Removing a 16 Month Google Penalty – There is Hope Yet

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Disclaimer: Due to privacy agreements I cannot share the exact name of the client that I’m going to be discussing within the post.

Ever since the first Penguin update on April 24th 2012, the way we approach link building has completely changed. A lot of hard lessons were learnt and many businesses, not to mention all of those SEO agencies, suffered huge losses. But one man’s loss is another man’s gain. Amongst all of the chaos there was money to be made – this came in the form of search engine recovery projects.

I recently spoke to Christoph Cemper – the man behind the Link Detox Tool and Mark Traphagen of Virante (who created the Remove’em tool) – and asked them “What kind of opportunities have you found since the major Panda and Penguin updates over the past 2 years?”  Here’s what they had to say…

Christoph Cemper:

 Christoph Cemper“One word – Quality.

Since I started talking about my rules and guidelines that we use in SEO and link building I talked about quality, especially when it came to link building, at a price.

A lot of people always took the shortcuts – mostly for budget reasons and didn’t understand the risk they built into their link profiles especially.

Since the launch of Panda updates and especially the Penguin updates all those agencies that stuck to quality were really on the winning side. To my knowledge those were the minority.

Today everyone who understands what quality links really mean and manages to stay away from those tempting cheap offers of “guaranteed submissions”, “guaranteed manual link building” and other scammy offers you still find everywhere on the web will succeed.

My saying “you get what you pay for” has never been more true, and many people that paid peanuts for crappy links got their penalty or filter now as Google started enforcing rules that were WAY older than 2 years in my book.”

Mark Traphagen:

Mark Traphagen“Not long after Penguin 1.0 rolled out we started getting an increasing number of inquiries from webmasters seeking help in restoring the ranking power of their sites that had been hit by the algorithm update. While many of these sites had a major cleanup job ahead of them, we realized that there were a significant number who could probably do the restoration work themselves if they had just a little bit of help. So we adapted our in-house tools into Remove’em, a self-serve tool that automates or streamlines many aspects of the link removal and reinstatement request process.

But an ever-increasing number of site owners told us the size of their problem was too huge for them to deal with. At their urging we created a full-service product, where our team of highly-experienced link removal experts take over the process. This has proven to be the fastest growing part of our entire search marketing agency business. But we hadn’t seen anything yet! When Penguin 2.0 hit in late May, our number of monthly new Remove’em accounts more than tripled, and there has been no let up to date. Another growing part of our business: webmasters using our tool or full service to clean up their link profiles prophylactically in attempts to stave off any future algorithm updates.”

Myself and the rest of the team at Wow Internet have been working with webmasters that have suffered at the hands of Google’s updates for nearly two years now, and have learnt our fair share of lessons along the way as well. We’re quite proud of one project in particular that we took on after the client was banned from Google in February 2012. I thought it would only be fair to share our approach, the tools we used and what we found worked best, so that those with long-standing search engine penalties could have a little hope!

Background of the Project

I was first approached by the client in February this year. They run a huge non-profit international Christian community website and had received a manual search engine penalty on 23rd February 2012. I was told that they hadn’t worked with an SEO agency before but they had instead tried to do it all themselves.

The result was that tens of thousands of links had been paid for from their internal teams from around the world. No record had been kept of the links that were purchased and nearly all of them were exact-match anchor text – not good. To top it off, they had sent through repetitive reconsideration requests that were, of course, thrown back at them.

Stage 1: Assessing the Situation

The first stage of any search engine recovery campaign involves deep analysis to identify any specific issues that contributed to the manual penalty. To do this, I use as many different link analysis tools as possible so that I can get the most accurate picture of the link profile. For this stage of the project I used the following:

  • Majestic SEO
  • Ahrefs
  • Open Site Explorer
  • Google Webmaster Tools
  • Yandex Webmaster Tools

Yandex Webmaster Tools

You’re probably looking at those tools and thinking ‘Why Yandex Webmaster Tools?’. The reason is that Yandex WMT is awesome for identifying the links coming back to your website. I use this on each of my link building campaigns, because it gives a far greater representation of links coming back to the website than Google’s WMT suite.

