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Help! My Penalty Was Lifted, But Traffic Has Not Increased

If you have ever successfully removed a Google penalty from a website, you know that feeling of exhilaration that ensues when you see this message:


After receiving this message, I’m sure that many of you watched your analytics like a hawk, waiting anxiously for that moment when there was evidence that traffic was starting to improve. In some cases, we can see a dramatic increase in traffic:


However, if you received a partial match manual action, it’s possible that you did not see a dramatic improvement after your penalty was lifted. In fact, many sites that receive a partial action start seeing traffic and rankings decline shortly after the penalty is administrated and never seem to be able to recover.

What I am going to discuss in this article are several possible reasons why your site has not recovered after getting a manual action lifted. I have reviewed a good number of sites that have had trouble ranking again after getting a penalty lifted. I’ll share my experiences by placing these sites into three possible categories:

  1. Sites that have very little chance of recovery.
  2. Sites that need to do more work or wait longer before recovering.
  3. Sites that may be a victim of a flawed Google algorithm.

1. Sites That Have Very Little Chance of Recovery

It wasn’t that long ago that anyone could rank a site well, provided you could get enough links to the site. If you wanted to outrank Amazon for “buy green widgets,” in many cases you could purchase and with a little SEO spam magic, the site would rank well.

I may have oversimplified things in my example, but my point is that there are some sites that only used to rank because of the power of links that are no longer helping the site in any way. If you’re trying to rank in a competitive vertical, then there is a possibility that you may not see any further recovery once your manual action is lifted, especially if your only reason for ranking previously was because of link spamming.

Sometimes what seems like a non-recovery may just be “normal ranking.” I have had several small business owners tell me that for years they ranked in the top five. Then they hired an SEO, got penalized, and are now stuck on the bottom of page two. You would think that the site would be able to bounce back to decent rankings once the penalty is lifted, especially because they were able to rank relatively well even before they started building links. It’s important to note, however, that Google’s algorithms have changed dramatically over the last few years. It is possible that that page two ranking is actually the ranking that your site currently deserves, even after the penalty is removed.

2. Sites That Need to Do More Work or Wait Longer Before Recovering

A really common reason for sites to not rank well after receiving a penalty is that something else is holding the site back. Many sites that get dealt a manual unnatural links penalty will also be dealing with Google’s Penguin algorithm. In order to get the manual penalty lifted, you have probably done the majority of the work that you need to do in order to escape Penguin. However, you’ll need to wait for Google to recrawl the links in your disavow file, which can take several months, AND you’ll need to wait for Google to rerun the Penguin algorithm before you get rid of this filter that is holding your site down.

There are also some sites that will need to do even more disavow work in order to escape from Penguin. Even if you have worked hard to clean up your unnatural links in order to get your manual penalty removed, you may need to do some monthly backlink auditing in order to find more links that could be hurting you in the eyes of Penguin. I do monthly backlink audits for several of my previous manual penalty clients and I am always amazed at how many new unnatural links will pop up each month. Many of these are old spam links that are just now turning up in the backlink checker tools and Webmaster Tools. I believe that some are new links that are appearing because of automated processes that were set in place years ago with the intention of continually creating new links to a site. In some cases, new spammy directory links will continue to appear every month. These links often can come from unscrupulous site owners who create new directories with the intention of making money from people willing to pay for link removal. While I would like to think that Penguin is able to just ignore these links, I think it’s certainly possible that they can still negatively affect you. The only ways that I know of dealing with these are either to continually disavow them or to pay the ransom that they want in order to get the links removed. However, this ransom can often be very high. I prefer to just disavow.

It’s also possible that your site is dealing with another algorithmic issue such as Panda. In some cases, diagnosis of a Panda problem can be difficult. If traffic was suppressed by a manual penalty, then you may not be able to see on your analytics the dip in traffic that started because of a Panda hit. Panda can suppress a site in a similar way to Penguin. The only way to recover from this is to thoroughly clean up on-site quality issues. Panda goes so much deeper than duplicate and thin content. As such, if you’re struggling to recover after having a manual penalty removed, I would recommend having a site quality audit performed.

There are some sites that need to find ways to attract new links in order to improve rankings. If your site has very few natural links left once the unnatural links are removed or disavowed, then returning to high rankings could be difficult.

One final thing to consider is that it is possible that you have been too aggressive in your disavowing. I have seen several cases where a small business disavowed directory links that were likely good, valid citations. I’ve seen other cases where an SEO company disavowed anything that could possibly be remotely considered unnatural, in order to get rid of a manual penalty, but in the process, disavowed a lot of good links, too. I have even seen cases where a penalty removal company disavowed every single link pointing to a site rather than taking the time to review each one and consider which links were good ones and which were bad. If this has happened to you, you can reavow links by submitting a new disavow file with those domains removed. However, reavowing can take some time as Google has built in a lag that is there to prevent spammers from being able to game the system.

