As SEMrush recent research revealed, penalties from Google triggered by toxic inbound links come in many flavors. Each penalty type that we were able to detect has its nuances, demanding specific steps for treating it.
We interviewed 16 SEO experts to get their tips on how to fix and avoid penalties from Google:
Fili Wiese, SEO Expert at SearchBrothers and ex-Google engineer
Felipe Bazon, CEO of Hedgehog Digital
Marie Haynes, SEO Consultant at MarieHaynes.com
Dan Petrovic, Director of Marketing at Dejan Marketing
Kristine Schachinger, Digital Strategist & SEO Consultant
Lily Ray, SEO Director at Path Interactive
Angelo Vargiu, SEO and Digital Strategist at Get Optimized
Raphael Doucet, US Site SEO Manager at L’oreal USA
Fernando Maciá, founder and director of Human Level
Olivier Andrieu, Founder of Abondance
Laura López, SEO Manager at Internet República
Jason Barnard, Lecturer on Brand SERPs at Kalicube
Rick Lomas, SEO Consultant
Rick Talbot, Search Marketing Consultant at totally.digital
Serge Balaes, SEO Consultant at totally.digital
Carolyn Shelby, SEO Manager at ESPN
How Google Interacts With Websites
How can you tell if your site has a Google penalty? Seeing a drop in your website’s performance could mean different things. Was it an algorithm update that affected your website’s performance, or something else?
Abondance Founder Olivier Andrieu clears everything up on this one. To understand how Google ranks your website, you need to distinguish between the three different types of actions it can take:
Google Penalties are manual actions, meaning they are a human-driven process. Contrary to some thought, it is actual human beings at Google who make the decision to penalize any given site.
In these cases, you’ll receive a message in Google Search Console. A process is then set up, a kind of dialogue where you can explain what you’ve done, file a reconsideration request, make further corrections, and so on. Again, this is above all a human process.
An example of manual action notification in Google Search Console
The algorithmic filtering, on the other hand, is a fully automated part of Google’s ranking algorithm. Google’s set of software and algorithms can detect a certain number of manipulations, or what they consider to be manipulations, on any part of a website and “filter” this site accordingly.
You don’t receive any messages or alerts if your site loses positions as a result of algorithmic filtering. In the past, these algorithmic filters were updated regularly, but today it happens in real-time.
Core updates are updates to the algorithm’s core and take place about 3 or 4 times a year. Most of the time, Google announces them and sometimes gives them fun names like Hummingbird, Penguin, or Panda.
How Experts Distinguish Between Algorithmic Filtering and Manual Actions
Fili Wiese, SEO Expert at SearchBrothers and former Senior Technical Lead at Google’s Search Quality Team, further debunks the “algorithm penalty” myth:
“Algorithmic penalties do not exist. There are only algorithms that pick up SEO signals and rank sites accordingly. Algorithms may work very well or less so, but they are merely calculations returning output that is based on an input. When algorithms or its datasets get updated this often is reflected in a change of output and hence the myth of algorithmic penalties was born.
If you want to solve any ranking changes due to an algorithmic update (often wrongly referred to as an “algorithmic penalty”), then the input needs to be changed. In other words, you need to perform an in-depth audit of your website and improve its on- and off-page signals.”
Some SEO specialists do call algorithmic filtering a “Google algorithm penalty”, but as Fili explains, that really isn’t an accurate name for what’s happening. Another Google penalty expert—Dan Petrovic—further elaborates on the matter:
“The only thing that matters to me, whether it’s a manual action or an algorithmic drop, is how the issue needs to be managed. Algorithmic rank drop can be a result of URL demotion or promotion of competing URLs and this can be done for any number of reasons including ignoring inorganic links, drop in relevance, QDF, and similar. Penguin-level automation falls under this category. Manual action can range from granular impact to an outright removal from results. If I’d call anything a “penalty” it would be a ban-level manual action.”
On the other hand, Digital Strategist & SEO Consultant Kristine Schachinger prefers another term for algorithmic filtering to separate it from the “algorithm penalty” myth. She calls them “algorithmic devaluations,” since “strictly a penalty by Google is a manual action.”
What’s Harder to Tackle: Manual Penalties or Algorithmic Filtering?
With manual actions, Google will always let you know through Google Search Console that you were hit by a penalty. As far as algorithmic filtering is concerned, spotting it demands a step-by-step analysis.
A Case Of Algorithmic Filtering Recovery
Felipe Bazon, CSO at Hedgehog Digital, recently had a very peculiar case.
On an initial website audit, he found that a backlink profile of one of his agency’s clients turned out to have quite a few bad links pointing to a YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) page. Meanwhile, no notifications about manual actions were received from Google.
