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The Expert's Guide to Google Penalty Removal

An Extensive Guide to Identifying and Resolving Google Penalties

WebpageFX—

Expert's Guide To Google Penalty Removal

Has your website traffic been low or even nonexistent lately? Did you receive a warning message in Google Webmaster Tools? Are your customers not able to find you online? Chances are, you're suffering from a penalty—and it needs to be fixed, and fast.

This unabridged guide shares our methods and secrets to identifying, resolving, and recovering from Google penalties. This guide will give you the knowledge and resources you need to get your website ranking again, whether your penalty is algorithmic or manual.


Table of Contents

1. An Introduction to This Guide
2. An Introduction to Google Penalties
3. Why Penalties Happen
4. Identifying a Penalty
    - Manual Penalties
    - Algorithmic Penalties
5. First Steps to Recovery
6. Penalty Resolution Methods
    - Security Issues
    - Unnatural or Spammy Links
    - Thin Content
    - Duplicate or Scraped Content
    - Other Issues
7. Making a Reconsideration Request
8. The Road to Recovery
    - About Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
    - On-Page Optimization
    - Link Building
    - Content Marketing
9. Lessons Learned
10. Case Studies
    - Algorithmic Penalty (Panda)
    - Manual Penalty #1
    - Manual Penalty #2
11. Additional Resources

An Introduction to This Guide

Picture this: you are a business owner with a successful website. You’ve spent a fair amount of time building your online presence, and you’ve found yourself in the top spot on Google for your preferred keywords. Your traffic and sales are through the roof. There’s no stopping you.

Then, one Monday morning, you check on your website to find that conversions and sales have flatlined. Your traffic is nonexistent. You search Google for your keywords and your brand name, but your site is nowhere to be found, or has been pushed back to page 10. It’s as if your business never existed online in the first place.

If you’re reading this guide, we’re going to make the assumption that this scenario, or something very similar, has happened to you—that it’s not imaginary, but actually a frightening reality. If your website has disappeared from Google’s search results, resulting in an enormous drop in sales and traffic, it’s likely that you’ve been hit by a penalty.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps of recovering from a Google penalty from start to finish. The process won’t be an easy one, and recovery will take both time and hard work. But if executed correctly, a recovery plan can get your website reindexed and ranking again.

Before we start, it’s necessary to understand the history of Google penalties, and why they happen in the first place.

An Introduction to Google Penalties

Google has been making updates to its search engine algorithm almost since its introduction. The search engine uses a large number of algorithms, or rules, to determine where a site ranks in its results for searched keywords or phrases.

Google

The first documented algorithm update was made in September of 2002, and the first named update, Boston, came in February 2003. At this early stage, Google’s plans were to make monthly updates to improve search results for users. These first monthly updates targeted basic issues with search results, like hidden text, hidden links, and keyword stuffing.

In the decade that has passed since the first few updates, Google’s update process has been refined. The search engine now openly reports on its updates, instead of leaving webmasters to guess what happened or why. Updates are not restricted in frequency, either, occurring at any time. Finally, Google now communicates with webmasters when penalties are incurred on their site, instead of leaving them in the dark about their appearance in search results.

Google hands down website penalties in two distinct ways:

Algorithmic Penalties: These penalties happen automatically, and are caused by one (or more) of the algorithm updates discussed above. Penalties cause by algorithm updates can be minor, with recovery only taking a few days or weeks, or major, which usually means there are lots of hurdles to jump on the way back up the rankings.

Manual Penalties: These penalties are handed down by a member of the Google team, and implemented manually on your website. Manual penalties are usually far more severe, and you will often find that your website is deindexed—removed from Google’s search results entirely—if they feel your website is extremely harmful, spammy, or in violation of their Webmaster Guidelines.

This guide will help you recover from either an algorithmic penalty or a manual one. Each type of penalty has its own challenges, as well as its own recommended steps to recovery.

In the next chapter, we’ll cover why penalties happen in the first place, which will help you understand why your website may be on the receiving end of a punishment from Google.

FURTHER READING: Google Algorithm Changes
This in-depth list of Google updates and algorithm changes provides some background on each update, dating all the way back to the introduction of Toolbar PageRank in 2000.

Why Penalties Happen

You’ve probably heard the question "why do bad things happen to good people?" In your case, you might be asking "why do bad things happen to good websites?" You run an honest business, and you only sell high quality products or services. Why would Google want to penalize your website?

We hate to break it to you, but if you’ve received a penalty—and especially if you’ve been deindexed—then you probably don’t have a perfect website. Google does make mistakes from time to time, but it’s unlikely that your site was penalized "for no reason," or that you’re being picked on. Instead of focusing on all the things you’re doing right, you’re going to need to look for the things you’ve done wrong.

Google makes search engine algorithm updates, and hands out penalties to websites, for one very specific reason: they want to improve the user experience. If users can’t find what they are looking for by searching Google, or think that the first few results for their query aren’t good enough to click on, they might go to another search engine. Just as you might make improvements to your business to keep your customers happy, Google improves its algorithms to keep searchers using its services.

Years ago, around the time that Google first started updating its algorithms, it was fairly easy to manipulate a website’s ranking in search results. For each new factor that could help improve a site’s ranking, people found a way to manipulate it. Links were important, so websites bought links to their site, or created directories purely for the purpose of obtaining them. Since keyword density was once important, keyword stuffing was an easy way to quickly rank for a variety of terms. Hidden text or links were used frequently to add on-page content that was visible to Google, but not users. The list goes on and on.

Google Sends Bad Websites to Jail
photo by teegardin

With each algorithm update, Google is finding ways to recognize this behavior and punish the websites who engage in it. Their philosophy is, and always has been, that the user experience should come before all else. This applies not only to Google’s methods, but also to methods employed by those listed in their index. So if they believe that your website is harming the user experience, they will take action.

In short, penalties happen because Google is committed to delivering users the best experience possible. Their algorithm updates are just one way they make that happen.

Now that we’ve given you some background on penalties, let’s start the process of identifying the specific penalty that your website has received. This will give you the knowledge needed to create a recovery plan.

FURTHER READING: 50 Reasons Your Website Deserves to Be Penalized by Google
This thorough list of possible penalty triggers may help you learn a little more about what Google doesn’t like to see websites doing to improve their rankings.

Identifying a Penalty

As we mentioned previously, there are two types of penalties: algorithmic and manual. Algorithmic penalties are essentially automatic penalties incurred as a result of a change in search engine rules. Meanwhile, manual penalties are the result of someone at Google determining that your site violates their guidelines and taking action against you.

Identifying the type of penalty you’ve incurred, as well as what specific action or actions triggered it, is a crucial step in recovery. It’s impossible to recover from a penalty without knowing what you did wrong. Otherwise, you’d just be throwing content at your website and building links hoping something did the trick.

There’s a fairly easy way to figure out the kind of penalty your site has received, and it involves checking Google Webmaster Tools for messages from Google. Either you or the web development company responsible for your site can do this step.

Checking for Manual Actions

Go to Webmaster Tools and click “Search Traffic,” then “Manual Actions.” If Google has taken a manual action against your site for spam, unnatural links, or even hacking, you’ll see a notice here. This is what a manual action notice will look like:

Example of a Manual Action on a Website

Google’s manual action notices are very brief, but they often provide helpful details about where the problem is located. For example, a notification about malicious content usually contains a link to the problematic page, or even the location in the code where the problem is incurring.

Manual Action on a Hacked Site

If you see a notice on this page, take note of what it’s telling you. Here is the current list of Google’s manual actions/penalties:

  • Hacked website
  • Unnatural links from your website
  • Unnatural links to your website
  • Unnatural links to your website—impacts links
  • Thin content
  • Cloaking
  • Pure spam

If you don’t see any penalties or warnings listed here, all hope is not lost! This means that you’ve been hit by a Google update, so it’s just a matter of identifying which one, and how your behavior led to this kind of penalty.

Identifying Algorithmic Penalties

Without a message in Webmaster Tools, it can be a little trickier to figure out why Google has chosen to rank your website lower than before. However, thanks to the widespread reporting on Google’s updates and algorithm changes, it’s fairly easy to identify which update has “hit” your site.

Start by loading Google Analytics and looking at your traffic data for the last 30 days or so. Look for any noticeable changes in traffic that occurred over a very short period, usually a day or two. If your traffic took a nosedive on April 6, or steadily declined between the 6th and 10th, this is a sign of the algorithm update affecting your website.

Algorithmic Penalty Caused By Panda

With date(s) in hand, search the Internet for Google updates that may have occurred around this time. A simple search query like “Google update April 6” should do the trick. You can also consult the Google Webmaster Central Blog, or Moz’s algorithm change timetable linked at the end of chapter 2. There are also tools that will overlay known updates overtop of your traffic.

