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Penalized by Google? This New App May Be Just the Help You Need


Lewis Sellers, a young entrepreneur, SEO maven and technical writer, has owned, developed, and analyzed all sizes of Internet-based businesses in his career. Since finishing up his education at St. John Fisher School, Harrogate, U.K., just five years ago, Sellers has developed a strong presence in the SEO world, both as the current managing director at a website design and search engine optimization company and as an industry pro published in the likes of Moz Blog. Now he’s tackling a rather big mountain – a Google-sized one, in fact. He’s preparing to launch an application to solve the time-dragging nemesis of a Google penalty.

We caught up with Sellers recently to find out more about this phenomenal new product coming from him and his development team at Pinpoint Designs, U.K., to which they are just adding the finishing touches.


Ann Bailey Ann Bailey, ESI    Thank you very much Lewis, for taking the time to talk with us.
 Lewis Sellers Lewis Sellers
   No problem. Thank you for having us.
AB: Historically, with a Google manual penalty, what have been the biggest concerns from the webmaster’s perspective about how their clients’ websites are affected?
LS: Generally, if a user is subject to a manual penalty, it tends to drop their traffic quite significantly, so that can, obviously, impact in a few ways, usually a drop in sales. Obviously, if you’re very reliant on having 90 percent of your search traffic coming through Google’s organic results and suddenly you receive a manual penalty one morning and your traffic goes down to a few hundred people visiting instead of a few thousand or tens of thousands of people, it can make a huge difference to your sales or inquiries coming through the website. So, the biggest issue probably comes down to that, because that can have a direct impact on things like staffing levels, your turnover, any kind of costs you have going out of your business, and your sales can virtually stop overnight.


AB: What’s been the typical problem with getting that penalty removed?
LS: Google are very strict in having the penalties lifted in the first place. It’s not just a case of being able to grab the backlinks and then submit a disavow file to Google to have the penalties revoked. I guess there are two sides to this. The first side is actually getting the list of backlinks to your website. Google provide a snapshot of the backlinks via your Google Webmaster Tools account where you can see kind of a small snippet of the backlinks that are coming to your site.

Unfortunately, they don’t give you the full overview, so you have to go to multiple sources to be able to get the full list of that. The second problem is really the amount of time it takes to be able to find the individual contact details of every single webmaster – spending the time auditing each of the links to figure out whether they are good quality or bad quality and whether they impact on Google’s webmaster guidelines, and then actually finding the contact details and carrying out the outreach to each of those webmasters. 

AB: And now you’ve developed an app to expedite the manual penalty removals – how does it work?
LS: Running through the application itself, it will work via a user who will sign up to use the tool. They’ll enter in the URL of their website. The system will then go away and gather all of the backlinks from multiple data sources. We automatically grab backlinks from some of the biggest providers out there. We’ll also give the opportunity for a user to add additional backlinks if they want to try get any more data on any of the links.

Our system then goes away and in the background runs a variety of tests on those URLs to understand whether the links are in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines. We look at things such as whether a URL has a nofollow attribute, various keyword tests and various tests on the metrics that we pull back from all of the different providers. Once that’s done, we then find contact details of each of the backlinks, whether that be Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, email addresses, physical contact addresses, telephone numbers, fax numbers, or anything else that we can get through our system. We then display all of the backlinks in a nice, easy-to-read format where the user can sift through them all.

Then we allow outreach in bulk through each of the webmasters so that a user can get from A to B very, very quickly. It takes all the stress out of having to manually go through things. Then we give an indication of how the user can write a reconsideration request for Google to help them get the penalty lifted. 

AB: So, Step B actually means getting those links either deleted or marked as no-followed?
LS: Yes. For example, a user may have used our system to contact a webmaster two or three times but may not have had a response, or a webmaster might come back and say, “Actually, I want $5 to have this link removed,” or in some cases, “I want $500 to have the link removed.” It happens quite regularly.


AB: Really? I haven’t heard of that one yet, but definitely the $30, or $35, request. 
LS: Yes, there’s one webmaster in particular who crops up over and over again, and they’ve got 3,000 directories that they owned, and they charge $5 per link to have them removed, so straight away you’re looking at a lot of money. So, if someone’s been unsuccessful in having the link removed, they can then go and disavow the links. We give an option in our system to be able to mark those links as disavowed, and at the end of the process you can export a disavow file which you can then submit to Google so that basically it’s all contained in one system.

