The Penguin Update, since it first hit the search world back in 2012, has been the defining rule-maker for offsite SEO. Intended to weed out shady link building practices and reward sites with high-quality link profiles, the Penguin update has seen multiple iterations over the past few years, each with an added layer of complexity to penalize sites with questionable link building habits.
These penalties can be devastating for business owners trying to improve their online visibility, especially when a manual penalty—which carries long-term, more severe punitive consequences—drags their site down harshly. Through remediated long-term link building strategies, it is possible to recover from any of these penalties, but for online businesses whose revenue depends on visibility and traffic, time is of the essence, and these business owners are often desperate to remove a Penguin penalty as quickly as possible.
There is one “quick” means of removing a penalty, though it can still take days or weeks to take effect. However, this process of “disavowal” is only effective under certain circumstances, and should not be wantonly abused.
Defining a Penguin Penalty
First, it’s important to understand what actually constitutes a penalty, since not all changes in rank are due to a punitive action from Google. The Penguin update is an automated algorithm, which means it strictly follows the rules that are coded within it, and automatically distributes rank according to those rules. Companies who saw a sudden decrease in rank after the release of Penguin or one of its subsequent iterations were not victims of a penalty spree so much as they were simply relisted according to these new rules. However, many still refer to this type of decrease in rank as a “penalty.”
The real penalties are manual actions performed by Google to sharply decrease the rank of an offending website. These penalties are given explicitly, with a detailed explanation given to the webmaster of the site in question. If you haven’t received a direct message from Google explaining the nature of the penalty, you haven’t been formally, manually penalized.
If you have been formally penalized, be aware that these penalties are extremely difficult to overturn. However, both manual penalties and automated rank decreases can be overcome by disavowal under the right conditions.
Reasons Why You’ve Been Penalized
Before you use the disavowal tool, you have to understand why you’ve been penalized. If you were penalized as a result of new standards set by the Penguin update, there is a major problem with your backlink profile. That means there are one or more links pointing back to your site on external sources that are deemed to be low-quality links.
Such types of backlinks include:
- Backlinks on low-quality external sources, such as article farms or obvious spam sites.
- Backlinks on irrelevant external sources, such as local directories not related to your industry.
- Repetitive backlinks, such as backlinks all packed into one source, or a large number of backlinks only pointing to one page of your website.
- Backlinks stuffed with keywords or otherwise framed in a way not relevant to the conversation.
If your backlink profile features one or more of these offenders, it is likely the root cause of your penalty.
The Disavowal Tool
Once you know that you’ve suffered a ranking loss or a manual penalty as a result of an external link, you can take a look at the Disavow Tool in Webmaster Tools. It’s relatively easy to find and use. All you’ll need is a Webmaster Tools account. The purpose of the Disavow Tool is to force Google to overlook the links that may be bringing you down.
Assuming you already have a Webmaster Tools account set up for the URL in question, you can click here to get to the Disavow Tool directly. In your WMT dashboard, click on “Search Traffic,” and click “Links to Your Site.” From there, find “Who links the most,” and click on “More.” Here, you’ll have the opportunity to “Download more sample links.” When you do this, you’ll download a file that contains all the pages that currently link to your site.
With this information, create a text file that contains all the links you want Google to disavow—in other words, all the links that you want Google to ignore for its purposes of calculating page rank. Make sure there is only one link per line in your text file, and once it is ready, upload it to the Disavow Tool directly. You can only manage one submission at a time, so disavow all your links at the same time if possible.
Remember, the Disavow Tool is not a magic cure-all to use every time Google catches a bad backlink on your profile. It is to be used only when all other methods have failed. As a result, the majority of disavowal requests submitted through the tool are simply ignored or rejected. Even if your submission is approved, it can take days or weeks of waiting in limbo before you get a response.
A Better Strategy
Since most disavowal requests are ultimately unsuccessful and even successful requests take weeks to take effect, you’re better off using other strategies to fix the damage from your Penguin penalty.
Audit Your Link Profile
First, you’ll need to audit your link profile. There are many ways to do this, but the easiest ways are either to use a backlink search engine like Open Site Explorer or simply download the pages that link to your site through Webmaster Tools (which we covered above). Once you have access to this information, you can scout for any abnormalities or links which could be seen as questionable. If Google has given you a manual penalty, you should have a specific indication of the culprit.
Manually Remove Questionable Links
Your first option is the easiest and fastest response—simply remove the problematic links yourself. This isn’t always possible, but if you’ve created a link as a guest poster on an external blog or as a commenter on a forum, you should be able to log in and simply delete the link yourself. Do this for any questionable links you can.
Write to Webmasters
Of course, manual self-removal is not always an option. There are many instances when only a webmaster with administrative access to a site can get the link down. In these instances, write to the webmaster directly. You can usually find this information in the “contact” section of the website, or through a Google search. Only after being ignored or rejected by a webmaster (which is a rare occurrence) should you pursue help through the Disavow Tool.
Only after you’ve followed these important steps should you even consider using the Disavow Tool as a way to remove a Penguin penalty. While the tool can be effective in some situations, it is not designed to be consulted over every instance. You’re better off fixing what you can and spending the rest of your time making proactive changes to your strategy. Clean up the type of sources you use to build external links, and diversify your portfolio. Vary the type of backlinks you post, keep them as relevant as possible, and try not to post too often. Keeping your link building strategy clean will prevent future Penguin penalties and increase your rank.
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