How To Fix Your Website When You’ve Violated Google’s Quality Guidelines

About a year ago, we received an ominous message in our Google Webmaster Tools:

Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.quoteroller.com/,

We received a request from a site owner to reconsider http://www.quoteroller.com/ for compliance with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

We’ve reviewed your site and we still see links to your site that violate our quality guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to comply with our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have additional questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.

Sincerely,
Google Search Quality Team

We learned that our site violated the Google Webmaster guidelines in terms of backlinks to our webpage. In short, because there was a large number of links to us in abandoned forums and even, gulp, porn sites, we were flagged as spam and our Google ranking plummeted.

Why did we get banned?

Good question. We aren’t sure. We know we were flagged as having bad links, but none of us were posting our link to such nefarious sites. We found our link on many dust forums – abandoned forums where spammers post thousands of links – potentially put there by a competitor.

We also found we had created unnatural links, due to a lack of understanding the guidelines. More than anything, algorithms are changing all the time; and, what we thought was good in 2011, became problematic in 2013.

Google offers the following link schemes that, intentional or not, can negatively impact a site’s ranking:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank
  • Excessive link exchanges (“You link me, I link you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site

Add to these, many unnatural links you can find yourself linked to.

So, by several different methods, you, like us, may find yourself in a situation where you don’t know why you are banned, but you just have to eat those sour grapes and dig your site out of that hole.

How did we get the Scarlet S removed?

We started by making a list of the red letters. Meaning, we had to identify as many “bad” links as we could detect and either try to get the links removed or apply “nofollows” to them. Below is the account of how we did just that.

How to find links to your site

Go to Google Webmaster Tools -> Search Traffic -> Links to Your Site. The first table on the page shows the number of backlinks. Click “More.”

webmaster tools links to your site

On the next page, you can “Download more sample links,” sorted by date, as an Excel file or to your Google Drive.

dashboard

This is a screenshot of the very long file with hundreds of links we had to work through. Each of these links must be compared with Google Guidelines.

bad links

We visited each of our 8,847 links. About 60 percent of them were hurting our Google street cred and needed to be removed.

First, we worked through the thousand or so links that we could control. Back when we started in 2011, we had poorly linked affiliates, ads, forum signatures, article directories and other such things that made sense at the time, but now they are in violation of the Google Guidelines. We deleted what we could, and then disavowed or nofollow-ed the rest.

NoFollow is adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the <a> tag, which communicates to Google that this link should not influence a target links ranking. To learn more about NoFollow and Google, get it from the horse’s mouth.

Next, we contacted website owners via WhoIs.net, contact forms, email and social media, and simply asked them to delete links to our site.

We were able to remove almost 70 percent of the harmful links. Then, we added the rest of the bad links to Google’s Disavow Tool.

But, after sending several requests for Google to review our site’s negative standing, we got only automatic responses from Google’s Webspam team that our site continued to violate the guidelines.

reconsideration request

However, even though we continued to get negative replies from Google, we did see a nice increase in traffic as a result of our backlinks getting better. Because of this, we had the will to continue.

We reviewed our backlinks again and again, but the ban continued. It turned out that, even though many site owners deleted links to our homepage, the links were still in the “links to your site” report in our webmaster tools, and we didn’t know if they are considered deleted or not.

We felt deadlocked, as, for that moment, our backlinks array seemed good, and we didn’t understand what the reason was for the continued ban.

We were advised to post our case at Google product forum, and, surprisingly, we got a very useful response from a Google Webspam team representative. He found some backlinks from all the way back in 2011 that might have been considered unnatural, even though they didn’t show up in our webmaster tools reports. He responded within the forum thread, providing us with real links as examples.

Below is a copy of an email Google sent us in response to our request for reconsideration:

We received a reconsideration request from a site owner for http://www.quoteroller.com/.

We’ve reviewed the links to your site and we still believe that some of them are outside our quality guidelines.

Sample URLs: [SIC: URLs]

For more specific information about the status of your site, visit the Manual Actions page in Webmaster Tools. From there, you may request reconsideration of your site again.

If you have additional questions, please visit our Webmaster Help Forum.

