Recovering from a Google penalty and fighting a bad case of negative SEO

This is a real-life case study of a client who came to us in mid-2012 after working for quite a few years with another SEO agency. This client, after seeing a continuous decrease in their web traffic, had the gut feeling that something was wrong. They were losing their traffic without knowing they had been issued with a manual penalty by Google.

This is our team experience dealing with this penalty. We want to share some pearls of wisdom on how to deal with a case like this and how not to get yourself penalised.

Undoubtedly 2013 was a hard year for many website owners as their traffic was severely affected by Google’s algorithm updates and the arrival of the new search algorithm Hummingbird.

Many got penalised, some fairly, some unfairly. But all those who thought that they had got away with the wrongdoing on their websites (link schemes, scraped content, lightweight articles just to mention some of the issues newly punished by Google) felt the shakedown and all the effort they made continuously  for years, was showing results, unfortunately not in a positive way.

For obvious reasons I won’t mention who this client is. The relevant thing here is to learn from the mistakes, informing yourself about what are ethical practices in SEO, things to avoid, and of course how is the recovery process after being hit by a Google penalty.

What is a penalty and why do sites get penalised by Google?

There are 2 types of penalties:

1. Manual penalty

This happens when someone at Google manually removes your site from Google’s search results because they detected spammy techniques implemented in order to manipulate search rankings, like unnatural linking (selling/buying links from other sites e.g. advertorials, footer links, etc), cloaking pages, content scraping and so forth. In this case you can fix these problems and submit a reconsideration request aiming to get your traffic back.

2. Algorithm penalty

This happens when the traffic of your site gets affected after Google update their search algorithm (e.g. Panda, Penguin updates) and affects sites that do not comply with Google’s quality guidelines, like having too many ads above the fold, featuring lightweight content, duplicated content, etc.

How do I know my site has been penalised?

In the case of the manual penalty, you are notified by Google in Webmasters Tools.

Under the Search Traffic menu, you can check at the option Manual Actions, and if you have been naughty you might find a message like this:

google-manual-action-warning

In the case of an algorithm penalty, there is no message or warning; you start seeing a sudden decrease in traffic. It’s possible you might receive a message like this below on your webmaster tools, with some hints of what’s happening.

google-penalty-algorithm

A penalty? Why me?

Coming back to our client, it turns out that they had received a manual penalty notification but the SEO agency they were previously working with failed to spot it. We scratched our heads in disbelief.

Then, after an exhaustive and almost forensic technical audit it was evident that the work made by the previous agency was mostly off-site. Links, links, links, spinning articles and links.

But they were not alone in this link-spreading mission; we discovered an usual pattern of links being built in a short period of time, placed in similar sites or sites owned by the same people/network mostly in Indian websites, using exactly the same anchor text; which by no means would have been part of any strategy set by my clients or their previous agency as this country is not part of their target market.

When we reported this find to our client, they said they suspected a former business partner they had a feud with and who’d set up a competitor site.

So now, we not only had to clean the backlink  profile of the site from the links created by the previous agency but also had get rid of the links placed by the competitor with their negative SEO strategy. We had to be quick, as the competitor seemed to have a steady daily target of dodgy links to create.

With the help of tools like Webmasters Tools, Open Site Explorer, Link Detox and Majestic SEO, we gathered as many links as we possibly could. After an extensive work of classifying the links, we sorted them out by categories such as spammy, site down, forums, good-low authority, good-good, good-exactmatch and so on.

Negative SEO – why me?

Analysing the backlink profile we confirmed our client’s theory of the competitor doing negative SEO on them, as we found out a large amount of scraped content spread all over low-quality sites, most of the domains being owned by the same people or being hosted on the same IP. A vast majority from India, which is not part of the target market of the client. All of them using as anchor text the same 3 exact match terms.

Disavowing links is a work that requires lots of caution – and patience. We analysed each one of the links. Some of the links classified as “spam” by the research tools were in fact good, organic, natural, clean links coming from sites of the likes of Wikipedia or NGO’s with pages which had been recently created and hence didn’t have enough authority.

We sent removal links requests to hundreds of webmasters, getting just a small number of replies that in fact resulted in the removal of those links; other replies were laughable attempts from cheeky webmasters to cash in the situation by asking for a fee to remove the links.

links removal request

We proceeded to prepare our first batch of links to submit to the disavow tool in the Webmasters Tools not only for Google, but also on Bing. We waited quite a few days, giving time to the mighty tool to process that vast list of spammy sites.

