Updated: 22nd September 2019
If you’re unlucky you’ve suffered the effects of a Google Penalty. It’s no laughing matter, I can tell you! Google SEO penalties are brutal, decimate your organic traffic and take a while to fix depending on why they’ve been imposed. But did you know there were different types?
I’m going to explore Google penalties, why you get them and what you can do to make sure they don’t impact your SEO and organic traffic.
What are Google Penalties?
Google penalties are basically a big slap on the wrists for websites Google believes are doing something naughty. Naughty in SEO terms usually means Google caught you doing something to try to game the search results.
The penalties are severe. I’ve known several sites hit with them and actively supported one site.
The effects on the eCommerce business I worked in were devastating. They amounted to a global drop in search engine rankings across the entire keyword estate.
This meant a substantial decrease in the visibility of the site, with a resulting drop in visitors. Less visitors meant less orders. And of course, less orders meant less revenue.
I believe there was a period of around 6 months where sales and revenue fell by between 30% to 40% year on year!
Google SEO penalties are actually very easy to detect. Firstly, you’ll notice a large and sustained drop in the number of visitors to your site. Fluctuations in day to day traffic are normal so initially you may not think there’s a problem.
Keyword ranking positions can change from day to day too. Sometimes alarmingly so if you look at short data periods. This can be normal also.
However, when visitor numbers are keyword positions are consistently down and it seems out of character, it’s time to check from the horse’s mouth.
If you have a Google Search Console account, there’s an area called Security & Manual Actions. In this area, Google tells you explicitly if you’ve received a penalty. It also provides detailed reasons why.
There are effectively two types of SEO penalty that Google delivers. One manual, the other algorithmic. To be honest, an algorithmic slap is not really a penalty but more of a refactoring (I’ll explain later).
There’s a clue in the name here.
Did you know there is a team of real people at Google who manually judge whether specific sites play unfairly?
Google’s Webspam Team looks at sites that have appeared on the radar for potentially using Black Hat SEO techniques.
Black Hat SEO refers to activities designed to trick Google into ranking their sites higher in search results in a way that violates Google Webmaster Guidelines.
If the Webspam Team examines a site and decides it’s not playing according to therules, they’ll apply a manual penalty.
The penalty might affect an individual page, multiple pages or the entire site. In extreme cases the Webspam team removes sites from Google’s index entirely!
Google is fair in this though. If you fix the issues as identified in the Search Console, you can request reconsideration of them. The Webspam team will look at the site again and either agree the issues are fixed, or say you haven’t done enough.
Manual penalty reconsideration requests are not limited. You can rinse and repeat fixes until your penalty is lifted.
How Do You Get a Manual Penalty?
Google provides very explicit guidelines as to what can get you a manual penalty:
This is content visitors add to your site including blog comments, user profiles and forum posts.
Spammy Free Host
If you use a free host and Google determine the host to be spammy, it may serve a manual penalty to all sites using that host.
Structured Data Issue
This is content that visitors to your site can’t see, but Google can. Structured data is code that helps Google understand what your pages are about. Some people present structured data that differs from their actual page content.
Unnatural Links to Your Site
Links to a site are a powerful signal to Google of the importance of a page. Some people attempt to manipulate search results by generating links by deceptive means.
Unnatural Links from Your Site
This is an attempt to manipulate Google search results by linking out of your site to help another site rank higher.
Thin Content with Little or No Added Value
Does what it says on the tin! Thin page content provides no value to visitors but is designed to make a page rank. Content such as this is generated automatically, duplicated from other sites or nonsensical.
Cloaking and/or Sneaky Redirects
This is the deliberate attempt to present different page content to Google than what visitors see. When Google crawls the page sees one version of it. However the site redirects visitors who access the same page to another different version.
Page spam is the overt and deliberate action of populating a page with content copied from one or several websites and automatically generated nonsense.
Similar to structured data issues, this is an attempt to present different images to Google that what visitors see.
Hidden Text and/or Keyword Stuffing
Hidden text applies to content that Google sees but visitors don’t. An example is using white text on a white background. Keyword stuffing is overusing specific phrases in a way that reads unnaturally to rank for that phrase.
AMP Content Mismatch
This occurs when the content of an Accelerated Mobile Page differs from the web page it relates to.
Sneaky Mobile Redirects
Some sites deliberately redirect mobile pages to content that Google crawlers cannot see.
Google considers all of these techniques black hat. As such, they can land your site in serious hot water!
Algorithmic penalties are a different beast because humans do not impose them. In reality they aren’t really penalties but a refactoring of what’s important as a ranking signal for content quality.
Refactoring of a site occurs when Google’s launches a new automated algorithm or redesigns / updates existing ones to improve search result quality. A site can suffer catastrophically as a result of an algorithm update, because the things that used to help it achieve high rankings might now be discounted or ignored.
The effects of algorithmic updates can be very difficult to fix and involve a long process, depending upon the site and the what the update has addressed in it’s drive towards improved search result quality.
The main difference between a manual penalty and an algorithmic update is you cannot submit a reconsideration request. You have to work on updating your site in line with what the updated algorithm now values.
Examples of algorithm changes that have made the most noise in recent history are:
- Panda (released in February 2011) – One of Panda’s remits is to identify sites with thin content.
- Penguin (released in April 2012) – Penguin targets a number of factors indicating the spaminess of a site, such as keyword stuffing and page cloaking.
- RankBrain (released in Spring 2015) – RankBrain is an AI system designed to learn and make decisions about content quality to improve Google search results. It’s one of the most influential algorithm changes made.
Avoiding Google SEO Penalties Summary
- Manual penalties affect a site when a Google Webspam Team employee (i.e. a human) examines a site and determines it has broken Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to try to influence search results.
- Manual penalties affect single pages, multiple pages or an entire site.
- If your site has a manual penalty it will reduce its search visibility.
- Google Search Console tells you if you have a manual penalty and for what reason.
- If you have a manual penalty, you can fix the issue and make a reconsideration request to have your site reviewed again.
- Algorithmic penalties are not really penalties.
- Algorithm updates generally reward sites for quality. Sites that do not meet the updated quality guideline suffer as a result.
- You cannot raise a reconsideration request for the effects of an algorithm update. You have to work on meeting the new quality guidelines and wait for Google to reward you!
Thanks for reading!
I’d love to hear from you if you’ve suffered from the results of manual Google SEO penalties or an algorithm update. Drop a comment below or ask me a question. Remember… a problem shared is a problem halved!
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