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How To Deal With Manual Actions For Unnatural Links, Negative SEO & Google Penguin in 2019

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Disclosure: “This article is personal opinion of research based on my experience of almost 20 years. There is no third party advertising on this page or monetised links of any sort. External links to third party sites are moderated by me. Disclaimer.” Shaun Anderson, Hobo

A lot of Google penalties (called “manual actions” by Google) are aimed at industrial-strength-manipulation of either Google’s reputation or relevance reward systems, which it relies on to create SERPs (search engine results pages) – and lots of smaller businesses won’t have come across them (unless they paid an SEO company in the past to ‘promote’ them using industrial-strength-manipulation such as low-quality link building).

However, if you have been competing in your niche for positions using artificial backlinks – chances are, you will be affected.

Google has made a lot of noise about unnatural, manipulative or artificial links pointing at your site so you cannot simply ignore them. They’ve chosen NOT to ignore your links anymore if they detect a REAL-TIME INTENT to rank for specific keywords using lower quality means – or link schemes, in other words.

My primary interest is SEO for real business websites, and this post is about something that’s probably going to hit a lot of smaller businesses that, in the past, promoted their site using low-quality SEO services – resulting in unnatural links, which in turn can lead to an increased risk of ‘negative SEO’.

Google undeniably is (in 2019) taking a softer approach to low-quality backlinks than in previous years. It seems to me they are more interested in real-time spamming than rather than historic activities.

If you haven’t been building links, you probably have next-to-nothing to worry about.

I think it is inferred by Google if are involved in real-time web spamming you are still in danger of a manual action, drop in traffic and a merry-go-round of time-wasted in areas with little ROI for your business. Historic link building activity may be less of a concern though.

If you are worried about your backlinks and you want your backlinks reviewed, I can review them as part of my SEO audit. See here for SEO audit costs.

If you’re doing SEO yourself, read on:

Table Of Contents

What Are ‘Unnatural Links‘?

QUOTE: “in general I try to avoid that so that you really sure that your content kind of stands on its own.  We do use links as part of our algorithms but we used lots and lots of other factors as well so only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your website than it actually helps” John Mueller, Google 2015

Unnatural links are links you have placed deliberately to manipulate where you rank in Google.

Well, if you’ve been actively promoting your website, sit back for a moment and think about all the links you managed to generate to your site because you DID NOT come from a position of actually building a rich, informative site – yes – all those links.

If you paid a link building company to get you links, yes, those links (probably).

If you are using cheap submission services that are not a scam, yes those links. Those tactics to get easy-to-get links you got that were linking to your competitors’ websites?

Yes, those links.

In short –  if you are using unnatural links to get top positions and don’t deserve them Google will nuke your site when it detects them.

Google knows which keywords to penalise you for to destroy your ability to attract useful organic visits.

Sometimes this happens on a keyword level, sometimes page-by-page – sometimes site-by-site!

The important thing to realise is there is a certain amount of risk now associated with link building to any site and any page.

My initial recommendations then were to beware:

  • Sitewide links and site interlinking, and ESPECIALLY if using rich anchor text, and or managing the links in any way (like changing the keyword text)
  • Blog comment links
  • Article marketing links
  • Manipulative RSS syndication links
  • Low-quality SEO friendly directory links
  • Private blog networks (PBN)
  • Low-quality press releases

And do MORE of the following:

  • Get links from real websites
  • Focus on getting links to inner pages of your site
  • Build natural domain authority
  • Add lots of new content to your site
  • Make sure your web page is OPTIMISED for EVERY keyword phrase for which you want to rank.
  • Make sure your content is shareable

My first observations included:

  • Google will not just ignore links it doesn’t like if it thinks you have built them. Now, these links can well get you penalised – and quickly – and a lot more noticeable.
  • No longer can you be cavalier about where you get your links. I,  have been happy to take links from anywhere in the past, safe in the knowledge links are not toxic, and that  Google will ignore low-quality links before penalising you for them.
  • Your website CAN have a toxic link profile. It’s evidently about YOUR INTENT. If your intent was to rank high in Google for particular keywords using low-quality links, I think that’s enough for Google, these days, to sink your site.
  • Ensure your link does not end up duplicated across LOTS and LOTS of low-quality sites. Too many of these types of links DECLARE AN INTENT to Google to manipulate rankings.

Google is serious when dealing with what it calls link schemes (ways to get easy links):

What Google says about link schemes:

QUOTE: “Your site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links influences your ranking. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity. Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site, or outgoing links from your site. Manipulating these links may affect the quality of our search results, and as such is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results

Some examples include:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links, or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”)
  • Linking to web spammers or unrelated sites with the intent to manipulate PageRank
  • Building partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site
  • Text advertisements that pass PageRank
  • Links that are inserted into articles with little coherence
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
  • Links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites
  • Widely distributed links in the footers of various sites
  • Forum comments with optimised links in the post or signature

QUOTE: “The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.” Google Webmaster Guidelines, 2018

Google’s algorithms apparently label links it classifies:

QUOTE: “The manual actions team… can look at the labels on the on the links or a site gets. Basically, we have tons of link labels; for example, it’s a footer link, basically, that has a lot lower value than an in-content link. Then another label would be a Penguin real-time label. If they see that most of the links are Penguin real-time labelled, then they might actually take a deeper look and see what the content owner is trying to do.”

“So, if you think about it, there are tons of different kinds of links on the internet. There are footer links, for example. There are Penguinized links, and all of these kinds of links have certain labels internally attached to them, basically for our own information. And if the manual actions team is reviewing a site for whatever reason, and they see that most of links are labeled as Penguin real-time affected, then they might decide to take a much deeper look on the site and see what’s up with those links and what could be the reason those links exist — and then maybe apply a manual action on the site because of the links.” Gary Illyes, Google 2016

Google seems to be taking a softer approach than they once did. No doubt they are more confident in their ability to protect against manipulation.

Will Google Tell Me About Unnatural Links?

Successful reconsideration request notification in Google Webmaster Tools

In some cases, yes.

Google tells webmasters if they have a problem with your links by email through Google Webmaster Tools (now called Google Search Console).

If you have a manual action for manipulative links you’ll get an email from Google, like this:

QUOTE: “Dear site owner or Webmaster of, We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes. We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results. If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request. If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support. Sincerely, Google Search Quality Team”

Google is moving in various directions, and can penalise your entire site or parts of it in a much more granular process than used to be the case:

QUOTE: “In less severe cases, we sometimes target specific spammy or artificial links created as part of a link scheme and distrust only those links, rather than taking action on a site’s overall ranking. The new messages make it clear that we are taking “targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.” Google

If you have unnatural links you really need to worry about – the best place I think to detect any issues is Google Analytics. If you have been algorithmically penalised, traffic will have plummeted.

Things have changed over the last few years. You can expect to get a manual action by the Google webspam team if your unnatural links flag your site for breaking the rules but also you will find the algorithm itself will also devalue your links in 2019 (rather than penalise you for them).

At the end of the day, your intent is what is important. If you are building unnatural links today, you can probably expect an email from Google.

