The Google Penalty Recovery Panel – 7 SEO Experts Share Their Thoughts

If there is anything that the owner of a website fears the most, it is a Google penalty.

It is true that there are many different kinds of penalties that Google can impose, but also there are many different methods of getting them lifted.

With this in mind, we asked seven leading SEOs to share their opinions and tactics on how to get rid of a Google Penalty:

The Expert Panel:

Edward Yates

Head of Organic Performance

blueclawsearch.co.uk

Paul Madden

Operations Director

Linkrisk.com

Andrew Smith

Head of SEO & Global Product

cheapflights.co.uk

Rishi Lakhani

Search Marketing Consultant UK

refugeeks.com

Ann Smarty

Community and Brand Manager

Internet Marketing Ninjas

Sha Menz

Lead Architect, rmoov Link Removal Software

Web Based Innovations

Steve Lock

Product Manager

Linkdex

Questions by Fergus Clawson 

MD

blueclawsearch.co.uk

There has been a lot of speculation that disavowing links alone can revoke a penalty, is this the case in your experience?

Paul Madden: We have seen a number of instances where a disavow alone can remove the penalty, but our advice remains that you should always remove before disavow.In our experience this is the best way to approach this issue and it gets the best results long term. Disavow alone is like popping a pill to solve the problem rather than addressing the root cause. Google advice removal before disavow and the vast majority of lifted penalties have backed that position up.
Andrew Smith: Hard to say since I’ve always removed links as well when dealing with a penalty. It certainly stands to reason as disavowing a link is effectively no following on the backend. In my experience Google want to see you’ve suffered; you’ve done the hard work of contacting sites and analysing links manually and so there isn’t much effort required to scrape whois data and use mail merge or similar to contact the domain owners for the links you’ve identified as low quality/manipulative.
Rishi Lakhani: I am afraid that this may be some misinformation. It really depends on the severity of the penalty. If it is a small penalty, usually not indicated in the manual penalty check tool, but more along the message “we have taken action not in your site, but the links”. In this situation, we do try to remove links, but have seen a decent disavow lift some rankings up.

Ann Smarty: If it’s about manual penalty, in most cases you will have to prove you are really sorry and really serious about following Google’s guidelines. That means, in most cases Disavowing only won’t be enough. Google will need to see all your work done (emails sent with dates, URLs removed, nofollowed, etc)I have never seen a single manual penalty removed with Disavow only. That being said:

  • Penguin recovery: ONLY Disavow

  • Manual penalty: First try to remove, then submit the rest to Disavow
Sha Menz: I have yet to see a manual action cleared by disavow alone and have had many customers tell me after the fact that their attempts at using disavow alone have resulted in failed reconsideration requests. The messaging for these failed attempts has invariably been that they need to make an attempt to remove links before resubmitting. I think perhaps there is some confusion around the use of the term “penalty” as well. I certainly know of instances where customers have successfully used only disavow to deal with a “penguin problem”.
Steve Lock: From speaking to many industry peers I have heard of several agencies that have achieved success from disavowing alone, however this isn’t something I would recommend doing in isolation as link profiles are complex beasts. In particular many practitioners are guilty of focusing way too much on bad links and almost developing a mental block against building good links.In extreme cases some organisations have focused on nothing else for extended periods of time, which in my mind is a missed opportunity. There is no reason why link development can’t be done in parallel and I would argue it’s best to do both together as logically you will lose some link equity inevitably in the removal process.
Edward Yates: I have heard claims (especially around this neck of the woods) that disavowing links alone can work. In my personal experience this has not been the case. The profiles I generally work with are fairly large and complex. I tend to disavow as a last resort. Maybe this can work if you’ve tripped a light ‘algo’ penalty and you have a small backlink profile, but I cannot confirm whether disavowing links alone will work for you.

What should you do if Google is turning down your reconsideration request on the basis of links you can’t find using available tools?

Paul Madden: This is a problem we have been trying to highlight to Google where we can, it’s not uncommon for the reinclusion denial to include links not shown in any data source so far. To minimise the chances of that happening gather together a full set of data including:

  • MajesticSEO Historic (With filters completely turned off)
  • MajesticSEO Fresh (You do need both)
  • Google webmaster tools (Keep downloading a new copy if you get a denial, it will have updated)
  • Ahrefs
  • Moz
  • WebmeUp
  • Bing webmaster tools
  • Any link building reports from past SEO campaigns

Gathering and de-duping that lot in Excel can be fun, though luckily you can throw it all at your LinkRisk account in one zip file and our servers will sort it all automatically for you.

