Here’s How to Identify a Manual Spam Action, and Recover

17 minutes read
Here’s How to Identify a Manual Spam Action, and Recove

Penalties are one of the most controversial topics in SEO. From the threat of negative SEO to the overwhelming confusion over what counts as a penalty and the right way to recover, you’ll probably find more opinions on the subject than practicing SEOs.

Back in May, we published a detailed guide on how to recover from an unnatural link penalty at Search Engine Journal. Today, we’d like to revisit the subject of manual penalties as a whole, tackle how to tell whether you’re dealing with one, and explain your options for recovery.

Let’s get started.

Introducing the New Manual Action Viewer

Introducing the New Manual Action Viewer in Google Search Console

Google recently announced the introduction of a tool that will tell you whether or not your site has been manually penalized. You can access this tool by:

  1. Going to Webmaster Tools
  2. Clicking on “Search Traffic” in the left sidebar
  3. Clicking on “Manual Actions”

This will tell you whether or not your site has been manually penalized. If you have been penalized, your penalties will be listed under two headings: “Site-wide matches” and “Partial matches.” This terminology might suggest it has something to do with your inbound links.

It doesn’t.

The “Site-wide matches” are penalties that apply to your  whole site, while the “Partial matches” apply only to specific pages or sections of your site.

The amount of detail offered will vary depending on the penalty, but if you’re lucky it will tell you the reason for the penalty as well as which parts of your site are affected. There is also a “request a review” button that you can push to have the penalty reviewed, after you have taken down a handful of links to fix the problem.

Now, manual penalties cause tons of confusion that we end up addressing over and over, so allow us to clarify a few things:

  • Google does not consider algorithmic impacts “penalties.”
  • If you are affected by Penguin, Panda, or anything similar, it will not show up here.
  • When a manual action is taken, you will also receive a message in Webmaster Tools directly from Google explaining that you have been penalized, and hopefully providing a few details explaining why.

Manual spam actions are not just about links. Shortly after Google introduced the new tool, Andrew Shotland compiled a list of messages he saw in his clients:

  • Pure SPAM – Partial Match – This means that pages on the site seem to use automated/scraped content, cloaking, and repeated or over-the-top violations of the webmaster guidelines.
  • User-generated SPAM – Partial Match – Comments, forums, etc. appear to be filled with spam created by users.
  • Unnatural Links From Your Site – Site-Wide Match – This means you were using outbound links to manipulate PageRank in a way that was artificial or deceptive. It’s entirely up to Google to decide what that means, which is why you’ll need to plan accordingly during recovery.
  • Unnatural Links To Your Site – Impacts Links – Partial Match – Now here is where many SEOs get it wrong and think negative SEO is a much bigger threat than it really is. We’ve been saying for a very long time that spammy links don’t typically count against you, and the message here is unambiguous: “for this incident we are taking targeted action on the unnatural links instead of on the site’s ranking as a whole.” In other words, the links are essentially no-followed. This can hurt your rankings, but only because “false” rankings have been eliminated.
  • Thin Content With Little or No Added Value – Partial Match – This is about low quality or low value content like doorway pages, thin affiliate content, automated content, or copied content.

According to Google, other manual actions include:

  • Hacked Site – This means that a third party has uploaded or changed files on your site, and it could become a risk to visitors.
  • Hidden Text and/or keyword stuffing – Any kind of overzealous keyword use could result in this penalty, and this has been discouraged by the SEO community for quite some time.
  • Spammy freehosts – In some cases, Google might penalize an entire host if a large proportion of the sites using that hosting service are spam.
  • Unnatural Links to Your Site – This is the link penalty you really need to watch out for. It means that Google has decided that you are responsible for unnatural, deceptive, or manipulative inbound links, and they have actually penalized your site in response.

Responding to the Penalty

Google’s new tool takes much of the guesswork out of knowing whether or not you were hit by a manual penalty, and why, but it’s not necessarily obvious how to respond. Clearly, your response is going to depend on what kind of penalty you’re facing. On top of that, you’ll also need to take your business model and approach into consideration.

Let’s take a look at some of these penalties, and how you might consider responding to them.

Unnatural Links To Your Site – Impacts Links – Partial Match

I’m going to say this right off the bat. If you are not in control of these links, you don’t necessarily have to submit a reconsideration request.

In this particular case, the links to your site have already been removed from Google’s perspective. They do not count against you. Here is Google’s language on this:

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.

It is generally good form to remove the links and submit a reconsideration request if you can. If you have direct control of the links, you should definitely do this. That said, please understand that the links aren’t counting against you. Their value has merely been eliminated.