Do I Need To Physically Remove ALL Unnatural Links Pointed At My Site?

QUOTE: “We know that perhaps not every link can be cleaned up, but in order to deem a reconsideration request as successful, we need to see a substantial good-faith effort to remove the links, and this effort should result in a decrease in the number of bad links that we see.” GOOGLE

NO, but you may have to try and remove the worst offenders if you receive a manual action notice to do so.

What Happens To My Rankings in Google if Google Penalises My Site For Unnatural Links?

If you receive a manual action it’s clean-up time.

Your rankings are probably going to be very noticeably negatively impacted.

Other times the indicators might be more subtle.

  • You might not rank at all in Google for something you used to rank for very well for.
  • Your traffic might reduce month by month.
  • You might disappear overnight for valuable keywords associated with your content.
  • You might disappear for one keyword phrase.
  • You might be reviewed, manually
  • Fresh content seems to struggle a bit more to get into Google’s index

If you are, indeed, penalised, you’re going to have clean your links up if you want to restore your ‘reputation’ in Google. Penalties can last a long time (if no clean-up is undertaken).

In the very worst cases – your site and all its pages can be removed from Google. It can be ‘de-indexed‘ and a ‘pure spam‘ classification.

When you get a penalty revoked, things start to get back to normal, but this process takes time too.

Your Backlinks Will Very Probably Need MANUALLY Checked

If you have a manual action for unnatural links your backlinks will need manually checked at some point.

Only a manual review can properly identify problematic links in a backlink profile.

A tool can work out obvious spammy sites but no link analysis tool can determine the overall intent of every site or every link, on every occasion.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have come across a link I expected to be crap (based on a popular metric) and found it was ok.

And similarly the other way.

The thing about managing ‘link risk’ is that somebody who knows what they are talking about (when it comes to crap links) NEEDS, at some point, to review your links – MANUALLY – – even if they ARE categorised by risk.

You, or somebody on your behalf, is going to have to review your backlinks and strip out the borderline cases, to ensure you keep every link you’ve ‘earned’ and only submit to your disavow the worst offenders.

I say that because:

  • Not all directories are crap
  • Not all blog links are crap
  • Not all syndicated duplicate articles are crap
  • Not all duplicate content is crap
  • Not all optimised anchor text links are crap
  • Not all press releases are crap
  • Not all scrapers are bad
  • Not all site-wide links are bad
  • Not all blogroll links are bad

Sometimes you have a good article on a crap site – sometimes you have a crap link on an excellent site

The makers of link analysis tools know that too – and they have got to err on the right side of telling you which links to disavow – as you don’t want to disavow links that are not problematic.

Some of these are editorial, natural links, the type Google says it will reward (in the future, if not now, you would hope).

I can tell looking at a site within a few seconds if that site is a site I want to be dissociated from (yes, that statement still looks strange to me, a former link builder, after all these years).

I make my decisions based on how well maintained the site looks, how relevant it is to my site if it’s original content if there are any obvious paid links if it breaks Google’s guidelines, what I think Google may think of it on a few levels. I also make my decisions on EXPECTING GOOGLE TO GET EVEN MORE AGGRESSIVE in dealing with ‘manipulation’.

If a site linking to you indicates that its main intent is to manipulate Google using low-quality techniques – you do not want to be associated with it in 2019.

These type of artificial links are probably not going to improve with age, and Google isn’t going to ‘lighten up’ anytime soon.

I’m a control freak. If a link analysis tool tells me there are 100 risky links in my profile, I need to look at them. If I know I will need to look, why run these tools in the first place? Why not just look?

Most of these tools I’ve used will need to be greatly improved before I trust them on their own to do what I do myself.

It is clear that Google wants you to invest – or waste – your time cleaning up old low-quality backlinks rather than creating any new low-quality backlinks.

If you don’t dig deep enough to remove low-quality links – you’ll find yourself going back and forth with Google through MULTIPLE Google re-consideration requests.

I think this very fact makes link risk tools without a manual review from an experienced link builder a little redundant.

I would say this of course – because I sell manual reviews.

I’ve built tools in-house to help me process manual reviews, but I still choose to provide a service to carry out human based reviews.

Which Links Am I Supposed To Clean Up?

PAID LINKS or DELIBERATELY ENGINEERED LINKS are the REAL toxic links Google is looking to penalise you for, and these leave a nasty footprint e.g.:

  • a high % of backlinks on low-quality sites
  • a high % of backlinks on duplicate articles
  • a high % of links with duplicate anchor text
  • links from irrelevant sites or articles
  • footer links on unrelated sites

You are looking for the non-editorial links or links from very low-quality websites that link to your site.

Google may penalise you for these links if a clear real-time intent to manipulate results is evident.

Most, if not all, low-quality links are (probably) easy for Google to detect algorithmically. Most low-quality links Google will ignore, in time.

How To Deal With Unnatural Links Pointed At Your Site

If you are a small business – you probably don’t want to start again with a new domain, and you cannot just 301 redirect your site out of a penalty in 2019 – and there is probably a lot less reason to do this in 2019.

Google probably already devalues your low-quality links.

If you want to make sure Google can trust your site explicitly (even in a manual review) the best choice for a real site is to clean toxic links up and disavow those you cannot remove from the web.

First, you’ll need to download your backlinks from Google (although Google never tells you the entire picture when it comes to your backlink profile – you may need to use third-party tools too like Majestic or SEMrush).

Download links to your site

  1. On the Webmaster Tools home page, click the site you want.
  2. On the Dashboard, click Traffic, and then click Links to Your Site.
  3. Under Who links the most, click More.
  4. Click Download more sample links. If you click Download latest links, you’ll see dates as well.

Note: When looking at the links to your site in Webmaster Tools, you may want to verify both the www and the non-vww version of your domain in your Webmaster Tools account. To Google, these are entirely different sites. Take a look at the data for both sites.

Do I need to manually audit my backlinks? 

Probably – BUT ESPECIALLY if you have had a manual action applied to your site.

Whether or not you use the Disavow Tool in Google, you should be looking at your backlink profile and see what various links are doing to your rankings. You should, at least, know who links to you, so you can calculate the risk to your organic traffic that is attached to those links.

Here are some options for you to handle unnatural links:

  • Delete pages that are the target of unnatural links (by making them return a 404 or 410 server header response to disconnect links from spammy websites
  • Contact website owners and ask them to nofollow any links pointing to your site
  • Download your links from Google Search Console, pop them into Excel. You can use seo tools like URL Profiler or SEO Tools for Excel. to pull metrics for the URLs in question
  • Identify the root domain of each link and check its Majestic Trust Flow & Citation Flow – this can help you group together really low-quality domains linking to you. Most of those links with very low Trust Flow or Citation Flow on the domain are worth looking at. Do the same for the actual page your links are on (on domains with Trust Flow)
  • If you have a LOT of links (tens of thousands) filtering, in Excel, for unique domains can speed up this process.
  • I normally get the PAGE TITLE of the linking page too (using URL Profiler or SEO Tools for Excel), so I can easily detect duplicate articles on lower quality sites.

Of course, there are some false positives.

