This big guide to preventing Google Penalties is essential for all website owners. It’s especially important, however, for those webmasters whose sites operate in niches that are already likely to come under heavier everyday scrutiny from Google, including those in the gaming, gambling, loan and adult niches.
The fact is though everyone who relies, even if it is only partially, on a website to boost their business needs to understand Google Penalties. But not just how to fix them if they occur, how to prevent them from ever becoming a problem in the first place. Google penalty prevention involves understanding all the things that may be going on – and off – your site that may be a penalty waiting to happen.
Seriously. Unless you know all the potential violations, algorithmic triggers and causes for manual actions and penalties, you’ll be flying blind without any means of navigation. And crashing into Google manual penalties is the last thing you want.
A single violation can trigger a penalty that causes your site to disappear from SERPs.
Entirely. Maybe for a long time. Maybe even forever.
What Is A Google Penalty?
What is a Google penalty? It is the ‘punishment, handed out by Google when a website – or even a single webpage – violates any part of the Google search console guidelines.
From an SEO perspective, the term “penalty” means any negative impact on a website’s organic search rankings caused by an algorithm update or a manual action.
Anything that directly violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines can result in a penalty against your website. The two main types are algorithm-based, which is automatic, and manual, which is an intentional penalization for “black hat” actions.
Though Google doesn’t call algorithmic hits “penalties” per se, the end result feels the same to a website owner. From an SEO perspective, the term “penalty” means any negative impact on a website’s organic search rankings caused by an algorithm update or a manual action.
Google Penalties by Name
Google penalties range from a slight, temporary ranking hit (a slap on the wrist) all the way to expulsion from the search engine’s index. Don’t let the cute animals fool you. Search engine algorithms have teeth and can bite sites that seem to break the rules.
Google Panda Penalty
The Panda update arrived in February 2011 with the first of many rollouts. By early 2016, Panda had grown up and become part of Google’s core algorithm.
The Google Panda algorithm aims to prevent poor quality content from making it to the top of search results.
If Panda thinks your website provides low-quality content, it will be hard for your web pages to rank. Examples of low-quality web content include: “thin” pages with little or no added value; product pages with manufacturer-provided descriptions and no original text; and widespread duplicate content.
Google Penguin Penalty
The Google Penguin algorithm combats webspam by detecting link spam.
When a site’s backlink profile (i.e., the full list of links coming from external sites) includes too many unnatural-looking links, Google suspects that site of trying to manipulate search rankings — and Penguin’s feathers get understandably ruffled.
Google launched the first Penguin update in April 2012. Several agonizingly slow rollouts later, Google announced a final update in September 2016. Penguin now operates in real time as part of Google’s core ranking algorithm.
Google says that the new Penguin algorithm no longer gives penalties. Rather than demoting a site with low-quality backlinks, Penguin now just devalues bad incoming links so they don’t affect the site’s rankings. Or that’s what they say. An exhaustive MOZ experiment seemed to prove otherwise.
However, whoever is right, your link profile is still your responsibility. Having a large percentage of poor backlinks is a low-trust signal. Many sites that were hit with a Penguin penalty still need to take steps to recover. Also, if your organic search traffic drops suddenly, it could be due to a link-related penalty.
Intrusive Interstitial Penalty
Launched in January 2017, the Intrusive Interstitial Penalty affects mobile search results only.
Google penalizes sites that show an intrusive ad, pop-up, or standalone interstitial to a mobile user immediately after clicking a mobile search result.
You should know however that in general, whether displayed on mobile or desktop, Google demotes web pages that block searchers from easily seeing the content.
Certain types of interstitials aren’t penalized, such as login forms and legally necessary gates (for age verification or other). However, requiring people to login to see content is now sometimes penalized, so if you have such a gate on your content, be aware that it could be holding you back in the SERPs.
Payday Loan Penalty
Google updated its algorithm in June 2013 specifically to address the quality of results for heavily spammed queries such as “payday loans,” “viagra” and pornography-related keywords.
Sites penalized by the Payday Loan update tend to be heavily involved in link schemes, web spam, and often illegal activities. It does not mean, of course, that they all are. There are some perfectly legitimate websites out there in those niches that should not be tarred with the same brush as the bad guys. If yours is one of them, steer clear of the bad stuff and you should be fine.
Besides all the algorithmic penalties, it’s also possible for a search engine employee to manually cause your website to go either up or down in the rankings. Google’s webspam team members can manually review websites and levy penalties or even kick a site out of the index.
What triggers a manual review? The search engine may decide to inspect the site more because of suspected foul play. (Did you know competitors report a majority of spam?) Or, Google’s team may be re-testing a website that has requested “reconsideration” after cleaning up its penalty issues.
