It’s happened. Your organic traffic has tanked and your site in no longer ranking for those key terms that have driven quality visitors for years. You suspect that you may be the victim of a penalty from Google. But which one?
Typically, there are two buckets that penalties fall into: Algorithmic and Manual.
A more detailed description of each follows later in this article but here’s the basic gist:
An algorithmic penalty has to do with how a websites are displayed in search results based on changes made to the ranking algorithm. This may not be very apparent; you may only see a small drop in your organic traffic. The Google Webspam team will not notify you if your site has been affected by a shift in the algorithm.
A manual penalty is much more apparent. Typically you will see a big drop in organic traffic. You probably won’t be ranking very highly for many of your “money” keywords and you may not even rank for branded keywords.
If you have received a manual action penalty from Google and there will be a notification in your Webmaster Tools inbox that looks like this:
Or worse, this:
If these look familiar, then you have been affected by one of the more than 400,000 manual penalties that Google hands out every month. That being said, you are not alone. Your site wasn’t singled out because Matt Cutts doesn’t like you and there are many resources out there to help you recover from a manual penalty situation.
This is one of those resources.
Note: Penalties happen for various reasons – this guide focuses only on link-based penalties.
The purpose of this guide is to walk you through all the steps of the process of removing a link-based manual penalty from Google in one easy to understand and comprehensive article.
In my opinion, other guides fall short of adequately describing the “why” behind the process. If you don’t understand the “why” it will take you longer to do the “what” and the “how.” I have successfully removed several manual penalties and want to share not only the “why,” “what” and “how,” but the “who” and “where” as well.
You will learn how to quickly and effectively get a manual web spam action revoked using simple tools.
What you will need:
- Access to backlink profiles – Webmaster Tools, Majestic SEO and Open Site Explorer
- You will need to be as thorough as possible in your backlink collection process to increase your chances of successful penalty removal on the first attempt.
- This guide includes some tips and tricks you can use with Gmail that will make the whole process a little easier.
- Google Docs
- You must document your work and the reviewers at Google will not open any third party software (like Excel.)
- Google Chrome
- The following two extensions will make your life easier during this process.
- MozBar Chrome extension
- Keep the “no-followed” link highlighter on during this process.
- Whois look-up Chrome extension
- A quick way to look-up the Whois information for any given website.
First off, let me tell you that this whole process takes time – a lot of time – especially if you have many backlinks and have never done this before. My first successful penalty removal took over 80 hours of total work time. Partially because I didn’t know what I was doing and partially because I was working harder rather than smarter.
There is no easy way to get manual penalty lifted and you cannot simply disavow links and expect a manual penalty to go away.
If you want to get a penalty lifted on the first (*not very common) or second reconsideration request you must take your time and be as thorough and exacting as possible.
Throughout this process you will see many different types of links and status codes associated with them. It is important that you focus on the links that are triggering the penalty, rather than spinning your wheels with those that have no effect.
Over time, you will be able to easily distinguish between good links and bad links. Until you develop that skill follow the guidelines outlined in this backlink glossary.
Here are some examples of the types of links that should be removed:
- Followed links from “bad neighborhoods” – online casinos, pay day loans, adult sites
- Followed links with money keyword rich anchor text – i.e. “best plumber minneapolis”
- Followed press release links
- Followed links from spammy blogs
- Site-wide links – links that appear in the footer of each page on a site
- Cloaked links – they say one thing but link to something unrelated
- Invisible links
- Spammy directories – no contact information is a good indicator
- Social bookmark links
- Article submission site links
Links that do not need to be removed:
- Nofollowed links – these do not pass Page Rank
- Backlinks that return any status code in 400’s or 500’s
- Followed links from relevant sources – blogs, websites, directories
From start to finish, this process consists of 7 Phases:
- Figure Out if You Have a Penalty
- Pull Backlink Profiles
- Create a Google Spreadsheet and import Backlink Files
- Collect Contact Info and Qualify Backlinks
- Outreach to Webmasters and Documentation
- Upload Disavow File
- Submit Reconsideration Request
Phase 1: Figure Out if You Have a Penalty
This seems pretty straight forward right? If you receive a sudden unexpected drop in Google organic traffic for no apparent reason you may have a penalty.
