Has your small business website suffering the effects of a Google penalty? Needless to say, it isn’t a fun situation to be in and it’s happened to more websites that you would imagine. When you’ve worked hard to build up your content and get a decent flow of search traffic, a penalty can be more than a little disconcerting. I much like any of you would do anything to recover your blog from any Google penalty.

This post will provide you with a list of 12 steps you can take to recover from virtually any penalty Google can throw at you. But before we jump into these recovery strategies, it’s important to first clarify the difference between the two main types of penalties: manual actions and algorithmic penalties. Manual actions are penalties imposed on your site based on a human review, whereas algorithmic penalties are a drop in rankings due to a regular Google update (for instance, Penguin or Panda).

Understanding which type of penalty you’re dealing with is the key to fixing the underlying issue and recovering your rankings and traffic. That’s why the first two steps below will focus on determining exactly what type of penalty or action you’re dealing with.

12 Steps to Recovering From Any Google Penalty

1. Determine whether you have a manual action

Manual penalties come when you’ve broken a cardinal rule of search; for instance, by participating in a link scheme. Manual penalties are “true” penalties, at least according to Google. When you’ve earned one, Google will let you know by notifying you in your Google Webmaster account. These types of penalties are always known as “direct actions”.

To figure out whether you’ve been hit with a manual action, your first step will be to visit your Google Webmaster account. Go to “Search Traffic” and then “Manual Actions” to see if any manual web spam actions are noted. This diagram shows the possible reasons Google may have given you a penalty (source: Google Webmaster Help)

Google Webmaster Manual Actions

If your Webmaster account doesn’t show any manual actions, you can feel confident that your loss of rankings isn’t due to a manual penalty.

2. Determine whether you’re suffering from an algorithmic penalty

The other type of penalty – which isn’t officially a penalty at all – is a drop in rankings due to a change in Google’s algorithms. Google makes hundreds of changes to their algorithms each year, making it extremely difficult to know whether a drop in traffic is the direct result of one of these changes. However, sometimes you’ll see a noticeable drop in traffic and rankings on a single day, and this can be a very good indication that you were impacted by an algorithm update.

To see if your drop in rankings corresponds to a known Google update, visit Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History. Based on the data they’ve collected, you should be able to determine whether your drop in traffic can be tied to a specific algorithm update. Most of the time, an algorithmic penalty will be tied to either Penguin or Panda, and comparing your website analytics to known algorithm updates should give you a good indication of which it is.

3. Analyze your link profile

A bad link profile is the #1 reason your site is likely to receive a manual penalty. Since the release of Penguin, sites that take part in spammy link schemes are far more likely to receive manual link penalties. As seen in the chart above, these penalties include:

  • Unnatural links to your site – impacts links: This means Google has identified spammy links pointing to your site; however, only the links themselves are impacted, not your site’s rankings. This penalty requires no action on your part, as Google has already discredited those links.
  • Unnatural links to your site
  • Unnatural links from your site

To figure out which links are causing the problem, you’ll need to analyze your overall link profile. There are a couple of ways you can do this: using Google Webmaster Tools or using a tool like Screaming Frog.

Screaming Frog screenshot
A tool like Screaming Frog gives you a complete list of backlinks to your site

Unfortunately, there is no truly automated way to analyze your link profile. While a link detection tool like Link Detox can certainly help, there’s no way around manually reviewing your link profile. As you go through your list, here are some types of links to watch out for:

  • Low or zero PageRank sites linking to you. SEO Tools For Excel can help automate this process with their bulk PageRank checker tool.
  • Links from irrelevant or low-quality directories
  • Links from unmoderated forums
  • Links from sites that have been penalized or even de-indexed
  • Links you’ve paid for in the past
  • Links from adult sites (porn, gambling, etc.)
  • Links from low-quality guest posts
  • Site-wide links
  • Links in your forum profiles
  • Spammy social bookmarking links
  • Links on press releases (particularly if you’ve over-optimized the anchor text)
  • Sites that link to your site hundreds or even thousands of times
  • Paid links from advertorials on your site
  • Keyword-stuffed guest posts on your site, or over-optimized guest post anchor text

Once you’ve compiled a list of spammy or unnatural links, it’s time to take steps to clear them out of your link profile. This is perhaps the most time-consuming part of the process of cleaning up your link profile, but there’s really no way around it. This will be a two-part process: emailing webmasters and then disavowing remaining links.

4. Email webmasters to ask for link removal

Unfortunately, there’s no way around manually emailing the webmasters of the sites linking to yours. Send a polite email, explaining that your site has been penalized for unnatural links. Specify exactly which links you would like removed, noting the URLs. If there are multiple links, be sure to include individual URLs for each.

If you don’t hear back within about a week, go ahead and send an email to check in. If you still don’t hear back, you’ll likely need to move on to the next step: disavowing remaining links.

5. Disavow remaining links

Those bad links need to go, so if you can’t get them removed manually, you’ll need to use Google’s Disavow Tool. This essentially lets Google know you tried to get these links removed and you don’t want these URLs as part of your link profile.

Before you start, you’ll need to create a .txt file listing all the links you want to disavow. You may already have a spreadsheet from your analysis of your link profile, if not, you can download a file with all your links in your Google Webmaster Console. Simply go to “Search Traffic”, “Links to Your Site”, “Who Links the Most”, and then “More”. Now you can choose to download all your links, your most recent links or more sample links. Once downloaded, be sure to leave only the links you want to disavow, otherwise you could do serious damage to your link profile.

Keep in mind that Google wants to see you’ve taken steps to manually remove these links. Be sure to annotate details of previous contact you’ve had with webmasters or attempts you’ve made to remove the links yourself.

Disavow file sample
Sample disavow file

For detailed instructions on how to disavow your links, check out the official Google Webmaster Help article.