There was hope, all the nightmare of the penalty felt close to an end. We submitted the first reconsideration request…Reconsideration request rejected!!

google-penalty-cryptic

We didn’t know then that that was just the tip of the iceberg; despite all the work done to get to that point, we really needed to try harder, we received a very cryptic answer from Google telling us in few words that the site still had dodgy links pointing to it.

The pain of disavowing good links

So we went through our backlink profile again, this time including in the disavow list sites with low authority, blogs and forums. We were not happy to be disavowing those links, those were well earned links and those sites were good sites.

We went through the same quite a few times with a growing disavow list until at some point Google’s replies stopped being cryptic and turned more specific, even listing sample URLs that they considered were violating their quality guidelines.

Disavow list meme

We were in despair at the links we had to disavow, seeing listed sites from local government authorities, NGO’s, schools and a forum for young entrepreneurs (hosted in a prestigious oil giant company site) where our client as a teenager posted on a thread ages ago. Those sites had nothing wrong, they were not spammy links, they were not exact match links, and their only sin was having low authority.

I must confess, at some point the process was becoming frustrating; hours and hours over months now, spent cleansing the back link profile didn’t seem to be paying off. Plus we had a constant flow of new dodgy links coming through thanks to the negative SEO; the traffic falling; surrendering good links.

After this torture I felt like the kind of SEO that hears Google’s order to “jump” and says “how high?”.

After a number of reconsideration requests being rejected, one morning I checked the messages on Google webmaster tools and finding this:

Google Penalty Revoked

This is the penalty revoked notice we received from Google. Confetti has been added only for the purposes of illustrating the atmosphere of that moment

After months of disavowing links, link removal requests, endless spreadsheets…it finally happened, the manual penalty from Google was revoked!

The traffic steadily started to increase, even surpassing levels obtained on previous years, way way back before the penalty. All the efforts, not only the ones done in order to cleanse the backlink profile but the redesign, the improved UX, the new content and sections, the social media strategy,  it was all paying off.

Everybody’s gotta learn sometime

This case, being our ever first case of going through the delights on cleansing a backlink profile, had as a collateral result a very interesting learning curve not only for our team but also for the client.

We all learned:

  • Negative SEO exists
  • Be ruthless when disavowing links: even those that seem harmless could be damaging your backlink profile
  • Even when you have managed to lift a penalty, keep checking and updating your disavowing list regularly, especially if you suspect you are being a victim of negative SEO
  • Lifting a manual penalty involves lots of sweat, tears and swearing, be ready for hours of playing with spreadsheets
  • When sending a link removal request to a webmaster don’t make it sound like their website is the worst thing on the internet, don’t make them feel like they are criminals or that there’s something wrong with their sites. Be diplomatic, remember you need to gain their sympathy and cooperation
  • On your link removal request include a specific list of URLs containing links to your site, the exact pages where you need the webmaster to go removing links. Don’t send a general request just saying “there are links on your site I need to get removed”
  • Don’t follow the game of the webmasters asking for a fee to remove links to your site, shame on them! Disavow them straight away!
  • Don’t do all on your own, the process of cleansing a back link profile is totally exhausting, get some help from your teammates; they will also provide a fresher approach (and a fresher pair of eyes)
  • Keep your client up to date with the progress you are making. Explain them thoroughly what the process of removing a penalty involves and how hard it is
  • Tell the client what their team MUST stop doing (lightweight content, spinning articles, selling/buying links)

And the obvious ones we all know:

  • Don’t even think about article spinning
  • Use a varied range of long-tail anchor texts
  • Create great content, interactive content that your audience is going to be keen to share
  • Don’t get involved in link schemes neither buying or selling
  • Fix the technical SEO issues on your website
  • Improve your site speed
  • Consider a redesign with improved UX and responsive web design
  • Make social media part of your strategy

Written by

Sandra is an senior SEO consultant. She started her career in digital media in 2002 working in the development of web, multimedia and e-learning projects with one of the pioneer agencies in this field in South America. With a background in copywriting, usability, design and management of online marketing campaigns, Sandra has focused her career in SEO and is a Google Analytics Qualified individual.

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