If your dip in organic traffic is overall (Google, Bing and Yahoo), you could have different site-related issues. Any work done on your site could have an affect on traffic numbers so you need to make sure that your site is up to snuff on the technical side of things.
Penalties come in two different forms:
- Algorithmic – Google makes updates to its algorithm weekly and these have an affect on what websites are displayed in search results.
- You will not get notification in Webmaster Tools for this type of penalty.
- Check your traffic dip against Google’s known algorithm change history.
- If your algorithmic penalty is link related, it is possible to remove it by disavowing spammy links. But be careful, disavowing links effectively shuts off the flow of juice from them so you want to be absolutely sure they are what is triggering it.
- Manual – the Google webspam team pulls its lever and removes you from the index because your site is in direct violation of Webmaster Guidelines.
- You will receive a notification in Webmaster Tools for this penalty.
- Manual penalties can be either be partial match (affecting only certain pages/links) or site-wide (affecting your whole site.)
- This penalty is more difficult to get rid of because you actually have to get rid of your backlinks.
- This penalty is triggered when Google decides that you have intentionally tried to manipulate your search ranking position by buying or creating low-quality, spammy external backlinks.
In this article, we are going to focus on removing a manual penalty. It is important to note that throughout the penalty removal process you will be removing many backlinks to your site. This will have an effect on your ranking position after the penalty has been removed. Your site may not return to its pre-penalty position for some time.
When a manual penalty is handed out, Google sends a notification message to the Webmaster Tools (WMT) account associated with that domain. To see if there is a message, go into the WMT account and click on “Search Traffic” and then select “Manual Actions” at the bottom of the drop-down.
From the Manual Actions page, you can see if you have received a “Site-wide” or “Partial Match” penalty.
A “Partial Match” penalty may only be affecting specific pages on the site so you may not see a large decrease in organic traffic but you may see a decrease in rankings for relevant keywords.
A “Site-wide” penalty affects your whole site. Typically with this penalty, your site won’t rank for either relevant keywords or for branded keywords.
Either way, the removal process is the same so let’s move on to Phase 2.
Phase 2: Pull Backlink Profiles
This is where you need to be as thorough as possible. Google wants to see that you have made a concerted effort in removing every single spammy link. It is best to use multiple backlink sources including WMT, Majestic SEO, Ahrefs and Open Site Explorer and combine them for the most accurate and comprehensive profile.
The reason that you want to include many different backlink profiles is that there are many links not included in your WMT backlink download. Personally, I have removed penalties using only WMT and Open Site Explorer links (for sites with small backlink profiles) but it is best to collect as many backlinks as possible to ensure speedy success.
How to pull a backlink profile:
In WMT, click on “Search Traffic” select “Links to Your Site” then click on “More” at the bottom of the list.
On the next screen, click on the “Download more sample links” button at the top of the page and save it to your computer as a CSV file.
Next head over to www.opensiteexplorer.org. This is a paid tool from Moz. If you do not have a subscription to Moz, you can sign up for a 30 day free trial and use the full features of the product. With this tool you have ability to filter your link results a number of different ways. so for the purpose of penalty removal we are going to filter our backlink results to grab “only follow” links from “only external” sources.
You want to focus only on followed links because those are the links that pass Page Rank and are the ones triggering the penalty.
Once you have applied these filters, download the CSV file and save it to your computer.
Next, grab your backlink data from Majestic SEO. Again, this is another paid tool. However, you can sign up for a free account and acquire much of your backlink data for one verified site only.
Enter your site into the search bar and use the Fresh Index (if you select “Use Historic Index” you will get all backlinks in the history of your site – even those that are no longer active.) Click the “Backlinks” tab from the navigation menu. Then select the “Raw Export” button and save your backlink list to your computer.