From one or more of these sources, you should be able to get a clearer picture of what happened on this date. If Google reports that an update was made on April 6 to target websites with low quality content, or that penalties have been increased on sites with unnatural link profiles, you can get a much better idea of why your rankings have slipped.

Was it Panda?

Google’s “Panda” update, first released in February 2011, is an ongoing algorithm update that is frequently “refreshed” with additional updates and modifications. When it was first released, Panda affected up to 12% of English language search queries. It was designed to push websites with high quality content to the top of search results, and move lower quality sites with thin content or a high amount of ads further down (or even off) the page. Panda refreshes continue to occur, and Google does this in order to refine and improve the original algorithm.

Unlike some other algorithm updates, Panda affects an entire site—so if you have a few pages that are seen as having “thin content,” your entire site will be affected. This can result in a dramatic loss of ranking on competitive terms, especially if similar sites have better content and less ads than you.

If your site has been impacted by Panda, your efforts will be focused largely on improving the content of your site. You will need to add more content (to your homepage, to product pages, to a blog, and so on), cut back on ads (if you have any), and remove any duplicate content.

Was it Penguin?

Penguin Warning Sign
photo by Arthur Chapman

A little more than a year after Panda, Google rolled out its “Penguin” update. First unveiled in April 2012, Penguin was designed to punish websites using spammy tactics to boost their rankings. Also known as the “Webspam Update,” Penguin affected approximately 3.1% of English language search queries.

According to Google, Penguin was designed to reward high-quality sites, and punish those that used methods like keyword stuffing, content used only to hold unrelated links, and over-optimization to get ahead. Much like Panda, Penguin is continuously refreshed to affect additional search queries, and to refine and update the way it impacts a site that violates Google’s quality guidelines.

If your site has been hit by Penguin, you should focus on cleaning up any spammy content on your website and removing as many unnatural links as possible. You will need to build high quality links to your site, improve your content, and remove any content that violates Google’s guidelines (like sitewide footers that have paragraphs of keyword-heavy text stuffed into them). It’s also worth analyzing the anchor text of the links pointing to your site as well.

What to Do Next

After reviewing your messages in Webmaster Tools or identifying your penalty with a little research, you should have a pretty clear picture of why your rankings have taken a nosedive. At this stage, it is absolutely crucial that you immediately stop any behaviors that contributed to the penalty.

If your penalty involves the presence of unnatural or paid links in your backlink profile, you should stop building links from directories, or paying for links in sitewide footers of unrelated websites. If your penalty seems to be the result of scraped content on your website, stop scraping content. Take a good hard look at what you’ve been doing, and stop anything that might have contributed to the problem at hand.

If your SEO is handled by an outside agency, and you suspect that they are responsible for the penalty, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with them. Ask them about anything that they may have done to contribute to the penalty. Some less than reputable agencies deliver higher rankings through spammy tactics like keyword stuffing or by building links on every site that will accept them and the client may never even know about it. At this stage, you may want to consider parting ways with them and seeking out a better partner that can help with the recovery progress, or even going at it alone.

In the next chapter, we’ll review the first steps you should take on the path to recovering from penalization. After that, we’ll individually review the recovery methods that should be utilized for each type of penalty to get the best results.

FURTHER READING: Google Webmaster Central Forum
Have a question about using Webmaster Tools? Google’s official forum gives you a place to ask questions or read messages posted by others.

First Steps to Recovery

Recovering from a penalty has the potential to be a long, complicated, and potentially frustrating process. As such, it’s best to take the process one day at a time.

Here are five easy steps you can take to get started without completely overwhelming yourself or your team.

1. Research your penalty thoroughly. Set aside an hour or two to do some reading on the penalty you received. If you’re still in the mindset of “but we didn’t do anything wrong!” ... well, that really needs to change before you get started. If you aren’t serious about recovery, it’s likely that you’ll get nowhere with your efforts.

Do some reading on your penalty until you have a better understanding of why you received it, what it means for your future SEO strategy, and how others have recovered from it. Case studies, if you can find them, might help you develop your own plan for recovery. Sites like Moz, Search Engine Watch, and Search Engine Journal are great places to start.

2. Talk to your team. Sit down and speak openly and honestly with your team, agency, or developers about the penalty. Find out what their thoughts are, and what suggestions they have for your recovery plan. Try to avoid pointing fingers or placing blame. You’re all in this together, and you’ll probably have to work together to get your site indexed and ranking again.

3. Unify your efforts. If you’re working with an agency or SEO firm that only does part of your online marketing or development, set up a face-to-face meeting to unify your recovery efforts. After you’ve reviewed the methods in the next section, you’ll probably want to assign tasks to specific members of your team.

If your recovery looks like it will take a lot of time and effort—for example, if you have hundreds of links to remove—consider creating a collaborative document where you can all “check in” and review progress. You can also use a tool like Basecamp to create a special project for your group, and share files or set milestones for progress.

4. Keep working. In the previous chapter, we recommended that you stop doing anything that might have contributed to the penalty. However, this doesn’t mean that you should stop working entirely. You probably still have visitors and customers coming to your site through other means, and they may not know that anything is wrong. So keep fulfilling orders, publishing your blog posts, and taking phone calls. Continuing your daily routine as much as possible may help take some of the “edge” off the stress of recovering from a penalty.

5. Take a break when you can. Again, the recovery process might be long and challenging for you and your team. If you spend a week knocking out spammy links or rewriting thousands of words for your site, set aside a little bit of time to relax or reward your group for their hard work. Buy them coffee, take them to a movie, or give them a few hours off on Friday afternoon.

With these first steps out of the way, it’s time to get serious with your recovery efforts. The next chapter goes into detail on how to recover from specific manual and algorithmic penalties. Use the links provided to skip to the most relevant section (or just keep scrolling to read them all).

FURTHER READING: How to Evaluate and Overhaul Your SEO Strategy
Building a new strategy for optimizing your website will be crucial moving forward. This post gives you a few actionable suggestions that you can use during the recovery process.

Penalty Resolution Methods

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Security Issues

A hacked website can be a webmaster’s worst nightmare. If Google detects that your website has been infected with malware, hacked to include spammy or harmful content, or otherwise modified in a way that may harm a user’s computer or ruin their browsing experience, they will immediately take two actions:

  1. Notify you via a Webmaster Tools message
  2. Display a “This site may be hacked” message beneath your site in search results

Here’s what the message to users may look like:

An Example of a Hacked Website Message

Unfortunately, these security issues may result in a penalty being placed on your site. Google doesn’t want users visiting a website that is hacked or potentially malicious, so they will do what they can to get it out of their search results. This goes double for spam, which is recognized as detrimental but doesn’t come with a warning label in search results.

Fortunately, recovering from a malware infection or hacking is usually a fast process, and you may regain your position in search results just as quickly. Google has a great step-by-step guide to recovering from a sitewide infection and requesting a review, so we’ll walk you through the basics.

1. Take your site down. To keep your website from causing more harm, you should immediately prevent others from accessing it. Google recommends configuring your .htaccess code to return a 503 (or “Service Unavailable”) error, which indicates that your site is temporarily unavailable. You should also immediately change all usernames and passwords used to access your site.

2. Notify anyone who needs to be unaware of the issue. Depending on your business model, this may include employees, customers, or users of your service. You should also contact your website host to let them know what is going on, just in case this is an attack on their servers and not an individual site.

3. Find the source of the problem. There are a number of tools you can use to figure out what is happening. Webmaster Tools may actually tell you if you have malware—click Health, then Malware to see if you have any messages. Google also has a diagnostics page that will automatically report any known issues, and you can look in your .htaccess file or server logs to identify any redirects or hacked files.

4. Clean it up. Remove the malware, hacked files, or spammy content. If you have a known good backup on your server, you can also simply restore it and overwrite the offending files. Just make sure you close any security holes if you take this road!

Once you’ve cleaned up your site, you should take action to prevent this from happening again. Although not all hacks can be prevented, you can make your site more difficult to target. Choose secure passwords for all accounts and access methods associated with your site (like FTP accounts), and only give them out when absolutely necessary. Don’t give out critical website information over email. Finally, make sure your CMS or platform is up-to-date, because there are often exploits in older versions that allow hackers to take control of a site that has an outdated version of its CMS.

After your site has been cleaned up and you’ve made updates to keep this from happening again, skip to chapter 7 to learn about making a reconsideration request to get your site back in the rankings.

Unnatural or Spammy Links

There are a few different messages about unnatural links that you might receive in Webmaster Tools, all with slightly different meanings. Here are the messages you might receive:

Unnatural links to your site: This means that Google has found links pointing to your site that look unnatural. These could be paid links, links from multiple directories, links in spammy blog comments, or even a ton of links from tactics that would be normal at a lower volume, like content marketing. Link networks are also a common cause of unnatural links to your site.

