Disclosure: Please note that links to merchants mentioned within this post might be using an affiliate link which means that - at zero cost to you - I might earn a commission if you buy something through that affiliate link. That said, I never recommend anything I don’t personally use and find to be a valuable asset to my business.

What You Need to Understand about Google Penguin Recovery


  1. Jeremy Palmer says:

    Great post, Rae!

    In my experience, a penguin penalty was like going from a 5 to a -2 on a linear scale, whereas starting over with a new domain/site is starting at 0. Unfortunately, if you’ve invested considerable time and money into your site, starting over isn’t realistic.

    It’s hard for clients to come to terms with this harsh reality, but persistence eventually beats resistance.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      I think any real business would have a hard time trashing a domain to escape Penguin (and rarely IMHO, do I think that would be necessary) — and I think that once you get the penalty lifted, you’re not at a -2 anymore.

      Agreed – it’s harder still to get them to understand they have to come to terms with it despite competitors still sailing strong on a lot of the same links.

      • I will also add that a once successful site will always have some traffic, as branding will have some credibility. Throwing a brand away with the factor of an aged domain is a very hard thing to do.

        I have 150 domains related to brand and all top level domains… I can think of a new site, but can never let the old domain and brand go.

        • Rae Hoffman says:

          It’s definitely not easy to let a branded domain go… luckily, I think there’s very few instances where that’s the only choice.

  2. Bill Hartzer says:

    Rae, there seems to be some confusion around this statement:
    >> then wait for the next Penguin update to occur to see if your escape efforts were successful.

    From what I’ve seen, it’s only been days (well, about a week or so) after a disavow was uploaded to see some sort of ‘recovery’ starting to happen. And even after a few weeks there is a slow recovery.

    I’m not 100 percent certain that you have to wait until the next Penguin update to see recovery.

    Perhaps this is due to the fact that the site really wasn’t actually hit by Penguin, and bad links were just disavowed. Or was it it really hit by Penguin and you don’t have to wait until the next Penguin update to see a recovery?

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Bill – I’m not saying it’s not possible because there would be no way for me to rule it out. I’m just saying that with all the recoveries we’ve worked with – we haven’t seen something that looks like an actual recovery until an update.

      Re the graph above – it would be highly coincidental that their traffic came back from cleanup done weeks before on the day of the Penguin update if the update didn’t re-evaluate their standing in the filter. Especially when we’ve seen the same with multiple recoveries – where we can say it’s definitely Penguin (the hit).

      I did some digging to see if Matt ever said anything definitive on the topic, and it would appear he did.

      But, like you said, it’s possible other issues were at play. Could also be that some filter updates aren’t announced. I still see a lot of instances of over optimized anchor penalties where a site gets hit on some keywords and not others – and a lot of people confuse that to be Penguin. Those typically see slow improvements as soon as the anchors begin getting neutralized – based on my experience with the ones I’ve worked with. :)

  3. martypants says:

    Thanks for this Rae- it helped me to hear you clarify the difference between the types of penalties. One thing I would like to know, is if a site falls less than a big 4-5 page drop, say shifts down a page or so, but it happens to align with a critter update, would you employ some of the same disavow tactics, or would you tend to leave it be, and drown it out with better things (increasing the ratio of better incoming links)? Or hopefully more clearly, how much of a drop would inspire you to take this kind of action, opposed to the proactive ways of building it back up?

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Hey Marty – for me, I’m not rushing to do anything until I see the ranks have been affected for at least 1-2 weeks. Once the decision is made that the effect is actual and not flux, it is a case by case situation regarding whether we disavow or simply build to rebalance things – largely dependent upon the severity of their link issues. :)

      I typically try to clear up any really shitty links regardless. Even if they’re able to be balanced out, they could cause problems in the future. But I mean shitty on an epic scale and not “eh, this isn’t super high quality” so to speak.

  4. Eric Garrison says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. Looks like disavow may work, but is an additional step needed where webmasters in question linking to you need to remove their links as well?

    Wondering if 90% of effort for link cleanup can just be achieved through the disavow process.

    Thanks for a great article

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Eric – Google has made it clear several times that the first step regarding links you don’t want counted is to attempt to get them removed. Then disavow what you can’t get removed. Not sure from a logistics standpoint what the difference is (i.e. why they want you to try and get links removed first vs. disavow), but that’s what they have said the steps are supposed to be re links you don’t want counting for your site. :)

  5. Mike Rodger says:

    Great article Rae, thanks.

    There seems to be a lot of warnings around using the disavow tool. Any rules of thumb on when to use it and when not to?

