Are you best placed to solve your own Google penalty?

With the huge increase we have recently seen in manual actions from Google, many more sites are faced with the problem of solving a manual penalty issue and going through the reconsideration request process.

The graph shows the number of spam notifications sent to site owners through Google Webmaster Tools.

The graph shows the number of spam notifications sent to site owners over time through Google Webmaster Tools.

The big decision for many sites is whether to keep faith with the internal SEO team or contracted SEO agency, or whether to court the help of external experts to address the issue.

For clarity, throughout the article, references to the ‘internal team’ apply to both an in-house SEO team and/or the existing SEO agency.

To help answer this we asked 21 leading SEO experts the following question:

Who is best placed to solve a penalty, the internal team which (may have) caused it, an external penalty expert agency/consultancy or a collaboration between the two?


From the horse’s mouth, some of the feedback we received from our panel of experts

Barry Adams
“A collaboration is probably best – the original agency to get a full list of links together, and the specialised link clean up service to help with additional link analysis, manual filtering process, disavow file, and recon request.”

Barry Adams is a veteran SEO consultant, digital marketer, and public speaker on digital strategy and SEO. Digital Director @ The Tomorrow Lab & Editor @ State of Digital.

“I think that the agency that caused the penalty and the agency removing the penalty… and the client… will never work together effectively. There’s no way all three will be mature enough to make that work. The agency taking over will have a “holier than thou” approach… the agency in charge when it got hit will have a “who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” approach and the client will say “why the hell am I paying TWO agencies to fix something that “agencies” caused? The client won’t be able to see past blaming someone… even if it was them that said “I don’t care how you get there…” two years ago. No – having all three groups in the mix is just a bad idea imho.”

Dixon Jones became the Marketing Director of the world largest link analysis engine, Majestic SEO, in 2009. His data provides users with detailed link data from anchor text to crawl date.

Fili Weise
“I agree that working together with the teams responsible for the penalty can be beneficial to get the penalty lifted, but primarily to get data from them and make sure they remove the links again (it is often easier for those who have the contacts for creating the links to remove them again). I think the external specialist (third party) or website owner should own the process.
 I also think that hiring external specialists will add a different set of eyes to the problem which may help to solve it quicker. Of course, the last group to work with to make any penalty recovery possible is the Google Search Quality team. You can work with them by requesting reconsiderations and through the Google Webmaster Forum. This last channel can be very beneficial for site owners who cannot afford a third party specialist.”

Fili Wiese is a former Google Search Quality team member, and is specialized in helping clients to optimize their websites for search engines and recover from Google penalties and Google algorithmic updates.

“Honestly – best to have a third party call all the shots. The link builders and the internal teams are always too close to their work. A third party like myself can bark instructions and call bullshit when we need to – keeping all sentiment out of it. Remember – the linkbuild and the internal teams are judged by rankings etc. Third party is judged by how quickly and well the penalty is removed.”

Rishi Lakhani is a UK Search Strategist who works with a range of Big Brands on SEO and Online Marketing. He Guest Blogs for a number of SEO sites and other UK Marketing Blogs and takes active interest in the UK and International Search Community.

Gareth Hoyle
“It has to be a collaboration. The in-house team may know who placed the links and with whom. Whereas the external team would be emailing someone that gets hundreds of removal requests and ignores them. The in-house team are closer to the site and will have a better idea on whether there is sensitivity with the PR team etc As externals we are here as a labour force and support network and 9 times out of 10 it works. Always exceptions though.”

Gareth Hoyle is Founder and Director of Marketing Signals (formerly known as Manual Link Building) and Co-founder of LinkRisk.

“Much as I would love to say collaboration works best, from experience the incumbent has a tendency to make life harder as they continually drop statements into the mix such as ‘It must be the directory submissions from 1982 that have caused the issue. Can’t be the poor quality blog posts we have been building and are continuing to do so!”

Malcolm Slade is the SEO Project Manager at Epiphany Solutions and has worked in search since 2005. His role at Epiphany involves key client work, in-house application development, training, research and testing.

Julia Logan aka Irish Wonder
“I voted collaboration between internal and specialised teams but that’s really an ideal scenario, probably not very often possible in real life.”

Julia Logan a.k.a. IrishWonder has been involved in SEO since 2000. Currently, Julia is an independent SEO consultant at IrishWonder and Chief SEO Scientist at 90 Digital.

Collaborative, but internal team should “own” it and then pass to specialist for final clean up. By “owning” it I assume you know the difference between good and bad links. I think you force yourself to get a feel for the relative health of your profile and can therefore form an opinion that will help you scrutinise the work being done by 3rd parties.
1. Incumbent that created the problem may not be entirely transparent or may try to cover their tracks.
2. Specialist will be more ruthless than in-house i.e. in-house will find it very difficult to remove many of the 50/50 links which will waste valuable time and resource.
3. Specialists have a process and resources in place that can turn it around much quicker.