Unnatural links from your site: Similar to the above notification, this message means that your website is linking to websites in an unusual way. You may have been paid to place links on your site, or you have linked to a site that is now seen as spammy.

Unnatural links to your site—impacts links: This message is usually reserved for when Google believes that some of the spammy links to your site are out of your control. They probably do not believe that you are buying links, or taking any kind of action that is seen as spammy. So this notification only indicates that the links have been targeted—not your site. However, it is still a good idea to remove any bad links associated with your website to avoid any problems further down the line.

If you’ve received a manual link penalty, you may be wondering what the difference between a “natural” and “unnatural” link is, or what constitutes a “good” link vs. a “bad” one. Google is fairly clear on what they think constitutes a violation of their guidelines, and has a page on link schemes that may help you determine the difference between good and bad. Here are their examples of links that can impact your ranking:

  • Links that are purchased or received in exchange for goods and services
  • Excessive link exchanges with other sites, purely for the purpose of link building
  • Guests posts or articles posted on multiple sites with anchor text links
  • Links achieved through any kind of automated program or service

As we’ve already mentioned, Google values the experience of its users above all else. Unnatural links usually look very strange, and can confuse or frustrate website visitors. So if Google thinks that the quality of links from or to your website is low enough, you’re going to be penalized for it.

Removing Links from Your Site

Removing links that you’ve created is pretty easy: edit your site and remove the links. That’s all it takes!

Once you’ve removed these unnatural links, you’ll want to file a reconsideration request. Skip to chapter 7 to learn how to do this.

Removing Links to Your Site

To remove the manual penalty for unnatural links pointing to your site, you’re going to need to clean up the links that have been created by others, either as a result of your actions or theirs. This may sound challenging—and sometimes it is—but you will need to stick with it if you want your penalty to be lifted.

There are a number of ways you can view your link profile and begin cleaning up those unnatural links pointing at your site. We’re going to show you an example using a tool called Link Detox, but you can use whatever tool you like. We chose Link Detox for this example because it provides a great deal of data about every link pointing to our example site, including a rating. This keeps us from simply guessing whether or not a site is credible, because we have the rating right there in front of us to tell us “this link is fine” or “this link should be removed right away!”

We’ll start by entering the URL of our website in Link Detox and letting the program do its thing. Once it’s finished evaluating all your inbound links—which can potentially take a long time, if you have a lot of them—you’ll be able to view a summary of your results first. This summary will include your average risk, as well as some statistics on the amount of healthy, suspicious, or toxic links pointing at your site.

In this case, our site’s link profile isn’t looking too good.

Site Overview in Link Detox

Only 35% of the links pointing at this website look natural. That’s not good news. Let’s dive a little deeper into the data to see what’s going on and why our link profile is so unhealthy.

The first thing we clicked on was the “toxic” links, which constitute 18% of the links pointing at our site. The information Link Detox displays here is very helpful, and includes the URL, the anchor text used for the link, and the risk of the link. As you might guess, the higher the risk, the more harmful the link probably is to your site.

Harmful Links in the Results

You’ll probably notice two things in our example results:

  • All but one of the 25 links on this page use the exact same anchor text
  • Many of these links look very similar, as if the same site was duplicated across multiple domains—perhaps for the sole purpose of creating these backlinks

Unfortunately, the first few pages of results look identical to this, so we can probably determine that the problem is related to the exact same anchor text being used over and over again on potentially spammy websites. Let’s look a few pages deeper in the results to see what we can find on the lower risk websites.

Lower Risk Website Links

There’s a mixture of low, moderate, and high risk links on this particular page. Notice again how the anchor text from the first page of results is popping up all the way down here? This is a pretty good indication of purchased links. Links acquired naturally usually don’t have optimized anchor text like that. In fact, if you look at the bottom of the results, you can see two probably very natural links—one for the website’s domain and the other for a preferred, but not highly optimized, keyphrase.

If you’re not sure why Link Detox is marking a specific site or link as high risk, you can hover over the number in parentheses in the “Rules” column for some additional information. The software usually offers you a pretty thorough explanation of why it judges a link the way it does.

In this case, quite a few of our links have the same rules. Notice how they also share the same registrar, IP address, and Google Analytics profiles? It looks like our theory about site duplication was right on the money. These links were probably created by the same person, and for the sole purpose of tricking Google into thinking that multiple sites were linking to our site. All using keyword-rich anchor text, coincidentally.

Google’s algorithms are pretty smart. All the details that Link Detox caught about the same registrar, IP, and so on were probably also spotted by Google—thus the manual penalty. So whether or not these links were intentional for our example site, the fact that they came from essentially the same source is really hurting them.

To recover from this abundance of high risk, unnatural links, you’ll need to get them removed. This can be done one of two ways: by requesting (and receiving) a removal from the webmaster, or via Google’s link disavow tool.

Requesting a Link Removal

First things first: before you contact anyone, compile a list of the backlinks that you would like removed. The easiest thing to do here is create an Excel spreadsheet with columns for the following data:

  • URL where the link occurs
  • Webmaster contact information
  • Date of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. contact
  • Person responsible (if you’re working with a team)
  • Any additional details you think are important, like the URL (on your site) being linked to, the site name, or the name of the site owner

Copy over the URLs from Link Detox, or your link profile tool of choice, to fill in the first column. This should give you what you need to get started. Unfortunately, the rest of your columns will have to be filled in by hand through hard work.

Let’s do one example link removal request to give you an idea of how they should go. Say a very spammy site, like orange-juice-weight-loss-plan.info, is linking the website profiled above in Link Detox. This site is very low quality, and not at all related to our industry, so we want to remove the link. So we’ll start by simply asking them to take it down!

Head over to the offending website and start looking for contact information. You’re going to ideally want an email address that has a person’s name attached to it, but that may be difficult to find. Here are a few ways you can find contact information to use for a link removal:

  • Check the “contact us” or “about us” pages—you may be able to find a phone number instead of an email address, or even a contact form
  • Check the website’s registration information by running a WHOIS search—you will usually find a name, address, and email address attached
  • If you can at least get a name and location, run a Google search to see if you can find this person’s social media profiles or any other online presence
  • There’s usually a [email protected] email address set up by default on most servers—if all else fails, give that a shot

Once you’ve found the contact information, note it in your spreadsheet. Then get started on your link removal request email. This email (or phone call) should be detailed, but concise, and as direct as possible. Tell the webmaster why you’re contacting them and what you want them to do.

Here’s a sample email template you can use if you like:

Hello [WEBMASTER NAME],

My name is [NAME] and I am the owner of [YOUR SITE]. We recently received a manual penalty from Google for unnatural links pointing to our website, and are trying to clean up our link profile.

I would like to ask if you would please remove the link to [YOUR URL] from your site. The specific page that is linking to us can be found here: [URL OF LINKING PAGE] Removing this link would be a big help to us.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this request. Thank you for your time!

Regards,
[NAME]

After you send this request, document the date in your spreadsheet. Set a time at which you’ll follow up on it if you don’t get a response. Then move on to your next link removal request. Unfortunately, if you have hundreds of spammy backlinks, you’ll need to do this several hundred times. However, by using a template for your email and a detailed spreadsheet of information, you can cut back on the time it takes to do this task considerably.

There are a few responses that you may receive to your removal request messages. You may get a response from the webmaster saying that they’ve removed the link. You may not receive any response at all. Or you may even be asked for money to take down the link, or argued with by a webmaster who doesn’t think their site is spammy.

Keep track of what you hear back in your spreadsheet. If the link is removed, strike it from the record. In any other situation, either keep trying or note that you’ve hit resistance in your attempt to remove the link. Avoid paying for link removals: you can essentially do this yourself (for free!) using Google’s disavow tool, which we’ll cover shortly.

You can also take screenshots of any emails you are sending, responses from websites and contact forms that you fill out. Just remember to document everything as extensively as you can. This is an important step: not only will it keep you and your team organized, but it will serve as proof to Google of your actions.

Set a date at which you’ll stop working on link removals. When you reach that date, copy the data for all the links that you haven’t been able to remove into a new sheet or tab. You’ll be using Google’s disavow tool to take care of these, and essentially remove the impact they have on your site even if the link stays intact.

Using the Link Disavow Tool

Before you proceed with the link disavow tool, you should be confident of two things:

  1. That you’ve done everything possible to get harmful links removed by contacting webmasters
  2. That these remaining links are from harmful domains or on spammy pages

Google warns that the disavow tool is an “advanced feature,” and they’re right. If you use this incorrectly—that is, if you disavow links that have actually been helping your performance in search results—you may risk setting yourself back even further, once your site has been reindexed.

Here is their official warning on using this tool, which we think is worth repeating:

This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.