Again, you ideally want to collect backlink data from as many sources as possible. So, it is best to create a comprehensive backlink list including data from other paid sources such as ahrefs.com or Link Detox.
Now that we have a complete backlink data list, we are ready to move to Phase 3:
Phase 3: Create a Google Spreadsheet and Import Backlink Files
You might be thinking: “Why should I be using a Google Spreadsheet rather than my trusty Excel?” That’s a great question. The answer is: at the end of this whole process you are going to be submitting a reconsideration request letter to Google and Google will only open and review documents submitted in a trusted vessel. Therefore, it is necessary to create a Google Doc for successful penalty removal.
Pro Tip: You may want to consider setting up a Google account specifically for this. For example, YOURBUSINESSNAME@gmail.com. This will allow you to keep track of everything right in one place with one dedicated login. Additionally, you are performing outreach and recording everything into a Google owned property. To my knowledge, there is no clear evidence that Google tracks your every move when you are logged in but I would imagine that it is easier for them to see your link removal work history when it is stored here than on the VPN at your office.
Create a new spreadsheet in your drive and name it something like “Link Removal – YOURDOMAIN.com.”
To help with this step we have created a Google penalty removal template for your use. Once you open it you will have to save a copy to your own Drive by selecting File → Make a Copy.
Start importing each of the backlink files that you created in Phase 2 into the appropriate corresponding sheets. Click on the “WMT Backlinks” sheet and then import your backlink file by selecting File → Import. A dialogue box will pop up, enabling you to upload the file from your computer. Select the option to replace current sheet. Repeat this process for each backlink file.
Note: You must import the data this way rather than copy & paste because Google has a paste limit of 50,000 characters at one time.
Once you have a sheet made for each of the backlink profile source, you will need to merge them into one Master Sheet. The easiest way of doing this is to copy and paste the links all together on one sheet and use Google Doc’s new “Remove Duplicates” add-on feature.
To access this add-on simply choose the “Add-ons” from the navigation menu and select “Get add-ons.” Search for “remove duplicates” and add it to your Google Docs.
Once you have your master link list compiled (and you chose not to use our template), you will need to add these columns to help you adequately document your work:
- Link Status*
- Contact Name
- Contact Email
- Contact Form URL
- 1st Contact
- 2nd Contact
- 3rd Contact
*As a best practice, create a consistent set of notes for the “Link Status” column for ease of future sorting. For example, I like to use “removed” if the link has been removed; “nofollowed” if the link has been nofollowed; “good” if it is a good link; and “D” if I cannot remove it and must add it to the disavow file.
Phase 4: Collect Contact Info and Qualify Backlinks
Gathering the contact information is an incredibly important (and time consuming) part of this process. When you submit a reconsideration to Google, a real live person reviews your case and makes a decision based on how thoroughly you have been in your toxic link removal. With that in mind you must take the time to collect as much accurate contact information as possible – and that can take a lot of time especially if there are tens of thousands of backlinks to look at.
However, If Google Chrome is your browser, there is a handy WhoIs Lookup extension that will help you to expedite this process.
There are many scraper tools that you can use to assist in the automation of this process – here’s a decent free bulk WhoIs lookup tool – but I haven’t seen one that grabs all of the information that is necessary to complete this phase. You will be forced to manually check most of your backlinks.
Here’s the process broken into steps:
- Visit the linking page
- Notate if the link is “good,” “nofollowed,” or “removed”
- Record the Contact form URL (if present)
- Use the WhoIs Chrome extension (or enter URL into http://who.is) to collect webmaster name and email
- Rinse and repeat
Pro Tip: brew a fresh pot of coffee – it gets really, really mind numbing after the first 500 or so
How to qualify backlinks:
As I outlined earlier in the Backlink Glossary, you want to try to remove backlinks that are spammy and/or irrelevant in nature. But what do these sites look like?
Well they look like this:
And like this:
And like this:
And many link and article submission sites look like this:
If there is any question about a backlink, follow this simple test to see if you should have it removed: Google the name of the website. If the site does not show up in the search results, it probably has been penalized and you should remove the link.