Andrew Smith: Find more, cut deeper and disavow anything with that looks remotely like it breaches webmaster guidelines. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice some good links as well as the junk as a show of good faith. So focus on anything that presents a signal to Google that isn’t squeaky clean. One penalty I worked on took 5 reconsideration requests. It ended up being pretty pointless as traffic didn’t increase at all when the penalty was finally removed, likely because we’d had to chip away at the domains authority to the point there was virtually nothing left!
Rishi Lakhani: Frankly use every tool under the sun, but I would also ASK in the reconsideration request for examples. I haven’t seen one that has links we couldn’t find to be honest. But asking can often give you examples.
Ann Smarty: There’s not much you can do except for trying (a few) other tools and throwing those sample links into the removal/ disavow process.One tip here is to wait a bit between reconsideration requests to make sure Google rep knows you are taking them seriously.
Sha Menz: A lot of people are using only one or two link sources (or relying solely on culled lists from tools that offer to determine which links they should keep or remove). The first step should always be to get as good a look at the total link profile as possible. I always pull data from every source available. That includes all of the well known tools. There will always be links out there that you don’t know about, but if you can start with the best data possible you will dramatically reduce the likelihood of those few links having an impact. If example links have been provided I generally crawl those sites with screaming frog to find out exactly how many links exist there. While a domain-level disavow will cover multiple links on those sites, there have been instances where these crawls have exposed linking behaviours and networked connections between sites that lead us to uncover more about the original work and what we needed to address in a new reconsideration request. Other places I look for links that are not surfaced in other tools: Google SERPs; old lists of links built provided to the client by former vendors; single click referrals in analytics data.
Steve Lock: It’s becoming more common to be given examples of the types of links that are problematic by the webspam team at Google. I’d expect they are fully aware that there are scenarios where there is nothing you can do to remove certain links (including your competitiors building them), which is why providing evidence that you’ve audited your links and tried to remove them is a best practice. In very extreme cases this may be an example where you’re best off launching a new domain.
Edward Yates: Unless Google offered a sample of links that weren’t in your collected data after the recon, it’d prove very difficult to conclude this as the basis. I could imagine that this would prove to be a very confusing time, especially if you receive a message highlighting this as the issue in Webmaster Tools. If you don’t have the tools at your disposal, you may find yourself wading in thick mud fast. Try to get expertise from those with the resource – get your hands on more data from different sources, look for shady SEO tactics that may reference your domain (co citations in URLs etc.) – this is a situation where you need to solicit advice from a specialist company who can handle the request.

How can you avoid reputational damage to a brand when undertaking link removal?