Trust Flow, for instance, can be misleading. So a human eye is always needed to reduce these false positives.

Using this method I’ve successfully identified lower quality sites relatively quickly. To be fair, I know a crap link when I see one. I built enough, back in the day (pre-2012)

Ultimately, if you have a lot of links, you can never be too sure which particular links are ‘toxic’.

It may very well be the volume of a particular tactic used that gets your site in trouble – and not one individual link.

If you have a load of low-quality directory submissions in your backlink profile or have taken part in low-quality article marketing recently, the next Google update might just be targeted at you (if it hasn’t already had an impact on your rankings).

The important links to identify are PAID LINKS from previous SEO campaigns or MANUFACTURED LINKS designed to manipulate where your site ranks in Google.

Once you’ve examined your links and identified low-quality links, you can then submit a list of links to Google in a simple text file called disavow.txt.

How To Use Disavow Tool

What we have been told about the disavow file has been clarified over the years:

QUOTE: “So disavow is again, basically, **just a label internally**. It’s applied on the links and anchors. And then you can see that, as well. Basically, you could have like a link from, I don’t know,, and it has labels Penguin RT, footer and disavow. And then they would see that — they would know that someone or the webmaster or content owner is actively tackling those links.” Gary Illyes Google 2016


QUOTE: “If you do not have a manual action then you do not need to submit a disavow!” Search Engine Roundtable, 2017

With this in mind, you should probably have a very good reason in the first place to submit a disavow such as cleaning up a manual action or identifying a clear case of negative SEO if you have nothing better to do:

QUOTE: “we recommend it in case you’re worrying about negative SEO.” Gary Illyes, Google 2017

I treat important sites as if they are going to get a manual review at some point.

If Google labels links for a manual reviewer so that “they would know that someone or the webmaster or content owner is actively tackling those links” then it is still useful (for some) to disavow risky links (however you quantify that) but for most webmasters it may be the case that Google is already ‘discarding ‘ and devaluing your lowest-quality links anyway.

If the disavow file is:

QUOTE**just a label internally**Gary Illyes Google 2016

and Penguin:

QUOTE: “doesn’t demote it will just discard the incoming spam toward the side and it will just ignore the spam and that’s it no penalty no demotion and it works in real time” Gary Illyes, Google 2016

Then chances are Google is already discarding your low-quality links today rather than penalise you, so ‘cleaning’ your backlinks would be something to leave for a rainy day:

QUOTE: “If you have better things to do, as you should, then don’t use it.” Gary Illyes, Google 2017

I went ‘full disclosure’ on my own backlink profile using the disavow file 5 years ago and it helped me in the long-run both to get record traffic levels, top rankings and to recover quickly from a negative SEO hack.

I always treated the disavow file as something that would be manually reviewed at some point.

Today, in 2019, I’d lean towards focusing on other things than spending a lot of time on managing a disavow file (unless you are at real risk of ‘real-time’ penalty or have a manual action for unnatural links).

If you have sorted all other site quality issues out, I would then disavow low-quality links in case it has some second-order benefit down the road.

The Disavow Links Tool is a tool provided by Google in Google Webmaster Tools (now Search Console).

Google Disavow Links

You can specify which domains you want to disavow the links from (you can also specify individual pages).

Generally speaking, if disavowing a link, you are better of disavowing the entire domain (if it is a spammy domain).

Disavow Links is an advanced tool - use carefully (we are told)

The disavow.txt is just a simple text file with the following list of domains e.g.:


The way it appears to work is you tell Google which links to ignore when they are calculating whether or not to rank you high or boot your rankings in the balls.

Google does want you to actually remove spammy links if you can, first, before disavowing the links you cannot get removed:

QUOTE: “If you’ve done as much work as you can to remove spammy or low-quality links from the web, and are unable to make further progress on getting the links taken down, you can disavow the remaining links. In other words, you can ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing your site.” GOOGLE

Google has said that they will treat links found in your disavow file as nofollow links. These links will not pass PageRank or contextual relevance signals, and will not be able to negatively impact your site any longer.

Should I Use The Google Backlinks Disavow Tool Myself?

QUOTE: It is a big gun and can destroy your rankings in a matter of hours if you are misusing it” Gary Illyes, Google 2017

The answer is probably NOT if you do not know what you are doing but there is some question about what the disavow tool actually does. I have found it most of use to help lift a manual action for unnatural links:

QUOTE: “This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.” Google Search Console Notification

Some might recommend removing links instead of just using this disavow tool from Google. Lots of people have different angles.

I have used BOTH methods to recover sites from manual actions and algorithmic penalties.

If you have a manual penalty, you will probably also need to get some of these links physically removed or at least try and get them removed. Yes, that means emailing Webmasters and keeping a record of that endeavour.

If you get a manual penalty, have lots of links and removing the low-quality links is going to be a hard task – you WILL need to employ the disavow file in 2019.

If you do not have a manual action, the risk to your site from Penguin (at least) is reduced:

QUOTE: “I have a site with [about] 100,000 visits every two weeks and I haven’t looked at the links for two years, but I know I have some porn links because someone pointed it out and I’m fine with that – I don’t use disavow. If it makes you feel better, then use it, just make sure you’re not overusing it. It is a big gun and can destroy your rankings in a matter of hours if you are misusing it. Don’t be afraid of sites that you don’t know. There are hundreds of millions – billions probably — of sites on the Internet. There’s no way you’ll know each of them. If they have content and are not spammy, why would you disavow? It’s extremely likely it won’t hurt you.” Gary Illyes, Google 2017

I have in the past proactively disavowed links it on sites that are obviously algorithmically penalised for particular keywords or on links I expect will cause a problem later on. One would expect penalties are based on algorithmic detection on some level for some sites.

If you’ve ever attempted to manipulate Google, now’s the time to at least quantify the risk attached to those links.

I recommend you go that one step further and consider disavowing very low-quality links YOU HAVE MADE pointing to your site, as:

  • Google is better at identifying your low-quality links.
  • Google already knows about your crap links.
  • Google is very definitely ignoring most of your links.
  • Google has probably already has penalised you in areas and you probably are not aware of it. I’ve helped a few sites that got the unnatural links message that was clearly algorithmically slapped a year before and never noticed it until it started to hurt.
  • Some competitors will ‘negative seo’ your website (I go into this below).

How To Use the Backlinks Disavow Tool

Upload a list of links to disavow:

Google says:

QUOTE: “It may take some time for Google to process the information you’ve uploaded. In particular, this information will be incorporated into our index as we recrawl the web and reprocess the pages that we see, which can take a number of weeks.” Google

… and they are telling it like it is.

This process is designed, by Google, to take TIME to fix, if you had an unfair competitive advantage because of historic low-quality link building practices.

Should I Submit ALL my Backlinks to the Disavow tool?

Definitely not.

Even if Google was just manually making an example of someone abusing the disavow file, the disavow file is clearly for ‘disavowing’ yourself from domains. Perhaps Google was only too happy to oblige in this instance, which is unfortunate.

QUOTE: “Disavowing backlinks is really mostly for the case where there are really problematic links pointing to your page and you want to say I want nothing to do with that” John Mueller, Google 2016

Nobody knows exactly how this process is handled, so you are probably better listening to Google’s advice than not.