With that warning out of the way, those of you who have a lot of spammy links probably will need to use this tool. So to get started, fire up your spreadsheet containing your unresolved link removal requests. You will need this to create the disavow document for Google.

Google only accepts text files (.txt format, UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII encoding) for disavow requests. Create a new text document, open it, and line it up on your screen right beside your spreadsheet. You’ll need to copy the links you want disavowed from your spreadsheet onto this text document in Google’s preferred format.

There are three line types you can add to this sheet: single links, domain links, and comments. You’ll use a single link if only one page on a website appears to be doing you harm. Domain links are used for entire sites that should have their links to you disavowed. And comments, although reportedly not read by Google, are ways that you can show you made your best attempt to get these links removed before resorting to the disavow request.

Here’s part of a sample file that you can use for your request:

# requested removal on 4/2 and 4/8, no response received
http://www.spammysite.com/link-page.html
# was asked to pay for removal of footer links
http://www.really-bad-website.org/bad-links.htm
# asked for removals on 4/2, 4/8, and 4/12, no response received
domain:poorseo.com
domain:shady-website-tactics.com

As you can see above, you can use a combination of comments and links in your file to indicate what work you have done and which links you’d like disavowed. When in doubt, it’s best to disavow entire domains as oftentimes one link can show up as several different pages in Google’s index. Google recommends painting with a broad stroke when adding new pages and sites to your disavow file.

Once you’ve finished compiling your file, head over to Google’s disavow links tool page in Webmaster Tools. From there you’ll select your site, click the “disavow links” button, and choose the text file to upload. Google will process this file and take the links you’ve disavowed into consideration when crawling the web.

Although the link disavows can take a few weeks to go through completely, you still have work to do in the meantime. With your bad links removed and disavowed, skip ahead to chapter 7 to get started on your reconsideration request.

Thin Content

If you received a “thin content” notice in Webmaster Tools, resolving this is actually fairly simple: create more content!

Screenshot of Thin Content Message by Bruce Clay

Many websites that are part of affiliate networks are at risk for this penalty. Affiliate sites, if you aren’t familiar with them, advertise products for sale on other sites. When a user clicks the link on the affiliate site, they actually go to a different site (usually the manufacturer’s) to make the actual purchase. After a purchase is made through this special tracking link, the affiliate will receive a percentage of the sale.

Affiliate websites often are singled out for having thin content. Many affiliate sites do only what is required to rank for specific keywords or phrases, include the links to the target stores, and then wait for money to come in. But Google doesn’t think that this is fair, especially if affiliate sites pull content from the manufacturer’s site to describe the products they are trying to make money off of. Just like any other website, affiliate sites should have high-quality, unique content.

Whether or not you run an affiliate site, if your site has been penalized for thin content, you should quickly take the following steps to recover:

  • Remove any content copied from manufacturer or retailer websites, even product descriptions. Any content you publish should be original to your site.
  • Remove any content that was written purely for ranking purposes, like keyword-stuffed and otherwise insensible homepage copy, or blog posts that have multiple links jammed into them.
  • Write new content to replace anything that has been removed. Remember that it is just as important to write for humans as it is to write for search engines, so your writing should be sensible, not just keyword-rich.
  • Start a content marketing program that will populate your website with content that users will find useful and interesting—even if you are an affiliate site. This might include a blog, whitepapers, articles, infographics, or some combination of these.

If you don’t have the resources to create this kind of content, consider bringing an Internet marketing company onboard to help you. An agency can write content for you, get it published on your site, and even help you promote it to gain valuable links to your site.

As we mentioned, the resolution of a thin content penalty is fairly simple, because Google’s message tells you exactly what is wrong with your site. However, don’t just create content to recover from the penalty and stop as soon as your site is reindexed. An ongoing content marketing program can help drive more visitors to your site, get you ranking for more keywords, and increase revenue—even if you’re an affiliate site.

Once you’ve made a plan to populate your site with new content and get past this penalty, skip to chapter 7 to learn about making a reconsideration request with Google.

Duplicate or Scraped Content

Do Not Duplicate
photo by Sam UL

Google’s goal as a search engine is to provide the best experience possible to its users. It thrives on providing multiple answers to questions, and many sources of information for each query. However, what happens if all the websites that rank for a specific search have the exact same content? Wouldn’t that get frustrating, especially if the content doesn’t actually answer the question at hand?

To avoid frustrating searchers by providing identical information in multiple results, Google often has to make decisions about which source of content is the most original. This can result in sites without 100% unique content losing their spot in the rankings.

According to Google, most of the time they are able to determine which site to rank in the top spot for a specific source of content, even if it is repeatedly scraped and republished without your consent:

In most cases a webmaster has no influence on third parties that scrape and redistribute content without the webmaster's consent. We realize that this is not the fault of the affected webmaster, which in turn means that identical content showing up on several sites in itself is not inherently regarded as a violation of our webmaster guidelines. This simply leads to further processes with the intent of determining the original source of the content—something Google is quite good at, as in most cases the original content can be correctly identified, resulting in no negative effects for the site that originated the content.

So if you are finding your blog posts scraped and republished on a few websites here and there, or if a few other stores have taken your product descriptions for their own ecommerce website, you probably weren’t penalized for duplicate content on other domains. However, your ranking may have slipped if there is a high amount of duplicate content on your own website.

If you suspect that your site has been penalized because of duplicate content, it may prove difficult to confirm this penalization. There is no real “duplicate content penalty”—unless, of course, you have been duplicating content deliberately, and in large amounts. This means that you won’t see a message in Webmaster Tools. You will just have to research the situation yourself to determine whether or not you are experiencing problems because of this.

Let’s explore the three scenarios for duplicate content that can get you into trouble, and how you can identify when and where to take action. They are as follows:

  • Your content duplicated on your own website
  • Your content duplicated or scraped on other websites
  • Duplicate or scraped content placed on your site

Your Content Duplicated on Your Own Site

This kind of situation usually occurs completely by mistake, and without a webmaster or site owner realizing that it is happening. It is especially common on ecommerce sites, or those with advanced search or sorting options. Occasionally, if your store generates unique URLs or has multiple pages for exact same item, you may slip in rankings for your preferred keywords or phrases. This is because Google’s algorithms assume you are trying to game the system, and rank highly by pushing out multiple pages with the same keywords.

To identify this issue, access your website as if you are a regular user. Use your search or sorting system to find one individual page, whether it is a product page or a category page of some kind. Take note of the URL (it may be best to copy and paste it into a text document). Next, access that same page via every other method possible. This might include navigating through menus, sorting by different criteria, or searching for a different (but still relevant) keyword. Note or copy and paste all the resulting URLs.

Once you’ve done this a few times, take a look at the resulting URLs. If they’re all identical, this means that you probably aren’t being punished for having duplicate content on your own website. However, if your list looks like this...

http://www.your-site.com/cool-stuff/
http://www.your-site.com/cool-stuff?sort=newest
http://www.your-site.com/print/cool-stuff/
http://www.your-site.com/collections/party-gifts/cool-stuff/
http://www.your-site.com/cool-stuff?session-id=388

These multiple URLs indicate that you have—probably unknowingly—been serving up duplicate content to Google. Since you can access this page via several different URLs, and Google has probably crawled your site and indexed all these URLs, the search engine really doesn’t know which one came first, or which one is the most important. It doesn’t want to rank them all, so it won’t rank any of them. On a larger scale—especially for ecommerce stores with hundreds or even thousands of items—this can be what leads to the penalty.

Fortunately, there is an almost bafflingly easy fix for this! All you need to do is tell Google which page is the “right” version, or the original. To accomplish this, you’ll need to use the canonical tag to signify that these additional versions shouldn’t be considered in your ranking.

You should probably have a pretty good idea of which version of your pages is the original. In our example above, it should be fairly clear that it’s the first URL. The other results are what display when you sort the page content, view the “print version” of a page, and so on. If you’re not sure, you can use a FTP client or File Manager tool to see which version has an actual HTML, PHP, ASP, etc. file in your directories. The page with the actual file is the original.

Here’s what you should add to the original page:

<head><link rel=”canonical” href=http://www.your-site.com/cool-stuff/”></head>

This tells Google “hey, there’s no original content on this page if it’s accessed some other way—the original source is actually this URL.” In turn, Google can read this piece of code and acknowledge it, and only rank the canonical URL. Not only does this reduce confusion for users, it prevents involuntarily duplicated content from hurting your rankings.

Some ecommerce and website content management systems implement rel=”canonical” by default. However, if you’re not sure, you may want to reach out to their support team (or even a developer you trust) to ask if this is in place.

Once you’ve implemented the canonical tag on your pages, you should keep an eye on your site status in Google Webmaster Tools. Once Google re-crawls your site, you should see a huge drop in your number of indexed pages. This is because rel=”canonical” is the equivalent of a 301 redirect for pages that have been removed—that is, those duplicate URLs will no longer be seen as “real” as they were before. Following this crawl, you should begin to see your rankings recover.