Paul Madden: Be open and transparent with the sites you outreach to, email from the brand directly and explain politely that you have identified a drop in rankings and you are asking for their help to remove or nofollow any link that could be part of that issue. Make sure you are polite and do not suggest that the link from their site is the cause, just that you are being extra careful at this point.Never try to force the site owner to act and never get into a debate, remain calm and polite at all times.
Andrew Smith: Be creative, there was a great post about this on Search Engine Land recently where the person requesting removal used a nice image and a jovial tone. Or keep it brief and say you’ve changed your policy on external links and are requesting that many sites nofollow links to you going forward stating that it’s nothing personal.At the end of the day so many of us are in the same boat, I’d be more concerned about traffic than reputational damage. I always think it’s amusing how Google deem it OK for a site to buy PPC traffic but too spammy to receive organic traffic. The hypocrisy is a joke since it’s the same Google users the site appears for!
Rishi Lakhani: First things first, we always make sure that we link to the relevant Google guidelines in contacts. We let site owners know that we don’t call the shots when it comes to search quality, Google does. Second, where we know previous SEOs have abused sites such as forums, we apologise explaining that these agencies no longer work with the client. We point out that the brand didn’t know, which 9 out of 10 times tends to be true.
Ann Smarty: The most important thing is to think about your link removal email template. Be careful not to offend the linking page owner. Don’t sound as if you are threatening them either. Be thankful, amiable and professional. And of course as personal as you can.There are a couple of good examples in my round-up here.
Sha Menz: Remember that you are dealing with human beings. The people you are asking to remove links are generally just ordinary people who have just as many problems and issues as you do. Human beings do not respond well to threats, demands or blame shifting. They do respond well to empathy, gratitude and helpfulness.Never make threats of legal action – this just makes you and your client look stupid. It is not illegal to link to a web site and no amount of trying to impress a webmaster with your own importance will change that. Also, don’t send email to abuse departments of major service providers. You’re effectively sending irrelevant email straight to the people who have the power to tag a mail server for spamming.Make sure any contact you make with a domain owner is friendly, personalized and genuine. Switch it up a little with something that will set you apart from all the other requests they are likely receiving. Here is an example of a very easy, but absolutely memorable effort that actually built brand recognition and reputation!
Steve Lock: The smartest example I’ve seen of this was a major brand that appeared to be swapping out bad links in their profile for links to their Facebook page, this would avoid conversations with web masters saying that their sites are low quality leading to heated email conversations.
Edward Yates: Plough forward with dignity and respect, you won’t be the first to have fallen into a penalty – nor will you be the last. My advice is to identify your official partners/ ambassadors/ business associates and put these into a VIP list. Don’t spam, treat all webmasters with respect. Maintain and build relations in innovative ways as you do so! You never know, that sports blogger with the site-wide you just had taken down might actually push your great content through his 32k twitter followers one day! A lot of brands have leveraged their Google penalty news to their advantage, forming long, in-depth great case studies that act as muse to the linkerati. This strategy however, is now getting over used, I’d tone it down.

To disavow or remove – what is more effective in the long run?

Paul Madden: They aren’t mutually exclusive, in the vast majority of cases you need to do both. Remove where you can and disavow if you cannot get removal actioned.
Andrew Smith: I prefer disavowing because you never know if that domain is going to link to you again in the future. A leopard rarely changes it’s spots so if the site was junk when you reviewed it, you probably don’t want a link from it to count in the future.
Rishi Lakhani: Remove. I always remove where possible, but also worth keeping the disavow in place. Both have their roles, but removal is way more effective.
Sha Menz: Removal (or remediation with a nofollow) is always my preferred option. Disavow should always be the backstop. In the end, there is more than one search engine, so if there are linking problems I would prefer to have them gone. Also, the whole world now has a taste (and a tool) for digging into the backlink profile of anyone they choose. I never want my client to be in a position where they become the subject of someone’s need for a juicy target to blog about. If it’s bad I want it gone.
Steve Lock: Removal is surely better, although there will be many links from experience that can’t be removed (for many reasons). It may also depend on the resources you have available, if you are low on resource you might be forced to disavow. As mentioned earlier you should also put resource behind building high quality links in parallel.

Best tools for link removal?

Paul Madden: We advise people to do this stage manually (in fact we run that as a service for many of our clients). The reason why we prefer to do this stage manually is that it allows for:Greater controlBetter timing on follow up emailsReduction in risk from automated email blasts

It builds evidence to Google that you haven’t tried for a quick fix solution and have taken time to learn from the issue completely.

Andrew Smith: Scrapebox. It’s excellent for scanning sites to find out things like whether the link has already gone or if the linking page has any type of footprint which would result in a spam flag. SendBlaster is pretty good for managing email sending or just excel with a mail merge in outlook works. There was a post on Moz a while back about sniffing the referrer of directories and serving a 404 so they remove you. The trouble with this is you’re likely killing links from the better quality directories which actually both to check if you site is still there. You should also consider killing the pages if you have very crappy links going to deep URLs you were trying to rank for a specific group of terms.
Rishi Lakhani: Personally I work with the team at LinkRisk.com. Their data, recrawling and classification capabilities make it extremely easy for me to run massive audits. The fact that I can automate continuous crawls makes life even easier. As a freelancer, their removal cost as low enough for me to be able to outsource the work too, which benefits my clients.
Sha Menz: Link Data Tools: Majestic SEO, ahrefs, Open Site Explorer, Raventools, Webmaster Tools from Google, Bing, Baidoo, Google AnalyticsAnalysis Tools: Human eyes connected to human brain, Excel, Firebug Web Developer add-on, MozBar, Ayima Redirect Path plugin (Chrome), User Agent Switcher add-onOutreach Tools:  rmoov, telephone