1.1   Gathering the Links

This stage of analysis has to be one of the most critical parts of your project – if you cut corners here then it will come back to haunt you. I spent a whole day on simply gathering the links to the website; as you will see when you read on, this isn’t the only time you will need to do this. I suggest using Majestic SEOAhrefs, Open Site Explorer, and Google Webmaster Tools:

1.2   Organising Your Links

Once I had each of the .csv files with the complete list of links going back to the client’s website, it was time to organise things a little. The first thing that I always do within search engine recovery projects is place all of the links into one master spreadsheet so that I have everything in one place.

duplicate URL filter

The next step is to get rid of any of the duplicated links in the master spreadsheet. You can do this in Excel easily by selecting the column which has your list of URLs then going to Data>Filter>Advanced Filter and ticking the box that says ‘Unique records only’.

Once I had all of the duplicate links removed from my spreadsheet, it was time to identify some trends within the data. Initially I always look for site-wide links.  A quick and visual way of doing this is as follows:

On the sheet containing the list of all the backlinks, press CTRL+F then find where ‘http://’ appears and replace it with ‘ ’ (i.e. nothing). Now do the same with the term ‘www.’. This will remove the ‘http://www.’ from all of the URLs and leave you with the root domain.

remove http in Excel

Now you’ll want to remove anything after the root domain, for example,’t-want-this-text/. I won’t go into the gory details of how to do this –  check out this handy post.

Next we need to find out how many times a domain has linked to the site. To do this, type in the following formula in the column next to your list of domains (assuming they are in column A):


site-wide links domain list

You can now use the advanced filter to remove any duplicates from the domain list column. If you sort the ‘Number of Links’ column in descending order  you will have all of the big site-wide link culprits in the forefront of your vision. I now like to put this into a bar-chart to make it even clearer to the client.

 Site-wide links graph

Stage 2: Digging Deeper into the Links

The second stage is to dig a little deeper into all of the results that you have gathered, in order to find some trends that will pin-point specific reasons for the manual penalty. Within the project that I was working on, it was clear that there were a lot of site-wide links (all with exact-match money keywords) pointing back to my client’s site. I guessed that this was probably only the tip of the iceberg and I wasn’t wrong.

2.1 Using the Link Detox Tool

Along with Virante’s Remove’em tool, the Link Detox tool from LinkResearchTools has to be my favourite tool to use within these types of projects. For this specific project, I used the Link Detox tool to find certain trends within my data and give me a direction to follow for the next stages of the project.

link detox risk

One reason why I love the Link Detox tool is because you can upload all of your own links as well as using their link index. This is exactly what I did. I used the master spreadsheet of all the links that I put together and uploaded this to Link Detox – once it had worked its magic I could quickly see a breakdown of the links that were ‘toxic’ and ‘suspicious’. I then exported this list of links to a separate Excel spreadsheet.

 The toxic links pointing to the domain

A word of warning with the Link Detox tool – remember that it is never going to be completely 100% accurate and will therefore require some human element. Use the results as a guide (which will save you endless time) and then go through the links yourself to double-check.

2.2 Summarizing the Results

What I found from my analysis was that the poor link building work that had been carried out by the internal team within my client’s business was on a much larger scale than was first anticipated. Here were the major issues identified:

  • Extensive over-optimization of anchor text from backlinks.
  • Large number of site-wide backlinks from irrelevant websites.
  • Many of the links were from sites that also had Google penalties.
  • Large quantities of dofollow banner links had been placed on low quality sites.
  • Hundreds of new spammy links were being indexed every day (from over 2 years ago in some cases).

New indexed links

Stage 3: Taking Action

Once I had my ‘hit list’ of toxic links, it was now time to start compiling the contact information for these sites in order to begin the link removal requests.

