In my estimation, I have about 300 SEO friends whom I’ve met in person or online. When I converse with them, the topic that never seems to get old is manual action penalties and how to recover from them. One of the questions that I get asked about the most is how many attempts it takes me to get this type of sanction lifted.
My answer: one. I’ve been lucky enough to never have had to submit a second reconsideration request for the same case.
The next question I get asked is how I arrive at that result consistently when some SEOs take several attempts to get a manual action revoked.
Answer: I stick to the basics.
There’s no big secret. My process, by all indications, is not superior in any way to anyone else’s. However, my team does emphasize careful analysis, thoroughness and the value of documentation when we deal with manual action cases. Our process is simple but we make sure that each step that we take is well-thought out and properly executed. This post shares with you exactly how we do it and the logic behind every move we make.
What’s a Manual Action Penalty?
A manual action penalty is a type of ranking sanction that Google issues when one of its human reviewers finds egregious violations to its quality guidelines by a website. The penalty levied can span just one page or it could span the entire domain.
Manual penalties exist because Google knows that even with its sophisticated set of ranking algorithms, some SEOs are still crafty enough to game the system. When black hat SEO is practiced at its most elite levels, it takes a human reviewer to make critical observations and decisions that a computer program may not catch.
You can be manually penalized for various reasons but the most common I’ve seen is the type that’s due to unnatural inbound links. In their desire to move up the SERPs, some SEOs get too aggressive and get a little spammy with their methods. Having said that, the process I’ll share will focus on dealing with manual actions triggered by unnatural links but the core principles can be used on virtually every other grounds for ranking sanctions.
Unlike algorithmic penalties, manual actions are easier to diagnose because Google notifies you through a message in Webmaster Tools (if you have it set up.) The email will often contain vague verbiage about your site’s violation and perhaps some recommendations on rectifying the situation.
What’s an Algorithmic Penalty?
Okay, some brilliant SEOs make the case that algorithmic ranking sanctions are not penalties, but for the sake of a universally understood label, let’s call them penalties for the time being. An algorithmic penalty happens when Google’s system detects violations of their quality guidelines in your website. The infamous Penguin and Panda updates are examples of Google’s algorithmic spam-fighting mechanisms.
Unlike manual actions, algorithmic penalties do not come with notifications. The best indicator that you’ve been hit is if your site experiences sharp and abrupt organic ranking and traffic drops. They can’t be lifted with reconsideration requests either. You’ll have to address the things that you think Google disliked in your site, then wait for an algorithm refresh to see if the situation gets better.
Is a Manual penalty worse than an Algorithmic One?
Typically not. The fact that you get a notification from Google is a big advantage of getting struck by a manual action over an algorithmic one. At the very least, you’ll know what you’re dealing with and you’ll have an open channel where you can reach Google and work with them in addressing the site’s issues.
Algorithmic penalties bring the pain but they usually don’t leave much of a trace. The worst thing about them is that you can clean up your act today and wait a year for a refresh just to see if anything has improved.
How to Get a Manual Action Revoked
GDI follows eight steps when confronted with a manual action penalty case:
1. Read the Notification Carefully
When you receive a notification from Google Webmaster Tools about a manual action, don’t panic. Your site is in a serious situation but it hasn’t been sentenced to death, either. Read the text carefully and comprehend what Google is trying to tell you. This is what a typical manual action notice looks like:
The notice will tell you why your site is being sanctioned and what you can do about it. In the case of unnatural link penalties, there are even hints on how to address the situation starting with a review of your domain’s link profile under Webmaster Tools’ Links to Your Site report. You’ll see a complete list of sites and pages that are giving you links, what pages they’re linking to and how they’re linking back to it.
2. Assess the Scope of the Manual Action
Contrary to popular belief, Google doesn’t go around arbitrarily penalizing entire domains. A lot of manual actions are done on a page level basis where the sanctions are contained to just the webpages that look like they’re doing something fishy. Google can sometimes indicate that in the manual action notice but webmasters tend to miss it in their panic.
If your manual action is only for one or a few pages, your work gets much easier. In a lot of cases, deleting or deindexing the offending page is enough to get the penalty revoked. If it’s a vital page (like your home page) and you can’t take it off the Google index, you will at have to review your link profile and take action against the links that are pointing to just that page specifically as opposed to everything pointing to all the pages in your site.
Make sure the scope of the penalty is accurately assessed to ensure you don’t end up hurting yourself with excessive actions.
3. Inspect Your Link Profile
After reviewing the notification and assessing the extent of the penalty, it’s time to review your link profile. As mentioned earlier, the Links to Your Site report from GWT is a great starting point. You can also supplement it by using any of the following link intelligence tools:
- Open Site Explorer
I personally lean towards Ahrefs due to fresher and bigger link profile data.
