Successfully Removing a Google Manual Penalty: A Case Study
Stage One: Finding Out About The Penalty
Towards the end of last year we took on an SEO client who had received a manual penalty from Google for ‘unnatural links’ that had been built pointing to their website. Basically their previous SEO company had been link building using links from article sharing sites which was a legitimate SEO tactic a few years ago, but since the Panda updates has been a bit of a no no. If you’ve never seen what a manual penalty looks like, then check out the screenshot below. If your website is attached to your Webmaster Tools account, then you will get an email alerting you to the penalty, and then, whilst your heart is in your mouth, you will see the penalty in Webmaster Tools via the “Search Traffic” >> “Manual Actions” menu option. It may look similar to below, depending on what type of penalty it is:
Stage Two: Identifying Your Backlink Profile
Once you have calmed down, and your heart rate is down below 100, the first thing to do is to compile a list of your site’s backlinks. There are many sites which can help you do this, examples of a few are:
- Webmaster Tools
- Majestic SEO
- Open Site Explorer
These sites will all give you different results, some are paid, some are free and some offer limited free plans. I would recommend using them all to get as many of your site’s backlinks as possible. You want to identify as many as you can, which will give you a better chance of removing enough links to satisfy the Google webspam team that you are a good, clean site and have repented your previous SEO sins.
Stage Three: Identifying The Bad Links
Now you have built up a list of all your links, the time consuming, boring bits needs to be done – identifying which links are ‘toxic’ and need removing. I recommend using a third party to help you with this, for example we used Link Detox which you can feed all of your links and it will run them through their system and identify the ones that it considers to be toxic. I would recommend that you didn’t rely on this service 100% though, and still manually go through all the links that it identified and double check that they are definitely links that you want removed.
Stage Four: Contacting Webmasters
With one time consuming task done, it’s time for another. Now you have a list of your dodgy backlinks, you need to contact whoever controls the domain that the link is on and ask for the link to be removed. The first stage is getting the webmaster’s contact details, you can either do this manually by using a WHOIS website, or you can speed up the process by using something like RMOOV which is a service that you feed your list of links, then it goes off and finds the contact details for the webmaster, and then you can even email them through the RMOOV service as well. A real time saver if you have several hundred links to remove. Please see the screenshot below for an example of one of the emails that we sent to a webmaster asking for a link to be removed. Now, obviously, the success rate of this process is pretty low. The majority of your emails will just be ignored, you will get the odd one back asking for money for the link to be removed (this is then up to you whether you pay for this or not), and you will get the occasional success, Hooray! Take a screenshot of every email that you send out to a webmaster, and save it in a ‘shared folder’ on Google Docs; this will help in your reconsideration request later as it will prove that you worked hard in sending out emails to people rather than just twiddling your thumbs.
Stage Five: Documentation
The Google webspam team like to know that you have worked as hard as you could to clean up your site’s backlink profile, so it is important to document everything that you do. The best way to do this is via a Google Doc spreadsheet, and make sure that it is shared. You can then save all the urls in here that you have tried to clean up, along with whether you have been successful, you are waiting to hear back from the webmaster, or whether the site is dead. See below for an example of this:
Stage Six: Disavow
Due to the limited success of emailing webmasters that you will undoubtedly get, it is important to disavow any toxic link that you cannot remove. To do this, I recommend being as ruthless as you dare, i.e. if the link is even slightly dodgy, disavow it. Once you have a list of domains that you wish Google to disavow, upload them via the Disavow Tool and make a note of the date as you can reference this in your reconsideration request.
Stage Six: The Reconsideration Request
Once you have removed all the links that you can, and disavowed the ones that you couldn’t, then it is time to submit your reconsideration request. This is your crucial letter to Google’s webspam team asking them to remove the manual penalty and outlining what you have done which you think is enough for them to lift the penalty. Here are some points which I think are important for your letter:
- Explain why you got the penalty, if it was through article sites, mention them, if it was through blog comments, mention them as well.
- Confirm that this practice of link building has been stopped and that you are now Mr 100% White Hat SEO.
- Include a link to the cleanup document that you created earlier. Check that it is visible to anyone with the the link and not just you.
- Explain that you contacted all of these webmasters and asked for the links to be removed. Include the link to the shared folder that you put all your email screenshots in. Again, check that it is visible to anyone with the link.
- Inform them that you disavowed the links that you couldn’t get removed, and let them know the date that you uploaded the disavow list.
- I always include a paragraph or so of other things that you have done on the website to prove that the site is worthy of a higher place in Google. For example, I wrote about how I’m improved the site’s Page Speed from 60/100 to 90/100 and how the blog is updated with excellent articles every other day, and how it is very active on LinkedIn and Twitter.
- Make sure that you apologise for your SEO sins (even if it wasn’t you that built the links).
- Finally, make sure that you ask them to reconsider the manual penalty! Just a sentence similar to “Please reconsider the manual penalty that has been applied to our website”.
Stage Seven: The Waiting Game
After a few weeks you will most probably receive a message in your Webmaster Tools account saying that either your appeal has been a success or a failure. See the screenshots below for examples of both a successful and a failed reconsideration request. These requests are reviewed by a human being at the end of the day, so it is possible that two identical cases could receive different outcomes. You just need to make sure that you have done all that you possibly can to prove to Google that you have worked hard to clean up the site’s backlink profile and that you won’t be doing it again.
If your request if rejected, then you will need to repeat the process again. Try and identify any links that you may have missed, try and remove even more, and then resubmit a reconsideration request a few weeks later. Then pray again.