Many of you know I’m a fan of utilizing oDesk to automate specific processes within my projects. The procurement of contact information is a prime example of where oDesk is fantastic. As there were such a huge number of links I needed to gather further information on, it made sense to split this task between a few different freelancers to get it done quickly and effectively.


Another method that I used to get the contact information of webmasters was by using BuzzStream. If you don’t have a subscription to this tool and you’re involved in online marketing – take a free trial because it’s pretty awesome. Even if you’re not using it for Google penalty removal, it has fantastic link prospecting features.

 Buzzstream Link Prospecting

One particularly useful feature of BuzzStream is the ability to import a list of URLs and it will automatically scour the website to find contact information. That was essential within this search engine recovery project. To do this, simply click on the ‘Add Websites’ button within the ‘Websites’ tab of Buzzstream. Once you have clicked the button you then need to select ‘Import from existing file’ and you can upload your master .csv file of all the links or you can just upload the raw Ahrefs/OSE/WMT/Majestic SEO lists – awesome!

Bearing in mind that a lot of the webmasters that I had to get in touch with were from spammy, low quality websites, it wasn’t realistic to think that BuzzStream could find all the details needed; however, it did find at least 40% – which was a fantastic result. This saved me a huge amount of time and meant that I had to spend less on outsourcing the work.

3.1 Contacting the Webmasters

Once I had a list of all of the webmasters that needed to be contacted, I created an email template. I’ve found here that it’s quite important to make the webmasters feel that there could be negative effects on their website if they don’t remove the link. Also, I always make sure that I give them the exact URLs where the links appear so that they have to do as little searching as possible. Here’s the template email that I use:

webmaster email template

This is where BuzzStream saved the day again. I asked the client to set me up with an email address from their domain (this dramatically improved response rates) and input the IMAP details into BuzzStream. By doing this, my team and I could send emails directly through BuzzStream via the client’s email address.  I then imported my outreach template, along with a couple of variations (so that I could split test) and then started sending them to my list of webmasters.

For each webmaster, there were three attempts made to contact them over the space of a month. A quick bit of advice here is to not rush through and only reach out to webmasters once – showing the level of work that you put in to Google can be incredibly helpful towards getting your website re-indexed.

3.2 Using Screaming Frog SEO Spider

An awesome tip that I picked up from an article written by Cyrus Shepard was to plug in all of the URLs that linked to the client’s website into Screaming Frog SEO Spider, in order to find any URLs that resulted in a 404. It is often the case with low quality links that their entire site will shut down or disappear. We could then class any of these links as removed.

Once all the results were in, my link analysis team went through and marked each of the links that had been removed as a result of the outreach. This was then added into a Google Docs spreadsheet.

3.3 Educating the Client

Another big part of the project involved me coming in to talk with the client’s internal marketing team. I spent the day personally training the client on SEO and how to abide by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

As a result of the session, a document was put together and circulated around the business that briefed everyone involved within the project about link building practices. This ensured that they would be able to avoid any problems like this in the future. I made sure that the circulated document was uploaded as a Google Doc and included within the reconsideration request.

Stage 4: Compiling the Disavow List

Any toxic links that remained pointing to the website after all of the outreach had been done (this was around 2 months after the start of the project) would then need to be disavowed. My advice here is to be very careful when it comes to disavowing links to your website and take a more cautious approach initially.

disavow list submitted

Instead of going with a ‘let’s just disavow everything’ approach, I decided to add each of the toxic links to the disavow list (not the whole domain) – but I meticulously scoured through the links to ensure that none of the good quality links were removed.

Once the disavow list was finalized and doubled checked, I submitted it through Google Webmaster Tools.

Stage 5: The Reconsideration Request

Here’s where we reach the final hurdle. Everything has been done to the best of our abilities, we have gathered all the collateral related to the project and slaved over an extensive reconsideration request. Two weeks later, we received a response…

reconsideration request failure

first world problem - a google penalty

Having the first reconsideration request returned to with a negative response isn’t uncommon. If this has happened to you – don’t panic. Take a deep breath and relax. It’s quite rare that you will be able to find every single bad link on the first attempt because you will always be slightly more cautious on your first attempt – this was definitely the case within our project.