It’s evident that the disavow file is relevant in a manual review of your site.

Keep the disavow for “really problematic links“.

Do I Need To Submit A Disavow File to All Versions of My Site in Search Console?

If you have a manual action (or had a manual action in the past) then YES and especially if you’ve changed to HTPPS then you probably should submit your disavow file to all versions of your site (just in case):

QUOTE: “Okay, checked with the team: yes, you need to re-upload the disavow file to the https site profile in SC (Search Console)” Gary Illyes, Google 2015

How To Submit “Reconsideration Requests” After A Manual Action

If you did get a Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links message, Google had some advice for you and some tips when requesting reconsideration of your site:

It was clear this was not going away, and we had to deal with these unnatural links. My initial recommendations were:

  • Stop link building **whether** or not you are fighting fire with fire
  • Make an effort to remove your crap links (especially the ones with a lot of similar phrases – there are a lot of phrase match penalties being handed out and some are reporting their websites and blogs deindexed)
  • Accept responsibility and take your penalty
  • Reconsider where you are getting your links from – and definitely,
  • KNOW where you are getting your links from
  • Pay attention to site-wide links from other sites…. not only are most of them useless, now they can make your link profile toxic – (confirmed in an example included in Google’s recommendations to webmasters)
  • Focus on getting links from REAL sites, and ideally, sites with REAL online business authority
  • AVOID generating a lot of anchor text rich links fast on low-quality sites
  • Concentrate on earning backlinks with a brand signal, paying particular attention to the QUALITY of the sites.

Unnatural anchor text was extremely risky from 2012 onwards…. and ESPECIALLY if those links were on low-quality sites like private blog networks or low-quality directories.

Later iterations of Google Penguin targeted obvious spam, obvious out of context links and obvious brute force linking (examples given are footer links, blogrolls and some PBNs (private blog networks) – i.e., not the sort of links you want to point at your main site.

Webmasters reported 301s hit too – home pages disappearing and affiliate sites penalised (although a black hat affiliate site isn’t going to last long these days without somebody who knows what they are doing at the helm).

Black hats ARE, however, very much worth listening to at times like this.

Will Your Rankings Return To Normal After Getting A Penalty Lifted?

QUOTE: “Cleaning up these kinds of link issue can take considerable time to be reflected by our algorithms (we don’t have a specific time in mind, but the mentioned 6-12 months is probably on the safe side)” John Mueller, Google 2018

Sometimes. This depends on what, if any, quality signals are left in your backlink profile and what’s happening on your website and in your niche. If you have high-quality links, individual rankings can come back, that is for sure.

I’ve yet to see a site without high-quality links hit by an unnatural link penalty where traffic levels have returned to previous best positions. Sometimes there are just better, more information-rich pages out there these days for Google to rank above your page.

QUOTE: “it’s almost never going to be that we will just restore the previous state because things evolved on the internet…” John Mueller, Google 2016

But YES, I’ve seen rankings come back after a manual penalty. Sometimes better than they were before IF a lot of work was done to improve quality in all areas.

I’ve yet to see site-wide traffic levels return to normal in most cases, without significant investment in many areas.

Recovery from a links based penalty is a two-step process; a clean-up process and a growth process and this growth process involve investment in higher quality web marketing.

Are you penalised, or is Google just ignoring your links?

Here is something to think about, which may help you direct your efforts:

If you start with nothing, get top rankings in 3 months, and then end up with nothing.

Are you penalised? Really?

Or is Google just ignoring your links and ranking your website it should rank?

If the ‘penalty’ is an algorithmic shift, then by the very nature of it, getting good links (links Google has no reason to believe are suspect) to your website should tip the balance in your favour again.

It is worth noting that in some business cases, and with some business models – starting again on an entirely new domain might just be a better option, after a link penalty – especially if you think you need these type of link schemes to compete in the first place – and you have NO organic links.

Will My Competitor be Penalised For Unnatural Links?

Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they have been, and you will never know about it.

QUOTE: “I think another tricky part there is like you don’t really know if they get away with it. In the sense that for the webspam team as well we try to recognize those kind of links and just ignore them. And the webspam team when they run across like a bigger pattern of links like that they also apply manual action there and they essentially neutralize those links. So you wouldn’t see that any of the link tools. And a site might continue to rank fairly well despite all of these links essentially being ignored. So what ends up happening is they spend a lot of time doing all of this stuff to kind of build these unnatural links and in the end they don’t really have an effect. And they could have spent that time actually doing something useful for the long term for their website.” John Mueller, Google 2017

You can always tell Google about them, or out them in Google forums. If you have the energy to be bothered with that – perhaps focusing some of this on making your site a better user experience for Google’s users is a more productive use of your time.

Eventually, Google will catch up with a competitor’s low-quality links, unless they know what they are doing, of course.

Is linkbuilding Dead?

No – this is what SEO (I use the term collectively) is all about. If Google didn’t do this every now and again, ‘search engine optimisation’ wouldn’t exist. Opportunity will exist as long as Google doesn’t do away with organic listings because they can’t be trusted or produce a ‘frustrating’ user experience in themselves. Not until Google convince people of that.

One thing’s been constant in Google since day 2. SPAM, or Sites Positioned Above Me.

I think it’s safe to say there will always be spam, some of your competition will always use methods that break the rules and beat you down. There will be ways to get around Google – at least, there always has.

Obviously, manipulative backlinks aren’t going to increase in quality over time, and if Google is true to its word, it might just slap us for them.

Verdict: A ‘Prolonged, Sustained’ Sin Bin For Google Manual Actions For Artificial Links

QUOTE: “The penalty box (sometimes called the sin bin, bad box, or simply bin) is the area in ice hockey, rugby league, rugby union and some other sports where a player sits to serve the time of a given penalty, for an offense not severe enough to merit outright expulsion from the contest.” Wikipedia


  1. Google identifies you have unnatural links pointing to your site, and
  2. a history of ‘web spam’ activity Google is confident about, and
  3. you get a manual actions message in Google Webmaster Tools
  4. or your traffic or rankings tank overnight

…you can probably consider your site “sin-binned” – penalised – until you sort the unnatural links out.

I see a lot of people complaining this doesn’t work and that doesn’t work to lift these penalties – manual or algorithmic – [Google isn’t fair!!! Google is telling lies!!!] – but they seem to miss the point.


QUOTE: “If you want to stop spam, the most straight forward way to do it is to deny people money because they care about the money and that should be their end goal. But if you really want to stop spam, it is a little bit mean, but what you want to do, is sort of break their spirits. There are lots of Google algorithms specifically designed to frustrate spammers. Some of the things we do is give people a hint their site will drop and then a week or two later, their site actually does drop. So they get a little bit more frustrated. So hopefully, and we’ve seen this happen, people step away from the dark side and say, you know what, that was so much pain and anguish and frustration, let’s just stay on the high road from now on.” Matt Cutts, Google 2013

Punishment is the point. Google wants you to feel the pain. Google wants you to lose time. It wants you to refocus your efforts away from investment in low-quality link building services.

