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October 31, 2014

Manual Actions – A Case Study

Sam Wood

Sam was Alpha Digital’s first employee and now spends his day managing the business. He currently works from our Sydney office for 3 weeks every month and when he’s not at work he’s probably playing or watching basketball. Get in touch if you’re in Sydney!

Recently we had a client who was struggling for consistency in keyword rankings and, more importantly, traffic to the website. We were unable to identify why this was, but further investigation revealed they had recently received a manual penalty. Whilst trying to remove the penalty, we found some questionable 2 year old links which had been addeed by a previous SEO company but only newly identified as Spam by Google and listed in Webmaster Tools. Many of these came from old spammy blog articles (some from, which we removed only about a week before their highly publicised penalisation) and were removed, but reconsideration requests were still denied.

The Problem

A problem was first identified when our client started being completely inconsistent in performance. One month all keywords would improve and traffic would increase, the next month everything would take a hit, the next it would be reversed and so on and so on. We started by looking at all on-page factors. Was there a technical issue with the website? Were engagement metrics poor? Was hosting inconsistent? No, no and no. Soon after we received a notification from webmaster tools and discovered a manual action (partial match affecting some pages/links) had been taken against the website. Huh? We never do any blackhat SEO, and avoid pretty much anything with a shade of grey. Why had our client been penalised?

Manual Action Notification

The Digging

As anyone who has ever had an issue with penalisation will tell you, the first step is to gather and sort as much backlink data as possible.

Our first port of call was Webmaster Tools and a full export of every link that had been identified for the site. There were quite a few (especially when including links from websites of their clients) to go through, so I made sure to sort everything into an easy to use spreadsheet. Having the ability to sort alphabetically by URL, by date found, and later whether I considered them spam, whether webmasters had been contacted, dates contacted, method used to contact etc etc etc, was incredibly useful.

Spreadsheet for Manual Action

Organise. And. Document. Everything.

It will make your job a whole lot easier later on down the track.

Now the fun part… Checking each one of those thousands of backlinks. This will be incredibly time consuming and frustrating, but there’s no easy way to do it (there are some automation tools available to make this easier, but I would rather do this all manually). Usually you will be able to tell very quickly if a site is rubbish and spammy, but sometimes it can be a bit harder to tell.

  • Look for the context of the link. Is the rest of the website completely irrelevant? Probably spam
  • Is the content gibberish? Probably spam
  • Is there an awkwardly written ‘author bio’ with a link to your website? Probably spam

You get the picture

Now depending on what process you would like to use, you can contact the websites as you go. For now, I was just marking the websites as spam in my spreadsheet and collecting contact details. (Why wasn’t I contacting them now to save time later? Patterns can emerge and you don’t want to have to email people multiple times about something else on their website that you found later on). If they had an email address on the website, great, I copied that. If they had no email address but did have a Contact Us form, that got put in the spreadsheet. Failing that, I used with varying degrees of success. You can also give social channels a go (if noted on the website) but I never had much luck there.

Once I had gone through the whole list, marked spam and not-spam, and collected contact details, I decided to see if I could identify any patterns in order to find additional links not picked up by Webmaster tools. I noticed the same ‘author’ name used in several of the spam articles, so I searched for that. After a bit of digging I found a few more articles. Add them to the list.

The (Attempted) Fixing

Now it was time to contact the ‘webmasters’ of the spammy websites. I had a pretty low hit rate here, and you probably will too. Sure you can just disavow all the spammy links, but Matt Cutts recommends you contact the webmasters first. Since this website had already been caught doing the wrong thing, I thought it would be a good idea to do everything by the books. I’d recommend anyone else does this too. I decided to do up a few different generic email templates to suit each different link type and to make this as painless as possible. I’ve included them below:

Miscellaneous Links


I’m contacting you on behalf of one of my clients who is linked on your website at the below page:

[Exact page the link is on]

The hyperlink I am referring to goes to [exact link destination] in the below section of the article:

“[location on the page, with surrounding copy for easy identification]”

Could I please ask for this link to be removed?

Thanks for your time.


Forum Spam


I’m contacting you on behalf of one of my clients who is linked on your website at the below page:

[Exact page the link is on]

The hyperlinks I am referring to go to [exact link destination] in this member’s signature. A previous internet marketing company looks to have created a number of accounts on various forums with the sole intent of spamming links to my client’s website. As you can see, there has been no activity on this account since it was created.

Could I please ask for these links to be removed?

Thanks for your time.


Comment Spam


I’m contacting you on behalf of one of my clients who is linked on your website in the comments of the below page:

[Exact page the link is on]

The hyperlink I am referring to goes to [exact link destination] in the below comment:

“[Comment that links to client website].”

Could I please ask for this spam comment to be removed? A previous internet marketing company implemented a spam comment scheme in order to gain links to my client’s website.

Thanks for your time.


I made sure to include the dates each website was contacted so I could give Google as much information as possible when it came time to disavow and submit for reconsideration. I gave most websites 1-2 weeks to get back to me. If they removed the link, fantastic – note it in the spreadsheet. If they don’t, bummer – note it in the spreadsheet (surely you’re beginning to see a pattern emerge).

Then came time to disavow any links that weren’t removed. You can find plenty of information as to how to structure this document online so I won’t go into it. What I did do though was include dates each website was contacted and through which method. I’m not sure how necessary this is, but it took little effort and ads some legitimacy to what you’re doing. After disavowing, it was time to move on and submit a reconsideration request.

In this request I included a description of what had happened (past SEO agency etc – though don’t expect much sympathy from Google), the actions taken to remove the links manually (including a public Google docs link to that meticulously organised spreadsheet) and a mention of the disavow document. Note that there is a character limit here (though it won’t tell you that – you’ll just get an error). Then came the waiting game…

Reconsideration Rejection Email

Sadly, I wasn’t successful on my first attempt. Google had come back with some additional links that weren’t picked up in the initial link dump. Same thing happened with the next attempt. At this point, I began to think that (for whatever reason) I wasn’t going to be able to have this penalty lifted, but I cleaned up the new batch and resubmitted. And then we were knocked back again, but for an unexpected reason; links from client websites. These were businesses our client had provided services for and their clients were happy with, but because of the increased scrutiny on our website, they were flagged as spam. These links were fairly generic, but often contained keywords with the brand name + [service provided] and things like that.

After doing a bit of researching around this type of thing and rereading the webmaster guidelines we realised that yes, this probably wasn’t really legitimate. We decided to change all of these links to nofollow (more information here) and only branded terms. No keywords or anything resembling a keyword. One more reconsideration request later, and the action was removed.

The Lessons

This project taught us a number of lessons.

  1. Always check and recheck your backlinks. Even if the branded/keyword rich client links were to blame here, there was still a lot of spam, none of which had been picked up when we took over the client. We’re now checking backlink profiles for all clients on a regular basis.
  2. Be organised. Know who you’ve contacted, when, and how and ensure it’s in an easy to communicate format.
  3. Be as strict with your backlinks as possible. I was strict before, but now I’m obsessive.
  4. Keep working at having that penalty revoked. It takes time and effort, but you will (hopefully) get there in the end. Dot all your ‘i’s and cross all your ‘t’s.

And That’s It (for now)

Hopefully you’ve picked a few tips from reading this study. This was the first penalty I’ve had to deal with, but I know it’s unlikely it will be the last. Do you have any tips for those struggling through a manual penalty?