Penguin Recovery: Should You Be Removing Links or Just Disavowing?

If you have been affected by Google’s Penguin algorithm, should you be actively trying to remove your unnatural links? Or, is it just good enough to use Google’s disavow tool? In this article we will discuss the pros and cons of each and also look at what Google has said on the subject.

A Refresher on Penguin

The Penguin algorithm is Google’s way of assessing the quality of your backlink profile. If you have a lot of links that were self-made with the intention of manipulating your Google rankings, then Penguin may cause Google to lose trust in your site. The result is that your rankings will be suppressed. This suppression can be debilitating if you have a large number of unnatural links. I have also seen cases where the suppression is rather minor.

In order to escape from the grips of Penguin, three things need to happen:

  1. You need to do a thorough cleanup of your links.
  2. You need to wait until Google reruns the Penguin algorithm and reassesses your site.
  3. Once your unnatural links are removed or disavowed, you have to have a good quality site that has enough natural links to support rankings. In other words, if your previous rankings were only there on the basis of links that are now considered unnatural, you may not see much in the way of recovery even if you do a thorough cleanup.

In a previous Search Engine Watch article I discussed several reasons why a Penguin hit site may not recover.

In regards to point number one on my list, can you do a “thorough cleanup” just by using Google’s disavow tool? Or do you need to actively try to remove all of your unnatural links?

Note: Penguin Is NOT the Same as a Manual Penalty

There is still confusion out there about the difference between the Penguin algorithm and a manual unnatural links penalty. To tell if you have a manual action, go to Webmaster Tools and click on Search Traffic, then Manual Actions. If you do have a manual action, you will see an explanation of the action along with a red, “Request Review” button:


If you see “no manual webspam actions,” then there is no manual penalty and you do not have the ability to request a review from a Google employee.

Google does not give you any notification in Webmaster Tools as to whether or not you have been affected by an algorithm like Penguin or Panda. You’ll need to go looking at your analytics data to see if there is a drop in organic traffic that coincides with the date of a known algorithm change.

However, if you do have a manual action for unnatural links, then it is vitally important that you make efforts to remove every all of your self-made links and not just disavow them. Your actions will be reviewed by a member of the webspam team and they will want to see that you have made efforts to contact site owners and do whatever you can to clean up your unnatural links. Once you have tried to remove links, it is then that they recommend using the disavow tool to ask Google to disregard the remaining unnatural links that are pointing to your site.


But…if you are dealing with an algorithmic problem (i.e. Penguin), no Google employee is going to review your efforts. No one will be looking at a spreadsheet that shows your link removal efforts.

What Google Says

Google employee John Mueller has been asked several times in Webmaster Central Hangouts whether disavowing is considered the same as removing when it comes to algorithms like Penguin. In February of 2013, Mueller was asked whether it was better to remove or disavow when doing a Penguin cleanup. His response was, “Penguin is an algorithm, so it’s not really going to try to read your emails and figure out if you’re doing the right thing in trying to get that cleaned up. So, with regards to algorithms that look at these links, obviously not having those links on the website is a great thing because then we don’t have them to take a look at. If they’re in the disavow file and we’ve recrawled them, then obviously they also won’t be used for that algorithm. But, past that, it’s not going to try to make any judgment calls as to whether or not you tried to clean it up or not.”

Later in the same video, when asked by Jim Boykin what would happen if a Penguin-hit site did a thorough disavow but never got anyone to actually remove links, he said, “Is that (disavowing) good enough, or does a certain amount (of links) just HAVE to go away?” Mueller’s response was, “Algorithmically, what would probably happen is that we’d see that as similar to the webmaster placing a nofollow on that link, so to a large extent I’d imagine that we would just process that automatically so that’s not something where you’d need to specifically remove everything. So, essentially the disavow processes it all on an algorithmic basis.” Boykin then said, “So, if you were hit by an algorithmic update and not a manual then you really don’t have to send emails. Just use the disavow?” Mueller said that you might still want to remove links, just in case someone from the webspam team reviewed your site. This is an interesting point to me because I would be surprised if a site received a manual penalty if the webspam team reviewed their links and found that all of the bad ones had been disavowed.