Google wants you removing these links from the web – which for some involves a lot of emails to Webmasters of sites you’ve dropped links on, numerous times. Google wants to see you’re rehabilitated. That you’ve learned the error of your ways. From this point on – it’s all quality stuff. They want to stop you buying links.

Whether or not you agree with it, that’s how it is – or at least, the message Google is ramming down our throats.

Using the disavow tool as a last choice

The disavow tool is presented as the last choice. I find this rather contrary, as the disavow file would surely be a MUCH faster way of showing “good faith” in dissociating a site from artificial links.

It’s where I start, especially on bigger link cleanup jobs.

QUOTE: “You know, whether you’re tracking things in a spreadsheet. Or you’re just doing a good job of monitoring. How many sites you’ve asked to take things down. Essentially we just wanna know you’ve done a prolonged, sustained effort to try to clean things up as much as possible. So the mental model we want you to have is this. We’d like to see as much of the link spam to go away. As much as possible. And so that’s your first goal. To try to get as much down. And then we need to know that ideally, we’re not gonna see this sort of link spam in the future. And so that’s where the documentation comes into effect. MATT CUTTS

Community Service

Google wants us cleaning up the links that were made in your name.

Google doesn’t want folk seeing how low-quality links manipulate Google results. If you’ve looked at link spam, or been involved with it, you’ll know that linkspam makes Google look stupid, and render proclamations about good content ranking above spam ‘not true’ in some instances. If you get a penalty for unnatural links – you just bought some community service cleaning up the neighbourhood.

Don’t like that? Tough luck!

Quote: “A Level Playing Field”

QUOTE: “What about the people optimizing really hard and doing a lot of SEO. We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.” Matt Cutts, Google (SER).

A Defensible Link Strategy

Google now has an army of unpaid website reviewers working for it. A link that can’t pass a manual review, or is on a site that wouldn’t exist if Google didn’t count links – is not defensible anymore.

Well, lots of them are not.

It’s easier, and cheaper, to get a competitor (who is outright breaking the rules) penalised than beat them at their own game – although this, like everything to do with Google, takes time.

When grey-hat becomes black-hat, you’re better off leaving that stuff to the people who know what they are doing, and what to expect from it. It’s too easy for your activity to be reported to Google these days – it doesn’t matter if it ‘works’ to change your rankings if you don’t have a long-term plan to deal with the fallout.

Google is siding with the “user” in a classic move where Google can’t lose. A sensible move for SEO is to do the same, whether you like it or not.

Google guidelines are (effectively) laws for ranking in Google now, where once, they were just a list of things that you could use to rank in Google. Google is more than happy to crack down on them now. Since 1998, it wanted us to live under rules that were not policed properly and so, by definition, unfair. These rules are so ‘unfair, even Google can’t play by them. But Google is certainly policing them more effectively in 2019.

Google WANTS its SERPs a certain way, rightly or wrongly, and now ADMITS freely its algorithms are not always up to the job – it’s happy to manually edit listings and manually penalise sites, to get the SERPs it WANTS.

It’s all part of a great move on Google’s part, for Google’s long-term benefit.

The message is clear – stay away from low-quality link building tactics.

Most of these shortcuts are EASILY DETECTABLE and will only hurt you in time. Link building isn’t dead, it can’t die, only change.

Low-quality link building IS dead.

Google IS ‘levelling’ the playing field and it’s probably best for small businesses to stay out of Google’s way at the moment.


It all depends on who you are talking to, and how you make money online.

Bad Neighbourhoods

Unnatural Links From Your Site

QUOTE: “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.” Google

Google is mostly concerned with unnatural links from your site, and specifically paid links. If Google is confident your website hosts paid links or you link to a link seller, you may receive a message from Google’s web spam team in Google Webmaster Tools.

Links like these on your site usually impact the trust of the links on your site (or your Pagerank), but not normally your rankings or Google search engine traffic.

Traffic and ranking penalties can depend on the infraction, and the intent and effort behind the tactics employed. Google makes the rules as it has always done, and reserves the right to make its judgement as to what you have been up to and how much of a penalty you ‘deserve’.

Removing unnatural links from your site is certainly a lot easier than removing them from external sites.

You need to be very careful about who you link to in 2019. Don’t worry about linking to sites if you trust them, but beware becoming entangled in somebody else’s paid for link scheme, or some black hat’s 3 tiered link building efforts.

Paid Link Schemes & Blog Networks

Low-quality sites, more often than not made just for Google, link out to other spam sites, or sell links that improve other website rankings in a way that violates Google’s guidelines. Google calls these guys web spammers (as opposed to email spammers). You don’t want to be linking to these sites, for much of the same reasons as I go into below.

Be aware of guest posters for instance, and the sites they link to. Be aware of a user-generated forum or blog comments or signatures, ESPECIALLY if those links do not have rel nofollow.

Website Hacked?

You might be linking to sites, and you don’t even know about it. Hackers are interested in stealing your traffic or your ranking power. They might hack you to place your site in part of a network of sites all pointing to one recipient site to fool Google. Not only is this against Google’s rules, but it is illegal too – not that that stops them.

Hackers know that these spam networks (or bad neighbourhoods) need links from trusted sites to earn reputation. Links from trusted sites transfer trust and votes of relevance (Google Juice, whatever) to the receiving sites, allowing these sites to improve their positions in Google’s index. So, they hack your site, place hidden links in the code, and leave you none the wiser. You may find yourself part of a tiered system to manipulate Google – a LINK NETWORK – and you might never find out about it.

Google hates hidden links, spam networks, and ESPECIALLY paid links. Rather than let your site “heat” up and validate a spam neighbourhood so that it can start receiving visitors from Google, it might just remove your site from the index, by classing your site as part of that bad neighbourhood.

Google may reduce the reputation of your external links – leaving your traffic ok.

That may be of concern to you, or it may be not, but TRUST, when it comes to ranking in Google is a BIG DEAL in 2019 and not something to take lightly.

Determining if a site is in a bad neighbourhood can take some experience, but there’s plenty of professional SEO tools out there to help identify these links.

Being hacked can certainly impact your rankings and your site can be labelled with “This Site May Harm Your Computer” in Google SERPs – which is a click-through killer.

If you’ve spotted it before you’ve seen your rankings drop, there are measures you can take (apart from deleting the offensive links immediately!).

This has happened to me before, and as long as you take action immediately, you’ll probably be OK.

Linking To A Bad Neighbourhood.

Here’s an interesting quote from the Official Google Webmaster Blog;

QUOTE: “Q: I’ve cleaned it up, but will Google penalize me if the hacker linked to any bad neighborhoods?
A: We’ll try not to. We’re pretty good at making sure good sites don’t get penalized by actions of hackers and spammers. To be safe, completely remove any links the hackers may have added.” Google

Bad neighbourhoods, to Google, are typically identified by spammy on-page ‘SEO’ techniques and dubious backlink and interlink profiles. A good example would be a blog network – set up just to spam Google for links. You do not want to link to neighbourhoods like that, because who you link to matters.

