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Penalized in Google?
Unwinding Google Penalties

Why Requests For Reconsideration Fail

Bob Sakayama
22 October 2013

Problems Unwinding Unnatural Links Penalties :
Manual Actions

If you receive a manual action for links to your site, it is very unlikely you'll get out on the first request for review (formally request for reconsideration). Even if you follow Google's suggestion of downloading your links from Webmaster Tools, reviewing each one, requesting the removal of the bad ones, disavowing the ones you can't get down, and filing a request for review, you're probably in for at least a couple more reviews, if you're fortunate.

Because our clients include lots of penalized sites, we are able to observe how a significant sample of penalties are handled by Google. From this research, it has become clear to us that many of the obstacles faced by individual site owners are system-wide problems often caused by Google.

Very Few Have Success The First Time Out

Once you've made an effort to remove links, and file for a review, it is very likely you'll receive a notice saying you still have unnatural links. If you're lucky you'll get some example links in that response. (* see footnote)

You can learn a lot by looking at those example bad links. It's how we know that reciprocal, directory, widget, etc. links are a problem when on valuable anchors. One of the things we've learned from these example links is that Google needs to get its house in order.

Google IS The Problem

For many of our clients, the example links sent to us were never in the link data prior to receiving the example links, sometimes appearing after we failed the review. And in some cases, the example links are not in the downloads at all, so there was never any chance of us discovering them from Google's data.  Think about that.

Not Enough Link Data

You will notice that the total link number on the Links To Your Site page in WMT is not the number of links you can download - you only get a sample of your overall link profile. But Google has told us that if we are penalized, the links triggering the penalty are available from WMT.

Back in 2010, I wrote a post on our enterprise seo website when Google first took away the link data. At that time we were forced to use other data sources to discover the problem links. But recently, because of promises from Google about the reliability of their data, we've come back. But we're seeing evidence that the link data is unreliable again and there's no alternative - we're using outside data plus what we can get from WMT whenever we see example links not in the first downloads

We believe Google is bringing back the data they took away in 2010, but not fast enough, especially if they're going to destroy businesses and not permit preemptive discovery of bad links.

Bad Links Posted While You Sleep

Another Google propagated problem keeping sites from emerging from penalties is the fact that Google holds sites responsible for second hand links - that is, links that were not originally posted by you or your seos, but created as a result of other sites scraping the links you posted.  So if you posted an article to, and that article gets scraped with the links (which is what article sites intended), then those new links are now your responsibility.  Ditto press released (eg from PRweb) - as they get distributed to web outlets, the links in those copies are considered unnatural.  If you've created a gorgeous infographic, the problem is probably even worse, because the more attractive the campaign, the more likely it is to get scraped.

So not only do you not get out of your penalty, but you might very well get re-penalized for links that are being built while you sleep.  Our large clients are asking us to review their link data monthly to make sure this is not happening.

Problems Unwinding Unnatural Links Penalties : Automated Suppression

In many respects, having an automated penalty is worse than a manual action.  First of all, you don't even know if your site is actually penalized.  But if your formerly page one ranks are now deep in the dust bin, and you don't have a manual action flag in WMT, you have to assume the worst.

Likewise, when you've done the work to remove the links, you may never know if you've done enough.  If you recover back to page 2, is this because you removed links supporting your ranks, or is this because you haven't done enough.

Manual Action -> Automated Penalty

Many sites recover from a manual action only to be harmed by an automated penalty.  We're seeing this especially when a lot of unnatural links are involved, and believe that there's a threshold below which the penalty is automated, and above which receives a manual action.  If you lower the threshold just enough to remove the manual action, your ranks might not improve at all because you still have enough bad links to trigger the automated suppression.

No Recourse & No Way To Communicate

What I consider the worst part of an automated suppression is your inability to communicate your fixes, concerns or questions.  Because unless you have the manual action flag in WMT, the form to request review is NOT present.

This is especially troublesome if you're under negative seo attack.  We have a lot of experience with 3rd party attacks, and our biggest obstacle is always convincing Google that these attacks are legitimate.  So far we've been successful every time, but only when the site has already been penalized with a manual action, and never on the first request for review.

But if you have a high ranking site, and someone attacks your ranks by posting garbage links to it, and you detect it before Google imposes a manual action, you are quite stuck.  Even if you have the data on the attack and can list the attack links, there's nothing you can do.  Google claims that you can disavow your links.  But read the notice on the disavow tool - they won't honor your disavows unless you've made an effort to remove them on your own - something a site under attack should not be held responsible for.  When your business is at stake, this is the worst kind of Catch-22.

We know that Google is trying to improve things, but our experience shows they have a very long way to go in an area that needs a lot of attention.  Google has already caused the destruction of many, many businesses and those that find themselves in trouble are often there because of decisions made previously by Google - like permitting bad links to push rank, encouraging the gathering of reciprocal links, not appropriately addressing negative seo, etc.


* You want to make sure that your WMT has a gmail account associated with it - that way you might receive an email response.  This is preferable because the email message often carries more information than the one that appears within WMT.  Also the email message may be from an address that permits you to reply directly to the evaluation team.  Check it for a case number in the subject line and an address  Sending to this address without the case number won't get a response.