Google Penalty Recovery – How to Fix an SEO Manual Penalty

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You may not be doing the best things – but most likely you’re not really penalized.

Over the years optimizing websites for search engines, I’ve seen it all. Before you start down the confusing, time consuming, potentially damaging path of grooming your link profile in an attempt to gain rankings, which Google would consider against its policy in most cases, let’s define what a penalty is.

Penalty: a punishment imposed for breaking a law, rule or contract.

To be penalized implies you are actively being punished for doing something wrong. Google will let you know this by sending you a message in your Webmaster Tools account clearly stating you’ve been penalized.

Most websites out there that have lost search ranking over time aren’t actively being penalized. If you haven’t updated your website in a long time and traffic is declining, that is not a penalty. That’s lack of effort on your part to compete in an evolving landscape. If you’ve launched a new website and noticed a traffic drop, this is probably not a penalty. Check that your robots.txt file isn’t blocking Google and make sure you’ve redirected links appropriately. There’s no perfect formula for regaining your site’s lost web traffic after getting dinged with a Google penalty. But there are a few best practices you can roll-out in an attempt to mitigate or reverse Google penalty damage. The effect of some penalties takes only a few days to sort out, and others require several months to resolve. But regardless the seriousness of the penalty, it can be corrected. Simply identify the penalty that’s affecting your site, and take the proper steps to fix it.

A summary of Google’s webmaster guidelines.

Here’s a quick overview of Google’s guidelines on search. To summarize, Google wants to rank different sites that provide useful, high quality content – not websites that copy and paste from across the Internet or attempt to dominate the search results with numerous thin websites leading to the same website.

When to worry about penalties.

Removing bad links from websites is a service I do way too often if you ask me. Here are sample screen shots from a client of mine who needed their link profile straightened out.

white hat seo services what bad seo looks likeHere’s an example of a Google “penalty” showing consistent loss of traffic over time.

an example of a Google manual penalty for suspicious links in webmaster toolsHere’s the same site with a manual action penalty clearly listed in Webmaster tools. Note this is affecting their service pages mainly which were the heavily optimized pages on their site.

Have you hired a search marketing firm claiming to get you on the first page of Google in no time, especially a really inexpensive one? Purchased links? Bought a subscription to some generic sounding SEO software promising tons of traffic in no time at all? Then you should worry about being penalized. Suspicious links are something I see a lot. Getting people to talk about you is usually pretty difficult. Most websites take years to get links. Suddenly acquiring tons of links from low quality sources is a huge signal that you paid for links, which is against Google’s guidelines. Like driving on the roads in the good ol’ US of A, being ranked on Google’s search engine is a privilege, not a right. If you feel like you’ve done something that would draw a penalty from Google, then read on.

Pandas, penguins, penalties, oh my.

The two most common Google penalties are Panda, which typically stems from a site’s quality, and Penguin, which penalizes sites that attempt to exploit Google’s search engine.

What a Panda penalty looks like.

If traffic to your entire site has experienced a sharp fall, but eventually stabilized, and you’ve ruled out common technical issues like forgetting to redirect links, it’s likely been hit by the Panda penalty. Before you panic, note that nearly every site is affected by a Panda penalty and it doesn’t necessarily mean your site is doing something wrong. The penalty is so common that Google has stopped calling it a penalty and instead calls it a “quality algorithm.” Google evaluates the quality of every website, and a Panda penalty is a sign that your site includes some low quality content, which hurts its search ranking.

thin web page duplicate content
An example of a low quality web page. Manufacturer product descriptions are often copy and pasted across numerous websites and have a hard time ranking due to low quality.

A Panda penalty could also be affecting your site if traffic has steadily declined over a long period of time. If your website was averaging 900 unique visits a day a year ago, but has since dropped to only 650 unique visits, it could be the cause of a Panda penalty. Sometimes updates are to blame for that kind of gradual decrease; you can find out by comparing the timing of past updates with dips in your website’s traffic.

How to recover from a Panda penalty.

The best way to recover traffic after receiving a Panda penalty is to improve content that’s negatively affecting the quality of your site. Doorway pages, copied content and a missing contact page are examples of things that would hurt your site’s quality score, and subsequently, its search ranking. If you’ve been hit by a Panda penalty, Google is telling you your website content isn’t useful. You need to add unique useful content and remove spammy content that visitors aren’t engaging with. Use Google Analytics or other metrics tools to see which content has high bounce rates, do some keyword research and tweak the content title tag, description and on-page copy to be more inline with what your visitors are looking for.

What a Penguin penalty looks like.

A Penguin penalty is less about quality control and more about preventing sites from manipulating Google’s search engine by using artificial or unnatural links. Google considers any link that exists only to draw in web traffic – as opposed to routing users to high-quality content – a violation of its webmaster guidelines. Paying for links, asking for links, negotiating link exchanges and automating the creation of links using things like Scrapebox for mass syndication are all off limits. A Penguin penalty is typically indicated by specific keywords or a group of keywords experiencing a sudden drop in rankings. And, unlike sites affected by a Panda penalty, those rankings do not stabilize. A Penguin penalty is also page-specific, which means only pages that contain those keywords are penalized and may be de-indexed from Google. Another indicator that your site has received a Penguin penalty is that pages not supposed to be ranking will sometimes show up in place of pages that are. A site’s contact page may be ranking in place of its homepage, for example.

