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So you pushed the limits in terms of link building — you built links to your site that weren’t exactly squeaky clean or natural. Perhaps you used some blog networks, perhaps some low quality directory submissions, or even forum profiles. Who could blame you? Truth is, it worked for a while – but then one day you got a not-so-pleasant message from Google Webmaster Tools – the dreaded “unnatural links to your site” warning.
You cringe, perhaps feel a little guilty, and hope that the impact isn’t too bad. But as the weeks roll by you watch your rankings rapidly diminishing – those top three rankings fall off of page one. Next you start seeing the impact trickling through to your financials — it’s all headed downwards. The reality of losing your Google-derived traffic starts setting in. You realise that you have to get the penalty lifted, as a matter of business survival — but how?
In this post, we’ll look at the basic three-step process any good SEO agency should follow to get unnatural link-based manual penalties lifted. The company I work for has had the benefit of removing over 200 manual penalties, and has learnt a thing or two along the way. Please keep in mind that the recommendations below are based on our observations of what works and what doesn’t, and that some of this advice may be contrary to what you read elsewhere, or even Google’s official recommendations.
Step 1: Manual link analysis
The first step in dealing with a link-based penalty is analysing your incoming links to assess which are acceptable, and which are problematic.
Data sources — which should I use?
There’s a fair amount of debate regarding what data sources you should use – some say that you should use as many data sources as possible (for example Majestic, Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, etc), whilst others say that the Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) Data is sufficient. In our experience, having tried all the major data sources, we’ve found that the GWT data is generally sufficient, and at worst, should be combined with one additional data source (such as Majestic SEO).
Less is more — for the purposes of getting a penalty lifted, there’s no value in using every possible data source. Using multiple data sources just adds to the time investment required and yields no better returns in terms of lifting a penalty. To get started, you only need to focus on the downloadable links within Google Webmaster Tools. We recommend downloading both the “Latest Links” and “More Sample Links” CSVs in GWT, combining them and removing duplicates.
To be clear, we’re only referring to the impact on getting a penalty removed – not on having a squeaky clean link profile. If you want to audit every single link in an effort to eradicate ANY questionable links, there is definitely value in using every available data source.
Defining unnatural links
Once you’ve downloaded, combined and de-duplicated your links list, the hard work begins. You’ll need to manually comb through each and every link to assess its “naturalness”. This is painstaking, time intensive work, but it is absolutely essential that you take a manual approach to this.
Please DO NOT utilise automated link analysis tools for this job. Whilst the likes of LinkDetox, LinkDelete, DeleteBacklink, etc. do a great job of removing links (which we will come to later), their analysis is algorithmic and automated, and will never be anywhere near as accurate as manually auditing your links. The human touch is absolutely essential here.
You do not want to end up removing good links and leaving bad links by mistake. Take the time to do manual analysis.
So the next question is of course, how do you define/identify bad backlinks that need to be removed? Whilst there’s no hard and fast rule for making this assessment, having performed extensive penalty removals we’ve observed that Google’s main criteria is anchor text (even more so than link source).
It seems that commercial anchor text (or unnatural anchor text ratios) is what triggers their system, and this is what the manual team is really focussing on. We’ve noticed links on otherwise perfect sites getting flagged, purely because of over-optimised anchor text. By the same logic, we’ve seen links from very questionable sites fly under the radar as their anchor text was less questionable. This is only our observation, but based on 200+ penalty removals, it does suggest that anchor text is the key focus of the manual team.
That said, you want to pay particular attention to any links derived from the following typical spam link sources:
- Blog networks
- Low quality, irrelevant directories
- Article farms/directories
- Forum profiles and signatures
- Low quality blog comments
- Low quality or scaled up guest posting
- Low quality press release sites
- Social bookmarking sites
- Any site that has “SEO” or “links” in its URL or title
The bottom line is that Google doesn’t want you to be able to influence your incoming links, and any link that suggests it has been manually created for the purposes of manipulating their algorithms can be a problem. When assessing links, ask yourself, “is this link plausibly deniable?”. If not, it most likely has to go.
A note about “nofollows”
Tip — whilst Google should ignore “nofollow” links, this isn’t always the case (i.e., nofollows have been pointed out in denied reconsideration requests). Perhaps it was incompetency on the part of the manual reviewer, but it is always wise to disavow questionable nofollow links as well.
Step 2: bad link removal, editing and disavow
Once you’ve manually assessed all of your incoming links and identified the problem links, you’ll need to make an effort to get problem links removed. Google wants to see some effort in this regard, and so you need to put some work into getting bad links removed. A simple spreadsheet documenting your removal efforts will do. We suggest the following process:
- Collect webmaster email addresses or contact form URLs for all problem links – you can find email addresses on the relevant sites, or use who.is to scrape contact details, or use a service like Rmoov to semi-automate this process.
- Create a generic request email and mail merge the data to send out requests. Submit the balance of contact forms manually.
- Send a follow-up to all sites that fail to respond.
- Document all results in a spreadsheet for submission along with your reconsideration request.
