Shazzam! How to Remove a Google ‘Unnatural Links Penalty’ First Time Around
I know that many Webmasters and SEOs alike will have shared the same heartache over the last year or so; you want to work on improving your own or your client’s site, so you log in to Google Webmaster Tools to check for site errors and suddenly you see that your worst (internet-related) nightmare has come true…
After several expletives roll off your tongue, you start to think logically. The first stage of link rehab is trying to explain this to (and most likely having to calm down) either your boss or your client, followed by your plan for removing the links. If you’ve been in this situation before, you know exactly how much work may be involved, particularly for larger sites. From my own experience and seemingly the experiences of others, you can struggle with these for months and no matter what you try, you seem to keep getting knocked back by Google time and again. However (if you can excuse the dreadful cliché), there IS a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not as far away as you might think.
Recently one of our new clients approached us with this issue (their previous SEO company were spam-tacular). To my amazement though, I received the ‘Holy Grail’ of Webmaster Tools messages only a week after the very first reconsideration request: *Manual Spam Action Revoked*
It came as a total shock, mostly because it was a large site which had nearly 1,000 ‘unnatural’ links when we started the process, and the message came only a week after submitting the reconsideration request, which is really unusual.
I did everything ‘by the book’ (if such a book exists) i.e. downloaded links from various sources – OSE, GWT, Cognitive SEO, removed the duplicate links, before manually checking each URL against my interpretation of Google’s ‘quality guidelines’. They had about 1,300 links, so if I said this process was easy or fun, I’d be lying, but it’s amazing what you can achieve with a gallon of coffee and a great playlist (music tip: listening to Knife Party will make you feel like you can do a thousand push ups).
When my pulse eventually returned to normal, I was left with a comprehensive list of good and bad links for this client. I was relatively strict with my decisions on the links, so I was left with 970 links to remove and 310 which I felt were acceptable. I used Link Research Tools and some ‘elbow grease’ to obtain the contact details and contact forms for each site, before gathering the email addresses and making a template message. As a side note, Link Research Tools actually has its own software for analysing link quality, called ‘Link Detox’. Don’t rely on this too heavily though as it doesn’t take many factors into account, and seems to focus more on the numbers of links pointing to each site rather than the type of page or link it is. However, it is still a useful guide and starting point for those who are unsure as to what makes a good or bad link and gives in-depth data on each URL.
After my contact list was complete, I got to work on sending out the hundreds of emails and contact forms. You can use mass emailing software, although this comes with its own dangers like missing emails off the list and sending the emails in an unreadable format. Tip: If you’re sending emails on behalf of a client, it’s useful if you can get the client to provide an email address for you to use; it should work more reliably and appear more genuine to site owners compared to a fake email address that you’ve created. However, be aware of the client’s server limitations, they might have limitations on the numbers of emails you can send in a day (as will sites like Gmail).
When sending the message, don’t be threatening or rude – people are much more likely to respond to a simple request.
Dear Website Owner,
We have been going through our back-links and have spotted a link from
your site to ours http://www.example.com that we appreciate but would
like removed in order to resolve an overall back-link issue with Google.
We would appreciate it if you could remove the link(s) from where it
appears on the page/s:
Please let us know once this has been removed.
I’ve had a decent amount of success from using the above message, but feel free to make message suggestions in the comments section below.
From what I’ve read elsewhere, it seems that most people contact each site owner up to 3 times each to get links removed (if they don’t remove the links after the 1st or 2nd email). After each of the first 2 rounds of contacting I removed the dead links and contacted the remaining live ones. You probably don’t want to have to check every individual site to see if the link is still live, so it’s much easier if you use a live link checker. We are fortunate enough to have our own in-house resource for this, but I have also used SEO Book in the past, which seems to be accurate and you can also download a CSV file of the results, although don’t overload the links box.
I was quite pleased with the progress – over 200 links were removed after 3 rounds of emails. However I was still left with the small matter of the remaining 750 harmful live links…
So I went back to ‘the book’ and created a mammoth disavow file for all remaining harmful links, to be sent alongside the reconsideration request message. However, I read in a Google forum that it might even be worth submitting all of the links you tried to remove in the disavow file (including the ones you think were removed), just in case they become live again at a later date. You can also take screenshots of some of the emails/contact forms you’ve sent and upload them to Google Drive (alongside a spreadsheet of sites you contacted successfully and unsuccessfully).
When I write a reconsideration request, I try to remember that it’s a human reading it as opposed to the Googlebot, so I try to appeal to them without sounding over the top. The main points to include are the date of your links penalty, what you did to rectify the situation (including documented evidence of your emails uploaded in a Google drive spreadsheet & mentioning the disavow file you’ve submitted), where you went wrong in the first place, and a new plan of action moving forward: to focus on building great content for the user which will hopefully generate links/shares organically. Google wants to see that you’ve made a lot of effort in trying to improve both your link profile and your behaviour, so merely ‘disavowing’ links and submitting a reconsideration request is highly unlikely to be successful, and it’s always better to get the harmful links removed.
After you’ve submitted the reconsideration request and disavow file, you then play the waiting game, which can take several weeks. To pass the time, why not do some keepy-ups?
Unfortunately Google is notoriously hard to please, so don’t be too disheartened if you have to repeat this process a few times, like what happened in this personal account.
As previously highlighted, the reply on this occasion came much faster than expected – exactly 1 week later.
It’s important to remember that when you are removing any number of links, it’s possible that some of these links may not have been especially harmful in the first place, so inevitably you will have lost some link juice pointing to your site. If you’ve managed to remove a site penalty then your rankings may improve slightly, but it’s unlikely you will be back to where you were before the drop without additional link building, so make sure you have a good quality strategy moving forward.
In summary, here are the main points to remember;
1) Compile a list of links from several sources , e.g. Cognitive, GWT and OSE. Whichever sites you use, make sure GWT is one of them as it generally includes the most links.
2) Make sure you’re aware of Google’s quality guidelines when making decisions on whether or not to keep links – any site which sole purpose is to provide a link to other sites probably isn’t good quality, and ‘unnatural’ looking links should be relatively easy to spot.
3) You can use software like Link Research Tools and Who.is to obtain email addresses, although you may have to search some of the sites themselves if contact details aren’t publicly listed. Try to get an email address from the domain to make the message sound more genuine and personal (if sending on behalf of a client).
4) Send a friendly, brief message to increase the chance of having the link removed.
5) Create a disavow file for all remaining low quality live links, and submit this through GWT
6) Write a reconsideration request message to Google. Remember it’s a human being you’re writing to and make sure you tell them where you went wrong, what work you did to remove the links and how you will improve moving forward.
7) Continue to build high quality links and content for your site. Quality content is likely to get shared and generate links organically.
8) Practise keepy-ups.
I’m sure most SEOs will say that this process is nothing new or revolutionary regarding trying to remove an unnatural links penalty and I’m sure most, if not all, will follow a similar process. I have even been rejected for a different new client that approached us with this issue despite following this same process, so I can only conclude that removing this type of penalty must come down to a mix of luck and judgement. However, I’m yet to read any accounts of removing a penalty on the first attempt for a site with this many harmful links, so the main thing to take from this personal account is hope – hope that any unnatural links penalty can be removed after 1 attempt, hope that the Disavow tool does actually work, and above all, the hope that you can keep either your boss or client happy!