Google Penguin Recovery from a Manual Action

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Google penguin penalty illustrationEditor’s note: We hear a lot about Google penalties. In this post, Kaila Strong of Vertical Measures discusses the impact and mitigation of Google’s Penguin penalty. Martin Laetsch, Act-On’s Director of Online Marketing, offers a high-level overview of penalties in general. He says that if you think you have been penalized, there are three possibilities:

  •  An algorithm changed, and your site is no longer being rewarded for something. Google is now indifferent to something that used to help you rank.
  • An algorithm changed, adding something new to the list of things that you can be penalized for. It’s particularly painful when that “something new” is a tactic you used to be rewarded for. Case in point: Exact match anchor text, which Google recommended and rewarded … until it changed its mind, and began to penalize the practice.
  • You got a manual penalty. Generally you get a notice in Google’s Webmaster Tools, but if you overlooked that, you may become aware of a problem only when traffic begins to drop.

Read on to find out how to manage a manual penalty.

Recovering from penalties is never an easy feat. In fact, just knowing you have one isn’t easy; most people don’t even realize when they are under penalty. Still others are determined that they’ve been penalized, when they have not. If you’re the one managing, or contributing to, your company’s SEO, it’s important to have a complete understanding of today’s penalties and the ability to conduct an audit that fully examines the possibility of a penalty.

History of Google’s Penguin Algorithm Update

Google’s “Panda” algorithm update (rolled out in 2011 and continuously updated) targets content that’s shallow and lacking in substance, thus offering a poor user experience.

Google’s “Penguin” algorithm update targets link schemes created to game artificial boosts to a website’s rankings. The first version of Penguin rolled out as early as April 2012 and the officially coined “2.0 Penguin” update in May of 2013. Some SEOs (search engine optimization professionals) suspect a Penguin 3.0 update is on the way soon too. There have been multiple data refreshes since the initial rollout in 2012, all aimed at sites violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

What Penguin Looks For

Sites solely set up for the purpose of link building, networked sites, optimized anchor text, irrelevant links, and paid links have been against Google’s guidelines for many years. Black-hat SEOs would use these tactics to acquire more links, which in turn could increase artificially rankings in search engines. Or, alternatively, they could build bad links to a competitor’s site in the effort to sink its ratings. Penguin strengthens the algorithm’s ability to evaluate these types of link spam properly. About 3% of queries in English were affected by the initial rollout of this update and internationally the number was even larger in the highly spammed languages of German, Chinese, and Arabic.

Sites that have used suspicious tactics in the past or, through no ill-intended means acquired bad links, are at risk of being penalized. If you’re one of the many who (knowingly or unknowingly) participated in link spam, whether already affected by Penguin or not, you could still be a sitting duck for future updates. SEOs suggest getting rid of suspicious links regardless of your situation.

What is a Manual Penguin Penalty?

It’s my firm belief that an SEO expert with experience should be the one to evaluate and diagnose a penalty. Very commonly penalties are diagnosed incorrectly, which isn’t hard to imagine. With so many updates, refreshes and the possibility of a manual penalty vs. an algorithmic one, it’s best to have a professional make the final determination. You may suspect a penalty when non-paid traffic drops are observed, conversions from search are down, and/or keyword ranking drops.

First, an SEO would need to understand whether the penalty is algorithmic or manual. A manual penalty is literally the act of a Google spam team member manually enforcing a penalty on your site. There’s a notification in Google Webmaster Tools as a result informing you of the type of manual action: site-wide manual action (entire site penalized) or partial manual action (specific parts on or off your site have been impacted). An algorithmic penalty is what happens when the algorithm does its job by reducing traffic to sites that implement (or appear to implement) spam. No notice is sent; this is not something a spam team member has to initiate, therefore it’s almost impossible to universally confirm. The process we’ll discuss below is how to address a manual action.

Next, the SEO will look into the dates around the time of the traffic/conversions/rankings dropped. This can help us determine which exact refresh or update affected the site. A tool called Fruition is useful for this exercise. Once we dive into the details of the exact update that most affected a site it can help determine the best path to take going forward. Ultimately, Penguin is a links penalty and links are what must be addressed. Identify the bad, eradicate the cancerous site links, and beg for mercy from the Google Gods.

Gather your backlinks – all of them

The next step after diagnosis is to do a bit of investigative work to identify the bad. What sites are sending signals that indicate a bad site?

A thorough understanding of a site’s backlink profile is key. One problem: there is no ONE area where all backlinks exist. There are tools like Google Webmaster Tools which share backlinks with us, but it’s not fully comprehensive. You think Google would tell us everything they can see about our links? Nope. In order to take this process seriously, you’ll require as complete of a data set as humanly possible.