Your Content Duplicated Elsewhere

Let’s say you write a really great article on the topic of ethical farming methods. One of your friends, who is a farmer, loves your article and asks to republish it on their site—which happens to be one of the highest ranked farming communities in your region. The next thing you know, their version of the article is outranking yours. What gives?

Although Google usually does a pretty good job identifying the source of content, they do make mistakes. If your site is relatively new, and your friend’s farming community is known for producing high-quality articles like yours, Google may assume you took the article from them—not the other way around.

The easiest way to avoid mistakes like this is to use the same rel=”canonical” tag we covered in the previous section. If anyone asks to republish your content in full on their website—and we’re not talking about quotes here, but full articles or pages—have them add the following in the <head> of their page:

<head><link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.your-website.com/your-article.html”></head>

This tells Google not only that your website is the source of the text on the page, but that this second page really shouldn’t rank (or at least rank as highly) as your original page. If your friend wants to republish your article simply because they know their readers will love it, they shouldn’t have any objections whatsoever to implementing this tag. If they object or refuse, well... maybe they’d be better off just linking to your site instead.

This kind of offsite content duplication can become a problem if you run into sites that regularly post content created by others for the sake of ranking—usually called content farms—or less than reputable blogs that “scrape” other websites for new content to offer under the guise of their having created it. If you contact the webmasters of these sites and ask for a canonical tag, they’re probably going to laugh at you (if they even respond at all). Their goal is to rank and make money, not to appease users.

In this case, you’re better off trying to get the duplicated content removed completely. There are a few steps you can take to do this:

1. Ask nicely for the removal. Send a short, direct email advising the webmaster that the content has been duplicated from your website. Ask that it be removed, and give a deadline for the removal. Advise that additional action will be taken if the content is not taken down. Monitor the content and wait for a response. If nothing happens, proceed to step 2.

2. Use Google’s Copyright Removal tool. If the duplicated content is ranking along with yours (or even outranking you!), you can report it to Google. This tool will ask for some contact information, have you identify the scraped content, and link to where the duplicate page resides. Note that if multiple pages have been scraped, you’ll need to report them individually. If Google agrees with your report, the scraped pages will be deindexed.

3. Contact the infringing website’s host. Use a WHOIS lookup to identify the company that hosts the website where your scraped content has been found. Draft and send a DMCA take down notice to the host. Since web hosting companies want to avoid legal trouble at all costs, they’ll probably pull the offending page(s) right away. IP Watchdog has a great tutorial and sample letter you can use for this process.

4. If all else fails, contact an attorney. A legal consultant can be costly, but if the scraped content is harming your business significantly, or is too widespread for you to deal with, getting help may be the best solution.

Is Your Content Going to Be Copied?
photo by Mike Linksvayer

By using a combination of canonical tags and removal notices—and careful monitoring of your content as it spreads across the Internet—you should be able to avoid being outranked by your own articles or blog posts.

If you’ve removed a significant amount of duplicate content from other websites that you believe was harming you, keep an eye on Webmaster Tools to see if your rankings for specific phrases or long-tail keywords improve. Again, although Google is pretty good at identifying the source of original content, almost anything can be harmful in large doses.

Duplicate or Scraped Content on Your Website

This kind of situation can occur in a few situations. The gist of it is that if Google thinks your site content is largely unoriginal—that is, lifted from other sites either intentionally or unintentionally—your rankings will slip. As we discussed a little earlier, why would Google want to offer their users the same content over and over again in search results?

Maybe you’re running a new ecommerce store, and you chose to publish the manufacturer’s short product descriptions instead of writing your own… for all two thousand products. Maybe you purchased some blog posts from freelance writers without checking to see if they’d been published elsewhere before. Or maybe you left the population of website content up to your SEO company, and they simply scraped and republished content from one or more sites on the internet. No matter the reason, it’s now up to you to remove this duplicate content so you can recover.

As we mentioned in the opening of this section, there is no such thing as a duplicate content penalty. However, if you and 500 other ecommerce stores are using the exact same product description as the manufacturer, which product page is going to rank the highest for the long-tail keyword in the copy? Probably not yours. So it’s sort of an indirect penalization.

Removing duplicate or scraped content is the easy part. Identifying it can be trickier. Fortunately, Copyscape makes that step much faster than it would be otherwise. To use Copyscape, simply paste in the URL of the page that has questionable copy and see if you get any results. If the content has appeared elsewhere, you’ll be given links and a sample of the copied text. (This is also a great tool to use when looking for original copy that has been taken from you!)

As an example, here’s what we found when we plugged in our homepage:

Scraped Content from WebpageFX.com

The first two results look like directories, and may not be anything to worry about. The other results, however, look like they have the exact same content. Of course, we wrote our own homepage content, so we know that the other sites scraped ours… but in your case, you may be shocked to find other websites with the exact same product copy, blog posts, or articles that you thought were original.

So once you’ve got a better idea of where the unoriginal content on your website lies, you need to start taking it down. Here are some general tips on removing and replacing scraped content:

  • Instead of removing scraped blog posts or articles, it may make more sense to write brand new content for the page. If you were once ranking highly for one of the keywords within, the new, original text can help you rank again. If you’re short-staffed, consider contacting a freelance writer for help.
  • Product descriptions or specifications don’t usually cause problems unless they’re duplicated thousands upon thousands of times, or if large retailers carry those items. If the items you carry are common, considering writing new, unique product copy. Aim for 3-4 sentences that are keyword-rich yet readable for shoppers.
  • If you have to remove a page entirely, place a 301 redirect in your .htaccess file to send the traffic to another relevant page on your site. This tells Google that the page has been permanently moved. If there isn’t a relevant page, it makes more sense to allow that link to 404 (or return a “not found” error). 301 redirects to irrelevant pages can confuse users and Google.
  • When replacing duplicate content with that created by a new partner (like a freelancer or new SEO agency), remember to ask them if it’s ever been published elsewhere. If the answer is yes, consider whether or not it’s worth the risk of adding it to your site.

Once you’ve added new, original content to your website, you’ll have to wait a little while for Google to crawl you again. Once this is done, your rankings should start to improve. Moving forward, if you aren’t writing your website’s content yourself, arm yourself with Copyscape—it can keep you from running into the same issues again.

Other Issues

We can’t really predict what the next Google update will be. Although we can identify trends that may result in an algorithm update at some point, it’s hard to say when Google will take action. Sometimes many months or even years pass before they release an update to address a widespread issue.

Our best suggestion for anyone who is concerned that their website has been impacted by a Google penalty or algorithm change of some kind is to stay informed. Do your research, subscribe to leading SEO or online marketing blogs, and work with a partner you trust who will keep you updated on any big shifts in your ranking or site performance.

If you think your site has been penalized by an algorithm update, do your homework before you start making any changes. The worst thing you can do is start making changes blindly without knowing if they’ll actually help your situation. If you’re not certain that you know why your rankings shifted so dramatically, consult an internet marketing company like WebpageFX for help.

With your improvements done and your site ready to rank again, you’re ready to proceed to the next chapter. If you were the recipient of a manual penalty, go to chapter 7 to learn about writing a reconsideration request; algorithmic penalty recipients can skip to chapter 8.

FURTHER READING: Google Webmaster Central Blog
Confused about webmaster guidelines or algorithm updates? Why not go to the source? Google’s official blog can help you become a better webmaster and improve the quality of your site.

Making a Reconsideration Request

If your website was on the receiving end of an algorithmic penalty, you can skip this section. According to Google’s webmaster guidelines, reconsideration requests should be used only in the case of a manual penalty. Algorithmic penalty recipients can skip to chapter 8 to learn about recovery methods.

Once you’ve exhausted every resource available for improving the quality of your website, it’s time to make a reconsideration request. A reconsideration request is a message sent directly to Google that essentially requests a manual review of your site to determine whether or not it meets their guidelines.

If your website was deindexed—that is, none of your pages appear in search results whatsoever, even if you search for your business name or URL—this step is absolutely crucial for recovery. If manual action was taken on your site to remove it from search results, manual action must be taken to bring it back.

To start your reconsideration request, visit the appropriate page in Webmaster Tools.

Reconsideration Request Page in WMT

From here, you’ll be asked to write a message to accompany your request. This is extremely important. This message is what will clue Google in on what you’ve been doing to improve the quality of your website. You should make this message as detailed as possible. By no means should you skip this step or simply say “I fixed the problem, can you rank me again please?”