    • Leo Welder says:

      Rae- Have you seen any successes with sites that were hit with Penguin 1.0 AND received an unnatural links warning? Is a successful reconsideration request required to recover in this situation even if the link warning now states that Google is only taking specific action on those links found to be in violation, not the site as a whole?

      I have a couple of sites in that situation. With one of them, I submitted a successful reconsideration request (after major link cleanup and disavow) at the beginning of this year, but haven’t seen any recovery. In fact, Penguin 2.1 seemed to push the site down further.

      • Rae Hoffman says:

        Leo – are you saying the site was hit by Penguin and got a link warning email at the same time or are you saying the site got hit by Penguin and then you got an email months later? If it’s the latter, no, haven’t worked with any like that. The ones I’ve dealt with have been one or the other.

        Re the site with a lifted manual penalty but no recovery – did you work diligently to get NEW links once the penalty was lifted? And if so, did you move completely away from the types of links that originally got you hit?


        • Re: the first question. We received the link warning penalty in March of 2012, then we were hit with Penguin 1.0. I believe it was Penguin, because the rankings drop happened on the evening of April 24, 2012 (I actually was manually checking rankings when it happened, and I felt sick watching it).

          Re: the second question- we did work diligently to get new quality links. After the getting the manual reconsideration request approved then seeing a Penguin update come and go, I haven’t done much link building to that site, but I continue to add fresh content to it and promote via social media. For a little less than a year however, we built quality links via reputable, in-house created guest posts, press releases, relevant forum posts etc. Virtually no keyword rich anchor text on those links. We completely avoided: non-curated, anchor-text, paid directory listings (or any directory listings); anchor-text rich, irrelevant forum posts; social profiles with anchor text links; site-wide, keyword rich, anchor text paid links (or any paid links for that matter); and anything else that the bums that were managing my SEO had engaged in. Unfortunately, new, bad links keep showing up in GWT, because they keep finding old junky links. I disavowed all of them for a while, but I haven’t updated the disavow file in about 6 months. Just not sure, if it’s still worth the effort.

          • Rae Hoffman says:

            “in-house created guest posts, press releases, relevant forum posts etc”

            I guess my next questions would be – were there new links built outside of that? Have you achieved any press mentions? Interviews? Have you had multiple pieces of on site content achieve links and a ton of engagement? And what type of links make up your overall profile percentage wise? (i.e. what % is guest posts, what % is directories, what % is comments, etc.)

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Thanks Mike.

      I’ll be honest, when it first came out, I avoided it like the plague. But, there are simply some links you can’t get rid of without disavowing them. If the link manipulation is slight enough, you can get away with merely building out new, quality links to balance out the profile. If the manipulation was severe (let’s say you bought 300 paid links that account for over 80% of your backlink profile and you only got half of them removed with emails asking folks to do so, then IMHO, you’d need to disvow – like it (and rightfully paranoid) – or not. :)

  6. Great Post!, it would definitely help me getting recover from Manual Link penalty. Removing links would also hamper my Page Rank right???

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Thanks – glad you enjoyed it. :)

      I haven’t worried about or been concerned with my Pagerank in years… Pagerank has long been merely one small part of your overall link profile and not a representation of the profile as a whole and hasn’t been a significant stand alone factor for well over five+ years now. IMHO.

  7. Hey Rae,
    I am really confused at how Google is working these days.
    One of my site got hit by some update, and my traffic reduced to 5% of the original. And there was no spam action in the GWT account. I am confused as Penguin hit it or the Hummingbird.
    And how can i try recovering that site to its original rankings :)

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Arbaz – I can’t comment on specific sites. But, I use the event tracker in Raven Tools and list every major Google update as an event within that. Makes it really easy to look at a stretch of analytics and see which major updates (if any) had a positive or negative impact on your traffic. :)

  8. Rae Hoffman says:

    Arbaz – I can’t comment on specific sites. But, I use the event tracker in Raven Tools and list every major Google update as an event within that. Makes it really easy to look at a stretch of analytics and see which major updates (if any) had a positive or negative impact on your traffic. :)

  9. My sites was hit by the first Penguin we got a revoke in May and our site never recovered any positions despite being a leader in our industry and well known brand.

    I have spoken to [name redacted] on a few occasions about it. No clear answer from him. I actually think he is at a loss as well.

    We used the disavow file with no success and our results got worse in the last Penguin update! Despite doing what [name redacted] told us to do. Concentrate on quality and avoid link building and let it happen naturally.

