Whether you are a newbie or an established SEO professional, the last thing you would want is a Google Penalty. Everyone dreads penalties and bans and it is quite natural too.
Of course, Google is the biggest single web authority and getting a lash from it can be really fatal for your web presence, needless to say, all your monetization plans too.
In order to push your website through Google SERPs, sometimes, business owners and bloggers stick to aggressive optimization, which may not always be healthy or fairly competitive. But with time, Google has evolved its ranking factors and having an unfair approach can cause you troubles.
And it doesn’t always take a heavy blunder to get penalized by Google; sometimes, even a small rookie mistake can have a big negative impact. Now, the question arises, how to save yourself (or your blog or website for that matter) from getting booted by Google?
And if you are penalized already, what can be done to save your grace? What should be done to recover from Google penalty and get back? In this article, we decipher the enigma that is Google penalty, the steps to recovery, and preventive measures to follow in future.
A chart showing how typically rankings and traffic drop all of a sudden after being hit by a Google penalty.
In order to recover from a penalty, many webmasters often make the mistake of “fixing” things before actually realizing the core of the problem. As a result of which, such “fixing” further jeopardizes the website. Thus, it is the MOST important step to diagnose the area of problem, pretty much like what a doctor does.
Now, if you look at statistics of your website and see an unusual sudden drop in traffic, you have to first determine if it is because of a manual penalty or because of an algorithm update. Let’s see what is what.
Types of Google Penalties
“Penalties” is actually an umbrella term to define the negative impact of anything that Google finds undesirable or unfairly practiced on the website. However, when we further classify it, penalties actually are of two types – manual and algorithmic update.
A “love-letter” from Google to a webmaster for being reckless.
Self-explanatory. Manual penalties are those penalties applied by Google manually when its advanced spam algorithm determines something fishy on your website. This type of penalties is usually accompanied by a message to the Google webmaster account describing the cause. These penalties are relatively easy to find and fix because you are formally informed.
The penalties which occur to your website when Google naturally updates its algorithm and changes the way it perceives the ranking factors are algorithm penalties. Even a small change in the algorithm can cause your website traffic to come under the scanner. Naturally, these penalties are harder to find and fix because you are not sent a message anyway.
Algorithmic Laws and Penalties
Regardless of what you have been hit with, an algorithm update or a manual penalty, the source of the penalty is most likely to be associated with either Penguin or Panda. While Penguin aims at unnatural backlink profiles and over-optimized anchor text, Panda focuses on low quality duplicate content which is just “gloried trash”.
Google has a large number of employees, everyone knows that! Manual penalties are a result of the keen surveillance of such Google employees who find out the discrepancies or deficiencies manually (of course they have advanced tools, duh!).
These employees scan these websites which bypass the algorithmic updates and doesn’t meet the Google standards of quality. Thus, those webmasters who act “smart” and bypass some of the new rules still can’t escape human intervention with respect to breaking the laws of Google.
Google Penalties and Ways to Recovery
The difference in approach towards recovery from a penalty or an algorithm update is the need and opportunity to interact with Google. What does it mean? It means you may have to contact Google directly to lift the penalty, which happens majorly in case of a manual penalty.
Otherwise, changing things to match up with the algorithm suffices most of the times, considering that it was an algorithmic penalty you were charged with.
As already explained, a website which is penalized manually by Google will get a manual action report on Google search console. On fixing the described violation of the code, you will also have to explain what led to the problem. Thereafter, the “reconsideration request” is put through.
Problem: First Click Free Violation
Websites don’t always allow users to access content for free. Sometimes, it takes subscription, sometimes, registration.
Google’s First Click Free policy demands websites to show a minimum of three articles/ webpages to users before they are asked to pay or sign up for availing further services. Although getting slowly redundant and attracting controversy, it is still valid and operational.
So, if a website shows full content to Google but restricts the minimum required visibility is charged with a penalty. This penalty also comes in two forms – partial and site-wide. The former impacts some parts of the website while the latter affects the whole of it.
The content which is shown to users coming from Google’s services should be same to what is shown to Google. If there is any difference, remove it to follow the compliance. Once you have ensured uniformity, submit a reconsideration request after fixing the issue.
Problem: Cloaking and Sneaky Redirects
A cloak is a big piece of clothing used to cover or “hide”. In the context of web, cloaking refers to the malpractice of showing different pages to users that are shown on Google. Sneaky redirects direct users to different pages than which are shown to Google.
Both are considered to be violation of webmaster guidelines. You can be penalized in two ways for this – partially or site-wide. Partial matches can affect some portions or webpages of your website. Site-wide matches can doom your whole website. The degree of penalty depends on how grossly you have violated the norms.
- Go to Google search consol > crawl > fetch as Google.
- Fetch the webpages from affected portions of your website.