All of the examples he mentioned included anchor links with our targeting keywords. So we re-reviewed all of our backlinks of that kind and disavowed only those from low-quality sites. The rest we weren’t going to touch, as it didn’t make any sense.

By that time, at the beginning of August 2013, Google had announced a new feature that should have helped us a lot – the Manual Action Viewer in Webmaster Tools. We thought, cool, they are “taking manual actions on the unnatural links instead of on the site’s ranking as the whole.” It seemed like the ban on such backlinks wouldn’t negatively affect our site anymore, and the ban would be lifted soon.

Our first instinct was to stop doing anything and just be patient, but we decided to go whole hog and sent more requests to turn around our site’s standing.

We got negative responses three more times; but, fortunately, each of them included examples of the offending links. We asked the sites to remove those links or disavowed them ourselves. We also did our best to find similar links and include them as well.

Finally, after a year of lowered ranking, we received notice that our manual spam action was revoked. The decision to continue working even after we thought Google was taking care of it fully justified itself as we saw nice growth during that period of deletion and disavowal. Within a week of the ban lift, organic traffic rose 30%. It continues to grow, and now we’re on top in our search results.

webmaster tools notice

How to prevent bans?

  1. Don’t try to trick Google. The magical wizards of Google are smarter than you and are constantly changing to not only block trickery, but also to make it fairer for everyone involved.
  2. Continue to check the Links to Your Site. For us, at least, organic Google traffic is the most important traffic after referrals. It’s essential to our business that we check these search results about twice a month.
  3. Keep up to date on Google’s Guidelines. Knowledge is power. Try to check this about once a month so you can change any policies you have and update your website and backlinks to avoid being banned.
  4. Admit you’re wrong. If something goes wrong with your SEO, tell Google you’re sorry, you understand your mistake and you won’t make it again. They will be more likely to advise you on how to fix everything.
  5. Then, after you’ve done your part above, concentrate on content, not links. When the content is high quality, the good links will just fall right into place.

About the Author: Jennifer Riggins is the community builder and content manager for two SaaS businesses: Quote Roller business proposal software and the in-Beta PandaDoc that helps you assemble, negotiate and e-sign documents within your existing CRM and other software. Based in Barcelona, she’s also written about more than 100 Spanish startups, technologies and innovation for CBS SmartPlanet.

  1. I’ve gone “back to the basics” in regards to my website (blog). I just write for the sheer joy of communicating. I’ve stopped worrying about “hits” and “pagerank” and “alexa rating” and all of that. I regularly back up my blog and if they shoot it down tomorrow I still have my articles.

    • I agree. Catering to Google’s whims was tough/a questionable marketing strategy when they actually valued quality content. Now that they’re more interested in monetizing organic searches than they are providing end users with quality material, I think it’s time to find other ways of getting people to one’s site.

  2. Yeah… that was a big challenge

  3. great article- especially the step by step this is a huge challenge for all sites that have bee link building using old methods

  4. Nice summary of steps, Jennifer. Auditing all backlinks is probably the easier part of it where as the real challenge is contacting individual webmasters for link removal. Even worse is when you have several thousands of *.blogspot.com backlinks.

    Anyhow, once the ‘unnatural link slap’ comes, there’s no escape but follow what you described.

  5. All of my links to my website are gone! Would anyone know why? I had links in the thousands. Now I have 187 links! lol My ranking has also gone down big time.

  6. Nice story. It’s good to see people reporting these issues and how they have recovered. There are plenty of people who have found the contacting webmasters issue to be so difficult, they just give up and start again with the same content on a new domain.

  7. I think what people really want to know is how to fix your website when you HAVEN’T violated the quality guidelines. That would be an interesting post to read.

  8. I don’t think there is a way to fully recover, from the case studies I’ve looked at. The best bet is not to be fatuous – know what you’re doing before you launch in to something. Making good quality guest posts is a must, and generally behaving yourself online. Should do the trick – signing up to Google+ is a big advantage to all of this as you’re kind of verifying yourself online to Google; “Hello! I’m not a spammer!” Should adhere to their rules.

  9. This is a great article, very well explained. I do link removals to help websites and I personally analyze backlinks using more tools than Google’s webmaster tools. I use a mix of the best tools like Majestic SEO, semrush.com, ahrefs.com and SEO sply glass to help my clients. This way I covered all corners and I don’t have to look again later on.

