Penalty Lifted: How To Use Google’s Disavow Tool Case Study

Here’s the story. Stratford Retirement got hit with a Google penalty. Hard.

Over the past few months I worked pro bono with the team at Stratford, an assisted living community in Seattle, after they reached out to me to help them recover.

Their previous marketing firm had built 1000’s, literally 1000’s of low-quality directory, spun article submission, and spammy network links all with over-optimized anchor text. The sad part is, it actually worked. Stratford consistently ranked #1 for phrases like “Assisted Living Seattle” which is the company’s bread and butter.

In July, everything crashed with an Unnatural Link Warning and penalty from Google.

warning

Here’s the steps we took to recover.

1 – Backlink Analysis

Seriously depressing.

Using Open Site Explorer, Majestic, and Google Webmaster Tools, it’s was easy to see that over 90% of the links were junk. In fact, it was so bad I gave up looking for good links and tried focusing on links we could save.

We considered starting over with a new domain, but Stratford really wanted to avoid that.

2 – Outreach

When faced with a penalty like this, you quickly become an expert in link research, contact details and methods of scaling outreach.

I’ve written on link removal tools before, but my favorites are:

  1. rmoov
  2. Link Cleanup and Contact
  3. Remove’em

Using these tools and a few email scaling tricks, I sent 100’s of emails to 100’s of webmasters. To my surprise, many replied in a cooperative manner. Unfortunately, after several weeks I had only managed to remove a small fraction of the 1000’s of links.

3 – First Reconsideration Request

Our first reconsideration request went like this:

  • We explained the situation
  • Outed the previous SEO (won’t do it here, but they shouldn’t be in business)
  • Linked to a Google Doc of all the confirmed removed links
  • Politely begged for forgiveness.

The response from Google was typical of almost all first-time reconsideration requests: Denied.

At this point we pushed ahead with white hat link building. We published a simple PDF guide to paying for assisted living that earned a number of links from high authority sites. Unfortunately, stacked against the massive penalty, those new links had virtually no effect on traffic or rankings.

I was ready to throw in the towel and start over on a new domain.

4 – The Magic Disavow Tool

When Google announced the Disavow Tool we jumped on it. Wanting to be thorough, we choose to disavow entire domains instead of individual urls. We had nothing to lose.

We also disavowed many links that had already been removed. This was because those old links still appeared in Google Webmaster Tools. It can take months for links to be dropped from the index, and we wanted to be complete.

We threw everything into a .csv file. The final result disavowed 96% of the total backlink profile.

disavow

5 – Second Reconsideration Request

Reconsideration request #2 contained links to 2 important files:

  1. A list of all successfully removed links. To help accomplish this, I uploaded our complete link profile from Google Webmaster Tools into Screaming Frog SEO Spider. Choosing “list” mode and uploading the csv for the tool to crawl, I quickly found 100’s of pages that returned 404’s, or the server was offline. The links we were dealing with were so low quality, that often the entire site would simply disappear. There are other superior methods for searching for links, but this suited our purposes.
  2. A copy of our disavow file in Google Docs. Again, this contained at least 96% of the original backlink profile.

Of course, we begged for more forgiveness.

6 – Penalty Lifted

We waited a month before receiving confirmation.

revoked

Traffic slowly recovered to about 50% of pre-penalty levels – which isn’t bad considering we started off with crap links from Bob’s Burrito Blog. As the weeks go by it continues to rise.

Should You Use the Disavow Tool?

In most cases, probably not. It’s a blunt instrument to be used as a weapon of last resort. There are still too many things we don’t know about it.

When you have run out of options, or need to protect yourself from negative SEO, the disavow tool may be the only choice. If you do choose to use it, here’s what I would recommend.

  1. Error on the side of caution. You’re probably going to disavow a few good links with the bad, but it beats waiting several more months waiting after Google denies your last reconsideration request. Remember, this is a tool of last resort.
  2. In most cases, favor disavowing entire domains over urls. It’s rare that you’ll have the same domain link to you in both a white hat and black hat manner, so it’s best to be rid of all of them. This option also takes care of extra pages that most CMS generate like tag and category archives, which may link to you multiple times.
  3. Place a copy of your disavow file in Google Docs, and link to it from your reconsideration request. Don’t link to random urls in your requests, as the Webspam team is unlikely to click on them.

