15 Lessons We’ve Learned While Recovering Penalized Sites in Google

19 minutes read
15 Lessons We’ve Learned While Recovering Penalized Sites in Google

Over a year, we’ve worked with dozens of clients who approached us with penalized sites. Recovering sites like these is a specialty of ours, we being an SEO agency at the core. We’ve openly shared our recovery strategies on our blog as well as top tier sites like Search Engine Journal. Here are some of the best posts we’ve written on the subject:

After spending so much time recovering sites from algorithmic demotions, manual penalties, Penguin, and unnatural link penalties, and after sharing a specific case study showing you how we do it, we decided it was time to reflect on everything that we’ve learned.

Today, we’re going to try to distil all of that knowledge down to 15 core ideas, tips, and practices that will help you recover from penalties if you find yourself in this horrific situation.

Let’s get started.

1. Know What Caused the Penalty

This used to be harder than it is today. We’re fortunate that Google now tells anybody with a Webmaster Tools account whether or not they have been manually penalized. They even go so far as to tell you why you were penalized. Reasons include:

  • Unnatural links to your site – These penalties are now divided into two categories. In some cases, only the links are targeted. (Meaning they don’t count anymore, not that they count against you.) In the other category, your site has been targeted. (Meaning that the links do count against you.)
  • Unnatural links from your site – This is when it appears that you are selling links or otherwise using your site to manipulate PageRank using links.
  • Pure spam – This means Google views your site as spam and that it serves no purpose for users.
  • Thin content – Google feels that your content doesn’t serve its purpose very well and that it doesn’t offer unique value.
  • Hacked site – It may not seem fair, but if your site gets hacked, Google doesn’t feel it’s a safe place for users to visit.
  • Spammy freehosts – In some cases, Google has no choice but to target an entire host.
  • Cloaking and/or sneaky redirecting – This is all about trying to show the search engine one page and the user another one.
  • Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing – Users don’t like to see content stuffed with keywords, so neither does Google.
  • User-generated spam – If your comments are forums are being overrun with spam, Google might take action against your site.

Needless to say, you need to fix the problem that you got penalized for, not some other problem. It’s surprisingly common to see penalized webmasters trying to correct a problem that they weren’t actually penalized for.

Things get quite a bit more confusing in the case of algorithmic demotions, since Google isn’t going to pinpoint exactly why you lost your rankings or what you need to do to remedy the problem. Generally speaking, the problem is going to be related to the same types of issues you would face with a manual penalty, but you’ll need to identify the cause yourself.

2. Data Analysis is Your Friend

In order to get to the root of what went wrong, you’ll need to dig through analytics and any other metrics you’re using. Needless to say, this is far more important if you’ve been algorithmically demoted than if you’ve been manually penalized, since you don’t have any direction from Google on how to move forward. Still, it’s helpful in either case.

In the Case of an Algorithmic Demotion:

The first thing you need to do is find out if your penalty was site-wide or content specific. Have all of your pages seen a significant loss of traffic, or is it just one piece of content? Take a look at Google Analytics and check out Content > Site Content > Landing Pages.

Content of Landing Pages in Google Analytics

At the top of the screen, click the arrow beneath “Email,” scroll down, select “Non-Paid Search Traffic,” and click apply.

Non Paid Traffic in Google Analytics

Now close the “All Visits” segment. Take a look at your landing pages and check whether all of them have seen significant drops in traffic, or if only one or a few of them have seen a drop.

If only one piece of content has seen a drop, you should be able to remedy the issue be working on that content and the links pointing toward it. If the links are “over-optimized” or low quality, remove them, and search out some higher quality referral sources.

If, on the other hand, your entire site is seeing a drop in traffic, there are a few different reasons that might happen. You may be facing a site-wide algorithmic demotion, which means you need to reevaluate the way you’ve approached your whole site. However, another possibility is that one or more of your highest value pages has taken a hit, and that these effects have trickled down to your other pages. You’ll need to consider both possibilities and make a choice before taking action.

You will also want to head over to Webmaster Tools or a rank tracker and take a look at those results. This will help you identify whether the demotion was targeting a specific keyword, or if it is “keyword-agnostic.”