When performing a link profile review, pay close attention to the following elements:
- The Authority of the Linking Site – Having too many links from fly-by-night sites can be harmful to your link profile.
If you’re seeing thousands upon thousands of links to your site and you’re looking at a starting point, sort your list according to which ones have the lowest domain authorities in Open Site Explorer of the ones with the lowest domain ranks in Ahrefs. This allows you to identify and address the most likely culprits in your manual action situation.
- The Content on the Linking Page – It’s not just the authority of the sites that make links good or bad for you. The content also holds weight as far as Google is concerned. If the content on the page is thin, explicit (porn, gambling, weapons) or contextually unrelated to the destination page in your site, it’s best to add the domain and its pages to your removal list.
The pages where I would exercise the most caution is the ones that look thin. Be sure you review the nature of thin pages so you can properly assess the ones in your list. If you accidentally remove or disavow links from legitimate pages, you could also harm your site’s rankings.
- The Anchor Text of the Link – Some good SEOs can do really good link building work and still get their sites penalized due to one flaw: highly concentrated anchor text. Before Penguin came along, using exact match anchor text when building links was good practice. It increased the relevance of the link and the destination page to the keywords that the link is attached to, giving the site a ranking edge.
These days, having keywords in the anchor text of your backlinks is still correlated to good rankings but doing too much of it can get you in serious trouble. Google has decided that if your link profile is brimming with links that have repetitive anchor text, you’re probably trying to game the system. Make sure to check if the links you built for your site are varied enough to have a natural look. You can try having the anchor text edited but if that doesn’t satisfy Google, you may have to get the links removed altogether.
- Link Placement – The position and quantity of inbound links matter when dealing with penalties. Sitewide links from low quality sites that are found on sidebars and footers can put you at risk. If you have too many of these sites with hundreds – if not thousands – of the same links pointing to your pages, it might lead search engines to consider your link profile as spammy.
- Where the Link is Pointing to – Link distribution between your pages can also give Google a strong signal that you’re trying too hard to rank. Obviously, having the majority of the links to your site pointing to just a few pages looks suspicious. When disavowing or having links removed, make sure to try and balance link distribution.
In a natural link profile, the home page usually gets the most links followed by the main pages on a navigation menu. Blog posts, resource pages and product pages earn links, but they don’t usually come close to the volume of links that your main pages earn.
4. Make Manual Link Removal Your Top Priority
When trying to get webmasters to clean up their link profiles, Google tends to appreciate sincere efforts in getting the links removed instead of just getting them disavowed.
If you control some of the sites where the suspicious links are coming from, remove them immediately. If you’ve been getting links from guest posts, paid sources or link directories, contact the webmasters immediately and ask for removal. Not all of them will respond or comply, but it’s important that you put in the effort to try and get them to take action.
5. Disavow Non-Responding and Extortionist Sites
If a site doesn’t respond or asks for money to remove the link, you can resort to the disavow tool. Make sure you know how to write it properly and ensure that you know the difference between disavowing one page versus entire domains. Google has a guide to the disavow tool here. Make sure to read it very carefully if you don’t have much experience with it at this point.
6. Document Everything
When applying for reconsideration, you can’t expect to plead your case and get what you want. You’ll have to present proof that you’ve dealt with the situation and did everything possible to comply with Google’s guidelines. For that reason, you have to document everything you did and show it to Google.
The best way to do that is through Google Docs. Create an appendix where you have a list of the sites that you thought were unnatural and note how you dealt with each one. Specify if the link was removed or disavowed.
If you requested for removals, take screenshots of the emails or contact form messages that you sent to the webmasters of the linking sites. Paste the images to the document in an orderly fashion. Granted, this can be a chore but it’s necessary if you want to make a strong case for reconsideration.
7. Write a Reconsideration Request
When writing your request, keep it factual and straight to the point. Acknowledge the situation and tell Google right away how you dealt with it. Provide them a link to the Google Doc file where you documented everything to show them proof. Make sure the doc is publicly accessible and will load on their end.
In closing, tell them that you hope the actions are sufficient and ask them for more details in case there needs to be more actions necessary to get the penalty lifted.
8. Wait for the Magic
After submitting the request, you’ll have to wait several weeks for Google to get back to you. In my experience, they take 2-3 weeks. It could be longer if it’s a busy time for the web spam team but for the most part, you’ll get word back within a month.
If you did your homework and followed the process I outlined, you should get a message that looks something like this:
Please note that getting a penalty revoked doesn’t necessarily mean that your rankings will go back to the way they were. Keep in mind that you removed and disavowed a lot of links that may have helped you rank in the first place. Now that the air is out of your site’s wheels, you may need to earn some new and natural links to start recovering rankings and organic traffic.