Had any experience with the disavow tool? Let us know in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. Noam says

    Great post and thanks for sharing.

    Three Important Questions:
    1. Did you also contact all of the domain owners (giving them a chance and showing G you tried) or immediately disavowed the links?
    2. Did you disavow only links and domains taken from the WMT or also those from Majestic etc.?
    3. Did you actually see the links from domains you disavowed removed from the WMT’s list?
    I still see many domains I disavowed.

    Thanks

    • Cyrus Shepard says

      1. Contacted as many as I could, with about a 25% success rate.
      2. In the end, we went with only links from Google Webmaster Tools. There is some evidence from John Mueller at Google that you can rely on these links for link cleanup, but you may want to use other tools as well for their additional functionality, such as sorting and exporting.

      http://dejanseo.com.au/yes-google-may-ignore-some-of-your-links/

      3. Disavowed links still show up in GWT.

      • Noam says

        Thanks for the answer – another question:
        Between steps 4 & 5 – between disavowing and filing another reconsideration request, did you wait for 6 weeks as they say that it takes to disavow or did you immediately filed for reconsideration?

  2. says

    Nice overview of the same procedure I had to last month.

    On 24/11 I got the same warning and did almost the same steps:
    – using the Disavow Tool (1 low-quality website had 10.000 sitewide links to my blog)
    – added nofollow-tags on all my advertorials blogposts

    The (temporary) penalty I got was PR0 with luckyly no ranking penalties.

    2 reconsideration requests later on 02/01/2013 I got the good message “Manual spam action revoked” that they removed all manual penalities and everything is now back as before.

    An experience you have to have once in your life, but I hope it was the last time I had this nerve wrecking experience.

  3. Joe Robison says

    Glad you were able to get the penalty lifted! I had to work on a similar project and sent in a reconsideration request 3 times, but that was months before the disavow tool came out!

    100% agree that you quickly become an expert in link research and outreach, and I had never done it before. We were only able to get about 6% of our links removed after 200+ hours of work. Did you have a similar percentage?

    • Cyrus Shepard says

      Surprisingly, we had a bit higher success rate of around 25% response. However, we did word the letter pretty stern, if I remember.

  4. says

    Great post Cyrus – just one suggestion – in terms of checking downloaded backlinks, I’ve found scrapebox to be a better tool than screaming frog, because it will automatically pull in the target page and anchor text of the links – Google Webmaster Tools just gives you the linking pages to your site, but no info about the links on those pages – Scrapebox will pull that for you as well as checking if the link is present on the page

  5. says

    How long did the whole process take from start to finish? You mentioned months a few times, but I am curious just to see how long the whole process takes. I am dealing with a client in a similar situation.

    • Cyrus Shepard says

      The penalty hit in July. We worked on link cleanup and submitted our first request in September, I believe. The final request was submitted in November and the penalty lifted in December. So about 6 months total, or a lifetime on the web.

  6. Michael Molligi says

    Great post Cyrus.

    I have a question though. I have a client with a site that clearly was hit with a penguin update as traffic dropped around 30-40% during April ’12. This site has had numerous natural awesome links (e.g. Forbes, CNN, etc.) as well as quite a few high quality guest posts with 1000’s of shares linking to it. Furthermore, we actually went through with the Disavow tool and removed a plethora of old bad links that were actually built through a virus that was on the site. Link profile is clean and again there’s a nice mix of quality links to the site. However, there was never any direct penalty within webmaster tools, just the drop in traffic. In terms of keywords we’re tracking there was some loss in rankings, but nothing significant. Any suggestions on further steps to take?

    I know there is some ambiguity to my question as you’re not specifically looking into the site/analytics/link profile, but any thoughts would be highly appreciated.

    thanks,

    Michael

    • says

      If you didn’t get a letter, yet lost traffic around the same time as a major update – you most likely got hammered by the algorithm, rather than manually by the web-spam team. As such – sending in reconsideration requests will most likely be wasted time.

      If you got hit around the same time penguin rolled out, you need to clean up your link profile. I know people say to use the disavow tool as a last resort (which I don’t get), but in your situation you may as well do it. Manually contacting webmasters of spammy sites is a huge waste of time.

