Diagnosing Google Penalties, Part 3: All Your Questions Answered

Penalty Removal FAQ

When your Google takes manual action they almost always send a message in Web Master Tools. These manual actions are what the reconsideration request was created to handle. If you suspect a manual penalty without a message, see Question m7.
Many times however you will simply have a big loss of rankings and Google traffic and not know what the problem is because you get no message. This is called an algorithmic penalty and is created entirely by a computer program without any input from a human. There is never a message in Web Master Tools so there is also not a need to use a reconsideration request for these cases. The disavow file is applicable to both.

Manual Penalties

m1: How long does it take to get a manual penalty (for unnatural links) removed?

If everyone involved (including the client) sticks to the plan, our process currently takes about 8 weeks to get through the first reconsideration request.

  • Week 1 – Analyze and Classify ALL links to the site
    Starting with the list of links provided by Google, then adding in links from other sources like MajesticSEO and Ahrefs, somebody has to look at every single link and classify it as natural or unnatural, and identify the type of spam (guest blogging, blog networks, comment spam, etc.)
    By this time, any and all “link building” activity on your end needs to be completely stopped – the worst thing you can do is keep generating unnatural links while asking Google to reconsider their relationship with your site.
  • Weeks 2-6 – Contact Websites to remove unnatural links
    This means sending a LOT of email, to a lot of people, in a lot of places, for a lot of different types of spam, and filling out a bunch of contact forms. Be apologetic (if necessary) but be clear about what you are asking for. Try to be helpful – if you spammed a blog’s comments, tell them how to find the spam comments quickly if possible.
    If somebody sold you links and you got penalized for it, you don’t owe them an apology, but you still need to be polite. In every part of this process, you are dealing with human beings, and being nice goes a long way.
  • Week 7 – Disavow and Reconsideration Request
    The Disavow file that you submit to Google should include every bad link, categorized by the type of spam if possible, and addressing every bad link that Google sees. For every link, explain who you contacted, when, and the outcome of that effort.
    We include all bad links – even links that have been removed – in the Disavow file, because the data Google uses to consider your request is often updated slowly. Depending on the specific situation, you may also want to change the URL of pages that have bad links pointing to them, which you haven’t been able to remove, and report this in the Disavow file.
  • Week 8 – We Hope – Success
    If Google hasn’t been peppered with reconsideration requests from your site already, it usually takes about a week to hear back on a successful request. The webmaster analysts can see roughly how much progress you’ve made, and we believe that they prioritize requests that are more likely to succeed.

m2: What are the chances of success for my site?

It’s hard to say without looking at it, and not exactly easy to say when we do look. Every case is different, but we haven’t missed one yet. We’re seeing most cases resolved with one round of removal and reconsideration, but there’s no guarantee, because we’re dealing with people, not machines.
If you’ve actually done the work right, and aren’t approved the first time, it usually involves just one more round of link removal efforts, another 4 weeks.
Sometimes they want to see you work a little harder. Not every webmaster analyst that Google employs will make the same decision in the same situation – we are dealing with human beings here. Sometimes they make mistakes.
So far, we haven’t had to go to a third round with anybody.

m3: How soon should I expect to be #1 for every keyword after removing a penalty?

If you got those rankings by carpet-bombing Google with spammy anchor text links, you shouldn’t expect them to magically reappear. That doesn’t happen. If you got there with natural links, and then somebody went nuts with spam, it’s possible, but still not the most likely outcome.
A more reasonable expectation is to see at a bit of a lift within the first few weeks, and yes – it is quite likely that this will involve some or all of the “missing” keywords, but getting forgiven is the first step. To start growing your traffic again, you’re going to have to do some things differently.
Next week we’ll go over how “the new SEO” works. The good news is that if you were paying for links before, you can still spend money to improve your rankings. It’s just not as direct and obvious as buying 1000 links that say “cheap viagra” and calling it good.

m4: Can’t I just “Disavow” the bad links?

Unfortunately, a LOT of people get talked into this, or talk themselves into it, and I hate to say “impossible” but we’ve never seen this work, when a site has been manually penalized. Google wants to see you clean things up and put in a real effort.

m5: I’ve tried to get my penalty removed, and Google keeps turning me down – what am I doing wrong?

