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.
Here’s the steps we took to recover.
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:
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.
5 – Second Reconsideration Request
Reconsideration request #2 contained links to 2 important files:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.