Penalty Removal > The Gritty Agency-Side Reality

Stuart Shaw 7 years ago

Ever since the ‘unnatural links’ and Penguin penalties were first unleashed on the world of search, agencies have been busy with working on a fix for many businesses crippled by plummeting search visibility.

Agency-side it has proved to be a challenging time, balancing fixes with education and communication to ensure that the client is kept up to date with factual, relevant information that also manages their expectations.

Having won a considerable amount of business from companies suffering this fate we have spent many hours working on all of those factors and below is our attempt to share those experiences.

Stage One: Organising the Team

The first thing to plan for as an agency is how to juggle a multitude of different penalties across a number of different clients all at once. The way we have found best to split that work is to assign each one to a member of the team - it is essentially penalty management.

This way, the client has a specific person at the agency for each penalty and that member of staff will know everything there is to know regarding the process and how it is progressing.

Working in that way also clears up any confusion there may be as to which links have been removed, which haven’t, what the plan of action is etc. as it can become very messy, very quickly without.

Stage Two: Communication

One of the greatest challenges with penalties is not actually the penalty, but managing expectation. As you expect the client will rightly want the penalty cleared up to minimise impact on the bottom line but the reality is it takes time. And often lots of it.

If that penalty isn’t showing any signs of lifting, we will always arrange a meeting or conference call to discuss alternative methods to use and identify links that may have missed the initial removal auditing process.

The key then is a clear campaign plan with dates of when the work will be carried out so you can communicate as it is being done. Weekly bullet pointed updates are then also included to minimise stress.

Penguin and Algorithmic Penalties

For a lot of agencies, Penguin has proved a hard penalty to shift. A recent Penguin poll on revealed that only 6% answered that they have fully recovered from penguin and 13% partially recovered.

This means that 81% of people involved in the poll have not seen any signs of recovery from Penguin. The reason for this is probably two-fold. On the one hand Google is still iterating and its data refreshes have yet to really define what a quality, organic link really looks like and also because algorithmic penalties requires a lot of link removal effort and documentation to impact the site in any positive way. This takes up a lot agency hours, especially if you have numerous clients that have been hit asking for help.

Unnatural Links Penalty

The ‘unnatural links’ warning penalty is a very different penalty as it’s one that Google controls directly, whereas Penguin is purely algorithm based demotion.

As an agency we have had much more success with the removal of this penalty, than Penguin. This is purely because you can get direct input from the Google web spam team and often the ability to argue your case when it comes to defining what is ‘spammy’ and what is not.

And while the process is well mapped out we have certainly found that using the Webmaster forums is the best way to get Google’s team involved. As soon as we started using this tactic the acceptance of reconsideration requests has improved tenfold.

One example we can share is a recent reconsideration request that was being ‘ignored’ by Google (no messages back in Webmaster Tools), so we took it to the Webmaster forums and complained. This caught the attention of a particular member of the web spam team who responded to the website owner directly with an apology and a rejection message in Webmaster Tools (WMT). However, we then had a direct contact at Google for this particular client and we submitted another reconsideration after removing a handful of others, and over Christmas, the client had their penalty lifted.

Our learning from the process was that it pays to be pushy with Google on their forums and try and persevere until you get a response from someone at Google themselves!


At an agency, you deal day-to-day with a variety of people at a variety of different businesses and with varying levels of knowledge. This is great, but this can causes a lot of challenges also.

Depending on the knowledge of your contact at the business, they will either understand the process or they won’t. This means you have to educate the client about their specific penalty and why they’ve received it, because otherwise they think Google is out to get them. It is also a very good idea to clearly map out the next 90 days, so they can an immediate understanding that there is no quick fix, no magic bullet that will save them. Once they get that managing expectation becomes that much easier!

Recently, we introduced Mozcast to several clients so they can see how Google is behaving on a day-to-day basis. However, unless it is fully explained, it can cause a lot of confusion due to clients asking us on a daily basis asking if certain temperatures mean certain things. While SERP monitoring platforms are useful their introduction should come with a guide to manage those expectations.

We have had clients come to us from other agencies with penalties who made the mistake of promising to have them removed within a certain amount of time. We even fell into this trap early on when the manual penalty was released but learned very quickly that you cannot predict when a penalty is going to be removed. Do not lead your clients to believe that you will have them out of a penalty in a specific time, be honest and positive but factual at all times.

More Haste Less Speed

When working with a client that has a penalty there is always pressure to resubmit or disavow. It’s a perfectly natural reaction to a business critical, and very stressful issue. And if not managed correctly that pressure can force you into rushing those all-important documents in order to appease the client. We’ve done it and as a result got what we deserved – rejection.

Very early on we made it very clear that all resubmissions would be sent ONLY when they are ready, full of detail and examples of manual removal effort.

If you don’t include this type of documentation in a reconsideration request, you have shown no effort to Google and the reality is it will be returned with a D minus!

The Disavow Tool

The disavow tool is still being questioned by a lot of people in SEO, but personally I am a fan and have seen it work. However, there is a lot of reason for people to be hesitant about its real reason for being. Rory Lofthouse explained on David Naylors blog that all is not what it seems.

In it he explains that they disavowed a client site’s entire link profile apart from one link (which was from their own website) as a test. The result? A negative response. The only option left was to move domain.

From our experience of using the disavow tool, it is clear that the same rules apply. A successful submission starts and ends with good written documentation.

Previously, we have submitted disavows as just a long list of domains and specific URLs with very little commenting but the resulting ‘uplift’ was significantly lower than for those supplied with info. This can only suggest that there is still manual intervention as part of the QC process.

Right now, for every URL we include in a disavow file we document the previous dates that we have tried contacting the website owner on and the website owners details. Since doing this, we have had a much better response in ‘partially recovered’ Penguin clients.

Failure is Part of the Process

While it can be frustrating the fact is you will not always be successful when trying to remove a penalty for a client; it’s how the penalty removal process appears to work.

The client may be pushing for results, but you have to be positive even after multiple rejections. Each time you are rejected, you are making Google aware of your effort at lifting this penalty. Keep at it and take to the Webmaster Forums for more detailed responses from Google web spam staff that will lead to better penalty removal efforts. In the end you WILL Succeed.

Receiving THE Message

Eventually you will be greeted with THE message in WMT, or a gradual but significant increase in non-branded organic visits that coincides with known data refreshes.

When you do receive that golden ticket celebrate. It’s undoubtedly been a tough journey to get there and a major milestone in the recovery journey. In truth, however, the journey has just begun.

You still have a long way to go not only in terms of how you rebuild but also in way of a cultural change in the way you now market your business online. Link removal means equity removal and you will now have to create a plan to replace that lost ‘juice’ with a content led approach.

Keep that front of mind from the beginning and ensure it is part of the education process and you will have a smoother transition into the positive rebuilding phase.


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