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The Road to Manual Penalty Recovery: An Anonymous Case Study

Emma North

by Emma North on 15th November 2013

The Road To Manual Penalty RecoveryGoogle’s manual spam penalties have become a real problem for webmasters in the last two years, with thousands of websites seeing their pages or entire site drop out of the search engine rankings altogether.

It is well accepted that getting these manual penalties revoked is no easy feat, with some websites suggesting that recovering from a manual penalty is close to impossible. However, with first-hand experience of a lengthy but rewarding recovery process, I have put together this post to share what I have learnt and how we succeed in receiving this magnificent message in Google Webmaster Tools…

Reconsideration Request - Manual Spam Action Revoked

In the beginning there were Unnatural Inbound Links

At the very beginning of 2013 we began comprehensive backlink analysis for a new, sizeable ecommerce client who had just received this fateful Unnatural Inbound Links warning message in Google Webmaster Tools:

Unnatural Inbound Links Warning in Webmaster Tools

As manual penalty notices go, this was and is actually one of the least impactful and the “targeted action” supposedly only affects certain pages of the site found to have unnatural links referring back to them.

The search for clues: ranking drops or reduced organic traffic?

Needless to say, one of the first things we checked was organic search engine performance, looking for traffic dips and fluctuations either site-wide or on specific pages to try and diagnose any damage caused. Unfortunately there was not a great deal to go on, as January always saw far fewer visits and sales after the Christmas shopping season. In addition, continuous growth over the previous 12 months meant that year-on-year comparisons didn’t shed much light either, with only minor fluctuations overall and on all major pages.

We also ran the site through several penalty tracker tools including Panguin and Fruition. Unfortunately in this case, these still didn’t highlight anything we didn’t already know.

So although we couldn’t get as much insight as we’d hoped from our thorough analysis of Google Analytics, the good news was that the damage definitely seemed minimal. There was no evidence of any new or unexpected ranking drops, deindexed pages or lost organic traffic. So it would seem that Google’s message was right: they had only taken “very targeted action” and that action luckily appeared to be on very insignificant pages.

Backlink analysis

My next step was to collect as much backlink data for the website as the internet allowed. By running the site through countless link analysis tools including:

From each of these tools I exported numerous spreadsheet reports including total discovered links, referring domains, referring IPs and backlink anchor text. I collated each of these spreadsheets as tabs in one master workbook and formatted ready for analysis.

Then came the hard work…

I spent many hours reviewing the website’s backlinks, looking for anything which had the potential to cause the problem; any link that was even remotely unnatural or outside of best practice guidelines. It didn’t take me long. The types of links I was looking for (and subsequently found nearly all of) included:

  • Followed links from advertorials, sponsored posts and press releases
  • Backlinks from low quality or irrelevant sites
  • Backlinks from sites with a low Majestic Trust Flow and few backlinks of their own
  • Unnatural overuse of followed exact-match keyword anchor text
  • A large number of backlinks from the same domain
  • A large number of referring domains from the same IP address

For every link I reviewed, I marked my analysis down in the master spreadsheet, taking down the contact details for any sites I wanted to get in touch with for link removal or nofollow requests.

After reviewing links from every referring domain the backlink analysis tools found, it was time to take action.

Link removals, nofollow requests and disavow

After carrying out my analysis I had a list of required actions which generally included getting links removed, nofollowed or disavowed. I had collected the contact details of sites referring unnatural links wherever possible, usually either on site or via a WhoIs lookup.

I then began the process of contacting webmasters to request that the link was either removed or nofollowed, depending on the type of link and the issue with it. I kept my master spreadsheet updated with the action I’d taken, any responses received and any changes to the link that were completed by the webmaster. This spreadsheet would act as proof of the hard work and effort we put in to clean up our link profile if required by Google.

Lastly, I compiled a disavow text file to include all the unnatural links which could not be removed or nofollowed. This was then uploaded to Google Webmaster Tools for both the www and non-www versions of the site for safety.

Reconsideration Request… Denied

If I have learnt one thing from this whole process it is that Google wants you to go to a great deal of effort and spend a great deal of time fixing the mess you made. They want you to be honest in reconsideration requests, own up to the mistakes you made in the past and solemnly swear that you have changed your ways.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the first reconsideration request was denied, claiming the site still “violates Google’s quality guidelines”:

Reconsideration Request Response - Site Violates Quality Guidelines

Nor is it all that surprising that one month later, after carrying out more backlink analysis, being more brutal with links and disavowing more domains, the second reconsideration request also failed.

In fact, this process took a considerable amount of time, effort and commitment. In total we spent more than ten months and submitted more than ten reconsideration requests before we were successful.

