It's very site owner's worst nightmare:
You wake up one morning to log into your Google Webmaster Tools account and see this:
Obviously, this isn't what you had in mind for the day. If you see one of these messages waiting for you in your GWT account, don't panic. There are some actionable steps you can take to get out of this mess.
Here's a case study roundup of 5 people that have successful bounced back from a manual link penalty.
#1: Manual Action Case Study (Search Engine Journal)
This case study by Oilver Carding might be the most thorough that I found during my research.
Here's what happened:
A new client approached him after getting slapped. They weren't sure what happened, so they decided to create a GWT and file a reconsideration request. Sure enough, the site was manually penalized.
After a VERY lengthy outreach process using this email template:
...they filed yet another reconsideration request. No dice. Apparently, they didn't clean up enough of their client's shady links.
After reaching out to a few hundred more people trying to get their links removed, they tried one more time. That time, the manual penalty was revoked.
Lesson Learned: You need to clean up a huge percentage of spammy links to have a chance with a reconsideration request. Like Yoda says: "Do or do not, there is no try". And TRYING to get your links removed simply isn't enough. They need them be gone for Google to take notice.
#2: The Disavow Tool Works! Real Sites, Real Recoveries! (SEOWizz)
Sometimes you'll run into an issue where you're not sure WHY you got hit. Was is Panda, Penguin or a manual penalty?
This case study by SEOWizz documents a few cases where they weren't sure what happened to their clients sites. They knew organic traffic was down...but they didn't know why.
There recommendation is to file a reconsideration request. If you get this message back, it means your site was hit with an algorithmic penalty:
At that point a reconsideration request isn't the best tool for the job. Instead, you should try and clean up as many unnatural links as you possible can. Once that's done, upload the remaining bad links to the Disavow Tool. According to the authors of this case study, the disavow tool is your best option when hit with an algorithmic penalty.
Lesson Learned: The disavow tool can work. Only use it, however, if you got hit with an algorithmic penalty.
#3: How We Got Our Penalty Revoked Using the Disavow Tool (State of Search)
Like with our first case study, this SEO pro took on a client with a known spammy link profile.
His plan: disavow like there's no tomorrow.
Unfortunately, his first two disavows and reconsideration requests were rejected.
He quickly realized why: he was uploading links that appeared in GWT. While that's a decent list of incoming links, it's far from complete.
To get even more links to toss into the disavow tool, he combined backlink data from Ahrefs.com, Majestic SEO and GWT. Then he went one-by-one through the list to spot any shady links.
After that, his reconsideration request was honored and the manual penalty was lifted. Or else you can use this penalty removal service if you like to make your task easy.
Lesson Learned: If you're going to disavow, make sure you include as many links as you can into the file. That probably means using 3rd part link analysis programs to get the job done.
A Google link penalty is a lot of things: scary, frustrating, and potentially financially disastrous.
But it's not a death sentence.
As you can see with these case studies, there are a few things you must do if you want to have success with your recovery:
1. Find out what type of penalty the site has (manual or algorithmic)
2. Clean up as many bad links as you can. Disavow the rest
3. Submit a reconsideration request with fingers crossed
Image Credit: http://www.garyviray.com/