In August of 2013, Mueller was asked again whether disavowing was as good as removing in the eyes of Penguin and his response again was that disavowing was “essentially the same.”

And finally, in another hangout in October of 2013, he was asked the same question and his reply was, “With regards to deleting them (links) or disavowing them, generally speaking if you have the ability to delete those links or add a nofollow I’d personally recommend that, because then you’d essentially be helping to clean up this issue overall. But, if you don’t have the ability to have those links removed or you can’t contact the webmaster…the site has been stale for years now…those kind of issues…using a disavow file is fine.”

My Philosophy for Penguin Link Cleanup

This last response is the one that I use as the basis for the way that I handle link cleanup for Penguin-hit sites:

If have control over the link or can easily remove it, then I do. Otherwise, I disavow.

Here are some of the links that I would usually try to remove:

  • Links from directories or profiles where I have the login info. This can sometimes take a lot of time. I have had good success with using workers on E-Lance to do this kind of job.
  • Links from self-made microsites that were created in order to build links to our site. In most cases I will try to get these microsites removed. Again, if I have access to the login info, this is something that we can do. Or, if I do not have access, then in many cases, emailing the host of these sites will quickly get them removed. For example, if you have links on subdomains of you can use their spam report and weebly will usually remove these subdomains quite quickly.
  • Links from article directories where I have login info. If you have articles that you have syndicated on sites like e-zine articles or similar article directories, it really is a good idea to log in and either remove these articles or remove the links, even if the links are nofollowed ones. The reason for this is that these articles can continue to be picked up and republished by webmasters who are looking for content for their sites and in the process, new unnatural links will continue to be created.

I do NOT do an email link removal campaign for Penguin-hit sites. In my opinion, the cost and time involved in these campaigns is not worth it considering that for most sites, there is usually a poor response rate to link removal requests. In most cases, we’re lucky to get 5 percent to 15 percent of links removed as a result of an extensive email campaign. If you have a manual penalty, then sending out emails and filling out contact forms asking for links to removed is part of the cleanup process, but when recovering from an algorithmic hit, in my opinion it really isn’t necessary. I know that there are some people in the Google penalty sphere who will recommend still doing an email removal campaign and documenting everything just in case a site gets visited with a manual penalty in the future. That way, the work is already done.

Is it best to do a complete link removal campaign for Penguin? Well, yes. The more you can do to get links down, the better. Is it absolutely necessary to do a link removal campaign? In my opinion, no. I don’t believe the ROI is worth it and I do believe that you can escape Penguin without doing link removals.

Why Do I Bother Removing Any Links? Why Not Just Disavow Them All?

There are a few reasons why removing the links that you can easily remove is a good idea. The first is one that I have already mentioned and that is to stop new links from replicating should one of your old articles or directory listings get syndicated. The second is that it makes your backlink profile look better. If a competitor is checking your backlinks and sees that in the past you have created hundreds of spammy microsites in order to rank, that’s not going to look very good.

Another reason to remove links rather than disavow them is because the disavow tool is not foolproof. I have seen many people disavow links incorrectly. For example, if you disavow a link on the URL level only, you might be missing other unnatural links from that domain. I’ve also seen odd problems with the disavow tool that can cause it to not work properly. For example, sometimes, when converting a file from rich text to the proper UTF-8 format, you can end up with odd characters that get added like this:


While there is a chance that the disavow tool will reject this file, it’s possible that it might actually be accepted. And now, instead of disavowing, you’re trying to disavow example.comå, which doesn’t exist. You would think that you’ve disavowed a bunch of links, but really, you have accomplished nothing.

At this point, Google does not tell you when a link from your disavow has actually been recrawled and subsequently disavowed. You have to simply trust that this has happened. As such, if it’s possible to get a link removed, then you know that it is removed and don’t need to worry about it.

Do You Agree?

We are still in early days when it comes to understanding Penguin. These recommendations represent my current thoughts on how best to deal with Penguin, but, I will be the first to admit that I could be wrong! Do you do link removals when trying to clean up a Penguin-hit site? Or do you simply rely on the disavow tool?

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