It’s a disappointing fact for many that the primary way we help some sites today is not by creating exciting content to entertain or educate, nor by helping launch an exciting new product or raising brand awareness. Instead we have to remove a manual link penalty applied by Google.
Indeed, a whole subset of our industry has evolved to help us undo work that others have sold to our clients or to frantically make edits as Google’s Quality Guidelines change.
Here at White.net we’ve helped a range of sites have differing types of manual penalties removed. It’s usually time-, budget- and energy-sapping work, and we’ve learnt a few lessons (sometimes the hard way) in the process.
Here are some of my favourite notes from this work. Hopefully, some of these tips will help you next time you’re facing that unassuming notification in Webmaster Tools…
Just because we know it as link building, it doesn’t mean your client thinks of it that way. So, the first step, before all else, is to quiz your client or the person in charge of the website’s marketing if you are in-house. Ask them what SEO or promotional efforts were made in the past; not just link building but also guest posting, article submissions, widget creation, banner advertising etc. We want to learn of any promotion or activity on other sites.
Understanding what activity has occurred not only helps us analyse the backlink profile, it gives a starting point for finding contact details, log-ins and general access to potentially harmful links. If you’re cleaning up after a paid link building service, getting the reports of the links built is a helpful quick win – these are certain to be links to remove or disavow. Get this information, and get it early to help speed up some of the later elements of the process.
Whatever your preferred link tool for most tasks, you need to grab links from as many different sources as possible to build up a complete, workable picture.
MajesticSEO, Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer, SEMRush are all sources of backlinks and downloading as many comprehensive reports from these tools as you have access to makes a big difference. Of course, webmaster tools information is a must. If you have it, Bing Webmaster Tools is an excellent source, and if you want to see which links will getting you grief from Google, working with the links they show you in their Webmaster Tools is imperative. Google says that using only the data from Webmaster Tools is all you need, but I think getting as much data as possible is a safer bet.
However, Google Webmaster Tools only gives you a sample of the links to your site that they know of. Even more frustratingly, it’s been reported multiple times that sites have received reconsideration request rejections with example links that were not shown in Webmaster Tools exports.
In his very informative write-up of Bronco’s link removal work, Dave Naylor notes that they download Webmaster Tools link exports daily and use an automated program to compare against previous downloads until they stop finding new links. This is very cool, but you don’t need to worry if this tech is beyond you. We started by simply exporting from Webmaster Tools every day for multiple days and de-duplicating in Excel until we didn’t find new links for several days in a row. Even then, we still check weekly for new links just to be on the safe side until the cleanup work is complete.
What we have learnt is to use these tools to help spot the issue-causing link building patterns. What we don’t do is rely on them – they are great tools, and boast an ever increasing number of cool features (LinkRisk can be linked with your aHrefs, Majestic and GWT accounts to auto pull in newly discovered links for example, and URL Profiler has a boatload of potential functions away from penalties), and can help classify your profile into manageable chunks…
No tool can tell you every link that needs removing or is worth keeping with 100% accuracy. There are many exceptions, unique circumstances and false positives (and false negatives, if that’s a real thing). As such, the only way to be sure you are casting an iron-clad removal list is to check each and every linking domain manually.
Yeah, this can be painful. And slow. And dull. It is, however, the only way to be sure. Once you’ve established the pattern of spam links it can become quick to categorise each domain as keep or remove – it is then just a matter of scale.
We’ve found that by using the tools to help us understand the link building patterns (directories, article submissions, guest posts etc.) and where to start (if using LinkRisk you’d start by checking the Bad, Suspect and Neutral links for example) we get a great head start. But the fastest way to eliminating all harmful links, and retaining genuine ones, is through good-old graft.
Google wants you to clean up your profile, and show sufficient contrition for your crimes by having as many links removed as possible rather than just purely disavowing. They even ask you to wait several weeks between a reconsideration rejection and submitting a new request to ‘give sufficient time’ for removal work.
Tim Grice, someone with great expertise on penalty removal , notes here that his preferred method is to disavow all suspect links, and not to try and get links removed. Indeed, here at White.net we’ve seen one example of a site with a horrendous backlink profile (over 3,500 links we recommended removing) simply disavow nearly all their links and successfully get their penalty lifted without removing a single one.
It is possible therefore to have penalties removed without the effort to contact all linking sites, and this is a tactic worth considering. However, we have found that the sweet point is to contact the sites you know you can get a potential response from. Once you have examined all linking sites manually it is easy to classify links by the directory, article or link network they belong to.
Simply write to one of these, see if they respond, and only write to the others with a positive result (as you’re likely writing to the same person for each network’s sites). That way you can still contact every site, but where it is clear you are not getting a response and there’s tens of sites with the same template, you are not butting your head against a wall. Otherwise, concentrate on contacting other sites where you have a shot of getting a link removed, or nofollowed in the case of sponsored posts, banner ads and so on.
This is no time for subtlety. Nor sentimentality or giving the benefit of the doubt. If you can see this link pointing to the domain in question, the chances are your Google reviewer can see it. At this point your site is considered suspect in its activities, so what you think might not look too bad in isolation can absolutely still keep you in trouble.
This is a manual review, so you can’t always tell which links they will consider demonstrate you are still trying to be manipulative, so if in any doubt, get rid. Usually, it is clear what pattern of link building has occurred, so you can separate the genuine from the spammy, but err on the side of caution, even though it will sometimes hurt.
This is of course not a complete how-to list of removing a Google manual penalty (there’s plenty of those available), but does show the ethos of the successful penalty removal projects we have had. There’s some highly insightful articles that have helped shape our process, such as these thoughts from Chris Dyson and the various writings of Dr Marie Haynes - go check them out.
We’d love to hear what lessons you’ve learnt about penalty removal, or if you have had a different experience to us, so share here or let us know via Twitter!