We provide the site an overall score so that over time you can see how your score has reduced. You might start with a site that’s got a really bad penalty because it’s got lots of poor-quality links, but over time that score will reduce to a more positive score so that you can see when you’re at the point where you should be submitting for reconsideration. 

AB: So it helps protect someone from submitting too soon?
LS: Yes, a lot of the time you find that someone gets a penalty say on the Monday of a week, and then they might have sent out a few emails and by Wednesday they think, “Ah, I’ll submit for reconsideration,” and in reality that’s never going to work – unless you’ve got a very small site with hardly any backlinks, in which case you probably haven’t been penalized in the first place. You’re probably not going to get the penalty lifted within a two-day period. So, we score the site and reflect that over a period of time so that people can see when they’re at the point where they should be submitting for reconsideration.


AB: The scoring, and also just where you go to find the backlinks, are those two things commonly done already, or are they secret processes that you’ve developed or uncovered?
LS: For the metrics, by the time we get to launch, there are probably going to be 100-plus rules that we score each link on, and then each of the links are put together. Say you have 10,000 links to your website. We will then take a view on all of the scores in there to come up with an overall site score, but that’s something that we’ve developed internally. It’s nothing that’s available publicly on the Web, or it’s nothing that Google provides us with to basically say, “This is how bad your site’s been penalized.” It’s just based off our own internal research, really, and the scores that we put on each link, so it’s something that’s just been developed over time. We’ve done a lot of testing on it. We’ve still got a lot of testing to do on the system.


AB: Can you or would you divulge the places that you get the backlink profiles from, or is that private?
LS: We have a few secret ones, I guess, but we use the common ones like the Moz Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, Majestic SEO. There’s also a company called WebMeUp. We’ll also pull from Google Webmaster Tools, and then we’ve got some other ones that we’ll be integrating over time just to create a more comprehensive backlink site.


AB: Do most people even know why they have a manual penalty? Is it still a difficult field for webmasters?
LS: That’s a good question. A lot of the time, I think people are aware when they’re given a manual penalty. There’re two differences between the manual and the algorithmic penalties. Manual penalties mean that you actually get a notification in Google Webmaster Tools, so you’ll receive an email one morning and it’ll say, “Google has taken action on your website,” and it gives you a specific reason, which is generally that you have unnatural links pointing to your website. So, from that side I guess when people get a manual penalty they’re aware that they’ve been handed that and that pretty much straight away they’re going to see quite a drastic change in the level of traffic coming to their website through organic searches.

Whether everyone understands specifically why they’ve been given that penalty is another question. I guess a lot of the time people work with external SEO companies who’ve probably been working on bad practices. They might have built the wrong type of links. Some people, purely out of naivety, build poor-quality links to their website, not realizing that they can have such a bad effect on their site.But, generally, I think people, especially over the past year or so, are more educated in why they would have received a penalty and probably have their eyes open a bit more to the tactics that they should stay away from, really.


AB: Are people generally aware of what to do to get them removed?
LS: I think that’s probably one of the tricky situations. I think especially from our side – we do a lot of penalty recovery for customers at the moment, and I think one of the biggest problems we face is that customers don’t necessarily realize how much work’s involved in having a penalty lifted. They might not know the steps involved to remove one. It could take anywhere between one and three months, depending on the size of the project, and because it’s a hugely manual process, I don’t think people realize how much time is necessarily involved. That’s why we’d written the article on it back in October last year, to outline the steps that were needed.


AB: It took a long time to read that article!
LS: Ha! Yes, It took a long time to write. Yes, it’s a very long process, and sometimes I think people think they’re probably being hit twice almost, because they might have worked with an external company who’s carried out some black hat processes on their site. They may have built some really poor-quality links that’s ended up resulting in the company getting a penalty. Then they may come to us and we’ll say, “Your penalty will cost X amount to have removed.” And then they think, “Well, we’ve lost a load of money because we’ve paid an SEO company to do the work that then has backfired, and now we’re also paying you.” So, I think it’s a tricky one on that side.


AB: Hopefully, they received some profits in the meantime from those black-hatters…
LS: Yes, and that’s what we always point out. I guess, to a certain extent, when you go back 10 years ago, SEO was different then, people were building a lot of directory links for sites as that was the norm. That will have resulted in the company growing to the point where they were before they got the penalty, and they probably wouldn’t have been there without that work previously, so I guess every cloud has a silver lining.


AB: Who will be your perfect customer? For what level of professional will it be user-friendly?
LS: We’re looking to target agencies that are carrying out link removal for their clients. I guess the reason behind that is two-sided. One’s the commercial side in that they’d be longer-term clients. They’ll learn how to use the system, and we can build on it over time with new sources, add-ons and updates. Also it will help on the usability aspect of it. If people have gotten in experience with the penalty recovery, they should know how to use the system a bit better than someone who’s got no experience at all.

