Penalty Recovery is Fun: A Quick Reversal of Manual Link Spam Action

11 minutes read
Google Penalty Recovery Case Study2

There are penalty recovery case studies, and there are penalty recovery case studies. This is just another of them. One more website recovered from the annals of Google’s dumps, cleaned up and shined to face an as-yet uncertain but propitious future.

What will differentiate this post is that it’s written entirely in hindsight. I don’t have the “before” (and therefore, can’t present the “after”) screenshots for most of the data I’ll talk about. I have here none of the obligatory downward spike—languish—upward spike graphs that grace your friendly Penguin recovery blog post. What I do have is an example of the site of a small business on decidedly shaky ground recovering from an Unnatural Links Penalty and hanging on to the promise of the fruits of RCS.

The Site (and the Business)

Espire Education are higher education and student visa consultants. For the uninitiated, they help students from the Indian subcontinent get into universities (and therefore, countries) in North America, Europe and Australia.

This is a very third world industry. Word of mouth referrals account for perhaps 90% of converting leads, regardless of the proliferation of web and mobile. As a result, Espire might be forgiven, along with their peers, for having a website for the sake of one and not putting too much thought into what their contracted “SEO company” might be doing with (and to) it. In this business, the words “panda” and “penguin” still evoke images of animals.

Initial Analysis (None)

Espire first approached E2M solutions in August 2013. Their problem was simple: their clients were taking off (literally) while their site was plunging down in terms of rankings and traffic alike.

A cursory look at GA told us that they were already a victim of Penguin 2.0.

The dreaded manual penalty notification in Webmaster Tools

Even as we were getting to know each other, Matt Cutts came knocking—we saw the dreaded manual penalty notification in Webmaster Tools. A double whammy, so to speak.

The nature of the client’s business when it comes to us

The nature of the client’s business, the level of their understanding of how Google works, the expectations they had from us, and the state of the site at the time made one thing clear: Ours was not to analyze, ours was to recover.

There wasn’t much time to pore over the backlinks, find out who built them, etc. It was pointless to ask if they had credentials to the article, bookmarking, or so-called web 2.0 sites that had links pointing to them; they didn’t even know what these were.

So we got down to business.

The Process

We do a painstaking, manual analysis for all our link penalty recovery undertakings, whether there are 5 links or 5 million. It’s not a case of “Hey, we’re in India, we have the manpower!” 😉 It’s more a case of backlink auditing, removal and rechecking being an un-automatable process, if you want to get it right.

Manual Analysis for all our link penalty recovery undertakings

Link auditing is still very human and very time consuming – Google uses a manual review process for a reason.

~ Alan Ng, Branded3

We used these five tools to get all backlinks possible. We use these for all our link penalty recovery undertakings.

Google Webmaster Tools: Duh.

Majestic SEO: This gives you the maximum number of links. We normally choose the Historic index (as opposed to the Fresh one) so as to not leave a single bad link out.

AHREFS: Helps you separate and weed out the sitewides, nofollows, image links, iframes, and others right at the start.

Open Site Explorer: Doesn’t return that many links but you can quickly get a feel for the good ones by looking at the DAs and file them away as harmless.

Link Detox: My personal favourite. Shows you which links are from Blogs, Directories, etc. so you can stick them in different sheets if you want to analyze the backlink profile. Of course the categorization is not always accurate, but it’s a good guideline. Also fetches contact details of quite a few sites, which you can file away for use while removal.

We stuck all these URLs into a spreadsheet, removed duplicates and separated the rest into three parts:

  • links we could keep
  • links that had to be removed
  • links that didn’t exist any more

Each site associated with a bad link was contacted manually (up to five times over a period of one month). I asked the team to move heaven and earth to find contact details of anyone associated with these sites. We didn’t use a removal tool, but we did rely on email templates, which we changed for each round of mailing.

Soon, it was time for disavow! Going by the adage that whatever stings must be a scorpion, we mostly disavowed entire domains. No use giving trying to be sure you’ve identified all the links from a site, only to find out from Google you missed a couple of tag or pagination links.

To do our bit and make it easier for Google to identify the nature of spam sites, we divvied up the domains in the disavow file into these:

  • We couldn’t find an email account, contact form or social page from the website, WHOIS, or Link Research Tools’ Contact Finder.
  • The email or contact form didn’t work anymore.
  • The owner or webmaster did not respond to our entreaties (we attempted to contact them at least five times).
  • The site asked for a payment to remove links.
  • We got a rude reply telling us to go to you-know-where or where the site itself outright suggests we disavow them (such as

In October, we uploaded the disavow file and submitted our reconsideration request.

During the whole period, no link building work was carried out. We did begin to identify quite a few on-site corrections, but we realized it was necessary to start from scratch and redesign the whole site.

Within a week, Google responded with

In process Google responded with NO

So we went through the whole process again. Meanwhile, the guys at Espire were extremely understanding and cooperative. They saw the need to redesign their site and re-launch it with more focused content.

There was a bunch of duplicate content too—mostly course structures from universities, guidelines sites related to visa, and general information for students about life in various countries. We got these removed and Espire promised to replace it with their own take on these things.

The new website, which we got done by, went live soon.

We broke the good news to Google in December, when the second reconsideration request was put forward for their appraisal.

This time they took longer to respond, but the ruling was in our favour.

