Recent years have seen the SEO industry shaken to its core by a series of major algorithm updates designed to help weed out spam and make the virtual world a better place for all. Consequently, offending websites that don't meet Google's Webmaster Guidelines have seen an onslaught of penalties, some of which are applied manually. You'll know if you receive a manual penalty, since you'll receive a message in your Webmaster Tools dashboard, most likely followed by a very significant drop in traffic to your website.

Google defines a manual penalty as a manual action taken against all or part of your website. By contrast, most offending websites are easily caught out by the search engine giant's Web crawlers using automated processes. However, the company also employs dedicated teams who will manually review certain websites flagged by the search engine crawlers as spam. This process has been going on for more than a decade, with the application of penalties peaking in late 2012 after the Penguin update.

Common Spam Signals Google Looks For

Google's goal has always been the same - to identify spam websites and banish them from the search results. Other search engines, such as Microsoft's Bing, share the same goals. However, as automated processes get better at flagging suspicious websites, the number of possible offenders being brought to Google's attention is constantly on the rise. If your website has been flagged as spam and, subsequently, received a manual penalty, you'll be able to find out by visiting the Manual Actions section of Google Webmaster Tools, along with the reasons given, like the following:

  • Paid links
  • Cloaking
  • Machine-spun content
  • Irrelevant backlinks
  • Third-party spam reports
  • Stolen content
  • Excessive advertising

Most manual spam actions are applied site-wide to websites that Google deems as pure spam. Typically, these websites will feature useless, unreadable machine-written content and offer nothing of value to the readers. In other words, the website exists solely to draw in search engine traffic by manipulating the results in the hope of a few paid clicks on on-site ads. While the so-called unnatural links penalty is by far the most common, you may also receive a manual penalty for things like poor website security (particularly in the case of e-commerce stores) or poor performance.

The unnatural links penalty is not always a result of your own doing, since it involves links to your website elsewhere on the Web that may not be under your control. Sometimes, large numbers of unnatural links appearing on low-quality and/or irrelevant websites is a result of a negative SEO campaign carried out by an unscrupulous competitor bent on ruining your reputation. Either way, you will need to take immediate action to address the issue before Google will consider revoking the penalty. The unnatural links penalty may be applied in the following cases:

  • Exact-match anchor text features throughout your website
  • Backlinks accompany spam blog and forum comments
  • Embedded links in footers and widgets on other sites
  • Any links on completely irrelevant or spam websites
  • Excessive number of reciprocal links between multiple websites
  • Links on guest-blogging networks and low-quality article directories
  • Any link that has been paid for

In other words, any link that is intended to artificially manipulate a website's standing in the search engines will count against it. Too many of these suspicious links, and Google will likely apply a manual penalty. All manual penalties may either be applied to one or more specific pages on the website or the entire website itself. However, in the case of the most common manual penalty, it's likely that the whole website will be affected. Even if the penalty only applies to a specific page, it can and will lead to far more serious site-wide issues in the near future.

How to Deal with a Manual Penalty

Everyone should know that prevention is the best cure, but it is important to remember that a manual penalty may be the result of problems beyond your control, so you should always be aware of the risks. Regardless of whether you are guilty or not of deploying bad SEO tactics, you must deal with the problem as soon as possible, lest your digital marketing strategy be completely ruined. Particularly since anyone can fall victim to a negative SEO campaign as well, it is wise to regularly audit your incoming link profile using a tools such as:

If you have already received a manual penalty, you'll still need to conduct a manual analysis of all incoming links to your website. For a more thorough job or if you have a lot of links, consider using at least two different tools. You'll likely never find all of the offending links, but you should be able to find the vast majority of them. Nonetheless, you should manually review each link that the tool has found rather than relying on automated tools which may raise false positives while also failing to pick up genuinely problematic links.

If you find any questionable links during your audit, you should work to have them removed. Firstly, you can try contacting the owner of the websites containing your links and ask to have them removed. However, if you receive no response or the webmaster refuses to cooperate, you can use Google's Disavow tool to tell the search engine to disregard the offending links when it carries out an analysis of your website. Google states that you should only try using this tool after you have made every reasonable effort to try to have the link removed. Be careful with the disavow tool.

Only once you have conducted a thorough audit of your website's link profile and made every effort to have the links removed or, at least, disavowed, should you submit a reconsideration request. You should also review the manual penalty one final time to make sure that you have fixed ALL issues described by the action. You can then request a review which, if you have done what Google asked, should be approved within a few weeks.

Receiving a manual penalty from Google is undoubtedly alarming, particularly when it's accompanied, as it invariably is, by a sharp drop in traffic. However, in order to minimize the long-lasting damage to your website and the reputation of your business, you'll need to make sure to address the problem as soon as possible.