I’m thankful for Penguin Recoveries During Panda Updates, for Manual Link Removals, and for the Disavow Tool [Case Study]

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As Thanksgiving approaches, there are a few additional things for me to be thankful for this year. And as you can tell by the title of this post, they have to do with cute black and white animals who like to ravage websites. 🙂

Penguin Recovery During Panda Update

In August I wrote a case study about a very interesting Penguin recovery.  A client of mine, who was hit by both Panda and Penguin during the April 2012 algorithm sandwich, finally ended up recovering from Penguin, but during a Panda update.  That struck me as odd, although I wasn’t necessarily complaining. I simply had some questions for Google regarding the timing of the recovery.  For example, was there a Penguin update during the Panda update?  Are Panda and Penguin connected somehow?  And does Penguin bubble up to Panda?  I never received answers to my questions, but I was happy that my client recovered.  So I moved on.

Well, here we are three months later, and it happened again.  I have another client that was hammered by Penguin on April 24th, losing 75% of their Google organic search traffic overnight.  They contacted me in July to try and right the ship, and I started helping them in early August.  In this post, I’ll explain more about how I helped them, their progress over time, and how they eventually recovered from Penguin during a Panda update.  You can see their initial drop in traffic below.

On 4/24, They Experienced The Classic Penguin Drop in Traffic:

Penguin Drop April 2012

Two Important Points As You Read This Case Study – Panda and The Disavow Tool
On November 5th, my client recovered from Penguin.  That was incredible news, but if you’re checking the dates of algorithm updates in your head right now, you’ll realize that November 5thwasn’t the latest Penguin update.  It was the latest Panda update.  Yes, that means my client recovered from Penguin during a Panda update (and this was the second time I had seen that happen).  So once again, I had questions about the connection between Panda and Penguin.

But this case study isn’t just about Penguin recoveries during Panda updates.  Since the disavow tool was released in October, we were able to supplement our link removal efforts by using Google’s new tool.  And I’m glad it was released.  More on that soon.

Below, I’m going to cover my client’s recovery story in detail.  I believe there are some important points that can help webmasters who have been hit by Penguin, but who may still be struggling to recover.  Also, it’s important to note that my client was nice enough to let me write this blog post documenting their situation.  They definitely understand that their own experiences can help others impacted by Penguin.  I’m thankful for that too.  Let’s begin.

A Troubling Inbound Link Analysis
I’ve done a lot of work with websites hit by Penguin since April 24th.  If you are interested, you can read my previous posts covering the topic, including Penguin 1.0 findings, 7 More Penguin Findings from the Over Optimization Front Lines, and Panda or Penguin, How to Know Which Algorithm Update Impacted Your Website.  All three posts contain important insights, based on my analysis of 140+ websites hit by Penguin.

When reviewing a site hit by Penguin, it usually doesn’t take long to find a troubling link profile.  You typically find a high percentage of exact match anchor text leading to a site from a number of spammy websites, directories, link networks, etc.  In extreme cases, the entire link profile is filled with problematic links…

Realizing the Potential Loss of Link Power
My client’s link profile was in bad shape.  Unfortunately, some of their previous linkbuilding tactics led to a few thousand spammy links.  After heavily analyzing their inbound links, I realized that about 70% of their links were categorized as unnatural.  In case you’re wondering, I used a number of tools to identify and analyze their links, including Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO Tools, and of course, Google Webmaster Tools.

The Percentage of Unnatural Links That Needed to be Addressed:

Percentage of Spammy Links

Once the link analysis was completed, I knew that a few thousand links would need to be removed in order for my client to recover.  And I also knew that the spammy links comprised a large percentage of their total links.  That meant they may not have much search power when, and if, they recovered.  Yes, we had a lot of work to do.

Matt Cutts and the Disavow Tool
It’s important to note that the disavow tool was not released at this point.  I knew it was coming soon (based on Matt Cutts explaining this in early June), and I explained this to my client.  Regardless, I wanted to tackle as many link removals as we could manually.  In addition, we had no idea when the tool was actually coming.  It could have launched within weeks, or it could have been months.  We just didn’t know.

