This is a TRUE, SUCCESSFUL & UNREQUESTED story from George Harris, one of our customers.
“Mr Harris presents a very interesting Case Study on a Manual Action Recovery, where he outlines the fact that webmasters need to be perseverant and the recovery will finally happen. Lots of webmasters fail at Google Recoveries due to the fact that they expect it to happen after their first Google Disavow or Link Removal campaign. It may take a few reconsideration requests until you get the recovery, unless you do it exceptionally well the first time! “
We were approached by a company in 2014 whose website had been issued with a Partial Google Penalty for unnatural inbound links. This post details the precise steps we took to resolve the penalty and everything we learnt along the way. The client wishes to remain anonymous so all references to them have been removed.
The Unnatural InBound Link Warning from Google Webmaster Tools
The chances are that you’re already familiar with the following message in Google Webmaster Tools. It means your SEO and Marketing efforts are going to be sidetracked for a while:
Firstly was to establish if this penalty was genuine or as a result of a Negative SEO attack. This didn’t take long as it was clear that the company had already been hit by a Penguin Algorithmic Penalty in 2012 which decimated their Organic traffic.
They never recovered from the algorithmic penalty, and had moved away from SEO into Social, Affiliate and Paid Advertising. They had started to re-invest in SEO a couple of months earlier, and after their ex-digital agency built a handful of poor backlinks, they’d been given this partial manual penalty.
First Step – Mining the Links
As the penalty was justified based on Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, the next step was to either remove or disavow any toxic, followed, inbound links before filing a reconsideration request.
We collected as many links as we could from Google Webmaster Tools, Bing Webmaster Tools, cognitiveSEO and other link data providers. These link lists refresh quite regularly, so it’s important to continually revisit these sources to get the latest list.
At the start, we thought we could automate it all ourselves. We tried to crawl all links to check if the pages were either still active, and still had followed inbound links pointing to the client website. This gave us our ever-growing list of every single active, followed link.
Next was to separate out the unnatural links.
We could exclude our obviously best links using a number of basic tactics – e.g. public sector domains, PageRank or looking at the number of inbound links a site has.
But it was slow and painful to manage this ever changing list of links.
Part of the reason was the level of concentration required when marking thousands of links as natural or unnatural. You can’t afford to glaze over during this process. Also these websites were sometimes available and sometimes not, so our crawls had to be run regularly to come up with a definitive list. So we looked around for a tool that might help, which is when we discovered CognitiveSEO.
Discovering and Using cognitiveSEO
cognitiveSEO appealed to us as it was a tool that was powerful, affordable and specific to our needs. It offers the exact functionality required to manage and monitor progress in resolving Google Penalties. We took the free trial, signed up and even had a 30 minute introduction call with Razvan Gavrilas, the Chief Architect of the platform, which was a great welcome!
Firstly, we imported all of the link lists we had collected into our cognitiveSEO campaign. It removed duplicates, stripped out large numbers of links from the same website and generally just tidied things up.
More than one person could now log into the campaign to see how it was progressing, as opposed to dealing with spreadsheets or building our own app.
Using the Automatic Unnatural Link Detection
We wanted to efficiently use the Unnatural Link Detection tool. So, we started by setting up our “commercial” keywords. These were all the anchor text terms that the client had optimised link building campaigns for in the past. We also specified our “brand” keywords, such as the client’s brand name and variations of it.
Once 70% of the links had their anchor text classified as either brand or commercial, the link classification begins and every imported link into the site was set automatically as “OK”, “Suspect” or “Unnatural”.
We loaded up the Unnatural Links Navigator, and using the keyboard shortcuts (it’s definitely worth learning these!) we reviewed every domain that had a link to the client and marked the domain or link for disavow.
To be sure, we checked the “OK” links as well, but there were only a couple of minor exceptions that we had to fix manually.
CognitiveSEO made the generation of the disavow file very straightforward. It can be a nerve-wracking process to generate this file manually as you don’t want to accidentally include any good links. If you’re paranoid, you can still check that the generated file from CognitiveSEO doesn’t include your best links.
Link Removal Process via Email Campaign
There are no official guidelines as to the number of unnatural links that need to be removed in order for a penalty to be revoked. Anecdotally, the larger the website and the more severe the penalty (i.e. full manual), the more links Google will expect to be removed rather than just disavowed.
We knew our chances of removing links via an email outreach campaign were slim.
This is because of the huge volume of these types of emails being received by Webmasters. You could step things up by offering payment or by threatening legal action but I wouldn’t advise either unless there really are no other options. We were lucky enough to be able to contact our client’s old link-building SEO agency who had kept login details of links placed on forums and bookmarking websites. I strongly recommend this approach for removing links if the agencies still exist. If they don’t exist then go through old emails, try to find mobile numbers or go on LinkedIn or Twitter to find the people who worked there. In my experience, if you’re nice and explain your position to them then you’re more likely to be helped.
We were able to remove links from roughly half of all unnatural domains using these logins, which we could track through cognitiveSEO.
Once we’d removed every link we could, we pulled contact details for the webmasters of the other domains – mostly via WHOIS records – and started an outreach campaign over the course of 8 weeks. We emailed each webmaster up to 5 times with an email from the client’s company domain (to add authority to the request). This outreach action was logged as part of the reconsideration request that we sent to Google to show that we had done everything in “good faith” to remove the links.
Sending the Reconsideration Requests
It took us 3 reconsideration requests for the penalty to be lifted.
We included details of the links removed and a link to a Google Spreadsheet with the outreach email statistics. This included whether the mailbox was reachable, if we had a response and how many times they’d been contacted.
Google took between 10-21 days to respond to each reconsideration request so it’s worth making a real effort to get it right.
I’ve also come across cases where reconsideration requests have included the login details for the email address used for outreach. This is something worth considering if you’re having real trouble removing links.
For the two rejections, Google responded with unnatural links that weren’t in the disavow file.
So we patiently re-imported the latest link lists, re-classified them using cognitiveSEO as before and regenerated the disavow file.
Despite all our efforts, I wasn’t given any indication that the removal of links had any positive effect. Only that the disavow file should include every unnaturally linked domain or link.
Given that the link removal process took 90% of our overall time (and ingenuity), we were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t even acknowledged!
Here’s one of the rejection messages – both of the rejections we received each listed 3 URLs that weren’t in the disavow file. Google have since started providing more feedback for rejections rather than these limited stock messages:
And on the 3rd attempt, we received the message that SEOs dream about:
The Penalty Recovery Process
This Analytics graph shows organic traffic to the site excluding the homepage. Since it was a partial penalty, brand searches were not affected so this (slightly crudely) shows non-brand traffic:
We had to wait until Penguin 3.0 was refreshed in October 2014 to see another real traffic uplift in the Google Penalty Recovery. Even after the penalty was revoked however, rankings did not return for the keywords the client had specifically built links for in the past. This indicates that Penguin is probably still algorithmically affecting the website and requires further work. However the site is ranking for long tail variations of these keywords which is an improvement.
This is not a paid post and cognitiveSEO didn’t make any kind of agreement with the author. This is the success recovery story of George Harris, written and documented by himself.
About the Author
George Harris – Online Marketing, E-Commerce and Technology Consultant – Web Method