But, it is a very, very simple system to use. We do a lot of the hard work and the processing in the background, so it really is just a case of reading the statistics. We won’t automate any outreach until someone actually presses a button to click and carry out some outreach. We just enable it all to be done. The agencies are our prime target for all that. 

AB: What is the actual app, the product, going to be called and how will people access it?
LS: The tool is an online application, which we’ve called Peel. We came up with the name purely because it’s a process of peeling back the layers of a link profile. The tool will be able to be accessed at At the minute, it’s just a landing page where we’re gathering email address and contact details for people to sign up for pre-release news. We’ll be launching a limited contact-finding tool soon where people will be able to enter in lists of URLs to be able to gather contact details for those. And we hope to still launch the full system later on this year.


AB: Can one Peel app be used for more than one website at a time? For an agency, would they just get one app or do they need a lot of apps?
LS: We’ll be selling the tool on a credit-based system, still to be finalized, but the way that we’re envisioning using it is someone will sign up for ‘X’ amount per month and for that amount they’ll get a set number of credits which can be redeemed against an unlimited number of websites. We’ll charge basically based on the number of backlinks to someone’s website and how regularly we process the data. So, if someone has 10,000 backlinks to their site and they’ve got capabilities in the system to be able to get data for up to 50,000 backlinks, they could technically have 5 projects under the same account. We’re not limiting the users in that respect and so you’ll be able to add as many websites as you want until you run out of credits. You can upgrade to an additional package or just buy some extra credits.


AB: Would you describe the cost?
LS: The cost isn’t something that has been finalized as of yet, but it’s going to be very cost-effective. At the minute, for us to do a recovery of penalty for a client who’s got, say, 1,000 domains pointing to their website, we would probably be looking at £8 per domain, including all of the outreach and everything like that. For the new system, we’ll be charging a monthly fee, so it will be basically as quick as you can remove the penalty, but we’ll be talking somewhere around the £100, £150 mark for the basic account, so it will be a cost-effective system. In dollars it would be $150 to $220 for an entry-level account, somewhere around, per month for the system.


AB: And assuming that you can get your penalties all taken care of, then you’re done?
LS: Yes, so, for an agency, the benefit there is that they could offer an ongoing service where we will check backlinks on a regular basis for each site, and they could be alerted if suddenly there was a new influx of links or something like that. It’s an ongoing service for agencies if they want to use it. Or, if they want to use it, get a penalty lifted for a client, and then cancel their membership, that’s absolutely fine. There’s no contract to sign into or anything like that.


AB: And how will it be delivered?
LS: It will all be kept online, so you can log into your account from anywhere, and there will be no software to download at all. It will just be enter in your username and password online, and you’ll be able to see all of your clients that you’ve got set up within the system. If you’ve got 10 different domains, you’ll be able to click into one of those and then work on that project, see the scores for each of your projects from a distance and be able to get a general overview of where everything is very easily, within the one online application.


AB: Would I drive my own account and decide, OK, I think the score is good enough, so I’m ready to go to the next phase and file for reconsideration?
LS: We’ll give an indication on that side, so if, say, a user has, using hypothetical numbers, anything below a score of 200 is ready, is a good score, that’s where we consider you’re good enough to be able to submit for reconsideration. We’ll give prompts along the way. We’re doing color-coding so that you can basically see a general overview of how bad or toxic your link profile is, so over time, if you get the links lifted, that score will become friendlier. The colors will start going greener and nicer, so we’ll prompt the user at the point where we think that they’re ready to submit for reconsideration.


AB: How much information do I need to put in for one URL, that one website that I want to fix?
LS: At the minute, the only thing that you will need to type in is the website URL itself. The only additional bits of information that we would ask for in order to try and narrow things down further are access to something like Google Webmaster Tools so that we can grab your backlinks on a regular basis, and restricted user access just for us to be able to pull the information. But at basic level, all you would need is your website URL. And then, we use external data-gathering tools and all of our internal systems that we’ve built to gather all the data on the site.


AB: Are there any language exclusions, for the backlinks?
LS: Yes, at the minute we’ve only targeted English-speaking websites, so it’s not targeted towards international users at the moment. It will probably transition across into some areas very nicely anyway, but it’s being built predominantly for English language at the moment.


