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Emma North

The Road to Manual Penalty Recovery: An Anonymous Case Study

15th Nov 2013 SEO | 26 Comments


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!

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About the author

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.

Guide To Backlink Analysis Removal

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