    I do not believe the system works at all. I think a bunch of crappy sites can recover but not an authority site that has been around for 10 years.

    Google just wants more adwords money.

    I would be interested if you are able to spot anything that could should be done to the site. But I think its a total loss and a total waste of everyone’s time and money in the company.

    All Google has done is highlight that it lies a lot and its forum TC’s are down right rude.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Hey Gary – I removed the specific name you listed in your comment because I want to keep things firmly grounded to the discussion at hand (not as a personal thing either, I don’t know the name you listed off hand). :)

      By a “revoke” do you mean you had a manual penalty lifted or…? And agreed – I don’t believe their system is fair and I do believe a lot of babies get tossed out with the bathwater.

      • Yes it was a manual penalty that was lifted, the person mentioned is one of the head people at Google? I am stunned you have not heard of him? He hosts a Google Hangout once or twice a week.

        • Rae Hoffman says:

          I had assumed it was the name of a consultant in the context of the post. :)

          Honestly, I didn’t recognize the name. I went to his website to see that he’s a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google Zürich. The domain name I recognized as soon as I saw it having seen the posts passed around and having read a few from it, but the name, no I wouldn’t have recognized alone. I don’t heavily follow a lot of individual Googlers. :)

          • No probs :) you should watch his hangouts, its the the only source of information from Google that is not just pure garbage. You can get most questions answered there.

  10. Hi Rae.
    Just jumped on your site because of Moz Top 10.
    I must say your post is accurate and it’s really worth reading.

    The only doubt I have is about the following sentence:
    “Post Penguin we most commonly see two types of Penguin related penalties. Manual and algorithmic.”

    Do you mean Penguin is also a manual penalty?

    IMHO (and actually other colleagues’ opinions too) Penguin should only be considered an algorithmic penalty. Don’t you think so?

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Hey Web4… the link warnings and subsequent penalties came out in unison timeframe wise around algorithmic Penguin. In our experience, they target the same type of “manipulative links” – the algorithmic version is like a small to medium infraction. The manual link penalties post Penguin is like a “we found a dead horse that you beat”. Penguin itself is algorithmic… but the manual penalty is related to the same type of links. I tried to clearly explain my thoughts on that in the post, but I guess I didn’t do it as well as I hoped. ;-)

  11. Michael Haley says:

    This whole disavow thing is nuts. We are probably cancelling links that actually help us and not putting links where we should. Take this comment… I put my CRUMMY blog URL so you can find out who I am. I can’t put my main business site there for fear that it might penalize the site that my income relies on – even though it is probably a no-follow link. Do we really trust Google when they say we don’t have to worry about no-follow links? If we did, we would be disavowing them when they are obviously from crummy sites.

    And how heavily do we scrutinize the incoming links? There may be thousands to go through – links from sites that scraped and maybe even spun your content…. directories that picked up your information from other directories, sites that scraped your blog’s titles, intro paragraphs, and put those into relative categories… but have AdSense on them… which do we disavow and which do we leave? Technically, most of the links we are disavowing were actually naturally built – in the sense that we had nothing to do with them. But very few are really good quality links. How do we interpret the warning that disavowing may actually harm our sites performance?

    Is it better to not play? Maybe we aren’t suffering a penalty to begin with… maybe we just aren’t getting the benefit that we once didn’t deserve and we might be removing some benefit by disavowing.

    And then there is the negative SEO to worry about. That is, how much time do you waste making sure your competitors aren’t submitting the competitions URL’s to link farms? It is cheap and seems like a relatively easy way to take out those on top. I don’t think my competitors would intentionally do that… but maybe the SEO’s they hire would – finding it easier to damage those in front than build the one they were paid to build.

    What about changing how Google views a site? Disavowing might tell Google the site is crummy. What if SEO’s intentionally disavow links that don’t exist merely because they can’t get a link from the site? Consider DMOZ – If everyone who is pissed at DMOZ disavows the domain, will that discredit the juice others are getting from DMOZ?

    The disavow game just creates too many negative SEO possibilities. Google should just ignore bad links and move on.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      You bring up a lot of good points John. And I don’t argue at all that – especially in the case of a manual penalty – you have to remove links that were helping you and are still helping your competitors. Personally, I don’t worry much about nofollow links. I think the bigger issue is your overall profile as I said in the post in the directory example.

      “Google should just ignore bad links and move on.” < I actually asked Matt about that when we were speaking on the SEO in 2013 panel at SMX West. If they know which links are the bad links (which they believe they do, thus the penalties) why don't they merely ignore them? He didn't give an answer that satisfied me. ;-)

  12. Google is denying my reconsideration request and sending me example links I have already added to my Disavow file. Anyone else seeing this?