Real people at Google read, and take action on, these requests. If you aren’t sincere, detailed, and convincing, they’re not going to help you. If they have even the slightest doubt that you’re going to go back to your bad behavior, or that you haven’t done as much as you possibly could to remove spammy links and scraped content, nothing is going to change for you. They don’t want to upset their users, so you need to give them a really good reason to take a risk on you!

Here are some tips for writing a successful reconsideration request message:

1. Be detailed. This doesn’t mean you need to write a three page letter full of your thoughts and feelings on being deindexed, or how much it hurt your business. This means you should use the five Ws—who, what, when, where, and why. Include dates, times, methods, people involved, and so on. The more hard numbers you include, the better. Let Google know how many hours you spent on link cleanup, how many emails you sent and how many links were removed.

2. Explain the actions you took. If you received an unnatural links notification and you responded by removing 1,000 spammy links and disavowing another 1,000, say that. Telling Google that you recognized the problem and took the appropriate actions to address is an important part of this process.

3. Include proof in the form of Google Docs. Matt Cutts once explained that Google employees won’t follow any links to external documents for fear of spam or virus infection—but they will open a Google Doc. If you removed spammy links pointing to your site, take the extra step to convert your Excel spreadsheet of links removed, as well as your disavow request, into Google spreadsheets. Include links to these docs in your request. (Remember to change the privacy settings so anyone with a link can view it!)

4. Throw somebody under the bus if you feel the need. Although this isn’t guaranteed to help, webmasters whose penalizations occurred thanks to actions taken by a less-than-trustworthy SEO agency might have some luck shifting the blame. If you can acknowledge that it happened, show you have parted ways, and are now committed to doing the right thing, Google might be sympathetic. They know this happens a lot, after all.

5. Be polite. Do not, under any circumstances whatsoever, or for any conceivable reason, be rude in your request. If you whine about the penalty or blame Google for the failure of your business, your request may not go over very well. Being ranked in Google is a right you earn, not a privilege.

Take the time to carefully write your reconsideration request, following the guidelines laid out above. Here’s what a sample request might look like for a website with a spammy link profile that received a manual penalty. (Feel free to use this as a guide for writing your own request!)

Hello,

On March 19, my website ([YOUR URL]) received a warning about unnatural links pointing to our website in Webmaster Tools. Upon reviewing the warning, we found that there were approximately 900 links pointing to our website that we believe contributed to this penalty.

We apologize for violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and incurring this penalty. We had previously been working with a local SEO company that was building links for us, and we unfortunately did not realize that these were the kinds of links being created. We have since parted ways with this company.

Over the last three weeks, we have been cleaning up these links. We checked all the backlinks to our site using Link Detox, and contacted webmasters and site owners to ask for removals of the poor ones. Approximately 500 links were removed, and 400 were submitted to Google via a disavow request.

Here are links to the documents showing the work we have done:

[LINK TO GOOGLE DOC W/LINK REMOVAL HISTORY]
[LINK TO GOOGLE DOC W/DISAVOW REQUEST]

With these links removed, we are now confident that our website meets Google’s quality guidelines, and we will work hard to keep it that way moving forward. We have started a content marketing program, and are only receiving links through natural methods at this point. We ask that you please reconsider our site for inclusion in your index.

Again, we sincerely apologize for violating the guidelines and building poor quality links to our site. Thank you for your time and review. We look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
[NAME]

Once your request has been sent, all you can do is wait. Reconsideration requests are reviewed manually, and depending on a number of factors, you may hear back in five days... or five weeks. Most responses are sent in two to three weeks.

While requests are reviewed on a first come first serve basis, if you are sending multiple reconsideration requests through your account, Google will review all of your pending requests once the first one on your account reaches the top of the queue.

Sending in your request doesn’t mean you should simply sit around waiting for a response from Google. In the meantime, you should consider working hard to build back up the reputation of your site. Focus on creating new content, building better links (if this is possible—if you’re deindexed, some sites may not want to risk linking you), and continuing to provide the best service possible to your customers or clients. This could even be further proof to Google that you are taking things seriously, so don’t hesitate to keep moving while the request is reviewed.

What Happens if the Request is Rejected?

After a week or two, you may get a response back from Google in your Webmaster Tools message inbox that looks like this:

Reconsideration Request Rejected
image from Search Engine Land

Unfortunately, this means that your request for reconsideration has been rejected, and that the penalty will still be applied to your site. Although not every message looks quite like this, your response will probably give you some hint as to why the penalty hasn’t been lifted.

If your request is rejected, all you can do is roll up your sleeves and get back to work. If Google indicates that there are still spammy links in your link profile, it’s time to get ruthless. Evaluate all of your remaining backlinks and remove any you are unsure about, either by contacting webmasters or submitting a second disavow request. If your message indicates that there is still spam or harmful content on your site, consider contacting a reputable agency or developer to help you deal with it.

Once you’ve done some more work to clean up your site, you will need to make another reconsideration request. When you make your second request, keep in mind that a different person will probably be reviewing it. So it’s a good idea to summarize your first request, note that this is the second request you have made, and explain what you’ve done since the rejection message to improve your site.

Unfortunately, some websites—especially those who have built up thousands of spammy links, or have severe malware infections—will find that Google sends multiple rejection notifications, each just as vague as the first. If you get more than one rejection, it means that you need to dig deeper. Don’t be afraid to ask for help at this stage, especially if you’re working alone. Each time you send a new reconsideration request, do your best to sum up your work and explain how you are changing things moving forward.

Apologize to Google!
photo by recoverling

For sites with a large-scale issue, it will likely take four or five reconsideration requests to solve the problem. Unfortunately, Google’s process typically isn’t very transparent, and you’ll often find yourself guessing as to what the issue is in later reconsideration requests. Perseverance is key, and continuing to evaluate your site from a new perspective will increase your chance of approval.

What Happens if the Request is "Processed"?

Vague Reconsideration Request Message
image from Search Engine Land

Though rare, you may get a message back from Google simply stating that they have “processed” your reconsideration request. Typically, this means that some of the issues with your site have been resolved but there are still other things you may need to address. This often occurs when a sitewide penalty is moved to a partial match penalty.

What Happens if the Request is Approved?

With any luck, one day you’ll find a message like this in your Webmaster Tools inbox:

Reconsideration Request Accepted! Good Job!
image from Search Engine Land

Congratulations! This means that Google has approved your reconsideration request and lifted the manual penalty on your site. Pat yourself on the back, celebrate with your team, or throw a party—you’ve just cleared a major hurdle.

However, the approval of your reconsideration request doesn’t mean the hard work is done. In fact, the hard work may just be getting started. If your site was penalized for something mostly out of your control, like spam or malware, your rankings may recover very quickly. However, if your site was penalized for unnatural links, this means that all the links that once boosted you to the top are now gone... and you have a lot of link building to do.

What Happens if My Penalty Disappears?

On rare occasions—typically when a manual penalty has been in place for a long time—your penalty notice in Google Webmaster Tools may simply vanish before you can file a reconsideration request. What gives?

As it turns out, penalties can actually expire. Google puts a hidden "expiration date" on its manual penalties, usually correlating to the severity of the problem. So if you have a manual penalty for spammy links to your site, even if you don't request removals, the penalty may expire in a few months... especially if the offending sites all disappear or the links go away on their own.

Although all manual penalties will eventually expire, it's not a good idea to simply ignore them and hope they'll go away. About this, Google's John Mueller said the following:

While manual actions will expire at some point, I would strongly not recommend sweeping them under the carpet and hoping that they go away on their own -- at least if you're interested in having your site be optimally represented in our search results. Even when a manual action expires (which might take quite some time), if the reason for the original manual action is still relevant, it's always possible that the manual action is returned later on.

In my opinion, if you're aware of issues that are negatively affecting your site's performance in search, and if its performance there is important to you, then resolving those issues is often a good use of time.

If your penalty disappears, you should still do what you can to clear up the issues that caused it in the first place. This will not only increase the quality of your site, but prevent you from incurring the same penalty again in the future.

FURTHER READING: 5 Not-So-Common Reconsideration Request Errors
Did you remember to share your Google Doc? Are any of your pages blocked with robots.txt? This article covers five common errors that could delay your reconsideration request.

The Road to Recovery

Recovering from a Google-imposed penalty can take both time and hard work. You won’t experience any kind of overnight return to #1, and your site’s new content won’t suddenly get you to the top of the search results for the keywords or phrases you were ranking for before. Unfortunately, the road to recovery is sometimes much longer than webmasters and business owners might expect.

The Long Road to Penalty Recovery
photo by Chaz Harding

Once a manual penalty has been lifted, or a serious problem has been resolved with a website, it can be surprising to see how low a once very popular (or at least a very high-ranking site) is showing up in searches. This is often because the same factors that hurt your website were helping you, too. For example, if you had thousands of spammy links using the same anchor text, Google probably penalized you for that... but that anchor text is why you were ranking so well for that specific word or phrase.

