In March 2014, we received a manual spam penalty from Google and immediately began the process of trying to get it lifted. We sourced knowledge & experience from those we knew in the industry, as well as reading the many existing guides online.
Luckily we work in an industry where people readily share useful information, meaning that there was no shortage of great guides & advice available. We’d now like to document our own experiences, sharing the resources that we found most useful and providing some first-hand advice as to how we tackled each step along the way.
Please note that as a local SEO tools provider, we don’t profess to be experts at Google penalty recovery. There are many SEO agencies that do specialize in this, but our guide simply documents our personal experience and mentions the resources we found most useful. This process worked for us but it is of course unlikely to be a fix-for-all.
You can use the anchor links to jump to different sections:
Receiving a Google manual penalty
With an algorithmic penalty such as Penguin or Panda, Google will not notify you directly. You will more than likely discover this by discovering a loss in traffic & matching the dates up with a Google algorithm change history timeline – such as this from Moz.
With a manual penalty, identifying whether or not you have been affected is fairly straightforward. There are two ways in which you will find this out:
Google sends notifications to your Search Console account (previously Webmaster Tools), so keep an eye on those messages (see above). Additionally, for those who don’t check WMT that often, ensure you’ve set-up re-direct of messages to your emails.
Missing from SERPs
You will of course notice a considerable drop in traffic if you’re no longer appearing for your brand terms. If this is the case, your first stop should be Google Search Console to check your messages – and Google Analytics to see when your traffic dropped.
Your first thought may be to delete this message and run away! Resist that urge and plough on…
Why have I been penalised by Google?
The first step is to identify the reason for the penalty. In some instances this is easier to discover than others. Following this train of thought should get you to a conclusion:
Are you link building?
Link building doesn’t automatically equal bad practice. But if you are doing it, then is it in-house or outsourced?
In our case, at the time of the penalty we were outsourcing some content marketing to an agency. If you are outsourcing and you receive a penalty, don’t automatically assume that your agency is to blame. But do speak to them right away.
If you’re doing it in-house then it’s time to access whether your processes are outdated. Link building can work in your favour but it is important to stay up to date.
See Poll: How do SEOs build their links?
Link schemes or Content networks
Participating in any link schemes will usually attract an unwanted Panda to your door. However, do consider if you’re using any services for creating & distributing content online – even if they’re legitimate – as this may be the cause of your penalty.
Read the top SEO blogs and keep up to date with recent updates and high profile sites that have been affected. In our case, there had been a lot of chatter about MyBlogGuest.com at the time of our penalty, and being a user of this service it was easy to put two and two together.
MyBlogGuest started in 2009 and grew to have 73,000 users by 2013. However, in March 2014, Founder Ann Smarty confirmed that MyBlogGuest had been penalized by Google, and as a result, many of its users also received manual penalties. Watch our exclusive TalkingLocal interview with Ann about the Google penalty here.
Although we now create all of our content in-house, in the second half of 2013 we were users of MyBlogGuest. Despite recent question marks over guest blogging in general, MyBlogGuest had a good reputation, and as we found out in our recent interview it’s also still a service that has a lot to offer – Ann clearly has some good ideas for the future. Guest blogging is a practice that can be abused much like any SEO practice, but the concept of creating unique, quality content to share with other people can surely only be positive.
Analyse your links
Now is the time to analyze your links. All of them. Even if you think that having identified the cause, you can identify a subsection of links that are to blame, it is still best practice to analyze all of your backlinks.
Even if you have not received a penalty, it is still important to regularly analyze your backlink profile
If you want to look at the links that you have in Google’s eyes, then download a list direct from Google Webmaster Tools. However, not all links to your site may be listed here so it is important to be more thorough and use a third party tool.
Find a good link audit tool
We used the Link Dtox Tool from Link Research Tools. This is a paid tool, and there are a number of price plans available on their website. There are other options & competing services available but we settled on this one, to good effect. The Dtox tool enables you to analyze all links to your website and get alerted about toxic and suspicious ones to clean up. With the basic package you get 5 points to spend on this particular tool (which means you can ‘detox’ 5 different sites).
