Google penalties occur when a site breaks Google’s guidelines. They’ve been around for years and pose a huge risk to organic search performance. Google issues penalties for lots of reasons, including suspicious links and thin content, and a site can be hit at any time.
The effects of a Google penalty can be detrimental to organic traffic. Rankings can drop by several positions, while traffic volume can fall through the floor.
For businesses that rely on organic search, this is a worrying prospect. Overnight, a penalty can turn a well-performing business into one struggling to attract new visitors. That’s the power and significance of a Google penalty.
The scariest thing about Google penalties is that they can be issued to any site without warning. Even if you play by the rules, you could still be hit by a penalty – especially those introduced by an algorithmic change (more on this later).
There are things you can do to reverse the impact of a Google penalty, and mitigate the risk of being penalised in the future. This guide will show you how.
- Signs Your Site Has Been Penalised by Google
- Manual or Algorithmic? The 2 Types of Google Penalties Explained
- Common Causes of Google Penalties – And How to Fix Them
- How NOT to Get Penalised by Google
How can you tell if your site has been penalised by Google? After all, lots of factors can affect search traffic and rankings, including:
- Seasonality – depending on your products and services, your site may be more popular at certain times of the year.
- Server issues – if your site goes down due to a server issue, your traffic volume will naturally take a hit.
- Problems with robots.txt blocking access – your site’s robots.txt may be blocking access to Google, resulting in a drop in traffic and rankings.
- Redirect errors – you have redirected pages incorrectly, resulting in broken links which affect traffic.
These are just a handful of the things that can affect your site’s traffic volume and rankings. But what are the signs and symptoms associated with Google penalties? And how can you tell the difference between a penalty and an everyday site issue?
First, Google penalties can cause an adverse drop in rankings and traffic volume – much greater than a simple technical issue. The changes are also much more immediate and should be visible in Analytics.
Here are the common signs your site has been penalised by Google:
- Significant site-wide drop in traffic
- Drop in traffic on individual pages
- Drop in traffic for certain keywords
- Individual pages are de-indexed by Google (they no longer appear in SERPs)
- Entire site de-indexed by Google
- PR drops significantly, maybe even to zero, or is no longer updated
Because there are different types of penalties, the effects won’t be the same in every case. Some sites may barely notice that they’ve been penalised, while others will see their organic search performance nosedive. It all depends on the type of penalty you’ve been hit by and the reasoning behind it.
There are two types of Google penalties you need to know about: manual and algorithmic. The main difference between them is that manual penalties are issued by a person at Google, while algorithmic penalties happen as a result of changes to Google’s algorithm.
Manual Google Penalty
Google employs a team for penalising sites in breach of its guidelines. Relying on its algorithm alone isn’t enough to stop violations, so these ‘quality raters’ track down rogue sites, evaluate them, and choose whether or not to issue a penalty.
Manual penalties can be issued to an entire site or individual pages. Because they’re issued by people, they have the biggest impact, with some sites losing substantial traffic volume or being removed from Google’s search index as a result.
The good news is, unless you’re mishandling your site and posting spammy content, it’s unlikely that you’ll receive a heavy manual penalty. Google will also message you with the reason it has issued a penalty (visible in Search Console), so you can see what’s causing the problem, fix it, and then request a reconsideration.
There are lots of reasons why Google might issue a manual penalty – here are a few examples:
- Unnatural links pointing from or to your site
- Keyword stuffing
- Spammy content
- Thin content
- Spammy structured markup
- Hacked site or other security issues
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s worth remembering that Google will normally notify you of the reason why you’ve been penalised – so you can fix the problem and regain your search rankings.
Algorithmic Google Penalty
Algorithmic penalties aren’t issued by people. They happen as a result of Google introducing algorithm updates, specifically those designed to detect spammy sites in breach of quality guidelines.
These types of penalties can cause problems for several reasons. First, they can be as damaging as manual penalties, especially if a lot of the content on your site violates the update – thin content, for example.
And then there’s the fact that algorithmic penalties can strike without you even noticing. Unlike with manual penalties, when you receive a notification from Google in Search Console, you don’t receive such a courtesy when algorithm updates are introduced – so you could be left scratching your head as to why your rankings and traffic have taken a knock.
The only way to find out if your site has been hit by an algorithm penalty is to cross-reference the date the update was launched with your own Search Console and Analytics data; you can find out when Google changed its algorithm in Moz’s algorithm calendar.
Make a note of the date and then access both Search Console and Analytics to align it with your traffic and index data. If you’ve been affected by an algorithm penalty, you’ll see a significant drop-off around the date of the update.
The great thing about using a tool like the Moz algorithm calendar is that it provides information about the update and what it was targeting. This gives you a steer on the changes required to bring it up to the required standard and recover any ranking positions or traffic lost as a result.
Now you know the difference between the two main Google penalties, we’ll look at the most common reasons why your site has been penalised – both for manual and algorithmic penalties.
Google wants to see natural links pointing to and away from your site. It doesn’t like it when they look engineered or paid for.