Excel Spreadsheet Madness
I love Excel.  It can be an SEO’s best friend.  But for Penguin, you need to be prepared for Excel madness, working with many spreadsheets and worksheets, with thousands of URL’s to analyze.  Yes, it can get monotonous.  And that’s exactly what happened in this case.

With thousands of links to check, I implemented a multi-phase approach.  I wanted several sets of eyeballs on the links, including key people at my client’s company.  What I might see as potentially spammy, they might see as an older and valuable link (based on knowledge of their own industry).  I’m aggressive with my Penguin approach, but I don’t like collateral damage.  And that’s especially the case when my client didn’t have the luxury of many quality links.  I didn’t want them to lose any “good” links.

Our final spreadsheets started to take form.  We had links flagged for removal, links flagged as possible removals, and then links flagged as safe.  All spreadsheets were sent to my client for final review.  Once we had the green light from my client, we were ready to rock and roll with link removal requests.

Manual Link Removals
Now that our spreadsheets were ready, and spammy links flagged, I helped my client craft an email for link removal requests.   By the way, I’m a firm believer that the company hit by Penguin should send the link removal requests, and not the consultant or agency.  I feel it’s the proper way to go.  So, my client moved fast and sent link removal requests out to many webmasters.  Now we just needed to hear back from them and hopefully see some movement with link takedowns.

Some webmasters responded and took the links down.  Some questioned why we wanted the links taken down, and my guess is their reaction was based on receiving other requests too.  And of course, some webmasters just didn’t respond at all.  I was completely expecting this, but hoped we could impact a good amount of unnatural links with this first wave of requests.

Phase I Results: Our initial link removal requests took down ~20-25% of the spammy links.  Not bad, but not good enough.  I knew we needed to have more links removed.

Penguin Links Removed

Phase II – Hello WhoIs Data
The second phase involved tracking down any information we could about the domain owners who didn’t respond.  Note, many of these domains were spammy directories, so we knew we wouldn’t track down every person in control of the websites.

A modified spreadsheet was created with contact information we could find via whois data.  Then my client contacted those domain owners via the newly-found information.  This resulted in another 10-15% of the links being taken down.  At this point, we had ~40% of the spammy links removed.  To me, this was progress, but still wasn’t good enough.

During this process, we documented which links were removed, which domains were contacted, which ones responded, and which ones didn’t respond at all.   We would need this data for the reconsideration request, which I cover next.

Hunting Down Contact Information via WhoIs Data:

Analyzing WhoIs Data

Reconsideration Request Filed
Even when a client is hit algorithmically by Penguin, I’m a firm believer that you should get your hard work into the hands of Google employees.  So, similar to what I did during the “March of the Penguins” case study I mentioned earlier, I helped my client prepare a thorough reconsideration request.

The reconsideration request fully documented how the problematic links originated, the way we identified all of the spammy links, the process we used to remove the links (including phase one and phase two), and a sincere apology that my client set up the links in the first place.  Less than a week later, we heard back from Google with the standard message, “no manual spam actions found”.  I fully expected this, but again, I wanted Google to understand the work we had done, and that 40% of the spammy links were removed.

Google Responds with “No Manual Spam Actions Found”:

Penguin Reconsideration Request

Planning Next Steps
So there we were.  We did everything we could to remove the spammy links, but only removed 40% of them successfully.  We filed the reconsideration request, which was smart, but I wasn’t sure if 40% was enough for my client to recover.  We needed another Penguin update so we could see if our hard work led to success.  Or so I thought we needed a Penguin update.  More on that soon.

The Disavow Tool Launches
When I first spoke with my client in July, I explained that Google would soon launch a disavow tool, but that the date of the launch was uncertain.  It could be in a week, or it could be in a year, and that we shouldn’t wait…  And as I documented above, we worked hard at manually removing spammy links.

For our specific situation, the disavow tool launched at the perfect time.  We had already worked our tails off manually requesting link removals, hunting down whois data, and we did remove ~40% of the links.  But now we had a mechanism for disavowing the rest of the unnatural links (the ones we could not remove manually).  Now we were ready to rock and roll with the disavow tool.

So, we crafted yet another version of a link spreadsheet, but this time focused on links we wanted to disavow.  We knew we had to be extra careful with this list, since we were essentially telling Google to ignore those links, and that the URL’s and domains included in the file were categorized as “spammy” (at least to us).  We didn’t want to disavow any good links, and that’s especially the case since my client didn’t have many good links to begin with.