If you’ve been penalised by Google (i.e., removed from the search engine index) because you now link to a bad neighbourhood, you should read Google’s official advice if you’ve been hacked.

Google now helps you with notifications if you’re website is hacked, and Google also clearly punishes you for bad neighbourhoods linking TO your site – so watch out.

Is It OK To Link Out To Related Sites?

Of course. I regularly link out to other quality relevant pages on other websites where possible and where a human would find it valuable.

I don’t like to link out to other sites from the homepage (social media links aside). I want the Pagerank of the home page to be shared only with my internal pages as much as possible. I don’t like out to other sites from my category pages either, for the same reason.

I link to other relevant sites (a deep link where possible) from individual pages and I do it often, usually. I don’t worry about link equity or PR leak because I control it on a page-to-page level.

This works for me, it allows me to share the link equity I have with other sites I admire while ensuring it is not at the expense of pages on my own domain. It may even help get me into a ‘neighbourhood’ of relevant sites, especially when some of those start linking back to my site.

Linking out to other sites, especially using a blog, also helps tell others that might be interested in your content that your page is ‘here’. Try it.

I won’t link out to sites using the exact keyword /phrase I am targeting, but I will be considerate, and usually try and link out to a site using keywords other webmasters might appreciate.

I try to be considerate when I have the time as anchor text in external links is ultra important and does have an impact on rankings for others – and me.

If you don’t trust a site you are linking to or don’t want the link to look like a paid link, you can always use rel nofollow. But remember – the web is built on links.

Everybody wins when you are sensible with your links, and focus on the user.

Negative SEO – How To Check For A Link-Based Attack

QUOTE: ““we haven’t seen a single case a single one where those toxic link campaigns work” Gary Illyes, Google Nov 2016

The basic premise of links based negative SEO is that a competitor can use it against you to destroy your rankings in Google’s organic SERPs. Google has gone some way to offering Webmasters a way to disavow unnatural links you may be worried about, but there is still a lot of controversy as to why this is the case, that a competitor CAN hurt your rankings, just by pointing manipulative links at your site.

Can a competitor hurt your site by pointing lots of links to it? If you can negative SEO yourself (which you can), you can negative SEO someone else, just by faking the same intent, ESPECIALLY if there is already present an attempt, hitherto going unnoticed, to manipulate rankings.

Some time ago an interesting case came to light.

Dan apparently annoyed a few people:


And they decided to use his site as an example how NSEO can work to destroy website rankings. Dan got a message from Google about unnatural links…..apparently, the person who had a problem with his communication with Matt Cutts (who was head of the webspam team at the time) decided to make an example of him…..

QUOTE: “Pixelgrinder and I conducted a little experiment on whether negative SEO was possible in the current climate – we felt it was important to know whether it was possible for a site to be negatively affected completely by outside influences. We carried out a massive scrapebox blast on two sites to ensure an accurate result.Traffic Planet

You can see the results of this activity below:

Dan commented:

QUOTE: “Both sites have received “unnatural links” messages in Webmaster Tools. Neither site has had a “link building” campaign ever. By using 3rd party tools (e.g. Majestic) I can see a lot of unnatural links pointing at both sites, but I didn’t put those links there.” Dan Thies

Someone in the forum mentioned:

QUOTE: “Also if you look at the changes Google has made to their guidelines, it paints another picture again.
“Can competitors harm ranking? There’s nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the Webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.” Then, in November, it got “slightly” modified… just a TINY fraction too:
“Can competitors harm ranking? There’s ALMOST nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the Webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.”
Wow, what a difference one word can make! So hang on, saying “almost nothing” means “can”, no matter which way you spin it. Then on March 14th, they caved.
“Google works hard to prevent other Webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the Webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.” In case you missed it, the key difference is in that first line: You can see it’s changed from “nothing” to “almost nothing” to “perfect political answer” Traffic Planet

So – can a competitor hurt your rankings? On their own? Or do you need to be doing other things as well….?

Tell me, someone, who has heard of Google, and who IS NOT trying to rank higher…..?

You now seem to HAVE to keep an eye on the types of links you have pointed to your site, ESPECIALLY if you are actively promoting your site on top of this – I know this only too well, too.

I would say this test has proved to be a test Positive.  Keyterm: SEO Book
Check Date Rank URL Found

Apr 18, 2012 —- Position 41
Mar 28, 2012 —- Position 3
Mar 26, 2012 —- Position 3
Mar 23, 2012 —- Position 3
Mar 22, 2012 —- Position 3
Mar 21, 2012  —- Position 8
Mar 20, 2012  —- Position 8

The people behind this activity think this attack example has been successful.

Dan was kind enough to leave a response in the comments…..

QUOTE: “Hi Shaun. Unfortunately, this “test” hasn’t yielded anything yet. Two SERPs they claim to have moved are [SEO] and [SEO book]. For [SEO] I didn’t get any referrals (nearly zero) from this SERP until March 22, right after they started. Spiked all the way up to page 1 about 4 days in, held up for a few days, then dropped back down to a lower position. Probably higher than it was before still, since I am getting a handful of referrals per day now.

Verdict: Negative SEO Fail. Possibly the opposite of the intended result since I got traffic I never got before. Still am getting more.

For [SEO book] they drove it up from the middle of page 1 (5-9 is pretty normal, page 2 is not unusual) all the way to #2, then it dropped down to #3.

I moved the site from Rackspace Managed to Rackspace Cloud last week, because the old server literally could not handle the latest WordPress.

Unfortunately, theme I’ve been using since 2007 broke on the WP upgrade, and I had to deploy a new theme, more or less chosen at random because I was running out of time. Which changed run-of-site internal links from [SEO book] to [Home]. Last time I did that it dropped to page 4 within a week. In this case, it dropped to page 3.

It’s possible that the drop was not more dramatic, because the “negative SEO” linking is actually providing some ranking boost. Verdict: Inconclusive, but I will gladly take your even-money bets that it will be back on page 1 in a week or so.” Dan Thies

So – what we know for sure is that competitors CAN get your site reviewed by the webspam team, by using negative SEO tactics.

Depending on the history of your site, that may or not be a bad thing.

How To Check For A Negative SEO Attack?

Tools like Majestic have a very useful historical backlinks graph (shown above) while not 100% accurate, that can help understand historical link building activity.

For most – the best place to check for an attack is in Google Webmaster Tools. Download recent backlinks from Google Webmaster Tools and review them and look for low-quality links pointing to your site.

NOT ALL low-quality links are spam, but if these are the links you are being judged on, are they doing you any good? You can also check at Majestic for recent link patterns because do remember, Google never shows you ALL the links pointing to your site.

Google Webmaster Tools

You can now DOWNLOAD a sample of your BACKLINKS BY DATE in Google Search Console – which makes identifying who’s linking to you a bit easier. It might also be useful if you are cleaning up your backlink profile, too.

You can easily spot negative SEO posts, though, and who’s scraping and spamming Google with your URL:

Here was a screenshot of the types of low-quality links I was picking up at the time:

Screen Shot 2012-07-18 at 01.47.04

How I Stumbled On A Negative SEO Attack

I actually stumbled upon a negative attack on the Hobo site a few years ago (one of many over the last few years):

Screen Shot 2012-05-02 at 02.28.56

I wouldn’t have known this quickly, but for looking at Technorati (a service no longer operational).


