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Imagine you’ve just created your best work of art. It’s a oil-paint masterpiece the likes of which you’ll probably never be able to accomplish again. Then, someone comes along and streaks a permanent marker across the canvas. That’s what a Google manual spam action feels like.
SEO and site popularity in general is a fickle thing. Just when you think you’ve got everything right and you’re coasting along with loads of visitors and activity, you get sideswiped by some Google algorithm update called Penguin, Panda, Possum or whatever the heck they decide to name it these days.
The point is, Google somehow incorporated something into one of its algorithms that indicates there’s now something about your website Google does not approve of. You could lose 30, 50, or even 70 percent of your traffic overnight. You’ll feel like suing Google, even though you can’t. You’ll feel like jumping off a bridge (please don’t).
That situation is bad enough, but can you imagine the level of terror that comes with a dreaded manual action from Google?
What is a Manual Spam Action?
It isn’t at all typical to get a manual spam action. Google, for some reason, took notice of your website, and an actual person reviewed the site and determined that you’ve done something against Google’s guidelines.
It is possible to lose a lot of traffic from just a regular Google algorithm update, without any sort of manual spam action. However, when Google goes so far as to manually tag your site as having an issue – it usually means they’re going to either demote you in search results, or remove your site entirely. As you can imagine, this is reserved for people who are obviously taking part in some form of spam technique. You’ll know about this immediately if you regularly check the “Manual Actions” area in Google Webmaster Tools.
If your website’s actual rank has been affected by the action, Google will issue an alert in the Message Center (Under “New and important”) at the top of the Webmaster Tools dashboard.
It’s a good idea to check the Manual Action page for your site often, rather than waiting for traffic to tank. If you catch it early and fix it fast, Google could remove the manual action before your site’s traffic is impacted too badly.
Common Issues that Trigger Manual Spam Actions
According to Google’s own support page, there are a list of manual actions that could be flagged by your website.
- Unnatural links to your site
- Unnatural links from your site
- Hacked site
- User-generated spam
- Spammy freehosts
- Thin content with little value
- Cloaking or “sneaky” redirects
- Pure spam
- Hidden text or keyword stuffing
If you do see a manual action taken, it’s likely going to be one of these nine issues, so in this short guide I’ll explain what you need to do to recover if you’re tagged for any of these for your own website or blog.
Unnatural Links to Your Site
Unnatural links pointing traffic to your site can include things like paid links, blog comment spam, forum comment spam, and excessive link exchanges. In recent years, Google’s analysis has become more sophisticated so that now Google can identify groups of bad links, and will take what Matt calls a “targeted action” on the links themselves. This means you will have a harder time to rank on the anchor text keyword phrases you’ve used for those bad links. Either way, you will receive a message from Google about unnatural links to your site.
What to do:
First, in Webmaster Tools, go under “Search Traffic” and click on “Links to Your Site”.
The button to the far right is “Download latest links” – this is where you can see the most recent incoming links that could have triggered Google’s Manual Spam action against you.
Scan down the list – many times the site may jump out at you because it could be a site that maybe you frequent often and leave comments on, or maybe some directory where you posted links to your site.
Look at the links and try to remember if there’s anything you did on those websites that could have been viewed by Google as a manipulation or misuse of linking to your site using certain anchor text? If you spot anything, immediately do whatever you can to get those links removed. If you don’t have control of the site, contact site owners to have the problem links pulled down.
If you can’t get the sites to remove the link, then you’ll need to disavow the links using the Google Webmasters Disavow Tool. The tool is not accessible from Webmaster Tools – you need to use the direct link.
All you have to do is choose the Google Webmaster domain that you want to disavow links for, and then upload a text file filled with all of the URLs that you want Google to drop in consideration of your site.
Once you’re satisfied that you’ve dealt with all of the issues, you can submit a request for Google to review your site – do this on the Manual Actions page mentioned above.
Remember, the Disavow Links tool is a last resort and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Unnatural Links From Your Site
There’s not much to say about unnatural links from your site, because if you received this manual spam action, you’ve probably accepted payment, a gift or any other compensation in order to link to a site, that’s considered unnatural. If you get a manual action because of links like this, fixing it is really easy. You can do one of several options:
- Remove the offending links entirely.
- Add a rel=”nofollow” to the outgoing link.
- Redirect the link through another page that you’ve blogged with your robots.txt file.
This is probably one of the easiest manual actions to fix because you have full control of your own site.
Speaking of unnatural links – Google has taken action in recent years against a number of free content hosting services that accumulated a heavy volume of extremely spammy content. Google got so overwhelmed with dealing with the content at those sites that it delisted a number of the domains. Unfortunately, this meant even legitimate sites hosed on those freehost services lost all placement on Google, and received notice of a manual action called “Spammy Freehosts”.
If you get such a manual action, immediately move your site to a new host – preferably one that you yourself control, and where you can ensure that no spammy content will ever get hosted there.
You’ll know when Google has identified your site as hacked because a notification for it will appear in the Security section in your Webmaster Tools account.