Don’t get me wrong, if you had a lot of these links, and they were helping you rank, this is going to “feel” like a penalty. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for any of the clients who came to us after going through it. You will lose rankings. But you will not make any progress toward “fixing” your rankings by removing the bad links. Instead, think of this as “karma points” that will help Google employees see you in a more positive light in the future.

The only way to improve your rankings is to take part in quality link building/earning strategies that are less likely to be considered a violation of Google’s guidelines.

As we’ve said many times, Google says that any links that are intended to manipulate rankings can be considered part of a link scheme. We always argue that the only links worth pursuing are the ones that you would still pursue if they were no-follow. This is not only because they are the most resilient, but because they will continue to provide value if you are ever penalized again.

If you don’t think that’s a strategy worth pursuing, take a look at this study by Custora. While it’s true that organic search reigns as the source with the highest customer lifetime value (54 percent above average), referral traffic is not far behind (26.10 percent above average). In fact, among non-paid channels, referral traffic comes in second. (Among paid channels, only CPC did better than referrals.) Compare that with Facebook, which is barely 1 percent above average, and Twitter, which is 23 percent below average.

If you pursue links for high value referral traffic, rankings will inevitably follow, and you will pick up massive value from the referral traffic as well.

We also strongly recommend going beyond link building, and aim for link earning as well. That means doing something press-worthy, like releasing a free, useful software tool, or pulling a stunt. Building up a community and building relationships with influential people is also a crucial part of the process.

For more on this, take a look at our recommended 7 uncommon and powerful link building techniques, our advanced guest posting guide at Moz, and our content marketing guide.

Unnatural Links To Your Site – Site-Wide Match

This message sounds so similar to the last one, but couldn’t be more different. If it doesn’t say “Impacts Links,” then you’re in for some serious work.

This particular message means that your entire site has been penalized. Your inbound links haven’t just been removed. They have been taken as a sign that you are a serious violator, and your site has been outright penalized. In this case, the links are actually counting against you.

The very first thing you should ask yourself when you see this message is whether it’s worth keeping the site at all. If you don’t have any serious brand recognition or a long term audience, I would recommend forgetting about the site and starting over.

There are various reasons Google might have decided your site should be penalized for unnatural links. These include:

  • Buying (or exchanging goods or services for) links
  • Excessively trading links
  • Automated link building
  • Large scale article marketing/guest posting with keyword-rich anchor text links
  • Links from advertisements or advertorials that weren’t no-followed
  • Over-optimized anchor text in press releases
  • Links embedded in widgets
  • Low quality directory or bookmark links
  • Widely distributed footer links
  • Optimized comment or forum signature links

Most of these, even link buying, don’t usually result in site-wide penalties. In general, the links are just removed from the index. According to Matt Cutts, only the most egregious and obvious violations result in a direct penalty like this. In other words, Google claims to work very hard to make sure you were fully responsible for the violations before penalizing your site. It’s typically the link seller, not the buyer, who receives the penalty. (More on that later.)

Whether or not this is true is a moot point. If your site has been directly penalized for inbound, spammy links, you only have two options: drop the site and set up a new one, or remove the links and submit a reconsideration request.

If you do decide that the site is worth keeping, you’ll need to remove as many links as possible. You can do that by:

  • Moving or removing pages – Obviously this doesn’t work in the case of a home page, but if the offensive link points toward a page that is replaced by a 404, the link is disavowed.
  • Removing any links under your control – There really aren’t any exceptions here. If you control the link, you should remove it. Trying to sneak anything past the manual review team is a bad idea.
  • The Google Disavow Tool – Use this only as a last resort. It’s only meant for links that you can’t get actually removed. Google won’t take your reconsideration request seriously if you haven’t made an effort to remove other links. To make your job easier, disavow entire domains, rather than individual links. When you submit your reconsideration request, share a spreadsheet containing the disavowed links in Google Docs. Always err on the side of disavowing too many links. It’s not worth it to wait another several months for another reconsideration request.

I want to emphasize that you will never get your original rankings back if all you do is remove offensive links and submit a reconsideration request. Remove as much as you can in a reasonable timeframe and then move on. You’re going to need authoritative links to see any real progress.

Refer back to the previous section to find out how.

Unnatural Links From Your Site – Site-Wide Match

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the vast majority of link penalties are leveled at those who are linking out, not those who are using risky link building techniques. This is true even in most cases of link buying. It’s always a bad idea to build low quality links, but that’s primarily because the efforts will be wasted when those links get devalued, not because they’re likely to actually count against you.

If your site gets penalized for something link related, odds are good it’s going to be because you’re selling links, or doing something similar, rather than buying them.

