Removing Your Penalty isn’t Enough

There’s no shortage of blog posts on the internet that will tell you how to get your link penalty removed. And the truth is, it’s not usually even that hard to get a penalty removed. It takes a lot of time and resources, to be sure. But at the end of the day, it’s still just a mechanical process of finding the bad links, emailing webmasters, and disavowing what you can’t get removed.

And at the end of that process, most of you will be seriously disappointed.

According to a poll at SEO Roundtable, 53 percent of sites that had a penalty removed never saw a recovery, and we’re not even talking about full recoveries here. Only 12 percent of them saw a recovery within days.

Penalties don’t just prevent you from ranking well in the search results, they also ignore the links that were helping you rank in the first place. Getting those links removed can eliminate the penalty, but it’s not going to give you back the value that you lost from those links. From Google’s perspective, you never should have been ranking that well to begin with.

That doesn’t mean you can’t recover.

In fact, we helped a client do exactly that. Despite being hit by Penguin, we were able to restore one of our clients to their previous traffic levels within 8 months, even though there was no Penguin update at the time. (You can see our other case studies here.)

You can’t expect a full recovery without fundamentally changing the way that you approach your link building strategy. The old strategies were built to manipulate search engines. Your new strategy needs to be designed for success regardless of the search engines. This is true not just because it’s the smartest way to maximize ROI, but because it’s the also most likely to offer long term success in the search engines.

How should you approach link building now that you’ve been penalized? I’ll tell you what’s worked for our clients.

Let’s dive in.

Change Your Thinking: Massive Link Volume is Completely Unnecessary

Before we dive into some more specific tactics, I just want to get this misconception out of the way. We’ve all heard the phrase “quality, not quantity,” but for some reason it seems that a significant number of SEOs still think that you need to have a massive number of links in order to outrank your competitors.

The main culprit here is competitive link analysis. When we look at our competitors in the search results, especially for competitive terms, we often see pages with thousands and thousands of links pointing toward them. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that these sites are ranking because of those links. Years of experience have taught us that this is not the case. Most of those links are doing little or nothing to help their rankings. In fact, some of the links may actually be putting them at risk.

One of our client’s sites experienced a full recovery after we built just 80 links. Keep in mind that the site recovered on a date where there was no Penguin update. This is concrete proof that it doesn’t take a huge number of links to rank. This was an average of just 10 links per month.

It’s all about quality.

So, what does quality actually mean in this context? It’s easy to convince yourself that you only build high quality links if you don’t define exactly what you mean by it. You may have even thought that your link building strategy was high quality before you ended up getting penalized.

The answer to this question is actually surprisingly simple: if the link doesn’t make sense as part of a non-SEO strategy, it doesn’t make sense as part of an SEO strategy either.

You want to build links that will send valuable leads, boost brand exposure, build up an email list, and make future outreach efforts easier. Everything else is a waste of time. This strategy is the best of both words: delivering ROI outside of search engines, and maximizing long term SEO value.

As a compliment to this, it’s not just the value of link volume that is overrated, it’s the value of on-site SEO that is underrated. The competitive keywords that you are trying to rank for usually aren’t nearly as valuable as you think they are. If you are receiving any search engine traffic at all, and you haven’t tried to optimize your pages for long-tail traffic, you are almost certainly losing value.

Competing over single competitive phrases is a zero-sum game. You can pour resources into trying to build links to rank for those phrases, but there are diminishing returns. Most of our clients would probably benefit more from increasing their publishing schedule and targeting a wider variety of keywords than they would from increasing their link-building resources.

In short, it’s not really about building links. It’s about promotion.

Build Just One Thing worth Linking to

Some of you are already rolling your eyes, to be sure. You probably think that your products and blog posts are already worth linking to. You may not be wrong. But if you emailed a random blogger and asked them to take a look, what percentage of them would link to it, even if you didn’t do any relationship building or value exchange?

That’s the kind of value I’m talking about.

Blog posts aren’t really “linkable assets.” Sure, when you gain a large enough following, they will attract natural links if they’re any good. Likewise, if your blog posts are valuable, it shouldn’t be difficult to mention them off-hand in the middle of a guest post on an authoritative blog. But it’s pretty rare to write a blog post so good that if you emailed a random blogger about it that they would spontaneously link to it.