Ralph du Plessis has worked in the online marketing industry since 1999, predominantly in search marketing. He has consulted for agencies and worked on the client side of things in highly competitive industries.

Patrick Hathaway
“I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Well sort of anyway – I inherited a site at my first in-house position that went on to get a manual penalty from work done years earlier. At the time I was quite new to it and got in some external help, which was useful, especially in terms of classification.
 This was when penalties were pretty new – well before disavow. So the help was useful, but ultimately didn’t get the job done. But anyway, the best way I got links removed (and cracked the penalty) was from hacking into old accounts from directory/article sites where loads of links had been posted. I was guessing passwords, logging into old emails, begging service desks from different email accounts of same domain, you name it.
 I became an expert in password recovery tricks. I don’t believe any external agency could have done this, but it allowed me to remove ~ 30,000 links. Whilst I completely agree that an external agency is perfect for classifications, perspective, attitude and experience, I think in some circumstances an insider who gives a shit can make a massive difference.”

Patrick Hathaway is an SEO consultant for Hit Reach, delivering client-side and in house SEO campaigns.

“I chose collaboration as without the team responsible, collecting all the data is always tougher. We’ve experienced sites that had been doing really low-rent, £100 a month style, SEO for a long time and had a penalty from directories and article distribution. We get that lifted – but we still play whack-a-mole every month with new links from well over 3 years ago which pop up in the tools. If we had the original placement lists it’d be 100 times quicker/easier and reduce ongoing liability and monitoring.”

Ian Miller is Search Director at, heading up PPC, SEO and Copy teams, Ian advises organisation’s on how to get the best from their online marketing efforts.

Ammon Johns
“I know most will say differently, but to me the internal or existing team are clearly the best placed to solve it, and will have the best knowledge of all the previous activities undertaken.”

Ammon Johns is a renowned Internet Marketing Consultant, and highly regarded among fellow Search Engine Marketing professionals.

“It always helps us to collaborate with the team who helped create the penalty IF, and that’s a big IF, it is a team that knows the history but has no vested interest in covering themselves. Otherwise we spend more time going back and forth and getting around the CYA mentality than we do getting what we need. Because we tell them it is like going to your doctor when he asks you about your lifestyle habits.
We don’t judge your weekend cigar smoking, whiskey imbibing romps where you drink till dawn and wind up fist fighting the last bloke in the bar, but we need to know you do it. Telling us you only drink tea and attend church might look good to your potential in-laws, but doesn’t help us diagnose your issues. Collaboration is only helpful when we get the real story.”

Kristine Schachinger has more than 14 years’ experience in website development in all areas including government, academia, and ecommerce – with a focus on SEO, inbound marketing and usability.

Key takeaways

There were a few key reasons for an internal team having issues with removing the penalty. A potential lack of experience in dealing with penalties and the impulse to cover mistakes and shift blame to older links (that they weren’t responsible for), being two of the main reasons cited. This meant just 4% of the experts would recommend that an internal team is best placed to solve the crisis on its own.

However, 86% of experts believed a collaborative approach would be most effective, with the internal team being used for its ability to utilise the contacts and relationships forged through building the links in the first place. There was almost unanimous support that this approach would save time, and improve the chances of manually removing a higher number of links.

The remaining 10% held the opinion that a penalty expert would be most effective with no interference at all for the internal team. They pointed to the fact that there would be problems caused by the internal team as they attempted to avoid blame for the penalty to increase job security. This behaviour could potentially create conflicting objectives (SEO team to increase traffic vs Penalty team to get penalty down). The internal team may, overall, also be too close to the work.

However, of the 86% who believed collaboration is the best solution, many also listed similar caveats regarding the same potential issues with the internal team.

What does this tell us? If your business was targeted by a Google penalty, these are the important factors to consider before deciding who will be on your rescue team:

Internal team experience

✔   Has the internal team ever solved a penalty before? (can they be deemed experts?)

Trust & confidence in internal team

✔   Can you trust that the internal team isn’t shifting responsibility and covering the problems which caused the penalty?

   Are you confident that the internal team recognises the removal of the penalty as the main business objective?

Complexity and size of the link profile

   The more links and ways these have been earned/built increases the complexity. Is this too complex for the team?

Can the process be managed effectively?

    Who has the overall management and final say in the process?

Cost of a penalty expert?

    Have you compared proposals from penalty experts (this will help to understand the extent of the problem)?

Evaluating the cost of the penalty to the business

As well as the above, it’s important to have a good understanding of the daily cost the penalty is having on your business. Knowing this means you are better placed to make a decision on hiring an external penalty expert. It was almost unanimous that an external agency would get the penalty removed quicker, especially if assisted in the area of link identification and removal by the internal team.  For many smaller businesses, however, this additional cost may not be an option.

