Overcoming a Google Manual Links Penalty
In April 2014, the SEO team at Seperia noticed one of our clients’* organic rankings on Google had suddenly dropped, falling from pages 1-2 to pages 6-8, on generic, as well as brand queries. Shortly after this surprising discovery, a formal notification arrived via Google Webmaster Tools, stating that Google had detected a pattern of unnatural links to the client’s site and had decided to apply a manual spam action against the site.
In this case study we will present the details of how Seperia’s SEO team addressed this threat, and brought it to an eventual full revoke by Google within 1 month. It is important to note our client’s penalty was caused by the link building activities of their parent company’s website- activities which were external and unrelated to Seperia’s service. Neither Seperia nor the client were made aware of these activities prior to the client’s penalty.
Upon receiving Google’s notification about the manual spam action we immediately notified the client and ran a rankings check in Google, as well as a check of Google Analytics data and Google webmaster tools, to fully understand the damage caused by this penalty.
The following factors indicated severe damage had been caused:
- Main keywords had dropped on average 50 positions in organic rankings.
- Brand-name searches returned other sites in top organic positions.
- The site had lost approximately 70% (!) of its average daily organic traffic.
A complete analysis of every link was performed using backlink analysis tools including ahrefs.com and others. Any seemingly unnatural links were marked for action.
Our analysis indicated that the majority of links were highly relevant, natural and conforming with Google’s quality guidelines. As such, Seperia had no ground to believe that the penalty might have been caused by links added during the time we managed the client’s SEO. Nevertheless, we continued analyzing each and every link carefully, first sorting all links into ‘follow’ vs. ‘nofollow’ links, and then further sorting them into ‘Natural’ vs. ‘Un-Natural’ links.
Action Plan to Overcome the Links Penalty
Time was of the essence and the faster we acted, the better our chances would be to turn the situation around. Our team prepared a thorough, concrete action plan in order to reverse the penalty ASAP.
1. We immediately approached the questionable sites and their owners (including blog owners, sites where the links were a result of media buying and other suspicious sites). These contacts were requested to either remove their links to our client’s website entirely or to tag the links with rel=“no follow” to indicate to Google that those links are for traffic- not link juice passing – purposes.
2. Seperia ensured all actions were documented, including which sites were approached, back and forth correspondence and the timeframes of these actions, in order to share our actions with Google’s quality team.
3. Two days after the initial notification from Google, during which time the above actions had been taken, Seperia delivered a reconsideration request to Google on behalf of the client. The request documented the unintentional nature of the incident as well as all efforts undertaken to rectify the situation.
Initial Challenges when Trying to Overcome the Links Penalty
When we approached site owners regarding questionable links:
- Actually making contact with certain site owners proved difficult.
- Some of the domains, where links were developed many years ago, either did not reply at all, or refused to comply with our requests for link removal.
- Our client’s domain used to be owned (many years ago) by a different company, which explained why some of the backlinks were no longer relevant.
To overcome this, Seperia complied with Google’s quality guidelines and created a Links Disavow List to notify Google of all links we wanted to remove, but following our efforts could not do so ourselves.
The risk of performing a link clean-up:
- Many well established and powerful links can be eliminated, which may actually harm the positive link equity of the site. As a result of losing the backlinks, the number of visitors who enter the site through these links will likely reduce and the site’s organic rankings can be weakened.
- However, as part of our response, no chances were taken and a thorough clean- up was performed.
Google’s 1st response
The response we received from Google indicated that based on the information we presented, the case had been reconsidered and the penalty had been reduced to a partial penalty, affecting only specific areas of the site.
At this time, the client’s organic results on brand name searches completely recovered and most of our non-brand keywords’ positions slightly improved, but were not yet close to ranking where they had pre-penalty.
New Information- A ‘Penalty by Association’
Shortly after sending the reconsideration request, it came to our attention that several months earlier, other sites belonging to our client’s parent company had also received link building penalties. This was crucial news that neither our client, nor Seperia had been informed of.
At this point we realized that the penalty was not so much a result of the links pointing to our client’s site as it was a result of the parent company’s other sites’ penalties, a “penalty by association”.
Our client was likely spotted by Google during the analysis of its parent company’s sites due to their proximity, and some questionable link building techniques they’d practiced in the past, such as including backlinks in low quality sites to all its child sites, including our client’s. We also found a small number of links between our client’s site and the parent company’s sites that had been penalized.
Updated Solutions to Revoke the Links Penalty
At this point Seperia decided to focus all efforts on fixing these links. We contacted the parent company’s SEO team to request all links from their other sites to our client’s site either be removed or tagged with rel=“no follow”. Working together closely on the matter, we were able to identify the exact pages to target and could act quickly to remove the links.
After the parent company informed us that the requested actions had been completed, we wrote a second reconsideration request to Google based on this new information. Documentation and recording of all actions was still ongoing and therefore shared with Google in an attempt to present an up-to-date status and to demonstrate the continuous efforts invested all along to repair the situation.
Our second reconsideration request was answered shortly after. Exactly one month after the original penalty notification, we received word that Google had re-examined the case and decided to completely revoke the penalty.
Outcomes After the Penalty was Revoked
- Our client’s keyword rankings returned to their pre-penalty positions. We even witnessed a few of our core keywords rank higher than before the penalty.
- It took approximately two months for organic traffic volumes to completely recover.
- As of July 2014, traffic has returned to 100% of previous rates.
- Our backlinks cleanup efforts did not cease after filing the reconsideration request. We continue running backlinks analyses, contacting site owners and are constantly updating the links’ status files and disavow list.
Final notes on overcoming Link Penalties
Seperia always instructs its clients not to partake in mass and unnatural link building activities, such as link buying or link exchanges, as we encourage and practice cautious and responsible link acquisition strategies.
Highly moderated link-building practices were implemented for this client before the penalty; links were only fostered in relevant sources, mostly using our client’s online publications and social media activity to generate awareness and inspire natural links creation. Backlinks were usually tagged with rel=’nofollow’ and any newly added links were examined by Seperia to eliminate poor quality links.
In this case, recovery from the penalty was lightning fast not only because of our swift and thorough response, but also as our client’s website is well established and backlink activities had always been applied in good faith (as was repeatedly expressed throughout our correspondence to Google). Further to this, our analysis showed that only a small number of links actually needed to be removed, many of which had actually been created without our knowledge.
Our team was pleasantly surprised to see the penalty removed so quickly, as some cases we have witnessed have taken months or years to recover from.
*Our client is an established company operating in the financial industry. For privacy reasons the client’s name has been withheld.
For detailed steps to address a Google Links Penalty, check out our related blog post: