Last week, we saw something that we haven’t seen in quite a while: Google going on a manual action spree and penalizing websites for unnatural backlinks.
This week, we’re hearing that a good number of these manual actions seem to be buggy as reports of strange occurrences in Google Search Console have been cited.
Penalty assessment and recovery expert Marie Haynes first reported that manual actions seem to be striking a few websites within close succession, then disappearing from the Google Search Console Manual Actions panel.
Something odd is going on for sites with manual actions. We have three clients now that appear to have manual actions expire/clear up on their own. These can certainly expire, but it’s odd to have 3 do it on one day.
Anyone else seeing issues like this? @rustybrick
— Marie Haynes (@Marie_Haynes) April 30, 2019
She notes that the manual actions seemed to expire and clear on their own, but no notices of penalty revocation were received from Google either. Other SEOs have since chimed in and reported similar experiences. Some have noted that even after the manual action notice disappeared from Search Console, no recovery of organic traffic was observed. Responding to inquiries, Google’s John Muelller confirmed that something odd did seem to be going on.
Something weird does seem to be happening there. I got some examples from folks and the team here is taking a look. I’ll post an update once I know more.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) May 1, 2019
As of now, reports are coming in that the bug may have been resolved as manual actions which disappeared have come back to Search Console viewers.
Looks like the manual actions bug has resolved. If you had a manual action that disappeared yesterday, unless you got an email saying your manual action was revoked, it is likely back now. pic.twitter.com/pvo2reV7tg
— Marie Haynes (@Marie_Haynes) May 1, 2019
The only websites that are not experiencing the reappearance of these manual action notices are ones that have filed successful reconsideration requests after performing unnatural link cleanups.
What’s a Manual Action Penalty?
Backlinks are well-known to be a powerful ranking signal for Google: the higher the quantity and the better the quality of websites linking to your pages, the greater your ranking power becomes. As such, link acquisition is a major facet of effective SEO and webmasters inevitably get tempted to acquire links even through unnatural (editorial) means. Bribery, deception and spamming are some of the more common ways some SEOs try to game Google’s system. When successful, they trick Google’s algorithms into perceiving their domains as being more authoritative that they actually are.
The effects of manual and algorithmic link penalties are similar on the surface. The affected website will see drops in its rankings for some or all of its keywords overnight. Subsequently, its overall organic traffic will decline severely. For many online businesses, a penalty that doesn’t get resolved can be a deathblow to their revenue streams.
The key difference between a manual and an algorithmic penalty is the fact that a manual action comes with a notification from Google via Search Console. You will know that you’re in the doghouse and you’ll be given a general reason for it. With algorithmic penalties, things get a lot more difficult as there are no notices that you’re in violation of Google’s rules. All you’ll see is a sharp traffic decline and you’re left to try and figure out what exactly hit you.
Both can be resolved by cleaning up your link profile. This is commonly done through the manual removal of unnatural links or through the use of Search Console’s disavow tool when manual removal is not an option. With manual actions, a reconsideration request needs to be filed after the cleanup. With algorithmic penalties, you’ll have to wait for the filter to refresh and for Google to see that you’ve straightened out your act.
Why This Wave of Manual Actions is Surprising
For the past few years, Google seemed to be less proactive in dishing out manual actions to offending websites. This is in line with their statements saying that instead of punishing websites with spammy link profiles, the search engine’s algorithms simply identify and ignore these links.
If we recognize them, we can just ignore them – no need to have you do anything in most cases.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) December 7, 2018
We haven’t seen a spate of manual actions like this in a long while. In particular, this one seems to be global as SEOs from North America, Australia and even here in the Philippines are buzzing about it. It’s interesting to see that Google seems to have reverted a bit to its more punitive ways and it’s surprising to hear that this once-straightforward manual action process is now buggier in the new Search Console than it was before.
My gut tells me that the statement from John Mueller suggesting that Google ignores bad links might have encouraged black hat link builders more than discourage them from their activities. Knowing that you can engage in questionable link building with little risk of a penalty probably emboldened illicit link builders to double down on their efforts and see what sticks.
This new wave of manual actions should at least put a little more doubt in the minds of link spammers. While web spam will probably not go away for a long time, it’s good to know that Google can still strike back if you try to maliciously influence the way it presents search results.