We do not have any data to compare internal or external team times in removing a penalty, nor would any be reliable due to completely unique penalty circumstances for every site. However, every additional reconsideration request will take around 3 – 4 weeks; if you allow two weeks for Google to reply and two more weeks of additional analysis and removal. Scenarios, therefore, could be planned to calculate lost revenue in monthly increments, whilst comparing this to the external cost.

What are your thoughts?

Cast your vote for an option below and see which way our other readers went.

We’d love additional feedback from internal and external teams, or anyone else who has had experiences with penalties. Take a moment and give us your thoughts in the comments or drop me a message directly if you’re a penalty expert with an insight you’d like added to the article.

Follow us on Twitter, Google + or Facebook and we’ll keep you posted as the debate takes shape, as well as on other industry insights and research.

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Darren Sheffield is head of SEO and Social here at The Media Image. With over 12 years in the SEO, social and wider online marketing and web development field, Darren brings the required experience to lead TMI’s ever expanding team.

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  • Ruan Smit

    I agree with the collaboration choice but I’d say it wholly depends on the kind of internal team you have when you want to battle a link penalty as well as your clients budget size. Acquiring an expert link analyst can be costly so it would depend on the client if he wants to dish out extra cash and how much time your team has on their hands.

    Defcon situations would suggest moving all your hours to recovering from the link penalty which could cover anything from exporting lists, analysing them, filtering the good from the bad,mailing the webmasters and creating a detailed disavow document for the ones who don’t reply.

    Interesting article Darren, keep em coming.

    • Darren Sheffield

      Thanks for commenting Ruan, you’re exactly right on the key factors in making the decision, and definitely no single answer correct for all sites.

      What we are seeing more commonly now is that some sites underestimate the time it can take to solve, and so end up losing far more revenue from lost organic traffic than if they had got in some expert help.

      Trying here in article to say its really important for sites to understand how much they’re losing to help make the decision

  • Mark Ackermann

    Thanks for a great read Darren.

    In my opinion, the internal team’s need to save face could slow an otherwise swift resolution of the penalty in this case. I would task the penalty expert wholly with weeding out the toxic links, the internal team providing only the relevant information to assist in the initial identification process(timeline, scale of campaign etc).

    From there if the penalty expert is worth his salt he should have no problem tackling the issue without further assistance.

    • Darren Sheffield

      Thanks Mark, and I’m pretty much 100% with you on your point of view, and very much in line with majority of the people I spoke with.

  • Warren Kings

    I’d agree with Mark Ackermann.

    I’m no SEO expert so this may be off point on that score but my immediate feeling was that it would be very unlikely for the internal and external teams to get along productively. This is something that panel contributors
    Kristine Schachinger and Julia Logan alluded to as well.

    So my instinct would be that full collaboration might actually confuse and prolong the restoration effort and I’d think a full link history should be forwarded to the external specialist.

    • Darren Sheffield

      Cheers Warren, conflict will always be a major concern in this process. Especially when peoples jobs may be on the line, or even worse if the entire company is at risk.

      Needs experienced and strong management to get through efficiently and effectively

  • Claire Kuter

    Great insights from Darren and the team of experts.

    I tend to fall with the rest of 86%. In my opinion, with a Google penalty looming, it is best to have the experts involved to ensure that ALL links are removed that could be of risk. As many of the experts have mentioned, sometimes internal teams tend to be less harsh in removing links. Collaboration would be preferred.

    Although having said that, it is vitally important that communication and responsibilities are clearly defined – hopefully assisting with potential issues arising.

    • Darren Sheffield

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, communication absolutely key to a collaborative solution. As well as this very clear and consistent documentation of the work carried out is also very vital.

      I’ve tried to pick up a penalty removal half way through a few times, and the lack of documentation has meant have to redo and recheck a lot of work already carried out

  • Sarah Sadler

    I’d like to agree with the collaborative approach to solving a manual penalty. The internal team will have knowledge of the link building activities that have taken place, are best suited to contact webmasters that they already have an established relationship in order to remove links and can deal with the conversations that require a great deal of dialogue/back and forth leaving the external team to deal with the rest of removals.

    However a reoccurring thread which has been mentioned by many of the above experts is that the internal team may be less harsh when it comes to removing links or might try to cover their tracks.

    At the end of the day you want to get the penalty removed as quickly as possible and the external team have the resources and expertise to do this.

    • Darren Sheffield

      Hi Sarah, thanks for commenting. Do agree with what you’re saying but also have to remember that not all sites can afford an external expert. So while I do agree for the bigger players, where it should be an easier choice, for the small guys its much harder to make that decision.

  • paullombard

    You only need one person. Someone who can write a script to pull all the sources, analyse the links, cross check with your current disavow.txt and then automate the whois and email sending 😉

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