Posted by MarieHaynes
Are you familiar with the feeling of dread that comes with seeing this message in Webmaster Tools?
Or perhaps, you haven’t received a message, but have seen something like this in your analytics:
If you’ve received a traffic drop because of a link-based Google penalty, the results can be devastating. There are many articles written on what steps can be taken to recover, but not many on what to expect once you have done the work to get out of the penalty. Will your traffic increase suddenly? Will you see any increase at all? Will you see a decrease in traffic because you have disavowed links?
If you are looking for good information on understanding these penalties and how to do the work to remove them, here are some good articles:
The remainder of this article will talk about what outcome you can expect if you are dealing with one of the following scenarios:
1. Removal of a partial manual action penalty
2. Removal of a sitewide manual action penalty
3. Escaping the Penguin algorithm
1. Removal of a partial manual action penalty
To determine whether or not you have a partial action penalty, go to Webmaster Tools â Search Traffic â Manual Actions and you should see the following:
The message from the screenshot reads:
Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. Some links may be outside of the webmaster’s control, so for this incident we are taking targeted action on the unnatural links instead of on the site’s ranking as a whole.
Usually, when you receive a partial action warning you will get the following message in your Webmaster Tools:
Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to http://www.example.com
Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.example.com,
We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.
If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.
If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.
Google Search Quality Team
Occasionally, you will get a more cryptic message such as the following:
We’ve detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
We don’t want to put any trust in links that are unnatural or artificial, and we recommend removing any unnatural links to your site. However, we do realize that some links may be outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action to reduce trust in the unnatural links. If you are able to remove any of the links, you can submit a reconsideration request, including the actions that you took.
If you have any questions, please visit our Webmaster Help Forum.
I have noticed that most sites that receive the “cryptic” message usually end up losing rankings. And, in many cases, the sites were affected by the next Penguin update. I would recommend that if you have a partial action, no matter what message you received, you need to take steps to remove the warning. There may be a few exceptions; if the manual spam action viewer tells you that a particular page of your site is affected, it is possible that only that page of your site has been demoted. An example would be if you were running a news site and had published a story that was beneficial to a particular business. If that business had built unnatural links to that page on your site in an effort to get that page to rank higher, this could cause a warning for just that one page. If this is the case, then you may not need to do anything as only that page is likely affected and not your whole site.
In my opinion, for the vast majority of sites that have a partial action message, it is vitally important for you to take the proper steps to get the penalty removed.
In order to remove these penalties, a very thorough backlink audit must be done. I have found that it is not enough to just address the worst of the links, or even the most recently obtained unnatural links. Once you have gone under the microscope of manual review, Google wants to see that you have made attempts to remove almost every single manipulative link that was made in the past.
Success: Manual spam action revoked! Now what?
You’ve done the cleanup, and achieved success! The joy of seeing a manual spam action revoked message never gets old for me. This message is usually the end result of many weeks (or often months) of hard work. I love the emails that I get from relieved site owners after they have seen this message. Invariably, one of the next questions asked is, “When will I see my rankings improve?” This question can make my heart drop because quite often, after a partial action warning is removed, not much changes. I am always careful to explain this to site owners when I first take them on as clients, but it seems that many of them, despite my warnings, are still expecting to see a return to top rankings once their penalty is lifted. Now, don’t get me wrong; some sites do show improvement, as I will show you soon. But with a partial action the improvement is rarely drastic.
There are three types of traffic patterns that I tend to see once a partial action warning has been removed:
Outcome #1 (most common): No improvement
Unfortunately, for many sites that have a partial action revoked, here is what I usually see in their analytics data:
It is heartbreaking for a small business owner to go through months of work evaluating and removing backlinks that they had paid for a well-known SEO company to create, get their penalty revoked, and then see absolutely no improvement.
Why would there be no improvement after a partial manual action is revoked? For many sites, the only reason why they were ranking well before their penalty was because of the power of unnatural links. In most cases, these businesses have paid an SEO company to improve their rankings. Often, the SEO company has stated that their techniques all fall within the Google Quality Guidelines, and so the site owners are happy to see the great results and have no idea that a penalty could happen. (I wrote about this type of problem about 18 months ago. Many said that I was wrongly criticizing SEOs and that my article should have been targeted only at cheap overseas link builders, but I have seen many sites that were penalized after hiring well-known, reputable SEO companies that used low-quality methods to obtain links on a large scale.)