Google’s guidelines and recommendations for webmasters are very clear: your focus should always be on creating the best experience possible for those who visit your site. This means creating high-quality, unique content, offering sensible site navigation options, and making the viewing or shopping process as easy as possible. Having said that, at this stage, you can’t simply make your site “better” and expect people to visit it. Hard work is needed to speed up the recovery process.

In this chapter we’ll cover three of the most effective ways you can recover from a penalty and improve your rankings: on-page optimization, link building, and content marketing. But first, let’s learn a little bit about SEO, and why it’s so important for your website.

Search Engine Optimization

SEO, or search engine optimization, refers to the process of optimizing your website so it performs better in search results. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, SEO is usually anything but. Optimization can be a complex process, especially for small business owners who are running their own website.

If you’re reading this guide, chances are good that you already know something about SEO. If you were penalized for building links to your site, then you probably already know a lot about SEO. How well a website is optimized, and thus how well it ranks for specific search terms, depends on a wide variety of factors. These factors include on-page content (like product copy, title tags, and so on), how many links are pointing to the site, how fast the site loads, how many users leave the site quickly after arriving, and so on.

Google Wants Great Websites
photo by Robert Scoble

As we mentioned, Google wants you to build a website that offers the best experience possible. In creating a new website, you may unknowingly cover all of the needed aspects of SEO, and may never have to build a link in your life! However, most webmasters find that they need to stay current with SEO, and actively update their sites, in order to have even a chance at ranking.

Moving forward with your site, you should educate yourself on what constitutes “good” (also called “white hat”) SEO, and what is considered “bad” (or “black hat”) SEO. Generally speaking, good SEO involves bringing in website visitors through content marketing, emails, or other “organic” methods. The site is optimized to draw visitors and convince them to convert. Bad SEO methods involve building spammy links to boost ranking with the purpose of making money through ad views or clicks. Previously favored SEO methods, like keyword stuffing or hidden text, are now seen as “black hat” by the general SEO community.

The three methods we’re going to describe for recovery are all generally considered part of SEO. Although they do serve a purpose for the user, many webmasters now approach them from the standpoint of “it will make my site better, so it will make my ranking better.” While this is true, don’t forget that everything you’re doing should be for your visitors—not just your ranking. Losing sight of this fact is actually what leads many site owners to receive a manual penalty in the first place.

We’ll start with on-page optimization, which involves improving your site content and getting the right keywords in the right spots.

On-Page Optimization

There’s a right way to optimize your website and a wrong way to optimize it. Let’s say you’re looking for a company that offers inexpensive rental cars for your upcoming trip to Florida. Which on-page content would you, as a user, trust more?

This...

At Class A Rentals, we offer rental cars for Florida travelers and Miami Beach renters at prices you can afford. Our inexpensive car rentals in the Florida area are right for first time visitors, families on trips, and couples on a romantic getaway. Visit any one of our four convenient locations in the Miami Beach area to rent a car, van, or RV for your next trip.

... or this?

Class B Rentals has cheap rental cars Florida and cheap rental cars Miami. Miami Beach rental cars are best for travelers and need to rent a car in Florida. Contact us in Miami Beach to rent a car in Miami and to get good prices for rental cars Florida.

Sadly, that second example is not uncommon. Webmasters may not think they have any way to get their keywords together in a sensible paragraph or two, so they simply shove them together in something that resembles a paragraph. However, as our first example showed, it is possible to write copy that is both keyword-rich and readable (even enjoyable!) for your visitors.

If the copy on your website looks anything like that second example, get rid of it. Rewrite it, or consider hiring an experienced copywriter to do it over for you. Google knows when you’re trying to game them, and keyword-stuffed and link-heavy content won’t help you rank.

Similarly, your website’s title tag should contain the keywords most important to your business, but should also appeal to users. Here’s what Class B Rentals probably uses as a title tag:

Cheap car rentals Florida, cars for rent Miami, rent a car in Miami, Miami Beach rental cars

Lots of keywords, little substance. Class A Rentals, meanwhile:

Affordable Rental Cars in Miami Beach, Florida | Class A Rentals

That’s more like it. Note that Class A Rentals picked up on something very important: a well-written title tag will match for multiple phrases. In this case, their website title will match for “affordable rental cars Miami,” “rental cars Florida,” “rental cars in Miami Beach,” and so on. They also included their business name, which is important for anyone searching specifically for you. (How in the world would someone looking for Class B Rentals know they were on the right site with their title tag?)

The rest of your website copy—whether it’s in menus or navigational areas, assigned to product or category pages, or on other pages like a “contact us” form—should be optimized to include your relevant keywords, but readable. Don’t include a phrase unless it makes sense. If you’re writing your own copy and aren’t sure it reads well, ask a friend or family member to look it over for you.

Finally, don’t over-optimize. Some websites try to write giant blocks of keyword-heavy content that appear at the bottom of every page, or even in their global footer. This is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it make your site look ugly—and drive up those bounce rates—all it takes is one algorithm update to push your site down the rankings for the keywords that you’ve stuffed in every location possible.

Link Building

Link building may be what got you into the mess of a Google penalty in the first place, and by now you may consider yourself educated on what you shouldn’t do... but even so, you might want to stick around for a refresher course on what constitutes a “good” link.

Now that Google has made many algorithm updates, one of the most important factors the search engine considers when ranking a site is how many other sites trust or approve of it. Google determines this by examining the number of links pointing to each site, and the “weight” of these links. For example, let’s go back to our rental car companies from before. Let’s say Class B Rentals has 1,300 links pointing to it and Class A only has 300. You’d think that Class B probably outranks Class A on that basis alone, right?

Well, no, probably not. We’ve already established that Class B has horrible on-page content and a terrible title tag. But aside from that, a closer look indicates that Class A has links from official Miami Beach resource or tourist pages, and about a hundred links from news websites that covered a charity carwash event. Class B’s backlink profile has a lot of questionable links from footers of unrelated blogs. So Class A Rentals is probably sitting pretty at the top of the rankings.

Build Links to Improve Your Reputation
photo by Max Klingensmith

Link building is probably a natural extension of what you do on a daily basis. Are you asking news sources to cover an important event at your business? That’s link building. Are you tweeting out links to your blog posts on social media in hopes that someone will cover your post on their own blog? That, too, is link building. Are you asking relevant blogs to link to yours, or to include a mention of your business in their next roundup of local companies? You guessed it: link building.

Building links does not have to be aggressive, nor does it have to take up hours upon hours of your time. However, you can’t just assume that someone will find you interesting and link to your site. At least in the very beginning of your recovery, you should ask for links as often as makes sense. So if you spot someone talking about your business on their blog, ask for a link! Or if you get a lot of news coverage, make sure those stories have one or more links in them.

Just don’t do the following:

  • Buy links (Google deindexes websites participating in buying/selling links schemes!)
  • Ask for links from unrelated websites on a regular basis
  • Put your link in the sitewide footer of a Wordpress theme hundreds of people will use
  • Email hundreds of people asking for links without offering them anything in return
  • Build additional websites for the sole purpose of linking yourself (Google can spot that, too)

Keep your link building as “white hat” as possible and you’ll be fine. A link from an unrelated site here or there won’t hurt you—like if your mom gets super excited about your website and links to you from her church’s blog—but on a larger basis, it’s going to make you look suspicious.

Content Marketing

Unlike traditional advertising (ads, billboards, commercials, and so on), content marketing convinces potential customers to convert through the use of, well, content. A content marketing program serves two distinct purposes:

  1. It gives search engines even more keyword-rich content to read, and
  2. It gives your visitors, fans, and customers something to read!

It’s common to hear the phrase “content is king” get tossed around, and that’s because content is one of the very best ways to get your site ranking higher. But many studies have proven that content is desired by and read by your website visitors, and can help create feelings of loyalty or convince them to make a purchase. So this isn’t just about keywords: it’s about people.

Content marketing can take on several forms. Blogs are the most common, and have been used successfully for many years. But there are many other ways that you can create interesting content for users. They include:

  • Videos
  • Articles
  • Long-form guides (like this one!)
  • Downloadable guides or checklists
  • Whitepapers
  • Case studies
  • Email marketing
  • Social media (if posting original content)
  • Special tools, programs, plugins, etc.

Many business owners worry that they can’t participate in content marketing because they “don’t have anything interesting to talk about.” That’s not necessarily true! In most cases, these owners just need to think outside the box a little.

Let’s go back to Class A Rentals. They have some great text on their site that’s full of keywords, and they’ve worked hard to deserve those 300 links. But they don’t feel that they have anything they can offer visitors to their site. After all, the only reason they’ll look them up is to rent a cheap car, right? What’s the use of a content marketing program?