Steve Lock: Excel is a given and depending on your circumstances you may need to merge several sources of back link data with popular choices including Majestic, Moz, Ahrefs, (Linkdex of course) and most people will know their favourites intimately.First hand I really like Majestic Trust Flow metrics, sorting by the lowest in Excel. I’ve also been surprised at the Linkdex Influence metric, where again looking at the lowest scoring links highlights low quality sites that are linking to you (even though it was never designed as a tool for uncovering bad links).I’m also really interested in the work LinkRisk have been doing over the last year or two as the team behind the tool really know what they’re doing with analysis of link profiles.There is however no alternative for manually eyeballing sites and all of these tools should be used for identifying sites to manually check as part of a process. I would recommend designing a checklist to follow (which would be unique to your own requirements for what needs to be removed).

Edward Yates: A few factors to consider here, the main one – How big is your backlink profile? You’d never use a JCB to dig the foundations for a shed, it’s not practical (luckily I’m working agency-side and we always have them on site:

  • For Smaller Profiles: Technically every step of the process can be done using Google products, i.e. Gmail, gDocs spreadsheets and a trained eye – plus use of free tools to detect networks, something to determine anchor text ratios, perhaps? etc.
  • For Large Profiles: I usually deal with fairly large and complex penalties – when you’re talking anything greater than the 1500/2000+ ULD range then I like to get trigger happy with everything that I can get my hands on. (I’m a big fan of APIs)

Do you think like Google will honour the disavowal process? Could it be supplanted with something else? If so, what do see it evolving into?

Andrew Smith: Google always have an ulterior motive in my opinion. The motto used to be “don’t be evil”, I think since they floated it’s now “don’t be seen to be evil”. Personally I think the disavow file is simply a form of crowdsourcing; they’ve outsourced manual review of links to everyone who needs to use it. I expect it’s a key part of the Penguin or some other algorithm now. For example, if a domain is in 1000 disavow files, that’s a pretty strong signal that the domain is spamming and therefore useful data for Google to improve search results. I think the ironic thing is since Panda, Penguin and the clampdown on manipulative links began, the SERPs have gradually become less relevant. It would be very interesting to take SERPs from today and yesteryear for a corpus of terms and do some user testing to assess relevancy – I’m confident the users would think the results are not as good these days.
Sha Menz: I see the disavow links tool essentially as a workaround for the fact that the real world does not allow for all undesirable links to be removed. Honestly I wish people would stop wailing about the prospect of Google using disavow data to somehow influence search engine visibility in the future. There is so much noise in the tool now that I really don’t think they could do that.While it may help them to identify blips on the radar like link networks or big hitters in the spam space, there is no way they could make reliable assumptions about the vast majority of individual domains as many think they might.I think the only logical way the disavow tool could be supplanted at this point would be if Google were to abandon the current penalty regime.
Edward Yates: This is an interesting question. How would you personally utilise all of this crowd sourced data? It’s masterfully powerful and insightful stuff that paints a pretty invaluable picture? What if we machine learned these behavioural votes, and program that data to cause a reaction? In my opinion, yes, without a shadow of a doubt in my mind, Google is extrapolating this data. It is applying what it learns to enhance the performance of its index and the website results therein en-masse. How, and to what magnitude however, is a totally different question. Its interpretations of these datasets will no doubt evolve and be optimised perpetually. There is talk and perhaps evidence to suggest this has rolled out in the present day, but eventually, I visualise a new improved reverse organic ranking algorithm evolving toe to toe with the pre-existing one. The whole disavow frenzy has been messy and unsettling for many webmasters and brands. There is collateral damage. Good sites have been thrown into disavow files by inexperienced webmasters (innocent casualties of the witch hunt).

Is it likely that Google will stamp down on sites that are demanding lots of money for link removal?

