Recently, I had the unenviable task of trying to have a website's Google penalization lifted so the site could regain the significant traffic and rankings it lost after the penalty. Personally, I've been interested in reading about what's worked and what hasn't for people in penalty situations, so I thought Id write about my experience. I'm in no way claiming this to be the definitive guide to dealing with a link-based penalty, but rather just a documentation of what worked for me in this particular case
The site received an unnatural link warning through Webmaster Tools on March 22, 2012. It was the first link warning message from Google that I had seen first-hand and it looked like the standard warnings that I had read about. At this point, I wasn't sure if the penalty was manual or algorithmic, but as Penguin unfolded, I assumed it was algorithmic.
My first step was to review the site's links using Majestic's Site Explorer. They had quite a few links, and I reviewed each one found by Majestic. One thing to note is that, in addition to the bad links, the site also had a large amount of naturally-earned links, some of which were very good.
For the most part, the bad links pointing to the site fell into three categories:
- Blog comments (with overly optimized anchor text in the links)
- Blog network posts (gibberish type articles, with anchor text links)
- Directories, some of which linked from many page, mostly with overly optimized anchor text
In addition, the site had a significant amount of links from the Build My Rank network, which apparently were removed by the network itself before I began looking through the backlink profile.
Note: I've since worked to have one other site's penalty removed. On the second site, I used a link report from Webmaster Tools in addition to a Majestic report. Webmaster Tools discovered a lot of links that Majestic didn't (mostly low quality directory links). The Webmaster Tools report takes a little more time to use, since it only gives you the domain and not the exact URL of the link, but is probably worth taking a look at as well when you're hunting for bad links.
The Recovery Process
Phase 1 - Link Removal/Change Anchor Text
After making a list of problem links, one of my colleagues worked on either having them removed or changing anchor text to generic 'click here' type phrases. We removed a significant amount of blog network posts and, because we thought anchor text might be at the root of the problem, left a small amount, but changed most anchor text to non-optimized phrases. Though we tried, due to lack of contact info or unresponsiveness by site owners, we didn't have much luck removing directory links or blog comments.
Phase 2 - Wait
Next, I waited. I waited almost two months after removing/changing the links to see if it had an effect. Since I was operating under the assumption that this was an algorithmic penalty, I thought it made sense to wait for the next update. During this time, the site was getting some new links, primarily through guest posting and natural mentions. I was hoping (praying) that the combination of these two things, removing spammy links and increasing the percentage of good links, would make a difference.
After nearly two months, the site wasn't doing any better than before the link removal, so I concluded that it hadn't worked. It was around this time that I heard about Google's disavow tool
Phase 3 - Disavow Tool and Reconsideration Request
After deciding to try out the disavow tool, I once again generated a Majestic report and went through each link. This time, I decided to remove anything that was remotely questionable. At this point, I thought the best move was to get rid of anything that could be causing a problem, rather than worry whether or not any of these links were still helping the site.
I included about 60 links on the file that I submitted through the disavow tool. Because many of the sites were linking from multiple pages due to sorting, etc., I decided to, for the most part, disavow entire domains. (When using the disavow tool, you have the option of blocking a single URL, or a domain with the command: domain:crappysite.com.) By the way, for more details about Google's disavow tool, including how to use it, see this great post by Dr. Pete on the SEOmoz blog.
At this point, I still wasn't sure if the penalty was algorithmic or manual, but figured that I had nothing to lose by submitting a reconsideration request. I did that immediately after submitting the links through the disavow tool. (Note: I've since heard Matt Cutts say that its best to wait a day in between.)
My reconsideration request was not overly wordy, or incredibly detailed. I gave an overview of the situation and explained that we had tried to remove as many links as possible and had some success, but weren't able to remove all of them due to lack of responses from webmasters. Also, I mentioned that there would not be questionable links built to the site in the future.
Phase 4 - Penalty Revoked!
Almost exactly a month later, I was manually checking some of the sites keywords and noticed that a lot of rankings looked like they had returned. Excitedly, I logged into their Webmaster Tools account and saw that Google had sent a message saint that the penalty had indeed been lifted! As you can see in the email from Google, the penalty was a manual penalty. Perhaps the initial emails invitation to submit a reconsideration request should have tipped me off, but at the time it didn't.
Some rankings jumped back to their original positions, and some main keywords the site used to rank on page one for are now lingering around page 5 or 6. I assumed that, with all of those links gone that were propping the site up pre-penalty, things wouldn't return to their original positions, though. Time to build some new links!