Well, what if Class A Rentals put a PDF guide to renting the right car right on the homepage of their site? I bet you’re not going to find anyone else doing that. A quick 10 page guide that compares car models, sizes, and important factors like fuel economy and price would be really helpful to a potential customer!

Let’s take this a step further. What if Class A Rentals included news about the Miami Beach area on their blog, created an Instagram feed of photos of new convertibles or sports cars they have available to rent, and offered special discounts for customers who signed up to receive their once-a-month email newsletter? “Nothing to talk about,” huh?

The point is, anyone can do content marketing, and if there’s thought and effort put into it, it can make a big difference—not just to your customers, but to your site’s performance. You’re getting more visitors, less bounces, and more keywords in place. Great content is going to attract new links, too!

Now that we’ve covered these three recovery methods, let’s move on to the important lessons you should have learned from this guide. Then we’ll look at some case studies that will show you the penalty recovery process from start to finish.

FURTHER READING: 4 Steps to Take After a Manual Penalty is Removed
Need a few ideas for kicking off your recovery from a manual penalty? Not sure why your rankings didn’t instantly rebound after the penalty was lifted? SEJ explains why and offers some tips to get you moving in the right direction.

Lessons Learned

We’re nearing the end of our guide, which means it’s time to summarize what you should take away from this experience. These important lessons will help guide your future website changes, marketing methods, and how you approach SEO.

Here are the things we think you should remember as you close out your experience with penalty recovery.

Ranking #1 is not the most important thing. Sometimes a Google penalty is delivered because you or your SEO company put all of your efforts into hitting that #1 spot—and you lost sight of the user. As we’ve said several times already, your goal should be to create a great website and do some SEO work to improve it. The rest will follow.

Almost anything can be harmful in excess. Moderation is important when it comes to your website. If you build too many links too quickly, Google will probably look at your site with suspicion. If you try to rank for 500 different keywords, you’ll probably fall flat on your face. Set realistic goals, and don’t put too much work into one single thing.

The rules change regularly. A few years ago, keyword stuffing was considered an annoying, yet successful, tactic to manipulate Google’s rankings. A few algorithm updates later, keyword stuffing was officially dead. Keep up with Google’s updates and be mindful of how they may impact your site.

If you don’t have a good feeling about it, don’t do it. Someone you know may promise you that building directory links will get you to #1 for your coveted keyword. You don’t have to listen to them. If it feels “iffy,” don’t do it, even if (especially if) you’re promised instantaneous success. Remember: if it sounds too good to be true...

Picking the right partner is important. If you plan to work with a SEO agency or internet marketing company, seek out one that is reputable, has a wide portfolio available, and has reviews or testimonies online that you can read. Don’t hire the first person who offers to help, or the cheapest company that offers link building. But most importantly, remember: you don’t have to do this alone! You can always ask for help, even just on a temporary or project-by-project basis.

Stay informed. By keeping up with SEO blogs or participating in online communities, you can stay one step ahead of Google’s algorithm updates. This can make a big difference in how you react to a major change.

We’re almost at the end of our guide! Let’s move on to a few case studies. These real life examples of both manual and algorithmic penalties will show you what happened to real WebpageFX clients, how we assessed the penalties, and how we resolved them and recovered their traffic.

FURTHER READING: Stay Informed of Algorithm Updates with This Calendar
Annie Cushing designed a Google Calendar that you can use to keep track of major Google changes or algorithm updates. She created it in 2010, and as of April 2014, it’s still being updated. A really helpful tool!

Case Studies

Ready to see our penalty recovery methods in action? Here are three quick examples of actual algorithmic and manual penalty recovery projects we’ve taken on. You’ll see screenshots of data from Google Analytics that shows when the penalties hit, how long they lasted, and when recovery was achieved.

Algorithmic Penalty: Algorithm Smackdown

You always know it’s going to be an interesting story when you see something in Analytics that looks like this.

Algorithmic Penalty Overview in Analytics

This particular company wasn’t doing too bad online a few years ago. However, in June of 2011, the site was hit by an algorithmic update, causing their traffic to drop to almost nothing.

Algorithmic Penalty Caused By Panda

After a long struggle to regain traffic and rankings, the company contacted WebpageFX for help in late 2012. We began a SEO campaign in the fall. Over the course of our research, we found that the client had a number of links pointing at the site that had contributed to the algorithmic penalty. We requested removals of several of these links, then disavowed the rest. On the far right of this screenshot, you can see a small uptick in traffic caused by the start of our work:

Algorithmic Penalty Recovery Begins

And here’s few months later, after the disavow file had been submitted, our SEO program was in full swing, and traffic began to return to the site:

Penalty Recovery After Disavow

This particular client not only regained their original traffic, but also began to rank for additional keywords, thanks to some of the work we had done. Although they suffered through the penalty for over a year, after the disavow file was submitted, their recovery was very swift.

Here’s a full timeline of the events:

Full Timeline of Penalty

Manual Penalty: One Bad Apple

As we recently learned, sometimes being part of the “wrong crowd” is enough to get your site penalized. Google frequently issues sitewide penalties due to unnatural links that may be pointing to your site. As a result, this otherwise healthy, by-the-books client website was penalized.

Here’s how traffic looked for the period immediately before the penalty:

Traffic Before the Manual Penalty

Here’s where the penalty happened—note the sudden drop on the far right:

The Penalty Strikes!

An “unnatural links pointing to your site” sitewide penalty was applied around March 19, resulting in a large drop in organic traffic. Action was immediately taken to request removals of the links from the “bad apple” sites that we identified. While we were investigating, we also discovered a handful of other potentially harmful links, which were disavowed. Finally, a reconsideration request was sent to Google.

On the morning of April 5, the penalty was lifted—a fairly quick turnaround, and thankfully on the first try! The client’s traffic began to recover over the weekend, then returned to normal in the weeks that followed.

Here’s the full timeline:

Full Timeline of Penalty

Manual Penalty: Spam is Bad for You

This next website owner received a warning about spam in their GWT inbox. Their site received a manual penalty for spammy inbound links, which resulted in a significant drop in traffic.

Here’s their traffic before the penalty—not too shabby, eh?

Traffic Before the Spam Penalty

Here’s where the penalty hit, right around March 19:

Traffic Drops When the Penalty Hits

Ouch. We evaluated the site’s backlink profile, and proceeded to remove as many spammy, potentially harmful links as possible. Any links that we couldn't get removed were added into the disavow file.

After the disavow file was submitted and the backlinks were removed, a reconsideration request was sent to Google. The penalty was lifted in early April, and traffic began to climb back up close to its original levels.

Here’s the full timeline for your viewing pleasure:

Timeline of the Penalty and Recovery

This concludes our case studies! As you can see, either an algorithmic or manual penalty can cause huge problems for your site traffic. However, with patience, hard work, and a little luck, you can get the penalties lifted and enter recovery, giving you time to make your website even better than it was before.

FURTHER READING: Expedia.com: Unnatural Travel Link Schemes
Big brands aren’t immune to penalties. Case in point: flight and travel site Expedia was hit by a penalty for black hat link building. A long and very interesting case study that goes deep into the data and shows how to use a few additional tools for analyzing backlinks.

Additional Resources

Congratulations! You’ve reached the end of our guide. We hope we were able to help you identify your penalty, resolve it, and make progress toward ranking even better than you were before the problems started.

We’ll leave you with some links to additional resources that you can use to stay informed on Google’s algorithm updates, identify backlinks, learn about how search engines work, and more. Enjoy!

Google Resources

Webmaster Tools—Provides detailed reports about the health of your website, as well as a message center where Google can contact you directly.

Google Analytics – Offers insights on traffic, bounce rate, conversion rate, and other site statistics.

Google Webmaster Central Blog—Offering updates and advice for webmasters trying to make their sites the best on the web.

Google Inside Search Blog—Covering trends, tips, and stories about Google Search.

SEO Communities & Blogs

Search Engine Land – Popular blog offering updates and how-tos on search engine updates and penalty recoveries.

Search Engine Watch – Industry website covering SEO, algorithm changes, and online marketing.

Search Engine Journal—Search, content marketing, and social media advice for busy marketers.

Moz Blog—Tips, tricks, and advice for online marketing and SEO.

Useful Tools

Link Detox—Link Audit and risk management tool to identify potentially harmful backlinks.

Ahrefs—Useful tool that can help you find backlinks to your site. Updated every 15 minutes.

Majestic SEO—The largest link intelligence database available. Offers a list of site backlinks and detailed information about them.

Moz—Inbound marketing software offering rankings, website errors, reporting, and more.

If you have any questions about the content of this guide, or need some help from the experts at WebpageFX, feel free to contact us. We are always happy to take on new projects and offer assistance with penalty recovery, algorithm changes, and any other SEO or marketing needs you may have.

Thanks for reading!

—The Team at