Once again, I had several sets of eyeballs on this list in order to make sure it was disavow-ready.  And of course, my client gave final approval of all links included in the disavow file.  After receiving final approval, I was ready to disavow the final list of links.  It’s worth noting that using the disavow tool was relatively straight-forward and the process didn’t take very long.  I walked through the process of uploading our disavow file, clicked submit, and the disavow process was completed.

Submitting a List of Links via the Disavow Tool:

Google Disavow Tool

The Recovery – Dates are Important, Especially Panda Birthdays

So, we submitted the disavow file on 10/26, not knowing exactly what would come next.  I knew it could take a few weeks for Google to process the file and for us to see an impact, so I moved forward with other SEO projects for my client.  For example, we decided to move forward with fleshing out a strong content generation strategy and linkbuilding strategy (which I knew my client would need to build more high quality content, strong links, etc.)  Nobody involved was thrilled at this stage, especially since rankings and traffic hadn’t rebounded yet.

But then November 5th came along.  That was the day that Panda 21 launched.  Needless to say, I was curious to see if Panda would help Penguin like it did for my client that recovered this summer.  I quickly started analyzing my client’s analytics reporting to see if there was a change.  And since Google Webmaster Tools lags a bit, I needed to wait a little longer to see the impact on impressions and clicks according to Google.

When checking my client’s analytics reporting on the 5th, I noticed an interesting bump in Google organic search traffic.  My client was now ranking for keywords that they weren’t ranking for on the 4th.  Although I was excited, I couldn’t believe I was seeing another potential Penguin recovery during a Panda update…  Now I needed to see if it was a sustained increase, or a fluke.   And, I was definitely eager to see what Google Webmaster Tools would tell us impressions and click-wise.

The First Signs of Recovery from Penguin:

Penguin Recovery November 5th 2012

Checking my client’s analytics reporting over the next several days revealed a sustained increase from Google organic traffic.  In addition, Google Webmaster Tools revealed that impressions jumped 131% and clicks jumped 113% in the days after the Panda update (11/5 through 11/12).   So I had confirmation that my client had recovered from Penguin during a Panda update.

Google Webmaster Tools Showing the Increase in Impressions and Clicks:

Penguin Recovery Google Webmaster Tools

Search Power Regained, but Not Full Power
I fully expected that if my client recovered, it wouldn’t be to the level they experienced prior to getting hit in April.  Let’s face it, they shouldn’t have been ranking that well…  The spammy links were positively impacting their organic search rankings.  Now that Penguin hit, and that they had to remove a significant portion of their link profile (for the right reasons), they surely would experience less search power.

And that’s exactly what happened.  They are ranking much better for a wider number of keywords, but not for some money terms.  They have their SEO platform back (without a Penguin inhibiting their efforts), but simply don’t have the power they once had.

Friendly Pandas, Recovering Penguins, and The Disavow Tool
So once again, a friendly Panda helped my client recover from Penguin.  It’s strange, but true.  And since this is the second time, I tend to think there’s a connection.  I’m not sure how Panda and Penguin are tied together, but I believe they are.  So, if you have been algorithmically hit by Penguin, don’t feel as if you need to wait for the next Penguin update.  Two of my clients had a helping hand from Panda, and both recovered just fine.

As for the disavow tool, it works.  I used it, and provided a thorough list of URL’s to disavow.  And ten days later, when combined with the manual link removals we performed, my client recovered.  Sure, they aren’t at the levels they used to be, but they shouldn’t have been at those levels in the first place… Remember, we removed many spammy links that were helping them prior to Penguin.

Summary – Thanksgiving Dinner Without The Penguins
The process I covered in this case study was extremely tedious and frustrating at certain stages, but it worked in the end.  It just takes time, the right people working on the project, the right tools at your disposal, and the right expectations.

So, as Thanksgiving quickly approaches, it’s great to know there will be one empty seat at the dinner table this year. And it’s a small seat, equipped with ice, some krill, and a copy of Happy Feet.  I don’t know where that Penguin will be this Thanksgiving, but I’m glad it won’t be near my client.  And I’m thankful for that.  🙂

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  • Van83

    Hi, great article!!
    I found al lot of informations about this new tool and how to use it.
    I tried and i try now to use the diavow link, but when i try to uplad csv file the button is disable!