After you have a spreadsheet full of email addresses you are ready to move on to the next phase.
Phase 5: Outreach to Webmasters and Documentation
Now the fun part: asking people to stop linking to you.
Start by filtering your spreadsheet by those sites that have a contact form present. Click on the links to the contact URLs that you recorded in the previous step and have a form letter ready to copy and paste. I like to use something like this:
Recently, our site received a penalty and we are trying to clear out the backlink profile of yoursite.com. Although this isn’t a reflection on this site at all, it would be greatly appreciated if the following link was removed.
URL(s) of backlink(s)
Thank you in advance for your help.
Take a screenshot of all submitted contact forms and save to a folder in your Google Drive. Make sure to include a link to this folder from a sheet in your backlink spreadsheet.
Make sure to document your work in the “1st Contact” column of your spreadsheet. As a best practice, use the date and method of contact (i.e. “5/14 – contact form”) rather than just a check mark
Next, move on to those sites with email addresses.
The easiest way to scale the outreach is to create a canned response for the Gmail account associated with your link removal efforts. To enable canned responses, follow the simple steps outlined in this tutorial.
Now create an email template to use as your outreach canned response. There are several different ways to approach this (I have even heard of a company using a pirate-themed approach) but I’ve had the best results with this general template:
Hello Webmaster’s First Name:
My name is Your First Name, and I’m part of Business‘s online marketing team. First, I want to thank you for linking to our site (businesswebsite.com) from the URLs below.
Unfortunately, we’ve been hit with a linking penalty by Google. We can’t know for sure which links are triggering it, and we aren’t at all saying your site has done anything to contribute to the penalty.
However, because it is important for us to bring our site into compliance, we are reaching out to many, many domains. Would you please add a rel=”nofollow” attribute to these link(s) or remove our link from these pages and any other links to us from your site?
%LIST OF LINKS
Your First Name
Warning: Keep in mind that you are reaching out to a real person! Do NOT, under any circumstance accuse the webmaster of wrongdoing or threaten them in any way.
Use your real name. It shows that you have nothing to hide and that you are trustworthy, genuine and sincere.
Typically, you will get one of these five responses:
- No response – link removed (make sure you recheck link status between contacts)
- Response – link removed
- Response – pay for link removal (if not outrageous, it’s sometimes easiest to just pay)
- Response – link not removed (usually accompanied by curse words)
- No response – link not removed (attempt to contact via a different method)
Make sure that you document each contact date and method as well as notate if the webmaster refuses to remove the link.
As a rule of thumb, you want to attempt to contact the website three times before adding that domain to your disavow file – Google needs to know that you really did try to remove the links.
Don’t be spammy in your outreach, it’s usually best to wait about a week between webmaster contact attempts.
Pro Tip: Use Screaming Frog to see if links have been removed. Copy and paste your master backlink list into a .txt file and load that into the tool. Then create a custom configuration with two filters. Filter 1: Contains yourwebsite.com. Filter 2: Does Not Contain yourwebsite.com. Hit start. When it finishes, you will be able to toggle between the filters from the Custom tab to see who has removed backlinks to your site.
Phase 6: Upload Disavow File
Now you’re in the home stretch.
It is inevitable that there will be a number of backlinks that you just can’t get removed on your own and that is why Google created the Disavow Links Tool. You must put together a .txt file in the of the remaining links in the correct format to upload into the tool for your site.
Note: In most cases it is best to simply disavow at the domain level rather than the URL level.
It is important to note that this is the very last step before submitting a reconsideration request. Skipping any previous step will result in a rejection of your reconsideration request by Google. In fact, they flat out tell you that they want to see your work.
Phase 7: Submit Reconsideration Request
The reconsideration request is often times what makes or breaks penalty removal.
A successful reconsideration request consists of several different important aspects:
- You admit you were wrong – Did you purchase links? Hire a shady SEO? Put all that information here and own up to everything that you’ve done in the past. If possible name the companies that you purchased links from.
