We’re often contacted by clients who are struggling after receiving a penalty from Google. The majority of these clients have been penalized for unnatural links in one way or another.

Unfortunately, it seems that a large number of the webmasters who get in touch with us are still under the impression that they should use the disavow link tool in order to recover. I’m not sure how this myth got started, but this is not what the tool is for. Whether you’ve been hit by a manual penalty or an algorithmic one, the disavow tool is a last resort. It’s meant for advanced webmasters, and you’re only supposed to use it if you’ve made every effort possible to remove the links yourself first.

We’ve already written two posts about this. We’ve talked about alternatives to the disavow links tool, and we’ve talked about some misconceptions surrounding it. Since we’re still hearing this subject getting brought up, we thought we’d revisit it, and share some important related misconceptions about link penalties.

Some of the things our clients say when they first reach out to us include:

  • My site has been partially penalized due to unnatural link-building. I’ve already made a list of links that are causing the problem and submitted them through the disavow tool. I also submitted a reconsideration request, but it was rejected.
  • I have a lot of sites and don’t have time to remove all of the links manually, so I was hoping to use the disavow tool to recover from my penalties.

And so on…

We hate hearing this stuff, because it actually works against recovery in the long run. Let’s talk about each type of penalty, what you need to do to recover, and why you should never use the disavow tool as anything other than a last resort.

1. Unnatural Link Penalties

The only demotions that Google officially refers to as penalties are their manual actions. Google actually has three different kinds of link penalties that are applied manually:

  • Unnatural links to your site (affects links) – This is the flipside of the link penalty listed above. If a site that links to you gets penalized, it means that your links get penalized, but not in the sense that they actually count against you. The links simply don’t count anymore. It’s very important to understand this if you’ve received this kind of penalty. Google Webmaster Tools will tell you specifically which type of link penalty you were hit by. If it was this one, the links are not counting against you.
  • Unnatural links to your site – This is the all-out case in which your site is manually penalized for its inbound link profile. This means that the links are actually counting against you, and that you probably won’t be able to recover unless you remove the offensive links.

Again, it’s not hard to determine which of these three penalties you’re dealing with. Google will flat out tell you these days, with a message on this screen:

If it is about unnatural links from your site, you should never, ever use the disavow tool. This means that you need to remove the offensive links on your own site. It means that Google believes your site exists to help others rank in an unnatural manner. The only way to prove otherwise is to remove those outbound links.

If you have been penalized for unnatural inbound links, make sure to look for the qualifier “impacts links.” If you see that qualifier, here is exactly what Google has to say on the matter (bold emphasis mine):

If you don’t control the links pointing to your site, no action is required on your part. From Google’s perspective, the links already won’t count in ranking. However, if possible, you may wish to remove any artificial links to your site and, if you’re able to get the artificial links removed, submit a reconsideration request. If we determine that the links to your site are no longer in violation of our guidelines, we’ll revoke the manual action.

Google seems to be involved in a bit of doublespeak here, and how you decide to move forward is up to you. From a pure SEO perspective, if you’ve received this specific penalty, there is no reason to remove any links at all, let alone use the disavow tool. (We don’t recommend using the tool in this case unless you know what you’re doing)

However, having a penalty on your record, and willfully ignoring it, probably doesn’t send the best message to Google about your intentions. Any Google employee who sees that your site is penalized is almost certainly going to view any future efforts with more suspicion, and there’s a good chance that this could work against you more than if you took actions to remove the penalty.

That said, I see no reason to use the disavow tool in this situation, ever. Since the entire point of removing the penalty is just to get in Google’s “good graces,” not actually to improve rankings, there’s no point in using the disavow tool. Disavowing is the easy way out, and Google wants to see that you’re making an effort.

They explicitly tell people not to use the tool unless they actually make an effort to remove links first.

Finally, if you have been penalized for inbound links, and Google isn’t using the qualifier “impacts links,” it means that the links really are counting against you, and preventing recovery. When it comes to manual unnatural link penalties, this is the only circumstance where you should even consider using the disavow tool. But again, it’s only a last resort.

Here’s an example of messages you’ll receive from Google under these circumstances:

And from the “Manual Actions” screen:

So, how do you recover from an unnatural inbound link penalty?

We’ve talked before about how to recover from an unnatural link penalty, but there have been a few changes. Most crucially, there’s no longer any question, even if you didn’t have Webmaster Tools when you first set it up. If you set it up now, you can easily take a look at the Manual Actions page to see if you received the penalty, and exactly which of the three unnatural link penalties it is.

If you’ve received an unnatural inbound link penalty that targets your site, not the links, or if you’ve received one that does target the links, but you feel link removal is still the right way to go, we recommend the following actions:

  • Identify all the links that you or your former SEO acquired and paste them into a spreadsheet
  • Identify any links that have sent referral traffic, and put them on your “maybe” list. Review these links one by one to determine if they reflect well on your brand. The idea is that these links should count as legitimate marketing outside of SEO. If so, put them in your “safe” list. Do not use PageRank or Page Authority as part of the decision process.
  • In general, you shouldn’t worry about links that you or your former SEO did not acquire, even if they are low quality. Low quality links are part of natural link building. Unless you spot some highly suspicious looking links, you should typically just leave these links alone.
  • Use a tool like Link Detox to remove as many of the remaining links as possible.
  • Place the remainder of the links into the disavow tool, but only if you did not receive the “impacts links” version of the penalty
  • Submit a detailed reconsideration request, complete with links to your spreadsheets (in public Google Docs files). Explain why you kept the links that you did, and why you had to use the disavow tool for the remaining links.
  • You should expect the penalty to be revoked within about a week

However, it’s crucial to understand that this process is only half of recovery. In fact, if you received the “impacts links” version of the penalty, this won’t even help your rankings. This is entirely about removing obstacles to growth. This alone will never lead to full recovery.