That’s what this message is associated with. And if you run into it, it’s going to take some convincing to get Google to believe that you’ve changed for the better.

The link removal is the easy part. If you’ve been doing any tracking at all, you know which links were sold and which were editorial. All you have to do is remove them, or no-follow them.

If you’re not sure which links were responsible, or you never sold links, you can simply no-follow all of them. If you’re using WordPress, this is fairly easy. Use the WP External Links plugin. You can use it to no-follow all of your outbound links, as well as whitelist certain domains or exceptions. (It’s always good to have at least some genuine outbound links. In some cases, links to authoritative domains can actually give you a small boost.)

The difficult part here is going to be the reconsideration request. You need to be able to convince Google that you’re not going to do it again, and much of this is going to come down to your business model.

I would recommend going into this with the assumption that Google believes your primary source of income was link-dealing. You will need to explain how your business model works, why it isn’t dependent on link-selling, and how you’re going to prevent this from happening again.

Non-Link Penalties

As much as SEOs focus on links, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I discovered that most penalties weren’t link-related. Either way, non-link penalties make up a huge proportion of the penalties out there. Thankfully, at least two of these are fairly easy fixes:

  • Cloaking and sneaky redirects
  • Hidden text

The answer with these is to simply remove the offensive material, submit a reconsideration request, and offer detailed reasons why you will never do it again.

As for “pure spam,” I would recommend simply dropping the site, reevaluating your business model, and trying something completely different. Once Google decides that your site is pure spam, I don’t believe recovery is possible, or at least worth the effort, on the same domain.

In the case of “spammy freehosts,” you’re going to need to move your site to a different host. Here’s how to do that if you’re on WordPress. It’s a good idea to talk to your new hosting company to learn more. They can often help guide you through the process.

If your site has been hacked, Google has an in depth guide on how to recover from this miserable experience. HostDime also has a detailed response guide.

Now let’s take a look at some of the other penalties.

Keyword Stuffing

As we’ve said many times, it only takes one instance of a keyword, preferably in the title, to meet your keyword requirements. Going over the top on keywords only makes it difficult to write compelling content, and it does nothing to help your rankings. Worse still, if you do get penalized for keyword stuffing, the work you create for yourself is insane.

You will need to make a judgment: remove the keywords or replace the content entirely. Personally, I’ve never seen keyword-stuffed content that would actually be high quality if the keywords were removed, but I suppose anything’s possible.

At bare minimum, remove the offensive keywords (or the pages entirely). If you want to up your content standards, I’d advise responding the same way you would to the following penalty:

Thin Content With Little or No Added Value

Google evaluates the value of content based on how well it serves its purpose. The very first thing you should do upon receiving this message is delete or rewrite any content that doesn’t have a purpose for visitors.

From here, you will likely need to reevaluate your entire content strategy. Here are a few ways to go about doing that:

User-Generated Spam

In this scenario I would most likely start by shutting off user-generated content channels like comments and forums. There are obviously going to be exceptions for sites who have thriving communities, but in most cases a site that has a thriving community does not have a user-generated spam problem. (The spam tends to scare off users.)

Google takes user-generated spam very seriously, whether or not you feel it’s fair. They have penalized companies as big as Mozilla and Sprint for user spam issues.

I do not advocate shutting offer user channels indefinitely, because communities are crucial for success on the web, but I do advocate shutting them off until you can moderate the problem.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  • If you’re on WordPress, install the Growmap Anti Spambot Plugin. This plugin just asks commenters to check a box to confirm that they aren’t a spammer. Believe it or not, this seems to stop spambots better than CAPTCHA, and it’s actually easier for users. This is one of the few win-wins out there.
  • Install DISQUS. It’s built in comment rating features and anti-spam software help prevent spam and highlight the best comments. The comment structure is also conducive to discussion.
  • Set up comments so that first time commenters are moderated.  You need to review them before they get posted. At bare minimum, do this for comments that contain hyperlinks.
  • If you are using forum software, make sure it’s easy for users to report spam, that you have plenty of moderators, and clear rules in place.

Make sure to include all the changes you have made to prevent spam before submitting your reconsideration request.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Experiencing a penalty is a truly awful experience. It can dramatically impact your bottom line, and it can call attention to wasted efforts that you may have spent months or years working on. Full recovery demands not just a reconsideration request, but a change in strategy, and sometimes fundamental business models. This is why we always emphasize SEO tactics that are productive outside of search engines.

We hope this guide has been helpful for anybody out there who has been manually penalized, or who is dealing with clients who have gone through this. Please get in touch with us if you have any questions, and feel free to leave comments. If you liked what you saw, we’d love it if you could pass it along. 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.