Yippee, the ruling was in our favour

Post Mortem

The site itself was indistinguishable from others. From 2011 through 2013, it remained largely unchanged in terms of design and layout.

The header looked something like this:

Espire Education - Latest Artcle/Blog

Ignore the spelling/grammatical mistakes. “Espire” is not a typo (as is apparent from the slogan below the logo). Others such as “Call at” don’t matter much in the context of the target audience.

I’ve highlighted the “Article/Blog” menu item – obviously goes to show that it was created for “SEO” purposes.

The footer was a beauty:

Footer - Website Design India Internet

48 links to inner pages with anchor text optimized to kingdom come! Did they not fear the garish reprisal of God’s own penguin?

I followed the trail of the link on “Website Design India Internet” in the hope of getting a glimpse of the mastermind behind this creation. It was built by

Initial Analysis from Google Analytics India Internets?! Reminded me of George Bush.

India Internets?! Reminded me of George Bush

So I left it at that.

Unfortunately, until recently, web design firms (which themselves evolved from software development) also doubled up as SEO agencies. The companies themselves, let alone their clients, didn’t appreciate that there was more to SEO than code, email, automation and bulk data entry. It’s not just techie, that’s why it’s called marketing.

This case was no different. India Internets did “SEO” for Espire Education and built links such as these:

Education and Career in Hospitality Management

SEO for Espire Education and built links

Adding fuel to the fire, it worked for them for a looong time.

Google Analytics - Chcekl All Traffic

A wise man’s words come to mind:

When the going is good, the greedy keep going.

~ Rohan Ayyar

A meme to drive that in:

Wise man’s words come to mind with a meme to drive that in

And then it all happened. Espire ran out of fuel in mid-air, Penguin hit, traffic nosedived, an unnatural link spam action hit, traffic crashed.

Unfortunately, Al Gore did not invent all the internets (a few were invented by Matt Cutts).

Real Company Stuff

So what’s the plan for Espire Education moving forward? A month after the rescinding of the manual penalty, traffic is still in doldrums; however, we are getting encouraging signs from Webmaster Tools.

Real Company Stuff - Espire Education moving forward

The company is seriously considering a domain name change. This has nothing to do with the penalty – in fact, the old domain will be redirected to the new one – but they think they’re not big enough to use a misspelling of a word as their brand name. It might affect their credibility with potential clients, especially as they deal in education. They also want their new name to be something catchy, so watch this space.

While they continue to do hard work offline (such as organizing seminars and workshops every week with representatives from universities in more than 20 countries), Espire has understood the importance of an authoritative online presence built on useful content. Shahina Khan, the director herself updates their blog with posts that solve specific problems faced by students. She’s doing a few guest posts on mainstream education blogs too (and they genuinely appreciate her experience and insights). Espire is now engaging students, parents and guardians on Facebook too!

Shahina Khan, the director herself updates their blog with posts

And they’re doing all this not for Google, but for themselves.

As a result, they’re seeing a rise qualified leads and better conversions.

Final Affirmations

I have a few lessons for those of you who are just starting out in manual penalty recovery. As for experienced guys, I hope you find a confirmation or two of your beliefs.

In life and penalty recovery, luck matters. The second time we filed a reconsideration request, we removed a paltry 11 links (which also goes to show we did our best the first time). But we’ve put a lot more efforts on other sites which recovered only after 4 or 5 requests.

Google is definitely not always evil. But they did want us to wallow in pain. Maybe if the business were venture-funded and got press coverage, we’d call them up and say “Hey, we got rid of 200 links! And oh, we’re sorry for being morons. Now bring us back!” And Google would smile, nod and do it.

Google says sorry for being morons

This study shows that a manual spam action can be revoked as early as your second request and as quickly as within a couple of months, if you’re a nobody. I personally haven’t tasted success on the first shot. On the other hand, our team has had the good fortune of never leaving a site unrecovered.

However many links you get from multiple backlink tools, there will be ones that get away. And Google will probably present one under “Sample URLs” when they reject your reconsideration request. Makes you wonder why they don’t show up in Webmaster Tools first place? That’s an unsolved mystery on which I’d appreciate your thoughts.

The disavow tool is your friend. If you have any doubts, get rid of them. This link that Google showed us when they rejected the first reconsideration request – – is still alive and kicking. We did attempt to get it removed but couldn’t, so we disavowed it. The penalty was revoked anyway.

We always use the disavow tool, even if only to stay in Google’s good books.

Broadly speaking, I haven’t seen ONE sample link that Google classified as “unnatural” but was not. Granted, it could be a good link as opposed to spam, but I bet you wouldn’t have got it if you hadn’t built it.

I like to think that Google values it when we do what we say we will. In our first reconsideration request, we stated:

We’re also working on a re-launch of our site with a rich and appealing UI & UX to cater to modern web design, usability and functionality standards. We are also going to start work on building linkable assets to attract natural links and strengthening our domain authority by making useful content the basis of our online existence.

In the second one, we wrote:

We have relaunched our site with a rich and appealing UI & UX to cater to modern usability and functionality standards. We have started updating our blog regularly with useful content that is extremely useful to students (who are our primary target audience). We have implemented a strategy that makes useful content the basis of our online existence.

We made good on our promises. That’s something which gets presidents re-elected; this is just a re-inclusion.

With that, I’ll take a bow.

With that, E2M takes a bow

  • 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.