A few weeks ago I received on my Webmaster Tools account the message every SEO in trouble wishes to read: Manual spam action revoked. This is what I learned in months of endless spreadsheets, links removal, rejected reconsideration requests, and bad advices passed off as absolute truths. Don’t take this as a guide: I just want to share my thoughts about the toughest job challenge I had to take up lately. Also, this story only refers to link related penalties.

1. Too many tools are useless

I did not automate all the process: I simply collected the domains linking to my site (with the tools you all know) and checked them one by one. This was the longest but safest way to really understand what was harming me. I did not check every single page of course, because I could easily recognize and exclude the trusted sources, but I had to work hard anyway.

Always keep in mind that on the other side there’s a real person who:

  • pushes the “penalization button”;
  • reads the reconsideration requests;
  • checks if the links they identified as spammy have been removed (or disavowed);
  • decides whether to remove the penalization or not.

I tried to work as much as possible from the Google spam team point of view and I thought:

What would I do if I received my own reconsideration request? Do I deserve a complete recovery? Have I done things right? Am I clean now?

The only way to be confident with that was to do most things manually, without overusing automated tools to decide if a link was good or bad. Tools can be very useful, but also harmful if you rely too much on them.

In other words, to get over a manual penalization a lot of human job is required.

2. Anchor text is the killer

Easy to remember and definitely true. Over-optimized anchor texts are the #1 beast you have to defeat if you want to win the game. And working as an SEO, you know which are the bad anchor texts of your niche and where to take actions.

In my (Italian) case, Google was admittedly looking at poor blog posts and article marketing sites with suspicious external links. This means that what leads to a manual penalization is, in 99% of cases, the anchor text. A branded anchor from a crappy source, for example, won’t likely be targeted as a paid link (it could simply have no value or pass no juice), but having some over-optimezed anchors from any kind of sites, even well-known domains with high authority, could be the death of your SEO strategy.

I didn’t remove every single link coming from article marketing and similar sources, I just followed the pattern mentioned above and succeded. Also, I hardly ever changed bad anchor texts keeping the links alive, beacuse it could seem a bit tricky. It might work, but those links probably have little or no value at all, so why to risk?

3. Sitewide links are bad… but non that much

I didn’t care too much about sitewide links. If you have a lot of sites with thousands of links pointing to your domain you should remove or nofollow them, but they probably are not the (main) cause of a manual penalization.

I think sitewide links issues are more related to algorithmic penalizations like Penguin ones, where the number of links coming from a single site is a strong numeric signal for a robot crawling the web in search of spam. But for a human being it’s different and this kind of situations should look fairly normal most of the time.

My advice? If you have sitewide links just check them to see their anchor text (or the alt tag for logos and banners): if it’s over-optimized you have three options:

  • change it;
  • nofollow it;
  • remove it.

If it’s a link that brings you conversions choose the first or the second one (or both), but if it’s useless for your business, just remove it.

4. Disavow tool works

We all knew this, but it was nice to see with my own eyes it actually works. I removed the links under my control and contacted the webmasters of the remaining domains: after a week I added to my disavow file the ones who did not reply. It worked. Easy and effective.

5. Negative (unintentional) SEO exists

It was surprising to see how many “unknown” sites were suspiciously linking to my domain. I never contacted them, never even heard of them. But I am pretty sure they were not examples of negative intentional SEO. They harmed my site pointing a bad link to it, but they didn’t do this intentionally.

How am I sure they were toxic links?

Google showed me some of them, answering my previous reconsideration requests (the “example URLs” in Webmaster Tools).

How am I sure they were not intentional?

I’m not, but looking at the pages where they came from I can assume they were mostly “unlucky” examples of natural links.

Negative SEO really exists, I speak from experience. But I think that less than 1% of it is done with purpose. Let’s face the truth: we as SEOs have a lot of work to do. We invest our time in doing something good to reach our goals, not in trying to damage competitors. I think everyone shares this belief, even black hat SEOs.

So what does this all mean? It means that SEO is more out of control than I thought. This is actually scary, but not so hard to deal with. If you want to feel safe, just remember to check your fresh incoming links from time to time, filter them by anchor text and see if something strange is happening.

6. Reporting your activity is useless

I mean, it’s obviously vital for you but nearly useless for Google. Why? Just think about these two cases:

  • you attached to your reconsideration request a wonderful spreadsheet with every site you contacted (with the first, second, and third contact date), you reported every single action you took, you swore you would be forever good and so on… but you didn’t remove/disavow some links Google consideres toxic;
  • you didn’t submit any report at all, but you removed almost every bad link from you profile.

Which case do you think is more likely to bring to a full recovery? Of course it’s the second. The Google employee who is going to read your message doesn’t want to be told a story, he wants to see no more bad links. Then and only then he will push the green button.

That’s exactly what happened to me. In the previous requests I linked the complete timeline of my removal activities and it had no effect. In the last attempt I attached nothing, I simply dug more deeply into my link profile and removed a larger amount of bad links: win!

I’m not saying you don’t have to upload your report on Drive and link it from your reconsideration request. I strongly think it is almost useless, but since you did it (and you have to do it for yourself) why not enrich your message with it? Just don’t hope it will be an extra weapon to get the penalty revoked, because it won’t.