AB: So, I would put in my URL and then basically not have to worry about who I find, and getting their name and email address, and writing them, requesting they break the link?
LS: As soon as you type in a website URL, our system will go away and work. If you’ve got a small site, it could be anywhere from five minutes’ work, or if you’ve got a huge link profile with hundreds of thousands of backlinks, it might take a day, for example. The system will churn lots of information in the background. It will go away and find all of the contact details, and at that point you’ll receive an email basically saying, “Log into your account and see the status of your campaign.”

At that point, when you log in, there will be numerous different filters so that you can filter the information according to all of the different metrics that we’ve found. We won’t push the button to go and carry out any outreach automatically for you. There is still some manual work involved in actually pushing the button to go ahead on the outreach side of things, but apart from that, it’s all automated. 

AB: What percentage of time will it save, do you estimate?
LS: Current average time for removing a penalty on a campaign would be somewhat between one to three months, but with the Peel system, once it’s all fully built and working solidly from start to finish, it will save, probably 80-90 percent of the workload that you would actually have to carry out. Also, a lot of the work that you have to carry out at the moment is quite a monotonous job where you’re clicking on each URL, viewing the web page, trying to see whether it’s a good or a bad link, and you’re manually having to click through each one to look for signs of a website that violates Google penalties, whereas you won’t have to do any of that, once the system’s all built, it will do it all in the background for you. It’ll be a huge saving in terms of percentage.


AB: And it’s all automated. It’s not being done manually in a research factory somewhere?
LS: No, it’s all automated. Over time we’ve been building up all the different metrics that we use to gather information on the campaigns, but, no, it’s all automated. There are no people working in the background very hard.


AB: How long have you been working on the metrics for the system?
LS: The system’s been in development now since November last year. We’ve been working on the actual core of the system since – it’s probably about a year ago now, slightly more, maybe 13 months or so since we started the initial specification writing of the system, but the actual core development work started in November last year.


AB: And what launch date do you anticipate?
LS: We’re probably looking towards November-time this year. We’re working to get it launched as quickly as possible. We’ll have a free tool launch just before then. We’ll be doing a closed beta test, so if people sign up on the website with their email address to register for details, we’ll be providing limited-access launch details to a group of them to test the system out and allow us to do some load testing on it.


AB: Without a tool like this, what’s the biggest constraint people have in filing a reconsideration request?
LS: I guess the biggest problem people face at the moment is probably knowing what to put into the reconsideration request and how they should format it. Also, one of the things that’s recommended that you do is build up a quite comprehensive spreadsheet of all the work that you’ve carried out, details about who you’ve contacted, when you contacted them, possibly examples of the emails you’ve sent out and things like that.

So, there’s quite a long process up to building the reconsideration request, and that’s probably the biggest problem at the moment. The system also makes all that as well, so when you come to the point of submitting a reconsideration request, you’ll be able to export all the data from our system to a Google Docs file, and then we’ll have a tutorial to explain how people should write their reconsideration request. It’s almost like a boilerplate template that they can use as a guide for what they should include in there. 

AB: I recently saw that Google may feel that people who did something wrong should suffer a little and pay the price of the hard work to get that penalty removed. Do you think Google will frown on this idea of offering a simplified way to do it?
LS: I don’t think that we’ll have a problem from that side particularly. I know the exact quote you’re talking about where I think the view is, if you’ve spammed the Internet a lot with lots of rubbish backlinks, you shouldn’t be able to take an easy route and just have the penalty lifted straight away, and the penalty will stay for as long as Google basically deem it should be there. Ultimately, you’re still going through all of the work of having to contact webmasters, and whilst you can do it in bulk, there’s still some manual work that needs to be done along the way.

There’s still going to be the human intervention where you’re checking over some of the process to make sure that it’s all done to the right standard, and there’s still a manual process in that. We’re just trying to take some of the pain out of it, but I don’t think there’ll be any problems from that side. I think the comment was more into people who were getting a penalty and suddenly filing a disavow and submitting for reconsideration the next day without continuing to put in any work at all or trying to have the links removed also. We’re just trying to build a system to clean the Internet. 

AB: And, actually, people will have to pay for your system. That can be painful, too.
LS: Yes, true, there are multiple sides from that. It’s never going to be a really straightforward process where you can hit one button and the penalty will be removed. We’re just trying to automate as much of the laborious process as possible.

Ultimately, if you get the links removed from the websites, it’s never an easy task. You don’t always get webmasters responding to every email you send, obviously. A lot of webmasters either don’t want to hear from you, or you might have to contact them through multiple different channels before you can manage to get the links removed. But, I think the comment was mainly aimed at people who were using the disavow tool to just try and get out of the penalty very quickly. 