I disavowed the links by the way, with no apparent major impact.

Google Alerts isn’t that good for links alerts these days and the basic WordPress incoming links feature are pretty much useless, but using Google and searching it for your URL using date based filters can provide you with an indication of some types of spammy linkbuilding activity to your site.

What Is Google Penguin?

The Google Penguin algorithm, first unleashed in April 2012, is a webspam algorithm designed to target websites that use low-quality link schemes to rank high in Google SERPs.

It is now a “real-time” algorithm in 2019 – although that could be doing with some clarification.

At one time Google Penguin demoted sites and now it devalues links without slapping a penalty on the domain.

Real-Time Google Penguin

Apparently, it was not so simple to re-run Penguin. Google has since mentioned it might have been too aggressive for too many webmasters, to run it as was.

Google spokespeople have been saying for years that the aim was to introduce a REAL TIME PENGUIN.

Penguin ‘penalties’, we now know, can last for over two years(!) and if you get hit with a Penguin penalty because of your activities – there’s a really good argument for starting again with a brand new domain.

That’s how serious it is.

Google will no doubt claim that Penguin 4 is ‘baked’ into the algorithm- but will you bet on that?

Even if it is the case – if you DO get penalised – Google still wants to punish you for (maybe) a year – or – where’s the stick – or at least – where’s the carrot for White hats – not to spam links?

A lot of webmasters will spam Google silly if there is no ‘penalty’ for doing so – and I doubt Google is going to let that happen.

QUOTE: ‘Penguin doesn’t… penalize anymore

After many updates over the years, Google Penguin evolved:

QUOTE: “I think with this release of penguin we did achieve something really nice because it doesn’t like traditionally web some algorithms used to demote sides even entire entire sites that’s not the case anymore with penguin this penguin managed to or can in fact discard links that are bad that’s the one of the nicest changes in this penguin it can be way more granular than the previous releases as I said previous releases usually demoted whole sites while this one can even go to a page level and discount the link but they won’t be penalized that’s the that’s the measure thing penguin doesn’t work or doesn’t penalize anymore doesn’t demote it will just discard the incoming spam toward the side and it will just ignore the spam and that’s it no penalty no demotion and it works in real time so thing major signal that thing when is looking at these links basically if there are many or if there are bad links and other kinds of signals coming towards the side then it will just discard them and that’s what they need to know they can still see those links in search console and they can decide whether they want to disable or remove” Gary Illyes, Google 2016

The original Penguin had an immediate impact when it launched in 2012.

I remember this comment standing out from what Google would call ‘web spammers’:

QUOTE: “Google has dropped the nuke”

Google, it seemed, had declared war on unnatural links – a tried-and-tested means to actually rank a website high in Google – and issued the following statement:

QUOTE: …”this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce web spam and promote high-quality content. While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for Webmasters is to focus on creating high-quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods” GOOGLE

The Google Penguin Impact Was Widely Felt

The original Penguin update in 2012 targeted ‘webspam’ and impacted many websites and businesses who were ignorant of the risks of web spam.

There were MANY LOUD complaints on the actual post from Google about the first Penguin Update.

Here’s one:

“I built a public benefit website that for 8 years has helped thousands and thousands of addicts find addiction treatment for free… We were able to provide the service through the industry paying for featured status for their centers in our directory of treatment centers… Harvard’s addiction hospital links to us, as well as a number of super picky super high-quality websites… A few years back I started to notice crap links pointing at the site… Then Panda came and the site lost half it’s traffic… We submitted reinclusion requests, we sent notices for sites to remove links to us and informed Google, and now this! Now our site is nowhere to be found, and competitors (who are no doubt paying link companies to take down certain competitors thanks to the algorithms changes) have won! Well done Google… You took a true public benefit site out of the rankings (one with a database of treatment centers more complete than the U.S. government’s), and replaced it with referral sites (of course, the exact-keyword match .com) and individual treatment centers that charge people in dire need of help (and usually broke) scores of thousands of dollars for treatment, because they can afford to bring down the real good-guys that have been helping people for years by pointing links at them. Well done Google.”

Hmm… perhaps, with hindsight, they should have avoided low-quality linkbuilding. Warnings were available as part of Google Webmaster Guidelines for years before this ‘Titanic’ event in 2012.

The ‘Titanic’ Update

titanic SEO

Many link builders and bloggers, including myself, were about to name the update the ‘Titanic‘ Update as the timing was so close to the 100th anniversary of the ship disaster in 1912 – and it did represent a disaster for many businesses.

Google apparently didn’t want that, and quickly the update was named ‘Google Penguin‘.


The iceberg was pretty obvious:
Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links message because of manipulative backlinks.

Google Penguin targeted unnatural links with rich keyword stuffed anchor text from low-quality sites and private blog networks.

Perhaps too it was influenced by other ways Google has of identifying spam e.g. on a ‘measure of quality’ based on ‘traffic received by use of those links’ for instance:

QUOTE: However, some a resource may be linked to by a large number of other resources, while receiving little traffic from the links. For example, an entity may attempt to game the ranking process by including a link to the resource on another web page. This large number of links can skew the ranking of the resources. To prevent such skew, the system can evaluate the “mismatch” between the number of linking resources and the traffic generated to the resource from the linking resources. If a resource is linked to by a number of resources that is disproportionate with respect to the traffic received by use of those links, that resource may be demoted in the ranking process.”” Did the Groundhog Update Just Take Place at Google? BILL SLAWSKI

Who knows exactly, for sure?

All we know is that Penguin targeted sites often with a footprint of low-quality paid links.

It got mine, anyway!

Low-Quality Link Building Nuked!

Operation Codename - Nuke Webspam

Blackhat SEO immediately shared how this algorithm affected them:

QUOTE: “Here we go again. This has gone from an attack to a massacre.”

Blackhat SEO are a great litmus test for these type of webspam algorithm updates:

QUOTE: “I think they may have rolled this change out now in the UK. Almost all of my site have been wiped out!”

followed by:

QUOTE: “I got hosed bad too, about 4 hours ago.”


QUOTE: “If these SERP changes I’m seeing hold, we are gong to need to turn off that “profanity” filter because this is a blood bath!”


QUOTE: “Bah, will this madness never end. The fallout from this algorithm change is shaping up to be pretty messy”


QUOTE: “A ton of my sites have just tanked big time…….in fact rankings in a lot of my niches have taken drastic changes. My days as an internet marketer look to be numbered….”


QUOTE: “I think my days as an internet marketer are numbered too.”

The Relationship Between Penguin & Panda

Google’s algorithms seem focused on quality, as Google defines it, and Google has published advice on creating a high-quality website that will rank high in SERPs:

QUOTE: What counts as a high-quality site?

Our site quality algorithms are aimed at helping people find “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content. The recent “Panda” change tackles the difficult task of algorithmically assessing website quality. Below are some questions that one could use to assess the “quality” of a page or an articl.:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Writing an algorithm to assess page or site quality is a much harder task, but we hope the questions above give some insight into how we try to write algorithms that distinguish higher-quality sites from lower-quality sites.” SOURCE

Those guidelines above are helpful to think about if impacted by Google PANDA or SITE QUALITY algorithms.

