WARNING – Manual Penalty – Unnatural Links Detected

For those of us old enough (Digital Marketing professionals seem to get younger and younger!) this was a favourite saying of the Robert from 80’s TV show “Lost In Space”

And yes, that is the similar effect many of us have, when we read those 2 words no website owner or marketer likes to read – the dreaded “MANUAL PENALTY”

 What does it mean to have a Manual Penalty action?

Matt Cutts (from Google) talks about how your website itself may not be penalised, but rather the sites which generate the links to you have been reprimanded instead.  However that is on the assumption that those unnatural links have been created outside of the control of the web owner.  But in truth, how can a human being doing a manual audit of those links determine which scenario took place.  Whether it was:

a)    a commercial transaction to purchase bad links?

b)    genuinely naturally generated but just from an awful site with bad PR?   (I know a friend who owns a hideously bad site, and thinks he is helping by linking to mine – as if he is doing me a favour.  I keep telling him to stop!)

c)    or even if they were done by a competitor trying to undermine your business? 

The fact of the matter is… you don’t want to leave it in Google’s hands to place judgement on your site for bad activity, regardless of who is to blame.  You need to combat this decision ASAP and show evidence that you too do not condone these links and will do whatever is required to remove them.

 What exactly do I need to do to remove a Manual Penalty action?

So… recently we had a new SEO client come to us, who was presented with one of those horror messages within Google Webmaster Tools (WMT).  And naturally they had some grave concerns as to what that meant for their organic traffic and ultimately for their business.  They asked questions like; How severe was such a notice and did that mean they could repair the damage, or did they truly have to start over?  That is an extreme option some businesses have taken in the past – to close down their URL, rebrand and restart. 

So what exactly is the course of action?

In summary, you need to:

STAGE 1 - identify all your bad links which have triggered this manual penalty,

STAGE 2 - contact all web owners to the respective links back to your site removed,

STAGE 3 - then submit a RECONSIDERATION REQUEST to Google with evidence and cover letter depicting what actions you have done to combat these unnatural links.

Let’s go into each element in more detail


How do I know what URLs link to my site? Compile a total list

There are various commercial tools available for use – MOZ.coms’ Opensiteexplorer, Majestic SEO, A Hrefs, or even by using a google search:

Use this site operator code to find links to your domain, which exclude internal links within your own site.

link: www.yourdomain.com -site: www.yourdomain.com

However I would suggest you look to what Google themselves have found on you – and that is to use the link list as shown in Google Webmaster Tools.  Bonus – it’s free!

Go into your webmaster tools account, and download the most recently found links.  This should be your starting point.

google manual penalty review

Google manual penalty review

Now we need to cultivate this list and sort the wheat from the chaff.

 How to identify the bad links which need removing?

So now, you have a long list of URLs which Google Webmaster Tools has identified as linking to your site – good or bad, the list is currently indifferent.

The next procedure is to manually go through each link to check which ones look like spam and which are genuine, or perhaps even official partnerships you are involved with.  Effectively you are doing a manual check of your own site, just as Google have done, to create a shortlist of bad URLs.

To save time, it may be best to sort alphabetically, so you can see multiple links from the same domain.  That way you can simply check the validity of the domain, and if it proves bad, you can “disavow” all associated links (We will move onto the “Disavow” stage in a moment)

Screenshot of alphabetical URLs

There will instantly be obvious domains which have absolutely no relevancy to your business, and are blatant spam.  The next set to look out for are “link farms” or “article directories”.  These are simply websites which were designed to generate outbound links for commercial reasons.  Again, those shouldn’t present too much difficultly in identifying – the domain URL should give them away. 

Those URLs which are remaining will then need a manual check.  Read our article on “Top 10 factors which make a good backlink” and see if these remaining URLs fit the majority of the checklist.  If not… add them to the list of bad URLS.

In all three cases, what you should look to do is identify the individual bad URLs (grouped together per domain, in a list – you will need this later) and also a separate list of the domain URL for the disavow file (again, discussed later) 



Individually Ask Web Owners to Remove the Link

Now that you have your shortlist of bad URLs, you can get about to having them removed.  Sadly it is not as simple as clicking 1 button, but rather a far more laborious task of manually contacting each web owner requesting them to remove your link.

This is the simplified process:

1 – Go to one of the URLs, and find the contact details on their website.  If it is an email, then use your own mail server, otherwise you may have to use their onsite form (if they have one)

2 – Write out a message identifying yourself, why you are contacting them, which URLs on their domain are needing link removal, and mention that the last course of action if unsuccessful is to submit their site in a disavow file to Google which could potentially damage their site (A bit of scaremongering always helps).  However, always remember to be polite.