After some deeper analysis, we found the following issues were still not resolved:

  • Some of the paid dofollow banners were still live on some of the spammy websites.
  • Since the time of our reconsideration request up to the time of our message from Google saying we were still banned, the link analysis tools we used had indexed another 3,000 questionable links.

5.1 Moving on to the Next Request

My advice here is don’t rush into the next reconsideration request. It was clear that the client was keen to get things moving along quickly and wanted to put through another request ASAP – this was where I’ll admit to making an error.

Before we received the response back from the first reconsideration request I had a chat with the client about how confident we felt about getting re-indexed. I was feeling a bit too over-confident and may have shot myself in the foot when giving an ambitious 95% chance of success! Needless to say – I had egg on my face. As a result I really wanted to get a result for the client very quickly and agreed to work double time on the project through the next two weeks and get another reconsideration request out – schoolboy error.

Bad Luck Brian Google penalty

As you can imagine, with added pressure from the client it was easy to miss some of the rising levels of links coming into the website. What we did manage to do was to get rid of all of the spammy banner links, which was a big step. We then updated the disavow list and sent off our second reconsideration request – DENIED.

Stage 6: Getting Re-Indexed

They say third time’s lucky – you certainly need a bit of luck when grovelling at the knees of Google. Luckily for us, we nailed it on the third reconsideration request. After the second rejection from Google we sat down and took a much more prudent approach to the disavow list. This included disavowing all of the toxic links on domain level to ensure that any new links that were getting indexed would still be ignored by Google.

We also spent a huge amount of time going through and re-contacting any of the webmasters that we didn’t get a response from to try and get even more of the links removed. We actually managed to get around 10% of the spammy links manually removed. When you consider that there were thousands of links that were from domains from all over the world, this was a pretty big achievement.

reconsideration request success

After receiving this message it was a mixture of delight and relief. A lot of hard work went in to the project and I’m currently working on a few more projects as I type. Just for your reference, here is the reconsideration request that I submitted:

The full reconsideration request we sent to Google

Hopefully this project can be a sign of hope to those who have had long-standing manual penalties on their site. The one tip I would give is not to rush anything. Be meticulous and thorough on every process of the project and you will get the best results – rush and you will spend a lot more time in the long-run.

Matthew Barby

Matthew Barby

Global Head of Growth & SEO at HubSpot
Matthew Barby is a the Global Head of Growth & SEO at HubSpot. He's an award-winning blogger, global speaker and lecturer.
Matthew Barby
Matthew Barby
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23 thoughts on “Removing a 16 Month Google Penalty – There is Hope Yet

  1. I have had the same experience using the same tools above. My previous company was affected by the Panda update on April 24th 2012. I was hired on to identify why their traffic took a dump and why lead volume fell off a cliff. After doing some investigation, my company had done years of automated link-building via UAW (no, i’m not talking about the United Automobile Workers union).

    I had to sort through and disavow 1000s of links. It took my company 6 reconsideration attempts to get an all clear from google. A word of advice – once you identify the bad links, go ahead and triple checks the links you green light. If you have 1 bad link that you green lit, Google will not reconsider your site.

    1. Hi Erik,

      Depending upon the resources you have available, there are tools such as the Remove’em and Link Detox tools mentioned above that you can use on your own. I work with Remove’em, so naturally I would be biased to say our full service offering would be your best bet if you want someone to take the reigns and handle the process for you start to finish!

      Good luck!


  2. “Be meticulous and thorough on every process of the project and you will get the best results – rush and you will spend a lot more time in the long-run.”

    Couldn’t agree more Matthew. This is probably the most important point of all. Shortcuts are the death of many a well planned cleanup and reconsideration effort.

  3. Hey Matthew,

    How you guys judge that which links are injuring your site since Panda and other algorithm updated? In your article you mentioned some of the tools which are effective for backlinks analysis and you said that those tools are not much as effective so how we identify which backlinks or site are useless for our site? Can you elaborate it?

