search marketing

Recovering from a Google Penalty

Written by Kurt Steinbrueck

google-red-cardIt’s the thing no website owner wants see.  You log into Google Webmaster Tools and see a notification.

Manual Actions

Unnatural links to your site
Google has detected a pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site.  Some links may be outside of the webmaster’s control, so for this incident we are taking targeted action on the unnatural links instead of on the site’s ranking as a whole.

Google has penalized your site for links pointing to your website which you may or may not have had part in creating.  What do you do?

We recently helped a site work through this situation.  This is becoming more and more common as Google changes their guidelines ever few months, it seems.  Links that were perfectly fine before, are now considered against their guidelines.  That’s what happened with this site.  They had done some link building over the years and it had always been within Google’s guidelines, but now Google had changed their guidelines and this site was suffering a lot of ranking, and thus web traffic, losses because of it.

With more and more website owners being penalized, I thought it would be helpful to write about how we successfully got this link penalty removed.

How to Get a Google Penalty Removed:

The Basics:
The general strategy for getting a Google link penalty removed is pretty straight forward.  Identify links pointing to your site which violate Google’s guidelines and try to have them removed.  If you cannot remove the links, use the Google disavow tool to disavow the links.  Then submit a request for Google to reconsider their manual action.

Step 1: Link Building Review
A full link clean up can take a lot of work, but in some cases webmasters have been able to get penalties removed quickly by quickly dealing with links that clearly violate Google’s guidelines.  So, the first step is to review Google’s guidelines and your link building history and determine if there are any links you’ve created which clearly violate Google’s guidelines which you can deal with quickly.  If you find some easily identifiable links, have them removed.  If you can’t have them removed, use the Google disavow tool to disavow the links.  Then submit a request for Google to reconsider their manual action.

For example, if you paid for links at some point, there’s a good chance those are the problem or at least part of the problem.  Try remove the links or disavow them and then submit a reconsideration request.  It usually takes Google a week or so to respond.

We did this with our client, quickly removing some article links and disavowing several article syndication sites.  Unfortunately, the quick initial attempt was not successful.  So, we moved on to step 2.

Step 2: Link Analysis
peek-at-computerIf Google does not remove the manual action from your initial work in step one, then you’ll need to do a full link analysis.  To do this, you’ll need to download the recent links from your Google Webmaster Tools account.  Then go through the links and identify all links that are either a clear violation of Google’s guidelines or look spammy.  Keep in mind.  It doesn’t matter if you intentionally created the links or not.  Google only cares that they exist.

This can be a pretty long and tedious process.  You may find it helpful to use a tool like Link Detox or SEO Profiler.  These tools use software to help identify which links are more likely causing a problem.  They aren’t perfect, though.  So, it’s good to still go through all the links manually, but these tools help to make that quicker and easier, too.

We used Link Detox with our client, going through several thousand links and categorizing them all as links that needed to be removed, links that could simply be disavowed (clearly just spam sites), and links that were valid and should be kept.

Step 3: Removing Links
Google doesn’t just want webmasters to disavow everything.  They want you to put the effort into actually getting the links removed.  So, you need to put forth a good faith effort to do that and you need to document it.  If you have access to some links (i.e. you can login to an account and remove the link), then remove the links yourself.  If you don’t have access to the links, then you’ll need to contact each of the websites of the links that need to be removed several times asking them to remove the links.  Be sure to document every site you contact and how often you contact them.  Again, there are tools available that can make this easier, such as rMoov.

With our client, we used rMoov.  Rmoov found the contact information for many of the sites automatically and we manually searched for the others.  We then created template messages and rMoov automatically sends them out filling in the specific information for each site and documenting the entire process.  So, we contacted all the websites which had links we wanted removed.  In some cases, we also used the website’s contact form and manually logged the contacts.

Step 4: Disavow Links
Even after contacting webmasters several times, you’ll still likely have a lot of links which you weren’t able to get removed.  For those links, you’ll need to create a disavow document and submit it in your Google Webmaster Tools account using the Google Disavow Tool. For most of the links, I recommend disavowing the entire domain.  Only disavow the individual pages if there are also legitimate links on the site.

For our client, we created the disavow file by downloading a disavow file from rMoov (automatically created) and from Link Detox (automatically created), and then adding some additional sites and pages manually.

Step 5: Submit a Reconsideration Request
bowingOnce you’ve removed as many suspicious links as possible and disavowed the rest, it’s time to ask Google to remove the manual action.  When you do this, you’ll want to do a few things:

  • Be respectful.  You are asking them to help you.  Be nice.
  • Admit it if you’ve violated their guidelines and apologize.  Google has specifically said they want to know you won’t do it again.
  • Show Google that you aren’t violating their guidelines anymore.  Talk about what positive steps you are taking that are within their guidelines and show them, if possible.
  • Include documentation of all the work you’ve done.  Show them you’ve worked hard to fix the issues.
  • Include the disavow file for reference.
  • Include any previous communications.

Google typically takes a week or two to respond.  After following the 5 steps above, if you’ve done a thorough job, you should have the penalty removed.

Google removed the manual action from our client’s site after we followed these 5 steps.  It took a while, about 5 months, and it took a lot of effort, but we were successful and it was well worth it.

So, if you check your Google Webmaster Tools account and find that you have received a manual action for links, follow the five steps above and you can get the penalty removed.  If you have any questions or would like some help, let us know and we’d be happy to help.

About the author

Kurt Steinbrueck

Kurt Steinbrueck is the Director of Marketing Services with OurChurch.Com. He also serves on the leadership of Family of Christ Lutheran Church in Tampa, FL. You can find him on Google+ as .


    • Thanks. Hopefully, it will enable some people to deal with their penalty when they may not have been able to before. Unfortunately, it won't keep them from having to do a ton of tedious work in the process 🙁

  • Very helpful. I didn't realize that people could "spam-link" to you or you to them. Will have to re-read the guidelines.

    • Thanks Susan. Spammy links are links like bogus/irrelevant blog or forum comments made just to get links. Manipulative links (which spammy links are often intended to be manipulative as well.) are when a website owner creates links on other people's sites which link back to their own site and where the intention is to manipulate the search rankings. Some examples of manipulative links are followed guest blog post links, article syndication links, and paid links.

      You can read Google's guidelines on links here. They refer to spammy links and manipulative links all as link schemes.

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