3 – take a screenshot of your email message on their site, or in your mail server, as evidence.  You will need this when you submit your RECONSIDERATION REQUEST.

Sometimes, web owners will reply to confirm the link removal (keep a record of those which you were successful in removing), but for best practice you should check those URLs again.  We usually suggest contacting them 3 times in a 3 week period - that’s enough time.  Once you are happy that you have done all that you can to remove the links, and collated enough evidence of this effort, then you can proceed to submitting a reconsideration request.


Collate the Evidence in Google Docs

So you’ve done all that you can to try and address the situation.  Now it’s time to formally approach Google and submit the RECONSIDERATION REQUEST.

Before you do this, you need to collate all your evidence for them to see.  For best practice we suggest creating a publically accessible Google Docs Folder (accessible by link only) to store all your evidence in.  The files you will need to store in that folder are:

  • Spreadsheet document, with one column outlining all the URLs which you have identified as bad, and another column depicting all the URLs which you were successful in removing.  (denote the two columns appropriately and make it clear)
  • Take all the domain URLs which you felt were bad (identified in stage 1) and put them into a .txt file.  Name that “Disavow URLs.txt” and add that to your Google Docs Folder.
  • Then take all your screenshots as proof that you contacted all the sites and enter them into the folder too.


Presenting the evidence is only half the job.  You also need to write a cover letter, almost as an appeal to have the Manual Penalty lifted and to justify your case why they should do so.

This letter is important, so give it some thought and prepare it well.  To see what elements should go into this letter, view our other article on “Google Reconsideration Letter Examples”

Hit Submit

When you are ready, click on this link when signed into webmaster tools and submit:



Although I didn’t mention stage 4 at the start, it was kind of a given.  Once you’ve submitted your RECONSIDERATION REQUEST, you will have to wait several weeks (2-3) for a result. 

It could be that your request was declined with some advice on how to further clean your backlink profile before resubmitting another request, that you have confirmation of the Manual Penalty being lifted.


DECLINED – needs further action

reconsideration request declined


ACCEPTED – confirmation that the Manual Penalty has been lifted

reconsideration request accepted



Again, here’s another section I didn’t mention at the start (bad of me!), but this is a little piece of advice moving forward, once you have successfully had your Manual Penalty revoked.

First and foremostDON’T BUY ANY LINKS!  Dodgy links are what got you here in the first place, regardless if created by yourself, or third parties. 

Secondly – monitor your backlinks on a monthly basis and don’t let it reach a critical mass.  Identify any bad links which are newly generated, and contact the web owners immediately.  Continue to contact them until they remove it.

You want to try and resolve any issues off your own efforts where possible and not get Google involved.  That’s like going to the teacher at school and saying that other kid keeps punching you.  Don’t be a tell-tale if you can handle it yourself!

In fact there is some argument that if you submit a “disavow urls.txt” before receiving a manual penalty action (i.e. you are trying to proactively be seen as addressing the issue), then that file actually acts as a trigger within Google to undergo manual investigation on your site… which in turn generates the Manual Penalty notice in the first place!  Irony at its best!

Thirdly – adopt natural linking practices by creating strong and engaging content, then  encourage real viewers to share it  (Just like with this article.  *hint hint* - the share button is at the bottom of this page J  )

Last Tip – do a bit of house cleaning for your PPC following Manual Penalty notice

[It may also be worth noting, that whilst you don’t believe the Manual Penalty action will also result in a noticeable drop in your Paid traffic, it should be worth investigating further to see if your PPC cost efficiency has reduced.  After all, if the SEO elements of those pages have been penalised, then your landing page quality score may also be negatively affected (albeit it slightly) and in turn could mean your adrank drops and CPC rise.  Just as a best practice exercise, you should check your PPC campaigns following a Manual Penalty message

Contact SEO specialist for digital marketing advice -Whitefish Marketing

For more details call Kent SEO agency - Whitefish Marketing - today and our friendly team will be happy to help. 


Article Name
How to Recover from a Google Manual Penalty
Learn from Whitefish Marketing and better understand how to recover from a Google Manual Penalty. Read the process you need to go through to have your Google Manual Penalty removed.

About Chris Surridge

Chris Surridge is an experienced Digital Marketing Director with a wealth of knowledge on Search Marketing Strategies and Conversion Analysis. His value is in strategic planning for client accounts, and his consultative services.

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