- See the content on your webpage to check if it matches with the content fetched by Google.
- Remove the variations and bring uniformity between your version and Google’s version.
- Check all the redirects and eliminate redirects which send users to an unforeseen destination.
- Remove redirects which are conditional i.e. only redirecting users coming from a certain source.
- Once you have cleared the issues, put forward a reconsideration request.
Problem: Cloaking of Images
Not just text, images are cloaked too to deceive Google!
Cloaking is not only of text but images as well. If there are images on your website which are obscured by another image, or are different from the image served to Google, or redirect users away, you could be penalized. To avoid image cloaking, also check with plugins that you have installed to see if they aren’t generating the issue.
The images shown to Google should be same which are shown to your users. On fixing the images, submit a reconsideration request.
Problem: Hacked Site
Sometimes, it is not you but someone with a bad intent. Hackers can break in your website and inject malicious content or links. Such links or malicious content is often purposely made difficult to identify thereby making it tough to eliminate them.
When Google crawls such links or malicious content, a notification about hacking of the website is inserted in the search result for the affected pages. Thus, users get deterred causing your rankings to plummet.
Hacking requires immediate counter-action. If not detected early, it can doom your website severely in a short span of time. Here’s how you should go forth with it:
- Contact the host of your website and ask for support.
- Quarantine your website to limit the damage.
- Take help of the search console to determine the hacking.
- Check if it is a spam or malware.
- Find out the loopholes through where the hacker got in.
- Clean your website and run a thorough manual check.
- Request a review and ask Google to remove the “hacked” label.
To prevent future attacks and reduce vulnerability, always invest in having a backup of your website and good security. Most of the hosts have integrated backup plans and security, but if you are not convinced, don’t shy from a security upgrade.
Problem: Excess of Keyword Insertion or Hidden Keywords
Keyword stuffing is a big turn off for either, Google and users.
Having keywords is good but having excess of it and that too in an unnatural way is like inviting Google to penalize you. If your website incorporates hidden text or uses excess of keyword, beware.
Just like the other penalties mentioned above, you can be penalized in two ways – partial and site-wide. Partial matches affect some portions of the website whereas site-wide matches affect the whole website at once.
- Go to Google search console > crawl > fetch as Google.
- Fetch pages from the pages affected by Google penalty.
- Look for the text which has the same or similar color to the webpage body.
- Check out any hidden text using CSS styling or positioning.
- Remove the hidden text or change its attributes to make it visible to a user.
- Fix paragraphs containing repeated words and words without context.
- Fix <title> tags and alt text which contain strings of repeated words.
- Give a manual read to the paragraphs and see if anything appears “stuffed”.
- Submit a reconsideration request to Google.
Spam is one serious way you can offend not just Google but also your users. Nobody likes it and any webmaster with even little common sense avoids it. However, some webmasters still go forth with it and aggressively engage in spamming along with other activities such as recycled content, cloaking, keyword insertion, and cloaking.
Google sees spam as the biggest intrusion in reader experience and thus, sometimes, pleading guilty and correcting too doesn’t help. Penalty for spam can affect your website in two forms – partial and site-wide. The former affects selected spammed pages whereas the latter affects your whole website.
Usually, depending on the degree of spam you have done, Google can consider your request for reconsideration. So, once you have fixed the mistakes and ensured compliance with Google webmaster guidelines, go for it. But if you are a repeated offender, maybe it is better to shut it down and start over.
Problem: Free Web Hosts that Spam
Hosting for free usually comes with a lot of ads such as this website has.
Nothing in the world is free. So if your website is enjoying “free” web hosting from a service provider, chances are high that you will be soon come under the Google scanner for dubious reliability and advertisements, placed excessively and wrongly.
If you are even only a little concerned with your website and take it further, avoid free web hosting. Google strictly sees such free web hosting services as a threat to the user experience and whatever threats user experience, comes under Google hammer.
If you cannot afford to buy individual hosting, go for shared hosting plans. Move your website from the free host to a shared host and submit a reconsideration request to Google.
Problem: Spammy Structured Markup
Irrelevant, misleading, and improperly structured markup invites penalty. Google has laid down guidelines pertaining to rich snippets and violating those rules is foolishness. Again, this penalty comes in two forms – site-wide and partial. Site-wide penalty takes down your whole website and partial affects some portions of it.
You should check the existing markup and update it. Remove any markup which is in violation of Google’s rich snippets guidelines. Once you have corrected the markups, proceed to submit a reconsideration request.
Problem: Low Quality or Shallow Content
Google takes content really seriously.
The importance of content cannot be ever emphasized enough. Writing quality content which is backed by features, facts, and rich information takes time. Some webmasters stick to bulk-content generation which is often poor or simply recycled using tools
Other forms include low quality guest posts, thin affiliate pages without value, and auto generated content. This irks the users and triggers Google too for handing over the penalty.