Moz’s Open Site Explorer, Ahref, and Majestic SEO each have tools to provide expanded sets of backlinks – but still your list won’t be complete. Reports from link vendors or prior data pulls can all provide you with a list of pages that may or may not contain a site’s link. Gather as many backlinks as possible for your review.

Next, evaluate bad links

Bad backlinks are like cancers for your website. During the evaluation phase it’s recommended that each backlink be qualified to meet quality standards. Those that are bad should be identified to determine the proper course of action. It’s important to eradicate bad links, but what exactly makes a link bad? It’s incredibly subjective, but there are a few guidelines you can use to ensure upon evaluation that you choose the worst backlinks to get rid of.

Good site vs. bad site

It’s not just about evaluating whether the site is good or bad, it’s about evaluating whether or not the link makes a site’s backlink profile appear unnatural. A checklist can help you evaluate on the surface whether or not a link is good or bad, but understand that there is an element of intuition. If you’ve seen enough sites then you can tell a good or a bad site with the eyeball test sometimes. Additionally, looking at a profile’s entire picture is important. You wouldn’t expect to see a supremely clean backlink profile with backlinks only of one type, for instance. Make decisions based on the entire profile, not a limited data set.


  • Semantically relevant
  • Low spam signals
  • Appears natural, no paid signals
  • High value and authoritative domain
  • Co-citation and co-occurrence opportunity


  • Over-optimized anchor text
  • Paid link
  • Irrelevant linking partners
  • Unnatural links on the page
  • Site-wide links

Tools like Link Research Tool’s Link Detox can help you automate the review process, but proceed with caution. If you are not manually reviewing all links there is a possibility that the tool will determine the wrong classification. What does this mean? That a good link could be determined bad and you wouldn’t know, or a bad link is determined good – continuing to cause a penalty. Consider a mixture of automated tools and manual review as necessary.

Figure out what to do with bad sites

So you have a list of bad sites – now what? Whether through using tools or reviewing links manually, at the end of the exercise you’ll have a list of sites that link to you which violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Google gives you two suggested options: make progress on getting links taken down; and let Google know which links you don’t want to be taken into account when your site is assessed, using a process known as “disavowing” the links.

Remove links vs. disavow or both?

Google recommends making the effort to remove spammy or low-quality links that link to your site. If you’re staring at thousands of links, it may well seem like a daunting task to try to get them all taken down. Many SEOs simply decide not to do it, preferring instead to just disavow all bad links.

I’m in the camp that you should take efforts to manually request links be taken down by sending outreach to webmasters. There are many best practices to keep in mind. In general we recommend three rounds of outreach to try to get a link taken down, documenting efforts for each round. After your link has been taken down, great! The job is done. If a link has not been taken down, the work begins to create your disavow file.

What is disavow?

This advanced feature in Google is one that should be used with caution. Letting Google know which links you don’t want taken into account when assessing your site is the disavow function. Links should only be disavowed “if you believe a consider number of spammy, artificial or low-quality links point to your site and are confident they are causing issues for you.”

In order to disavow links in Google you must upload a list of links you wish to disavow. The correct format must be used, encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII containing only the links you wish to disavow, one per line.

Final steps

Google Penguin penalty illustration 2We’ve walked you through what a penalty is, how to diagnose a manual penalty, how to gather and classify your backlinks as well as take action. Now what?

The next steps in recovering from a Google Penguin manual penalty, after submitting your disavow file, is to beg and plead to the Google Gods for forgiveness – also known as a reconsideration request. The fact of the matter is: your site was affiliated with spam. You’ll want to explain yourself and Google gives you the ability to do so in the form of a reconsideration request.

This reconsideration request guideline and example showcases the salient points: show your work, have a pleasant tone, mention your disavow file, admit to SEO activity, and make it clear you’re changing your ways. Be genuine about this last part – black-hat tactics likely got you into this mess, so don’t go out and build more bad links. (Want a best practices refresher? Get Act-On’s 15-minute toolkit, “Your Crash Course in SEO.”)

That’s the entire process, from start to finish on Google Penguin penalties. If you’re currently battling the Penguin update and not making much headway, consider doing a bit of additional research. Complete Google Penalty Recovery Kit Vertical Measures’ Complete Google Penguin Recovery Kit is a great first start. There are many resources about Penguin which provide much more depth than this article can. Take Penguin seriously and get your site on the road to recovery today.

Photo: “chinstrap penguin on deception island” by Christopher Michel; used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Photo: “Blown Out Penguins” by Mark Dumont; used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.