6. Submit a reconsideration request

Once you’ve cleaned up your link profile to the best of your ability, it’s time to submit a reconsideration request. This request essentially asks Google to check that your site has indeed been cleaned up. If you’ve adequately addressed the issues that caused the manual action, you’ll see the penalty removed in your Webmaster console. Allow at least a week to hear back.

If your request is rejected, you’ll need to take a closer look at your remaining links to see which ones may be causing the issues. Repeat steps 3-6 for any questionable links.

*Keep in mind that you should only submit a reconsideration request if you’ve received a manual action. It will not help if your rankings dropped due to a Panda or Penguin update.

7. Audit your content quality

Google’s Panda focuses on targeting low-quality sites, making sure they don’t end up taking the top-ranking spots. If you suspect you’re being penalized for having “thin” or duplicate content, you’ll want to make sure you delete or improve this content as soon as possible. Most of the time, Panda-related issues won’t result in a manual action; the exception being extremely thin or spammy content.

Some of the elements you’ll want to check for include:

  • Length and depth of content: Does it do a good job of covering all aspects of the topic? Or is it short and offer little value to your readers?
  • Is there duplicate content on your site? Use a tool like Siteliner to identify possible duplicate content issues.
  • How many ads do you have on your site? Are there more than 1 or 2 on each page?
  • Do you have enough content on your site? Or are you relying on a few keyword-rich pages to drive your rankings?
  • Can you combine several low-quality pages into one or two detailed, high-quality ones?
  • Are your pages properly optimized for SEO? Or are they over-optimized? (keyword stuffing, overuse of internal links, etc.)

8. Audit your site structure and speed

Another issue that Panda targets is the overall usability of your site. There are a number of factors you’ll want to check to make sure your site is providing a good user experience:

  • Does your site load quickly? Use Google’s Page Speed Insights Tool to see how your site is functioning on various devices.
  • Is your site navigation clear and usable? Is your nav bar where your visitors expect to find it? Are all your navigational links and buttons functioning properly?
  • Does your site architecture make sense? Using  a tool like Meta Forensics can help you identify possible architectural issues.

9. Identify and fix any mobile accessibility issues

Since Google’s April 21 “Mobilegeddon” update, mobile usability is now a significant ranking factor. Sites that aren’t mobile-friendly may all but fall out of the mobile search results.

To figure out whether mobile usability is impacting your search rankings, start by using a tool like Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. It will tell you whether your site is mobile-friendly, as well as showing potential issues which may negatively impact how Google sees your page.

Search metrics mobile visibility tool
The Mobile SEO Visibility Tool shows you how your site is performing for both desktop and mobile searches

Another useful exercise is to compare how your site performs in mobile searches as compared to desktop searches. A non mobile-friendly site can still perform well for desktop searches, but will likely perform poorly for mobile searches. Using a tool like Searchmetrics’ Mobile SEO Visibility can simplify and streamline this process considerably.

As mentioned above, checking the speed for your site is also important for mobile usability. Use a tool like PageSpeed Insights or Pingdom’s Website Speed Test to identify issues that may be slowing down your site.

10. Repent for any black hat SEO techniques

You’ll notice that mention of black hat techniques like cloaking, using doorway pages and hidden text are missing from this list. Obviously, if you’ve received a manual action for using one of these strategies, you’ll need to fix them and then submit a reconsideration request via your Google Webmaster Search Console.

11. Manual action removed? Watch your rankings.

If you received a manual action but have had it removed, you may be surprised to discover that your rankings aren’t back to pre-penalty levels. This can be quite disconcerting, particularly if you had to engage in a large-scale link removal campaign.

There are a few reasons why this may be the case. First, keep in mind that Google is making changes to their algorithms every single day. During the time it took you to fix your content or links, a significant update could have occurred and your search rankings could have naturally dropped. Another reason could be that your competitors improved their content or acquired links during that time period, and have simply displaced you in the rankings.

However, if you were slapped with a link-related action, the most likely reason you haven’t recovered your rankings is that you have lost the power of the original links. While those links were spammy or unnatural, prior to the penalty Google was still relying on them to determine the authority and rankings of your site. Now that those links have been deleted or disavowed, you have permanently lost any benefit they were originally giving you.

12. Penalty-proof your site

Once your site is cleaned up and back in Google’s good graces, it’s important to focus on strategies that will keep it that way. The best ways you can do this are:

  • Continually add unique, valuable content to your site. Write blog posts that are at least 1000 words (preferably longer), and that do a thorough job of covering a topic. Ask yourself: “Is this the best piece of content on the web for that topic?”. If not, rewrite it and make sure it is.
  • Earn authoritative links. The best way to do this is to write link-worthy content. When you create content that acts as a resource to journalists and other bloggers, it will naturally accumulate inbound links. Here are 7 other link building strategies you can use.
  • Be vigilant about future linking practices. Some ways to do this: Avoid over-optimizing your internal links, be careful who you guest blog for (and who guest blogs for you), only link to authoritative and trusted sources and use natural and understandable anchor text rather than always using your target keywords.

Final Thoughts

It is possible to recover from any Google penalty, but often not without a significant amount of elbow grease.  Understanding exactly what type of penalty you’ve received – manual or algorithmic – is the key to fixing the underlying issue and getting back your pre-penalty rankings. However, don’t be content with simply fixing those issues; continue to build a penalty-proof site that over-delivers to both the search engines and your site visitors.

Are you suffering from a Google penalty? What steps are you taking to fix it?

Best known as an Entrepreneur and Connector. John was recently named #2 on Top 50 Online Influencers in the World by Entrepreneur Magazine as well as a blogging expert by Forbes. He is the Founder and CEO of Due.

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