    I also like that this post shows that a penalty will be lifted over time. Many people assume that after you remove bad links, their penalties will disappear like magic and that just doesn’t happen.

  10. Guys, I think it also depends on the niche you are in….The chances for a website that’s in the clothing niche to be banded based on the linkbacks to the website would be less likely to happen compared to a warez website for example.

  11. Very interesting article – how many man hours did it take to search and verify over 8000 links? Did you send an invoice to Matt Cutts and his team for that work?

    I think it would of been easier for you to push those 8000 links to your competitors sites and see what happens!

    If you have 80% low ranking links to sites which you can not remove or webmasters do not respond to requests and the disavow tool does nothing with them where too next?

    It is interesting to be caught up in a monopoly or search engine dictatorship – regardless of your niche and link status someone else is making the call on YOUR business – your income and your time.

    How bad does it have to get before enough is enough?

    Anthony
    Director of DGC (destroy google clan)

  12. Hi Jennifer Riggins,

    This is Venkat. There are 18 different thoughts by the experts for this article. This is 19th one.

    It’s really informative and interesting article… You have explained step by step the process.

    Thank you so much…

  13. I suggest to spam division of Google to send alert after each bad link consideration , they . Only thing is required to crawl more frequently to the site , in case if it seems bit complex then alert could be flashed weekly basis. There are tons of reasons to identify that particular link as bad, so webmasters look forward a bit more help to fight spam and better ranking. Via Codingbrains

  14. Wow, this was an awesome story. I have heard many general tales of Google Disavow being a major pain in the neck and it actually being impossible to recover from bad links.

    It makes me worry about people who might choose to crush competitor’s websites by building bad links (very possible in this day and age)…

    Anyway, it’s good to know this info so I can warn clients why you have to do SEO right in the first place, and that its no longer a simple thing.

    Glad to hear you recovered from the penalty, even though it wasn’t your fault!

  15. I did this before but the reconsideration link is not working now and my rank is still on the same position.

  16. Disavow is a great tool for battling negative SEO efforts put by some jealous competitors. However, it is really a great pain in the neck considering that we need to track all the bad links created.

  17. Churn and burn make a website ranking it aggressively, cash hard onto the next project. if you want to build a authority website then don’t try to miss up with Google. it’s really hard to recover from penalties

  18. That’s a great article. I never checked “Links to Your Site” on Google Webmaster Tools. That’s a awesome tool. Alexa doesn’t show all the links.

  19. Nice article, I think 8000 link are quite a lot to check the manually, how did you managed to do this? Did you hired someone via oDesk for example?

  20. I never experience any down fall in page rank on my page, but i think this article makes me aware about such possibility as per my experience it is better to take precaution for performing SEO for the website and always try to make it through ethical way like presenting rich and updated content and try to create relevant link without stuffing keywords and always try to discover new keyword instead of using same.

  21. Thank you for laying things out nicely in this post. It kind of hard to think that some shady people could be out there creating low quality links to your website, even when you never asked them to, all in their selfish interest to “help” you earn Google’s wrath. That dangerous practice goes by the name “negative seo”— So, it helps if you check your analytics often and analyze those links before they get you.

  22. Thanks for making me aware of such kind of practice by competitors. Till now i haven’t face this problem. But now i have to regularly monitor my webmaster tool and links to my site.

  23. I agree. Catering to Google’s whims was tough/a questionable marketing strategy when they actually valued quality content. Now that they’re more interested in monetizing organic searches than they are providing end users with quality material, I think it’s time to find other ways of getting people to one’s site.

  24. Awesome article on fixing website If anyone violate Google’s Quality Guidelines.

  25. This is a Awesome article i ever read in my life. This helped me alot to fix my own website…

    Thank you

  26. Drew Mitchell Apr 19, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Great post – thank you for sharing this. When you say you removed links to your site containing anchor text – did you remove all of them? I’m working on a site at the moment but I don’t want to remove links containing anchor text if they are benefiting the site and google doesn’t require the removing

    • Drew, you should really do an inventory of all your links and definitely avoid taking away good links.

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