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By: Barrie Smith, Link Building Consultant for Receptional

A year ago, in April 2012, Google rolled out one of the biggest algorithmic updates in search engine history. This was of course, Google Penguin—the spam fighting update that affected a large of number of websites where it hurt; their rankings. Little more than a year from the unleashing of the Panda, many websites still haven’t worked out or been able to recover and some have not realized they have been hit at all.

I work for an agency, Receptional Ltd., who are one of a handful who have not only managed to re-include clients in the search results, but also fully recovered them from the blow they were dealt by the update.

94% of websites have not recovered.

Barry Schwartz, the Executive Editor of Search Engine Roundtable conducted a survey in May 2012 asking his readers how their websites had been affected by the Penguin update. The results: 65% of the 1,000 polled said the update had negatively affected their websites. At the start of 2013, Barry ran another survey against those he had initially surveyed to work out how many people had recovered since the first, second, and third updates. The results showed that 94% of Google Penguin victims had failed to recover.

Receptional fully recovered clients from Penguin penalty.

Many brands, websites, professionals, and wannabes have claimed partial recovery from the Penguin update, but Receptional went one step further than most in making a full recovery. Something which, according to Barry Schwartz’s reports, is a tough challenge for the majority of websites.

I would like to share with the readers of The Mail how we managed to get our clients back into the search results and how we overthrew the penalty entirely.

Objectives and strategy.

The client was hit by a penalty after receiving an “unnatural link” warning message in Google Web Master Tools. Their traffic subsequently plunged by 62%. Traffic-driving keywords and even their brand name had dropped by as many as 50 places in Google’s search engine results. This was a huge financial worry for a UK retailer that was receiving around 70% of their total annual searches via their brand name.

During our investigation, we worked out that this drop in traffic was not only down to a manual link penalty for “link spam,” but also a search algorithmic penalty, later confirmed as Panda (Matt Cutts, Google’s head of Search Spam, 24 April 2012).


 Figure 1—Screen shot taken from Google Analytics showing drop in traffic for our client due to two link based penalties.


The objective:

Our team agreed upon two objectives:

  1. Create alternate traffic sources to replace some of the lost revenue.
  2. Recover from the penalties as quickly as possible to regain lost positions in the search results.

The plan:

Our initial plan was as follows:

  1. PPC team to recover lost brand traffic through a dedicated “brand only” campaign.
  2. Build a website on a fresh domain and rank this for our key terms using “white hat” link building techniques. Traffic would be referred through to the old domain with a clear call to action.
  3. Investigate the exciting domain’s backlink profile and any on-page issues to determine the exact nature of the penalty.

Our team began to investigate the client’s link profile against the Google quality guidelines to ensure that the best practice was being engaged throughout.


We undertook a review of their backlinks to uncover where the set penalized links originated. Data provided by Majestic SEO, as well as our experience in identifying penalties, helped us discover that our client had been part of a targeted negative SEO attack upon a partner site that was linking directly to them.

Hidden links had been planted within the style language that defines HTML (CSS) on a few websites and used very specific anchor text that a search engine spider would class as spam. Contact with the relevant webmasters were made and these links were swiftly removed. A re-inclusion request was submitted to Google, but denied. We then analyzed less obvious areas in the backlink profile to discover if there was another penalty.

Second penalty discovery.

Our search led us to a group of sites that hosted paid links. We proceeded to check out outbound links on these websites to find out that they too had slipped in the rankings, using the exact same terms. However, these websites were not suffering a penalty on their brand name like our client was, making us believe there was more than one penalty here. Speculation within the search industry was leading us to an algorithmic penalty, Penguin—confirming our suspicions, which hit in conjunction with the manual link spam penalty.

Adapting strategy for new Google update.

The main objective from Google with his algorithmic update was to improve the quality of its search results. Websites with unnatural backlink profiles, those that had used “black hat” techniques, suffered with lower rankings. To comply with Google’s emphasis on quality, we decided that a “back to basics” approach was in order.  A manual review and categorization of all their backlinks was required to help us achieve a clean recovery.

Unique link removal process (pre-Disavow tool).

Manually reviewing 30,000 backlinks may seem excessive when software is available to check these for you. But in these circumstances, reviewing where all of your links are coming from manually gives you greater control. For our second re-inclusion request to be a success, we wanted to create our own link categorization process. And it went like this:

  • Manual review of 30,000+ backlinks.
  • Dealing with blackmail (webmasters wanting money to remove malicious links from their websites).
  • Unresponsive and uncooperative webmasters.

Thorough re-inclusion request submitted.

The second re-inclusion request was uploaded to Google. We also included a covering letter documenting every single detail, along the lines of:

  • All known links—categorized by type and given a quality score.
  • All links for removal—emails sent and received, time of contact and webmaster contact details.
  • All links removed.
  • A list of links we were unable to remove, asking Google to ignore these links.
  • A list of paid banners and links that webmasters refused to mark up as “NoFollow.”

This request was rejected. We decided that there must be a threshold of removed links to surpass for re-inclusion to be granted. The removal of further links was becoming impossible due to a lack of cooperation from third party websites, on top of the number of low quality web spam links that are out of a webmaster’s control. During this stage, other webmasters were highlighting on forums the unfairness of the penalty.

Matt Cutts announced in July 2012 that Google would be releasing a disavow tool as part of its Web Master Tools suite.

Google releases the Disavow tool.

Once the Disavow tool was released, our off-page team immediately began listing links at both domain and link level. The # symbol was used to add comments in the file. The disavow.txt file worked in a similar way to robots.txt, in that it was really just a list of domains/links, asking a search engine bot to ignore the SEO effect, essentially making links pointing to your domain appear as though they don’t exist in Google’s eyes.

There was a six week wait for Google to re-crawl all of our clients’ links in the submitted file. And, almost six weeks to the day, a message was received informing us that the manual (brand) penalty had been reversed. Success!

Use the Disavow tool wisely.

The disavow tool had not negated the entire backlink profiling work carried out by our team; it gave back control over the troublesome inbound links to webmasters. A thorough audit of your backlinks should be your first point of call. Google cannot algorithmically tackle link spam.

Use the Disavow tool with caution; by asking Google to disavow all of your incoming links, you could potentially undo many years of hard work, and worse still, maybe damage your website in the process. It is always best to ask an expert to review your backlinks to avoid the disavow of everything that could prevent your website returning to its original position in the search engine results pages.

Effectiveness and Business Results.


Our client was re-included in the search results!

All of our work gave the client’s website a clean bill of health to work with and the search term responsible for most of their traffic was no longer penalized.

Prior to the release of the Google Disavow tool, the Receptional team laid strong foundations for improving the client’s backlink profile. The manual review process led us to both identify the type of penalties and see the variety of backlinks that the website had. Seeing the amount of link spam from bad sources allowed us to advise and implement a better, stronger, safety link builder strategy for future success.

In the end, both penalties were lifted, and not only did they begin to appear in the search results again, but they witnessed a 48% increase in their original traffic, surpassing its original position prior to the penalties being imposed.




Figure 2—Google Analytics image showing increased organic search traffic to our client’s website.


If you think you’re website has fallen victim to Google Penguin, Receptional can help! Visit our dedicated Penguin Link Removal Service page and fill out the contact form. For more information, also visit We’ll be in touch as soon as possible!



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5 thoughts on “How To Recover From A Penguin Penalty

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