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