Google Penguin Penalty Recovery Guide

We get business owners ringing us regularly asking for help recovering their rankings.

And here's the thing...

If you've ever hired an SEO agency, used automated software to generate backlinks or even created backlinks to your site manually - there's a very good chance you've got a penalty against your site.

Fact is… Matt Cuts (head honcho of web spam at Google) revealed that the Penguin update initially affected 3% of all English searches

"This algorithm affects about 3.1% of queries in English to a degree that a regular user might notice."

Matt Cutts

So if you're on this page, you either already know you've got a penalty against your site and want to find a solution (please keep reading below, we've outlined a full penguin recovery guide for you) or you're unsure and first want to check if your site has been penalised.

So let's deal with that first.

How To Check If Your Site Has Been Penalised By Google's Penguin Update


If any of the following has happened to your website, you can be pretty sure you're under a Penguin Penalty

  • At a specific time (post April 24th 2012) your site traffic suddenly reduced and you started getting less visitors.
  • No matter what you do, any new content you create and publish doesn't get ranked.
  • You are doing a lot of back links and SEO and your traffic isn't moving up.
  • Your traffic levels have been stagnant for weeks, even though you've created fresh content.
  • You see lower value websites ranking better on Google for your keywords than your website.
  • You find yourself unable to rank even for long tail keywords.

If you've experienced any of the above - more than likely your website is under a penguin penalty and this guide will show you the exact steps to fix your problem.

Step By Step Google Penguin Recovery Guide

There's one… and only one way to cure your website of the Penguin disease.

Identify bad links pointing at your website, manually remove them or disavow them!

Fact is… Google themselves instruct webmasters to disavow bad links even if you think there isn't a penalty against your website.

Watch Matt Cutts discuss this below:

OK so let's take this step by step…

What Is A Backlink?

In simple terms, one website links to another a backlink is created. You can click on this and it will take you to the other site.

It looks a little like this: BackLink

That was simple...


Now what you need to know is that backlinks play a huge part, still today... in how Google determines how your website should be ranked.

We won't go down the entire rabbit hole here, but in simple terms, the search engines figure that if there's a heap of trusted sites pointing at a particular site, then this site can also be trusted by their customers (the searcher).

And here's where it gets fun - if links are artificial (usually free, cheap and automated links) they can be used to manipulate the search engines to show crappy sites that shouldn't be trusted by the Search Engines customers.

That's why Google decided to bring out Penguin to combat these links and pretty much remove the weight any of these links used to carry - even to the extent where these kinds of links now penalise your website.

Having said this please remember - NOT ALL BACKLINKS ARE BAD!

We use the right high authoritative backlinks all day to rank our own and client's sites - however, it's the toxic, cheap and spammy links that will hurt your site rankings.

So you're probably wondering…


[custom_headline type="center" level="h2" looks_like="h3" style="margin-top:0px; margin-bottom:35px"]What's Considered A Toxic Backlink?[/custom_headline]

The way Google would like you to figure it is that any paid link (eg. blog networks, paid links, gaming or links from link schemes) is toxic.

But as in every case… it's a little more complicated than that.

Our testing told us it all works a little more like this...

Let's say Google notices a certain level of toxic backlinks in your link profile - what happens next is that your rankings get reduced…

Now if the level of toxic backlinks reaches a certain threshold - it's bye-bye… your website will get eliminated from its database entirely!

So beware!

So let's look at exactly what Google deems to be toxic backlinks (taken from Google best practice guidelines)

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to 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

So in short - any purchased links are considered toxic. Link exchanges as well as automated software programs like Ultimate Demon, Article Marketing Robot, Magic Submitter, SEnuke, Xrumer and GSA just to mention a few of the more popular ones…

It probably makes sense that Google hates these kinds of links - it's not earth-shattering news!

So let's move on and see more examples of what Google deems as poisonous to your site.

  • Text advertisements that pass PageRank
  • Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank
  • Links with optimised anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. For example: There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links.
  • Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites, for example: Visitors to this page: 1,472 car insurance.
  • Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites.
  • Forum comments with optimised links in the post or signature.

Now… in our opinion Forum links stopped working even back in 2011 so nothing new there either.

Just avoid these kinds of links altogether - stay far away!

The same goes for automated social bookmarks and low-quality directory links.

But hidden deep in the middle of Google's quality guidelines is why...

Google's Panda algorithm destroyed thousands of website like a hurricane tearing through a village of grass huts!

"Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. For example: There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress."

So what this means in easy to understand English, is that if you place a link on another site and the clickable text (anchor text) in it is a keyword other than your name, your brand or your website address - it's deemed toxic and harmful to your site rankings.

Now don't get me wrong, in our testing you can get away with one or two of these links, but hit the threshold and it's bye bye website rankings, traffic and possibly sales for your business!

And to top it off… it's not just press release and articles sites as in the example given - Google treats all kinds of links exactly the same way.

So How Can You Know If Your Website Has Toxic Links Pointing To It?

If you've experienced any of the effects mentioned at the start of this guide, you can be almost certain your site has been hit.

The other way where you can be 100% certain is if you received a manual penalty from Google.

How can you know if you've received a Manual Google Penalty?


The easiest way to check on this one is by simply logging into your webmaster tools account and taking a peek into the message section.

If you have a message from Google, the odds are high that it's about a manual penalty - so double-check this and if you do you'll have to apply the following steps.

But before we get to that… if you don't have a manual penalty against your site but you've been completely removed from the listing or you've seen a major drop in traffic, then it means you've got an algorithm penalty against your site.

In our experience... Nearly every site which has never completed a link clean-up campaign is under an algorithm penalty.

What this means is that rather than one of the Google employees putting a manual penalty against your site, their algorithm has found toxic links to your site and therefore lowered your rankings in accordance.

What we have found is that a site ranking drop severity is in direct correlation to how badly your site is affected by toxic links.

If you've just got a few bad links against your site more than likely (after several Penguin refreshes) you won't experience full drops in traffic, but rather a slight decrease. Now if you've got a lot of toxic links pointing at your site and you've got several additional algorithm problems it's more than likely your traffic has all but stopped and your site is probably ranking somewhere in the hundreds for your keywords.

So How Do You Combat Toxic Links? Our Recommended Tools!

There are several tools you can use to clean up your link profile and recover your rankings.

First of all, Google gives you a free tool, so you may as well use it 😉

Using Webmaster Tools To Check For Manual Penalties:

All you need to do is log into your Google Webmaster Tools account and look for any message from Google. If currently, you don't have an account with Google you can set one up totally free right here: Google Webmaster Tools

Then any message that will be sent from Google will more than likely arrive a while after you set up your account.

Once you've got your account set up or you're logged in you'll want to click on Search Traffic in the sidebar menu and then click on Manual actions.

Just like on the screenshots below:

Click On Search Traffic
Click On Search Traffic
Click On Manual Actions
Click On Manual Actions

If your site has a manual action you will see a message like this one:


If you're safe from manual actions your inbox will look like this:


It's important to take this as a very first step as you will not be able to recover from a penalty (no matter how many links you remove) without a reconsideration request to Google.

Now while it's probably bad and hurt your business if you've got a manual penalty it's not the end of your site or your business - all it means is that you've got a few extra steps to take care of.

Grabbing Your Backlink Profile Using Google Webmaster Tools

Now, remember, checking if you've got a manual action against your site is only step 1. You will still need to analyse your entire backlink profile to see which links are holding your site back from hitting page 1.

And again, you can do this right within your webmaster dashboard.

Just like the screenshot below:

Click On "Download Latest Links"

Now using this method you're going to get most of your links - but not all of them!

Google does report all the links that they have in their index pointing at your site.

What we put down to is the fact that Google protects their algorithm and if they gave away all the data (backlinks) which determine a site's rankings it could become possible for people to reverse engineer their algorithm.

So the more variables Google can hide the happier they are 😉

So what this means is that you can use another tool to pull the rest of your links that Webmaster Tools did not report on.

Here are 3 further tools you can use to grab as many backlinks to your site as possible:

https://cognitiveseo.com (these guys integrate a lot of data from various sources and it's our tool of choice)

The reason we really like Cognitive SEO is that it makes the next most important steps a snap.

The tool has an analysis feature built-in which will analyse your Webmaster Tool links (which you can upload) and any other links the tool discovered.

Using this tool will tell you exactly what the density of your link profile is.

In other words, it will tell you how many times your Business Name, Brand Name, URL or keyword was used in linking to your site.

Now to make sense of some of this data you'll have to understand that any link that has your brand name or URL is considered a brand anchor. Any anchor that is a keyword that you're wanting to rank for is considered a commercial anchor. Anything else is considered miscellaneous.