For the site whose analytics chart is shown above, the rankings were primarily gained through submissions to low-quality directories, bookmarks, and article syndication. Once the penalty was given, Google stopped counting the PageRank that was formerly received from these links. The resulting drop in link equity resulted in a decrease in rankings. But, the work that was done to remove the partial action warning, did not do anything to replace that lost link equity. When those links were removed (or disavowed) there were very few links left to support rankings. For many sites that have a partial action warning, the result, once the spam action is revoked is that nothing changes.
So, why would a site even go through the trouble to get the penalty removed? Are they doomed no matter what? No! It is certainly possible for a site to see improvement some time later. For example, if a site escapes Penguin (because the work that was done to get rid of the partial match action is the same work that needs to be done to escape Penguin), or if a site starts to gain natural links (either through good SEO efforts or naturally), then improvements can happen. Those improvements would not have happened if the work was not done to escape the manual action. I sometimes look at a partial match warning as a bit of a blessing. Most sites that get demoted by the Penguin algorithm have no way of knowing whether or not they have done the work necessary to be released from the jaws of Penguin. But, if you have done the work required to get rid of a partial match penalty, then you likely know that you have done enough to escape Penguin as well.
Although many sites see no immediate improvement once their partial match warning is lifted, there are some sites who do see an immediate improvement.
Outcome #2: Some improvement, but not a complete recovery
This can happen when the manual action is just affecting certain keywords. But, unfortunately, in my experience, there is no real way of knowing whether just certain keywords are being penalized or whether the penalty is on the whole site.
An example of a situation where a site would be penalized just for certain keywords would be if you had widespread publication of a widget in which you linked back to your site using keyword anchor text. If you have used the anchor text, “Widget provided by pretty green dresses,” there is a possibility that Google has given you a keyword penalty for “pretty green dresses.” Once the penalty is lifted, provided that your site has enough natural links and relevance to support rankings for “pretty green dresses,” then you may see some improvement that happens within days of getting the penalty lifted.
Here is a quote from Matt Cutts where he describes how Google could penalize a site on a keyword level:
Here is an example of a site that had been penalized for a particular set of keywords and saw a slight increase in rankings once their partial action was lifted:
The site had been penalized for some main keywords. Once the penalty was lifted, some of those keywords started to see a return to first-page rankings (but only to the bottom of the first page rather than their former #1 rankings, which is why the recovery is not more dramatic).
In some cases, if a site has been penalized for just certain keywords, recovery from a partial action can be close to 100% if the site has a really good base of natural links, but in my experience this does not happen often.
Outcome #3: No immediate recovery, but improvement happens once Penguin refreshes
A site usually cannot escape from Penguin until Google refreshes the Penguin algorithm. For sites that see no improvement (or only a small improvement) when their manual penalty is lifted, it is very possible that there will be further improvement the next time that Penguin refreshes. For the two analytics charts shown above, these sites have not seen a Penguin refresh since their penalty was lifted. (The last refresh at the time of writing this article was October 5, 2013 and both of those sites had penalties lifted later on in October.) I suspect that once Google refreshes Penguin, these sites will see some improvement. See the section below on Penguin recovery for more information on what to expect when a Penguin hit site escapes the Penguin algorithm.
2. Removal of a sitewide manual action penalty
If you have a sitewide penalty, you will see something like this in your manual actions viewer in Webmaster Tools:
In this case, a yellow alert tells you that “This site may not perform as well in Google results because it appears to be in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.” Google then adds the following message with a bit more detail:
Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. These may be the result of buying links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
In most cases, a site with a sitewide manual action will not be ranking in Google for their brand terms, and quite often, even a search for their url will fail to show the site. This type of penalty is devastating. Usually this penalty comes as a result of very obvious manipulation of the search engine results. Every site that I have worked on that had a sitewide penalty had been involved in a variety of link schemes including purchasing links, creating large numbers of interlinked microsites or very widespread creation of spammy backlinks.