    Any idea about that ??

    Thank you!

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you found the case study helpful.

      You shouldn’t be uploading a csv file. It needs to be a plain text file. 🙂 You should include one URL per line, and you can include a domain directive (to disavow entire domains if needed). I hope that helps.

      • Van83

        Thnak for reply. So i can upload an .rtf or .txt file !? right!?

        But the problem is that the button upload is disable. If i click it doesn’t show me the window to chose the file to upload. My question is if there is some step to do before entering the tool or a specific reason why my button is disable 🙁

        Thank in advance!

      • Glenn Gabe

        Right, you should use a .txt file. And you need to be an “owner” of the site in Google Webmaster Tools. Make sure that’s the case before trying to use the disavow tool for the domain in question.

  • Jack

    Hi, do you have sent a reconsideration request after using the Disavow Tool?

    • Glenn Gabe

      Hi Jack. No, we didn’t file a reconsideration request after using the disavow tool. We only filed one after the initial two phases (when we manually were removing links). I hope that helps.

  • Elijah Clark

    Good catch. Based on your findings it seems to go with what I’ve been working on with my coworkers about penguins and panda that I don’t think google is realizing. Whenever they come out with a new update it voids the old update. They aren’t working together. They are just dismissing the other. While a penguins may destroy your ranks, the panda will simply put it back to where it was before the penguins and then apply its own set of rules. I think it’s a glitch on googles part or they are just purposely making marketers run and clean up as the rules are only temporary. If you want, go ahead and check that theory because I’ve been doing the same. Instead of doing removal strategies, I just wait them out and then all is back to normal. It’s been working fine using that method. With your method, while you may think you’re doing something right, you are only being put on a chase by google for no reason considering things will eventually be voided once the new update comes.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Elijah. I definitely don’t think that’s the case… I’ve helped a number of clients with both Panda and Penguin, and newer updates aren’t simply trumping older ones. For example, this client was still impacted through several algo updates, including both Panda and Penguin. It was only when we removed the bad links, and then disavowed the links, that they recovered.

  • Azhar

    Nice Article,
    I also got Good information.
    Thank you.

  • Darryl Manco


    As a SEO marketing partner, I’ve been using a similar approach as diagramed with my coworkers. For identified spammy links, a trend when searching down site owners I notice is the use of privacy proxy as well as a form of link hostage when contact was successful. What I discern though is that the updates are/were similar to corralling with a respite. Penguin corralled while panda allowed for respite. Some on the other hand were vise versa. Disavow is merely a tool, and it does not adjudicate spammy links; with that said, misapplication has yet to rear its ugliness as that would be a given within Google’s latitude to apply such. It’s enjoyable to read that others are noticing trends too, and sharing how they are using disavow in their new mix.

  • Robert Ramirez

    I noticed this same phenomena with one of my client’s sites earlier this year. I thought it was a fluke, but after reading this and seeing some penguin recoveries first hand, I think I see the correlation. Although penguin is a link based algorithm update, the penalty occurs on content. Specifically content that the links are pointing to. It’s not a site-wide penalty. It’s based on content on a page by page basis. (I noticed some pages escaped Penguins wrath and ranked well even after the penalty).

    When you remove the bad links (or replace them with new high quality links), the increase in ranking occurs when either the CONTENT or the LINK PROFILE are reconsidered. I believe if a Penguin update would have happened first, you would have seen a correlating ranking increase.

    Penguin DEVALUES links. Think of every spammy link as a negative number that used to have a positive value attached to it. These negative links drag down the overall value of your linking profile. BY removing those links, you remove the negative values which in turn re-establishes the positive value of your existing link profile. The removal of links happens in real time, but is not considered until a refresh is run. Either Penguin or Panda. Hope that makes sense. I’m pretty confident this is the case.