Simply enter your URL and wait for the report to process. Then download the list and sort the data by ‘Detox’ and ‘Risk’. Now from top top to bottom you will have a list of your very worst links in the eyes of this tool – and quite possibly Google.
Links are rated as either ‘healthy’, ‘suspicious’, or ‘toxic’, whilst the risk levels range on a scale from ‘low risk’ to ‘deadly’.
Identify your bad links
It is important that you don’t just dive straight in, sort by those which are rated the worst, and then proceed to disavow all these links. This is for two reasons.
- You will still need to check these links manually. Just because these links have been identified as unhealthy does not automatically mean that they are. Many will be, but you will want to check each one to be sure.
- You cannot just disavow all the links that you want to get rid of, and then expect Google to pat you on the back. It is important to prove to the Webspam team at you have tried your hardest to remove these bad links yourself (more on this later).
Personally I checked every link that was rated toxic, suspicious, and even a good number of those rated healthy. The vast majority of these were genuinely natural links that had been acquired in entirely natural circumstances. Some others were links from archived press releases – some of which were not even created by us but simply referred to an article or study we had done. Additionally, other links were mentions from forums, comments on articles, or links from directory or bookmark sites.
Our manual penalty was because we used MyBlogGuest. However, for the sake of being as thorough as possible, we completed a full audit and removed any additional links that we thought may harm our appeal to Google. Some of the poorest links on the list will have you scratching your head wondering how they even came about – but the most important thing is to identify those that do not strictly adhere to Google Webmaster guidelines and mark them for removal.
Removing bad links
You will want to have all these links in an easy to view spreadsheet or Google doc. So strip out the columns from your third party report that you no longer need, and input new columns to record your notes, webmaster contact details & dates of removal requests. Much like below:
The next step is to search for contact details. This can be a long process as some are easier to locate than others. Consider options like Whois.net, etc. to source those email addresses. When it comes to emailing webmasters you will want to prepare a template email. I did a lot of research on the best removal requests and ultimately settled on the following:
I borrowed much of this from an excellent guide on Search Engine Watch. However, the basic tips are to keep it short, keep it polite and stick to the point.
I contacted each site on 3 occasions – 2 -3 days apart. Make sure you record all of your contact attempts & take screenshots of every outgoing email or contact form. You will need these when you submit your removal request.
It’s worth pointing out that we received a very small amount of responses webmasters. Of those that did respond, I would estimate that 70% of them wanted payment for link removal. Google have stated that you shouldn’t comply with these payment requests and I would be inclined to agree. However, we did make payments to remove about 5/6 links on some directories. For the relatively small fee ($3-5) we thought it would be best to comply in this instance. For more expensive requests we did not – and marked our spreadsheet to confirm as much.
It’s worth pointing out that removing links from MyBlogGuest was much more straightforward. We simply used the internal messaging system to do so and received a much higher response rate. This meant that a lot of those links which Google had penalized us for were removed within a matter of days.
Naturally, since we have gone through this process ourselves, I have kept a lot more in tune with similar guides and posts about best practices. Some of which I wish I had read earlier on, such as this guide from Wonderlabs. They recommend using Buzzstream as an outreach tool to streamline the process of contacting webmasters. It’s a paid service, but it will definitely save you time.
In Google’s words:
“If you believe your site’s ranking is being harmed by low-quality links you do not control, you can ask Google not to take them into account when assessing your site. You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough”.
Any links that you have been unable to remove, you will want to disavow. Remember that the disavow tool only tells Google to mark your links as ‘No-Follow’. They will still be there, they will still show up on link reports, audits, etc. All you’re asking Google to do is not take them into account when ranking your site.