  4. A very intimate and professional look into the reconsideration process. we get clients with baggage all the time and it’s always hard to set the expectations of how long it takes to get the penalty be removed.

    More and more case studies like this and our personal experience is definitely getting us and the community to understand how to do it right and what to avoid in the next evolution of SEO.

    Thanks for a great article.

  5. I also followed the same path but i have used Remove’em tool to send link removal request. I have successfully remove lot of toxic links pointing to my client’s website and disavowed the remaining ones. But when it comes to send the reconsideration request to Google (few days back) I found that Google has changed its reconsideration request to “Manual Actions” in GWT. I have checked the “Manual Actions” in GWT and it said “No manual web spam found”.

    Guys can you please let me know that “No manual web spam found” means Penguin 2.0 penalty has been removed now ?? OR there is any other way to get my website reconsidered by Google.

    1. Unfortunately it does not mean that. Penguin is an algorithmic penalty, so you won’t necessarily see any evidence of it in the Manual Actions section of Google Webmaster Tools. You also might have to wait till the next Penguin update to see fill recovery.

  6. Hello Matthew,
    When a lot of webmasters have already removed your link as you requested, how google know it? I mean the spamy websites may be crawled by google every one time a year, and when are too deep maybe never.

    1. Hi Michail,

      This is where it becomes important to document that removal work that has been carried out. Once you can present this to the Google webspam team, they can then manually check a few of them to see the progress made.


  7. Awesome! This strategy is really cool! But the fact is why Google not improving the traffic and SERP’s even after 6 months of my continuous trails?

    I got manual action revoked for 2 of my clients websites, but they never get that dream traffic which was before penalty. They used to get 5000 traffic/day which is now 700 only. And despite of so many trails and SEO techniques, they still remain in the same position as they were previously 🙁

    So once Google penalizes your website, the only way is to make a new one?

  8. @Matthew Barby

    You left out the MOST IMPORTANT part!

    Just because you have your penalty revoked does not mean the process has completed. YOU MUST NOW WAIT FOR THE NEXT PENGUIN REFRESH! This can take 6months to a year!!!!!

    I have spoken to many high level Google employees about this.

    Even if your site is perfect and will recover back to #1 IT WILL NOT until the next Penguin refresh.

    WHY does nobody mention this and inform people that there is likely a very very long wait to see recovery of results despite all the hard work put in to get a revoke.

    Good article otherwise.

    1. That gives one plenty of time to focus on building more positive links, doesn’t it? Good content. Useful tools. Great networking. It would be great to be back in the game ASAP, but one does not just have to “wait” while waiting.

  9. How does the client do ranking wise now? Much better or just the same old? We been having some real mixed results here, some sites have actually been better to change domain for.

    1. @per I have had direct word from Google that recovery you might see could be related to other penalties that are lifted at the same time. You will NOT see recovery until a penguin refresh for unnatural link related penalties. Its a waiting game.

      The wait is so long for many that they create secondary sites as backups. Really poor from Google.

  10. So the manual action is gone now. Good job with that.

    But here is the thing. We are yet to see a site with a revoked manual penalty actually make a proper recovery. We have had multiple manual actions removed on sites and have never been able to restore rankings to any decent level. Some of these sites now have an improved link profile to before the penalty.

    I am of the opinion that a manual penalty leaves a stink on a website that you can never get rid of. There is no conclusive evidence anywhere in the public domain to disprove this.

    Think about it. If you are an offender, why must Google ever trust you again?

    We are done with removing any form of penalty. If I can go back 18 months and invest all that effort in building new sites I would without a doubt.

    Now if I was the skeptic type I would call this out as the most perfect scam pulled by Google.

    1. We have definitely seen sites that have recovered after the lifting of a manual action, but in every case, full recovery generally comes only after the next Penguin update. (yes, we do have clients whose sites have returned to pre April 2012 levels)

      Having said that, the difference between those that do recover partially without an update and those that continue to flat line is that they are completely clean in every other respect .