      Work on getting a master list imported into the disavow tool, and wait for the next penguin refresh.

  7. says

    Why can’t Google just incorporate into it’s algorithm a
    devalued or no credit for bad links??

    Just because their tool has some inherent deficiency
    they are making millions of webmasters have to go
    through all of this removal crap!

    Google. Your present solution SUCKS.

    • Rudy Garcia says

      @Robert
      Google does this for very good reasons which I understand, however sneaky it might be. I like to think of this video as a good answer for why they use the disavow tool at all:

      (warning: extremely long)
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tx082gDwGcM

      Imagine generating free labor from thousands of SEOs trying to get their sites or client’s sites re-indexed.

  8. says

    What a nightmare. We have been getting scrapebox attacked for years. Every time we hits number one for a term, all of a sudden ahrefs shows a huge spike for those terms, and boom, gone from page one. The disavowal tool probably doesn’t do anything. We had better luck with DMCA takedowns, since most of our stuff was scraped anyways. We have made a partial recovery since April of 2012.

  9. says

    Although none of my clients website’s were hit by Google but it always good to know others experiences. Brilliant case study and good step by step approach Cyrus.

    • Cyrus Shepard says

      About a week. Figured that was more than enough time for the disavow file to at least register in the system (although the information in it would not have time to propagate through Google’s algorythm)

      Regardless, it took about 5 weeks for the Webspam team to get to our reconsideration requests, so it wasn’t a factor.

  10. says

    We had a similar situation with one of our site. I have tried since May 5th to get the penalty revoked. We have thousands of spamy links from an SEO company that was hired in the past. The links were a mix of directory links, blog roll links, forum signatures and some article marketing PR release junk.

    I had good success removing quite a bit of the spam using removeem and link detox. Then I hit the wall. Many of these links were site wide in nature so WMT was still showing the links (they are still showing thousands right now. Then the link disavow tool came out and I new I had a chance. I did not want to scrap the domain because we have had this site since 1999.

    I started with the WMT list and what removeem and link detox had listed. I combed through the link profile keeping what I know to be natural links. Forums talking about our products with real url based links as the anchor text. I then submitted the disavow list and waited 1 week to send another reconsideration request. 6 days later I got the “Site Still Violates our Quality Guidlines” message. At this point I decided to take the whole list of links in WMT and only keep a very small number of the links maybe 20 and disavow all of the other natural form posts. I sumitted the list and then the reconsideration request 1.5 weeks later. On Jan 4th I got the best message I could ever receive. “Manual Spam Action Revoked”

    It has been 6 days since I received my Spam Action Revoked message in WMT and I have seen no movement in my listings. Does anyone know how long it takes to see some movement? I realize I will not get the rankings back were they were before but I ha hoping to see some movement up in longtail terms. The site has over 120,000 pages indexed in WMT

    I am believer in the Disavow tool but I do not know what will happen after the fact.

  11. says

    Hi Cyrus, I ran the Stratford Retirement site through Searchmetircs, it appears to have a very low traffic volume (the tool could be wrong), almost non existent, it’s not a big ‘money term’ site. I feel Google was most likely not too concerned with this site, therefore it lifted the penalty. My experience is if you’re hit by a Google penalty within a competitive SERP then it’s incredibly hard to get the penalty lifted. You can’t just use the Disavow tool, list the majority of the bad links and hope for the best, you have to remove the links manually. If a domain is burnt then I suggest start a new one and re-point the good links to the new domain, much easier, cleaner and quicker.

    • Noam says

      Hi Fergus.

      I agree with you but only for specific very limited cases. If you are talking about a relatively new site or a site with a domain name that is of no importance then yes. However, in most cases for legit companies, the domain names are the brand name and it is something that is very hard to give up on. Also, what about a site that has hundreds of quality authority articles – you can’t just copy them into a new domain (even if you take down the old one).

      I completely understand Google penalty (and I am penalized) but it is problematic. Someone wrote once that you should only keep the links you are proud on, links that you wouldn’t be embarrassed if a client sees – if you go by that law you will see that you will remove most links.