In this time, I reviewed more and more links and domains as new ones were discovered by the link analysis tools. This included some new links but also some older and potentially unnatural links that the tools failed to detect in previous analysis. Don’t forget, it’s thought that these tools never discover more than around 30% of a website’s backlinks and it’s very likely that Google discovers a whole lot more.

The removal of site-wide links

In the end, I believe the some of the most important link removals were of followed site-wide links. There had been a relatively small number of these blogroll links, only a dozen or so, which I had struggled to get removed for many months. This led to a constant influx of new links, sometimes hundreds or even thousands a day, as the sites added new pages, therefore creating additional backlinks from the template site-wide links.

This constant discovery of new links was not helping our cause, as we were stating in our reconsideration requests how much effort we had made and how we were now committed to honest, ethical and natural practices. It was almost as though Google received our reconsideration request, took one look at an inconsistent chart detailing our newest backlinks and said “yeah, right”.

After numerous attempts to make contact with these sites, I was finally able to get the site-wide links removed. A few weeks later our new link discovery charts started to even out, with a much more natural number of new links appearing each day of around 20-100 rather than 20-2,000.

Manual spam action revoked!

Finally, after more than ten reconsideration requests and more than ten months after our first one, that magical message appeared. Here it is again to remind you that your hard work is not a thankless task in the end:

Reconsideration Request - Manual Spam Action Revoked

So, what changed after?

You’ll remember me starting this post with my Google Analytics analysis, finding that organic rankings and traffic had not taken any notable nose-dives when the penalty first hit all those months ago. After all, the manual spam penalty involved “very targeted action” right?

Despite all this, the revoking of the manual penalty saw vast improvements in overall organic search performance. Not just gains for just one page or even a handful of pages with particularly dodgy links, but for the vast majority of the site and a great many target keyword rankings:

Organic Traffic Increase After Manual Spam Penalty Revoked

Here are some of the changes we saw post-recovery:

  • In the month of recovery, organic traffic saw a massive 51% increase.
  • The increase in traffic did not just come from previously deindexed or low-ranking pages – the top ten organic landing pages climbed too and brought in more traffic than before.
  • Organic traffic in the month of recovery hit an all-time high, despite usually being very much an average month for business.
  • Rankings for key pages all climbed several places on page one.
  • The number of unique organic landing pages per month increased by more than 60, equating to more than a 6% increase and the most seen in over 12 months.

Key Takeaways

So, after all of the hard work was completed, the penalty was lifted and organic search performance significantly increased, what have I learnt? And what can you take away to apply to your own recovery process?

Well firstly and perhaps most importantly, I believe the key factors in getting a reconsideration request accepted are:

  • Numerous requests – don’t expect your first request to be accepted. Even if you’re putting in a great deal of work and effort, the number of requests you submit will still likely hit double figures.
  • Time between requests – don’t keep submitting reconsideration requests as soon as you get a site still “violates Google’s quality guidelines” message as Google expects you to spend more time resolving the issues that it still sees.
  • Stop focusing on building new links – if Google sees that lots of new links are still being built while you’re supposed to be cleaning things up, your request is likely to fail at the first hurdle. Use Majestic SEO regularly to see what new links are being discovered and iron out any spikes as quickly as possible.
  • Be especially aware of site-wide links – these can make it appear as though an unnatural amount of new links are built every day if the site adds new pages. Get these links removed as a priority to manage unnatural spikes.

In addition, I also believe that targeted action doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any broader or even site-wide effects on rankings. There may only be one or a handful of problem links and the problem may only affect one or a handful of linked-to pages, but that is not always the case.

Additional Resources

For more information on how to carry out comprehensive backlink analysis, please see my earlier post on how to recover from a Google ranking penalty or download our Complete Guide to Backlink Analysis and Removal whitepaper. You may also want to check out my video on the manual penalty recovery process from May.

Get in touch!

Have you managed to reverse a manual spam penalty yet? Do you have any tips and tricks to help speed up this usually-lengthy process? Please feel free to leave a comment below to share your advice or questions!

Emma North

Emma North

Emma has more than 5 years’ digital marketing experience and has worked on dozens of websites in a wide range of industries. She has a passion for both SEO and PPC and is driven by the need to develop her digital skills and knowledge. She is always exploring innovative solutions for new problems encountered in the ever-changing digital world.

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  • anon 16th November 2013

    Why were you struggling with sitewide removal?
    Google support whole domain removal for disavow


    # example.com removed most links, but missed these
    # Contacted owner of shadyseo.com on 7/1/2012 to
    # ask for link removal but got no response

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 18th November 2013

      Hi there. Not struggling with site-wide removal, although getting the links removed took time. My point here is that disavowing alone was not enough and in the end the only thing that changed between our last failed reconsideration request and our accepted one was that we had the site-wide links removed. This meant that we weren’t getting a continuous flow of “new” links as the sites added new pages.