    These are links I have tried to remove and stated clearly the efforts I have made in my disavow file. They are blogposts which were scraped from article directories and the sites are pretty much abandoned now by the looks of it and my contact efforts.

    Paid PR sites like SBWire and EMailwire are being sent as example problem urls now as well even though the anchor is just my brand name so Companies will need to be very careful with PR runs now too.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      I’ve seen cases where they’ve sent some whacked links as examples (that would be deemed decent links in some cases). I’ve never seen them send an already disavowed link, but, they are “example” links. It might be possible you have other links similar to those links you’ve yet to disavow?

      • Probably just press releases at this stage to remove. Very misleading to send example links that have already been disavowed. Pretty obvious Google couldn’t care less about this stuff now long as Big Brands are ranking.

  13. Hi Rae – a great read – lays out the fundamentals really well.

    What are your thoughts on re-submitting multiple disavow requests? Should these be kept to one-offs?

    We’ve never received a manual penalty or notification in WMT but we definitely don;t rank like we once did for key terms. We’ve followed all the best practices so i’d imagine we just need to focus on building out our back-link profile naturally.

    In you opinion does off-line branding / online partnerships and level of direct traffic effect rankings?

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Louis – can you define “re-submitting multiple disavow requests” in case I’m misinterpreting it? Your disavow file is only one file, so any and all links need to be in that one file – if you need to add a few links, then you need to add them to your master disvow file and then re-upload it. Re the last question – I think anything that increases your brand awareness in the end is a good thing – as far as direct traffic, we’ve never tested it.

  14. Google is suppose to hire the smartest people in the country, why do we end up with the dumbest solutions to web spam. Google should ignore the bad links and move on, that makes the most sense. Cheers!

    My personal favorite is when Google asks you to verify a business listing with an incorrect address by sending a post card to the incorrect address.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Jeff – I agree on them simply ignoring the bad links… but then we wouldn’t be removing links they may not be detecting for them. ;-)

  15. After you clean up everything, the old links basically dont count like they used to especially with regards to exact anchor matches

  16. Daniel Moravec says:

    Hi Rae,

    I got hit hard from Penguin 1.0 and also received a manual web-spam warning. I’ve been through several SEO’s and still no progress in gaining back any sort of substantial traffic. Traffic dropped at a regular rate, and had small, yet sudden, drops at key algorithm update times. At this point, I’m operating approximately 5% of what I used to and have managed the finances as well as possible. Somehow I’m still profitable, which amazes even me.

    The strange thing is that not only did my one site get hit, but so did my other sites. They’re all about related topics, were hosted on the same server, used the same Google Analytics and Webmasters account etc. In the past ~20 months, I’ve tried quite a few tactics. I’ve applied new WordPress designs, regularly updated old content (a lot of it was much lower quality than I consider to be acceptable) and on-page SEO (previously non-existent), disavowed sets of links, and much more. I’m currently working on adding social signals, gathering quality links, diversifying the link profile, and more.

    At this point, I still haven’t seen any significant increases in positions or traffic. Its really frustrating to say the least when I have worked so hard the past year and have yet to see even a 30% improvement from where I currently operating at. Another factor may also be that competitors started infringing upon my trademark and may be outranking me for my brand name(s) due to this, but that is another thing I’m working on.


    • Rae Hoffman says:

      “They’re all about related topics, were hosted on the same server, used the same Google Analytics and Webmasters account etc. In the past ~20 months, I’ve tried quite a few tactics.”

      Not to sound like a unicorn floating over a rainbow here, but it sounds like you’re still doing what Google is taking aim at. Especially if you’re 1. cross linking those sites and 2. there’s no actual individual value and brand for each of those other sites. Curious if there is a reason for running multiple sites vs. one primary brand – other than obtaining multiple ranks for the same keyword?

      Either way, sorry to hear about such a massive hit. :(

  17. Andy Kuiper says:

    The cold hard truth Rae ;-) it isn’t ‘easy’ fixing someone else’s work, but it needs to be done; nice post :-)

  18. It is really hard to convey to customers and clients that penguin recovery does not necessarily mean they will get their rankings back. It is long way back which they have to learn and understand.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      I agree Dan. Getting that point across and explaining that their “original rankings” were never truly earned in the first place (in most cases) is one of the bigger challenges.

  19. James Cameron says:

    Hi Rae,

    Awesome post.

