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As described in my latest  blog post, this past September, the TSM digital team discovered that a Google site-wide manual action penalty, one of the greatest Google search engine punishments, had been infecting the domain, quite possibly for years. It was a site-wide “Unnatural Links from your site” manual action, and the most likely culprit was the Daily Texan’s practice of selling site-wide footer links. After an extensive link audit that consisted of searching and deleting/ no-following any links that we deemed suspicious, we filed a reconsideration request with Google. Thankfully, after a couple weeks, we received the famous “we have revoked this action” email from the Google Web Spam team.

For the “unnatural links from your site” manual action, It is very frustrating that Google provides little context on where and what types of links are harming your site. To ease the confusion and to help guide webmasters who have experienced a similar manual action, the DT Delta and TSM digital team has comprised a step by step guide on how to find, diagnose and remedy a “Unnatural links from your site” manual action. Special thanks to Todd Mumford of Riverbed Marketing whose responses to a Moz question and answer forum helped guide our course of action that ultimately resulted in the Daily Texan’s manual action getting revoked.

Checking for Manual Actions

Starting in August 2013, Google Webmaster Tools added a new section under “Search Traffic” in the left sidebar.

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By clicking on this link you will be able to see if your site has any manual actions. If the Manual Actions page says “No manual webspam actions found” then you are in the clear and you can rest assured knowing your rankings are untouched (at least manually) by Google’s Web Spam team. However if there is an error that says “Unnatural links from your site” then below is a step by step course of action on how to find and resolve the action as quickly as possible. As you go down the list, be sure to document your process and any suspicious links that you found and took care of, for you will want to include it in your reconsideration request.

The Obvious Giant Thorn in the Paw

1. Most of the time, the issue will be a site-wide links in a header, footer, sidebar, blogroll or image. Do a quick look of 5 pages within your site to see if that’s the case.

2. If you find any immediately delete them or insert a no follow tag into their html code.

3. If you are using a banner ad network like OpenX check and make sure that the website(s) that is hosting your ads is not getting indexed by Google. If they are getting indexed:

a. Engineer the ad network to insert a no-follow tag on all of the Ads.

b. If you own the site that the ad network is hosted on, disallow the site/ page via its robot.txt file to ensure that any page rank passed to the site is not getting indexed by Google.

4. If there aren’t any glaring site-wide links on your current site, check the archive of your site on the Wayback Machine to see, as in our case, if it had any site-wide links in the past that you are still getting punished for.

Digging Further to Find the Root of the Problem

Implement the following link audit on your site to make sure there aren’t any suspicious links deep within your site:

1.  Use Google search operators like site:[SITE DOMAIN].com “[KEYWORD]”, site:[SITE DOMAIN].com inurl:”[KEYWORD]” and site:[SITE DOMAIN].com intitle: “[KEYWORD]”, with words like “directory”, “forum”, “comments”, and “listing” to try and find any suspicious user generated content that could contain do-follow links that pass page rank.

2. Look at the source code of 20 random pages to ensure that there are not hidden bits of code that contain a suspicious non-editorial followed external link.

3. Check Google Webmaster tools under “Security Issues” to ensure that there were no hackings or suspicious page activity.

4. Using a SEO Crawler like Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider complete a site-wide or at least a sample of 500 pages to analyze internal links.

5. Using the SEO crawler, export a list of all the outbound links and scan through it and check for suspicious followed links

6. Using the SEO crawler, export a list of the top 20 pages with the most external outbound links. Then look at the source code of those 20 pages and look for suspicious non-editorial followed links.

7. Once you have deleted or no-followed all the links that you found through the site audit, compose a reconsideration request using this template from Search Engine Watch. Be sure to extensively outline your process in detail and link to Google docs showing the list of suspicious links that you took care of and a list of links that you looked through (that you found through the SEO crawler ect). Google loves to know that you worked hard for them.

8. Submit the reconsideration request and wait for Google’s Web Spam team to respond (hopefully with the words “we have revoked this action”) within a couple of weeks!