      Sites that do not recover at least some good portion of traffic within a short time of a manual action being revoked seem to be those that have (usually quite easily identifiable) other issues. This includes the normal on site culprits – Panda etc as well as technical SEO issues that impact crawling.

      Logically, the “stink” you refer to makes perfect sense here. Not because sites remain on some kind of “stink” list at Google, but because the removal of any poor links that might actually have been helping the site is likely to leave it more vulnerable to the effects of these other issues.

      My recommendation would be that once you have submitted a reconsideration request, the very first task on your list should be to make sure that the site has been thoroughly assessed for other issues. In addition to that, any remediation that might be required should be taken care of as a matter of urgency.

      This is really important for Agencies handling link cleanup. Being on top of any other issues in play so you can properly manage client expectations will save a great deal of grief. (For full service agencies, including a comprehensive site audit when quoting link removal jobs is a good call ).

  11. This comes in at a time when I want it the most.
    Recently one of my best performing site got hit by an update and the traffic almost dropped by 90%. With the help of this post, I can analyze and recover all the rankings back. At least I hope so!

  12. Guys,

    A question I can’t find the answer to.

    My sites have dropped from #1 – 5 to 40-100 after penguin 2.1

    Do you think this is a Google penalty or just that my SEO work has lost some value, maybe some older links have been discounted.

    Any help appreciated.


  13. Sorry to leave a second question – but I am trying to remove some bad directory links I made the mistake of getting for one client 3 years ago (luckily I only ever did this for the one client as I’m a web designer not a SEO).

    My customer has NOT had a manual penalty (or at least there has been no notification of this in GWT) but has fallen 1 page in the serps on some key search terms and fallen 6-8 places for some other terms – and so I assume that she has fallen foul of some algorithmic penalty due to 20-30 bad directory links and 5 or so bad article links.

    As this is (I assume) an algorithmic penalty, will her position in the serps right itself once the links are removed – or do you still have to wait for a penguin refresh?

    1. The answer to your questions is yes, and maybe…and no.

      Yes, if your assumptions are correct, her position will “right itself”.

      Maybe she will have to wait for a Penguin refresh, if indeed part of what happened is locked up with aspects of Penguin that require refreshing.

      No, her position won’t “right itself” if your assumption is incorrect and it has nothing to do with Penguin (which is highly possible, considering the very slight demotion the website got).

      1. Many thanks David for your reply.

        I had assumed it was a links penalty as there were about 20 odd non-niche and non-local directory entries, many with keyword anchor text. I had read somewhere else that a site had just fallen by about 5-6 places after panda/penguin and so had assumed this was possible.

        Am I right in thinking these directories will have NO value for the customer nowadays and that non-niche and non-local directory entries should all be removed?

        Also, if a directory has been deindexed by Google (but the directory entry is still showing up in GWT and the directory is still found by typing the url into the top non-Google address box) do I still need to get the link removed? Will Google ever find out that the link has been removed if they no longer index the directory?

        Would appreciate any advice so that I can give my customer the best chance of getting the rankings back.

    2. Hey John,

      I would definitely check and see if the rankings drops corresponded to the days that the penguin refreshes happened. You could also simply be facing a drop in rankings based on losing the value of those links… knowledge that only exists inside the black box. One thing to consider would be what percentage of the overall link profile these problem links represent.

      The directory links can have some value for the customer, but there is also risk associated with it. Generally speaking the directory links can help in smaller non-competitive spaces and it provides additional citations and passes some authority where little is needed. The challenge is that most of the directories have so many outbound links, that any authority passed would be minuscule, and you run the risk of associating with some shady sites. Generally speaking, I recommend all of our clients remove links from any irrelevant directories just because they aren’t worth the risk.

      If a directory has been deindexed, that is definitely a sign to remove your link. Just because the site isn’t indexed doesn’t mean Google is ignoring the site or its content. They could easily still be spidering the site and attributing any negative link value to you, but this is all speculative. The best bet would be to remove the link, and add the site to your disavow file.

      Hope this helps!