The steps that need to be taken to remove a sitewide penalty are exactly the same as you would take for a partial match penalty, but the results are usually more rewarding. Once a sitewide penalty is removed, there is almost always an increase in traffic, although often it is just for brand terms.
Here is a site that showed a significant improvement once their sitewide penalty was removed:
It looks impressive, doesn’t it? Within a couple of days of getting their penalty removed, the site started to rank extremely well again for brand terms. Traffic increased dramatically almost overnight. However, did you notice that I didn’t show you the whole picture? Unfortunately, I don’t have a screenshot that shows the traffic prior to getting penalized. This site previously was getting several times this amount of traffic. When the sitewide penalty was lifted, the branded traffic increased, but the site did not regain most of their non-branded keyword rankings as those were primarily propped up on the power of links that Google is no longer counting.
While some sites only see a return for brand terms after a sitewide penalty is revoked, we have seen a number of sites that have had very dramatic improvements across the board. Here is a site that was hit severely with a sitewide penalty. Within 24 hours of receiving notification that their manual spam action was revoked, they began ranking well for brand terms. A few days later, the majority of their keyword rankings returned as well:
When a sitewide penalty is removed, in my experience, it usually takes 24-48 hours for brand terms to start ranking highly again. However, sometimes there can be a very painful tumultuous week where rankings come and go and may change depending on which data center you are seeing your Google results. We have one client right now for whom we successfully removed their sitewide penalty a few days ago. Within two days, we could see them ranking #1 for their URL, but brand terms were nowhere to be seen. However, the client could not see the #1 URL ranking. (And no, personalized search was not an issue.) The following day, the rankings were gone on our searches in the morning and then we could see the URL and brand terms raking again by the afternoon. Those rankings are still visible to us. But, the changes took a few extra days to be visible to our client who is in a different hemisphere and is likely seeing results from a different Google data center. If you have received notice that your sitewide penalty has been revoked, then please know that it can take a week (or possibly longer) for the Google results to fully show that your site is no longer being penalized.
On a similar note, in regards to both sitewide and partial actions, if you have received a message saying that your penalty has been revoked, but your manual spam actions tool is still showing a penalty, don’t worry, it will lift. It can sometimes take up to a week for the manual spam actions tool to show “no manual actions“.
3. Penguin recovery
There are not many published cases of Penguin recovery. Escaping Penguin is certainly possibleâwe have seen it! But, it is not easy. The work that needs to be done is very similar to what needs to be done to recover from a manual unnatural links penalty. Start with identifying the links that were made with the intentions of manipulating the search engine results. Then, disavow those links. It is debatable whether or not you need to remove links in order to escape Penguin or whether disavowing is enough. If you control the source of the links and can easily remove them, then definitely remove them. But, contacting site owners and keeping a record of your work will not likely make a difference for an algorithmic issue like Penguin, as no webspam team member is going to be checking your work. Some would argue that it is good to do so in case you ever do get manually reviewed, but my personal recommendation at this time is to remove unnatural links that you control, and then disavow the rest. Make sure you disavow them on the domain level.
It’s also important to note that Penguin is not completely about links. You will also want to clean up on site issues such as keyword stuffing as well.
To escape Penguin, you will need to wait until Google refreshes the Penguin algorithm. And, in some cases, you might even need to wait for two refreshes. In this webmaster central hangout, at the 38 minute mark, John Mueller explains that in order to completely recover from Penguin, the links in your disavow file have to all be recrawled and the algorithm has to refresh, and in some cases that whole process can take six to 12 months to be fully completed. Penguin does not refresh on a regular basis; it can sometimes be six months in between refreshes. The last announced refresh was October 4, 2013. (Some believe that there are occasionally unannounced refreshes, but I’m not sure if I agree.)
So, let’s assume that you have done a thorough backlink audit, removed links where possible, disavowed the vast majority of your unnatural links, cleaned up any spammy on-site issues, and Penguin has refreshed. Now what? Will you see an increase in traffic?
The answer to this depends on what remains once you have done the cleanup.
If you have very few truly natural links, then you likely will not see much improvement once Penguin refreshes. Here is the analytics data from a site that was affected by the initial rollout of Penguin. The site owner did a thorough link cleanup and disavow, but unfortunately did not see any improvement when Penguin refreshed.
