Diagnosing Google Penalties, Part 1: Manual or Not?

danavatarSince cleaning up penalties is a big part of the SEO work that we do, we get asked a lot of questions about how we diagnose these issues with a client’s site. It’s tricky, so we’re starting with the simple stuff (manual action) and proceeding to the harder stuff. –Dan

If your website is suffering from a significant loss of Google search traffic, it’s probably safe to say that you’d like that problem solved, sooner rather than later, so you can get your traffic back as soon as possible.

The good news is that the problem *can* be solved, but the longer you wait, the longer it will take to recover. So let’s go fast.

Of course, with any problem, the first step is figuring out exactly what went wrong, and that starts by checking to see if Google has applied any *manual* penalty actions against you.

Step 1 – Log Into Webmaster Tools

You do have a Webmaster Tools account, right? If not you’ll need to set one up and get your site registered with Google via http://www.google.com/webmasters/tools – you can also log in there if you’ve already got an account.

If you are setting up your site in Webmaster Tools for the first time, Google’s instructions are pretty easy to follow, but feel free to post questions in the comments if anything weird comes up.

Step 2 – Navigate to the Site Dashboard

If you have more than one site listed in Webmaster Tools, find your site in the list and click through to the Site Dashboard – but make sure you’re clicking on the “right” profile.

Warning: If you happen to see two profiles for your domain (www.example.com and example.com), check them both – because the information you need is often found on only one of these profiles.

It’s important to double check this – we’ve had people tell us they don’t have a penalty, and then discovered there was a second profile for the site with a lot more data in it – including a list of manual penalty actions they didn’t even know about!

Step 3 – Check under Search Traffic \ Manual Actions

Navigate to Search Traffic, then Manual ActionsThis will tell you what kind of manual actions (penalties) Google has applied to the site. There are only three possibilities here:

  • “No manual webspam actions found” – this means you don’t have a manual penalty (but double check that you don’t have one hiding in a second profile). Whatever you’re dealing with, it’s “algorithmic” (automatically applied by Google’s software) and we’ll deal with that in Part 2 of this series.
  • Partial Match penalty message – this means Google has applied a manual penalty to your site. That may mean that specific pages on your site, or specific search terms, have a penalty in place to keep you from ranking. It’s not the end of the world, but you can clean it up and you (almost) certainly should.
  • Sitewide penalty message – this means Google is really mad at you right now, or at least, the “webmaster guideline violations” that they see are sufficiently broad to “require” them to penalize your entire site. This is also not the end of the world, but it can become extra-complicated, as I explain below.

What does it all mean?

If you don’t have a manual penalty – that’s what “no manual webspam actions” means – then stay tuned for Part 2.

If you do have a manual penalty, we can help you clean it up, and for a lot less than you might think.

The first step is a free penalty assessment and consultation (click here to schedule), so we can sort out how you got penalized, and what it’s going to take to clean it up.

Once you’ve scheduled your appointment – make sure you click Confirm on the last screen to secure your spot – you’ll receive some further instructions by email letting you know how to share your Google data with us.

The call itself will take about 20 minutes, and it’ll only take a minute to schedule it.

During the call, we’ll go over all the details of your situation with you, explain your options, and map out a plan to get you back in Google’s good graces.

Bonus Weird Story – Coming in Part 2:

What did I mean when I said you “almost certainly” should clean up the mess?

Well, sometimes all that spam that Google is angry about is actually *helping* you rank at Bing and Yahoo… so… if you go all out to clean up your Google mess, you could very well find out that you *lose* more traffic in the short term by trying to do the right thing.

It’s complicated – especially when you aren’t dealing with a manual penalty – but there are solutions. Some of the solutions are weird and technical, but that’s what you have expert friends for, right?

Anyway – in Part 2 later today, I’ll take you through a bizarre client case study, where we’re literally building a second site – just for Google – and it’s a shining example of the perverse effects that Google’s recent emphasis on penalties has created.

You won’t want to miss it – it’s going to be epic.

We’ll talk soon!
Dan Thies

P.S. If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask in the comments – we’re listening.

Double-P-S: If you’ve got a manual penalty, you don’t have to wait – you can schedule a free penalty assessment right now by clicking this link.


  1. Thanks Dan for explaining in detail. What i would like to know is that whether there any tools for removing bad links apart from Disavow tool.

    • Please realize that disavow does NOT **remove** links at all. The only thing the disavow file does is to announce your opinion or status of links to Google. In the case of a manual penalty they have stated explicitly and repeatedly that they expect the webmaster to go cleanup as many links as possible and then include a record of these attempts, successes and failures, in your disavow file.
      The only way to remove links is to get the linking site to remove them. This is 100% critical to a successful reconsideration.