A few things to keep in mind when contacting webmasters:
- Your request is a corporate communication. Do not be rude to webmasters or threaten them when requesting link removal or anchor text editing. This can cause a major PR problem.
- Check your referring data in Google Analytics before requesting link removals, as you may be killing a profitable traffic source in the process. In such cases, rather ask the webmaster to edit the anchor text of the link to something more natural. If the link is still undeniably commercial, rather add it to your disavow list (more on this shortly) than remove it.
- The truth is most websites will not respond (why should they care?), and some will even be so cheeky as to request payment for link removal. Document all failed requests and mark them for addition to the disavow file.
Once you’ve completed the link removal outreach phase, you will need to prepare and submit a disavow file of all links that could not be removed. The disavow tool allows you to tell Google to effectively ignore certain links or domains. For more information on the tool, see Google’s official help page here. Be very careful when creating the disavow file — you don’t want to end up disavowing good links by mistake. It goes without saying, do NOT use any automated tool to prepare a disavow file — manual preparation is essential.
Once you’ve prepared the disavow file, you’ll need to submit it to Google via Google Webmaster Tools — you can find the function here. Please note that you DO NOT need to add comments to your disavow file. Google has recently stated that the disavow process is completely automatic, and they do not look at comments. Don’t waste your time.
When submitting your file, be sure to double check the data on the confirmation screen to ensure that there are no errors with the disavow file.
Step 3: submitting the reconsideration request
The third and final step in removing the manual penalty is to submit a reconsideration request to Google, highlighting what you’ve done to resolve the issue, and request penalty removal. The function can be found in Google Webmaster Tools under “Search Traffic” -> “Manual Actions”.
Writing a quality, sincere reconsideration request is absolutely essential. You do not want to rush this part.
Constructing the winning request
While there is no golden rule for writing successful reconsideration requests, you should include the following elements:
- Admit guilt: It’s important to admit that the website was involved in manipulative link building (whether by your instruction or someone else’s) and state that this has now been stopped. Google wants to see that you have “come clean” and had a change of mind-set when it comes to SEO. Obviously, if you are a victim of negative SEO or an agency that promised white-hat and delivered black-hat, you need to explain this.
- Name & shame: This one’s a contentious point. If your SEO or SEO agency is responsible for the problematic links, Google wants to know about it. Some speculate that the entire link removal and disavow process is a data collection exercise for Google (most likely true). Regardless, Google wants names — hand them over.
- Show evidence: Now’s the time to showcase all the hard work you did to remove bad links. Share your spreadsheet on Google Drive (be sure to enable open access) and reference it in the reconsideration request. Provide as much detail about your efforts as possible. The more the better.
- Share your disavow: Even though you’ve already submitted your disavow file in GWT, it’s still wise to upload it to Google Drive and reference it in your recon request. We’ve seen many cases where the manual team ignore the disavow file (whether by human or technical error). Play it safe and include a reference in your recon request.
- Explain your future strategy: As mentioned earlier, Google wants to see that you’ve had a change of mind-set when it comes to SEO. Briefly discuss your future plans to invest in a content marketing based strategy, or if you’ve decided to give up on SEO, mention that. Make it clear that you are not going to be a “repeat offender”.
Once you’re done, re-read your request and make sure that there are no spelling or grammar issues, and check that it flows well. You want to make it as easy as possible for the reader to give their stamp of approval. Once done, hit the submit button. It generally takes Google two to three weeks to respond.
It’s unlikely you’ll succeed first time round — don’t beat yourself up about it
As a non-specialist, it’s unlikely you’ll succeed first time round. The most common reason for this lies in the analysis phase. Most webmasters are simply too conservative when it comes to identifying problem links and believe that a link is “good” when it is not. Don’t despair though – it just takes a little perseverance.
If unsuccessful, you will need to repeat the above process with remaining links, and ensure that you have identified all problem links. Fortunately Google does provide 2-3 examples of problem links when denying a reconsideration request. Use this data to guide your efforts and identify remaining problem links.
Some points to note regarding repeat reconsideration requests:
- Google will not process a reconsideration request for two to three weeks after declining the original. Use this time wisely.
- Update your link list with the latest links to ensure that you have the full picture. Links change over the time from your first analysis to the second recon.
- When updating the disavow, keep in mind that your latest disavow file replaces all previous versions, so make sure that you’re creating a comprehensive file. You do not want to “re-avow” old links when disavowing new ones!
If successful, you can expect to see a shift in rankings and impressions within 2 weeks post penalty removal. The extent of this improvement will be dependent on how many good links you still have. Whilst every site is different, and there are no guarantees, we’ve seen sites skyrocket past their pre-penalty rankings and an average increase of 800% in impressions at Penalty Pros.
Removing your Google penalty is hard work — there’s no way around that — but it is well worth it. Whilst some SEOs will argue that you should rather ignore the penalty and focus on building new links, our experience has been that even partial-match penalties still cause a substantial suppressive effect site-wide. If you’re looking to succeed in the SERPS you can’t move forward without first resolving your manual penalties.
I wish you all the best in your penalty removal efforts. Please keep in mind that the advice in this post is based on my experience, and your experience may be different. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below.