How to Remove a Manual SEO Penalty: Interview with SEO Specialist Jake Bohall of Remove’em

| March 17, 2014


Jake BohallWhat better way to learn about removing links and recovering your site than from an expert who makes a living helping others do it.  Today I’m fortunate to have Jake Bohall of Virante Inc. giving some candid advice on removing links from a website.

1. How do I know if my site has been manually penalized?
If your site has received a manual penalty, you should receive a notice in Google Webmaster Tools. Please note that you need to have a Google Webmaster Tools account open in order to receive the notice. You can always check under the “Search Traffic” -> “Manual Actions” menu item on the left hand side.

If you are greeted with a message that says “No Manual Actions Found”, then you are in luck. If you see a site-wide or partial-match notice for unnatural links, then you will have to do a bit of work in cleaning up your backlink profile, and then request a review of your site (often referred to as a reconsideration request).

toxic-links2. How do I tell if links to my site are toxic? Is there some kind of warning or something from Google or Bing?
Unfortunately, the search engines do not have any type of early warning system prior to applying an algorithmic filter or manual action to a website. Generally speaking, you should always try to avoid using any tactics for link development that fall outside of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. If you simply must build links to your site, then you should take appropriate measures to ensure the links you obtain appear as natural as possible.

One of the biggest indicators for Google that you are manipulating your links is using commercial keywords as anchor text in your backlink profile. There are a couple of things you can do to check your backlink profile to see if you are at risk. You can use the anchor text diversity tool at Remove’em to look for obvious patterns in your backlink profile. If you notice that you seem to be overoptimized for a commercial keyword, you can then use Penguin Analysis to take a closer look at the risk you may have for those keywords and get some helpful information on how to remedy any issues.

3. What if I didn’t build the link, does Google consider that?
Since Google does not have any particular means to identify the procuring source of a link, it seems they tend to filter/penalize any site that has an unnatural link profile. If you have not built any links to your site, then you can certainly make that case in your reconsideration request.

reconsiderationUnfortunately, that would seem to be an easy out for webmasters who do build these bad links to their site, so you should expect Google to be skeptical about this type of case being made. We do know that Google appears to devalue bad links to a website, and there is a certain threshold that has to be met before any penalties are incurred. So unless you are being attacked, via negative SEO, it is unlikely that a few of these bad links would cause a penalty. That isn’t to say that the thresholds do seem to be moving in a direction that is more aggressive towards webmasters.

4. How to a make a reconsideration request? What are all the elements required for something like that?
When creating your reconsideration request, you need to make sure you cover the following elements: History, Apology, Remediation, and Future Strategy.

The history element should cover your business background, the value you provide users, and the methods you used to build your site and traffic. In most case, you are guilty of violating the guidelines whether or not it was knowingly/willingly, and you should explain what you or your team did that you understand were a violation of the guidelines.

The apology should cover an acknowledgement that the company you hired did the wrong thing, the employee you hired did the wrong thing, etc. and explain that you had no intention of violating the Webmaster Guidelines of Google or that you made a terrible mistake in choosing to ignore them.

If you did not know of the guidelines, you can explain the rankings/traffic drops made you aware of the specifics in the guidelines regarding unnatural links, and that you are sorry for your oversight in the marketing of your business.

The remediation should include an overview of the efforts you have taken to bring your site into compliance. For recoveries from unnatural linking, you should specify how you developed your master list of links, how you reviewed each link and determine those that were unnatural. If you hired an agency to do link development, this is a good time to state that you went through and disavowed and attempted removal of all links the offending agency ever built for you.

reconsideration-requestYou should link out to a Google Doc that contains a list of all the links/webmasters that you attempted to contact, how many times you attempted to contact them, and the results of your effort (removed/disavowed/ransom paid/etc.) Include in this section a bulleted outline of the numbers. How many links you reviewed, how many appeared unnatural, how many you were able to contact, how many removed links, how many did not (that you have now disavowed), and how much you had to pay in ransoms (if applicable). Be sure to mention that you have exhausted all efforts and you are no longer seeing any progress with your outreach, and feel your company has done all that it is capable of doing to cleanup the bad backlinks.

Future strategy should reiterate what you have learned from this process, and how you plan to adjust your marketing efforts going forward. Be sure to include any specific content building efforts you have, ideally, been implementing, as well as compliant approaches to link development you will be taking moving forward.

5. Can’t I just use the disavow tool now?
Matt Cutts, head of the Google Web Spam team, has specifically stated that you should attempt cleanup efforts prior to submitting a disavow file. Most theories regarding disavow have agreed that it likely does not hurt for you to go ahead and submit a disavow file with all of the links you will be attempting to remove, though we do highly recommend you exhaust all cleanup efforts prior to submitting any reconsideration requests. Our experience has shown you need to remove at least 40% of offending links before you should expect to get a successful reconsideration request.