AB: Will the Peel app send that repeat request to the webmasters who don’t respond right away?
LS: We won’t – what we’ll do is monitor the backlinks every week, so once a week we’ll be checking to see if links are still active or not. If links are inactive, they’ll be marked and shown as resolved, so no further action needs taken on those. We won’t automate any emails going to webmasters on a regular basis purely from the spam side of things. We don’t want to spam anyone, so it will be down to a user to basically pick and choose whether they want to contact those webmasters again. They’ll be able to see the last time they contacted them, and there will be a tutorial to say how to use the system and how to get the most out of it. And if you don’t hear from a webmaster, say, after seven or eight days, drop them another email just to make sure they’ve had it.

A lot of the time it might be that a webmaster doesn’t see the email, and it might be that they’ve responded to you in the meantime and they want something from you, say, a payment, or they might want to confirm that your email address is from the same domain as your website or something just to avoid links being removed by other people, for example. But, we won’t automate anything as far as sending out emails without a client having the final say on it.

Obviously, every website’s a little bit different. Over the past year, 18 months or so, we’ve refined our technique on writing reconsideration requests and things like that. There’s sometimes people writing in things like, “We spend £20,000 a month on Google AdWords,” and I think things like that are the wrong thing to do, because it can almost look like you’re trying to bribe Google, so we’ll have a list of things not to do as well as a list of things that you should do, and we’ll provide a boilerplate template. But, as every site is different, we won’t write it or just say fill in the gaps thing. That will be one of the other manual processes that we won’t fully automate for someone. 

AB: What happens after the whole process has happened through the app and the penalty is removed? Is the data kept somewhere?
LS: Yes, so we won’t ever remove data from our system without someone requesting for it to be deleted. I guess from an ongoing point of view, people can be the victim of negative SEO, for example, or they might hire an SEO company in the future and they just want to keep an eye on the work that they’re carrying out. I guess from an agency standpoint they might have other clients that haven’t received penalties as of yet, but as a new client may come on board and they might want to just audit their link profile and make sure that it’s safe before they take a client on.

So, there’re lots of benefits outside of specifically receiving a penalty the system will help with that we won’t remove any data from there. It’s completely up to the user to whether they want to keep it. Obviously, they can stop it from gathering new data on a monthly basis so it’s not charging them if they don’t want to have that side, so we’ll be flexible. And they can export this data as well if they want. We don’t retain it or try and restrict anyone from that side of things. 

AB: Looking down the road, maybe Google is going to do something to keep the YouTube videos from ranking – will the app handle YouTube video links?
LS: Yes, we’ll always be keeping on top of all of the future algorithm updates that come out. Obviously, every time they bring out an update, it becomes apparent fairly quickly which section they’ve taken action on, whether that be guest blogging or low-quality directory links or videos or whatever.

Over time we’ll be building in new things. We look at various tags in the code to detect the types of links, so things like video are easy for us to detect. We look at image links and things like that, so I guess to answer that question, yes, it is something that we’ll continue to look at and ensure that the system is future-proof. 

AB: You mentioned at the beginning about other people possibly doing something somewhat similar, but do you feel that you have now or will soon have competition with this?
LS: Yes, there are a few systems out there that are competitors of ours, and we’ll be going into a marketplace where there’s a couple of people already doing it. None of the services out there at the moment do a full solution from start to finish to be able to get a penalty lifted. They all handle different parts of the process. I guess a lot of the tools out there at the minute do one specific thing very, very well, whereas we’re hoping to do the whole process of gathering all of the data and gathering all the backlinks and enabling the outreach and scoring them correctly. That’s where we’re hoping to be.

We want to offer a full solution that does everything to a very, very high standard. So, I’m confident that we’re getting very close to that. The contact-finding section of the tool that’s been built now, where we found all of the email addresses, telephone numbers and things like that is by far better than any other system out there at the moment that we’ve tested. Geoff Kendall, one of our developers, has done a brilliant job on that side. 

AB: Are there any statistics about it working? Have you run through the full process and have data about how well it works?
LS: Yes. On the contact-finding side of things, for every domain that we’ve put in there, we’re finding 90 percent-plus of the contact data. We use a variety of methods to gather all of that data. A lot of the system is built in separate modules at the minute, so we’re at the process where we’re linking it all together to provide the full solution. So, we’re at testing phase at the moment, but everything is looking very, very positive. We’re very happy from that side.