In the Case of a Manual Penalty:

If you’ve been manually penalized, Google does most of the legwork for you, but analysis can still be helpful. For example, if you are dealing with an unnatural link penalty, rank trackers can help you identify whether the penalty was targeting a specific keyword, and that will simplify the link cleanup process by allowing you to target the optimized anchor text links first.

Penalty messages won’t always tell you precisely which content was affected, so Google Analytics can be very helpful in determining where to start.

3. Scan Your Links Manually Where Possible

Tools can be incredibly useful, and we’ll discuss them shortly, but automation can’t solve everything. If you’re facing a link-based penalty or demotion, you need to sift through them manually, at least to a certain extent.

Fully automated approaches will either be overzealous and remove links that you should keep, or they will miss links that you really need to have removed.

Google’s feedback has been mixed, but the overall impression is that if you stick to links found in Webmaster Tools, that should be enough to get a penalty lifted. We recommend at least reviewing all of these links manually or quasi-manually. The site-wide links are by far the most important, so evaluate those first.

If you stick to evaluating domains, without worrying so much about the individual pages, you will generally learn everything you need to know.

4. Don’t Redirect to a New Domain

Many webmasters seem to think that they can escape a penalty by redirecting the penalized site to a new domain. In some circumstances, this genuinely will keep the “link juice” while eliminating the penalty. This effect is almost always temporary, however. It comes from the fact that Google’s various factors aren’t always synced up. Once all the data is made current, the penalty gets transferred to the new site.

Sometimes moving to a new domain is the only solution, but if you choose to do this, the new domain needs to be a legitimate reboot. If the old domain still has a decent amount of traffic, you can capture it with a no-followed link to the new domain. A redirect or a followed link will inevitably send the penalty over to the new site.

5. It’s Never too Soon to Start Building High Quality Links

There is no reason to wait until after the penalty has been lifted before you start building high quality links. It’s very rare to see a full recovery after a penalty has been lifted, especially if the penalty is link-based.

When you get penalized or algorithmically demoted, it’s because Google has decided that the factors that helped you rank were giving you an unfair advantage. That advantage has been removed. Eliminating the bad does nothing to improve the good.

I don’t want this to turn into a discussion about link building, so if you want to learn more about how to design an effective, long term link building strategy, you can take a look at:

To repeat something that we’ve said many times, a link is only worth building if you would still build it knowing that it would be no-followed. Links should be about prestige, brand impressions, and referral traffic. If they aren’t, the ultimate SEO value is also low.

6. Use Link Tools for Link Penalties

We said before that at least part of your link response strategy should be manual, but it’s a very bad idea to approach this without any automation. For starters, you’ll want a link analysis tool to see where your links are coming from and where they might be leaving negative patterns. Here are a few of the tools available:

  • Google Webmaster Tools (This one is an absolute necessity)
  • Majestic SEO
  • Open Site Explorer
  • Ahrefs
  • Link Research Tools

We also strongly recommend using at least one of these link removal tools to expedite the cleanup process:

  • Rmoov
  • Link Cleanup and Contact
  • Remove ‘em
  • DeleteBacklinks.com
  • LinkDelete.com

Remember, these tools are only meant to expedite things, they shouldn’t be your link removal strategy. You will want to manually review your cancellations before you go through with them, and you’ll need to go beyond the tool to make the impact you need.

7. The Disavow Links Tool is Not a “Recover Site” Tool

The Disavow Links tool is very useful and we’re glad for its existence, but if you think you can recover from a link penalty by dumping all of your links into this tool, it doesn’t work that way.

First of all, it’s generally a bad idea to use the Disavow Links tool at all unless you are dealing with a manual penalty. In most cases, you should focus on building high quality links. If you’ve built tons of high quality links and you still aren’t seeing any movement in the SERPs, you might want to consider the possibility that links are counting against you.

In any case, the Disavow Links tool is still a last resort. You should only use it if you know that links are counting against you, and you should only use it if you’ve already tried to have the links removed. We generally advise you to contact webmasters three times before resorting to the disavow tool.

