these are all great resources. Each has a different set of crawling tools and capabilities. I use every one of these tools, each for different purposes.
To play it safe, you can download all of the data from all of the tools, and compile it into a single file. Excel will help you sort out the duplicates.
The first steps you take into your manual penalty recovery are crucial to your success.
This article only touches on the entry point — the first three things to do after you receive a penalty. But this is an important phase. Starting right is the key to continuing right and finishing right.
What experiences have you had in the early stages of manual penalty recovery? Share what did (and didn’t) work for you in the comment section.
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!