They are worth paying attention to –  but equally, if you put your link building hat on, you could say they were a guide as to where you might NOT want to see a link to your site – which is where, in obvious cases, Penguin might take over.

Why would Google want to count a link to your site if your link was on any page that didn’t meet these quality guidelines?

Why not considering penalising you if all your links are on pages that “users complain when they see pages from this site?“.

Right or wrong – this is what Google is doing – in its self-styled PR ‘war’ on ‘black hats’ and you don’t want to be pulled into that battle if you can avoid it.

Google doesn’t seem to care about sites hit by Penguin as much as per say a human-reviewed manual action (when a penalty can sometimes be lifted very quickly if the infraction is borderline).

Should you be worried about the Google Penguin Algorithm?

If you run a business that can’t afford to flip domains and change web addresses, then perhaps, especially if you are letting a third party ‘build’ links to your site.

If you are not buying links (and have never done so), then you probably have A LOT LESS to worry about (and should be more concerned with Google Panda and overall site and page quality challenges).

If you are the unfortunate recipient of negative SEO attacks (as my own site has in the few last years) then the only real option you have is to have your disavow file in place at Google Webmaster Tools – and make an apparent attempt to disassociate yourself from the most toxic of those links. Google is a lot better at handling this though and it is not something most webmasters need to be worried about.

Google recently penalised a lot of not-so ‘Private’ Blog Networks (PBNs) that were breaking the rules, and Google’s John Mueller said that algorithms don’t operate in isolation – which could indicate your site needs to trip more than one quality signal to be heavily punished.

In my opinion, Google Penguin was always more traditionally about the nature of your backlink profile and whether it was ‘real’ or not.

Many of my black hat friends won’t go near a disavow file but they have an entirely different business model.

If you care about a site, you probably should have a disavow file in place – especially if you rank successfully for anything.

Penguin is an algorithm you do not want slapping your site down or alerting the webspam team to the quality of your site – so check your backlinks for obvious, low-quality links.

I presume you are already addressing site quality issues to avoid getting continually pumped by a constantly evolving Google Panda algorithm (which is more focused on content quality).

Penguin Update History Dates:

It is still useful to know the dates around these original Penguin updates for analysis purposes:

  • Penguin 1.0 – April 24, 2012 (3.1% of searches)
  • Penguin 1.2 – May 26, 2012 (0.1% of searches)
  • Penguin 1.3 – October 5, 2012 (0.3% of searches)
  • Penguin 2.0 – May 22, 2013 (2.3% of searches)
  • Penguin 2.1  – Oct. 4, 2013 ( 1% of searches)
  • Penguin 3 – Oct. 17/18 2014 (LESS THAN 1%)
  • Penguin 4 – Announced September 2016 (with potential updates into 2017, but not officially announced)

Impact of Historic Penguin Updates

  • Many sites were impacted experienced fall-out from Penguin 1 and Penguin 2, and some Webmasters waited YEARS to be ‘released’ by this algorithm – leaving them in a desperate position.
  • Google Penguin 2 did a pretty good job at devaluing some lower quality links from obvious link sources. Whether Google just slapped an algorithmic change on you, algorithmically penalised you or started ignoring your links – the result was that previously stable rankings disappeared overnight. If the sites that link to you have a quality issue (from Google’s point of view), expect that ranking problem only to worsen.
  • I do see Google rewarding a diverse and natural link profile even in some less spammy verticals. There is still spam, of course.
  • Penguin 2 was not initially as aggressive as Penguin 1. Penguin 2 looked like more of a rerun of Penguin 1 with a net cast wider. Penguin 1 focused on home pages (with lots of manipulative anchor text) – and Penguin 2 was a rollout of the same algorithm to internal pages on your site (as we understand it).

What If I Do Nothing about my old toxic links?

You can also do nothing, and hope Google passes you by, and your rankings do not disappear over the coming months.

I wouldn’t.

  • You SHOULD be disavowing most risky links IF YOU ENGINEERED THEM from your backlink profile as you are still at risk of manual actions and future algorithm changes.
  • You should STILL be link building, too, but start with a piece of content that deserves links. Links STILL make the world turn as far as Google is concerned – just don’t be doing what everyone else is doing.

If you are not involved in any low-quality link building, Penguin will probably not affect you, anyways – but there are lots of other things going on at Google to change your rankings.


Google is serious about messing with the longevity and confidence in SEO. If you get a manual penalty, you’ll probably have to remove links and use the disavow tool – which is a tremendous drain on resources and time.

  • Audit your backlinks if nothing else.
  • Consider using the disavow tool to tackle obvious algorithmic penalties if traffic is taking a nosedive

There are arguments against this, mind you, but low-quality unnatural links are certainly going to have to be addressed for sites with little online business authority themselves – and probably even more so for sites that exist to profit from natural SEO traffic.

You are going to hear a lot about ‘content marketing’ going into the near future.

You still need to be building links, but avoid the low-quality stuff and avoid the kind of networks on Google’s radar.

Any industrial method of link-building is eventually going to get Google’s attention.

For a refresher – you can also see things Google tells you to avoid.

Related links

If you are having problems with unnatural links, or experienced a gradual, or cataclysmic fall in traffic from Google, and want professional help to remove them, you can contact us here.

Google Penalty Recovery Services

We have a very good track record of lifting penalties, or manual actions, as they are called. We do NOT have a special relationship with Google or anything (NO SEO company does), but Google (in our recent experience) is being fair-handed when you make a concerted effort to promote your website in their listings by their guidelines.

We get successful results because we stick at it and work with your business UNTIL the penalty is lifted, and for a fixed cost, based on the number of domains (websites) pointing at your site.

Every website situation is different, but the good news is your business CAN recover from such a Google penalty. It CAN return to previous ranking positions (before you started spamming Google).

Rankings and traffic CAN even improve after a penalty if you are willing to promote your website in a way more likely to build real trust and reputation signals to your website.

We can often get a penalty lifted relatively FAST, and using no tricks – contact us today if you need a professional, manual review of your unnatural links, and help with identifying and removing them, for a successful Google reconsideration request.


Send me an email if you want your backlinks manually reviewed, or have an unnatural links notice from Google. Costs will be dependent on your backlink profile.

If you’ve lost Google traffic over the last year – this could be the sign of an algorithmic shift or penalty, based on an aspect of your links or site.

Contact us if you want a comprehensive SEO audit of your business site to look for risk AND opportunity.


Disclaimer: “Whilst I have made every effort to ensure that the information I have provided is correct, It is not advice.; I cannot accept any responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions. The author does not vouch for third party sites or any third party service. Visit third party sites at your own risk.  I am not directly partnered with Google or any other third party. This website uses cookies only for analytics and basic website functions. This article does not constitute legal advice. The author does not accept any liability that might arise form accessing the data presented on this site. Links to internal pages promote my own content and services.” Shaun Anderson, Hobo

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