Paul Madden: In most cases the sites that are asking for money are de-indexed sites, in fact it makes it easier for them to ask for higher amounts if they are deindexed!I don’t foresee any situation where Google would care if a site is charging for removals, in the vast majority of cases I would suggest Google would believe this to be the consequence of paying to put the link there unnaturally in the first place.
Rishi Lakhani: Yes, I believe so. We clearly mark these, though in some instances we DO pay for removal, especially if the sites were spammed by previous SEOs. You have to judge each case, but sites that are making money off removals would probably find that simply highlighting them to Google in a reinclusion would make their ability to hurt a client harder, and the income stream will start drying up.
Ann Smarty: It’s like curing symptoms rather than dealing with the actual disease. While nothing would surprise me at this point, I think it would be smarter to stop the overall removal / disavow craziness. Spam and abuse will exist until it works.

When is a site beyond repair? Is there a point where you’re just throwing good money after bad?

Paul Madden: The instances where we would suggest to a site owner that its better just to start again are pretty rare nowadays. Most things can be rescued as long as you realise that recovery isn’t often a quick or easy process. The main times I would suggest it now are where all the links placed were done for SEO value and where the site itself has no compelling reason for it to be restored to the index.
Rishi Lakhani: I have had such cases. When a link profile is made up of over 80-90% spam, I tell site owners that they ought to reconsider rebranding, new URL, and explain in their reinclusion that they will be shutting the previous site down. The reason this is important is because Matt Cutts has clearly stated they can flow penalties to new sites set up by people who own currently penalised sites. I haven’t seen it happen, but it may.Ideally a site that got hit by penguin, and then a manual site wide penalty would typically have a highly suspect profile, and in such cases it may be worth throwing the towel in.
Sha Menz: This is a decision that should always be made on the basis of the business case. If there is recognizable branding and/or significant amounts of time, money and commitment gone into the site then I need convincing that it should be thrown away.Matt Cutts’ recent discussion at SMX West of penalties being meted out for people who are “moving down the road” to get out from under a penalty add to my feeling that any investment in a new domain has to be made on the basis that it was necessary before the penalty.
Ann Smarty: In some cases it really feels like there’s no point in trying to lift the penalty. My personal take is it’s easier to start afresh unless you have a great brand asset to lose.Keep in mind that penalties follow a new site even if you don’t use a 301 redirect.
Steve Lock: I would expect that this completely depends on the vertical, there is far more tolerance in the uber competitive markets and it’s far more natural to have bad links in this instance. It also comes down to resource, as I’d expect smaller brands with limited resource to be more biased to starting again. There is also nothing stopping you launching a new domain in parallel to hedge your bets (obviously as long as you consider and manage duplicate content).
Edward Yates: The only sites that I have seen entirely beyond practical repair are those that were meant to be so. These Kamikaze sites served their purpose before the wick burned out.  I see no reason why anyone would want to exhume and rehabilitate these from the domain auction graveyard (unless you’re contracting out negative SEO services, or perhaps testing out the sneaky tip that I mention later?) In my eyes, any genuine websites profile can be resuscitated or upcycled.  As a consultant, it’s about managing risk and minimising loss for a client. I tend to set a threshold and consider what’s worth saving; is it the brand? Is it the equity of link juice/ trust? What is valuable to you? If a removal threshold goes to say 50/50 on a fairly large profile then I’d definitely consider the fact that the project is salvageable. If the bad aspects verge more towards the 75/80% mark of the profile, then it’s time to say, ‘hey listen up, there may be other options for you to consider’, depending on who you are, it may be worth rebranding and repointing the best of the remaining link juice elsewhere.

Are there key elements in crafting a successful Reconsideration request?

Andrew Smith: Be honest, detailed and include specific numbers. Don’t try and bullshit them, they know everything about your backlink profile via some very sophisticated tools. Everyone says include links to supporting evidence on Google Drive, I doubt they look at it but it shows you’ve made an effort.

Rishi Lakhani: I believe in three things:

    • Be honest, admit to manipulation.
    • Prove the effort and make it transparent
    • Make a promise not to spam and stick to it.

Ann Smarty: Add as many details as you can. I am usually using Google Docs to collect those details and link in your request.Many links you see in GWT are already broken, nofollow or non-existent. Throw them all in your reconsideration request! Have you heard from a website owner and found out WHY exactly that link cannot be removed? Make a screenshot and share it in your request. Add dates: Emailed once, emailed twice, tried reaching out on twitter, etc. You want to impress a Google rep? Be detailed and colorful 🙂
Sha Menz: Show that you understand what was actually wrong. Without this it is hard to make a compelling case that you will never go there again. Provide good supporting documentation to show that you made a genuine attempt to get the links removed. Explain any issues that are outside of your control, but which could be mistakenly seen as deception or lack of effort on your part.

