This article is co-authored by Adam Torkildson.
Whenever you're trying to recover from a Google search penalty put on your site, you have to work quickly, keeping your future SEO in mind. This can get tricky and it's rarely a simple fix, but here are some ways you can C.Y.A. re: S.E.O. and survive intact.
A Quick Overview of the Google Search Penalties
Google hasn't officially released a specific list of penalties other than manual vs. algorithmic:
- Manual Penalty. This usually occurs if you show up on a spam report and an actual person at Google analyzes your website and takes action to penalize it, usually by drastically dropping your site in Google rankings. If your site was manually penalized, you get a notification via Webmaster Tools (this is how you know you were hit with a manually penalty).
- Algorithmic Penalty. Google updates their search algorithm several times each year. The most common are Panda updates, which focus on content, and Penguin updates, which focus on links and spam. When the algorithm changes it means that how the Google bots crawl and analyze content changes. (You should also learn about black hat tactics if you're unfamiliar with the terminology and how they work.).
Among the million different reasons you could get penalized, below are some of those people often get hit with:
- Un-Natural Link Penalties. Probably one of the most common ways that websites get penalized and lose ranking, you'll fall into this category if you've been either paying for links, getting involved in link exchanges, hiding links, working with link farms, or your website is just associated with poor quality websites all around.
- Over-Optimization Penalties. If you ever try to trick the search engine bots with keyword stuffing or using keyword rich anchor text, you can trigger over optimization penalties.
- Duplicate Content Penalty. If you're only republishing content, your website may be viewed as a thin resource in Google's eyes because you are not offering true value to your visitors.
- Google Ban. The harshest penalty, this means that your website is removed from Google's index completely, because Google has mostly likely viewed the website as having been created for the sole purpose of manipulating search results.
- Extra Tip: Site-Wide vs. Partial Penalties. Your entire domain can get penalized (site-wide), which means that all of the sub-directories, pages, posts, categories, tags, etc. lose rankings.
Now, let's look at some of the ways you can recover...
Step-by-Step Recovery from Google Search Penalties
1. Figure out why you've been penalized: If you're being penalized, you need to know why, and although most websites that get penalized aren't surprised it's coming, it can come as a shock to some.
- Your first step is to check your Webmaster Tools to see if you have been hit with a manual penalty. If so, there will be a message in your Webmaster Tools letting you know that you've been penalized.
- If you do not have a message in your account, using a service like the Panguin Tool may help you see how Google's algorithm updates have impacted your traffic.
2 . Gather up a list of all your backlinks: It might sound overwhelming at first, but there are lots of tools out there that work to help you see the links on the web that are pointing back to your site. Three of the most recommended webmaster tools from industry insiders we spoke to are Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs. Most recommend drawing reports from all three tools so you can cross-reference and gather as much data as you can.
We asked Scott Langdon, managing partner of HigherVisibility about this very topic. He explained that this is one of the most crucial steps in any recovery process. "It becomes much easier if you have your own spreadsheet listing all the links that you earn," said Langdon. "You should keep a spreadsheet of the URL where the link is found, the link back to your site, and the anchor text that was used. In the future if you ever want to do a link audit, this makes it easier and gives you another document to reference."
3. Determine which links are bad links: In other words, you need to know how to find those "bad" links through this sea of data and turn to the backlinks you found through one of the tools above. And:
- Make sure the domain is indexed in Google by doing a Google search.
- Check to see if the domain has a good PageRank. This is really a better way to rule out strong links as opposed to pick out bad ones.
- Is it a site-wide link? In some instances this can be more suspicious in Google's eyes if the domain has the word "links","backlinks", or "seo" in it. You may want to check and make sure it's not a low quality link directory.
- You should probably check and reconsider anything that looks like a keyword rich blog comment or something in a forum.
- There are tools out there to help you identify bad links like Link Research Tools.
4. Create a spreadsheet to track your link removal process: Remember that spreadsheet? It helps. Google will want to see it when you submit a reconsideration request (step 7). Any of the webmaster tools listed above have an option where you can export your data to another document. Only include links that you want to remove with the following data:
- Name and URL of the site in question.
- Contact name and email or the contact form you want to use.
- When you contacted the website (aim to contact at least 3 times).
- URL where the link you want removed is found.
- The status of the link (is it broken? A dofollow link? Is it found in the comments?)
- Any extra notes you may have.
Ideally this will be a Google doc so you can make live changes (Google makes it easy to attach Google docs when the time for a reconsideration request comes).
5. Talk with Webmasters about removing unwanted links: You have to show Google proof that you tried to contact the owners of these websites. Visit a contact page or send an email asking him/her to remove the links you wanted removed.
6. Disavow the unwanted links you couldn't remove: Google is very serious about this step after you've tried to remove the links yourself. Document the messages you sent to Webmasters on your file so that Google can see them and know that this is your last resort. Disavowing your unwanted links means using Google's Disavow Links Tool. Visit the link and you will simply be prompted to upload a text file (.txt) containing only the links you want to disavow. It's as simple as that.
7. Send a reconsideration request to Google: This is a letter you'll write to Google when you're finished with all of the "clean up." Explain to Google what you did to remove the spam or fix the problem with your site, take ownership if you did something wrong and make sure they know that you won't make this same mistake twice. This video shows Matt Cutts, head of Google Webspam, explaining how to do this properly.
8. Wait for your response from Google: Google generally takes a few weeks to respond to reconsideration requests. If your reconsideration request has been declined, continue cleaning up for at least 2 weeks before submitting another request. Google likes to see reasonable efforts are taken between responses.
Upon receiving the wonderful message that your site is now in good standing in Google's eyes, don't expect an instant return to your previous search positions. It takes some time to earn back the trust that the website once had.
Do you have a personal story about recovering from a Google search penalty?
Image lic. via GL Stock Images.