Ignoring or Missing Bad Links and “Spammy” Tactics
If you have “spammy” tactics that aren’t addressed in your reconsideration request, or bad links that aren’t addressed in your Disavow file, you can expect to fail. Google’s standards are very strict – there’s no such thing as a “not too bad” link – if it isn’t truly natural, it’s got to go.
Google also expects you to “plead guilty” to every type of spamming you’ve done, in your reconsideration request, so now is not the time to try to hide things – if it’s out there, they expect you to find it, figure out how it got there, clean it up, and then show them your work.
Moving Too Slowly to keep up with Google’s updates
Google updates the data in Webmaster Tools about once a month. If you remove a bunch of links, build a Disavow file, and submit your request, it is entirely possible that by the time the webmaster analyst reviews your case, they will be looking at a different list of links.
If you haven’t already addressed the new links they’ve added in the meantime, your request is likely to fail. This isn’t fair. It’s just the way it is.

m6: Wait – Matt Cutts said I only have to work on the links that are in the Webmaster Tools data – is that true?

Not exactly, no. Sort of yes, but, well, no. It’s not true. No.
The words Matt used might have been “true” in terms of what Google evaluates at the time of the reconsideration request but the reality of the situation is that you will have a very hard time getting through this process if you only work on the links that Google is reporting to you at the moment.
That’s why we work on removing all of the bad links we find, not just those in the Webmaster Tools data.
You DO need to address every bad link in WMT – that part is true – but because the Webmaster Tools data is a moving target, the best way to do that is to work on ALL of your bad links – not just the little sample of data that Google is willing to share with you.

m7: If I don’t see a penalty reported in the Manual Actions section of Webmaster Tools, that means I don’t have a manual penalty, right?

Unfortunately, no. Webmaster Tools can sometimes *confirm* the presence of a manual penalty, but not all manual actions are being shown in Webmaster Tools right now.
We are now working with three different cases where there is a manual penalty, they are in the midst of the reconsideration process, and no message has ever shown up in Manual Actions.
We have reported this bug to Google, along with a few other bugs. It is what it is.
If you suspect you have a manual penalty, and don’t see a message, you can file an “exploratory” reconsideration request. Just log in to Webmaster Tools, go to the reconsideration request form (https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/35843) and ask them if you have a manual penalty that needs to be addressed.
If there is no penalty, you should get a reply back within a week or so, letting you know that.

Algorithmic Penalties

a1: Does disavowing bad links help with algorithmic penalties?

If you’re dealing with a “Penguin” issue, it can help a little bit, but based on experience, we recommend removing as many bad links as possible.
As we do with manual penalties, we try to hunt down ALL of the bad links for this process, using multiple data sets and tools, not just the small sample Google provides in Webmaster Tools.

a2: If it’s just algorithmic, do I need to file a reconsideration to let Google know bad links are removed?

No, you only need to file a reconsideration if you have a manual penalty, but as I explained above, an “exploratory” request can provide absolute clarity on the presence or absence of a manual penalty.
If you submit a reconsideration request and there is no manual action involved, Google will reply to let you know that your reconsideration request was unnecessary.

a3: What’s up with that “Exact Match Domain” penalty?

There’s so much confusion about the “Exact Match Domain” update that Google released in the fall of 2012. Their goal was to reduce the impact that of domains that match the search query, like “SEOBook.com” showing up when you search for “SEO Book.”
Actually, in the case of Aaron Wall’s SEO Book – it should rank #1. It’s the name of the site. It is a popular site, and most people who type “seo book” into a search box want to see it at #1.
In fact, it’s cases like Aaron’s (and major brands, of course) that led Google to give EMDs (exact match domains) a big boost in ranking before the EMD update – it was often possible to get a brand new site to #1 quickly with an exact match domain. That’s no longer the case.
So, it’s not a crime to use a domain name that matches a search query, but it’s just not the advantage that it used to be. You no longer get the “magic instant ranking” by using one, and if you try to pump one up with spam, Google can now catch you and filter you out a lot faster.

a4: Panda, Penguin, Zebra… explain them all in a couple sentences please.

Panda targets sites with low quality content, thin content, and a lack of trust factors (like contact information, physical address, etc.).
Penguin targets sites that have an excess of anchor text in their backlinks, and/or excessive keyword use within the site – including internal links.
We have managed to get multiple sites “hit” by all of these algorithms, by introducing specific problems on the sites (e.g. keyword stuffing), and we have been able to recover them as well by fixing the problems we introduced.
There has been no Zebra update as far as we know, and I suspect the next one will be named after those black-and-white cows instead. Guernseys or whatever they call them.

a5: How do I know which algorithm(s) have hit me, and what to do about it?

You can dig through your Analytics data, look at every possible update, and check to see what’s hit you. You can go back and read through the commentary on these updates from folks like Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable. You can go read up on the patents if you like – Bill Slawski does a great job with that over at SEO By The Sea.
Or, you could just hire an expert to look at it for you. In fact, you can hire *us* to look at it for you, for free – because we are currently offering a free penalty assessment and consultation.