- Apologize – You are very, very sorry.
- Show how you fixed the problem – Saying that you’re sorry is one thing. Changing your behaviors is another. Tell Google how you have changed your ways/fixed your process/fired your bad SEO. And, most importantly, say that you will never do it again.
- List of the steps you took to remove bad links – Lay it out in plain English what you did, how long it took and call out by number how many links you removed. Mention that you have included screenshots of the contact form submissions.
- Thank the reviewer for taking the time to read your reconsideration request.
- Most importantly, include a link to your spreadsheet!
The reviewer at Google will actually read through your spreadsheet so you must make it accessible to them. Modify your sharing settings to allow anyone with the link to access the document.
Select “Share” from the upper right hand corner of the document. Then from the pop-up choose “Change” under “Who has access.”
For visibility options, choose “Anyone with the link” and change the Access setting to “Anyone can edit.”
Now head over to your Webmaster Tools account and submit your reconsideration request. Go to Search Traffic → Manual Actions and hit the big red “Request a Review” button.
Keeping in mind the things you need to include in your reconsideration request, draft up something like this:
Dear Google Webspam Team,
On XX/XX/XX, we received a penalty from Google for unnatural links pointing to our site businesswebsite.com.
First off, I would like to apologize for the inconvenience we have caused. Thank you in advance for taking the time to read this reconsideration request.
In the past, we have participated in some linking activities which we now realize are outside of the Google Webmaster Guidelines. This includes purchasing links that pass pagerank from blog networks such as Name of Blog Network.
Upon reviewing the Webmaster Guidelines, we realized that we were completely wrong. To correct the problem we have done a number of things:
1. We have collected all of our backlink data using Google Webmaster Tools, Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO and Link Detox.
2. Used these tools to help us contact as many of the webmasters as possible in order to have the links removed.
3. We have dismissed our old SEOs that encouraged us to participate in these type of link schemes.
4. We have developed a content marketing plan that is focused on providing valuable content for our clients that they will naturally want to link to and placing that content only on our blog. (businesswebsite.com/blog.)
5. We have implemented a strict policy against purchasing any links.
Over the last two months, we have been working tirelessly to attempt to remove these links. We have conducted outreach to over 850 domains and were able to successfully remove 2,635 links. All of the work carried out can be found in the following Google Spreadsheet:
%LINK TO GOOGLE SPREADSHEET
In this document you will see a list of all of our backlinks, the webmasters we have contacted and the links successfully removed. Additionally, we have annotated most links with important information about the sites. There are multiple sheets in this document that include a sample of the emails sent to webmasters, contact form submissions and a link to a Google Docs folder that holds screenshots of the various contact forms that were submitted. Any links which we haven’t been able to remove have been added to a disavow file that we have submitted to Google.
I am very sorry for the work that we have previously carried out. We were wrong and will ensure that this will never happen again. I am very confident that our website is now in line with Google’s webmaster guidelines and will personally make sure that this will always be the case.
Thank you again for taking the time to read this and I once again apologize for the inconvenience. I look forward to hearing back from you.
Now we wait. Generally, it will take about two to four weeks to hear back from Google after you submit your reconsideration request. They will send you a message to your WMT inbox. If you have followed all the necessary steps it will look like this:
There you have it, the complete process from start to finish.
It is important to note that a successful removal on the very first try is not very common. Don’t get discouraged, keep trying to get those ‘bad neighborhood’ links removed and keep an eye on your backlink profile. If you see new links frequently popping up from undesirable locations, you could be the target of some ‘negative SEO’ from a competitor. Although rare, this does sometimes happen.
This whole process can take anywhere from 3 – 12 months for a first time penalty removal depending on the size of your backlink profile. Perhaps even longer if the resources to carry out these tasks are not readily available in-house.
By streamlining certain steps and using proprietary tools, I have successfully removed penalties in as little as 2 months. In some cases, penalties have been removed in as little as 10 days.