These are just some of the major highlights – or lowlights if you prefer – of the penalties your site may come up against. There are well over 500 updates made by Google to the way it defines search results, every year It is always improving itself, and for a single core reason. To generate the best possible user experience through the elimination of web spam.
Before we dive in here, let’s pause for a little history lesson. There was a time, before Google Panda, that grey hat SEO was the norm, and things that technically violated the existing Google Webmaster Guidelines seemed to be ok.
Seemed to be OK because Google didn’t seem to punish sites for them. When Panda came along, followed by its flightless – but powerful – friend Penguin for many SEOs – and websites – the sky fell, and fast.
We mention this because as you go through the next sections if you have been around SEO for a while in any capacity you might see a few things you thought were OK, because they used to be.
But times change, and in terms of the things that Google will penalize for they change fast. That’s what makes good SEO so hard. You can’t ‘learn it all’ and then claim to be an expert because it’s always in flux.
That aside, now let’s take a look at some things that can get your site into trouble. Things that might be on your site right now that have yet to draw the attention of Google, but are a disaster waiting to happen. Or a disaster that may already have happened, you just don’t know it yet.
We typically see offenses that fall into three categories. On-site content, Off-site backlinks, and technical issues with the code.
Algorithms and bots are not very good at differentiating between good content and bad content. Google have been refining theirs for decades, but it will still be a long time before they develop an algorithm that can understand text in the way that humans do.
But even though they can’t read in the way that we do, there are telltale signs nestled within page content that a search engine’s algorithm can pick up on, signs that result from certain patterns that are consistent with spammy or poor content. Lots of typos (bots CAN spell) excessive advertising, blatant plagiarism or lack of certain patterns which good content has.
Most of the time, if these signs build up to a certain threshold, a site with poor content will be marked by the bots for a manual review, at which point an employee will easily see if the site is legitimate and merely unlucky, or if it’s trying to “game the system” with its text.
Sometimes, these tell-tale signs can be so large in number that a serious penalty is triggered automatically. Things like keyword stuffing, large scale duplicate content or doorway pages are all amongst many things that can easily be detected algorithmically.
That being said, let’s get clear on what the most significant amongst these tell-tale signs are.
1. Duplicate Content
One of the easiest things for an algorithm to use to identify low quality or scraped content is to run a check against the other content on the web, and see if content on your page was copied from or duplicated elsewhere. So, don’t do it, and if you ever have, take it down ASAP.
2. Spun Content
Content spinners are black-hat SEO tools that “spin” out an article lots of times, using synonyms to repeat and duplicate each sentence in a variety of different ways.
The problem is for humans they usually read horribly. Often they don’t even make sense. Check out this vaguely hilarious copy that was obviously created by one of these ‘magic spinners (yes, that’s what some people call them)
Not particularly convincing, and generally easy, even for an algorithm, to spot. Oh, and is also full of irrelevant links, but we’ll get to those soon. (This is a real example cited by Google by the way.)
Spun articles do sometimes fly under Google’s radar, but they are always a big risk. Software can quantify just how “unique” an article is, and of course a spun article is never 100% unique. As a general rule, an article that is less than 80% unique when compared with another similar article on the web will be flagged by the search engines.
If you’ve used spun content before, take it down and have it re-written by a human who can take the idea and make it their own.
3. Thin Content
A flag for potential thin content is a high bounce or return to search engine result page, and very little time spent on site. Essentially, if you’re getting a lot of visitors who take one look at your site and flee back to Google, it may be held against you, as it is often theorised that Google monitor Return-To SERP data as a way of pinpointing bad results.
You can see bounce rate and average times on site in Google Analytics. However, take the figures you see there with a grain of salt. Analytics is well known for being a little inaccurate regarding these two figures.
A preferable “metric” for this factor is your own intuition.
You know your market. You’ve talked to them and you know their needs. When you read your site, do you think they’ll find it useful? Are you adding anything or just pulling and collating information from elsewhere?
Whatever your answer, what could you do to make their time on your site even more useful? Think about it carefully and then begin creating that content.
When black hat SEO was first practiced, it was often done by stuffing pages with whichever keyword(s) you wanted to rank for. Search results began to be full of whoever had the most mentions of the word you typed in. Whoever had “credit card” written the most times on their site was often ranked for the keyword “credit card”. Search engines quickly improved, and at this point in time, keyword stuffing is an easily spotted offense.
It’s a game of balance. You want to be relevant to a search, but not look like you’re “trying” too hard. You can easily go too far by having the keyword in your domain name, URL, a liberal sprinkling in your content, in your page titles and a few subheads, and in the file names of a few images.