Closing Thoughts

Here are some things you should know about penalties in general and how to think about links and SEO in the “new age” of Google.

1: Should I just give up and start over with a new site?

There are only two cases where we think this is a good idea.
If your site has absolutely no “natural” links to speak of (a few dozen natural links is very good, more than 100 is great), then you have to consider whether the domain name is worth saving. If the domain name is good (not because of SEO but because of people) then it’s worth cleaning up and building on it.
If your site ranks #1 at Bing/Yahoo for a bunch of high-volume keywords, and that traffic is making you money, then you have to consider keeping it “as is” and building a new site for Google.
If doubling your current Google traffic, and losing 20% of your Bing traffic at the same time, sounds like a good deal, then we recommend cleaning up the mess and getting back in Google’s good graces. If Bing and Yahoo are sending you more traffic right now than Google ever did, it’s not such an easy decision.
If you are this deep in thought about it, though, you should probably just make an appointment and talk with us about how we can help.

2: How do I prevent this from happening again?

You can’t do what you used to do. You can’t go out there and do “link building” like most people think of it.
A little bit of outreach is fine, to promote your content, but once you cross a line and start paying for links, or trading anything (even content) for links, or running a $3000 blogging contest that requires every participant to put up a post full of links for you (sorry Ann), you are asking for trouble.

3: If I can’t just hammer Google into submission with unnatural links, does SEO even exist any more?

Oh heck yes. The same methods we’ve been using for years to “get links” without “thinking about the links” still work, in fact, they’ve gotten even easier to do, thanks to advances in social marketing platforms like Facebook.
It’s kind of ironic – if I spend $1000 a month renting anchor text links, Google will penalize me brutally.
If I spend $1000 a month promoting my content via Facebook and remarketing channels like Adroll and Google (heh), that’s okay… and if I do it right, I can even turn a profit on the deal… while getting more high quality links than I got the other way.
Paid links aren’t dead, not exactly, you just can’t go right out and offer people money to link to you.
We’ll talk more about how to “get links” without asking, and how the new SEO works, next week.

Ask us your questions here

What did we miss explaining? How else can we help? Please tell us in the comments below.
Or, if you’re ready to talk to us about having our team just fix the penalty for you, schedule a consultation today. The usual deposit is being waived this week, so there is no charge at all for the call with one of our experts.


  1. I get where you’re coming from in this article but have a VERY hard time with seeing really trashy websites that have broken far more rules than mine ever have…suddenly be in the top 5 at the SE’s for their term.

    I’m really thinking that Googles penaties are permanent in many cases…they don’t need us when there are tons of other sites on our topic that can take our place. They say they want quality content…but prove themselves wrong by letting junky sites take our old rankings.


    • You are certain justified in that belief and absolutely right that Google does not need any particular website so why should they grant a reconsideration? But stacked against that belief, we have the far far heavier weigh of actual results of some of the spammiest sites we ever seen getting back – slowly over time – into search results.
      We understand why you might be skeptical and unwilling to trust, but those feeling are only going delay the day you recover Google organic as a viable traffic source.

  2. On FAQ m7 above, you said if you don’t have a manual penalty, you can submit an exploratory reconsideration. However, when I log into google webmaster tools, there is no reconsideration request form link. Where do I find this?


    • I have the same question as David. We can’t submit a reconsideration request unless we have a manual action. We could submit it anytime before the manual action viewer was introduced but now we can’t. I don’t understand what Dan says.

      • The “submit recon” button is the new user friendly version of just sending a message. When the recon request was first introduced, you just sent a message. You can still do that for a variety of purposes, including a trial recon.

    • If you don’t have a manual penalty listed under Manual Actions in Webmaster Tools, it is possible that the penalty has expired. Manual penalties do expire over time.

      How long has your site had the manual penalty for?

  3. Can anyone confirm that rankings can go up again simply by removing links (and not adding new ones) after a site was hit by Penguin?

    • Yes, we have clients, students, and followers that have seen this, but I would not call it consistent or predictable. The first step should be cleanup. The second step should ALWAYS be additional (good) marketing.

  4. When users who don’t have a stated manual action in GWT visit https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/reconsideration and choose the profile they think is affected, if there’s no manual action listed in GWT, those users don’t have the option to submit any kind of recon request, unfortunately.

  5. Thanks for the information. Interesting.

    Just a point to note though, Google have recently said that the DISAVOW file comments are NOT read and therefore no need to include #comment