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Removing Google Penalties, The Complete Recovery Guide

What did your ‘SEO company’ achieve for you, a Google penalty perhaps? Well, you’re not alone. According to Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, Google initiates more than 400,000 manual actions every month.

In addition there over 20,000 reconsideration requests processed in that same time period.

We’ve undertaken over 100 unique clean-up projects for clients and that number is on the rise. That’s a lot for especially for a boutique agency like ourselves. We can say from experience that most reconsideration requests are turned around in 30 days or less. The problem is not the penalty removal request process, it’s getting there!

Me build you links – Love you long time

Buying automated link building services, paying peanuts for SEO services, swapping emails with shady characters who “guarantee page 1” rankings – you knew it was wrong, but you still cut those corners.

“So the spammy link building work that our previous SEO guys did has come back to bite us in the ass. Overnight our Google rankings completely disappeared!”

Sound like your story? It’s too late for sorry, let’s just clean this **** up!

If you’re desperately seeking search ranking recovery because your business and livelihood depends on it – fear not – you’re in the right place to start the road to recovery.

What is a Manual Penalty?

If you’re reading this article it’s likely you already know what it is, or at least have experienced the consequences of such a penalty. However there are many website owners out there who have placed their trust in SEO services or consultants who used low quality/spammy link building tactics. Subsequently these website owners have been left up the creek without the proverbial paddle. So let’s refresh ourselves of the two Google slaps.

There are two types of spam penalties (Manual Actions) applied to a website.

1) Site-wide matches action that impact an entire website. This type of penalty means you website is likely struck off and potentially de-indexed from Google entirely.

2) Partial matches penalties impact individual URLs or sections of a website. It’s not uncommon for pages on a popular site to have manual actions, particularly if that site serves as a platform for other users or businesses to create and share content. If the issues appear to be isolated, only individual pages, sections, or incoming links will be impacted, not the entire site.

However in our experience both actions still impact the wider site in general, partial matches being the lesser of two evils – but don’t hate Google, they didn’t spam your site.

Check your Penalty Notices

You can use the Manual Actions page in Google Webmaster Tools to view actions currently applied to your website. It may take some time before recent updates to your site’s status are reflected on this page and in our search results.

Why did I get a Spam Penalty?

The likely cause of a penalty is ignoring the basic principles and instead romping off in pursuit of link schemes to garner backlinks.

Quality guidelines – basic principles:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.


Link schemes – spammy offsite links:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank.
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.
  • Linking to a site for the sole purpose of getting a link back.
  • Building a link network for the purpose of linking.
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting using keyword-rich anchor text.
  • Buying advertorials or articles that include links that pass PageRank.
  • Creating and distributing press releases with ‘optimised’ anchor text.

Translated: Stop trying to game the system and deliver quality.

Enough with the reading, what does Matt say?


The link Removal Process in brief

You’ve establish you’re in trouble; you’ve landed yourself with a penalty. Denial is no longer in your vocabulary, it’s time for action.

In its simplest form the penalty recovery process looks like this:

1) Link discovery from many sources
2) Verifying active/live links
3) Manual auditing each link by quality, authority and relevance
4) Contacting webmasters requesting link removal
5) Submitting a disavow for none responding webmasters
6) Ensure your house is in order before you proceed
7) Submitting your reconsideration request

Ready? Let’s get started…

   Step 1 – Discovering your Backlink Profile

The big first step is to thoroughly establish your backlink profile using multiple sources, using Google Webmaster Tools (WMT for short) alone is not enough. To support WMT you would be well served signing up for the following services:

  • Ahrefs – boasts one of the largest active backlink archives around, you’ll get a comprehensive picture here.
  • Majestic SEO – nearly as big as Ahrefs and often returns slightly different results. A solid partner.
  • Moz Open Site Explorer – whilst not as complete as the above two, Moz still unearths some fresh links that the other two may fail to spot. Moz OSS makes a worthy supporting act.

Once you’ve collated your backlinks from all sources, compile them in a spreadsheet and remove exact matching duplicates. Save it and keep it safe, you’re just getting started.

