Although many websites have evidently been punished (not just by big algorithmic updates, but also by one of the 400,000 tiny manual actions Google takes), the average marketer or webmaster hasn’t noticed when they have. According to Kissmetrics, only 5% of penalized websites are submitting a reconsideration request every month to recover their rankings.
What Is a Google Penalty?
A Google penalty is a punishment against a website whose content conflicts with the marketing practices enforced by Google. This penalty can come as a result of an update to Google’s ranking algorithm, or a manual review that suggests a web page used “black hat” SEO tactics.
Since we’re all reliant on search engines for traffic, we have to stay informed of the latest algorithm updates — and make changes if we’re subject to a Google penalty. Not only is it good practice to keep abreast of the latest patches, but it gives you a competitive advantage if you can optimize your content faster than other web domains.
What Do You Get Google Penalties For?
In this section, let’s take a look at some of the common penalties that strike websites. Of course, there are other penalties too. But here we are only looking at the common ones.
- Unnatural Links: Google sees backlinks as a way of measuring the quality of your website and its content. If Google suspects that a link looks like it was paid or like it’s a part of a link scheme, you are in trouble.
Examples of unnatural links include:
- Low-quality, hidden, or keyword-rich links that are embedded in a site’s widgets.
- Links in the templates or footers of various websites
- Optimized links included in a forum’s comments or signature
- Text advertisements that can pass PageRank
In such cases, Google may not count the linking value at all and they may even hit you with a penalty. Mostly, this penalty will be placed on certain pages if the issue is localized. Only sometimes, they give a site-wide penalty.
- Low-Quality or Duplicate Content: Google wants to give their users the best experience. If your content isn’t providing them with any value, you can expect a Google penalty.
Low-quality or duplicate content includes:
- Content that is automatically generated
- Doorway Pages
- Scraped content
- Guest posts that are low-quality
- Thin affiliate pages
This penalty can have a significant impact on your search traffic. For this penalty, Google shows a manual action with the following message, “Thin content with little or no added value.”
In some cases, it may be unavoidable or even necessary to use duplicate content. For instance, if you are writing an article that includes quotes or lyrics of a song, you will have duplicate content.
To show Google that you acknowledge the duplication and are acting in good faith, you can use canonical tags. This can redirect their attention to one piece of content.
Spam: While it’s rare to get a penalty for spam, it does happen. Spam can include everything from excessive cloaking to scraping content. You aren’t likely to get a penalty, especially for spam, unless you create a spam website.
Another thing you need to be careful of is “Spammy freehosts.” Typically, spammers use web hosts that are cheap or free. If a host is known for hosting primarily spam websites, Google may choose to penalize all the sites that are linked to that web host. So, be careful while picking a web host for your site. A wrong choice could end up hurting your site’s growth in the future.
These are all of the manual actions taken. Algorithmic penalties are based on two Google algorithm updates: Panda and Penguin. Let’s take a look at what they are before we jump into the recovery process.
Panda Penalty: This penalty aims to check the quality of the content that a site is publishing. What’s surprising about this penalty is that it affects your whole site even if you may have issues on only one part of your site.
While the patent for Panda is pretty technical and bland, it does clear up the way it works. What it says is that Google has created a site-wide modification factor. When it came around for the first time, Panda affected content farms the most. That’s because of what the algorithm update was targeted at.
It’s based on quality factors and aims to get rid of duplicate, shallow, inbound links, brand searches, and poorly written content. When a particular site doesn’t meet the criteria, Google applies the modification score to the whole site. So, even if you have a few low-quality pages, it could end up affecting your site.
Penguin Penalty: This penalty is mainly about backlinks. Unlike the Panda algorithm update, Penguin affects only specific pages. So, if you are hit by this Google penalty, your recovery needs to be done only for certain pages. All of your other pages will still have a chance to get ranked.
Here are some of the factors related to backlinks that could get you in trouble and give your site a penalty:
- Link Diversity: If most of your backlinks come from your comments section, that’s considered unnatural. Similarly, if many links have the same anchor text, that’s also a bad sign. Google understands that you’re trying to manipulate the search results.
- Link Quality: Typically, most sites have a number of low and high-quality backlinks. If you have a high number of low-quality links, you attract Google’s attention. Conversely, even if you have a high number of high-quality links in your profile, that raises suspicion as well.
- Link Velocity: If a website gains a lot of links over a short period of time, that’s considered unnatural.
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Thankfully, there are plenty of tools and insights out there to help even the busiest marketer watch out for these silent traffic killers. Keep reading to learn about the latest Google search criteria, a handy Google penalty checker, and how to know if you have a Google penalty against your website.
Step 1: Review These Recent Google Algorithmic Updates
Google has a 15-year history of updating its algorithm, not just to reward the internet’s best content, but to deliver the most appropriate content for a given search query.
Below are some of the most recent and significant updates to keep in mind if you think your content is getting hit with a Google penalty:
There were updates before Panda, but this was the first massive pain in the neck for websites. Its purpose: to crack down on websites containing poor/error-laden content, excessive ads, and possibly primitive design.
This was rolled out in stages, and released its last patch in July 2015.
Secure Update: (2014)
As website hacking becomes more sophisticated and people are more aware of the risks, it is important to assuage those doubts by motivating webmasters to invest in SSL security, which affords domains the “HTTPS” at the beginning of the URL (as opposed to “HTTP”). This is critical if you require personal and financial details from your online visitors.
If not, Google may intercept a user with an “are you sure?” page if he or she clicks on an unsecured search result.