Does a site ever truly recover from a penalty?

Paul Madden: Some do, some don’t. There are a number of factors that help determine what recovery is likely to look like:

  • Severity of penalty
  • Equity remaining after link removal and disavow
  • Time taken to remove the penalty
  • Additional dampening factors (Penguin etc)

For most small sites, recovery takes time and can often peak at 75% ish of the-pre penalty levels. For larger sites often penalty removal can mean a return to similar positions held pre-penalty.

In most cases though it can take some time for the trust to come back and the site to stabilise.

Andrew Smith: After reinvesting in the right strategy then yes I think you can get to prior traffic levels and beyond. But it takes time, patience and effort on the right strategies after the penalty is lifted. Don’t expect to get 100% of your traffic back, it isn’t going to happen because you don’t have the same authority after the efforts you made to lift the penalty.
Rishi Lakhani: Yes, I have seen it often enough. Some get even stronger after a while. Just depends how much effort they put into getting clean.

Ann Smarty: There are a couple of important factors that come into play here:

  1. Google remembers everything. I’ve seen Google remind you of your long removed sins from 2008. Once penalized, you may be sure, this record is with you forever.
  2. After the link removal / disavow process you’ll have many of your previously working links removed / discounted. So don’t expect your rankings will be back to what they used to be. I don’t think it can be considered a penalty but definitely that’s a natural consequence.
Sha Menz: Domains with a sitewide manual action usually recover fairly easily provided there are no other issues on site (panda, technical SEO etc). Partial match penalties generally need to wait for an update to see significant improvements, but even then the majority will need to work hard to get back to pre-penalty levels. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. I think the most frustrating thing is the lag time between penguin data refreshes. So many people out there have worked hard to remove a manual action and are stuck with an algorithmic effect for way too long.

What is the best method of removing links?

Sha Menz: The majority of successful cleanups come from emailed requests (contact form submissions have a reasonable level of success). Old favorites; telephone or in person requests have quite a good rate of success, but are used much less frequently for obvious reasons.
Edward Yates: In an ideal world the best method of removing links is the method that gets rid of the trash without affecting any rankings performance. I wish there was a touch screen solution that allowed me to power up the tablet, touch a link and it will vanish from someone’s website. Coincidentally, I believe that RMoov are beta testing a plugin that does something relatively similar to scale this process within WordPress. Sadly there is no touch, wipe solution, so in the meantime, you have got to just get down and get dirty. Often the link removal process is in the eye of the beholder, would you gather every bit of data and assess everything on a link by link basis? Or would you hand pick only the gold and sacrifice the rest?

When should you upload a disavow file?

Paul Madden: I would advise getting a disavow file lodged as soon as you become aware of your link problem. I would advise that even if you didn’t have a penalty already.As soon as you have a penalty though, the clock is ticking and I would disavow the worst links immediately and then append others as you audit what you have.
Andrew Smith: Before you get a penalty. You need to be monitoring links daily or weekly at the very least and disavowing the shit whenever it crops up.This is the only way you’ll stay on top of negative SEO and the only way you might avoid a penalty these days. If you’ve got dodgy links out there you know you or your agency built just disavow it now before it comes back to bite you in the arse.
Rishi Lakhani: As soon as you have identified all the bad links. I would rather have the disavow in place even before contacts are made, and edit after the contacts are complete.
Ann Smarty: If that’s your first attempt, I’d say a couple of weeks of link removal process (which you carefully record). If you have already been rejected, give it a month or so to show Google you are actually working on fixing stuff, not just shooting back those requests.I haven’t done too many requests to be sure though…

Should you link build while trying to remove a penalty?

Paul Madden: No, the phrase I’ve used many time before is “Link building under penalty is like brushing your teeth whilst eating a KitKat”
Rishi Lakhani: Ideally, I would say no. It’s way too risky.
Ann Smarty: If by “link building” you mean writing content that attracts links, then yes, for sure 🙂
Sha Menz: I have a problem with the term. You should always be doing things to improve your site for visitors, build your brand, touch your customers’ lives and live your company culture. All of these will earn you links and yes, you should be doing those things every day including while trying to remove a penalty.
Steve Lock: Yes, although you should do this with caution and make sure you’re building the links that will benefit you the most and consider risks such as over optimisation of anchor text.

