When our client approached us with a problem, we were faced with a new challenge. They had been hit by a Google unnatural links manual penalty and had dropped out of Google pretty much overnight.
So, first the facts – a third party SEO company had undertaken a linking exercise over three years ago for a period of three months which involved submitting articles for back link purposes, as was common practice at that time. However, Google is now cleaning up this kind of linking activity and had therefore applied a manual penalty to the site. In order to fix this issue, our client has been requested by Google to remove all of the unnatural links and then submit a reconsideration request. The links were clearly added by somebody, so the obvious solution was to go back to all the linking sites and simply get them removed. As the initial links were generated by a third party, the first port of call was the SEO company. However, as the links had been added over three years ago, the login details, passwords etc. were no longer available. So the option to simply log back into some account somewhere to get the listings removed was not available; this task was clearly not going to be an easy one.
My initial research
confirmed that my client was not alone and many site owners were in a similar position. I assumed at this point that there was going to be plenty of information on the web to help resolve the situation. So, what kind of resources were available out there to assist ? In short, very little. Yes, many other site owners were affected. There are many posts of the how unjustified the penalties are, many rants against Google and lots of noise about the effects of such penalties. But, there were no real resources to use to actually take some action to rectify the situation.
Although there was detailed ‘noise’ about how damaging the penalty was and how it had adversely affected a sites performance, these did not address the issues our client faced. Once upon a time it was the number of back links to your site that assisted in a site’s Google ranking performance and this could be unsurprisingly manipulated by employing SEO companies to create links for just this purpose. Many sites benefitted from this behaviour but few were able to hold their hands up to recognise this fact and accept that the parameters had changed and they therefore had to do something to bring their sites in line with new best practice. There was very little practical support out there to assist.
So you are in the situation where the manual penalty has been applied and there is no information available on who these links were submitted to and how. With no successful blueprint to follow, where did we go from there?
I initially contacted a number of sites that linked back to the site in larger numbers. I emailed the webmasters via online contact forms or through contact email addresses provided on the site. I requested their assistance in removing the links to the site and explained why. As a number of the webmasters replied to confirm they would do so, I felt that I was off to a positive start and happily submitted my first reconsideration request to Google.
I think my first attempts were naive. I wrongly assumed that Google would see that outside this three month period the site had only followed ‘best practice’ as the offending activity had taken place over three years ago. Therefore I assumed that it would only take an acknowledgement that those links generated were inappropriate and that if I made a goodwill gesture to remove some of the larger offenders, this would be sufficient.
In hindsight, it was not unsurprising that this first request was rejected.
Prior to a second request,
I upped my numbers and worked further down the list continuing with the practice of contacting the site owners and appealing to their better nature. As suggested by Google, I kept records of who I had contacted and when plus the nature of the response received. Although the list of sites that I had contacted had grown, I will acknowledge that I was still banking on the fact that removing a proportion of links would be enough. I suspect that I cut corners at this stage in terms of tackling the particularly problematic links where contact information was not easily available and these were ignored in favour of the easier domains to try to play the numbers game. The links showing in Google Webmaster Tools were decreasing but I think it is a dangerous game to simply focus on this. Although some links were being successfully removed, new ones were showing up in Google Webmaster Tools (WMT), as Google discovered them. seemingly (although this seems hard to believe) for the first time. This meant three year old links were showing up as new! This clearly was an ever-evolving scenario. Many of the links were from sites re-using content from article sites in particular. The bad links were then being regurgitated by other sites who simply farm and copy content. This diluted the amount of control over the initial links even further and further compounded a difficult situation. The lesson; you cannot afford to remove x number of links, submit a reconsideration request and then sit back and wait for your efforts to be rewarded.
Although WMT is an invaluable tool in identifying the sites that are linking to you, particularly when you personally do not have access to the information about who was submitted to in the first place, there are constant questions being raised by it. I found it showed a large number of links which on further investigation were no longer valid. There seemed to be big differences in how long it took a removed link to cease to show on WMT. Some domains that I had contacted stopped appearing in WMT after a relatively short period of time however others remained for months after confirmation that they have been taken off. This is where the numbers game strategy requires careful monitoring.
After another rejection,
Google announced the introduction of their link disavow tool. Again, there were very mixed responses to this tool and its ability to help with the situation. Although one piece of advice was clear from the start; it is to be used with caution. Another round of site owners were contacted and this time the disavow tool was used for the more problematic domains. Surely this was the answer and another reconsideration request was submitted. Again, another rejection.
By this stage I had acknowledged that there are no short cuts to this process and no goodwill gesture is ever going to be enough. In my experience, it is simply a case of working meticulously through every link to your site and making a judgement call on its validity. If you are in any doubt as to whether the link is genuine or not, then it is probably not or you would not need to question it, so remove it.
If there is no valid contact information on the site, contact the domain owners through the whois information. My experience has showed me that site owners will remove the links if required as they too want to work within best practice and avoid Google penalties. Plenty of webmasters fail to respond, expect to charge you or even refuse to remove the links – unfortunately they are precisely the links that you want to try to get rid of.
I worked through every single incoming link to the clients site one at a time and allocated them all to my own categories. I noted genuine links that I wanted to retain, links that I knew had been removed although they were still showing, invalid links where either the links had been removed or the sites are no longer active, links where I had received no response from the webmasters despite between two and four contact messages being sent (either via contact forms, contact emails or whois information) and finally the handful of domains where I could not find any further options. These included domains where the contact email had been rejected for example. This allowed me to quantify exactly how many links had been removed and how many I expected to be removed due to invalid links. I was then able to use the disavow tool for the domains where I had failed to receive a response or where I had tried unsuccessfully to find contact information. This information was then cross-referenced against the sample link spreadsheet and the latest link spreadsheet from WMT to make sure that nothing had been missed. An incredibly manual and time consuming exercise but as I said before, there are no shortcuts to be taken.
A final reconsideration request was submitted and finally – success ! The manual penalty has been revoked. It was a source of great professional satisfaction when the success message arrived in the Google Webmaster Tools inbox. Many lessons were learned but the key one was that nothing but a thorough and comprehensive link-removal exercise will suffice.