The story of a penalised domain, Google reconsideration requests and the disavow tool…

Google LogoWithin this post, I give an insight in to a friends website which I’ve been working on for the past 12 months and document all the processes I went through with a penalised domain.

Setting the scene

A good friend of mine purchased an online business in June 2012, this came with a website (the domain was around 6 years old), an Analytics account, Google Webmaster Tools and the like.

When the business was acquired the website ranked very well, mainly top 10 results for around 30 important and broad keywords which delivered traffic and enquires on a daily basis.

Once purchased, I got the chance to dig around the site along with looking into the backlink profile. It was clear that work was needed to be done. It’s important to note, I wasn’t involved in the business sale process and didn’t no anything about the domain until everything had been finalised.

The brief was to launch a new site asap plus to start on a backlink clean-up in the interim following on from the Penguin update earlier in 2012, which the site had survived.

Previous SEO and techniques used

The site had been with 2 very large and well respected UK SEO agencies prior to the sale of the business. Whilst I won’t reveal who the companies were, both ranked page one in Google for the phrase ‘SEO’ 18 months ago, today, they aren’t even in the top 100 positions.

The above gave me some confidence but upon closer inspection, there where some serious issues internally and externally from a SEO point-of-view:

  • Mass (and I mean mass!) article marketing
  • Hidden footer links on external sites
  • Purchased links from very low level sources
  • Over optimised anchor text
  • Links from 2 large offshore link networks
  • Bad neighbourhood link association
  • Comment spam

Also, there were many pages of content on the site which were hidden away via a hidden text link on a page in the blog – very sneaky! This section contained around 50 cookie cutter pages which were being fed by a syndicated feed from the previous SEO companies server, and to add to this the content didn’t even read well. A black hat SEO’s paradise…

Priority after the acquisition was to create a new site, form new social persona’s, engage with the community and also start with link removal. In September a new site was launched and this fixed all of the on-page problems with the site.

The warning and damage

In mid-October, an ‘Unnatural Links’ warning was received in Google Webmaster Tools. Then a day or so after, rankings dropped along with enquiries – it felt like a switch had been hit over night. Below is a graph from the Analytics account; you can clearly see the drop-off.


Enquiries went from around 3-5 a day to 0, yes, you read that right ‘zero’.

The backlink clean-up

As of November 2012, a very large backlink clean-up on the domain began. I started off by using Link Detox, Google Webmaster Tools, Open Site Explorer and Ahrefs.com to gather as much data as possible which was then correlated into a spreadsheet.

From there, I then started contacting webmasters, link directories and the like to request link removal. Some were much easier than others to contact and payment was required on some, this ranged from $5 – $50 a link!

I made sure I kept a full audit trail, this made things a lot easier to manage and monitor.

Fortunately, the previous owner of the site did have usernames and passwords available for some old legacy SEO which had been done by the agencies. These links were nuked quickly. Whilst link removal was happening, a full content marketing and link strategy was also taking place, and I mean the good ‘white hat’ kind.

It’s important to note that I purposefully avoided the disavow tool in November 2012 for two reasons:

  1. In my opinion, it wasn’t clear enough what effects the new disavow tool could have on the domain
  2. I wanted to make an effort to remove the links first

As you can see from the graph below (taken from Ahrefs.com), link removal really started to happen in January which was great news.


I also found by error 404ing old website pages; this helped with link removal and anchor text ratio really started to change from February 2013 onwards.

When the new site whet live in September, I did some 301 redirects from only the good and trusted pages on the site, but then removed these as of December 2012.

Disavow file

In early March 2013, I finally did submit a disavow file but continued with link removal. My success with link removal had been good but there were many sites where I couldn’t get contact details. These were typically low level automated PHP directories.

I’ve found over the years that Google Webmaster Tools (GWMT) can be slow in recording when a link has been removed or lost. So, previous links which had been taken down, but still featured in GWMT were added to the disavow file also.

To be clear, I gave 6 lines worth of commentary detailing efforts to date and only used the ‘domain:’ extension within the disavow file. This proved to be the best approach as Matt Cutts stated in May 2013 a machete approach is far better than a fine-toothed comb approach. It worked out that I disavowed around 94% of the backlink profile.

The first reconsideration request (May 2013)

In May, I submitted my first reconsideration request (and I mean first ever after 10+ years of being in search). Looking back, my first request was weak and didn’t give enough even though I did outline the history and activities.

After 5 days I got an automated response saying there were still violations on the domain and further work was need.

What I submitted with the first request:

  • A detailed reply with history, examples and actions

The second reconsideration request (June 2013)

I waited around a month and continued with link removal. I then submitted my 2nd request with further detail and a spreadsheet documenting the work that had been done.

After 7 days I got a second automated response saying there were still violations on the domain. To be honest, I was surprised that I had failed on the second request, so it was back to the drawing board.

What I submitted with the second request:

  • A further detailed reply with history, examples, actions
  • Spreadsheet detailing all websites contacted along with some outcomes

The third reconsideration request (July 2013)

I waited a further month and continued in vain with further link removal and continued with the new SEO strategy.

I then decided to submit a 3rd request, 12 days past… success! On the 29th July 2013, it was confirmed all manual penalties had been lifted and I believe (but this wasn’t confirmed) that the disavow file was also processed.

What I submitted with the third request:

  • A similar reply to the second request with the history, examples, actions
  • Spreadsheet detailing all websites contacted along with outcomes
  • I also supported the above with a further spreadsheet with my complete disavow file inserted
  • Presented a graph showing link decay for the past 6 months
  • Gave an open account of current digital marketing actitivies including social profiles
  • Made reference to the two previous reconsideration requests

I’ve included an example of the message received from the successful reconsideration request:

Notice from Google

My feedback

Fortunately, the website and business above isn’t my friend’s sole business, which allowed me to do the job well. But from the above insight, you can see how devastating Google updates can be on an online business.

Personally, I don’t agree that a business should be affecting in the above way, but then Google clearly states their guidelines and this points to what black hat SEO techniques some agencies will use.

I’m planning to update this post with edits and open updates around the domain and progress, so please check back.

Takeaways for the future

It’s been an interested journey with the domain, many highs and lows, but in the end a successful outcome. Would I have done anything differently? Maybe, and that would have been to submit a reconsideration request sooner than the month of May, but I wanted to show and prove to Google that work had been done on removing links and the reconsideration request was 100% accurate.

What helped me in this process was scrutinising every backlink in the websites profile, this took some time but the end result was worth it. And like I mentioned, this was my first ever reconsideration request, which was an interesting exercise also.

Hopefully the above is proof a domain can be saved, there is still work to be done, but its now back on the right track.

Link building and SEO in general is tough and has changed a lot in the past 24 months, a good friend and someone I regard highly summed up SEO very well recently – “adapt or die”.

I hope you found this post interesting and insightful, please feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

(Flickr Image Credit: brionv on Flickr – CC Licensed)

Post written by ,

Blog | Cookies | Sitemap | Twitter | LinkedIn

© Dave Cain