6. I’m told I need to gather evidence that I’ve tried to remove links myself, is that true?
Google has cited examples of companies sending them copies of postcards, copies of emails, screenshots of form submissions, etc. In our experience, this is a little overkill, though we are also using Remove’em, which provides a 3rd Party Verification link you can include in your reconsideration request to show that Remove’em is vouching for your efforts. Generally speaking, I think it is a bit of overkill and makes for greater frustrations if/when your reconsideration requests are denied.

Overall, I think the best proof of your efforts is successfully have a large portion of links removed. It is rare that we are unable to remove at least 40% of the offending links, so I think that is a good benchmark to consider as proof that you put forth a valiant effort toward actually cleaning up the links.

phone7. How do I go about removing links on my own? Do I call people? Email them?
Yes. All of the above! When we are doing link cleanup on the full-service side of Remove’em, we will email webmasters, call webmasters, post comments on their site, do contact form submissions, etc. Sometimes we hunt the webmasters down on Facebook or Twitter, and send a message. We built Remove’em as a CRM to help customer manage the outreach process and easily track whether the links are being removed, so this is the system we use for managing all of our link removal outreach efforts.

8. What if I can’t get the links to my site removed?
The disavow feature is specifically meant for the situations where you’ve tried contacting the webmaster and were unsuccessful in getting the link removed. Google doesn’t expect you to be able to remove all of the bad links. If you were comment spamming most of your backlinks, then it is likely you won’t get most of your links down as webmasters are hesitant to do any favors for people that spammed them in the past. These are the exact cases that the disavow tool was built to handle.

diavow-links-tool9. Have there been instances where the disavow tool and reconsideration request didn’t make a difference in a site’s rankings?
There have been instances where using the disavow tool and going through a reconsideration request haven’t made an immediate impact on rankings, but over time you can see the site begin to recover.

I think it is important to distinguish the purpose of the reconsideration request and disavow tool. These options are for sites that have been penalized or received an algorithmic filter, so without taking these steps your site likely has no chance of regaining its rankings. By simply going through the process of removing and/or disavowing the bad links and filing a reconsideration request, your site will not simply pop back up in the rankings. In most cases, you received the penalty/filter because your site had artificially inflated rankings because of the specific links you are removing. When you remove the links, you are essentially removing a portion of the authority that gave you those rankings, and your site will recover to where it “belongs” given the current backlink profile, authority, onsite SEO, etc.

Another important distinction to make is once a reconsideration request is approved, it simply means any manual action has been removed. There can still be algorithmic filters against your site, whether it be Panda, Penguin, or any of the other search quality filters. One thing we have noticed quite a bit is sites impacted by Penguin tend not to begin recovery until the next Penguin update rolls out. You could think of it like a filter placed on search results, and there is a specific block for your site (and others impacted by Penguin).

Once Penguin refreshes, the filter updates, and with any luck, your site is removed from the filter. It is common to see your rankings jump a bit (not necessary number 1 position or even page 1) once the Penguin update occurs. After you feel sufficiently safe from Penguin, you can begin link development efforts to replace your lost authority, and should focus heavily on following through on the “future strategies” you included in your reconsideration request. I can’t imagine Google will be overly forgiving if you go out and start buying links or spamming again!

spam10. Are spammy backlinks common on the web? Do I have to worry about this happening again?
Spammy backlinks are very common on the web. You may have heard of Akismet, or Virante’s very own LinkSleeve, which are built specifically to prevent link spam from occurring across the web. At the same time, spammers are creating tools and creating easy outlets to create new link spam and shady SEO companies are constantly creating automated methods to place links and create link farms.

In short, yes, you should worry about this happening again. You should carefully vet any SEO company you hire to ensure they are using practices that your company is willing to support. You should also make a practice of watching your backlink profile to monitor against negative seo attacks against your business.

With Remove’em, we have a $99 subscription that automatically imports any new links each month so you can easily update your disavow file or remove any new bad links that might be coming your way from random scraper sites, etc. It is unfortunate, but Google doesn’t seem to care about the procuring cause of the links… if your backlink profile looks bad, you suffer regardless of fault, so it is wise to keep an eye on it so you can tackle any issues before they catch Google’s attention.

I’d like to thank Jake again for taking the time to answer all of our questions.  I think a key take away is that, even if you are in a bad spot with spammy links leading to your website, all is not lost.  You can take steps now to get things cleaned up and there are a variety of tools to help you do it.

Don’t know where to begin with building links to your site or maybe you just don’t have the time?  Let us know how we can help.