3. Sites That May Be a Victim of a Flawed Google Algorithm

I’m going to start this section with a disclaimer. When discussing Google and ranking factors, I usually try to stick to things that are either known truths, or statements from trusted Google staff members. In the next few paragraphs I am going to be speculating somewhat. This speculation is based on my experiences over the last few years of almost exclusively dealing with penalized sites.

I feel that there is something wrong with Google’s Penguin algorithm and that this can be causing some sites with manual penalties to not be able to rank well. While I have seen many sites recover from Penguin, I have also seen a good number of sites that have removed a manual penalty but remain trapped by Penguin. The result is that they have not been able to increase their rankings even though they are doing everything correctly.

For some of our manual penalty clients, we have done full site quality audits, we have reviewed and disavowed links monthly, we have watched the business attract new good links, we have worked with companies to create and promote new fantastic content, and yet the site is still not ranking well. In many cases we have worked in conjunction with other professionals who are really, really knowledgeable in these areas. I feel very confident that these sites are clean, good-quality sites with nice clean backlink profiles. Some of these cases are well-established, authoritative sites that are stuck on page six and beyond for keywords for which they definitely should be ranking. In many cases they are outranked by low-quality scraper sites and even completely unrelated sites. There is definitely still something holding these sites back.

John Mueller has said previously that a site that previously had a manual penalty will not have any sort of stigma attached to it, saying the following: “If you’ve had a manual action on your site and that’s revoked, then essentially, there’s no bad history attached to your site. It’s not harder to rank anymore. It’s not the case that you’ll never be able to rank for those terms – it’s just that this manual action is revoked and you’re kind of out in the open again.” He has also said that if you feel that your site is being held back, that it’s possible that another algorithm that looks at links (i.e. Penguin) is still treating the site with distrust.

So why is it that I see so many sites that just can’t seem to gain traction after getting a manual penalty removed? Who knows? Perhaps we are missing something when it comes to finding on-site quality issues. Perhaps the links that the sites are gaining are not ones that Google wants to count as good links. I don’t think that this is the case, though. I truly think that something is still holding these sites back. And most likely, the issue is with Penguin.

Penguin measures the level of trust that Google has in your site in regards to webspam. I think that it’s possible that there are some parts of the Penguin algorithm that can still cause Google to distrust a site even if the discoverable unnatural links are cleaned up.

The last time that Google fully updated Penguin was in October of 2013. That is almost 18 months ago! We had a refresh of Penguin in October of 2014 and possibly even in late November, but we have not had a full update for a year and a half. (Here is more information on the differencebetween a refresh and an update). What this means is that it has been a long time since Google has changed the criteria that Penguin uses in order to determine the level of trust that Google has in your site. I think that it’s possible that some of those criteria need to be changed. Perhaps Penguin is able to see and count links that are hidden deep in the Web and can’t be found by a webmaster in order to disavow. Perhaps Penguin needs to see a certain level of user engagement with a site in order to say that it is trustworthy. If this is the case, then it’s possible that users are not going to get much chance to engage with the site because it’s lost hiding on page six where no one ever sees it. Or maybe there’s something wrong with how the disavow tool works. I am completely speculating here, but my point is that I feel that some sites are not recovering because there is something wrong with Penguin that is making it difficult for them to escape.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Googleplex and meet with several members of the webspam team. It was a fantastic visit and I felt that the team was genuinely interested in my concerns about Penguin. When we spoke about my frustrations concerning small businesses owners who were unable to gain any traction after dealing with a manual penalty, all of the team members gave what I interpreted as a sympathetic smile. I know that the prevailing sentiment is that Google does not care about small businesses. However, I really did get the sense that they are working on making things right when it comes to penalties and algorithm changes.

I do believe that the main reason why we haven’t seen an update to Penguin in so long is that Google is trying to accomplish something that is extremely difficult. They want to allow legitimate businesses to be able to recover and move on, but they don’t want to make it any easier for spammers to succeed. I do believe, though, that future iterations of Penguin will be more fair.

What Do I Do If I Haven’t Recovered After Having a Manual Penalty Removed?

Unfortunately no one can tell you with certainty whether you are going to see further recovery with your site. If you are struggling to gain rankings, then I would suggest the following:

  • Have someone review your disavow file to make sure that you haven’t missed unnatural links or disavowed too many good links.
  • Have someone who is experienced with doing on-site quality audits review your site to see what can be improved.
  • Wait until Google finally updates Penguin. We have no idea when this will happen. It could be tomorrow. It could be a year from now.
  • Consider starting over. This is a tough decision to make, though. Starting over is not a simple process. I have written an article here that may help you in making this decision. And this articlediscusses some important things that you need to know if you do decide to start over.

    I am predicting that the next Penguin update will allow many of these sites that have been trapped in low-ranking hell to recover. But, there is no guarantee.

    Recovery after a manual penalty is definitely possible. We have seen it happen many times. But, if you have had your penalty removed and still seem to be suppressed in the rankings, you are not alone.

    What Do You Think?

    Do you have any theories as to why some sites never seem to be able to recover from a Google penalty?

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