So you will want to use the classifier to classify all your links into those categories.

After you're done you can run the unnatural links classifier.

The beauty of this tool is that it will pick up all links it thinks are toxic for you.

You will then easily be able to navigate to those links and view them in your browser to determine if they are indeed toxic to your site.

If they are you simply mark the link for disavow.

The tool will also outline why it thinks the link is suspect or unnatural - so it takes all the guesswork out for you.

Once you've gone through your entire link profile CognitiveSEO will produce a disavow file for you which you can easily submit to webmaster tools.

However, before you do this, there's one important step you need to take.

If you have control of any of the toxic or unnatural links outlined in your report we highly recommend removing these manually - the fewer links you have to get disavowed the better.

Google in fact wants you to try and remove links manually 3 times before requesting disavowal.

So let's go through the steps you need to take:

1) Download the CSV file from CognitiveSEO and mark the headers of the document as follows:

“Link, Link Type, Contact Email, Date of Removal Request (3 times), and Webmaster Response”.

2) Remove any links which you have control over.

3) Contact the webmaster of any other toxic backlinks manually, documenting at each step what action was taken and the response from the webmaster. You need to let them know the exact link you want removed, what page it's on and where it links to. The easier you make it for the webmaster the more success you'll have.

You need to keep a record of each communication effort so you can also demonstrate to Google the effort and steps you have taken to remove the links manually first.

As explained, you need to make at least 3 manual attempts to contact the webmasters before moving onto the disavow step.

4) Disavow Your Links - once you've removed as many toxic links as possible in your own effort, you can now submit your report to Google to disavow the rest using the disavow tool.

Now please be sure you've only got Toxic links listed on your site, don't just submit all your links without taking the above steps as it could hurt your rankings again…

Once you disavow a link Google will remove it from counting towards your site and any power this link had will be removed - positive and negative!

So make sure all steps above were followed first before resorting to this final step.

Additionally to get this final step right here is what you will want to do.

Get acquainted with the support information (LINK THIS) Google provides free of charge in regard to their disavow tool.

You need to make sure you use the proper formatting on the report:

Once you've got the right formatting in place for your disavow file, visit the disavow links tool page. Enter the URL you'd like to disavow the links against and click on the orange Disavow Links button.

IMPORTANT! You must use the right formatting on your disavow file. Then Submit File HERE.
IMPORTANT! You must use the right formatting on your disavow file. Then Submit the File HERE.
Ensure You Read The Warning Message And Make Sure Your File Meets The Correct Standard.
Ensure You Read The Warning Message And Make Sure Your File Meets The Correct Standard.

Take note!

Google takes this seriously so they will again give you a warning message - make sure you read it and make sure you agree and are confident with your file.

Once you're happy to submit your file click Disavow Links.

1) Choose Your Disavow File 2) Click Submit 3) Click Done
1) Choose Your Disavow File
2) Click Submit
3) Click Done

Then you simply need to choose your disavow file, click submit and click done to finish the process.

And that's the end of that… you've disavowed your links, Google will process them and many times within a week or two you'll start to see jumps in your rankings!

And that's the entire process…

The only other step you may have to take is if you've got a manual penalty against your site.

So here's the final step if you've got a manual Penalty Against your site

After you've cleaned up your links and disavowed any links which you could not remove manually, it's time to submit your reconsideration request to Google.

You'll have to outline that you've removed all the links, what actions you've taken and for them to reconsider your website to be included in the search results.

You MUST include as much as possible every step you took to demonstrate you are a legitimate site owner and not trying to spam the search engines, the more effort you've taken to contact people and document all your steps the more success you'll have.

Additionally, you should take a light and pleasant approach and assure them you have studied all their best practices and will follow them as close as possible in the future.

To submit this request, you will need to log back into Webmaster Tools, click on the Search Traffic menu and then on Manual Actions - then click "Request A Review".


Usually, it will take a couple of weeks for Google to respond to your request. If you followed every step as outlined above, you should be successful in your attempts and they will approve your request.

If not… it may be time to reconsider rebuilding your website on a different domain and start again!

This is the bad news and only the VERY last resort!

- - -

I hope this penguin recovery guide has been informative and helpful in your quest to recover your rankings.

If you have any other questions, don't hold back and simply leave a comment below.

And if this guide helped you a lot we'd love a like, tweet or share using the social icons below.

Thank you very much and here's to recovered rankings, increase in traffic and a spike in sales 😉