To protect against over-optimisation, use synonyms and related keywords.
Include the target keyword a few times, (you’ll almost certainly find that you do this naturally anyway) and include synonyms or slight variations whenever possible, particularly in the text content, headings and header tags. Not only will this improve your keyword targeting, but will also make your pages relevant for a much wider range of phrases and long-tail keywords.
5. Hidden Content
Another relic from a bygone era, this penalty factor was introduced when search engines caught wind of people smuggling a ton of invisible keyword repetitions into a page.
They were camouflaged by matching the text colour with the colour of the background or using hidden divs.
Not anymore. Keep an eye out for this happening accidentally. It’s been known to. If at any point the colour of the text is too similar to colour behind it, you may be in danger.
6. Content Farming
One of the primary goals of the Panda Update was to take down the content farms that then populated the web, pushing better-quality sites further down the search results.
This relates to any user generated or auto-generated content that is not useful, or purely there to capture search traffic and serve visitors advertising.
This is why, if you ever feel possessed to post on one of the surviving content farms like Ezines Articles, you’ll be continually reminded to post only the very best content you’re capable of, or face having it removed without warning.
If you have a forum on your site, you might be in danger of triggering this factor. To keep safe be sure to foster a good culture within the forum community, and moderate it carefully to weed out spam.
Links and Penalties
Ranking sites based on how many links were pointing to them was Google’s big differentiation and was the launch-pad to their market domination.
It’s a nifty system. If another site, particularly one of high standing, references your content as useful by linking to it from their own site, then it’s taken as a vote of confidence, trust and relevance for your site by Google
The flaw in the system is that it quickly starts to break down when people start to game hyperlinks, linking to sites for money or linking back to their own sites in externally posted articles in an attempt to make it look more popular than it is.
The prospect can sound tempting, but if you’re suffering from a penalty now and you suspect it has something to do with how you’ve built links in the past, study this list and see if any stand out to you.
1. Exact-Match Anchor Text
The majority of the links pointing to your site would naturally display the site’s brand name, the name of the owner, the domain name or just a “naked” URL. This is how most people link to sites when left to their own devices, and so this is what looks natural to search engines.
2. Reciprocal Linking
While swapping a link with a relevant site that your users will find useful is a good thing and should be encouraged, swapping links in excess indicates foul play.
For example, a web-savvy taxi company would legitimately want to swap links with all the hotels in the local area, to help his visitors find a place to stay when they arrive, and to help the hotels’ visitors find out about him if they should need a cab.
If he swapped hundreds of links with websites about poker, embroidery, politics, and many other random niches, that’s a different thing, and a bad thing. These links would provide no added benefit to his customers, and would risk triggering a penalty.
3. Bought or Rented Links
Quality pages often, in Google’s eyes, stand out from lesser ones by how many other sites link to it. Any sign of manipulating this ‘voting system’ is seen as a serious violation and will get you flagged.
Often, paid links are thrown up in a truly random way, violating one or more of the other factors mentioned here, so if you have ever paid for links in the past, you’d better look into how they were done. Get in contact with the link provider and ask for a copy of their records for your order(s).
4. Link Networks
2012 saw a big upheaval in the world of SEO. Many of the internet’s biggest link networks were targeted and obliterated from Google’s index overnight, which also penalised the hundreds of thousands of sites that had paid these link networks to boost their rankings.
Link networks still exist, but they are (generally) much more underground. They’re kept as secret as can be, because they are targeted so heavily by the search engines.
Being linked to by one of these networks is like opening yourself up to be caught in future cross-fire. It’s up to them to keep from being spotted by the ever watchful eyes of the search engines, but if they’re caught, you’ll pay the price. And usually, no matter how clever a network owner is, Google will catch up with them at some point, networks just aren’t worth the risk.
You don’t have to be on the receiving end of a paid link to be penalised.
Just as the nasty link networks were de-indexed for linking to people for money, so can your site be. It can seem like a valid way to keep advertising space on your website, to have people pay for ad links from a particular page, but Google sees this as a clear violation of their guidelines.
If you’re going to sell ad space on your site, do so legitimately, through a reputable ad network.
6. High Link Velocity
If yesterday your site was practically brand new, and today ten thousand links are pointing to your home page, what does that suggest? Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark is what a bot is going to think (well, they may not get that esoteric but you get the point)
When you pay for lots of low quality links, it’s usual for the link builder to throw up a huge quantity all at once, using automated software. Why else do you think they are only charging you a tenner on Fivver? Because it only takes about 15 minutes of their time. But for you, it could destroy all your hard work so far.