      We are under penalization for a year now and needless to say it’s killing us. Google is very harmful for small businesses. These are the exact businesses that can afford and hire mediocre SEO firms that pulled this poor techniques. And needless to say that the firm we hired was found on Google…

      My industry was completely shaken during these algo changes and the only firms that came on top were the HUGE companies – another problem – you can’t compete with these firms and their budgets.

  12. says

    In one case we saw it was better to start over because 99.9% of the backlinks for the clients domain came from spammy websites, but as a last hope we used the disavow tool to ban all the domains we could see links coming from. Then submitted a reconsideration request and within two weeks G support answered: there are STILL links that are against Google’s policies. LOL… I guess they didn’t spend any time rechecking anything… :-/ Too bad.

    • Noam says

      Google is showing only a small part of the incoming links. If you truly feel you have nothing to lose you can extract links from OSE and Majestic and try again.

      Also, G states that in case you use the disavow tool and then ask reconsideration you should mention it since the disavow tool takes up to 6 weeks…

  13. says

    Cyrus,

    It sounds like you are not so much claiming that the disavow tool itself helped you (in some automated way), but rather than by using the disavow tool you were able to make a strong case that you spent substantial time and effort and made an honest attempt to clean things up in your second reconsideration request. Is that the gist here? Or do you believe that the tool itself did something on your behalf as well?

  14. says

    Great post and very interesting reading from all the follow ups.

    Why no mention of PPC? Or is that considered a dirty word? :-)

    SEO takes time and money just like buying clicks does. But ppc is instant and controllable to get some site traffic back whilst pursuing the organic clean up.

    • Noam says

      We were penalized cross website and now it seems that it is only on part of the site – on certain words. For the part we are not shown on SERPS we do some PPC but it is not something we can do for long time because the ROI on PPC for us is negative (as in many cases).

      PPC is good for certain things and as a completing tool. Its immediate result does help to decide which words and phrases to pursue but that’s it – at least for us.

      We were already in the state that buying our traffic would have cost us dozens of thousands of dollars per month – I doubt if you could spend such amounts on PPC alone and survive.

  15. Brandon says

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us Cyrus! Really interesting results disavowing 96% of the profile, that’s a clean slate!

  16. says

    Cyrus, great articles- thanks, We do not have a manual penalty, but believe we have a link problem with our home page as we lost all keywords except branded ones. Our key terms all but disappeared (again, just on the home page – other pads are fine). I am hoping you can help me with a couple of questions:

    1. Is there a good way to confirm a link problem?
    2. How does one know what a good link is versus a bad one. I have looked at seomoz and majestic, can see the links and anchor text, but how do I k ow which links are good and which are bad?

    Thanks!

  17. says

    I think that Google should be more pro active in its approach into bad links by adding no value automatically to them. This gives everybody a level playing field to work from. It is neon impossible if you have inherited a site that is penalised to expect to turn it around in a short period of time even when the suspect links are removed. Google have their own time limits and although they can be quick to penalise they seem to take a slower approach to revoking penalisation.

  18. says

    Hi Cyrus. Thanks for the great article and clarifying the process of re-consideration. Thanks for the links “link remove tools” very useful!

  19. StillInTheGame says

    */*/*/*/*
    Maybe someone can Answer This ?????

    I used to rotate between #1 to #3 spot in Google for a 3 word phrase. Same rankings in Bing & Yahoo.

    My link building was mainly profile forums and some spun article blasting, blog comments. I think I had upwards of 6k backlinks 2 years ago.

    **** I NEVER RECEIVED A Webmaster Tools Notice *****

    However, my rankings fell on the infamous LinkSpam update. I think that was Penguin.

    I lost 80% of my traffic – Even though my rankings in Yahoo/Bing are still at the top to this day, I get very little traffic from them.
    HOWEVER, that traffic is still getting me a nice few hundred in Adsense (it used to be $1k avrg p/mnth when I ranked in Google). So I want to save whatever scraps I can.

    NOW HERE IS THE “TOUGH” QUESTION ——

    Ive found about 500 links (the other 5k links must have been deindexed).
    Maybe 100 are good links. The rest are crap.

    ….. IF I DELETE the 400 Bad Links………
    ….. WILL I LOSE MY RANKINGS IN YAHOO & BING ???????

