Google penalties explained
Have you noticed a sudden reduction in traffic to your website? Perhaps you’ve spotted that your ranking has fallen overnight. Why could this be? You thought you had a great SEO strategy in place… Well, there’s a chance you might be experiencing a Google penalty.
If this is the case, it’s vital to get the problem sorted so you can climb back up the search engine results page (SERP) rankings and make sure customers can find you!
Here’s everything you need to know about Google Penalties and how to fix them, including:
- What a Google penalty is
- The difference between manual penalties and algorithm changes
- How to fix them
- Google penalty consequence levels
- How to avoid Google penalties
What is a Google penalty?
A Google penalty is a negative impact on a company’s website ranking. If your website is seen to be going against Google’s guidelines (intentionally or due to an algorithm update), it will move down on the SERP.
Google penalties come in two forms. Either the spam team identifies an issue and asks you to fix it manually. Or, you may see a drop in your ranking due to a Google algorithm change which leaves your content outdated. Whichever you experience, it’s best to fix it as soon as possible.
If a website violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, the content creator will receive a notification stating what the problem is and advising them on how to fix it.
Manual penalties can relate to a variety of on-page and off-page guideline violations, including:
- Major spam problem — this is where Google has identified your content to be completely spammy and of no value to readers. To rectify it, the content creator must significantly change the copy.
- Spam problem — similar to the above, however, this problem refers to certain parts of your content. As such, you’ll need to change the specified areas of content but may not need to overhaul everything.
- User-generated spam — large websites that are user-driven may be issued with this warning if users are exploiting the site to spam. In this situation, Google would advise the website host to identify and remove any unrelated user content.
- Hacked content — similar to the above penalty, this relates to an external party damaging the site’s reputation. If somebody hacks your site, you’ll be advised to isolate and remove malicious content, improve your site’s security and submit a reconsideration request.
- Unnatural outbound links — selling links to manipulate rankings is a violation of Google’s guidelines. You’ll be asked to identify and remove any paid or otherwise inorganically sourced links.
- Unnatural inbound links — the only off-page penalty on this list, you’ll receive this notice if you have inbound links that are either irrelevant or unnatural. Google suspects that sites with unnatural inbound links are involved in link-building schemes to artificially boost your SERP ranking. The most common manual penalty requires you to download a sample of inbound links, contact website owners of irrelevant links and ask them to remove them. In some cases, you can disavow the links.
Google updates its algorithms every year to reflect how users search and make sure they get the best experience. Sometimes, these changes mean that content that may have been previously acceptable becomes problematic. For example, in 2011, Google’s Panda update meant that keyword stuffing became penalised.
Before the Panda update, some content creators would load their copy with keywords or numbers, even if they weren’t relevant, to try and manipulate the site’s SERP ranking. This behaviour led to a poor user experience. Readers would have to trudge through irrelevant waffle to get to the useful information!
Since the update, if a site is found to be keyword stuffing, it won’t rank very highly.
Some algorithm updates prioritise new ranking factors, favouring sites that include those elements. For example, in 2014, the Pigeon update determined that websites that showed solid local signals would rank more highly than those that didn’t. Therefore, sites that employ strong local SEO tend to receive more traffic than those that don’t.
How to fix them
Unfortunately, with penalties due to algorithmic changes, you won’t get any notification to give you a nudge. If you notice a decline in your rankings, it takes a bit of detective work to find out why. The best thing to do is to pinpoint exactly when your rankings declined and match it with a date that Google rolled out an algorithm update.
Once you figure that out, you can address the individual issue and climb back up the search engine results pages.
What are the consequences, and how long do Google penalties last?
Depending on the level of the offence, Google Penalties vary in severity.
For example, sometimes, a site will receive keyword-level penalties, where its ranking for a specific keyword will fall.
Other consequence levels include:
- URL or directory-level penalties: a site’s ranking for a certain URL will drop.
- Domain-wide penalties: This is where your ranking drops for several keywords and URLs sitewide.
- Delisting: If you receive this penalty, your domain will be removed completely from the Google index. None of your website’s content will appear in Google searches. It’s the most severe penalty Google can impose.
As for how long a penalty will last? The short answer is until you fix the underlying problem! After a certain amount of time elapses, if you haven’t addressed a manual Google penalty, the notice will disappear from your console. Once the notice has gone, you won’t be able to rectify the issue at all. As such, it’s always best to address penalty notices as soon as you see them.
How to avoid Google penalties
You’ll notice that many of the following tips on how to avoid Google penalties are simply SEO best practices.
Don’t buy links
It may be tempting to pay for links to build up your inbound or outbound link network but it can end up costing you. Relevant, high-ranking outbound links can improve your EAT (expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness) and SEO ranking — but only when organic!
Don’t keyword stuff
Keywords are at the core of good SEO. However, you want the reader to have a good user experience. Keyword stuffing is not only distracting for site visitors but will damage your ranking, too.
Ensure your content is in-depth
High-ranking content is relevant, interesting and in-depth. Shallow content that offers no real value may be flagged as spam.
Don’t plagiarise or duplicate content
Duplicated content (whether it’s stolen from another site or even if it’s your own copy in different locations) won’t show up on Google’s index.
Make sure ads aren’t obstructive
Pop-up advertisements that make it difficult for site users to navigate your site can lower your rankings. Likewise, if you have too much content at the top of your page, Google may penalise you. Top-heavy content can overwhelm readers and make them more likely to bounce.
Don’t hide content
The old trick of adding in extra content or keywords and matching the text to your background colour won’t fool anyone! Google values transparency, and if you try to hide content, you will get caught and face penalties.
Create URLs for humans, not computers
Try to build URLs that are clear, concise and relevant. Although you can include keywords, the URL needs to match the page content. Don’t write them to misleadingly attract traffic and manipulate search engine rankings.
Check any inbound links
Always check any inbound links to make sure they’re not harmful or spammy.
SEO and penalties
Having a good understanding of SEO best practices can help you avoid Google penalties and attract more high-quality traffic to your site. Check out our SEO Hub resources — there’s something to cover every aspect!
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