Google Penalties are designed to penalise or punish the owner of a website that uses unscrupulous SEO practices or attempts to manipulate search results. Some of these penalties are implemented manually, others are algorithmic. Whether it is intentional or completely accidental, a practice that doesn’t comply with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines will be penalised.
Penalties are bad news for your site – and your reputation. In this guide, we’ll discuss some of the most effective ways to recover from a Google Penalty (and come back stronger than ever before).
The Two Different Types of Google Penalties
Google can issue manual and algorithmic penalties to a site listed in its index.
Manual penalty: This type of penalty is applied by a human being on Google’s team. The action removes a website from search engine results pages (SERPs), as a punishment for unscrupulous practices.
Algorithmic penalty: This type of penalty is applied automatically by one of Google’s algorithms. The action reduces a website’s position in SERPs as a punishment for unscrupulous practices.
Manual penalties come in two forms.
Partial matches: Penalties affecting portions of your website, such as specific pages.
Site-wide matches: Penalties affecting your entire site.
Google Penalties: Myths vs Facts
Let’s debunk some of the common misconceptions about Google Penalties.
Myth: A penalty and an algorithm are essentially the same thing.
Fact: Don’t mistake an algorithm for a penalty. High-profile updates like (like Google Panda or Penguin) are algorithms, not penalties – although they can result in sites being devalued, which has a similar effect to a penalty (such as loss of organic traffic).
Myth: Google only penalises sites with “black hat” SEO.
Fact: Google initiates more than 400,000 manual actions every month! That’s in addition to the major algorithmic updates that have been released over the years, such as Penguin and Panda. This is a lot for SEOs to keep on top of – even those with the best of intentions for their website. While penalties are often intentionally given to sites using manipulative techniques, sometimes they may also be a by-product of an algorithm update. Any site can be affected by a Google Penalty, even if their SEO practices are well-intentioned.
Myth: If you’ve used some questionable tactics but haven’t been penalised yet, you won’t be.
Fact: Don’t assume you’ve dodged a bullet just because Google hasn’t picked up an issue with your site. Algorithms run every day and are constantly evolving as well, becoming more accurate and intelligent. You can be flagged for review at any time, so be sure to get your site in order before that happens. Start by removing any unnatural backlinks, and improving the quality of your onsite copy.
Myth: Recovering from a penalty means your site is safe from being penalised again.
Fact: Once you’ve removed any bad links and submitted a reconsideration request to Google, you can get a penalty revoked – but that’s not to say you should sit back and relax. If you’ve built bad links in the past, you’ll certainly still be on Google’s radar. Keep focusing on link risk management, to find and remove any bad backlinks to your site that might still be lurking out there.
Myth: You can recover from a Google Penalty by re-launching your site on a new domain.
Fact: This is a highly risky (not to mention dishonest) strategy. When the original Penguin penalty was released, some website owners migrated their content and code onto new domains, while others used a 301 direct for their site content, code and backlinks. At first, it looked as if their rankings were recovering, but Google caught up to them shortly afterwards, with heavy penalisation.
Myth: Your site will recover from a manual penalty and regain rankings as soon as you get it revoked.
Fact: Once a manual penalty action is revoked, it can take several weeks for the rankings to get back to normal, even after you receive a recovery message through Google Webmaster Tools.
Algorithms vs Penalties
Finding yourself on the wrong side of an algorithm update can certainly feel like you’ve been hit by a Google Penalty. So how can you tell if you’re being penalised, or merely feeling the effects of an update?
Here is the key difference: if your site is being penalised by Google, you’ll receive a manual action report via Google Search Console. Once you fix the problem, you’ll need to submit a reconsideration request to Google, explaining the origins of the problem and the solution you have implemented.
On the other hand, if you take a knock from an algorithmic update, you won’t be required (or given the ability to) submit a reconsideration request. Algorithmic penalties don’t include any manual processing by Google employees, so they cannot be lifted or revoked during a manual review by an employee.
Common Manual Penalties & How to Address Them
Here are the steps you can take to help a site recover from Google’s various types of manual penalty actions.
Hackers can infiltrate your content management system to add their own malicious content and links. They often “cloak” this content, making it difficult for you to find – but Google will spot it, and will add a notification to the hacked pages, which will lead to a drop in your organic search results.