The reason for this is most likely that the site was only ranking previously because of the power of unnatural links. In order to see improvement, they are going to have to be able to attract some good links and in some niches that is no easy feat. Gone are the days where a small site can outrank the big brands simply because an SEO was able to build thousands of keyword anchored links. In order to rank well these days you truly need to have an exceptional site that can rank on its own merit and not only because of SEO tricks. A good SEO will work on ways to improve the entire user experience and promote the site properly so that it can gain natural links and not just focus on a “quantity” over “quality” type of linkbuilding campaign.
If you do have a site with a good base of links beneath the unnatural ones, then it is possible to see some improvement once Penguin refreshes. The Penguin algorithm is Google’s way of saying, “We don’t trust this site because they have a history of cheating to get good rankings in the past.” If the Penguin algorithm is viewing your site unfavorably, then even your good links do not help you much. But, if you can clean up the signals that caused Penguin to dislike you, then, when Penguin refreshes, your good links regain their power. Here is a site that had a decent base of links underneath a large number of unnatural links. They were hit by Penguin on April 24, 2012. They eventually did a thorough cleanup, and on October 4, 2013, it appears that they escaped the algorithm:
In my experience, when a site recovers from Penguin, this type of pattern is usually what we see. It makes sense that the site would not bounce back to its original rankings as some of those rankings were propped up by links that are now recognized as unnatural. It looks like this site was able to attract some new links but those links had only a small effect until Penguin refreshed and recognized that the site had now reformed. Now, as this site gains new natural links, it should continue to improve.
Here is another site that worked extremely hard to clean things up, and was rewarded on the October 4, 2013 Penguin refresh. This site has an excellent base of natural links and continues to gain links on a regular basis. They made the mistake of buying links in the past and those purchased links along with some low quality directory and bookmark links caused the Penguin algorithm to put the site in a bad light. Doing a thorough cleanup of the unnatural links allowed the site to escape Penguin. And now, their new links that have accumulated since April of 2012 are able to really help the site.
Full Penguin recoveries like this are not common. You will read many articles of people telling you what you need to do to recover, but I believe that there are few SEOs out there who are consistently recovering Penguin-hit sites. In my experience, unless you have a good site that can attract links on its own, recovery from Penguin is going to be difficult.
As a side note, we have seen sites recover when Penguin refreshed two weeks after filing a disavow, so it doesn’t always have to take as long as six months to a year to see improvement. But, if you have a good site with good links and you have done a thorough cleanup, but you are still seeing dismal rankings, unfortunately you may need to be patient and ride through a couple of Penguin refreshes before you can tell if things are going to improve. I really wish that Google would allow site owners have some sort of indication as to whether or not their site is currently being devalued by Penguin. I can understand that one of the reasons that they don’t do this is because this would help spammers to determine what is and isn’t effective. But, it is extremely frustrating for site owners whose livelihood depends on business coming from their website and don’t know whether they need to do more clean up or not.
A few added thoughts
Many people believe that once a site has been penalized, it will always be penalized in Google’s eyes. According to John Mueller of Google, this is not true. In this hangout, John says, “If you’ve had a manual action on your website and that’s been revoked, then essentially there’s no bad history attached to your site. It’s not harder to rank anymoreâ¦.It’s not the case that there is any kind of a grudge that our algorithms would hold against a site that has had a manual action.”
You may have noticed that I have not shown any examples where rankings dropped after a penalty was removed. Many people are concerned that filing a disavow file will cause your site to drop even lower in rankings. The truth is that any link that is worthy of being disavowed has likely already been discounted by Google. We have yet to see a site that had its ranking decrease after filing a disavow file. In theory, this is possible, if you are disavowing truly natural links. But, even when we have sites where we have had to disavow a large number of links from authoritative sites (because of things like wide-scale keyword-anchored guest posting or paid infographic placement), rankings did not decrease.
Hopefully this article has helped to explain what you can expect once your link-based penalty has been removed. It’s rarely an easy process to recover from a manual or algorithmic devaluing, but it certainly can be done.
I should also note that the scenarios described above depict my experiences over the last couple of years of doing penalty removal work. It is certainly possible that other outcomes can happen. If you have seen something different, please do leave a comment!
Have a question? Leave a comment and I am happy to see if I can help.
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