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Recovery after a Google manual penalty

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Unlike penalties automatically applied by an algorithm, in the case of manual penalties, we are dealing with a Google editor who inspected the site and decided to apply the penalty.

Usually, the reason is the non-compliance with the so-called webmaster quality guidelines, which are thick enough to include just about all of the SEO techniques used to artificially increase the position of a site in search results.
A manual penalty is also accompanied by a message in the Google Search Console account of that site, specifying the reason it was applied. So the ways in which action can be taken to raise the penalty are relatively clear, at least at the level of general strategy.

That being said, some time ago a friend of mine with a respected software company contacted me about a landing page on the 3rd position in the searches. The competition level for that keyword was about 5 million pages indexed and that page was one of the main channels through which the company attracted new clients.

In November 2016, the friend noticed that the page, which had kept its position in search for the last year, disappeared relatively sharply from position 3, basically being non-existent somewhere on page 50.
Since the traffic reports were made monthly, the problem was detected only at the end of the month, with the lack of new customers being put to the end of the year.

The investigation began with Penguin 4.0 as the main suspect because it had just been released a month before. But this algorithm was not the guilty, which became clear as soon as it has been accessed the Google Analytics and Search Console accounts.

Search-Console-Manual-Actions.png

The existence of such a message means, without a doubt, that it is a manual penalty.
The actual rank of the site is not directly or indirectly penalized as a consequence of marking those links as being of poor quality, as they lose their positive influence on the search position of that site.

So, at this point, I knew the exact cause of the penalty: artificial links. All we have to do is check the link profile of that site to see which ones match the model suggested by Google. This verification can be done directly from Google Search Console (the section Links to Your Site) or Moz Open Site Explorer.

As a result of the verification, the situation became even clearer: in the top of the table, about 8 thousand links from pinterest.com and its subdomains were centered.
Investigating those pages, which was probably done by Google, clearly made it clear that it was an artificial action of software. The extremely large number of links and the total lack of connection to the subject pages came to support this theory. Moreover, without going into much technical detail, the software used a Pinterest user account vulnerability to inject text and dofollow links (which transmit authority); they were not visible to visitors, but they existed in the code of those pages, so they were visible to Google.

Usually, the steps that need to be taken in these cases are as follows:

  • The links must be flagged as inappropriate (a disavow file is filled in) in Google Search Console. If we are dealing with a large number from a single domain, we can mark and exclude the whole domain, which is what happened in my friend case.
    The disavow file is sent to Google along with a reconsideration request. The reconsideration process generally takes a few weeks.
  • Until the penalty is applied, those links positively influence the position of the page in the search results.
    So we'll need to get new quality links to make up for the loss.
After about 2 weeks, we received the positive feedback from Google:

reconsideration-request-approved.png

But as expected, the fact that Google acknowledged our efforts to solve the situation by removing the penalty was not accompanied by a return of the landing page to the previous position. Daily rank ranking for the primary keyword still confirms the position on page 5, which is totally unsatisfactory.

Under these circumstances, we have set out the following strategy:

  • Improving the structure and number of internal links to the page in order to increase its internal authority to close to the level of the main page (from the site menu)
  • SEO optimization and on-page: decrease page load times, improve meta title/description to increase clickthrough rate (CTR) on search results page
  • Modifying the content of the page and structuring it by placing the client as the main actor, not the Company. Based on a niche study, I and my friend created a demographic profile of the type of customer. Then we tested user feedback (A/B test) after changing the page and chose the best engagement parameters.
  • Technical documentation and competition study for the niche in order to publish top-quality content, superior to even the pages of the search queries. We have studied the main news and discussion topics from authoritative sites in this area, and we have determined by which methods we will try to make a natural link from these sources.
The execution of this plan lasted about 2 months, during which no major changes were made to the landing page position, which stagnated, advanced or decreased by its own logic.
The moment we were sure of success was when some of the new pages published began to gather social media visitors. Then a citation on an important blog followed, following a study of the respective niche involving about 5,000 people.

Position recovery quickly occurred over several days during which the page advanced 5-10 places until it stopped firmly on the initial position: 3rd place.
The total time, from the moment my friend was contacted and until the effects of the penalty completely disappeared, was 3 months.
 
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