      We had disavowed hundreds of domains, including those with the site-wide links but unlike the domains with a few unnatural links, advertorials, etc. getting the site-wide ones removed had the biggest impact.

      Reply to this comment

  • Chris Jones 18th November 2013

    Good comprehensive artilcle. Yes we have had some success in getting manual actions removed, would you believe we even managed to reverse a inbound links manual action for a site in the payday loan niche.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 19th November 2013

      Thanks Chris. And wow, that is impressive! This study is most certainly not for a payday loans site. That must have taken some effort. Did you find it took a lot of time/removals/disavows, etc? Was your experience with a site like that much different from mine here?

      Reply to this comment

      • Chris Jones 19th November 2013

        We succeeded on the 2nd reconsideration request, it was a combination of link removal, link disavow and getting all the brokers to nofollow their links to our client. Also created a non indexable page for brokers to link to. In total it took around 8 weeks and they went straight back onto page 1.

    • Emma North

      Emma North 22nd November 2013

      Good work! I like having a non-indexable page for linking back to; the difficulty is generally getting people to do it.

      Reply to this comment

  • Colin 20th November 2013

    Great resource. Thanks, Emma. Your takeaways are exactly what “the doctor ordered”, for manual penalty recovery. My first advice for website owners in the face of such a penalty is to *stop* building links, or even pages, until some semblance of “law and order” has been reached.

    I haven’t yet had to recover large e-commerce sites from a penalty. These are the kinds of sites that have no option but to create new content daily. I also haven’t worked with sites in the PayDay Loan arena, like Chris. No doubt those are more challenging to recover from.

    I am condensing the contents of your whitepaper and the post series on Penalties and Recoveries into a ready to use crib sheet, that I can refer to often.


    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 20th November 2013

      Thanks Colin, that’s good to hear. I completely agree regarding new links, although as you say it isn’t always possible.

      I also think different types of websites and industries would require different techniques and levels of effort to recover from a manual penalty but will follow the same general process.

      Reply to this comment

  • James Swede 28th November 2013

    Thansk Emma

    Very useful for us on 2 fronts – not ashamed to admit we have had a problem. The 2 great takeaways from your post are :-

    1. multiple requests – we have also had this issue and still not clear – we have removed or disavowed at least 95% of all possible bad ;links, but it is totally clear that with a manual penalty, google will make it difficult, so your post gives us confidence we are almost there.

    2. recovery – there is so much speculation out there and doomsayers who say that once you’ve been hit, even if it relates to legacy stuff going back years (we changed our approach as soon as penguin came in) you never get back. We still have a lot of good links, so are encouraged by what you say.

    Also, a word of possible speculative advice – I believe we were manually reviewed because we disavowed several hundred domains in one go and that this may have flagged us for review. Would recommend that disavow lists are filed in stages and small batches, especially as you can update the disavow request when you want. Just my guess on what happened to us.

    All in all, thanks.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 28th November 2013

      Thanks for your feedback James, that’s really interesting. It’s perfectly feasible that disavowing many domains at once could “flag” a site to Google but in my experience I wouldn’t think it’s likely. I often disavow hundreds of domains in one review, penalty or no penalty, and have never then received a penalty. But that’s just me and it’s certainly a theory to consider.

      Regarding multiple requests and time, keep faith! It does take both time and work, and sometimes lots of both.

      Bear in mind that you might not see instant results when the penalty is lifted. In this example I saw fantastic improvements but dodgy links tends to mean Penguin too which could take longer to improve.

      Good luck!

      Reply to this comment

  • John Britsios 6th December 2013

    Nice write up, but I fully disagree with your statement:

    “Numerous requests – don’t expect your first request to be accepted. Even if you’re putting in a great deal of work and effort, the number of requests you submit will still likely hit double figures.”

    That is not correct.

    A new customer requested our support on a manual notification on the 14th of August 2013.

    We did the required work and submitted the first and only re-consideration request on the 25th of August 2013 and on the 10th of September 2013 we got the reply from Google that manual action have been revoked.

    That said, it is not true if you know what you are doing that you need more than one re-consideration request to get their action revoked.

    Just my two cents.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 9th December 2013

      Thanks for your comment John.

      Of course I’m sure there are many instances where the first reconsideration request is accepted. My main point here is that webmasters should not expect the first one to go through, because more often than not this is simply not the case.

      Of course if sites have fewer links or at least fewer unnatural links it doesn’t generally take as long but if you’re reviewing thousands of domains through tools which can only ever discover a percentage of the links that actually exist on the web, the chances of some bad links not being discovered and actioned immediately are very high.

      The vast majority of specialists and agencies we speak with don’t see requests accepted first time so I just feel it’s important to highlight that and ensure people aren’t downhearted after having numerous requests denied.

      Thanks for your feedback though and great to hear you had a request accepted first time. It shows how different the process can be for different sites.

