Manual Spam Action Revoked

Those are the most beautiful words in the English language if you are a web developer. Especially if you’ve experienced the wrath of a Google penalty. You know that heart stopping message that pops up in Google Webmaster Tools saying “Detected Unnatual Links to Your Beloved Domain.” Basically, Google’s telling you that they caught you with your hand in the black hat SEO cookie jar and now you are about to suffer the indignity of being taken off the web. While they won’t actually remove the files of your site, being on the dark side of Google’s moon is just about as bad. Traffic from the search engine monopoly almost stops. Yahoo! and Bing may still think you are the cat’s meow, but its a hollow consolation prize knowing you’re missing out on 66% of the global search traffic.

Back in the day, you could employ shady link building methods ad nauseum with little worry about running afoul of the Google police. It took little knowledge or effort be an “SEO” back in the day. If you went about things the right way (i.e. abiding by Google’s terms of service), link building was a painfully slow and methodical exercise. You had to trudge forward watching your competitors eat your lunch daily, knowing you were the better man. It wasn’t fun so the black arts of link building thrived.

I know because I was one of them. I sponsored footer links on WordPress themes. I bought text ad blocks with embedded links in them because I saw all of my competitors doing it. While I didn’t sink to the level of comment spam usually if there was a short cut, I was taking it. The sites became traffic poon hounds, and life was good until a little penguin came along.

Google’s dreaded Penguin update leveled a lot of web developers last April. Google’s algorithm got smart overnight (well at least smarter than it was), and started discounting and even penalizing shady link building techniques en masse. I heard the sob stories on the message boards of small business people who became basically instantly unemployed because of the traffic hit they took from Google’s update. It was savage, but it was a harsh reminder that if you flaunt your rule breaking ways eventually things will catch up with you. If you’d been playing by the rules all that time, penguin was a boon for your traffic. Once the clutter was swiftly cleared out, many sites of true value suddenly rose to the top.

That brings us to the case of Pro Football Schedules is a news provider that keeps their readers up-to-date on the latest happenings around the NFL through daily commentary articles. They also feature the latest schedule information, opponent matchups stretching out to 2017, team rosters and a plethora of other helpful tidbits for the football fanatic among us. The unnatural link email hit my Google WMT on March 25, 2012. Traffic to the site was pretty much decimated overnight. If there was a silver lining, it was the offseason so there was time to try to work ourselves out of the jam we’d dug ourselves into as fall pigskin season loomed.

Thankfully, we had not sponsored any WordPress themes against this sites. Those links are nasty to try to get removed since they are normally encrypted and snake around through a theme’s code. Removing those links can break the entire theme so its not really an option of just contacting the webmaster and asking them to do you a favor. Our black hat vehicle of choice for Football Schedule was buying text ad blocks on sports-related blogs with our keyword links embedded. Doing some link profile research on the top ranking sites for our terms of choice kept bringing up these ad blocks over and over so, at the time, we felt it the only way to compete. I was a web programmer. What did I really know about SEO?

So our first order of business was to contact all of these site owners and politely ask them to remove these ads. Its amazing. When you are inquiring about advertising, site owners will drop everything they are doing to take your money and post your ad. When you are trying to take an ad down, they take their sweet time to respond and some flat out ignore you. We did our best and managed to get around 70% of these ads taken down. I’m not sure of the release date of Google’s Disavow Tool, but I believe we submitted the list of websites that we didn’t have success getting ad blocks removed from prior to our reconsideration request.

On August 14, 2012, I submitted a reconsideration request through Google Webmaster Tools outlining my actions. I did the walk of shame and admitted to buying link blocks then I outlined how I went about removing them. I listed the sites that complied along with the ones who ignored me hoping this would be my ticket out of Google’s doghouse. September 4th rolled around, and Google informed me that the site still violated their quality guidelines.

I was at a loss. I was sure those ad blocks were the key element that triggered our fall. I had heard that manual penalties often reset after three to six months so I kept fighting the good fight each day. We’d publish great content daily with the knowledge that we weren’t reaching 2/3 of the web. Our social following grew, Bing and Yahoo! continued to push more traffic our way, but to Google we continued to be the red headed step child.

A few months ago, I decided it was time to finally get a resolution to this matter once and for all. I’d consult some savvy web marketing individuals to see what their opinion was concerning our penalty, do any necessary clean-up and resubmit the reconsideration request. If all else failed, I’d take the painful step of walking away from the domain and starting over fresh with a new domain.

I consulted with Eric Ward, a very well respected web marketer, who was pretty perplexed by the unnatural links penalty the site had received. He did notice we had some exact match domain names (i.e. that were pointed to the site through redirects via our domain registrar. We had registered the domains long ago for type-in traffic, but unbeknownst to us Google was indexing these domains and passing page rank from them. Big oops. I setup a hosting folder for each domain, planted a .htaccess file and an index file in each denoting them with noindex and nofollow instructions. I also triggered the redirects via javascript for hopes that the Googlebot couldn’t follow the script redirect (the code). Slowly these domains started dropping out of the search index one by one.

I submitted a disavow request on a couple old domains that were still hosting those link blocks (long since expired at this point) then I crossed my fingers and fired off the second reconsideration request on June 19, 2013. Surprisingly, it only took them a week to get back to me to say the site still wasn’t in compliance. Ugh. I thought my options had run out, and I started mapping out the move to the new site. In anticipation of the move, I started going through the Google Webmaster Tools link reports to see if any links could potentially be recovered. What I discovered was eye opening. We had accrued a lot of fantastic links over the years I was never aware of. These were nice natural links that took years to earn by people who just thought we were a great resource. I also discovered hundreds of spammy blogs that seemed to be linking to us via consuming our RSS feeds. There were pseudo-search engines also cluttered with links back to the site.

I decided it would take me a week plus to plan out the move so I’d throw one last Hail Mary pass by combing through every link in the Webmaster Tools and disavow everything that we didn’t place directly or earn through our own merit. Of the 380 links they had on record, I disavowed 300 of them. This was scorched earth time. I was about to abandon the domain completely so what was there to lose. I submitted the reconsideration request on June 28, 2013 and got that magical email a short five days later — Manual spam action revoked. Hot damn!

The lesson to be learned here seems to be use the disavow tool to cut out anything questionable pointing to your site — anything. I never had contact with any of those spammy blogs or pseudo-search engines, but since I bought links in the past every questionable link coming into the site was essentially my fault. Its not exactly fair, but I do see Google’s point. Also you should make every effort to contact site owners over links you’ve bought in the past in an attempt to clean up the web before submitting the disavow request. This shows Google that you are repentant of your actions and have tried to mend your evil ways. Also, please don’t wait for a Google penalty to reset. It may never come so bite the bullet, do your clean-up work and submit the reconsideration request. If it doesn’t work, take a step back to reassess things, do another round of clean-up and submit it again. Try to tackle as much as possible on the front end so Google doesn’t think you are still trying to get away with ranking via bum links.

In all, this was an exhaustive process that spanned fifteen months. I’d much rather be adding value to the web by creating fascinating content than cleaning up missteps from years ago. Unfortunately, this is the fate you suffer though when you take short cuts with your SEO and web marketing. I may have started out as a novice, virtually destroying my site, but I’ve gotten a PhD in SEO and Google’s quality guidelines in the years since. Good luck to anyone who is getting ready to clean-up their site. Recovery can happen, but it takes persistence and determination. I’d love to hear your story, success or failure, in the comments section. Maybe a discovery you’ve made will be the key to another reader’s site salvation.

So my next question is, how long is it after the manual penalty is revoked before the traffic returns? We shall see.

Image: Paul Prescott via Shutterstock