Sometimes a sudden high volume of links will pour in for legitimate reasons, namely when something of yours goes “viral”, and lots of people are linking to it and sharing it. As long as Google can follow that trail it’s okay, it won’t penalise you for doing something great.
7. Links from Spammy Sites
Similar to link velocity, the quality of the sites linking to you is often poor when the links are bought en masse.
The old link networks often comprised blogs containing terrible articles which covered every niche under the sun. Most of them are gone now, but they have a replacement, Private Blog Networks. And there are still lots of them.
Google hates Private Blog Networks and is weeding them out too, but for now people are still making use of them, apparently unaware of the danger they are putting their sites in because they – understandably – want more backlinks. This is a rather disturbing cautionary tale you can check out to see just what happens when sites are caught using PBNs. Don’t take that risk, and if you already have, try to get the content taken down ASAP.
8. Links to Spammy Sites
Just as your personal reputation can be besmirched by associating with a known crook, linking your site to a site full of spam and terrible content will hurt your rankings too.
Usually, this happens by swapping links with spammy sites, or even by the malicious owners of the sites hacking into yours, and planting links in your content in an effort to boost their own rankings.
9. Site-Wide Links
When you link to another site on every single page of your site, or if another site links to you in this way, it can be seen as likely manipulation.
There are legitimate examples of this for this, for example blogroll links, links back to web designers or developers etc. Again, Google knows this and is OK with this, but just make sure that you only use site-wide links in the right way and as sparingly as possible.
10. Hidden Links
Any link that is hidden to a user viewing your site is treated as suspicious.
This offense can be made by matching a link’s colour to the background it sites on, or by hiding a link in the script files. These are the sorts of things that search engines have become excellent at spotting.
If yours is an older site, and you’ve had SEO ‘work’ done in the past, your site may still be harbouring these links, as it’s another of those now very bad SEO tactics that used to be wildly popular. You won’t perhaps be able to see them as, well, they are hidden. A full link audit will expose them though, and then you can begin dealing with them.
11. Affiliate Link Overuse
While linking to affiliate products is a perfectly legitimate business model in the world of online marketing, cramming a page full of affiliate links sets off alarm bells and could incur a penalty, especially on thin-content sites.
The affiliate sites themselves are in danger too. It’s common practice for certain niches – gambling sites are a biggie here – to encourage affiliate bloggers to write about them. That’s not a bad thing either, but if the sites the links are coming from are poor quality it is. So if you are going to run an affiliate program make sure you vet the candidates very carefully before you welcome them onboard.
12. Broken Links
Whether pointing to an internal page or to a page on another site, if following a link brings up a 404 error page, it definitely won’t be helping your user’s experience. Which makes Google mad. Mad enough to slap you with a penalty if their bots return several times and find that the 404s are still there.
The internet is an ever-changing beast, and broken links will happen. Just make sure you check for them regularly and take care of them as soon as you spot them.
Getting a penalty for a technical issue can seem exceptionally harsh to website owners as they probably never knew there was an issue, as they are not ‘tech-heads’ themselves. Google however, like the law, rarely accepts ignorance of the subject as a proper defense.
Technical site issues are rarely talked about, but your code is the foundation of your online presence. Be sure it’s running smoothly, and you’ll stand a much better chance of lasting – and ranking well – over time. Here’s a look at just some of the things that could be impacting your site right now that could lead to a Google penalty at any time.
It should be noted that most penalties for technical issues are manual, and Google is increasingly sending out warnings when they spot problems. This is a wonderful thing, but far too many websites owners ignore them because they don’t understand them.
Don’t let that be you. If you don’t know what a notice means find someone to help you make sense of it and show you how to fix the problems before a warning becomes a penalty.
1. Missing Site Map
An XML sitemap is not a requirement, but there’s no reason not to create one, as it helps inform Google every time you post new content, prompting it to be crawled more quickly than otherwise.
2. Down Time
Servers may crash from time to time, but if the problem is not handled quickly, or if it happens regularly, the search engines notice and take it to mean neglect. They can’t keep searchers happy by sending them to a 404 page, so if your site does crash, get it back up and running as a number one priority.
3. Site Speed
In 2010 Google publicly announced that they look at the speed of a site when determining where to rank it. And in 2019 it’s hugely important, something Google make clear often.
Over time a site can be bogged down by adding extra code, or plugin after plugin, and large files such as images and videos. To maintain fast loading times, keep your larger files on a separate cloud based storage server. Especially for large sites, slower site speeds will severely affect your indexation.