How to recover from a Penguin penalty.

Recovering from a Penguin penalty is more straightforward than recovering from a Panda penalty. Simply remove the links that are damaging your site. There’s plenty of software out there for diagnosing bad links. Some of my favorites are Positionly and Cognitive SEO. However, you can do a more manual approach without using tools that is effective.

The link removal process.

The process for removing bad links is finding your backlinks, identifying which ones are bad and removing them.

How to find your backlinks.

Use Google Webmaster Tools to pull all links pointing to your website. Export these links and open them in a spreadsheet program. Make a column called “Remove” so you can place notes next to domains that need to be removed. If you don’t have Google Webmaster Tools setup, you need to do this ASAP. Another useful free tool is Moz’s Open Site Explorer, but it’s not going to give you the full list of URLs that Webmaster Tools will. However, we’ll use Open Site Explorer in our next step.

How to identify your bad backlinks.

Take your list of backlinks and plug them into this helpful tool one-by-one. If any come up as penalized, you’ll want mark the domain as “remove” on your list of backlinks. Run your other links through Open Site Explorer and see what their spam score is. If they rank 7 or higher, you’ll highly want to consider marking these links for removal on your backlinks list. After this it gets a little grey in regards to which links to remove and which to leave alone. I really avoid manually removing links if I can help it because if Google “penalizes” for over optimizing your website, excessive removal can be classified as over optimizing. Every website is going to have crappy links pointing to it. It’s just a fact of Internet life. I think people can get overzealous and start removing every link they think is bad and end up doing more harm than good. With that said, if you have hundreds of links from one off-topic domain pointing to a single page on your site, you may want to consider marking this for removal. I would define off-topic as being illogically linked to your site based on the content themes. If I sell cupcakes, why is a German aftermarket auto-parts forum linking to my website 1,000 times?

Removing your bad links

After you have your links or domains that need to be removed, go to Google’s disavow tool and upload your file. You need to be super careful because you can destroy your link profile if you disavow natural, helpful links. It will take awhile for these links to drop off, sometimes up to three months. In September of 2016 Google rolled out a massive update to their Rank Brain search engine software that applies and removes penalties in near real-time (more on that here). Once you’ve disavowed your bad links, you can always try re-fetching your website using Google’s fetch tool in Webmaster Tools to speed things up, too.

Manual SEO penalty: when Google hates you and kicks you off the Google search results.

In extreme cases, Google may also take manual action to demote, or even remove from its search results a site or pages that violate its webmaster guidelines. We’re not talking about losing page ranking, we’re talking about not showing up on Google at all. If that’s the case, you’ll have to submit a reconsideration request after making changes to your site asking Google to review it. It typically takes three weeks for Google to respond to reconsideration requests. Log in to Google webmaster tools, click on “search queries,” then click on “manual actions” to check for manual actions against your site. Remember, a Panda penalty affects your entire site, whereas a Penguin penalty affects only specific keywords or a group of keywords on particular pages. You can determine which penalty is affecting your site’s traffic by using Google Analytics. Other penalties that may be affecting your site do exist, however. To find out if your site has been de-indexed due to miscellaneous penalties, Google “site:yoursitename.com,” and see if it shows up in the search results. If not, this is a sign you may have been de-indexed.

Resources for recovering from Google penalties.

Google Webmaster Tools will show you just about everything you need to know about your site, including organic traffic numbers, penalty notices, crawl stats and errors. You need this tool. Panguin is a Google penalty checker for overlaying Google updates over your Google Analytics traffic. Xenu Link Sleuth is a link crawler that can locate broken links, pages and other issues affecting the quality of your website. It can also help find issues like duplicate, and thin content. Is My Website Penalized? Will estimate whether a website is penalized by Google. Open Site Explorer is an excellent tool that shows backlinks and also lets you know if they are spammy or not. Google Disavow Tool is what you use after identifying spammy links pointing to your site that you want to have removed.



Author: Graham Onak
Graham Onak is the owner of GainTap, a Chicago based online marketing optimization company. He brings a wide array of experience to his work and writes primarily about technical optimization techniques for websites and online marketing programs.

1 Comment

  • Yeah, you’re completely correct when you say that people don’t tend to get back to the previous heights they had. Most of the clients we’ve worked with have had pretty bad penalties, so they’ve seen their sites either completely drop outside the top 100 for all search results, or noticed their search engine traffic drop by over 80%.

    Like you say, it’s a case by case basis, but we’ve seen clients recover generally 50% or so of their lost search traffic. It really depends on how many links we’ve had to remove and how strict the penalty was in the first place.

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