So what kind of value do you need to offer in order to earn those kinds of links?

Typically, you need to offer a kind of value that simply can’t be found elsewhere on the web. A linkable asset looks less like a blog post and more like a “product.” Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • Tools, utilities, platforms, etc. What’s the most linked-to page on Moz? Other than their front page, and the front page of the blog, it’s their list of tools. The most linked to sites on the web, sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon, are also built on a foundation of tools. Utilities and interactive platforms earn links better than almost any blog post. The same goes for Hubspot. Other than their homepage and About page, their most linked-to page is their list of free marketing resources. Finally, QuickSprout has really taken advantage of this one, placing a free tool right on their homepage.
  • Alternative media. Other than the homepage, the most linked page on Convince& is the Social Pros Podcast. Alterative media like podcasts, video, and images tend to attract links more than blog posts do, assuming the value is there. For another example, the most linked-to page at Unbounce, other than the homepage and the front page of the blog, is an infographic called the Noob Guide to Online Marketing. That transitions well into our next point too…
  • Comprehensive guides. Derek Halpern’s success with Social Triggers can be traced in large part to his introductory, comprehensive guides. Other than his homepage, his most linked-to page is List-Building 101. Backing up the assertion that alternative media is key, the centerpiece of the page is a video. In addition, it links to three other pages that teach people how to build up an email list, distilling tons of information down into the small number of things that make a huge difference. Likewise, other than the homepage, the most linked to page on Search Engine Land is their guide called What is SEO? The same goes for CopyBlogger with their Content Marketing guide.
  • Meaningful data. Other than their homepage and about page, the most linked-to page on Search Engine Journal is titled 24 Eye-Popping SEO Statistics. Any time you can share surprising, meaningful, and useful statistics, you tend to get attention. This is especially true if you perform original research, a la Moz’s ranking factor studies.

As you can see, the most successful pages on your favorite marketing sites aren’t blog posts. They are almost always something a bit more creative, comprehensive, interactive, and unique. If you start by brainstorming an idea for a resource like this, things are going to be ten times easier when you reach out to bloggers and webmasters.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do blog posts. I am saying that blog posts aren’t the centerpiece of your outreach. They work better as audience-retention vehicles. They’re also a great way to earn secondary, natural links once you have a large audience. But when it comes to your first interaction during outreach, the discussion should rarely be about a blog post. The value just typically isn’t there.

The Fundamentals of Outreach

Successful outreach has very little to do with an understanding of the search engines, and a great deal to do with understanding psychology. Here are a few principles you should master if you want to make your outreach work.

These 6 principles come from Dr. Robert Cialdini, a widely respect professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, and the mastermind behind Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

1. Reciprocity

The more you give, the more others are willing to give back.

This is the most important thing to understand about outreach, and if you learn nothing else, learn this lesson. When you email a blogger, your intent might be to earn a link, but the email should never be about earning a link.

It’s all about them.

This is why it’s so important to build a valuable resource before you reach out to anybody. You need to design that resource with outreach in mind. How is this going to come across as a benefit for them?

A few pointers here:

  • You typically shouldn’t link to the page in your first email. Some people can pull this off, but in most cases, as soon as they notice that you linked to something in your email, they’re going to write you off as spam. They might not even read the email. If, instead, you ask them if they would be interested in taking a look at a resource, they are much more likely to respond.
  • Focus on people who have expressed dissatisfaction or frustration with a problem that your resource solves first. Focus on people with an interest in related subjects who would probably be interested in solutions like yours second. Focus on organizations that are already providing solutions like yours (i.e., your competitors) last. All too often, digital marketers get this completely backwards. They get so focused on “niche” that they end up contacting only the people who are best described as competition. They should be focusing on bloggers and webmasters who would be interested in their solution, but wouldn’t already have so much expertise in it that the resource isn’t valuable to them in the first place.
  • Spend a little time looking over their site and getting to know them, and reference this in the post. Why should they take a look at what you have to offer if you haven’t spent any time looking at what they have to offer?
  • Try mentioning influencers in your blog posts and resources before you reach out to them. If you promote them, they’ll be more likely to promote you.