Preference is given to websites that are “responsive” in design — or scalable to mobile devices. Unsurprisingly, having a website that is readable and navigable on a handheld device as well as desktop is preferred by visitors.
This update sounds more aggressive than Pengiun and Panda, but it’s super helpful to publishers who put mobile first.
Penguin 4.0 (2016)
Penguin first launched in 2012 as a way to combat genuine spam rather than sites that are legitimate but poorly made. Penalties focused on keyword stuffing, cloaking, link building … basically, any method you’ve heard of referred to as “black hat.”
As of 2016, its fourth version punishes bad links instead of the entire site — helping rehabilitate web domains that might still have good intentions behind them.
Intrusive Interstitial Penalty (2017)
Google opened 2017 by doubling down on its commitment to mobile. This update punishes websites with interstitial ads and other pop-out content that can hinder a page’s functionality on a mobile device.
Not every ad-heavy website will suffer, but those that severely affect the user experience can be the next to lose their rank.
These updates are not one-offs. They are reinforced every year to keep up with copyright violations, unwanted content campaigns, and similar black-hat techniques — and to make sure their searchers are increasingly satisfied with their results.
Step 2: Audit Your Website for These Black Hat SEO Failures
I know you don’t have time to examine every manual action Google has ever performed. I also know if you’re reading this, you probably want your users to have a good user experience.
With that in mind, here’s a brief list of things that might cause low website traffic due to a manual action Google took to further enforce its search criteria. Any one of these could help you determine if you have a Google penalty against your website:
- The majority of your content contains pop-out ads.
- Your content is keyword-stuffed.
- You have short-form content, often unedited for quality and errors.
- You haven’t localized site content that caters to global visitors.
- You’ve engaged in bad link-building practices to increase page authority:
- “Cloaking” keywords across your page so users can’t see them.
- Buying excessive backlinks to your website.
- Your content has inherited backlinks from adult, gambling, or otherwise low-quality pages.
- Your website doesn’t have a legitimate security certificate (HTTPS).
- You’ve republished content from other websites without permission.
- Your website has a high load time or poor appearance on mobile devices.
Step 3: Find Out If You Have a Ranking Problem
First of all, diagnosing the issue is key. Without knowing what Google penalty you’ve been hit with, you can’t optimize against it. Back in October 2014, for example, most people thought they were dealing with a Penguin update, but it was in fact an extended Panda update.
Here are a few tips to help you properly diagnose the issue:
Use a penalty indicator tool to find out what’s happened to your website in the past, and if you have yet to recover from it.
A fast and simple tool to drop this knowledge bomb on you is this succinctly titled Website Penalty Indicator.
However, you’ll notice that this tool focuses on the most significant algorithm changes, and not all of the little manual ones in between. To examine those updates, you’ll need to follow the next step.
Use tools like SEMrush to find out if you’ve been penalized by one of Google’s updates.
By using tools like SEMrush, you can perform a complete site audit and check how your position has changed in SERPs, check your backlinks, and analyze your content.
Step 4: Identify the Google Penalties to Optimize Against
The best thing you can do for your website is to avoid penalties in the first place. Website owners who break SEO rules risk manual penalties or being seriously harmed by algorithm updates. When a website is hit with a penalty, it’s more than likely due to one of the following reasons:
- A lack of knowledge on behalf of the SEO specialist
- A purposeful violation of basic SEO principles
- The use of various black-hat techniques
But if you have been hit by a penalty, how you’ll figure out the root cause will depend on what kind of penalty it is.
If a website gets a manual penalty, the owner will be notified through Google Webmaster Tools and receive a letter explaining the reasons for its failure. This means the website owner will at least have an idea of how to recover and can begin working on the suggested changes.
If your website is hit by an algorithm change, the situation becomes slightly more difficult. You need to find a correlation between Google’s last actions and your website’s losses.
Don’t forget that website position and traffic losses can be caused by general problems and may have nothing to do with algorithmic changes. If you do find that you were harmed by a specific algorithm change, get all the information you can about that update so you can start to resolve the issue.
Of course, all of us want to avoid being hit by a penalty in the first place. If you want to be prepared, we recommend consistently running SEO audits. Here are a few things you can do:
- Remove or disavow unnatural or spammy links manually.
- Be sure that your anchor text is diversified.
- Get rid of all duplicate content.
- Create non-keyword-stuffed, quality content.
- Keep an eye on UX.
Google Penalty Recovery – The Fix
- Navigate to Google Search Console > Crawl > Fetch as Google, then fetch pages from the affected portions of your website.
- Compare the content on your web page to the content fetched by Google.
- Resolve any variations between the two so they end up being the same.
- Check all redirects; remove redirects that:
- Send users to an unexpected destination.
- Conditionally redirect (ex: only redirecting users coming from a certain source).
- Are otherwise “sneaky.”
- Identify and remove auto-generated or spun content.
- Identify affiliate pages that don’t provide added value beyond what the manufacturer/retailer offers. Beef up or eliminate those pages.
- Use Duplicate Content Detection Software to identify content found elsewhere on the web. Remove and/or replace that content.
- Identify content with low word counts and where appropriate, thicken those pages to be useful and informative.
- Identify and remove doorway pages.
- Submit a reconsideration request after fixing these issues.
Remember that the best strategy is to avoid penalties before Google even crawls your content. SEO isn’t just about trying something new. It’s about constantly monitoring the success of your historical efforts.
Although avoiding penalties may seem like building a house of cards that may collapse at any minute … well, that’s kinda the way it is! That’s why it’s important to ensure that your website is up-to-date, helpful, and trustworthy.
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