   Step 2 – Be Efficient, Chase Active Links *only

There are many tools out there that can check your links for you, but seeing as we’re using a good old fashioned spreadsheet it would seem appropriate to use a tool that integrates seamlessly with this process.

Enter stage left – Niels Bosma’s “SEO Tools for Excel”.

You can automate the process using other tools of course but the above serves the purpose well and perhaps more importantly, to ease your pain, it’s free. If you find it useful do consider donating of course.

Use the tool to identify active links and cast aside inactive links – they should be placed in a separate sheet for safe keeping, for reference and ‘just in case’.

Hint: remove active “nofollow” links. Yes it’s true the disavow process essentially marks these links as nofollowed anyway, but having no link is better than a spammy nofllowed link – even if it is just for your peace of mind.

*Caveat: check your Webmaster Tools (WMT) for links that were flagged inactive in other sources, if WMT reports them then play it safe and add these to your final disavow list.

   Step 3 – Thorough Backlink Audit

It’s an arduous task, it takes time and patience, but at this stage you should leave no stone unturned.

Yes there are services out there that claim to audit links for you by grading them, but in our humble opinion nothing beats a manual link-by-link check. Yes you read that correctly, checking link-by-link.

In many cases, you will have multiple links from the same domain. Fortunately in these instances you only need to establish if the domain is trustworthy because if it isn’t you want all references to your site removed.

You may have a few hundred or ten thousand links, but visiting each site is the only true way of understanding if the link is worth keeping. There are many cases where the domain name and URL will be a clear give-away this link isn’t to be trusted, in those cases of course you need not visit them.

Needless to say the audit process if done correctly should only be required once, so it’s worth investing the time and effort now. Do the job right and you do it once. Rush it and you’ll be back here time and time again.

Remember being thorough is the word of the day (or week, if you have ten thousand backlinks). You’re not pruning a perennial; you are taking a machete to the entire garden.

3 Simple Rules – Follow them

As part of your audit you need to establish if a backlink is guilty of any of the below misdemeanours, if it is mark it for removal – take no prisoners!

Low Quality – is the website linking back to you of questionable quality? Does the linking page read correctly or is it spun, gibberish content? Was the website designed with humans in mind or does it look like a template or automated in anyway? Is the backlink keyword focused, does the link look unnatural or forced?

Low Authority – does the website linking to you have a decent authority (some of the previously mentioned link discovery tools will reference authority and citations)? Is it a spurious or odd looking domain name? Does it itself have a decent backlink portfolio? Does it have *PageRank (PR) of 1 or more? Is the website indexed on Google?

No Relevance – is the site linking to you relevant in context to what you do? This is simple, if you’re link is a on a blog about cheap holidays and you’re selling pressure washers then you need to ditch the link. Remember don’t be precious, tenuous links need not apply!

Hint: wash your hands of ‘web directories’ that aren’t niche specific, manually moderated and seldom generate traffic to your website. A web directory that doesn’t generate traffic to your website is a strong signal it was built purely for link building purposes, in other words gaming the system.

*Caveat: as long as Google keeps updating it PageRank we’re using it as an audit metric. So say goodbye to your ‘PR0’ links!

   Step 4 – The Email Outreach Simplified

Another big hurdle at this stage is understanding exactly how to go about contacting all these website owners. We’ve noticed other articles showing a lack of detail in this area, fear not we’ve found a tool that does the job and it’s cost effective too.

Rmoov does a simple but effective job of gathering domain contact details and scheduling emails out to webmasters on your behalf. The essential features and process are as follows:

  • Add a list of URLs
  • pull contact information for each domain
  • Customize email templates and start your campaign
  • create and send email, follows up with reminders, automatically checks links, provides a reporting system for domain owners, marks domains cleaned up and auto-fills a record of every step straight into a Google doc so you can see what’s happening along the way.

We recommend you run this process for a month with at least one contact per week to webmasters.

Hint: in order to break the link removal request fatigue, it’s extremely important to write an effective link removal request. Keep it short and specific to avoid the recipients spam folder.

   Step 5 – Disavow, with a Word of Warning

First things first – do not rely on the disavow tool alone. If you’ve skipped past the first four steps thinking this is your silver bullet, reverse up and read steps 1 through 4.