  • Johann CR

    Very interesting post. I’ve observed the same thing on a website and wasn’t sure why since I worked both content and linkcleaning…

    Although I disagree with you on the role of the disavow request because 10days surely wasn’t near e nough time for google to recrawl the most obscure and spammy links.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Johan. Interesting to hear you saw a similar case. Now that I’ve witnessed two Penguin recoveries during Panda updates, I’m convinced there is a connection. 🙂

      Regarding the disavow tool, I fully believe this helped the situation. In my experience 40% removal was not good enough. More needed to be done, and the only way we accomplished that was via the disavow tool.

      • Johann

        One possible connection could be that the penguin penalty also penalizes some content (targeted by spammy links), or the whole content of the site if the homepage was the main target of those links.
        Then when it’s lifted, the content can have a better ranking for Panda’s algorithm.
        It still is speculation though. What do you think ?

        Sure the disavow tool may have helped, but
        1) I’m still convinced only a limited number of links were probably recrawled and taken into account in this timeframe (how much is impossible to guess though).
        2) In my case I didn’t use the tool so I had the same result without it. I admit that each case is different so it’s not a definitive and reliable conclusion.

        Anyway, it’s always enlightening to compare experiences, and with enough of them we could gain more insight into it all.

  • Brad Dalton

    This proves that negative SEO and bad links work which is totally against what Google state when they say there’s no way for a competitor to hurt your rankings.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Brad, my previous case study (March of the Penguin) provides more backing for negative SEO tactics. They were hit by links set up prior to them owning the domain. This case study doesn’t really prove that, although I see your point about the disavow tool in general.

  • sameer sharma

    Hi Glenn Thanks for sharing nice write ups.. But can you please share your thoughts on, how we can find the un-natural links . Thanks for your help if you can address my problem

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks Sameer. That can be an entire post! To start, I would review all inbound links reported in Google Webmaster Tools, and then supplement that data with Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO Tools.

      Regarding identifying the spammy links, you have to analyze the URL’s to better understand their quality. Some you will identify in 5 seconds, while others might take a little longer. And knowledge of the specific industry is important too (for certain cases). I hope that helps.

  • Kerry Dye

    Nice write up Glenn, and it’s amazing that you have insight into 140 Penguin hit domains, I just haven’t had the access to that many as yet to tie the data together like this. And thanks to your client for letting you share, it is really helpful for the community.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks Kerry. I appreciate it. From the second Penguin was launched, I dove into websites hit by the algo update. Over time, I’ve analyzed a ton of sites hit by Penguin. That’s why I wrote the posts mentioned above, which document important insights I’ve learned based on my analysis.

      And regarding my client, you’re right. They were awesome to let me write up the case study. There’s a lot you can learn from the process…. It’s a tough and tedious process at that. 🙂

  • Ariel

    After loading the file into the disawov tool, do you started to see lower links in WMT? If after one month from the loading of the file the links from the domains on the file were not reduced, what could be the problem?
    Thank you so much.

  • SEO NI


    I think there was a Penguin update on 5th November according to here: http://searchengineland.com/google-penguin-update-3-135527

    • Glenn Gabe

      That was October 5th, not November. 🙂

  • SEO NI

    Yes sorry, I was in a bit of a rush earlier and read that incorrectly. That was a very interesting article!

  • Marie Haynes

    Thanks for this post and congrats on your recovery. It’s still possible that this recovery had nothing to do with Penguin. There was a Panda refresh before and after Penguin (Apr 19 and Apr 27) and it is possible that the site drop was due to Panda. Then, the recovery on Nov 5 would make sense.

    Did you make changes to on-site quality as well?

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Marie. This was definitely not Panda-related. The drop was specifically on the 24th, and the link profile was filled with unnatural links. In addition, the site had never gotten hit by Panda during any of the previous updates.

      It was Penguin, and the only area I addressed was their inbound link situation. Once we went through the process documented above, the site recovered. Also, this was the second time I’ve seen a Penguin recovery during a Panda update. There is definitely a connection. 🙂

  • Olivia Brown

    23rd Penguin update hit confirmed!
    Any news?

  • Marina

    The worst thing about this update is that it seems that each new no changes that destroy all the work done in the past. Anything new?

  • Matt Kinsella

    Did your client get the message in webmaster tools about unnatural or spammy links? My site definitely took a serious hit on the 24th of April but I didn’t get the message about unnatural links. I have had a look at the help info on the Google disavow tool and it states unless I have received one of these messages then disavowing links probably won’t help my site. However I have a strong feeling my penguin hit is due to a large amount of blog commenting I did at the start of last year.