Coincidentally, their rankings started dropping a week after presenting the audit. After contacting blogs to remove or nofollow links, disavowing, and removing a bunch of harmful links, the website started to see its performance back to normal. This process took about four months, from starting the cleaning up process till seeing the first signs of a normal performance back again.
According to our research on Google Penalties for unnatural inbound links, manual action usually results in a site-wide ban, while algorithmic filtering usually hits specific pages.
So with Felipe’s client, it seemed to be a case of algorithmic filtering that hurt the target page until the toxic backlinks were removed.
As Rick Lomas states, you can assume you’ve been filtered out by Google in the following situations:
You see a page that you expected to rank for a certain keyword disappear from the SERPs.
A page got replaced by another page, such as a category page, ranking higher than your intended page.
A Case Of Manual Action Recovery
Now let’s take a look at a penalty that totally.digital had to take care of. Totally’s client received an ‘Unnatural links to your site impacts links’ penalty to a specific page in February 2018. As a result, the entire site saw a drop in its organic rankings and traffic (as seen below).
To restore their client’s site after this manual action, Totally followed a detailed workflow that they described to us.
First, they collated all the site’s backlinks, removed duplicates and got the metrics for everything in bulk.
Next, they classified links with the following criteria:
First Found Date
Manually identified the type of link (paid link, negative SEO, legitimate link, etc.)
Action (contact, disavow, no action, etc.)
The next step was removing anything that obviously needs disavowing.
Note: If you’re using SEMrush’s Backlink Audit for this process, you can use Toxic Score to judge whether or not a backlink is definitely bad for your site and should be disavowed.
Then, they gathered contact email addresses for all of the sites.
They made sure to save copies of everything (backlinks lists, emails, etc.) at every stage of this process.
The next step is to set up a reconsideration request to Google. Here’s an example of such a message.
Finally, go above and beyond to try and prove you cleaned up as many unnatural links as possible. Google wants to know what you have done with examples. Show your work!
By August of 2018 (roughly six months later), the penalty was lifted and the site was back to normal.
With algorithmic filtering, restoring your website’s performance might seem easier, since there is no human involved in the decision, but detecting algorithmic filtering is not a cakewalk either. Both demand in-depth analysis and gradual work.
Since Felipe’s client case was a matter of a manual action, a Google employee would be the one to decide whether to lift the penalty or not.
Marie Haynes is a seasoned pro at recovering from Google Penalties. She told us that in general, she would rather receive a manual action than deal with algorithmic filtering:
“There is so much we don’t know about how Google could possibly suppress sites algorithmically… With a manual action, Google points out what your major issues are. You can quickly find out why you’re being suppressed. Is it because of unnatural links? Thin content? On the other hand, if Google’s algorithms have decided to not promote your content because of a quality issue, it can be quite challenging to determine what the problem is. And usually, there is not just one simple fix.”
Lily Ray echoed a similar sentiment:
“Algorithmic filtering is inherently difficult because it usually points to some type of systemic issue with your site. Maybe Google doesn’t trust your brand; maybe you have structural technical issues that makes it hard for Google to crawl and index your pages. There usually isn’t something easy to fix when it comes to recovering from an algorithmic devaluation. However, sometimes you can do very little or even nothing and still see an uplift as a result of a new core update. I’ve seen sites that are 10 or 20 years old (with limited new content) see traffic increases from recent updates. So it’s hard to say if/when you will see the efforts of your results pay off, and how long that hard work will take to result in improvements. In most cases, dedicating yourself to fixing all the issues affecting your site will result in improvements after 1-2 future core updates (so 3-8 months or so).”
Now, you might be wondering “How good is Google’s automated filtering? Will it get better and replace manual actions someday?”
Olivier Andrieu confirms that today there are far fewer manual actions happening than before: “It seems Google prefers to ignore links rather than penalize them. That said, unnatural links account for about 90% of manual actions.”
What Triggers a Google Penalty
The experts we spoke to hold a unanimous view on what triggers a manual action Google Penalty. In general, having a poor backlink profile triggers penalty cases.
And for Google to see a link profile as “poor,” a website must be showing a pattern of unnatural behavior, or, as Angelo Vargiu puts it, “multiple manipulative approaches.”
The essence of this unnatural behavior is usually in “money keyword” or “money anchor” text links. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, “money” anchors are basically links with anchor text that perfectly matches a valuable keyword that your site is trying to rank for.
