SEO best practice in manual penalty removal

Insights | 17 Sep, 2014

SEO Director, Nick Fettiplace talks about the key steps for removing a manual penalty, and the best practice to follow.

To find out if you have a manual penalty you can run our SEO Penalty Checker for your site.

Video transcript

Google's approach to dealing with spammy link building or black hat link building has become really aggressive in the last couple of years. Part of this has been to introduce a manual penalty, manual link penalties, or manual actions to deal with and to address websites that are in clear breach of web master guidelines.

So for those of you who are kind of suffering from some kind of manual penalty, you'll know that it's not always a very easy or quick thing to deal with. There is also a lot of cloudiness in terms of what route you should take to get rid of the penalty. Fortunately the team at Jellyfish we've been pretty successful. We’ve dealt with a lot of these in the last couple of years and so we've identified what works and what doesn't work.

So the link discovery is really the first part of that kind of manual penalty removal process. I always think that if you fail at this step, the chances are you're going to fail in the entire process. So the idea of link discovery is to make sure that you're identifying all of or as many of the links that are consisted within your bad link profile as possible. And only then, once you're confident that you're really looking at the whole picture, can you start to identify what looks to be natural and what looks to be kind of false or negative links.

Okay so one of the biggest problems within the link discovery process is the fact that depending upon what link discovery tool you're using, you're going to see different results. So for example if I'm using Bing web master tools I often get a different download of links than if I'm using Google web master tools or Ahrefs or a tool like that. So for us that kind of poses the first challenge.

What we do is we take a spread of tools and we download all of the different findings that those tools, all the links that those tools can discover, combine them and duplicate them and only then are we relatively happy that we're seeing pretty much 99.9% of the links that exist within a website’s bad link profile.

Okay so once you're confident you've discovered as many of the links within your bad link profile as possible, the next step is classifying them. So marking them as being natural links, links that we want to keep, and unnatural links; links which are being falsely acquired in the past through kind of dodgy tactics.

Now link classification sounds like a fairly kind of normal process, but it can actually be quite a hefty task, because I think while we can use tools, you know, link classification tools to make a head start or to break the back of understanding what's good and bad, you do kind of need to run through it manually as well, and there's nothing like the human eye to see whether a link should be there or shouldn't be there.

I've got a couple of tips around classification. The first one is to actually be fairly aggressive with what you're identifying as being unnatural link. A classic mistake that people make is to try to remove just one or two links at a time to try and kind of tip the balance within their bad link profile but that doesn't really work. Don't try and play any games, just be completely honest and aggressive with the link profile. If a link looks as if it was unnaturally acquired or achieved by kind of slightly dodgy means, just get rid of it.

The second recommendation that I'd make would be that we tend to become very obsessed in looking at specific metrics, so web masters will often kind of become obsessed with looking at things like domain authority or the page rank of referring links or referring domains. I always think while those metrics are key things to look at, you should also be completely honest as well and say, “Look, from a human perspective irrespective of what the metrics are saying, does this link look natural or does it look as if it's coming from a decent site? Am I happy that my client would be comfortable with a link pointing to their site from a site like this?”

At the end of the link classification process, you should hopefully have a list of links which are great, which you want to keep, and also a list of links which you definitely want to remove and are unnatural links.

The things I typically look at would be links coming from really low quality directories, links coming from completely unrelated websites, from article farms. Those types of links are always the ones which are going to get classified as unnatural.

I think also looking at web 2.0 websites, which you're getting links from things like footers and blog rolls, that's often seen as very suspicious. But the biggest area for me which is an absolute tell-tale sign of link manipulation is exact match anchors; something which Google has talked a lot about. For me, if I was to give you one area to really put a lot of emphasis on, it would be looking at those exact match links with a lot of scrutiny to make sure that you're dealing with them appropriately.

Manual outreach is the step which follows the link discovery and the link classification. It's where you actually take that step to contact the different web masters of the websites which are pointing to yours and which are hosting the links which you want to try and remove. So you want to be contacting those web masters and asking or requesting that they get rid of those links as soon as possible.

