A penalty from Google is the last thing you would want to receive when your goal is to rank on its SERPs. However, it is easy to have Google penalize your site if your site violates certain Google guidelines. Has Google penalized your site? If you have received a manual action report from Google, what could be the reason and what should you do about it? In this article, we answer these questions as we take a look at Google penalties.
What is a Google Penalty?
What many do not realize is that there is a difference between a Google penalty and an Algorithm. Algorithms are high-profile updates that determine how sites are ranked on Google SERPS. The Penguin and Panda updates, for example, were aimed at demoting sites on Google’s search result pages that failed to meet Google’s quality standards.
Panda had its focus on the quality of site content while anchor text distribution and backlinks are the focus of the Penguin update. Thus, algorithms have a wide scope of impact. On the other hand, Google penalties are directed towards a particular site which may have made it past the Algorithm but still failed to meet with required quality standards.
Ways to Know if Google Penalized Your Site
If “Google penalty” is the umbrella term, then it can be divided into two main types – an algorithm penalty and a manual action penalty. Any sudden decrease in the ranking of your site can be a result of any of these two. To know if your site is experiencing an algorithm penalty, you would need to correlate the period you experienced a drop in traffic with the time there was an algorithm update by Google. Once you know the algorithm update related to the loss of your site traffic, you can identify which standard(s) your site was found lacking and rectify the issues.
It is easier to find out if you have a manual action penalty. To do so, go to Google Search Console (Google Webmaster Tools) and check for any new notifications with a warning message or manual action report.
If you have not received a manual penalty, there are certain clues that could show that your site is experiencing an algorithm penalty. Here are some of the pointers –
Even for your brand name, your site no longer ranks. This is a sure-fire clue as a site should at least rank well for its name keyword.
Your position on the SERP for keywords you used to rank high for has pushed back several pages. For example, your site has moved from a Page 1 ranking to Page 4.
‘No results found’ when you run a site search (site:yourdomain.com keyword).
When you do find your site listing on Google, it does not direct to your homepage.
Your entire website is suddenly no longer on Google’s cached search results.
Your site’s PageRank has dropped to a 1 or 0.
Why Google Penalized Your Site
Google continuously reviews its standards to ensure it pushes only quality content to its users. Thus, it is difficult to say the exact reason why your site has been penalized by Google. In any case, the following are factors that could contribute and which you should consider to see if they could be the reason Google is penalizing your site.
Google takes content seriously. So, to avoid being penalized because of your site content, you need to ensure that your site content is original and unique. One primary thing to avoid is duplicate or plagiarized content. This includes using spun content, simply rewriting content that is already available in another language, or popularizing your site with content scraped from the web.
Using hidden content, which involves text disguise simply to manipulate keyword density or the theme of your content is non-ethical and definitely frowned at by Google. Stuffing your content with keywords, even when it negatively alters readability and meaning is another ground on which Google may penalize your site.
Other examples of content that will be flagged down and penalized if seen in your visual content, text, or ad campaign are hacked content and, of course, spam.
As helpful as link building is for SEO, links can get you on Google’s bad books when not used properly. Some wrong uses of links that you need to avoid include broken internal or external links (broken links in general). These direct your site’s visitors to error codes and tell Google that you are not providing readers with what they want. In other words, to Google, your site should not be ranking high.
Reciprocal links – links swapped with clients – can also lead to a penalty when used excessively. Similarly, hidden, rented (paid), and suspicious site links often attract penalties so you would do well to avoid them.
Excessive use of links such as affiliate and outbound links or even site-wide links might also get your site penalized. And, while not exactly ‘fair’ since it is out of your control, malicious backlinks that link to your site may also be the reason for a penalty from Google. Unfortunately, the same applies to links from a site in a language that is different from yours. On the other hand, purchasing links to manipulate PageRank is well within your control and is reason enough for Google to penalize your site.
3.) Spammy queries as target keywords
Some keywords are bound to be penalized. These keywords, which often appear on spam sites are a target for Google. While some niches can conveniently avoid target keywords, it becomes a challenge for sites in industries where spam thrives. Examples of target keywords are ‘payday loans’ and pornographic or objectionable content queries.
Often, over-optimizing your content leaves it mechanical and ‘just not right’ for your audience. Following defined content optimization rules with a bid to outshine your competitors could be doing too much. And this can lead to a penalty. Over-optimization would lead to, for example, using keywords excessively (keyword stuffing), using too many outbound links, or even going overboard with your meta-keywords.
5.) Poor mobile optimization
Google might be unable to link your site’s mobile version with your website if the mobile version is not optimized or properly designed. Sometimes, you might need to use a subdomain to ensure that when mobile users seek to access your site, they are directed to its mobile version for an optimized user experience.