- Contact your web host about the problem.
- Quarantine your site.
- Assess the damage and determine whether the issue is spam or malware.
- Determine how the hacker gained access to your site.
- Clean up the malicious content and install the necessary security features to protect any vulnerable areas and prevent future hacking.
- Request a review, asking Google to consider removing the notification about your site being hacked.
- Make sure you always have a clean, recent backup of your website available in case of hacking.
Google may manually penalise sites with poor quality or shallow page content.
- Identify and remove any auto-generated content, doorway pages or low-quality affiliate pages.
- Use duplicate content detection software to find any content that has been “scraped” or copied from somewhere else on the web. Remove and replace with unique content.
- Improve upon copy with low word counts and make it more detailed and informative. Invest in the services of a professional content writer to help you create unique, high-quality onsite copy.
- Submit your reconsideration request.
Any purchased links, or links created in order to manipulate search rankings, are considered “artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links” and will be penalised.
Remove any unnatural links, or modify them by adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute. This attribute will ensure that the links no longer pass PageRank.
Disavow any bad links that you aren’t able to delete.
Be thorough and ensure all non-compliant links have been cleaned up before submitting a reconsideration request.
Did You Know? Neil Patel reports that more than 95% of Google Penalties are related to the backlink profile of a website. Avoid linking to sites of low quality, sites that are unrelated to your industry, sites with thin content and sites with large numbers of external backlinks.
User-generated spam is low-quality content from “black hat” SEOs, typically found in online forums and post comments.
- Identify any pages on your site where users are able to leave comments.
- Check these pages for commenters with spammy usernames, comments with non-relevant links, automated comments, off-topic comments, and adverts masquerading as comments.
- Remove all inappropriate comments.
- Remove the ability for users to post unmoderated content to your website.
- Prevent unmoderated content from appearing on your website.
- Send your reconsideration request, and be sure to moderate all future user-generated content on your site.
If an image on your website appears differently in a search on Google Images, you can be penalised by Google’s “Image Mismatch” manual action. This is to prevent websites from manipulating Google Images by forcing the search engine to index images that don’t match what visitors are seeing on the site.
Update all your image alt attributes (alternate text) and image descriptions.
Make sure these descriptions actively reflect what is being shown in the image.
Once this has been done for all images on your site, you can submit your reconsideration request.
You can be penalised for having too many keywords or phrases crammed into your onsite copy, especially if the phrases are repetitive and impact the readability of the copy. The same goes for hidden text, which is a dishonest SEO practice.
For excessive keywords:
- Remove or rewrite any repetitive or keyword-heavy paragraphs.
- Fix any title tags and alt text that contain strings of repetitive words or phrases.
- Consider investing in an SEO-compliant content writer to boost the quality of your onsite content.
For hidden text:
- Go to Google Search Console > Crawl > Fetch as Google.
- Fetch the pages from the affected parts of your site.
- Look for any text that is the same colour as the web page body.
- Look for hidden text using CSS styling or positioning.
- Remove any hidden text, or make it visible, so that it’s obvious to human users as well as search engines.
Once you’ve addressed all keyword issues and removed all hidden content, you can send a reconsideration request to Google.
Bad Use of Structured Markup
Structured content markup is a great way to get enhanced SERP results for your website. However, if you don’t follow the proper rich snippets guidelines from Google, you will be penalised.
Remove or update any markup that is irrelevant, misleading or invisible to users.
Send your reconsideration request.
Algorithmic Penalties: Some Background on Panda & Penguin
Panda and Penguin are two of Google’s most significant algorithm updates, and each of them has had a far-reaching impact on the SEO world. Let’s go over the basics of Panda and Penguin, and the factors that caused them to devalue websites across the globe:
Release date: February 2011.
Purpose: To reward high-quality sites while reducing the prevalence of low-quality sites in Google’s top organic search engine results.
Panda aimed specifically to target content farms and devalue them, returning better-quality sites to the top (or near the top) of the search results. Over the years, Panda became a more holistic quality-seeking algorithm, and it was eventually incorporated into the main Google algorithm.
Triggers: Panda knocked down sites in SERPs that displayed the following problems:
- “Thin content” – pages with very little text (i.e. just a few words or sentences) and no relevant or substantial information.
