A “Manual Action” Recovery Story
This is me. Daniel E. “Rudy” Ruettiger. I look a lot like Mikey from the Goonies.
This is Google:
The other day the clouds opened, and the mighty hand of Google left a note in my Google Webmaster account. It was the rumored “Manual spam action revoked” email. As @armondhammer put it on Twitter, “That’s like getting a presidental pardon, google style.”
For those who like recovery stories, here’s how I figured mine out. Like Rudy, I didn’t give up. I had a huge mountain of uncharted trails ahead of me. And I, well, I also got lucky as hell.
I have a lot of sites, but only one got spanked back in March. I always want to be trying everything in SEO; most of my sites were clean, some were a touch dirtier. The niche I was battling in had(has) an abundance of spammers. Somewhat familiar brands were using forum spamming, paid linking, link wheels – you name it. They were pounding the big box retailers on head terms. Although I didn’t get too sucked into the vortex, I did ultimately lose to the urge to fight fire with fire. I participated in some blog link networks to level the playing field. I went gray.
This was the post that woke me up: Unnatural Link Warnings and Blog Networks from SEOmoz. I heard rumblings of the blog link networks getting sacked (including Authority Link Network). I knew a lot of posts were being deindexed and the junk links were being severed, but that’s the risk you take when you break Google’s commandments. Historically, the worst thing that could happen is Google would devalue those links from perceived bad neighborhoods. They wouldn’t actually penalize the website. But thanks to that SEOmoz post, my confidence was rattled. I remember getting home from work and reading this post 30 times in a sweat. I can still picture Carson Ward’s smiling profile picture.
Thanks to Carson’s post, I learned about the “unnatural links” warning that Google started sending out in Webmaster Central. Up until then, I rarely went into GWT. But sure enough, I logged in, and there it was. It might as well been written with a neon font and Myspace-style glitter .gifs – it couldn’t have been more sickening. It felt like a busted high school party – the cops were outside, and everyone was dashing to make sure they weren’t the unlucky schmuck who got nabbed. I instantly went to Build My Rank and chose the remove live posts option that BMR was kind enough to offer, and hoped my error would fade into obscurity.
What Was I Thinking?
A colleague serendipitously turned me onto Build My Rank. It was cheap (when cheap actually worked), and was an an efficacious defense to my spamming competitors. I had already been writing original content for guest postings; in my mind this was merely a more automated extension of that. I felt a risk but really never thought Google was going to use them as a rally point, let alone make them into a Panda poster child. Of all the things Google had to clean up (and ultimately got with Penguin), low PR blog link networks should have been prioritized later in my opinion. But it was like crack – the rankings went up for nearly every keyword I targeted using BMR. I kept pushing my secret drug. The more the service started to feel dirtier, the more blind I made myself.
[box title=”Build My Rank” color=”#000000″]Build My Rank allowed the user to pay a “per article” fee on top of the monthly subscription. The writers (who I believe were in-house – not sure if that’s true) weren’t very good, but BMR also let you write your own unique content. They’d prohibit your article if it didn’t meet their uniqueness and quality standards (though the rules seemed to be lax for their own authors). This was their way of justifying to their audience that they were Google-proof. Clearly that didn’t work out so well for them.[/box]
So, while this network was getting caned with bamboo, my targeted rankings plummeted. I didn’t know if it was because I cut all these links out of my link profile, or because I was being penalized. There was a lot of confusion at this point, and very little details from Google. They kind of let us, well, sweat.
I sent in my first (of many) reinclusion requests. I was honest. I told them about the crack I’d been smoking. I also told them I’d removed the posts and I wouldn’t disappoint them again (I’ve kept my word). My thought was this request would really go to nobody, but while months went by (as did several Panda updates, and a Penguin) I slowly started to see my rankings return. I was also now doing nothing other than clean, G-approved SEO. I had a reputable news company helping with legitimate content marketing. I worked with them to make sure the pieces was informative, unique, question-answering content. They did internal linking, and studied the analytics to look for other content marketing opportunities.
It was about this time I saw virtually all my rankings return, except about 6 of my major converting keywords (all synonyms and plurals of each other). Those were my big terms. In this website’s niche there isn’t a lot of long-tail, so I was still a wounded SEO. Meanwhile I was now getting new, fuzzy WMT messages: “Site violates Google’s quality guidelines,” with notes like look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site. Wonderful. Is this sort of the same issue spoken a different way? Was it something else? It appeared like this doesn’t have anything to do with Build My Rank anymore, but how could I be sure? This looked like problems with my external links (ie, backlinks from other sites). The blogosphere generally seemed to think so, so I went with it.