It’s also important to remember, as Rick Lomas states, that a link can look unnatural to Google based on its anchor, even if it comes from a trustworthy site. Here’s his input on the danger of over-using money anchors:
“Google knows what profitable money keywords are. They have the world’s largest database of keywords with a value assigned to each one: AdWords. It does not matter if these links are on PBNs, widget spam, site footers, Reddit, The Huffington Post, or even Quora.
If a link looks unnatural, Google will deem it to be unnatural regardless of where it is. If your percentage of unnatural links is higher than usual for your niche/language/country then Google will be quite happy to penalize your website.”
According to SEMrush research, even links from reputable media sites can be considered bad, so audit your backlink profile regularly. Keep an eye on how your links look and where exactly on the website they are placed.
According to Raphael Doucet, there’s another type of malicious behavior that is becoming widespread but also receiving penalties: automatic content generation.
Simply put, this technique is spam and should be avoided if you want to rank well on Google. So if you were considering these tactics, you should definitely give it up.
How Bad Can a Google Penalty Get?
Usually, Google goes for punishment-fits-the-crime attitude when imposing a penalty on a website.
Therefore, don’t try any spammy strategies, i.e. generating thousands of unnatural links pointing to your website. If caught, you will spend way more time and effort removing the Google penalty and recovering from it.
On the other hand, if you’ve just made a few small honest mistakes, you shouldn’t be penalized beyond repair.
Since the experience of our experts varies, we were able to hear a wide range of varying punishments from Google. For example:
The more your backlink profile is plagued with toxic links, the harder it will be to fend off a penalty.
Inorganic links from authoritative sites that have the capacity to boost rank are actually the most dangerous — these can lead to complex consequences.
Direct and concise reconsideration requests to Google make the penalty removal process easier but there’s no exact recipe for “fast google penalty repair.”
It takes 2-4 reconsideration requests to lift a penalty, on average.
You can lose up to 80% of traffic if hit by a penalty.
Implicitly, there is no pattern on how Google replies to reconsideration requests. Sometimes it can take days or even weeks to get everything sorted, while other cases can be left unanswered for months — this affects the whole penalty removal process.
As a result, the time spent to lift a penalty can vary significantly — from 48 hours to a year or even more.
Marie shared the story of one of a messy manual penalty cases she had to deal with. What started off as a penalty for unnatural links turned into a second penalty for thin content:
“Probably the most challenging manual action case was for a payday loans company that received a manual action for unnatural links. After several disavows, many link removals and weeks and weeks of waiting for responses from Google to our requests for reconsideration, and then getting rejected, I reached out to Matt Cutts on Twitter as he was the head of webspam at Google at the time. We simply could not find any more manipulative links to remove, and yet Google was refusing to remove the manual action.
Matt pointed out that the client had several issues that caused Google concern. The biggest of these was that the company had many different payday loan websites that could be considered doorway sites. This was frustrating because I had been contracted to remove the unnatural links manual action and the issue with doorway sites had nothing to do with unnatural links.
A day or two after my conversation with Matt, we got an email that the site’s manual action for unnatural links had been removed…and then another email saying the site had a new manual action for thin content. I’ve seen this happen several times – that Google would give a thin content penalty for a company that had a large number of nearly duplicated sites.”
What does Marie’s case teach us?
This example shows us that the penalty removal process is not a universal process. Especially when dealing with sites that have histories of problematic SEO tactics. When you’re cleaning things up, don’t be surprised if you run into more rabbit holes that need fixing of their own.
How to Make Google Penalty Removal Easier
Analyze each link separately
Judging from Felipe Bazon’s experience, the process should be manual: go link by link using various criteria like the position of the link, anchor text, the relevance of the website, and so on.
This advice coincides with the viewpoint of Laura López, SEO Manager at Internet República. Laura says that removing and disavowing “more than necessary” is not a good practice.
Yes, you will get the penalty lifted, but it is very unlikely that you will restore the website’s original performance since there’s a chance you’d be removing quality backlinks that brought traffic as well.
Fernando Maciá explains that patterns that follow unnatural links can be detected immediately by the following:
ccTLD (country domains with no relation to the scope of the domain being analyzed).
Page path (they are often repeated when attacks are carried out negative SEO from multiple domains).
Anchor text clearly focused on money keywords.
Fernando also points out that if you detect links from very low quality domains, always add the entire domain to the disavow file.
So, do not lose nerve, be patient. Otherwise, you will slash bad and good links altogether. Or as Christine says, go down rabbit holes of anomalies after checking all the standard things.
Be slow and steady
Alex Navarro’s advice is to make your communication to Google slow and steady, rather than sending them everything all at once.