The best way to avoid this is obviously writing good content with focus on quality rather than quantity. You should identify and remove auto-generated content. Similarly, remove those affiliate pages which don’t describe the product well or just stick to the information given by manufacturers or retailers.
You can also use duplicate content detection software to check for plagiarism. Remove or rewrite such pieces of content. Enrich pages where the word count is less or content structuring is poor. Insert images and valuable links or other media resources to add quality.
Problem: Unnatural Links
Links can make or break your SEO game. They can be your asset or liabilities, depending on how you select and use them. Google sees unnatural links negatively, whether pointing to your website or from your website.
- Unnatural links to your site
Unnatural links to your website are often those links which are bought or exchanged through link schemes. You should avoid buying or exchanging links just for the sake of it. These links clearly violate Google’s webmaster guidelines.
If you happen to get penalized for unnatural or spammy links, first conduct a link audit of your website through Google search console. Identify such links which violate Google’s recommended linking guidelines. Remove or add a rel=”nofollow” attribute to non-conforming links.
If you are unable to remove a link or add the nofollow attribute to it, disavow it. Re-run the link audit and check if there’s anything left to root out. Submit a reconsideration request once you have cleaned the link junk.
- Unnatural links from your site
Unnatural link originating from your website and pointing towards bogus website, deceptive pages, or low quality content are also threatening to website health. Such links placed solely to manipulate search rankings are Google’s favourite area to strike.
Unnatural (irrelevant, artificial, and forced) links referring to your website can be harmful.
You could be penalized partially or site-widely for this. Partial penalty involves blocking of webpages containing such out links and site-wide penalty blocks the whole of website.
If you are penalized for unnatural links from your website, conduct the link audit again. Identify such links which are unnatural, forced, poorly placed, or low-quality. Remove or modify these links by adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute. On correction, run the link audit again and send a request of reconsideration to Google.
Problem: Spam from Users
Sometimes the origin of spam is not you but the users on your website. User generated spam usually comes from forums, comments, guestbook pages, and user profiles. Google treats them equally and sees the presence of such spam as your “negligence”.
Penalty from Google can hit your either partially or site-wide. Partial affects your website’s selected portions and site-wide affects the whole website. As an exercise of caution, your responsibility is to check periodically for such spam.
First, identify the areas where your visitors are allowed to leave comments. Check out for spam in comments hiding advertisements, non-relevant links, spammy user profiles, and auto-generated content.
Delete all such comments, user profiles, and put moderation as screening factor. Once you have cleaned your website, put a reconsideration request to Google.
Problem: Expired Jobs
Job websites often use job posting structured data to push job postings. Search engines use this structured data and then suggests it on the top of the page. Webmasters have two approaches to this, direct integration and third party job site.
Jobs posted in the form of a structured data markup.
Direct integration uses job posting structured data markup on own site to promote a job. Third party job site involved posting job on a third party job website. This way too applies structured data markup albeit on a different site altogether.
Now the problem comes when you don’t remove an expired job posting. The chances of getting a penalty increase if you use your own website to post the job listing. Expired job listings are considered to be irrelevant and deceitful content.
If you are using structured data markup for job posting, either update it or altogether remove it. Alternatively, you can remove the page entirely. Or you can add a nonindex meta tag to the page of listing.
Problem: Over Optimization of Home Page
Over optimization of your homepage can also trigger Google to impose a penalty on you. If all your backlinks are pointing towards your homepage, it surely looks unnatural. A healthy website has evenly distributed backlinks.
Remove links which point to your homepage. Or even better, change your backlinks’ destination to which point towards your different but relevant webpages. A solid internal link structure will distribute page rank throughout your site.
Keeping Track of Algorithm Updates
Manual penalties are informed to you but what about algorithm updates that causes your website to get on the undesired side of the change? Google updates it algorithm to churn the best of the web and show the same on its pages.
But how to determine the changes applied in the algorithm update? Where to see what changes were applied to an existing algorithm? Here are some tools and resources you can rely on.
Moz is a wonderful resource for all the latest happenings in the world of SEO and Google.
Moz is a good resource for keeping check on algorithm updates from Google. You can see all the major algorithm updates, the date of their occurrence, and detailed information on Moz. Be appreciative of the fact that it gets frequently updated and many good webmasters actually refer to it periodically.
Sometimes, you will see movement in SERPs despite no update in algorithm. In this case, head to MozCast. You will see the turbulence in rankings owing to other factors.
Another small but impeccable tool for finding out variance in traffic with respect to keywords.
Algoroo is another fantastic tool to track Google algorithm changes. It checks out turbulence in rankings for thousands of keywords and collects the fluctuation data in graphs and charts.
