Search experts Fili Wiese and Kaspar Szymanski run through the ways any business can clear itself of manual spam actions. Fili himself will join a panel at PMI: Europe dedicated to all things search,  from Google’s latest stream of updates to what makes a perfect link profile. View the session here

Over past few years Google has been increasing their efforts to demonstrate transparency and engage with webmasters in dialogue through a multitude of channels. The Google Webmaster Tools Message Center is just one of them, albeit an important one as it provides individual insights and custom information on potential site issues, and more importantly on Webmaster Guidelines violations. Such violations may include sneaky redirects, doorway pages, auto-generated content or -in Google’s mind- spammy backlinks. Google admits to identifying and tackling infringing websites, in the range of hundreds of thousands per month. Any legitimate business website can be liable for the violations caused by poor judgement decisions or long forgotten SEO activities of their past. 

These days backlink building related manual spam actions seem to be most prevalent. The good news is that we know that just about any Google manual spam action can be resolved. How do we know that? Because we, Fili Wiese and Kaspar Szymanski, both worked for years on the Google search quality team before becoming independent consultants offering assistance to online businesses. We are in the unique position to have read and processed countless reconsideration requests on both sides. We know: any manual web spam action can be fixed. 

Stay calm and focus on the spam problem

The one single, most important step for a webmaster to make as a manual spam action notification is received is to read and analyse it thoroughly. What type of action has been applied? What is the specific violation? What’s the impact? These messages evolved over time. Currently they come in a number of variations, depending on the type of violation identified. Backlink violation notifications occasionally include examples of dodgy websites linking to the site that has been tackled. The information provided is the best starting point to initiate an investigation and start collecting data. 

Important to understand: scope of the manual action and the reasons for its application

Investigate, aggregate, document 

Google representatives suggested publicly, time and again, that the limited Google Webmaster Tools backlink data samples suffice in order to investigate and resolve spam backlink issues. While that may be the case for small sites with backlink profiles ranging in the lower hundreds, experience shows that large sites that attract thousands or more backlinks require a more complete backlink picture in order to draw actionable conclusions and take an appropriate response resulting in a manual action being lifted. Big commercial sites are best advised to continuously crawl and monitor their backlinks- an important precautionary measure that can be also outsourced to a third party. 

With a manual spam action on the grounds of unnatural backlinks looming over the success of a large site, crawling and aggregating backlinks from a number of free and commercial sources becomes essential. Google Webmaster Tools provided samples remain a priority, although they need to be crawled and stored continuously as the data changes over time. But they are likely insufficient to make the next step, which is why we recommend utilising third party tools to gather and/or investigate data, such as Majestic, Ahrefs, SEMrush, Moz Open Site Explorer, LinkResearchTools and 

The objective is to aggregate a backlink profile picture as completely as possible, in order to manually review and investigate individual URL patterns that triggered the manual spam action. Isolate suspicious patterns and document every single step in the process in order to provide a compelling and summarised rationale to the Reconsideration Request team from Google. 

Investigating backlinks on scale with

Ideally once Google Webmaster Guidelines violating backlink patterns have been identified a serious effort needs to be made in order to remove or nofollow such links. In reality this step is often forgotten or neglected on the grounds of the immense volume of individual emails required. However, forgoing an initiative to clean up spam backlinks can ultimately have an impact on the outcome of a borderline reconsideration request decision. 

Lastly, utilise Google’s Disavow Links tool to indicate which backlinks you no longer intend your site to be associated with. Bare in mind the tool is a suggestion to Google, not a directive. Apply common sense and allocate your resources wisely while disavowing link patterns. A granular, individual page approach is dangerous because of the risk of omitting site-wide links and time consuming, which is why we strongly suggest to use the domain: operator.

Rationalise, executive style

Once a fresh disavow file has been successfully submitted to Google for processing, the essence of the whole process of investigating, data gathering, clean-up and disavowing is to be condensed in a brief, executive letter style rationale for the Google employee who will be reading it and deciding upon the reconsideration request prospects for success or failure. No time should be wasted on explaining that a manual spam action was applied, that is obvious to all involved. No denying, explanation or apology is needed either. Instead, let the facts speak for themselves, sharing numbers, results and specific information is the objective. 

When the reconsideration request has been submitted, the waiting game begins. At this point there’s no guaranteed turnaround time for processing reconsideration requests. The timeframe required seems to vary significantly and can take anywhere from hours to even months, likely depending on the volume of requests submitted for processing at a given time. A reconsideration request rejection, while not putting an end to any future growth of a website, is to be taken seriously. It means that the effort was deemed insufficient, for one reason or another and that an intensified investigation along with a renewed attempt will be needed. 

When all fails, get a second opinion

Getting an experienced partner to join forces in order to resolve a manual spam action can be instrumental, and help in identifying the core of the issue if repeated attempts to apply for reconsideration fail. The decision to entrust a sensitive situation like a manual spam action to an external consultant, while not an easy one to take, is to be made on the basis of guaranteed full confidentiality, industry reputation and mutual trust.