It sounds like a really simple process, but the reality of it is that it can be quite a disheartening process. If you can imagine a lot of the websites that you'd be contacting, they are probably completely overwhelmed with similar requests from thousands and thousands of other SEOs across the world. So for that reason you'll find that their response rate is often pretty low. For example, on our manual outreach activities, we may find that on certain products we only have a success rate of 5% to 15% in removing links manually. But it's really key to remember that we're not only trying to remove the links; that's one objective. But we're also trying to build up a really solid case study which we can later present to Google to say, “Hey, look at all the efforts we've gone through to try and clean up our act.”

So for that reason, during that manual outreach process, I suggest keeping a Google Docs spreadsheet which lists all of the contacts you're had during this task. So the links you've tried to remove, the domains they're coming from, the web masters contact details that you used, the dates that you approached that web master to try and get the links removed. And I guess even the number of iterations that you went through within that process; that's all going to be really important, so store that very neatly within a Google Docs file.

The disavow tool can be accessed in your Google web master tools account. Essentially the tool is just a way of saying to Google, “Hey, these links are links which I've tried to remove manually through contacting various web masters. I've been unsuccessful, but I no longer want you to take them into account when you're looking at my bad link profile.” So you can place all of those links into a text file, a very simple text file, and you submit them via the disavow tool.

There are a couple of tips you could consider when you're doing your disavow file. I always say you should make it really clean and really neat. Give each link which you're disavowing its own line. And you can even include very simple notes as well, just to kind of bring a bit of clarity to your submission.

When you're dealing with a manual penalty, you have the opportunity of submitting what's called a reconsideration request. And this is kind of the last step in the process of trying to get rid of that penalty. So once you've submitted your disavow file, the reconsideration request allows you to pitch your case to Google and it's like your final declaration of saying that these are the things which I was doing in the past which we shouldn't have been doing, and actually these are the efforts that I've gone through to clean up the bad link profile of this particular website.

It's kind of your opportunity to talk about the discovery process you went through, how many links you discovered, how you classified those links, the volume or percentage of links which you felt were worth removing, and for whatever reason you felt they were unnatural. I also think it's an opportunity to finally make it quite clear to Google that your current practices are completely in line with web master guidelines and not breaching web master guidelines in any way. So the reconsideration requests are really an important part of the process.

Most importantly though, I think the reconsideration request gives you an opportunity to submit some of that supported evidence which you would have compiled during the entire process. We mentioned earlier on that during your manual outreach when you were contacting individual websites who had referring links to yours, we said that you should keep some kind of spreadsheet or Google Docs file which outlined the extent of your efforts. And that's something which can be included within your reconsideration request. Not only are you declaring that you're now doing things the proper way, and the efforts you've gone through to clean up your bad link profile, but you're also supporting that with that spreadsheet which details absolutely everything.

And a really top tip would be that we go to quite large extents to make sure that there are lots of supported data in there, so not only dates that you contacted them and the responses that you got, but we even screen grabbed some of the email correspondence between ourselves and the various web masters who we'd be dealing with; just to show the Spam Team, because it is reviewed by humans, just to demonstrate to the Spam Team that we really have done as much as we physically can.

Once you've submitted your reconsideration request, you may have to wait a couple of weeks before you hear something. The response time from the Spam Team varies a little bit. We've had really quick responses of four or five days, sometimes which is brilliant; it’s what everyone wants. But in most scenarios you have to wait between three to five weeks to hear back from the Spam Team as to whether your reconsideration request has been successful or not.

And you're going to get a message in your Google web master tools account which either says, “Great, your manual action has been revoked,” or you’re going to have the disappointing email that says, “Hey, not quite there yet. You need to try again.”

So if you've had it revoked, congratulations. And if you haven't don't worry. You have to persist. We find that actually usually you have to go through the process three or four times sometimes to get that manual penalty removed. I would suggest just kind of starting back at your link discovery seeing what more links you can discover, outreaching to try and manually remove, and then once again compiling and updating your disavow file and submitting a second reconsideration request.

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