2. Panguin Tool
Panguin is versatile because it uses Moz Change History report as well as your Google Analytics graph. You can see drop in traffic or rankings with respect to an algorithm update, if there’s any.
For accessing Panguin, you have to log in and grant access to your Google Analytics data. Choose your website and you will see a data overlay describing your website traffic trend.
A graph from Panguin tool showing the history or traffic variation corresponding to algorithm update.
Red, blue, and orange lines imply Panda, Penguin, and general updates respectively. You can click on the line to further understand more about the algorithm update.
Fruition shows the degree of impact of a Google penalty.
Fruition will let you check Google penalties too. You have to create a free account and allow it to access your Google analytics data. The impact probability score tells you how hard you have been hit by a Google penalty.
4. Newsletters and Social Media
Matt Cutts, head of web spam team at Google.
If you would rather get your Google algorithm updates from someone, rather than getting into tools, you should follow Matt Cutts on Twitter. He announces about all the latest updates and changes in algorithm. You can also follow Google Webmasters on YouTube to get tips and algorithm changes.
Tackling Panda Update Penalties
Google Panda penalty aims at low quality websites which have –
- Insufficient content
- Too many ads
- Duplicate content
- Poor site loading speed
- Poor uptime
- Poor navigation structure
- Poor text visibility and placement
First, check out for duplicate content or low quality pages. For this, login into your Google webmaster tools and click on “search appearance”, then move to “HTML improvements”. You will see here if you have any duplicate titles or pages. Delete such pages or no-follow them. Canonical URL can also be placed for identification of important pages.
Screming Frog dashboard can be overwhelming at first but it does the job smoothly.
Screaming Frog is a free tool to find out duplicate content and other on-page errors.
- Go to its website and download the free software.
- Open the software and enter your site’s domain URL.
- Click the on-page content you want to analyse.
- Choose the duplicate option from the dropdown.
- You will see a list of duplicate titles, headings, descriptions.
Siteliner prepares a report on duplicate content.
You can identify on-page problems using this free tool. Use it to determine problem areas such as duplicate content, broken links and page power. Similarity in content is represented through a percentage score.
- For using Siteliner, access the website and enter the domain name.
- Click on “duplicate content” tab on the left of the screen.
- You will see a list of duplicate pages on your site.
- Determine the similarity through the percentage match score.
Discrepancies in Indexation
Google crawls your website and indexes your webpages before showing them in search results. You should check the number of pages that are indexed by Google. Check if more than desired pages are indexed by Google.
For this, go to “Google Index” and click on the “index status”. More number of indexes implies navigation or URL duplication issue. Check if pages are duplicated because of dynamic URLs generated by site search and session IDs.
On the duplicate content, you can take any of the actions such as deleting the content, putting noindex or nofollow attribute, redirects, or placing canonical URL.
Tackling Penguin Update Penalties
Google Penguin penalties are based around your site’s anchor text distribution. Natural distribution is anchor text placed on keywords, its variations, brand name keywords, plain URLs, and the likes.
Unnatural distribution is anchor text placed repeatedly on exact keywords. You will have to check the backlinks report to find out discrepancies in the same. For this, Ahrefs is a great utility.
Ahrefs is a powerful tool and prepares extensive reports on backlinks.
- Go to Ahrefs and create your account.
- Click on the backlinks report tab at the top of the page.
- Enter your website’s domain.
- Click on the overview tab and scroll to the bottom of the page.
- You will now see your site’s anchor text distribution.
- To find the source of the keyword-rich anchor text, click on the “backlinks” tab on the left side.
- A list of all referring domains along with the inbound anchor text used will be shown.
Also check out for relevancy of the links. If your links, pointed to your domain, are unrelated, low quality, and trashy, they should be removed. For this, contact the referring websites and ask them to remove the backlink. Or as mentioned above, disavow them using the Google tool, if they don’t respond.
Google allows disavow of links that don’t conform to your website.
You cannot and shouldn’t challenge Google. The correct approach towards a healthy website with a good presence is to use everything judicially. And the first step in this direction is to follow Google webmaster guidelines. Google penalties are undesirable and no one wants them.
But they are completely doable and you can recover from them too, provided that you follow up with the right tactics. The key here is to identify the cause and then proceed to correct the mistakes and formulate a recovery plan. Penalties can be because of bad backlinks, poor content, hacking, cloaking, and a dozen other factors.
There are tools to determine the problem areas of your website which make identification easier. Once you have completed the recovery, file a reconsideration request with Google. Don’t worry and be patient. There could be several rejections before the request is granted by Google.
The last pieces of advice, don’t involve in healthy SEO practices, don’t cut the corners, and don’t compromise on your website’s sustainability. Whether it is the content or the backlinks, whether you are hacked or simply spammed, everything has a solution and with the right approach, you can recover your website from any Google penalty.