We’ve discussed this before:

  • All you need to know about Google’s new Disavow Links Tool
  • Why Should You Not Think About Disavowing Links? The Alternates Are Here

8. The Disavow File

If you do end up using the Disavow Links tool, here are a few things you should do in order to make the most of it:

  • Include a comment for each link. Comments start with a pound (#) sign. The comment should explain why you are disavowing the link instead of removing it manually, and why you feel the need to remove the link in the first place.
  • If you aren’t sure how many times a certain domain has linked to you, just disavow the link at the domain level. There is no reason to hunt down each individual link. If one link from a domain is bad, it’s almost never the case that another link from that domain is good.
  • You don’t need to disavow every bad link in your profile. The point is to identify as many bad links as you reasonably can, eliminate as many of those manually as you reasonably can, and then submit the rest of them to the disavow tool.

9. Get Rid of Site-Wide Links, Especially with Optimized Anchor Text

If you’re facing a link-based penalty, this is the best place to start. You can easily find your site-wide links by opening up Webmaster Tools and taking a look at the domains that link to you the most. These will typically be sitting at the top, or near the top.

Site-wide links and multiple links from the same site aren’t always a bad thing, and I would advise against simply hacking off all links from any domain that links to you more than a certain number of times.

Instead, I would advise taking a look at the links. Did you build them? If so, you should almost certainly get them removed, or at least restricted to a single page. If these links are sending a lot of referral traffic, just get them no-followed instead.

If you didn’t build or buy the links, do they look suspicious? There are plenty of legitimate sites that end up in blogrolls. Take a look at the other site-wide links on the site. Do they look like the kind of links somebody would put up out of interest, or do they look like the kind of links somebody would only put up if they were getting paid? It all comes down to what “neighborhood” these site-wide links put you in. If it looks scummy, get the link removed, or replace it with a no-follow link.

10. Links from Sloppy and Thin Content Can Hurt You

Many penalized webmasters focus all of their attention on site-wide links and over-optimized anchor text. It’s true that these are responsible for the most egregious penalties and that they are the most convenient to remove. You should certainly start with these, but they aren’t the only links you should get removed if you’re certain your link profile is counting against you.

We’ve seen first-hand many sites that failed to get a reconsideration request accepted because they left these kinds of links in their profile. Even if the anchor text is fine, if it’s clear that the link was built purely for search engines, it’s going to be very difficult to recover.

Eliminate any links that were created using spun articles, as well as links created using low quality “guest posts” on sites with limited standards.

In short, if you built the link yourself, and you knew it wasn’t going to do anything for your branding or referrals, you should remove it. This can be painful, but it’s the only way to ensure recovery. It’s far better to remove these links than to wait even longer for a reconsideration request. Send a few “false alarm” reconsideration requests and you may even ruin your chances of recovery altogether.

Keep in mind that even if these links aren’t counting against you in the search engines, they are contributing little or nothing to your rankings, and they only serve to hurt your image to anybody who comes across them.

11. Reconsideration Requests

If you have been manually penalized, you’ll need to file a reconsideration request in order to get it lifted. This means that a human being is going to review your request and any changes you have made to correct the problem. Keep this in mind when you fill it out. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you set it up:

  • The request should be as detailed as possible. It should explain why you were penalized, what you have done to correct the problem, and why it won’t happen again. Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to place the blame on somebody else, especially if you bring up the topic of “negative SEO.”
  • If the penalty was link-based, publish a public Google Doc or Google Spreadhseet and link to it in your reconsideration request. The document should include a list of all the negative links that you were able to remove, as well as all of the remaining links that you submitted to the Disavow Links tool. It’s a good idea to include some commentary on the links, why you removed them, and why they were there in the first place.
  • If you used the Google Disavow Links tool, you should wait about a week before you file a reconsideration request. Google has officially recommended waiting for the Disavow submission to make its way through their systems before submitting a reconsideration request.

12. Patience is a Virtue

Recovery doesn’t happen overnight. It typically takes about a week for Google to respond to a reconsideration request. It can take months to review your link profile and correct the problems that led to a manual penalty.