2. Authority

People naturally trust authoritative people, especially when they are talking about something that they are an expert in.

If people know that a message is coming from a place of authority, they will be more inclined to trust it. Here are a few ways you can take advantage of this:

  • If you aren’t a convincing authority yourself, don’t make it about you. Make it about authority figures that you have worked with. Make it about the authoritative sources that you used to produce your resource, or make it about authoritative people that you hired.
  • If you are accredited by any relevant organizations, have earned any relevant awards, etc., make sure that they know about it. However, please be subtle. Nobody likes a bragger. Think of authority more like an accessory, like a pin or a suit and tie, rather than as something you need to blatantly tell people about.
  • Use only relevant symbols of authority. Don’t mention subpar accreditation organizations, or reference irrelevant credentials that lend zero credibility to your argument.

3. Social Proof

Similar to our trust in authority, most of us have an innate trust in the “wisdom of the crowd.” While we don’t necessarily allow popular opinion to determine our own beliefs, when it comes to something we have no strong opinions about, we will usually default to what others are doing.

Here are a few ways you can use social proof in your outreach:

  • If your traffic numbers are good, share them in your outreach.
  • You might want to mention the number of people who follow you on Twitter, etc., as long as it’s relevant to the conversation.
  • Avoid talking about or faking social proof if it isn’t available. People can sense that something isn’t right.
  • Point them to your most popular resource, and only your most popular resource, assuming it has elements of social proof, such as a large number of comments or social shares.

4. Scarcity

This is one of the few psychological elements of persuasion that you should typically avoid trying to use in your outreach, unless you can come up with something very clever.

While it’s true that people are naturally more interested in something if it happens to be rare, trying to pass off your outreach as some kind of rare opportunity for the recipient probably isn’t going to work. Most worthwhile influencers are always getting pitched.

The one way that you can take advantage of this principle is to try as hard as possible to make the email itself “rare.” Here’s what I mean. Try to think about every unsolicited email you’ve ever received, and what that email looked like, read like, and felt like. Now try to craft something completely different.

The idea is that you want your email to stand out as not spam. Think of every cue you would use to identify a spam email, and change the tune. That’s about the only kind of rarity that works in outreach.

5. Rapport

We are more inclined to do business with people that we actually like. This isn’t necessarily a rational way to approach business, but it’s the way humans are wired. Likewise, we tend to like people who have similar interests, beliefs, and personality traits.

Here are a few ways to use rapport in your outreach:

  • Draw attention toward things that you have in common, and away from things that you don’t.
  • Try to use a linguistic style that matches their personality. For example, how formal or informal are they, what kinds of jargon and slang might they use, etc. Don’t push this too far. Stick to linguistic styles that you are familiar with and use on a somewhat regular basis.
  • Mention a recent event that you think they would take an interest in, or respond to one of their blog posts, in a way that suggests a similar point of view, as well as contributes to the conversation.
  • If you can find an opinion, belief, or statement that you agree with, and that also happens to be a relatively unpopular opinion, pointing out your shared belief will do a lot to build rapport.

6. Commitments

There are a few reasons commitments are very important to outreach. This principle is second only to reciprocity, so pay attention. It’s usually much easier for us to commit to doing something in the future than to actually act on it right now. We are also much more likely to do something if we make a commitment to somebody that we will do it, as opposed to simply being told politely to do it. Finally, as soon as we make even the smallest commitment to somebody, we instantly become more likely to make larger commitments later on.