6.) Domain with a bad reputation
Sometimes, a domain may have attained a bad reputation from previous use before your purchase. After building your site around it, you may still get penalized due to this. If you find out that your SEO efforts never succeed because of the domain you purchased, the best cause of action is to purchase another domain, as money spent on a domain with a bad reputation will often go to waste.
7.) Slow site speed
Optimizing your site for the search engine while you hope it would reward your site with high rankings is one thing. Optimizing your site for your audience and site visitors is even more important. This is especially so since Google uses user experience and how they interact with your site as a metric to know if your site is useful and should be shown to more persons.
When your landing page or other pages within your site load slowly, it could discourage readers and cause them to exit your site. This gives Google the impression that users do not like your site and rather than recommend your site to others by placing your site high on its rankings, it could penalize your site by lowering your position on its SERPs. To rectify slow site speeds, you could use a CDN or a caching plugin. Alternatively, you could use a data center nearest to your frequent visitors.
8.) Prominent ads
While including adverts in your site’s blog is an advantageous monetary source, it often distorts readability and user experience when excessive. Allowing ads to dominate a page and appear to be the primary focus of a blog, rather than user-centered content can make Google penalize your site with low rankings.
Essentially, an advertorial is a page on your site that contains a whole lot of paid links. Such pages are often directed at manipulating search results and rankings. Having advertorials on your site may cause Google to penalize the site. As an example, Interflora, a UK flower site was penalized after placing well over 100 advertorials on several regional news sites. The penalty, which lasted 11 days made it impossible for the site to rank for its own name search or its major keywords such as ‘flower delivery’ that it used to rank well for. This depicts what a typical Google penalty looks like.
What to Do if Google Penalized Your Site
How you fix a Google penalty will depend on whether your site has a manual or algorithm penalty. An algorithm slam will not require any direct interaction with Google, whereas a manual action penalty will require you to fill a Reconsideration Request. This request includes your explanation of the problem (penalty and reason for the penalty), plus the resolution. The request must, however, follow an actual fix of the violation. Below are some manual penalties and how to fix them.
1.) Hidden content/keyword stuffing
If your penalty arose from using hidden content or stuffing keywords in your content, these steps should get the penalty lifted.
Go to Google Search Control and navigate to Crawl > Fetch as Google. This will allow you to fetch your site pages that are affected by the penalty.
On the affected pages, look for text that is either of the same or similar color as that of the web page background.
You can also look for other hidden text with the help of CSS positioning and styling.
Now, make all text visible to readers or delete hidden text completely. Remember that short valuable content beats any long but useless body of text. So, remove or edit paragraphs that contain meaningless repeated words – visible or not.
Fix all <title> tags and any alt text that contains repeated words.
Be sure to eliminate unnecessarily stuffed keywords.
You can now submit a Reconsideration Request for review.
2.) Thin, low-quality content
Whether it is spun, scraped, or simply hollow content, content-induced penalties can be rectified with the following steps.
Identify violating pages.
Remove all content that was auto-generated, whether spun or scraped.
Edit content that is thin or hollow, that is content that does not offer any value to readers. Either beef it up with relevant content or remove such content. More than boosting word count, it is essential that the content is informative and relevant to your audience.
Submit a Reconsideration Request.
3.) Unnatural links
You can fix a penalty caused by unnatural links to and from your site with the process below.
Audit all links to and from your site. You can download the links from your Search Console. Check out for those that were bought or a part of a link scheme.
Start by adding a no-follow attribute or removing the violating links.
Disavow links that you can neither no-follow nor remove.
Now you can submit a Reconsideration Request.
4.) Other manual action penalties
It is easy to tell which manual action penalty your site has received – Google would tell you specifically. Once you find that out by going to "Manual Actions" under ‘Search Traffic’, do the following.
Review your site to look for content or features that led to the penalty.
Then, remove all such content that violates Google's News or Discover Policy.
After reviewing and correcting, submit a reconsideration request by going to Google Search Console > Security & Manual Actions > Manual Actions > Request a Review.
It is important to be honest in your submission for a review. Google would also require you to provide evidence that you have changed your editorial practices and include new editorial guidelines, as well as an editorial board with a history of improved practices.
Once you submit the request for a review, the only thing you can – and should – do is to wait. Google would revoke the penalty if your site no longer violates any of its guidelines. So, keep checking your Search Console to know when a site review occurs.
Avoid quick fixes. The best way to deal with a google penalty or avoid it altogether is to put in the work overtime. Beware of anyone who claims to have a quick and easy fix to resolve a penalty or rank high on Google SERPs. Quick fixes likely involve some foul-play that Google algorithm could find offensive, costing you a good ranking on the search engine.
A Google penalty is not the end of the world – or your site. In most cases, penalties are resolved with deliberate efforts to rectify the issue that led to your site being penalized. So, if Google penalized your site, wait it out while doing what you can to rebuild your site ethically. And if you have not been on the receiving end of a Google penalty, then work towards avoiding it by keeping to Google’s best practices.