What measures do you think Google will take to avoid unfairly penalising sites that are the victim of spam link (negative SEO) attacks?

Andrew Smith: I don’t think they give a shit about negative SEO. If one site tanks another replaces it. Google created this mess by designing an algorithm which assesses whether links are good or bad rather than just good or ignored. That I believe is why the results are less relevant these days. They’re too busy trying to catch sites out for the junk rather than give merit for the good signals. Manual penalties could still be issued for obvious manipulation but there is no need to let such simple techniques cause issues through negative SEO.
Rishi Lakhani: At the moment I don’t know. I have seen a couple of sites under negative attacks not affected, while others certainly have. I don’t think that the algo is clever enough to catch on, and it’s much easier to negative seo a site now than it used to be.
Ann Smarty: From what I see, Google doesn’t mind random victims here and there to spread the message. So far I don’t see any effort and I don’t see it’s planned.
Sha Menz: I think Google believes it there is no need for measures because they have the whole negative SEO thing neutralized. I don’t agree, but I really don’t see them changing their view on this. Prior to Penguin 2.1, they were pretty much on point with their assessment, but since then I have seen more than a dozen obvious Negative SEO efforts that have worked.
Edward Yates: As I mentioned previously, I think that Google will take note of these sites and will use their data to improve their algorithms to reduce the amount of innocents that get caught in the net. In any behavioural forms of scientific testing, whether it be psychological cures for anxiety, depression, or relieving symptoms of ‘abuse’ – there’s always a few initial casualties and sacrifices for a greater good in the controlled testing phase Presently, it seems as though it’s the webmasters responsibility to highlight flaws and blatant negative link targeting attacks by crying out.

How can brands avoid falling prey to such attacks?

Ann Smarty: I don’t think there’s a good way to avoid it. There’s a good thread at Inbound.org about that: what happens if a competitor redirects a penalized domain to you?Here are some takeaways:…there are numerous people who buy domains that are penalized. For the explicit reason to improve their rankings by screwing up their competitors’.Much harder to find if penalized domain is not 301d, but using cross domain canonical

Sha Menz: Be aware of what is happening with your backlink profile. Proactively remove and/or disavow if you see issues and document everything you do so that you have it ready should you actually end up with a manual action.
Steve Lock: The best form of defence is two pronged; 1) the more authority and trust you build the harder it is to be penalised and 2) pre-emptive disavowing is now becoming very common to regularly try to take action against your worst links before they become a problem.

Would you pay webmasters to remove toxic links?

Paul Madden: In most cases no, in situations where the number of links removed has been low or where I can get a huge batch taken down quickly by paying I would consider investing in the removal though.
Andrew Smith: We have, reluctantly. Only for the absolute spammiest crap we never built. Just disavow it if they want to charge you, then file a spam report about them!
Ann Smarty: No, like I said, I’d include that reply screenshot in the reconsideration request explaining why I had to disavow that link instead of removing it.While I understand *some* cases when people want to charge for link removal (I get link removal requests for spammy comments that got passed many years ago: Why would I edit those for free?), I’ve never dealt with cases dirty enough that they would justify paid link removal.
Sha Menz: The answer is generally no, but I have on occasion paid a small fee ($25) to a webmaster who owned a number of old directory sites and offered to find and remove links from all of his sites and provide an excel spreadsheet with complete details.
Steve Lock: No as it sets a bad precedence, however there are commercial implications to getting bad links removed so I can understand why people would, especially on a campaign with a large budget.

What is the best method to automate the analysis part of finding which links to remove?

Steve Lock: I personally like Trust Flow from Majestic, although I am aware of many ways this can be achieved. You could also build your own methodology with thresholds and tweak from your own experience, even with multiple metrics e.g. a site with a Trust Flow of less than 10 and a Linkdex Influence score of less than 2 may catch a vast majority of your bad links. However I would also expect collateral damage from trying to do this without manually looking at the domains.One effective approach would be to look for patterns and footprints that would help you identify the types of sites that you’re removing to make them increasingly easier to spot. I haven’t personally tested this approach, but I’ve thought that building a Google Custom Search Engine with your backlinks and testing for footprints that find your worst links. Agencies should definitely be building data around domains they are flagging for removal, especially if they are the types of domains you would never want to link to any of your clients. Quick wins are to also consider anchor text and the type of site (e.g. directories) to look for sites that are obviously there solely for SEO purposes and to look at potential problems you have with your link profile, particularly around over optimisation.