Usually, if it has flagged a Manual Action, it’s because a hacker managed to published something on your site and is cloaking it. Cloaking involves showing one thing to users and another to search engines – so you might not even realize you’ve been hacked until Google tells you. This can be a troubling experience, but thankfully Google offers a really useful step-by-step procedure you can follow to recover and clean your site of the problem content.
User Generated Spam and Pure Spam
Spam is public enemy number one when it comes to Google. It’s the main problem that Google is trying to fight on the Internet, and it’s why the company has taken up the responsibility to enforce Internet “no-spam” laws. So, if you receive either of these manual action notices – User Generated Spam or Pure Spam – you’ve just been tagged with one of the worst manual spam actions possible (second to being hacked of course).
User Generated Spam is slightly less horrible than pure spam, but it means that you’ve allowed one too many folks to post garbage on your forum or your blog comments area just so they could link back to their sales website.
Keep in mind that even if the external links from these are nofollowed, you could still get flagged because the content itself is just useless spam. You may get away with having some of it on your site, but too much of it will surely trigger a manual action against you.
Want to recover from this? It isn’t easy, especially if you have a lot of the spammy content. You’ll literally need to go through and clean your site. Then put some guards and moderation in place so that your users can’t post so much spam anymore.
If you’ve been flagged for Pure Spam, the odds are pretty good you’ve been creating automatically generated content, scraping from other websites around the web, or you’re up to the cloaking nonsense mentioned above. You’ve been busted, and most people agree that this is one of the hardest actions to recover from. You are on death row. A lot of people give up the site and actually start over. However, there are some people who hang on, stop participating in this black-hat SEO techniques, and really do recover. It takes a long time and a lot of work, but it is possible.
By the way, if you’re one of those scraper sites who simply republishes content from the RSS feed of other sites? Your time is numbered. This year, Google introduced a form where people can report scraper websites for consideration of a manual action.
Cloaking and Keyword Stuffing
Back in the day, long before the words “black hat” and “white hat” was ever associated with the SEO industry, web designers were shoving words all around the web pages on their site in order to rank highly for specific topics. They didn’t really care whether or not sentences were grammatically correct (or even made sense), but these days, doing this excessively will land you with a Keyword Stuffing manual spam action from Google. This is especially true if the focus keywords are also in the page title, the URL itself, and other elements of the page design.
The Cloaking manual spam action alert indicates that you’ve attempted to somehow hide those keywords in a format on your page that isn’t visible to readers, but only to search engines. This is an old-school black-hat technique, but today it’s very easy for Google to identify and flag those efforts.
Should you get flagged for either of these manual spam actions, you’re in for a lot of work. They key is to identify the problem children – the pages that Google considers the biggest offenders. You can find those pages by following my advice about identifying why your site lost traffic. If Google doesn’t specific specific pages, you can identify the problem pages using a Landing Page/Organic Traffic technique described in that article. Identify the pages, remove all of those keyword stuffing/cloaking techniques, and then submit to Google for reconsideration.
If you have the time, it would be a good idea to go through other pages where you know you’ve used these tactics and fix them before submitting for reconsideration, otherwise you may just end up getting hit with just another manual spam action again.
The last issue that I wanted to cover in this mini-guide on manual spam actions is that of thin content. If you’ve ever written a page on your site solely to sell products with affiliate links and make a few bucks on commission, you are at risk for this kind of manual action. If you’ve scraped content, automatically generated pages, or designed “doorway pages” meant to funnel visitors to a single sales page, you’re also at risk. These web pages are like a reader confronted suddenly by a salesman who they don’t want to see.
It destroys the user experience, and if you have this kind of content on your site, you are most definitely at risk of receiving one of these alerts from Google. These are easy enough to fix even before you receive an action, since it’s usually just a few pages on the site meant to sell affiliate products and make some cash. There’s nothing wrong with selling products on the web, but the page needs to be clearly defined as a sales page, and the affiliate links properly nofollowed. If you’re a blogger, writing a quick 300 word random post that has absolutely no value and no depth, simply to draw in keyword search engine traffic, you are also at risk for getting flagged with a thin content spam action notice.
Summing it All Up
If you think this can’t happen to you, think again. On Christmas of 2013, someone spotted the song lyric website Rap Genius posting an update on Facebook asking website owners to promote links for them. In exchange for publishing spammy links pointing to the Rap Genius site, Rap Genius offered promotional tweets for the site to its followers. It was a link building exercise the likes of which Google targets with a passion. No longer than 24 hours after the Facebook post, Rap Genius was issued a manual spam action for unnatural links to their site, and its website fell entirely off the radar. Even searching for “Rap Genius” turned up nothing in search results.
Rap Genius was achieving traffic of 700,000 unique visitors a day. Overnight, it dropped down to 100,000. It was a week before Rap Genius was able to smooth things over with Google by aggressively sifting through its incoming links and removing anything that could be problematic. They contacted bloggers and asked them to take down links. They even wrote a web scraper to be sure they left no stone unturned. I wouldn’t even want to estimate the lost revenue Rap Genius experienced during that nightmare week.
Don’t let something like this happen to you. Explore your site design and your content guidelines across all of the points listed in this article. Make sure you are not in danger of a manual spam action, and if you are, fix things now, before Google decides to fix it for you with a scary notice and by pulling your site entirely out of search results.