- Low-quality content – pages with little or no valuable information for human readers (i.e. content focused largely or exclusively on search phrases, written with only search engines in mind).
- Duplicate content – content copied from another place on the Internet, or multiple pages across the same website with identical or very similar content.
- Untrustworthy content – content from sources that are not authoritative or verified.
- Content farms – sites containing large numbers of low-quality pages with no real value to human users; typically short articles that cover a wide variety of search phrases, for the purpose of gaining search engine rankings.
- Low-quality user-generated content – UGC can be a great organic marketing tool if it’s implemented in the right way. But Panda looks out for low-quality implementations, like badly written guest blogs that are full of errors and contain no authoritative information.
- High ad-to-content ratio – web pages that are made up mostly of paid advertising, with very little original content.
- Blocked websites – Sites that human users have chosen to block (either directly in the search engine results or via a Chrome browser extension), which indicates that the site is spammy or bad quality.
Release date: April 2012.
Purpose: Like Panda, Penguin aimed to reward good quality sites while diminishing the presence of low-quality sites in Google’s organic search results. Penguin became a part of the core algorithm in 2017.
Triggers: There were two specific triggers for Penguin:
- Keyword stuffing – pages populated with large numbers of keywords and phrases; a manipulative attempt to rank for those phrases. Keyword stuffing leads to a lot of unnatural sounding repetition, sacrificing the readability of the content.
- Link schemes – acquiring or buying backlinks from low-quality or unrelated websites, to generate an artificial image of popularity and relevance.
The ultimate goal here was to reward sites that meet the quality standards outlined by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. While Penguin and Panda did cause significant drops in traffic for websites using the above practices, they are are not the same as “penalties” themselves; they are what’s known as “algorithmic filters”.
Identifying an Algorithmic Penalty
As mentioned previously, if your site is being affected by an algorithmic filter like Panda, Penguin or any other member of Google’s menagerie, you won’t receive any notification from Google. You’ll need to use your site’s analytics tools to try and determine whether you’ve been on the receiving end of an algorithm smackdown.
- First, check your Google Search Console > Search Traffic > Manual Actions to rule out a manual penalty (no notification = no manual action).
- Make sure your Google Analytics tracking code is working correctly.
- Take a look at organic Google traffic (not all traffic) to your site, and see if you can spot a dip in this traffic that coincides with a confirmed or suspected algo update.
- Check your rankings manually on an incognito browser to determine if there really is a drop.
Note that this is a good rule of thumb, although it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to spot the culprit. It could also be that your competitors are outperforming you, hence the drop in rankings. This is a sign that you need to refocus your efforts on improving the overall quality of your site.
If you think you have been affected by an algorithmic filter or update, first do your research into that update and its triggers, before taking action. Then clean up your site and make sure it’s free of issues that could get you targeted by a filter like Panda or Penguin.
Make sure you stay up to date with Google’s latest search algorithm changes. Follow the senior webmasters and trend analysts on Twitter and YouTube, for news and advice. Check out other trusted sources in the SEO community too, for their take on unconfirmed updates.
The Severity of Google Penalties
The most severe type of manual action is the complete removal of your website from search, and removal from indexing. A less severe consequence is the partial removal of your site from search.
Complete removal has also traditionally been known as a “grey bar” penalty, referring to Google’s PageRank Toolbar, which would turn grey when a site was shown by Google as not existing. This was an indication that the site had been completely banned from the search engine’s index.
Partial removal is called a “white bar” penalty – the toolbar would display as white if a web page had a PageRank of zero. This would indicate that the page didn’t have enough links to register any PageRank, or that it had been reset to zero.
If you are “white barred”, your site won’t be completely removed. Being “grey barred” however, is the most severe manual penalty, and will require the most effort to recover from.
Senior webmaster John Mueller says “We only remove pages completely from search with a manual action if there’s really something problematic on those pages. It’s really a strong sign across the board where we look at that website and think there’s really very little value in us investing any resources in indexing content from this website.”
Recovering from a “Grey Bar” Penalty:
Once a severe manual penalty has been successfully lifted, the first sign you’ll see is that your site’s domain name can be found in Google again. You may have to wait a couple of weeks for this to happen, i.e. for Google to start picking up content and recognising it as being worth indexing again.
