This is a guest contribution from Nick Chowdrey.
Google takes webspam very seriously. The search giant currently sends over 400,000 messages a month to webmasters, warning them that their site performance could be at risk due to a manual Google penalty.
But what exactly are these manual penalties, and what can you do should you receive one of these notifications?
Number of manual penalties issued per month. Via Google.com.
Google’s webspam team is split into two divisions: algorithmic and manual. The algorithmic team focus on improving Google’s automatic algorithm modifiers, such as Panda, which deals with spammy content and Penguin, which deals with artificial backlinks.
The manual team consists of Google analysts over multiple countries who sift through domains looking for blackhat SEO practices – specifically, buying links that pass PageRank and participating in link building schemes, including excessive link exchanges between sites, and the use of automatic link building software.
If the team finds that your domain is in breach of Google’s webmaster guidelines, you may receive one of two penalties – either a partial manual penalty that affects the ranking of only certain pages on your site, or a full manual penalty, that affects the rank of your entire site.
You might be notified of a manual penalty through your Google webmaster tools. The message will look something like this:
Be careful, because this process is manual, you won’t necessarily get a notification. Thankfully, there are some free tools that you can use to check your SEO visibility, which can help you work it out for yourself.
So, what can you do should you receive this notification?
Here’s a five step guide to removing a manual penalty.
1. Link discovery
The first step in legitimising your links is to get a full picture of all the links that currently point to your domain. From this you can determine which links are good and bad, and take steps to removing the bad ones.
Google want to see that you’ve put in as much effort as possible to legitimize your link profile. If you don’t identify as many bad links as possible then everything you subsequently do to remove the penalty will be jeopardised.
There are many tools to choose from for discovering links. You can use Google’s own Webmaster tools, or third party tools like Majestic SEO or Cognitive SEO. It’s important to use more than one tool, as no single service is able to provide a complete backlink profile at this time.
2. Link classification
This is the process of assessing links to see if they’re either natural, suspicious or unnatural. All natural links can be kept, unnatural ones deleted and suspicious ones changed to no-follow links, so that they don’t pass PageRank.
This process must be done manually, but you can use link classification tools to automatically grade your links. This being said, Google will expect you to do a thorough job, so assessing each link manually is recommended.
You should keep the following in mind when classifying your links:
- Links from spammy directories are almost always unnatural
- Links from article farms that exist for link building purposes are usually unnatural
- Consider removing links from sites that are irrelevant to your business sector
- Links created in blog-rolls or footers are suspicious and should assessed
- Exact-match links – e.g. where the link text is your company name – are also suspicious
- Ensure any links acquired through paid means are ‘no-follow’
3. Manual link amendment
The next step is to get those bad links removed and your suspicious links changed to ‘no-follow’. The only way to do this is through a process of manual outreach – that means getting in touch with all the webmasters where you have unnatural or suspicious links and getting them to change or remove them for you.
It’s important to keep a record of every site that you’ve contacted, including which part of the outreach process you’ve reached. This is because webmasters from certain sites that have been known for hosting bad links may be overwhelmed with demands, so you may need to contact them several times.
Also make sure that any changes you’ve requested actually take place – don’t just take the webmaster’s word for it.
4. Submitting a disavow request
You might not be able to change or remove some links, for various reasons. Perhaps because you can’t get in touch with the webmaster in question, or perhaps because the site is now defunct.
Luckily, you can use Google’s disavow tool, which lets you mark links that you’d like Google to ignore when assessing all your site’s backlinks. Simply add all the links you want disavowed to a .txt file and upload it via your webmaster tools.
You might want to consider including the whole domain rather than individual pages for sites that you know have engaged in very black hat link building tactics, as this will disavow all links from that domain.
Here’s how your text file should be laid out:
#The following sites have been classed as spammy or low quality links, web directory links and article directory links.
#Links List Can be Found At the following addresss: https://drive.google.com/file/example
#Some domains have not been contacted, as there was no obvious way to reach the webmaster.
# website links that need to be disavowed due to websites not being indexed (sign of penalty) or are of low quality.
5. Submit a reconsideration request
This is the part where you suck up to Google and beg them to reconsider their penalty. It’s your opportunity to provide extra notes for when your case is reviewed.
You should include what you’ve done to clean up your act, highlighting the fact that you’ve stopped further black hat link building, and also providing any helpful supportive data to demonstrate your point.
See this video by Google’s head of webspam, Matt Cutts, on how to submit a successful request.
You can submit your request via your Webmaster tools. Don’t expect an immediate response – the Webspam team will have to manually check your site, which can take between 3-6 weeks. You may not be successful first time, so if at first you don’t succeed, go back to step one and try again!
Nick Chowdrey is a staff and freelance writer specialising in marketing and technology. He currently works in content marketing at Jellyfish, a UK digital marketing agency. Follow Nick on Twitter @nickchef88.