Disavow is considered a last resort tool by Google and should only be used when every effort has been made to remove poor backlinks manually.

We see time and time again website owners downloading a list of links and merely disavowing them.

Stop – you’re wasting your time!

If you struggle to remove at least 50% of your low quality ‘spam’ then try harder, or at least keep trying. 50% as a minimum amount of links removed is a good rule of thumb but really you should aim higher.

One round of link removal requests isn’t going to cut it.

We use the Disavow tool to complement our efforts, hit your minimum of 50% or higher and then finally submit a disavow for the remainder of your low quality backlinks.

Hint: you only have to submit TLDs (top level domains) in your disavow file and not each specific link.

   Step 6 – Housekeeping!

Ensure your house is in order before you proceed. Before you submit your website for reconsideration, please whatever you do, don’t fall at the final hurdle. Go over your website and ensure you aren’t employing spammy tactics as per the Google guidelines mentioned earlier in this article.

In essence web pages, their titles, their content and layout should all be designed for human consumption. Keyword stuffing and hidden content need not apply here.

   Step 7 – Reconsideration Request

A single page written text document is usually all it takes, but you must cover the bases.

Matt Cutts repeatedly indicates that there are 3 aspects to getting your manual penalty overturned.

1) Give background on how and why you got the penalty
2) Detail how you fixed the issue
3) Assure the search giant that you will NOT violate their quality guidelines again

The body of your reconsideration request should discuss these 3 points in detail.

In addition in our letter, Hello Google Search Quality Team, we cover off the fact we’ve removed X number of links and the reason behind removing them (in line with Google’s guidelines).

Furthermore we explain how we went about this process, an overview, and how many links we failed to remove which were submitted via disavow as a ‘last resort’ because the website owners failed to respond after our repeated attempts contacting them.

A very good idea is to place your spreadsheet contents of all links removed in a Google doc that you cite in your reconsideration request. This forms a solid, credible backbone to your request.

Manual Spam Action Revoked

If you followed every step herein in its entirety and completed a thorough audit, it’s likely within 30 days of submitting your reconsideration request you’ll be absolved of your sins. You should be welcomed in WMT with something along the lines of this:


The four magical words everyone in the above situation longs to hear – “Manual Spam Action Revoked”!

Pat yourself on the back on a job well done, but keep the champagne on ice because…

A Recovery of sorts, the Biggest Caveat of all

We hate to say it so late in the game, but a penalty recovery is a very complicated thing. There are a lot of factors that go into it and nothing is really guaranteed.

Even the successful removal of a manual penalty will not guarantee your previous rankings are restored.

There is no way around the fact that cleaning links weakens websites. A penalty has cast doubt on your entire website’s link profile. It’s common to see links pointing to and supporting other domains that are now deemed inappropriate for you.

Perhaps more ominously Google penalties get more severe for repeat offenders. After being penalised you must strictly adhere to the Google Webmaster Guidelines forever more. This is the first step in what is likely a long road to recovery regaining traffic and rankings.

Now it’s your duty to build quality content and links overtime, the right way.

Ed Leake

Author: Ed Leake

Ed is the director of Midas Media and has served in the technology industry for just shy of twenty years. Ed believes in the constant development, improvement and the maturing of ideas. Outside of work Ed enjoys motorsport, yet more fresh coffee and doughnuts.

  • Ranjan Jena

    Thanks much for sharing this article.

  • Ehtesham

    Hi Ed, Great piece just wanted to know
    Is it necessary to remove or put some effort to remove bad links manually by contacting the blog webmaster or we can directly disavow from GWMT?

    • Ed Leake

      Thank you Ehtesham. If you have a manual penalty then by only disavowing your links without attempting to remove them will pretty much guarantee your reconsideration request will fail.

      If however you don’t yet have a penalty and you just want to remove bad links as ‘good practice’ then you can disavow them, but to be honest it’s the lazy approach!

      • Octatools Team

        I can definitely stand by this statement. No penalty, you can get away without attempting to remove them. Hit with a penalty, you have to attempt. I’ve tried both methods on many clients.

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