Unnatural Links Penalty: Does it Make Sense to Remove Links?


In recent months I had to deal with a so called “unnatural links” penalty by Google.  Now you think I’m one of those dirty SEO scoundrels and I deserved it but it wasn’t me, it was a client site I took over some time ago. I made it recover from a penalty originally by cleaning up its backlink profile and introducing a quality link building strategy. So you can understand my surprise when my client got that penalty instead of some ugly spammers who clog the Google SERPs.


The Slow and Painful Process

Then I had to literally work hard for months to get that manual penalty revoked. Fixing the backlink profile again was a tedious, dead slow and painful process.

This time I only knew that we didn’t do anything wrong on purpose.

  1. At first I thought, maybe we overlooked something. Did we still have some low level, spammy links? I advised the client not to buy links etc. when I started to work together with him in the first place so there was no easy way to fix that. I checked the usual suspects like too exact anchor text links, footer links, site wide links. I’ve found a bit of all of them and tried to get them removed or at least disavowed them. It didn’t suffice. The reconsideration request failed.
  2. Then I had the idea that someone else has messed it up. Some forums for example had dozens or even hundreds of automatically generated pages linking to us just because we were once mentioned there. Or did someone attack us using negative SEO techniques? I’ve found some links with completely irrelevant anchor texts from NSFW sites. Nope, that wasn’t it either.
  3. My next solution was to look up the things that were OK until lately but maybe Google changed their guidelines. “Are paid directories considered paid links per se by now?” was one of my questions in the back of my head. I simply couldn’t believe that Google would penalize high quality editorial directories just because they want to get remunerated for the work invested for their creation and maintenance.
  4. Then I imagined that maybe Google assumed our legit links are in some way spammy so I checked them for strange looks. We had to remove and disavow legit links we haven’t paid for just because Google might assume that they were paid based on the context for example.
  5. At the end I “simply” checked every single link and anything that didn’t look good came on my remove/disavow list. This meant checking hundreds of linking domains and pages manually. I really had to look them up and check personally. Some of them more than once as each of the tools used would offer me another list of potential bad links.

The whole process took hours and days and weeks

as I do not work full time for clients. As the client got increasingly desperate I had to stop doing everything else and focus completely on fixing the unnatural links penalty. I have been watching low quality links every day on sites I didn’t even believe exist in that way anymore today instead of reaching out to bloggers, create quality content to earn links or organize give aways and other direct incentives to link to us.

I told the client that just by demolishing old, even faulty links, most of them have been natural anyway, just looked bad, we won’t regain our old rankings. We have to build or rather get new links to strengthen our position in Google. My client mistook that for giving up and instead got angry so I focused even more on the penalty.

Then one day, when I already almost have given up, the penalty got removed and the rankings… stayed the same.

While they were jumping back and forth or dwindling progressively prior to the removal they stabilized at a slightly higher level shortly after for weeks. Then we regained some of our visibility so that we have overall better rankings than while the penalty was on. Nonetheless we have just approx. half of the visibility of what we had before the penalty.

I can’t go into details too much as this is an ongoing client project so I won’t share stats etc. but what I want to share is my key take aways from this painful process.


Key Take Aways

  • Getting Google to work once again after receiving a penalty is a long process that not only takes time but also expertise and thorough effort.
  • Even a simple manual penalty can take months to revoke and then another few months go recover some rankings.
  • There is no guarantee whatsoever that the penalty gets lifted or that you get your rankings back.
  • It took us around 10 attempts to finally get the penalty revoked according to a Google Webmaster Tools notice. Four weeks later there was no clear sign of ranking recovery yet.
  • While at it you will never have the option to talk with someone from Google nor even have email contact. You will have to deal with anonymous automated standard messages.
  • You will never even know whether there is really someone looking at your site and whether you send your reconsideration request to the same person or whether you get assigned a new one each time like in a typical call centre.


Does it Make Sense to Remove Links?

So does it make sense to remove and disavow links? I’m not so sure. The time and effort spend on that process and the frustration felt both on the SEO and client side was crippling to the whole optimization process. We literally had to stop everything else to deal with this menace to the site.

Afterwards the effort seems completely out of the proportion given the outcome.

What would have happened had we invested the time and money into something that would directly benefit the site and business as a whole instead of paying attention to the gate keeper? Sometimes cutting out the middleman might be the better decision,  in case Google decided to reroute traffic to your competition you might reconsider your reliance on the whimsical service.


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