First, do not send Google everything that you have in your defense (links removed, webmasters contacted, etc.) in the first reconsideration request. Divide the data into 3-4 attempts and file it gradually, since Google rarely removes penalties after the first request.
As Jason Barnard suggests, go for a “full humble” approach, when contacting Google — this is not the time to say you were right, argue your way forward or blame a third party. Moreover, it is better to apologize and say you won’t do it again.
According to Jason, there are examples of people whose self-righteousness delayed the penalty removal. Simply put, take responsibility for your mistake, even if you had no intention to mess with Google’s search engine. Show that you are “truly sorry and redeemed”, as Angelo Vargiu says.
Fili sees the whole process as a multitude of steps that need to be taken, including improving both content and technical on- as well as off-page signals. That having said, every penalty can be lifted and almost every website can gain more relevant visibility after a penalty is lifted and the website has been improved with SEO.
Gather from multiple data sources
According to Fili, a small backlink profile consisting of only a few hundred or thousand backlinks may not warrant tapping into third party data sources for a backlink audit.
However, larger backlink profiles make the use of additional data sources absolutely necessary. Don’t just rely on what you can see in Google Search Console. See what you can find by combining multiple data sources in your audit. At the end of the day, it’s all about numbers and data volumes.
(Note: in SEMrush’s Backlink Audit you can combine SEMrush data, GSC data, and Majestic data into one audit dashboard).
Good Link Building and How to Avoid a Google Penalty
Here’s a summary of the main points our experts seemed to agree on.
Avoid link building schemes
As Angelo Vargiu and Felipe Bazon state, the #1 golden rule is not to fall for projects born and designed with the sole purpose of providing outgoing links. Elaborating on that, Rick Lomas suggests avoiding all the obvious places where “everybody gets a link.”
Keep it natural
Rick Lomas also suggests keeping your links looking as natural as possible. The purpose of a link is to enhance the reader’s experience, so avoid the links that look like this:
“We had the best day out ever, the sky was blue, the ocean was clear and I was using the best fishing rod 2020 for deep sea fishing.”
Felipe Bazon also recommends creating linkable assets to where you can point links in a natural and safe way. Kristine Schachinger suggests going easy with growing your backlink profile:
“The only thing I always tell the client is to make it as natural as possible. Make sure that it looks like it should have happened that way. You want to show up suddenly with 5000 new links tomorrow and the last five months, you’ve only had one hundred.”
Balance link quality and quantity
Here’s some wisdom from Rick Lomas: a considerable amount of links can be hurting your rankings rather than helping them. Moreover, as Angelo Vargiu suggests, the links must be generated within unique and engaging content, with the least emphasis on “ambitions and commercial intent.”
As already mentioned, hundreds and thousands of low-quality and bad looking backlinks will demand tons of time to clean up. A backlink profile built consistently from the ground up is much easier to audit.
Follow Google’s Guidelines
“Keep up with the changes to the guidelines, and ensure that your site is in compliance with current guidelines. For example, questionable link acquisition hasn’t ALWAYS been forbidden, so if you spent the late ‘90s comment spamming as your life depended on it, you probably have a lot of overly optimized really awful backlinks to offset or clean-up. Was it wrong when you acquired the link? No. Is it bad now and will it get you penalized now? Yes. So you fix it.”
Regularly monitor your backlink profile
Angelo Vargiu sees backlink monitoring as a “mandatory task,” with setting “alarm bells for imbalances and anomalies” as a must. For this, use the SEMrush Backlink Audit Tool and Toxic Score metric. Also, Fili suggests including as much recent and old link data as possible, when doing an in-depth audit of your off-page risks.
Disavow toxic backlinks, even if a project is not penalized
Preemptively disavowing bad backlinks is common sense, says Fili. Ultimately it depends on the individual site operations and how risk averse they are. It’s all about the input you send into the search algorithms. By disavowing spammy backlinks, you can be sure that you have done all you can to influence your input to the best of your ability.
Mind rel=“nofollow”, rel=”UGC” and rel=”sponsored”
Fili also advises not to worry about your current attributes, since current nofollow links can be kept as they are. New links to and from a website that are not trusted, vouched for, or are commercial in nature and pose a potential risk need to continue to use the rel=”nofollow” link attribute, in addition to the optional rel=”ugc” or rel=”sponsorship” link attributes.
In addition to the tips above, Fili advises that all good links should:
Enhance content discovery.
Improve searchbot crawl prioritization.
Foster user navigation.
Drive up converting traffic.
As you can see, building a good and reputable backlink profile requires more than just strategy, it demands effort and patience.
Did we miss any tips that you have to help avoid penalties or revive a site that has been penalized? Let us know in the comments below!