    I received an “unnatural” link warning earlier in the year:

    “We don’t want to put any trust in links that are unnatural or artificial, and we recommend removing any unnatural links to your site. However, we do realize that some links may be outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action to reduce trust in the unnatural links. If you are able to remove any of the links, you can submit a reconsideration request, including the actions that you took.”

    I’ve held off until now do a reconsideration request, in part because my site was only penalized for 3 search terms. I was hoping that by getting the links which I think were responsible removed, the penalty would automatically expire. However, 6 months later and I’m still penalized.

    One of the things that I think could have caused the penalty is the fact that years ago I submitted a number of articles to ezinearticles.com, with about 2-3 links back to my old website, which is 301 redirected to my current site. Unfortunately, the articles were syndicated on literally hundreds of spammy article sites. Many of these now show up as links to my current site in Google Webmaster Tools.

    I have managed to get around 15% of these link removed by emailing the article sites and I was planning to disavow the rest of them. However, I’ve recently discovered though Majestic SEO that there are hundreds more of these crappy article sites which are not showing up in Google webmaster tools.

    My question to you is, does Google expect us to use other tools to find the links that they have deemed as unnatural? Surely if they are not showing up in GWT, they can’t expect us to clean up links we would not otherwise know about?


  20. What was the turn around time for your client’s recovery back to page one on the algorithmic penalty after you submitted the disavow file?

    • Kevin – it rebounded in the next Penguin update that occurred after the disavowing – which for us was three weeks, but we just happened to have good timing in regards to when the next update was IMHO.

  21. Rae,

    Great article!

    Regarding manual penalties, in your experience would you reach out to get the links removed as well as put them in the disavow file? It seems like wasted work to do link removal outreach if the disavow tool is available. Unless Google in its great wisdom requires you to jump through the manual hoops before submitting the disavow file.

  22. I have recently done a major disavow for a website, dissing all directories. lots of guest posts and anything that was natural but looked spammy (had loads of natural blogrolls etc.). Basically disavowed every link I could see that did not look great (using GMT, Majestic, Wemeup for backlink hunting).

    Do you reckon (I know you cannot know without knowing the site and the disavow) that come next peguin refresh I might be out of the wood, ie. have shaken loose the ball and chain and be back in a position where quality link building (marketing etc.) will actually start to lead to improvements again?

    Had some good sites link to me in the new year, including The Guardian and Patient, but no positive movements in SERPs yet …..

    Just wondering. I might be dead forever … hmmmm.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Hey Jon – well, here’s the issue. Are you even sure you’ve been specifically hit by Penguin? We do still have other link related penalties. Google gives us no insight on any of them. They don’t tell us when refreshes occur on a lot of them. Then they release Panda and Penguin updates simultaneously, further confusing the plot. Then they have the anchor specific penalties, where you get killed on a certain anchor, but [not provided] makes it hard to diagnose which keywords you’re specifically seeing a traffic loss on so that you can correct the problem. And if it is Penguin – when and if you do “recover”, Penguin “recovery” is not equal to rankings restoration. (I wrote about this here.)

      The bottom line, IMHO, is the less data they provide, the less educated decisions we can make. They merely want to publish a set of rules (build good content, don’t “build” links and cross your fingers) and have us follow them – blindly and totally.

  23. Michael Lerner says:

    Rae – great article…. Regarding multiple sites – we have 3 – all selling similar products – but different marketing/focus for each – is that a problem with Google? None are cross linked , they have different names and one is even on a different server/platform.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Thanks Michael. Re your question, IMHO, that can’t be answered blankly because it depends on a variety of factors.

  24. Great article.
    I find this confusing: “*edit – in the last month or so, we’ve noticed sites seeing improvement within a week or two of the implemented fixes, which is awesome”
    Then you go on to seemingly contradict that in the comments. Penguin updates are pretty infrequent and a shorter time frame would mean a ray of hope!

    • Hey Tom, thanks. I just edited the above in the article to say “MINOR”. I was trying to convey we were starting to see some fairly immediate movement, but failed to convey that movement was minor. I.e. no where near having the “penalty lifted” but enough of an improvement to note. But I agree with you that my mention of “improvement” might be taken by some as “recovery” and I definitely don’t want people to make that assumption. :)

      IMHO, you need to wait for a Penguin data refresh to see actual “recovery”.

  25. Vitaliy Kolos says:

    Thanks for explaining the pros and cons between a manual and algorithmic updates. It really looks that every cloud has a silver lining :)

    Also, I agree that most sites recover after major Google updates if they suffered algorithmically.

  26. Andy Kuiper says:

    …still …waiting …for …the …next …Penguin …refresh ;-)

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