Should you trust software tools that state the links are toxic?

Paul Madden: That all depends on how the tool works, if they just re-badge metrics then I would worry about their ability to do the job well. LinkRisk takes into account well over 100 signals and we have a maths PHD on staff to help us with our algorithm. Scoring links is a tough task for anyone but I truly believe we do it better than anyone else, and well enough for me to trust it with my own sites.
Ann Smarty: No, I wouldn’t even trust myself. I’d trust a good expert view. Jim Boykin is the best link analyst under the sun. He is the only one I’d trust with my link removal (disclaimer: Jim has never done link removal for me; I just know him as a great link expert).
Sha Menz: I do not trust algorithmic analysis tools. I have seen both false positives and false negatives from such tools. So many of the people we talk to on our support line have had a failed reconsideration request that comes back to sole reliance on those types of tools.
Steve Lock: Software will never be a replacement for manually reviewing your links, practitioners are often guilty of obsessing over metrics/tools and it’s common for people to forget about editorial considerations. For example if there was a brand new website, which was great editorially lots of tools would flag it as low authority/quality, if I looked at the site and felt it had great content fitting the brand well I can’t see any reason why you would want to remove it purely based on metrics. The link profile is also fundamental to consider as if you build lots of the same types of links, this would eventually become a problem over time, even if many of the links in isolation aren’t problematic.

Are there any tricks or shortcuts that will get a manual penalty removed more rapidly?

Paul Madden: No, don’t believe anyone who says they can or their system will help get the penalty removed quickly. Google apply these penalties for a reason and you have to show that you have changed and learnt from the process, trying to use a quick fix to solve the problem really isn’t likely to help you convince them you’ve learnt.
Andrew Smith: Not really. It just takes a lot of man hours and patience to go through your links one by one. I’d also suggest you agree on a the process for anyone who is working on the review to ensure consistency in both the notes/actions as well as the opinion on what is a good, bad or neutral link. One piece of advice is to you update your disavow daily whilst under penalty with all the links you’ve identified that day you think are a problem. Then when you come to submit your recon requests Google will see this and if the 48hr period required for the disavow to take effect is a real thing, you’ll already have a chunk disavowed from this approach.
Rishi Lakhani: Call Matt Cutts 🙂
Ann Smarty: From my experience, it often relies on pure luck: Sometimes your request happens to get reviewed by a rep in a good mood and the penalty gets released unpredictably fast. I’ve seen a few cases like that when we did nothing special but the penalty got removed very smoothly.
Sha Menz: You always have to do the work, and how easily you will get that accomplished is always dependent on what how much of a problem you have. Site wide manual actions (especially those that come out of a very specific tactic or network) are relatively quick and easy to deal with, but then comes the need to get the reconsideration request processed. If you are a big enough brand and/or can generate enough of a firestorm on social media, it seems you can queue jump and get a reconsideration request looked at in super quick time. Frankly this makes me angry for the thousands of people out there who have done the work and are stuck with waiting in line for the webspam team to get to them.
Steve Lock: We’re reaching a time where tricks are becoming increasingly less appealing to use as they can generally lead to temporary results or not completely fix the problem.If you are looking for tricks a good one I heard was experimenting with conditional redirects to try and identify links that are causing you the most pain by moving them to different pages/sections of your site while monitoring the results.
Edward Yates: Publicity, resource and absolute transparency worked in a number of high profile cases e.g. Interflora – 11 days, Rap Genius – Brand name returned within 10 days.

We would like to thank all who donated their time and answered our questions to make this post a reality. There are some brilliant, insightful answers here that will hopefully help people get a better idea of how to remove and recover from a Google Penalty.
Is there anything that you would add however, or even, anything that you disagree with? Let us know with a comment below!

about the author: "Constantly looking at how we can deliver more for our clients - as well as leading Blueclaw's strategic direction. Head honcho with a passion for SEO and online marketing."
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