Achieving the same levels of traffic you had before can take much longer, often around six months or more. Progress is ambiguous when you’re dealing with an algorithmic penalty.

Through all of this, you need to have patience. It can be tempting to resort to short-term tactics, but that is what created the problem in the first place. It can also be tempting to set up a new site, but unless you’re doing it for branding reasons, that won’t typically help anything either.

What many webmasters fail to realize is that removing the “penalty” or the factors that are counting against you in the algorithm is the easy part. Building a site that influential people will be willing to link to is the hard part. This takes patience and dedication.

13. Content Marketing Expedites Recovery

I can already hear the sound of eyeballs rolling to this one, so let me be clear. Google’s algorithm isn’t sentient, and it can’t tell the difference between good and mediocre content. However, it certainly can spot terrible content with reasonable precision (hence Panda), and it can automatically split test to optimize user behavior metrics like clicks in the SERPs.

But what I’m getting at is actually quite a bit simpler. If you create in-depth, innovative content with unique value, influencers will start to take you seriously. Truly powerful  content doesn’t require exceptional outreach skill (though that always helps). All it requires is that you treat influencers like human beings, and that you have something worth showing them.

Good content marketing doesn’t rely on search engines. It’s about building a steady stream of referrals, capturing subscriptions from them, and then growing your repeat audience. This kind of behavior creates natural links, as well as positive user behavior metrics. Putting all of this together, it’s sometimes possible to recover even without correcting the issues that led to the penalty or demotion in the first place.

For more on this, you can take a look at the content marketing section of our blog.

14. Don’t Automate Your Recovery Process

We’ve already mentioned that link removal should at least be a semi-manual process. That goes for the entire recovery process, regardless of why the penalty occurred.

When you are manually penalized, Google needs to see that you have made every effort to prevent the issue from recurring again. That means you should go above and beyond what is expected of you, and that typically means you’re going to be doing something that requires manual effort.

Remember, every penalty is different. If you rely excessively on automation, you may end up doing more harm than good.

15. Algorithmic Demotions and Manual Penalties are Not the Same Thing

Hopefully you’ve picked up on this point after reading through the rest of this post, but it’s definitely important enough to deserve a section of its own.

If you haven’t received word of a penalty in Webmaster Tools, you have not been manually penalized. You can’t submit a reconsideration request, and the way you move forward is likely going to be very different.

Algorithmic demotions aren’t technically “penalties.” That would imply that your site is being singled out. Instead, it means that a change has been made to Google’s algorithm, and ranking factors that used to help you are no longer giving you an advantage.

As we’ve said before, your response to an algorithmic demotion is, in many ways, more similar to “normal” SEO than penalty recovery. It’s all about understanding the algorithm, on some level, and changing your site to reflect what the algorithm is looking for.

As far as links go, algorithms don’t typically cause links to pass negative value. Algorithms like Penguin typically penalize sites with spammy outbound links. This causes the links to drop in value, or lose all of their value, but it doesn’t cause them to hurt your rankings. It’s more appropriate to think of the algorithm as ignoring these links. The best way to recover from these demotions is to simply attract and build higher quality, more trustworthy links.

The story isn’t quite the same for demotions like those from Panda. In this case, you are being demoted for on-site content. Removing or fixing your low quality content can cause a partial traffic rebound.


Over the years, we’ve seen just about every type of penalty you can imagine. We’ve learned that you need to approach these situations very carefully, understand what you’re looking at, and take appropriate action. We’ve also learned that removing the bad is almost never enough, even if your only goal is to achieve the same traffic levels you once had.

We hope you’ll take these lessons to heart. We’re always available to talk if you have any questions. Thanks for reading.

  • Manish Dudharejia is the founder and president of E2M - a full-service white label digital agency. E2M helps agencies scale their business by solving bandwidth/capacity problems when it comes to websites design, web development, eCommerce, SEO, and content writing. E2M has been helping agencies for 10 years and currently works with about 130 agencies across the U.S., Canada, UK, Ireland, and Australia.