Following your efforts to remove links. You will want to disavow the following websites:
- All websites that you have been unable to contact
- All websites that refuse to remove links
- All websites that have not responded to communications
Submit the file in a basic text (.txt) document, ie. notepad. I did a fair bit of research on exactly how to present this file as it is something you definitely don’t want to get wrong. Some suggest adding notes to each line but we decided against this. After all, if there is anything you want to explain, it can be done in the reconsideration request. Matt Cutts also suggested this, as reported by Search Engine Land. People often forget to uncomment out or comment out and it causes syntax errors, meaning it’s often better not to comment at all.
Submit your disavow file to this URL in Google Webmaster Tools. You must sign in with your main account (by this I mean the account that was first set-up – not any other accounts that may have permissions). It’s a fairly simple procedure but there are excellent step-by-step instructions here from LinkRisk.com.
Submitting a reconsideration request
You also submit you reconsideration request via Webmaster Tools. Use Google docs to document all of your information. If you were using an excel sheet then now is the time to convert it into a Google doc, and make sure it’s readable. Google initiates more than 400,000 manual actions every month, and processes 20,000 reconsideration requests in that same time period. It’s therefore important to make sure that yours is easy to understand.
Put all your files, including communication screenshots & spreadsheets into one folder within Google docs. Make sure you select to make these files public, ie. viewable for anyone who has the link. Otherwise your request will be dismissed automatically.
Once you’ve prepared your files you will want to submit a formal letter to Google to accompany your removal request. This again should be written in a Google doc. that you can link to.
In this you should explain the following:
- Your situation
- Link removal efforts
- Your documents explained
- The results
- The disavow file
- A summary
1. Explain to Google who you are and why you’re submitting a reconsideration request. If you are (and you should be by now) aware of the reason you have been penalised then explain that too. Be honest.
2. Explain coherently the efforts you have made to remove unnatural links. Back this up with links to your Google drive that show:
- Your links spreadsheet
- Your contact email screenshots
3. Explain your attached documents in a clear way. Give a simple description of what the document is, then provide a link to it.
4. Show your results. Tell Google how many of the unnatural links you have successfully removed.
5. Explain that you have created and submitted a disavow file to Google Webmaster Tools. Link to this also.
6. Briefly summarise everything you have included and confirm that you are not or no longer building unnatural links or participating in any link schemes. State that you sincerely hope Google reconsiders your request, and revokes the penalty.
Then sign off, preferably with a signature from a CEO or someone of equal standing within your company. This will help to show you have taken the penalty seriously.
Please not that although you refer to all of your documents & supporting media via links, you will still have to write a separate summary of all of your efforts in the required field when you submit your reconsideration request. In this field, I provided an overall summary and stated that I have included a formal written letter, as well as all my supporting documentation. Despite the fact that in theory you could just ask them to read your attached letter – I didn’t want to chance the fact that this might be the only part of my reconsideration request they read.
Once you’ve gone through this process it’s a waiting game. There are varying accounts of how long a reconsideration request should take, ranging from a few days to 3 weeks. There are even accounts of some cases taking up to 6 weeks.
If you are rejected on your first request you will unfortunately have to wait a period of time before you can submit a second one. With this in mind it is vitally important to be thorough enough to get it right first time. Don’t rush the process, let it take as long as it takes to complete a full audit on your links. I’ve heard & read about many instances where a reconsideration request has been hastily put together, only to fail. This only means that you will have to go through the whole process all over again.
We were fortunate enough to receive a positive reply from Google after just 2 days, which was far quicker than we could have expected. And although our rankings did not return to 100% straight away, they have improved over the weeks since the penalty was lifted.
It’s important to also note that if you’ve disavowed a large number of links, then you are unlikely to retrieve ALL of your previous positions – simply because you’ve told Google to discount a number of links that were previously being considered. However, at least you now know that your link profile is clean, and that you can continue to keep it that way with legitimate practices.
I hope that if you are having a similar issue then you receive the same outcome as us. Please also use the comments to add any resources that you’ve found useful going through a similar process.
Got a different viewpoint on this subject or some useful insights you want to share? We’re interested in publishing unique content written by smart marketeers on our blog. Contact us with your details & ideas and we’ll get back to you ASAP!