A common question that our clients ask us is whether they should remove links or take any action when they have a “Partial Match” penalty listed in Google Webmaster Tools. This question is the result of fairly inconsistent information on the topic, both from SEOs and Google itself.

Google partial match penalty
Above: The standard partial-match penalty message.

Within the partial penalty listing in the “Manual Actions” section of Google Webmaster Tools, Google states that they “are taking targeted action on the unnatural links instead of the site’s ranking as a whole”. If you click on the “Learn More” link, you’ll also find a message along these lines:

“If you don’t control the links pointing to your site, no action is required on your part. From Google’s perspective, the links already won’t count in ranking. However, if possible, you may wish to remove any artificial links to your site and, if you’re able to get the artificial links removed, submit a reconsideration request. If we determine that the links to your site are no longer in violation of our guidelines, we’ll revoke the manual action.”

To top it off, Google’s Matt Cutts advises both for and against in this video –

So What’s A Webmaster To Do?

As with pretty much anything SEO-related, you can speak to ten different people and get ten different answers. We will answer this question based on our data – having lifted hundreds of partial match penalties (these are by far the most common), we’ve had the benefit of observing post penalty removal performance across a decently sized data set. What we’ve observed is this:

The Partial-Match Is Not So Partial After All…

The vast majority of sites for which we lift partial penalties experience a site-wide lift in impressions and rankings post penalty removal. Those that don’t experience any lift have generally had 90% of there link portfolio culled by us, in order to get the penalty removed.

What this suggests is that partial-match penalties do, in fact, have a site-wide suppressive effect – not as suppressive as a site-wide penalty, but much further reaching than is mentioned by Google.

It Affects More Than Just Links

Another aspect we’ve noticed is that no matter how much legitimate white-hat link building one does to a site with a partial-match penalty, certain pages just refuse to move in the SERPS. Now, of course there are many variables here and it’s difficult to speak with certainty, but there does seem to be a page-targeted penalty that “disallows” certain pages from moving up before the penalty is lifted. This is speculative, but an observation nonetheless.

The Risk Of Leaving It As Is

Another aspect to consider is the risk of leaving the partial-match penalty as is. Could this predispose your site to a sitewide penalty down the line? Are you perhaps a victim of “negative SEO” and are not aware of it. Only Google knows for sure what the risks are, but if you’re investing in your site for the long-run, it would be wise to resolve these issues sooner rather than later.

In Summary

It’s hard to write this post without coming off as biased. After all, it is in our best interests for you to want to resolve any penalties. Nonetheless, we feel that this is important information worth sharing, and that given our position having dealt with hundreds of penalties, we can speak with (some) certainty. That said, we’d love to be challenged on these theories, so please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.