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Beat Google link penalties

Whether it’s a problem with Penguin or a manual links penalty, Tim Grice says there is a way back into Google’s good graces

The last year has seen some of the biggest changes to Google’s algorithms that help decide how websites appear in search results. This had a dramatic impact on the SEO industry and website rankings on search engines. One of the biggest updates is known as the Penguin update.

The changes were intended to reduce the impact of ‘unnatural’ or ‘spammy’ links, which helped some websites rank. In some cases Google sent messages out via Webmaster Tools informing sites of unnatural links. In other cases, Google’s updates caused manual spam actions against sites involved. While most people in the search world welcomed these changes, there were a few issues. Google failed to confirm what an unnatural link is. This left webmasters searching through link profiles trying to guess which links could cause problems. Typically, low quality blog networks and article syndication sites were being targeted. However, anything with aggressive commercial anchor text also seemed to be getting picked up by Google’s new algorithms.

Whether you’ve had an algorithmic problem with Google’s Penguin update or you’ve had a manual links penalty, there is a way back into Google’s good graces. Links will need removing and links that you’re unable to remove can be added to the disavow tool.

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The disavow tool

Google launched the disavow tool to aid webmasters struggling with unnatural links and provide a route to recovery. There’s been mixed opinion as to the extent the tool works, why Google have launched it, and what impact it’s on search results in general. After five months of testing, digital marketing agency Branded3 have some compelling evidence as to its effectiveness.

Just so we’re all clear, it does work. If you have been hit by a manual links penalty, following a few simple rules and using this tool is all you need to do to recover your rankings.

Author Tim Grice helps large UK brands achieve significant increases in visibility and ROI

However, before I dive into the evidence I thought it’s useful to go over some of the reasons people are dubious about the disavow tool. We’ll then talk through how to sort this mess out.

Admission of guilt

A lot of people believe adding links into the disavow tool is an admission of guilt and submitting a file will cause further trust issues with your website. This simply isn’t true. I’ve never seen a site react negatively to the submission of a disavow file.

Google and bad links

I’m 100 per cent sure that if Google could just ignore bad links, it wouldn’t have sent unnatural links messages, have rolled out the Penguin update or launched the disavow tool. Put simply, Google cannot tackle link spam with algorithms. It may be able to identify certain types and devalue certain anchor text signals, but ultimately it’s fighting a losing battle. The reason that we have the disavow tool and all these penalties is that Google wants us to clean up the web for them.

Now you may feel crowd-sourcing from Google is wrong and a way of trapping SEOs. That’s fine, but don’t be naive enough to believe that Google could just ignore bad links.

Good sites could get hurt

I’ve heard people worrying that good websites may be wrongly reported and prevented from passing value. Honestly, I don’t think this will be the case. If you’ve been hit by a penalty, you’re not going to disavow your better links. Plus, if those links are on good sites, it’s straightforward enough just to email and ask them to remove or change the link. It’s the spam sites without any contact details and maintenance that will get reported and potentially de-indexed. Basically, if your link profile is made up of bad links, expect to lose rankings soon. In addition, anyone who’s trying to tackle lost ranking and completely disregards the disavow tool based on some sort of moral stance against Google obviously isn’t making any money from natural search. Any agency that advises against link removals, link disavowing or sending in a reconsideration requests is naive and doesn’t fully understand the updates rolled out last year.

You need to have a Google Webmaster Tools account set up to be able to use the disavow tool to disavow links
Reasons to use the tool

If used correctly, the tool works. For example:

Example 1 – manual link penalty

  • Unnatural links message received in July
  • Removed 95 per cent of link spam by August
  • Reconsideration rejected
  • Used link disavow for remaining links
  • Filed reconsideration
  • Rankings came back within 10 days

Example 2 – manual link spam penalty

  • Unnatural links message received
  • 80 per cent of the links are pulled down within three months
  • Multiple reconsideration rejections
  • Disavow tool used
  • Filed reconsideration
  • Message received advising that the manual spam penalty is removed
  • Rankings back within seven days

Example 3 – algorithmic anchor text filter

  • Unnatural links message received
  • 60 per cent of bad links removed
  • Multiple reconsiderations rejected
  • Disavow tool used
  • Filed reconsideration
  • Message received advising that there were no manual penalties
  • Rankings recovered three weeks later

So if you’ve been hit with any kind of links penalty, you’re going to want to know how to deal with it. There are a few pieces of advice I would recommend you follow:

Link audit

Make sure you undergo a thorough link audit. Combine Opensiteexplorer, Majestic SEO and Webmaster Tools links to ensure you have the biggest sample possible. You’ll then need to work through them and classify your links. Split them into three groups:

  • Good link
  • Good site, aggressive anchor text
  • Low quality website and link

Obviously, leave the good links alone, contact the sites with aggressive anchor text and request removal, and add all spam links into a text file ready for the disavow tool.

After filling re-inclusion requests, many sites see dramatic recoveries in traffic (credit: www.johnfdoherty.com)

You must do a link audit before using the tool. The last thing you want to do is disavow a link that is genuine and passing value. On the other hand, you need to make sure you collect as many of the bad links as possible.

If you do the audit and find you have very few or no good links, then don’t expect your rankings to return. At best you’ll have a clean sheet to start working from again.

As well as disavowing the links you should also send in a reconsideration request. This is the only way a manual penalty can be removed and, until you get a response, you won’t be able to find out which one you have.

The search engine for links, this tool by SEOmoz allows you to perform competitive website research and explore backlinks, anchor text (and more) for free

Two penalties at play

In the last 18 months, Google handed out two types of link penalty for either manual actions or algorithmic penalties. For example:

  1. Manual penalty for unnatural links
  2. Algorithmic anchor text based penalties

You may have them both. If you follow my previous advice above, you will receive a response from Google advising which you have. This advice comes in the form of two messages:

Manual penalty
If you get a manual penalty response, happy days! You will recover within 10 days.

Algorithmic issue
You may get one of two messages about algorithmic issues. If your issue is algorithmic, adding the suspect links into the disavow tool will help you overcome it. You may be suffering with a Panda penalty, which will need to be investigated.

Again this message means there aren’t any manual actions and the issue is algorithmic. If it’s down to links, disavowing them will alleviate issues.

Remember you may have an algorithmic penalty and a manual action! You have to take care of both and send a reconsideration request.

A link intelligence tool for SEO and internet PR and marketing. Majestic SEO’s Site Explorer shows inbound link and site summary data, as well as your site’s backlink history

So there you have it, the tool does work, and it will help you sort issues with penalties.

It amazes me when I see people advising against the use of the tool. Some businesses are losing millions in income because of these updates. It’s ridiculous to not use a tool that could prevent this by killing bad links.

Before I finish up, let me add a couple of warnings for you to consider:

  • Building good links and doing lots of social, content or viral marketing is not going to sort out your penalty.

However, on the other hand:

  • If all your links are low quality, then Google isn’t going to reward you for removing them. You need good links in the first place.

In summary

The best plan of action:

  1. Carry out a link audit and classify links
  2. Manually remove aggressive anchor text
  3. Add spam links to a text file
  4. Disavow spam links
  5. File reconsideration
  6. Await response
  7. Recover rankings

Throughout, you should build great links through real outreach and marketing, too.

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