Not sure how Google feels about the speed of your site? They will be happy to tell you. Enter your URL in their PageSpeed Insights tool and you will get their verdict in minutes. They will also detail what they believe is wrong, and go into significant detail at that. To a non-techy it can all look rather daunting, but if that’s the case get help ASAP, as slow site speed, especially on mobile, can be devastating to your hopes of good SERPs positioning.
4. Bad History
Sins of the past can come back to haunt you if you’ve just picked up a new domain. Even if it has expired, there may be a ton of spammy links pointing to it, which may create problems further down the line.
To find out if that is the case run a full link analysis as soon as you can.
5. Reported to Google
Anyone can report your website as spam if they want to. This can be genuine or done by a competitor who doesn’t mind playing dirty. It doesn’t make a difference who does it though, just know that it can happen at any time.
It’s nothing to worry about if your site is squeaky clean, since the report will only flag your site, not penalise it. If, however, you’ve been scraping by under the radar while quietly breaking the rules, being reported could mean you’re flagged for a review.
Perhaps the ultimate violation in the online world, hacking becomes a greater risk the more well-known and successful your site becomes. But also using popular a popular CMS such as WordPress and not keeping your software or plugins up to date can also make you a target.
Get your site security in order and prepare for it as best you can. If you’ve already been hacked, and the hacker has left spammy links, or hidden text, you may not know about it right away.
The only thing to do, if you’re sure you’ve stuck to the rules in every way and your penalty could only be due to an SEO attack, is to conduct a comprehensive on-site audit.
Cloaking is a technique by which the search engine bots are presented with different content than what appears in the user’s browser window.
There are two types:
1. IP Delivery Cloaking
Delivering different content based on IP address is something the search engines do all the time to present users with geo-targeted content. However, it can also be used to differentiate human user from search bot.
2. User-Agent Cloaking
Both browsers and crawlers have unique user-agents assigned to them. This helps make websites slightly better tailored to different browsers when necessary, and of course can also be used to present totally different content to browsers and crawlers.
Cloaking is an old practice. If it is affecting your site, it was likely to have been put in place a long time ago. Again, you may not be able to see it, but a site audit will track it down.
You think you are a little late to the party. You think you might have already incurred a Google Penalty. But you aren’t sure. So how can you tell?
If Google have issued a manual penalty, it’s very easy; they’ll tell you. They will send a message to your Google Webmasters message box and will inform you of their actions.
When we have told people this in the past too often they have replied ‘I don’t have a Google Webmasters account’. We then recoil in silent horror before explaining to them that everyone who maintains a website needs to ensure it is linked to Google Webmasters and Google Analytics from day one. It’s a must.
If you don’t have this in place for your website, please stop reading, bookmark this post and go and start getting it set up NOW. If you need help you’ll find step by step instructions here.
Anyone still here has a Google Webmasters account right? Good. If you ever get a manual penalty that’s where the notification will go. This is an example of an unnatural links penalty notice:
Whatever the penalty, the notice will outline what you have to do to fix the problem before submitting your site for redetermination. A penalty, when addressed, is not a forever thing. They can be overcome. Google, as you can see, makes that clear in every notice they send.
Google wants you to overcome it too, because if your site is going to remain on the web it’s a part of their stated mission that it be the best possible site it can. Right or wrong Google thinks it is the Internet’s headmaster. Get things right, you’ll be rewarded. Get things wrong you’ll be punished. A manual penalty is its version of that ‘could do better’ note on your school report. It’s up to you to try.
If the penalty was algorithmic you will not get a note. These you have to figure out by yourself. The biggest sign is a sudden drop in organic traffic.
It used to be that you could then match that up to the release date of a specific update and if the dates coincided, you could be fairly sure that was the problem. That is no longer the case, as many of the biggest updates, including Google Penguin, are now built into the main algorithm and operate 24/7.
Some free tools claim that they can detect a penalty for you, automatically. They can’t. Only a serious forensic site evaluation can do that. And for that you will probably need professional help. Even then this will mainly be educated guesswork. This nifty little flow chart demonstrates some of the basic questions you’ll need to ask yourself though to determine is your problem is a penalty or something else.
Unless a penalty was manually issued Google will never tell you whether or not you were penalized by a panda or penguin or one of the other members of their zoo. It’s back to the classroom again for you, to try work out what it was you did wrong, and, if you were doing things wrong how to put them right.
Google penalties can be put right, but it’s often a long and arduous process. The best thing to do? From today, start resolving to do things right, before you need Google Penalty recovery services. Prevention is better than cure.
Need help preventing or recovering from a Google Penalty? Let the Pearl Lemon team help you get on track and back into Google’s good books. Call us today to learn more.