I pulled an OSE link report and saw a lot of spam – much of which was there before I started with this client, though some was new. A link wheel was pointing to me, started in August 2011 (according to the posting dates in the post’s meta data). Now, I admitted I wasn’t squeaky clean, but this wasn’t my doing. This was a huge sloppy footprint that I found in minutes. I assumed the Penguin algorithm could find just as easily. It targeted only one keyword – my industry’s biggest head term. That can’t be good, but Google wouldn’t let negative SEO work, right? I promptly sent this discovery to Google in yet another reinclusion request.
This is where Google ultimately let me down. They seem more interested in tackling the webspam they helped promote with PageRank. There would be casualties, including more innocent casualties than I. There wasn’t anything in OSE or the links reported in GWT that looked too bad except this link wheel. Does that mean the other spam links were ignored? Never found? I think it was June/July when I finally jumped into the “negative SEO works” camp, and ate my decade-long Google fanboy hat for breakfast. For a company that wants to be transparent, this brick wall causes more problems from generally helpful SEOs.
I Started To Feel Like Dr. Richard Kimble
I made a mistake, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, thinking that I was still “kinda” doing what wasn’t explicitly called out as bad by Google. I fell into a bad crowd. Now I’m in a shitstorm that I can’t explain, fix, or understand. I had to buy a Remove’m package to basically send Google a spreadsheet saying I tried to contact every shit website that was linking to me. 5% of the results that showed from that tool had a contact associated, and I heard back from 1% of the recipients I sent an email to. Still, I sent this in yet another reinclusion request with the note, “I tried.” This was – and still is – absolutely absurd.
It was at this point we learned that these were manual penalties, and I was at the mercy of a Googler who just didn’t like me. Yes – I did take it personally. Who the hell was this manual hand editor? Why couldn’t I win his heart? This reinclusion request was rejected as well. I was still a fugitive.
My Last Reinclusion Request
At this point I had given up. I was sick of hearing tips from people who never claimed to come back from the manual penalty (many of whom seemed to be confusing this as Penguin). It was chaos in the streets. A month had passed since my last failure. I had no more changes to make. So I drafted one last reinclusion request, even though I didn’t do any more clean up. I had nothing left to do.
[quote style=”1″]Dear Google,
I am truly sorry our relationship had to end like this. I should not have cheated on your Webmaster Guidelines. Call it a momentary lapse of indiscretion, but it’s all gone too far. You tell me my back links are poisonous, but I did not create any that you are now showing me in my Webmaster account. I truly don’t know how to remove them. I wasn’t trying to hurt you and your users. I do not want to torch my site because it really is a valuable resource for searchers. I hope one day we can be friends. Call me.
But luckily I had another idea before I hit send. I started think about “over-optimization”. Though I didn’t believe I was in a Penguin filter, I was manually flagged nonetheless – it still could have been a Penguin-type, on-site, over-optimization crime. Since the webmaster message they send is obviously canned, and there’s quite a number of things a webmaster can do that is “wrong”, maybe I can try not taking the message so literally. Maybe it’s not about “links to my site” as in external links, but maybe it’s over optimization in my current site. Maybe I’m not reading between the blurry lines Google has always been known for.
I started looking through the content marketing articles I had on the site from the news company (mentioned earlier). They used internal links between the articles and the top-level pages as an SEO best practice. I started to realize that at some point the anchor text started to get very similar – in fact, it began centering on my 6 core keywords. The more of their articles I read, the more the penalty trigger seemed obvious. Look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site. Well, these looked artificial, unnatural, and they were pointing to my site (even though they were already within my same domain). The intent of the links were to pass PageRank, deepen crawls, and yes, help with certain keyword rankings. Maybe Google only recognized the third intention? I had nothing to lose – I removed these links from 80 posts and sent the reinclusion request.
Admitting My Mistake
All of this was pretty humbling. I made a mistake that set of a chain of events that I didn’t expect but should have forseen. I know Google. I know how they are vague in their guidelines. I know how the search product is always full of surprises, both good and silly. Every SEO makes mistakes – we’re in a field where very little is textbook. Secretly I know a few big name SEOs who (in confidence) have similar stories. I’m ashamed that I didn’t see it earlier, but I took my eye off my tactics. I’m saddened that Google took such a hard line with me while those blatant spammers still exist and dominate. But there’s something to be said about “doing your time.” I truly think I gained some good experience in a new world order. I also believe that Panda and Penguin – which now appear long overdue, and not the “wreckless moves” I used to consider them – are some of the smartest filters Google could have put in. They’re taking a risk with the casualties, to bank on better results by the end of the year. I mean, as a business built around algorithmically serving the best webpages, how could they not get more aggressive (and include humans, Mahalo style). It really was just a matter of time.
If you like recovery stories, a good one was just posted on YOUmoz.
If you like this post, check out my new post on SEO serendipity.