Manual Penalty Removal & Recovery - Part 2 - What Constitutes a Link Penalty?


Welcome to the second of this five part series covering the fundamental principles of Google manual penalties.

In part one I discussed various factors to help improve your overall understanding of manual action. In part two I’m going to cover some of the factors and techniques which may lead to Google issuing a manual webspam penalty in the form of ‘Unnatural links to your site’, ahead of the link audit itself.

Part 1 - Understanding Manual Action
Part 2 - What Constitutes a Link Penalty?
Part 3 - Performing a Link Audit
Part 4 - When to Disavow?
Part 5 - Reconsideration Request Best Practice - coming soon

Link Schemes & Quality Guideline Violations

Nowadays, unnatural links can take many forms. Over the past few years Google’s perception of what constitutes a link violation has evolved considerably as the webspam team strive to eradicate SERPs of websites participating in manipulative link acquisition practices to game rankings, effectively buying their way to the top spot.

Google clearly state within their Quality Guidelines for Link Schemes:

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.

As a result, participation in such link schemes can lead to negative impact on organic search ranking and the serving of a link related manual action.

The widely know Penguin algorithm updates were (and still are) just one of the ways in which Google sought to tackle manipulative link schemes for excessive spammers, issuing tighter guidelines and harsher penalties for those exploiting web spam techniques such as keyword stuffing, cloaking, and unnatural linking. In turn this included tighter governance over factors such as the over use of exact-match anchor texts, dampening widely used link acquisition techniques such as large scale article syndication and bulk directory submissions.

Whilst Penguin is widely known both inside and outside of the SEO industry, behind the scenes Google are continually taking targeted action to prevent link spam. One factor which is always on the radar is paid linking.

Various methods of paid linking are always under scrutiny with Google so it’s safe to say that if you’re participating in any form of paid linking then you’re at risk, and highly likely to be hit with a link penalty. To cite a few examples, the J.C. Penney saga caused a stir in 2011, we saw the demise of the paid link network BuildMyRank in 2012 and Text Link Ads in 2013, well as seeking action against Buzzea, a German agency (and their clients!), seven Japanese link networks and two Polish link networks…and this is really only scratching the surface.

Inevitably the Google webspam team will strive to rid search results of malicious activity, issuing manual link penalties to any websites which they beleive are in (excessive) breach of search quality guidelines.

The Types of ‘Unnatural links to your site’

The cause of an ‘unnatural links to your site’ manual action will ultimately depend on the types of activity which you have participated in, be it knowingly or unknowingly, past or present. As previously mentioned, any link built with the intention of PageRank manipulation is a breach of search quality guidelines, so you may or may not be surprised to see that almost all link building techniques which were historically widely used are now on Google’s radar.

Here are the type of link which you should definitely pay special attention to when preparing for your link audit.


You can find further reading on advertorial links via Google’s reminder about selling links post from February 2013.

Article Marketing

In this video from 2011 Matt Cutts discusses concerns surrounding wide-spread article marketing:

And here’s a more up-to-date video from 2014:

Blog Commenting & Forum Profile Linking

You can read more on comment spam via Google’s Comment Spam Quality Guidelines and forum profile linking via Search Engine Rountable’s post in November 2013.

Bulk Web Directory Submissions

Footer Links & Theme Links

Guest Posting

Read Matt Cutts’ post on guest posting via

Paid links

Here’s a link to more information about paid linking schemes -

Press Releases

There is no corresponding video regarding press release linking for PageRank manipulation, but Google’s Quality Guidelines clearly state that the following is a breach of search quality guidelines:

Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.

You can read more on the issues concerning press releases through Search Engine Land via

Reciprocal links & Link Exchanges

This is roughly covered in the ‘Paid links’ video featured above, but for reference Google’s Quality Guidelines on link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking state:

Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking

Widgets & Infographics

So, as you can now see, there are multiple approaches to link building which may hinder organic search performance through algorithmic devaluation or manual action.

The impact of each practice will inevitably differ depending on the extent of exploitation. For example, whilst mass directory submissions or large-scale article syndication may pose a threat, the use of branded anchors through these practices may not be hit as severely as the over use of exact-match/commercial anchor texts. Likewise, directory submissions and article syndication may be the least of your worries if you’re aware of participation in paid link networks!

In the next part of this series we’ll look some of the metrics which you can use to measure link credibility to help refine your audit and some of the tools which may help; but if you are aware of participation in any of the aforementioned practices then these should be a core focus of your audit.

Manual Penalties Can Expire – But Don’t Wait for or Rely on it!

As a quick footnote, many people probably won’t be aware that a manual webspam penalty can expire (or in the words of Google “time out”) after a prolonged period of time.

I’ve seen several instances of manual action for ‘unnatural links to your site’ expiring so I can confirm it does indeed happen, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. In some cases I’ve observed marginal improved organic search reach as a result of the expiration, in other cases I’ve noted little to no improvement in organic search rankings. In almost all cases which I have experienced there have been outside factors (on-page compliance for example) to take into consideration, so I cannot definitively say that the expiration of the manual action had any impact either way.

If you have been served a manual action I would not advise sitting back and waiting for the penalty to expire; you could be waiting months or years and see zero increase as a result. Likewise, if your penalty has already expired I would not advise breathing a sigh of relief – the penalty may return.

If, following the expiration of a manual penalty, the original reason behind the manual action still exists Google have clearly stated that the action may be reapplied at a later date. But don’t take my word for it - writing in a Google forum thread Googles’ John Mueller states:

If your site receives a notification of web-spam or manual action in Webmaster Tools, then that will be due to a web-spam review and manual action that has been taken. While manual actions will expire at some point, I would strongly not recommend sweeping them under the carpet and hoping that they go away on their own — at least if you’re interested in having your site be optimally represented in our search results. Even when a manual action expires (which might take quite some time), if the reason for the original manual action is still relevant, it’s always possible that the manual action is returned later on. In my opinion, if you’re aware of issues that are negatively affecting your site’s performance in search, and if its performance there is important to you, then resolving those issues is often a good use of time.

This emphasises the importance of strategic planning and targeted action to overcome the issuing of manual webspam action. Sitting back and hoping it will go away is not the answer. If you want to succeed in the organic search marketplace you’ll need to know the basics of how to perform a link audit, which I’ll cover in part three.

Part 1 - Understanding Manual Action
Part 2 - What Constitutes a Link Penalty?
Part 3 - Performing a Link Audit
Part 4 - When to Disavow?
Part 5 - Reconsideration Request Best Practice - coming soon

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