Full recovery will require a change in your business growth model. You will need to start thinking about how to turn a profit today with inbound marketing, and optimize that campaign for SEO value. In other words, you will need to embark on a high-scale SEO campaign that will virtually guarantee success, even if your rankings weren’t going to improve.

Paradoxically, this is actually the best way to improve your rankings, and the most likely road to recovery.

Clearly, covering everything you need to know about this process is outside the scope of this blog post, but since it’s really the most important part of recovery, it would be an insult to let you walk away without some knowledge of where to look.

A few things we stress:

  • When you build links (as opposed to attracting them), ask yourself if you would still build that link if it were no-follow. If so, you’re on the right track. If not, you need to rethink your strategy.
  • Your site needs linkable assets that will attract links naturally, and earn them easily when you start with your outreach. We wrote a guide about this at Search Engine Journal.
  • Think beyond “content” and start considering the power of tools and communities.
  • Appeal to a hardcore audience with in depth, useful, awe-inspiring tools and content, and keep them coming back by getting them on an email list, typically by offering something of value in exchange for it.
  • Appeal to the mainstream with funny, novel, appropriately sized images (often using funny within-image captions), use them to deliver a very simple but important message, and get them shared on social networks. Use these images to link back to your hardcore content and grow your audience.

Once you’ve got all of this going, you will start to see a snowballing effect. Things feed off of each other. Social helps search helps email helps social, and so on.

I want to stress again that this is where the real work is done. Even when links are counting against you, link removal will never get you back to square one. You’ve lost that value, and you need to earn it back in a way that will offer permanent results.

2. Algorithmic Link Penalties

When an algorithmic penalty like Penguin targets your links, things are a bit different. For sure, much of your response will be exactly the same, but there are some important differences.

For starters, you have no way of knowing why you were penalized, how you were penalized, or even if you actually were penalized. That said, it’s reasonable to suspect that you were penalized by Penguin, for example, if you lost a significant amount of traffic on or near the day that a new Penguin update was announced.

Moz has a list of algorithm updates and the dates that they went live. You can check there to help determine whether a particular algorithm is responsible for your drop in rankings.

For an idea of how to recover from Penguin, we recently shared a case study. We also shared a quick analysis, based on client data, of the most recent update (2.1), along with some advice on recovery.

To date, nobody’s quite clear on whether Penguin specifically penalizes sites with bad outbound links, sites with bad inbound links, or both. The same goes for any other algorithmic link penalties. It’s possible that inbound links are just ignored, as with the “affects links” manual penalty, but Matt Cutts did recommend using the disavow tool in some circumstances if you are hit by Penguin. Based on that knowledge, the safest bet is obviously to do some link cleanup. Without any explicit messages from Google, there’s no way to know if bad links could be hindering recovery.

Patience is a must when you’re dealing with Penguin. You can’t submit a reconsideration request. In general, you need to wait until the next Penguin update before you will see any results. This means you can’t be forgiving at all when you decide which links to remove, and that you can’t hold back at all when it comes to building a powerful link building strategy. And, of course, we’re always happy to help with that.

3. Link Devaluation

This is a complicated topic in SEO and it’s not necessarily related to a specific update or algorithm. Link devaluation is simply the process whereby a link that is pointing toward your site loses some or all of its value. Devalued links don’t count against you, they simply don’t help your rankings anymore.

That said, there was an event on January 17, 2013, that we believe was related to algorithmic link devaluation. Google claims there was no update on that specific day, and we have no reason to doubt them. Instead, we believe this was the culmination of an algorithm that had already been introduced, one that devalues links as they are crawled.

If you have lost rankings, your competitors don’t seem to be stepping up their game, you don’t have any manual penalties, and your lost rankings don’t coincide with any particular update, this is most likely the cause.

When it comes to link devaluation, you should never use the disavow tool. In fact, you should never bother to do any link removal under these circumstances (unless of course this is preemptive).

Keep in mind that link devaluation will almost never take away all of your rankings. Instead, it tends to push you back a few positions or pages. If you’ve experienced something more dramatic, it could be an unnamed update.

If it is link devaluation, the focus is entirely on recovery. Rather than wasting time removing links, you need to get started with promotion, social media, content marketing, email marketing, and high quality links in order to expand your exposure and solidify future rankings.

Conclusion

If your site has been penalized for inbound links, the last thing you should do is rush to the disavow tool. You need to start by finding out if the links are actually counting against you (or at risk of hurting you in other ways). If they are, you need to remove as many of them as possible before using the disavow tool. In any case, the majority of your success relies on your ability to attract natural links and build a flourishing audience.

We’re always glad to help, and I’d like to thank you for reading. Feel free to get in touch if you need help planning a road map for recovery.