Here are a few ways to use this:

  • Make your first email about getting them to commit to something very small. This comes back to why you shouldn’t send somebody a link in the first email. Instead, you should ask them something along the lines of “Would you take a look at that resource if I sent it your way?” The reciprocity part of it is that you’re giving them something, rather than taking it. The commitment part is the fact that if they say “yes,” they have made a commitment to taking a look at it. Now when you send them the link, you’re giving them something that they asked for, instead of rudely sending something to bother them with.
  • Try to ask “could you,” “would you,” or “will you,” questions, instead of making “please” statements. “Would you take a look at that resource?” works much better than “please take a look at this resource.” Making a “please” statement never asks the recipient to make a commitment in their head. While it’s certainly better than “Take a look at this resource!” the “please” is still just a way to disguise an order.
  • Make the commitment about an action that they will take. “Would you take a look at that resource?” will probably work better than “would you like me to send you that resource?” in most cases. In the second scenario, they’re not making a commitment to looking at the resource. They’re just making a commitment to “liking it” if you sent it to them. “Sure, send it to me” doesn’t mean nearly as much as “sure, I’ll take a look.”

A Few other Pointers

With the principles of influence out of the way, here are a few other ways to make your outreach shine:

  • Keep your emails short. For some reason, a lot of people think that their emails aren’t valuable unless they’re long. The people you’re emailing are busy. While you want to touch on as many of the principles of influence as possible, you don’t want to use up more than a few sentences. There’s no reason an outreach email should take up much more than six sentences, one for each principle of influence, and it’s often possible to do it in fewer. There are exceptions, but they’re rare.
  • Don’t start emails with who you are. In some cases you might want to say “Hi, I’m [name],” but really, even this is usually unnecessary. You’re going to tell them your name in the signature anyway. In any case, once you get your name out of the way, you should usually dive right into either reciprocity or rapport. Save authority, social proof, and scarcity for later, and save commitments for last. Influencers don’t care who you are nearly as much as you think they do. They care much more about what you have to offer them, and what you might have in common. Start with that.
  • Most of the time, you shouldn’t get too formal. Unless the personality of the blogger is very formal, you should usually avoid getting too formal with your approach. Formality is often a sign of spam to readers. While you should probably use proper titles like “Dr.,” and be cautious with “smileys” and grammar, you should otherwise keep things looking like a casual email between acquaintances.
  • Never put the burden on them. Try to avoid saying things like “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.” It’s up to you to do the work of figuring out how you can help them. The same goes for anything you ask them to do. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to commit to something and then act on it. Don’t make them jump through hoops, and be sure to give them the VIP treatment.

Rethink Collaboration

Now that you have changed the way you think about building links, building resources, and doing outreach, it’s time to rethink the goal of outreach. This is a must if you want to not only restore your traffic levels, but push them to new heights.

If you’re like most sites that end up getting penalized, your outreach probably looked something like this:

  • Get guest posts
  • Trade links
  • Pay for links
  • Get links from comments, forums, etc.

And you probably thought that guest posts were the only legitimate way to build links.

The truth is, there are so many other ways to build and attract links:

  • Get featured in somebody’s newsletter
  • Ask webmasters to take a look at a top notch, unique resource
  • Work on collaborative projects with influential people
  • Show up on podcasts and video blogs
  • Write an ebook
  • Interview or be interviewed by influencers
  • Pay or invite influential bloggers to post on your site
  • Pull a publicity stunt, hoax, etc.

Virtually any time you work together with an influential person or organization, it is an opportunity to build or earn links as a result. We need to move this discussion beyond guest posts, even as valuable as they are, when done correctly.

Stop thinking exclusively about guest posts, and start thinking about ways that you can start collaborative projects with others on the web. These collaborative projects essentially always result in links, and most of those links are more natural, legitimate, powerful, and long-lasting than the links you get from more traditional SEO tactics.


I could say “getting your penalty removed is only half the battle,” but that would be a dramatic understatement. The truth is, getting your penalty removed is a cakewalk in comparison to building a sustainable SEO strategy that will actually push you above your previous traffic levels. To accomplish the kind of success you’re looking for, you need to think beyond blog posts, revolutionize your outreach strategy, and change the way you think about collaboration.

I know this is a lot to take in, and we hope you’ll refer back to it as you devise a recovery strategy. If you thought this was helpful, I’d appreciate it if you passed it along. Thanks for reading, and get in touch with us if you’d like us to help you take things to the next level.

  • Manish Dudharejia is the Founder & CEO of E2M Solutions, a full service digital agency specialized in Website Design & Development, eCommerce, SEO, Content Marketing, and Copywriting.