    On one hand, maybe I can work my way back into Google. On the other hand, If I try and fail, will that take away the few hundred per month from Yahoo/Bing ?

    Ive honestly never studied any “How to rank in Yahoo Bing” SEO guides. Always just Google. The SEO I did seemed to work in Yahoo/Bing.

    Can you get better rankings in Yahoo/Bing with spam backlinks? If I take mine away, will I lose my Yahoo/Bing rankings?

    “SWEAR WORD that Starts with F”

    If anyone knows please let me know. It would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks
    Still In The Game

    ******

  20. says

    I think, There is no need to disavow the backlinks we are having from authoritative websites/blogs. We just have to remove links from low profiled and spammy links.

    – Hafis

  21. says

    The really tough thing for webmasters is that Google won’t do anything to say *which* links they deem bad or good. You have to discover them yourself as a webmaster. Such a thing is fine for us who work in SEO, aware of changes in the industry and have access to various tools to discover crumby backlinks.

    But for the most part a webmaster may not necessarily have engaged in something knowing it was against Google guidelines. Some would do something to rank ‘because it worked’ at that time.

    If the penalty notices were more helpful than just ‘you have bad links’, for example, webmasters may not feel so bad, if that notice then went onto provide resources or even a CSV of all the links Google knows you have for you to filter the natural from the unnatural then that would empower webmasters and help them feel better about Google generally rather than making Google the monster.

    Just my two cents as we deal with a client in this very situation and finding Google themselves *very* unhelpful in pinpointing the precise issue.

  22. Mike Stetzer says

    Extremely helpful post!

    Just to confirm, a .csv file is sufficient for Disavow Links Tool? I had heard that it needed to be a text file.

    Also, did you include any comments in your .csv file, such as – “#attempted to contact owner..etc.”?

    Again, thank you very much for your post. It was much needed!

    • says

      Hi Mike,

      The Disavow Links Tool upload must be a .txt file.

      The confusion over .csv is caused by the fact that the file you download from the tool is available only as .csv or googledoc. (A major flaw in my view).

      As a result, those using the downloaded version as the base for updates of their Disavow List need to be EXTREMELY careful when converting the file. There have been instances where people have tried to upload and been unable to get the file to “take”, leaving them with an empty disavow file instead of an updated list (another major issue).

      To ensure that the text file you are uploading will be recognized by the Disavow Links Tool, you should ensure that your text file is UTF-8 encoded. John Mueller confirmed this in this thread: https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!msg/webmasters/i4rRCb0DGI0/VDXaaVZAWUgJ

      Hope that helps,

      Sha

  23. Jules says

    So glad you posted this!

    Would you recommend this for a site that has never received an unnatural link warning (but is suffering from a similar situation: questionable backlinks, drop in traffic and rankings) or do you think it wouldn’t help at all?

    • says

      Hi Jules,

      Despite statements from Google representatives suggesting that ~100% of site owners who have a manual action in place have been contacted, I am personally aware of nearly 30 sites where no message has ever been received.

      In all of these cases, the manual action was in place for some time and not confirmed until the site owner took advice and lodged a reconsideration request.

      I would strongly advise against using the absence of communication from Google to assess your situation.

      The best measure of whether you have site issues is always the end result. I would say that there are likely far too many site owners out there who are proceeding on an entirely false premise and completely unaware.

      Sha

  24. says

    Hi,

    I have had two reconsideration requests rejected. The first after removing about 25% of the links, the second after using the disavow tool. After researching I discovered that sites link Majestic SEO DOES NOT have an up to date list of all the links to my site. I decided to download them all from Webmaster Tools only and have started from scratch contacting all the site owners.

    i have managed to remove about 15% of the links after contacting them 4 times.

    I am today going to open an updated disavow list and be totally ruthless adding any domain that takes me more than 3 seconds to consider whether its a problem or not.

    Fingers crossed!

  25. says

    I would also not use disavow tool unless the one who is using it, is someone able to know exactly what is and what is not a spamy worth removable link, only then can result show up. Good work.

  26. says

    Thank you for this awesome post. I have been very nervous about using the disavow tool because I did not want to become a target. A previous SEO company that I worked with set a bunch of spammy links to my site. I can wait to get them removed.

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