      Reply to this comment

  • Prachi D 13th January 2014

    Hi Emma,

    This post is certainly gives all of us, who are working to get these penalties removed for our clients ahope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
    I have been working on at least 3/4 client sites whjo have received, the
    “Partial Matches” penalty. I have exactly done what you have outlined and it almost took 6-12 weeks to go through all the backlinks that we had discovered to be processed, depending upon the volume.

    I have submitted the disavow files for these sites in December. I got the usual “We’ve received a request from a site owner to reconsider how we index the following site: domain-name

    We’ll review the site. If we find that it’s no longer in violation of our Webmaster Guidelines, we’ll reconsider our indexing of the site. Please allow several weeks for the reconsideration request. We do review all requests, but unfortunately we can’t reply individually to each request. ”

    Does this mean that the request has been accepted, because in your case, you got a different message.

    I am not sure, if its time, to go through the links and follow the process all over again, then submit another request like you did? Or just wait for some more time as the Reconsideration request has been accepted and its a wait and watch game?

    Really appreciate your thoughts on this.
    Thank you

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 13th January 2014

      Hi Prachi. This message is an automated message to say that the request to reconsider the site has been received and will be processed. After that it will generally take 1-3 weeks to get the response from Google which will either say “links to your site [still] violate Google’s quality guidelines” or “manual spam action revoked”. In the meantime I recommend continuing analysis and getting more unnatural links removed. I hope this helps.

      Reply to this comment

  • Prachi D 13th January 2014

    Thanks Emma, for your response, certainly helpful. Couple more questions, hope that’s OK.

    If you say that we should generally receive a response within 3 weeks, in our case, its been over 4 weeks, what would you suggest in this case? Do we submit the request again with new details?

    Also do you advise working on the site (Page optimisation, getting good links etc) while we are waiting for these requests to go through? There are different opinions around about this.

    Slightly different query, if there is an algorithmic penalty, after submitting the disavow, what should be done next? As there is no manual penalty, any point in submitting a a review request?

    Thank you so much.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 13th January 2014

      Hi again Prachi. It can take a little longer to receive a request so if you definitely haven’t received a message yet then you need to hang on. I found delays getting responses over Christmas so I would expect you’ll receive your response in the next couple of weeks.

      While you wait you should still carry on optimising your site, creating new unique content, etc. however I would not recommend pro-active link building while you are trying to recover from a manual penalty.

      When you get the penalty revoked, which may take some time and numerous requests, your site will not automatically rank well because the link profile will likely be suffering from the effects of Penguin-based algorithmic issues. Submitting a reconsideration request is only for manual penalties, not algorithmic ones. The only way to resolve these is to clean up the bad links and secure strong natural links.

      Reply to this comment

  • Prachi D 14th January 2014

    Hi Emma,
    Thank you so much for taking time out and answering the queries. You have been really very helpful..

    Reply to this comment

  • Prachi D 15th January 2014

    Hi Emma, Thanks for that, will keep you posted.

    Reply to this comment

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  • Prachi D 23rd April 2014

    Hi Emma,
    Received the manual penalty revoked message for one the sites…
    Its a great feeling.
    Thought will let you know.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 23rd April 2014

      Congratulations! It is indeed a great feeling and it’s nice to be able to move forward following a revoked penalty.

      It’s worth being aware that you may still have algorithmic issues with links, meaning it’s still worth continuing your link clean-up and creating new content to build strong natural links moving forward.

      Thanks for letting me know!

      Reply to this comment

  • Prachi D 29th April 2014

    Thank you Emma!
    All these tips are really valuable, thank you once again..

    Reply to this comment

  • Shubham 30th April 2014


    Thanks for this article. I just got email that my manual penalty has been lifted and the same shows in notifications in GWT, however, the manual action page still shows the penalty, but it has been just 6 hours, I got the email. How much time does it take to reflect in GWT?

    My next questions is, I have both sites added, http://abc.com and http://www.abc.com, I filed reconsideration req on both, on http://abc.com 4 days after on http://www.abc.com and I got the email today saying manual penalty revoked on http://abc.com. Does that mean http://www.abc.com will also have it penalty removed ?

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 30th April 2014

      Hi Shubham,

      It can take a few hours for the Manual Penalty area to update so hold out for a while. But be sure that it is the same penalty that has been revoked and that the site wasn’t under manual action for two different penalty types as only one may have been revoked. Check the message you received and the message in the Manual Actions area to ensure they are the same type of penalty.

      Regarding the different subdomains, the reconsideration requests will be reviewed separately sop one may take longer. It is unlikely that they would revoke one and not go on to revoke the other but stranger things have happened. Keep an eye out over the next week or two for another response.

      I hope this helps and best of luck.

      Reply to this comment

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