Mueller says: “What will happen is first we’ll have to start indexing this website again; and that can take a bit of time.”
Recovering from a “White Bar” Penalty:
Typically, recovery from a partial penalty will be faster. Mueller says of being white barred, “Usually that’s something that’s just a matter of us recrawling, reprocessing those pages so that we understand that things are ok now.”
Once the issues have been fixed and you’ve processed the reconsideration request correctly, Google is able to rank your site normally again, without having to start from scratch.
Google’s Advice for Recovery
Let’s say you’ve fixed your onsite issues and submitted your reconsideration request, but you’re still in the doghouse according to Google – what now? John Mueller has some invaluable advice for those struggling to bounce back from a Google Penalty.
According to Mueller, there are two common mistakes that SEOs make that can lead to a failed reconsideration request. The first is “quality issue blindness”, or an inability to see the issue on your own site.
Being too close to a project can make it difficult to see what’s wrong with it. Mueller advises getting a fresh pair of eyes on your site, to see it from a new perspective. “Get some advice from peers, from other people who’ve run into similar situations, who’ve helped other websites kind of resolve these situations,” says Mueller. This is especially useful for those who have made changes and submitted reconsideration requests multiple times, but have not yet had their penalty lifted.
The second mistake is a failure to solve all the issues that require attention. Once a site has been manually penalised, every issue must be fixed in order for the penalty to be successfully lifted.
Don’t just fix the problem that got your site penalised; take this as an opportunity to rectify all the other potential violations on your site as well, even minor ones.
As a general rule, “just good enough” is not going to be enough to get you back in Google’s good graces. Cover all your bases before sending your resubmission request.
According to Mueller, “When the web spam team sees that reconsideration request for the same thing keeps coming and going, then they might assume that you’re not actually willing to… fix this problem.”.
Where to Get Advice
Who should you speak to for help with a website issue? Of course, you can ask for help in one of Google’s Webmaster Help Forums or Facebook groups. But the downside there is you could be publicly disclosing sensitive information about your website to your competitors.
As an alternative, you could join a paid private forum that offers hidden site reviews, such as WebmasterWorld, or a closed Facebook group where the content shared is private. You can also run a site audit, or hire a professional site auditing service.
Running a Site Audit
A site audit helps to evaluate your site’s “search engine friendliness” and assess its overall performance. An audit will help you to determine what areas you need to work on, and what issues you need to solve in order to be compliant with Google’s guidelines.
The auditing process typically includes the following steps:
Website Crawl: Using an SEO “crawler”, which acts like Google and crawls the entire site to give you information on your current site structure and SEO.
Crawl Report: After the website crawl is completed, you should get a report listing any issues found on your site.
Domain: There should be one standardised way in place for searchers to type your website address (or link to it from another website) – for example, http://mysitename or http://www.mysitename, but not both. Choose one domain and make sure all the others are 301 redirected to the chosen version.
Manual Home Page Assessment: You can asses your home page in detail manually by viewing the page source code. Check the title tag and the meta description to make sure they are optimised.
Unique Content: Make sure your content is unique, not just to your site but to each page across your site.
Search Traffic: Use Google Analytics to gain insight into how much traffic is coming to your site. Note any periods that showed significant spikes or dips.
Search Google: Search for your website’s your name using Google, and see what you get in the SERPs. An established site should be the top result for its own brand name. If this isn’t the case, you should focus on building more branded links, add a Google My Business listing, or work on improving your social media presence.
DNS Settings: Log into Google Search Console and go to “Current Status” on your dashboard. If you see “DNS” with a green tick, it means Google’s bots aren’t finding errors as they crawl your site, which is good news. If you don’t see a green tick, you should receive a report on the main errors currently on your website.
XML Sitemap: Sitemaps are useful, because they list all the different URLs within your website, making it easier for Google to assess and rank each page individually. Make sure that your site has a comprehensive sitemap in place.
Google Page Speed: Fast loading time for your site is essential, as users rarely wait for more than a few seconds for a site to load. Use Page Speed Insights to assess how fast your site is, find out what you can do to improve the timing.
For more in-depth information, read Lilo’s complete guide to running a comprehensive site audit. You can also get in touch with us to find out about our professional SEO services, which can effectively help you to avoid (or recover from) the effects of a Google Penalty.