    I did a reconsideration request etc. as you did and got the same response from Google as you got. I only have about 400 external followed links and 450 nofollow links so it wouldn’t take too long to disavow a large chunk of the blog comment links but I don’t want to do it unless it is definitely necessary. I suppose it could have nothing to do with these links but I don’t know. I have been through my site and removed low quality content and cleaned up generally so I am still leaning towards the bad links but no message in webmaster tools….?

  • Brad Dalton

    I doubt it will do anything as i disavowed a thrid of my links and nothing happened,

  • Chris Ebbs

    Hi Glen,

    I’ve been looking for others that might have seen penguin like recoveries/drops after recent Panda updates. Thanks for sharing this info. I can confirm that I’ve seen similar. Considering that it’s a long time since the last separate Penguin update I’m considering that Penguin and Panda might now be rolled into one . Interested to hear how many other SEOs you’ve spoken to have seen the same thing?

    • Glenn Gabe

      Great to hear you have seen the same thing. I definitely think they are connected somehow, but I don’t think they are rolled into one update. If you want to share any information about that specific case, definitely email me via my contact page (you can find a link to my site in my bio). Thanks Chris.

  • Kelvin

    I think I need to re-add my site back into GWT, then use the disavow tool.
    A little site cleaning as well should do the trick.
    The good thing about Google is that they are quick, so if I do my part I ‘may’ see some positive changes within a week or two.

  • Wesley Warren


    Great article, I was wondering, do you think that after doing link cleanup and submitting a disavow list, that a site would have to wait for an update to see a difference?

    I just completed a lot of link cleanup and submitted a disavow list, and I am wondering if I will have to wait until another Penguin or Panda algorithm update is released, or do you think I just have to wait until Google goes through it’s normal routine link profile evaluations (like it’s always doing to evaluate site rankings).

    Since I am positive there is a Penguin penalty on the site, I fear I might have to wait a little longer to get out of the doghouse.

    • Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Wesley. If you were hit algorithmically by Penguin, then you will need to wait for another update to occur. Note, I’ve now seen multiple instances of Penguin recoveries during Panda updates, so that’s definitely possible. I hope that helps.

  • Stephen Olson

    Looks like someone needs to create a database of spammy sites so that an SEO specialist could run a clients link list and compare it to a verified list of bad link sites. I had to do this for another client who had over three thousand back links, and had to go one by one to figure out which ones to get rid of. The only way to narrow it down was by page rank but that was not always accurate.

  • Walter Abolsky

    Hi Glenn. My website was hit in may-june 2012 and i was working with the company who promissed to help me untill now – no results. Please, contact me. I need help and sounds like you the one who can do it. Please , let me know if could work with my site.

  • SIngha

    I agree with Gabe, Our site goes down hit by penguin but recover after 15 march 2013 after panda updates.Again hit by penguin 22 may 2013 and now we are there where we was before 15 march 2013 as now we started removing spam link as our content is unique and very strong as we are update content on regular basis and soon we will get backlink from a highly trusted domain.Hope once any updates come our site will recover soon.We learnt a lesson from this that SEO must be natural.Go for quality not quantity.But content need to be very strong as we publish 7-10 unique a article on regular basis hope google will love us again….

  • David Faltz


    Let me start off by saying I enjoyed reading this piece, and have respect and admiration for what you do as expert in the field. My only question revolves around the impact the disavow tool might have had on the recovery?

    Since there were no updates of either Panda or Penguin between the manual removal of links, and the use of the disavow tool. it is very well possible, that your client would have had the same recovery on November 5th, regardless of its use.

    I have no issue with the fact, that it was only 11 days later, because I would imagine that when you disavow a link, that Google may or could immediately stop counting it. It is not like that have to go to each site, and see if it has been remove from the pages, so crawling those sites should be unnecessary in that process.

    There seems to be many people divided on when, or if to use the tool at all, unless the penalty is of manual nature. Again, thank for sharing with us, and I look forward to reading more about your exploits in the future.

  • Cao Anh

    Hi Glenn, my site had same problem, can you help me recovery?