Its quality raters will look at your site’s backlink profile to check the health of the incoming and outgoing links. If they suspect foul play, they can issue one of three penalties, including:
- ‘Unnatural links to your site – impacts links’ – this is when Google assumes that sites linking to yours aren’t legitimate; it will normally block any link value in this instance.
- ‘Unnatural links to your site’ – this is a step up and will affect the traffic going to your site. Google believes your backlink profile consists of mainly engineered, paid for or poor-quality links from spammy sites, and will penalise you accordingly.
- ‘Unnatural links from your site’ – if you have a lot of suspicious exact anchor text links on your site, or regularly link to spammy sites, Google will penalise the offending page or your entire site.
Start by finding all links pointing to your site; you can do this with a tool like Majestic or Ahrefs. You’ll then need to filter the list to find the unnatural links. Something like Link Detox can be helpful for this if you have a big site.
When you’ve found the unnatural links, you have two options: contact the site owner to ask them to remove the link, or ask Google to ignore them by submitting a disavow request. Whichever option you choose, you need to be sure that the link has been removed or Google will continue to penalise your site.
Google cares about the content served to its users. That’s why you’ll be penalised if your site isn’t delivering a valuable user experience.
Thin content is one of the factors Google considers when assessing whether a site is providing value. If your pages lack weight and are all between 300-500 words, you could be at risk of receiving either a manual or algorithmic Google penalty.
You have a few options on how to fix thin content issues. You could remove the content so that it can no longer cause problems, or rewrite it to a higher standard if it’s valuable to your website.
Alternatively, you could use a canonical tag. This is when you tell Google to ignore a page in favour of another, stronger URL, which isn’t affected by thin content issues. Just make sure to include any essential content from the page you’re moving away from on the new URL.
Duplicate content is one of the most common reasons why a site is hit by a manual penalty. This is when the same content appears on more than one URL, something Google deems problematic and wasteful to its indexing.
Duplicate content can be an internal issue, when the same content appears on more than one of your pages, or it could be that two websites have the same content (with one stealing from the other). Google treats all duplicate issues the same, and will penalise both sites (including the original publisher) if duplicate content issues are found.
You can use Google Search Console to find duplicate content on your site. One of the most common areas where you might find this with meta descriptions, particularly if they’re auto-populating.
Search Console makes it easy to stay on top of duplicate content. Go to Search Appearance > HTML improvements and you’ll find a list of problems which you can fix, including duplicates. From there, it’s just a case of removing or rewriting the content so that it’s original.
Google introduced its Panda algorithm in 2011. Since then, updated versions have been released about once a month.
Panda is designed to penalise sites which violate Google guidelines. It targets sites with thin and duplicate content, as well as those that implement some form of link cloaking.
Fixing a Panda algorithm penalty can be tricky, as there are several reasons why your site may have been penalised. It’s important to remember, too, that because this is an algorithm update, you’ll need to wait to find out if you’ve done enough in response to the penalty, rather than getting a response from Google’s quality raters.
If you want to fix a Panda penalty, you’ll need to:
- Remove or rewrite thin and duplicate content
- Remove any overuses of keywords on affected pages
- Write original meta descriptions and title tags for affected pages
- Reduce link cloaking
Shortly after Panda, Google launched Penguin, which was targeted at sites with a suspicious backlink profile. Penguin isn’t updated as regularly as Panda, but when it is, the results for offending sites can be detrimental to organic performance.
Penguin is able to identify unnatural link patterns. It assesses a site’s backlink profile, looking at the quality and diversity of the links going to and from.
If the algorithm suspects foul play, it will either discount the value of certain links or issue a penalty – depending on the severity of the infringement. Either way, this can have a major impact on a site’s rankings and organic traffic.
If you want to fix a Penguin penalty, you’ll need to:
- Remove any unnatural links from your backlink profile or disavow them
- Invest time into gaining high-quality links from authoritative sources. This is more effective than removing unnatural links alone, and will have far-reaching benefits that go beyond simply fixing the algorithm penalty.
Given the detrimental impact Google penalties can have on a site’s organic performance, you need to invest time and resources in appeasing the search engine to mitigate the risk of being hit. This requires a regular auditing process to check the health of your site and its backlink profile – here are the steps we’d recommend:
- Link monitoring – Keep spammy inbound links to a minimum by disavowing any that you think could cause problems. You should also avoid linking to sites which themselves have a spammy link profile.
- Keep an eye on Search Console – As well as notifications from Google’s quality raters, you should monitor Search Console to check the health and condition of your site, and it’s been indexed correctly. You can also use Search Console to find and fix duplicate content issues.
- Subscribe to SEO news sites – To stay one step ahead of algorithmic updates, subscribe to SEO news sites so you’re aware of what’s coming. Search Engine Land and the Moz blog are two of the sites we’d recommend.
- Stay away from black hat SEO practices – While a lot of pressure is placed on marketers to deliver tangible results for their business, avoiding black hat SEO tactics is crucial in avoiding costly Google penalties. Building up a healthy and consistent organic search campaign takes time, so don’t take shortcuts which could see your efforts unravel in the long term.
At Banc, our SEO specialists are experts in helping businesses both recover from and avoid Google penalties, combining technical know-how with industry best-practice. Click here to learn more or call us on 0345 459 0558.