Imagine this scenario. You've been working extremely hard for months to lift a manual unnatural links penalty on your site. After spending countless hours auditing your links, contacting site owners, and perfecting your case for your reconsideration request, you're finally ready to file.
You go to Google Webmaster Tools, click on Search Traffic > Manual Actions, and see a puzzling thing. There's no longer a penalty there! And not only is there no penalty, but there is no "Request a Review" button. What do you do now?
All Manual Penalties Expire
What likely has happened is that your penalty has expired. Did you know that all manual penalties from Google have an expiration date? In some cases, they can expire after just a few months. In other cases it can take years. There really seems to be no discernible pattern to help us know when a penalty is going to expire.
In a 2011 video, Google's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts explained that penalties expire and that the length of the penalty usually correlates to the severity of the problem that Google is seeing.
Does Google Notify You That the Penalty Has Expired?
Google doesn'tnotify you when your penalty expires. You get no email and no message in Webmaster Tools. All that happens is that the manual spam actions viewer changes so that no penalty is shown and all that you see is this:
Is It Possible That a Mistake Was Made?
Sometimes the timing of a penalty expiring can really make it look like some type of mistake has been made. Many site owners will think that this is the case, especially if there is no increase in rankings seen.
However, rankings don’t always increase, especially if you just had a partial match manual penalty. Or, in some cases, rankings won’t increase because the site is also under the effects of the Penguin algorithm and needs to wait for a refresh to happen.
I have seen several reports in the Google Webmaster Help Forums of people who filed for reconsideration, received a reply saying that their site was still in violation of the guidelines, did more cleanup work, and then when they went to apply again a short time later, the penalty had disappeared.
It almost makes it look like perhaps a mistake was made and the penalty actually had been lifted the first time. I do think that when this happens, it is just coincidental timing that the penalty expired shortly after they received their response notifying them of a failed reconsideration request.
It is rare, but occasionally the webspam team can make mistakes. I recently came across a situation where a manual penalty was lifted, but even one week later, the penalty was still showing in Webmaster Tools and there was no "Request a Review" button.
The site owner was able to contact Google employee John Mueller, who looked into the situation. Shortly thereafter the penalty was lifted and the site was ranking well again.
But, I really think that in the vast majority of cases where a manual penalty just disappears, it's because the penalty has expired, not because a mistake was made.
It is important to note that Mueller has said repeatedly in Webmaster Central Help Hangouts that if your manual spam actions viewer shows "no manual action," there is no manual penalty on the site. So, if you're trying to apply for reconsideration and your penalty has disappeared, then it truly means that there is no longer a manual action on the site.
(It’s also important to note that you will not get any notification of algorithmic issues affecting your site’s rankings. Algorithmic problems like Panda and Penguin don't expire. A site must change and the algorithm must refresh and be able to recognize significant changes in order for improvement to happen.)
If Your Penalty Has Expired, What Do You Do Now?
If your manual penalty has expired, does this mean you're now in the clear? The answer depends on how much cleanup work you have already done.
If the issues (e.g., unnatural links or thin content) that were previously penalized haven't been cleared up, then, should the site undergo another manual review, you are likely to end up in worse shape than when the first penalty hit. In most cases, if you receive a second manual penalty, Google tends to be stricter.
I had a situation last year where we successfully removed a manual unnatural links penalty for a site. The site owner, without me knowing, re-instituted a good number of the links that we had removed. Within a few weeks the site was penalized again.
We were once again hired for penalty removal. We quickly removed those links again and re-applied, but this time Google wanted us to go even deeper and gave us example unnatural links that were nowhere to be found in any of the backlink checkers.
The reinstating of a penalty caused Google to lose trust in the site and as such they required a greater degree of work in order to lift it again. This isn't exactly the same case as a penalty expiring and then being reinstituted, but there is a good chance that if your penalty expires and then you get another one months later, that the results will be catastrophic.
In this Webmaster Forum help thread, Mueller said:
While manual actions will expire at some point, I would strongly not recommend sweeping them under the carpet and hoping that they go away on their own – at least if you're interested in having your site be optimally represented in our search results. Even when a manual action expires (which might take quite some time), if the reason for the original manual action is still relevant, it's always possible that the manual action is returned later on. In my opinion, if you're aware of issues that are negatively affecting your site's performance in search, and if its performance there is important to you, then resolving those issues is often a good use of time.
However, if you feel that you've done everything you can to clean up the site and were about to file for reconsideration before the penalty expired, then you likely can consider the penalty lifted and your job complete.
A Note for People Who Do Penalty Removal for a Living
I have had just one penalty expire on me just as I was about to file for reconsideration. It happened just more than a year ago.
I had been working for several months on this client’s site. We had failed on a previous reconsideration request and were finally ready to apply again. This was prior to the release of the manual actions tool and in this age, any site could file for reconsideration, even if there was no manual action against the site.
When we got our reply from Google, instead of getting a "penalty revoked" message or a “we still see unnatural links to your site" message, we got the standard message that sites get when there was no manual action on the site to start with. Part of the wording included the following:
We reviewed your site and found no manual actions by the webspam team that might affect your site's ranking in Google. There's no need to file a reconsideration request for your site, because any ranking issues you may be experiencing are not related to a manual action taken by the webspam team.
When this happens, is the site owner still responsible for paying for penalty removal services? Does it not seem like a waste of time and money to do this work if Google was just going to remove the penalty on their own? As stated above, the work still needs to be done or else the site can easily be revisited with another penalty and the second penalty could be worse than the first.
I would suggest, for those of you who are doing penalty removal for clients, that you dedicate a section of your contract to what happens should the penalty expire. In my contracts, I state that if the work has already been completed, that the full amount is still due even if the penalty expires. For contracts where we take a bonus for getting the work done by a certain time we have provisions that allow for a percentage of the bonus to be paid if the penalty expires depending on how much work has already been done.
In more than two years of doing exclusively penalty removal work, I have only had the one instance where a penalty expired before we could lift it. But, I have seen an increase in the number of people who are tweeting about this happening to them.
It’s possible that a good number of penalties are expiring that were administered in July 2012. At that time Google really increased the number of partial match warnings that they were giving out. However, some penalty removers who have had multiple penalties expire on them recently have reported that the penalties were initially administered all on different dates and that there is no pattern.
I’m not sure if there is something odd going on that is causing penalties to expire more frequently now, or whether this is just a coincidence. Have you had a manual penalty expire on you recently? If so, leave a comment below.