Search engine traffic online is the lifeblood of many websites; without organic traffic coming from search engines, many sites would be left completely unknown. Sure, you can get traffic from paid ads and social media sites, but to ignore the potential of search engines would be a huge mistake.
Among search engines, one really does rule them all: Google, which receives over 80% of all global search engine traffic. For this reason, achieving a high ranking on Google can do wonders for a business.
However, seeing your rankings and traffic plummet because of a Google penalty can have just as much of an effect in the opposite direction.
Since Google is such an important source of traffic, it is vital that you recognise these penalties and know what to do if your website is hit by one. This article will give you all the information you need to recover from a Google penalty and get your business back on track.
Why Google Penalises Sites
Google is constantly updating their processes and algorithms in an effort to provide the best possible search experience for its users. This constant tweaking means websites are getting struck with penalties every single day. The first step to avoiding a Google penalty is to understand why Google penalises a website in the first place.
The first thing you must understand is that Big G’s primary objective has to be to keep people coming back and using Google as their preferred search engine. To do this, Google has to be trusted; the search results it provides its users must be useful.
This means all of Google’s algorithm changes and penalties are put in place to enhance the experience of its users. If your website doesn’t align with this “user experience first” philosophy, you are already starting off on the back foot.
Poor quality websites that do not provide searchers with what they are looking for once they find your site on the search engine are just asking to be penalised.
Other reasons for Google penalties include sites that house content which goes against Google’s terms of service and sites that Google believes are trying to “game” the system and enhance their rankings artificially (more on that later).
In a nutshell, Google isn’t out to get you. It will only penalise a website if it believes your website doesn’t deserve a high-ranking spot or if you are using tactics to try and trick the algorithms.
Unfortunately, Google’s algorithms aren’t perfect and can cause penalties that are unwarranted. The constant changes to these algorithms and terms of service can also mean you may get penalised because an above-board SEO tactic you use today is suddenly deemed unlawful tomorrow.
Fear not, the rest of this article will arm you with the information you need to overcome a penalty from Google if your site is unfortunate enough to be slapped with one.
Types of Google Penalty
If you notice your search engine traffic from Google has suddenly taken a sharp dive for no apparent reason, it is quite likely you have been hit by some kind of penalty. The first step to recovery is to find out which type of penalty you have been given.
There are two types of Google penalties: Manual penalties and algorithmic penalties. We’ll look at each of these in the sections to follow.
A manual penalty is, as the name suggests, a penalty that has been placed on your website manually by a Google employee. Google has a team of human website reviewers whose job is to review sites and flag any that they feel are in violation of Google’s terms of service.
How to Recognise a Manual Penalty
Having your site flagged manually is much less common than an algorithm penalty, but it does happen. Fortunately, manual penalties are easy to spot since Google will tell you about them directly.
To find out if your website has any manual actions against it, log in to your Google search console dashboard, navigate to the “search traffic” tab on the left and select “manual actions” from the drop-down menu. Here you will find messages if you have been flagged by a reviewer.
Fortunately, they will also provide you with a rough outline for why you have been flagged. Common reasons for manual penalties include the following:
- Poor-quality or “thin” content that provides little value
- Unnatural links pointing to your site
- Hidden text
- Keyword stuffing
Most of the time, these kinds of penalties are given to webmasters that have been using underhand or “black-hat” tactics to try and trick Google into placing them higher up in the search engine results pages.
How to Remove a Manual Penalty
The good news about a manual penalty is that you will have been given an indication as to why your website was flagged. What you will need to do is find out as much information by researching the specific reason Google has given for penalising your site.
Once you feel you know exactly why your site was penalised, you can then begin to take the necessary steps to remove the causes of the penalty. Obviously, the cause is going to be individual to your own website, so we can’t provide those steps in this article. You will need to gather the information yourself and make the appropriate changes or you can have us do all the hard work for you by using our penalty removal service.
After taking the steps to remove the manual penalty, it is important that you submit your website for reconsideration by Google as this can speed up the process of removing the penalty.
Algorithmic penalties are much more common and will usually be the subject of great discussion after major Google updates. An algorithmic penalty is one which has been triggered by Google’s increasingly sophisticated algorithms. The algorithms are ever-changing, so you need to keep a close eye on your traffic and website changes to spot an algorithmic penalty.
How to Recognise an Algorithmic Penalty
Unlike in the case of a manual penalty, there will be no official notification when you have received an algorithmic penalty. You will also have to do your own research to find out the exact cause of the penalty.
If you have seen an unusually sharp decline in search traffic and have checked Google search console but there are no manual actions, you have probably been struck by Google’s algorithms.
To find out the cause of the penalty, you will need to look through your traffic and see if you can align the drop-off in visitors with one of Google’s major updates. Once you know which update caused the decline in traffic, you’ll be able to see what that specific update was looking for. Once you have that information, you can go about making the necessary changes to your site.
Although Google is making changes to their algorithms on a daily basis, there have been a number of major updates that have affected the search engine results in a big way. The following sections of this article will outline some of these big updates and give you an idea of how you can overcome any penalties caused by them.
Major Google Algorithm Updates
Without a doubt, the two biggest and most-discussed Google algorithm updates are Panda and Penguin. Panda came into effect on February 23rd, 2011 and Penguin followed on April 24th 2011. If you have done any prior research into Google penalties and updates, you will most certainly have come across these two.
They also happen to be the biggest ever updates and have the largest influence on rankings and penalties of all the algorithm changes. For this reason, we have dedicated a section of this article on recovering from Google’s Panda and Penguin.
How to Recover from a Panda Penalty
Google Panda was an algorithmic update designed to flag websites for any of the following: thin content, duplicate or plagiarised content, keyword stuffing, and user-generated spam.
To filter websites, Google Panda works by assigning them a “quality score”. This score then influences where a website is placed in the SERPs. While Google does not give us the exact parameters for assigning this score, they have published the following list of questions to ask about your site’s content to avoid being hit by a Panda penalty:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the article describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognised authority on its topic?
- Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- For a health-related query, would you trust information from this site?
- Would you recognise this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
- Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopaedia or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
- Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
What Google is getting at here is that your site’s content needs to provide real value to the user and be of the highest quality if you are hoping to rank well. To recover from a Google Panda penalty, you will need to do a full audit of your website to make sure it satisfies the questions above.
This can take a while but is a necessary process if you want to bump your search traffic back up.
Tools like Screaming Frog’s SEO-Spider site crawler can be used to analyse a host of elements on your website to uncover anything that may trigger a Panda penalty.
How to Recover from a Penguin Penalty
Google’s second major algorithm overhaul, Penguin, was designed to analyse the backlink profile of websites. The update focuses mainly on the quality of backlinks gained by sites and flags ones which it feels are using questionable linking methods to increase search engine rankings.
The following link-related factors are taken into account by the Penguin update:
The speed at which backlinks are gained. Gaining a large number of links very quickly can cause Googlebot to view your link profile as unnatural.
Quality and relevance of links pointing to your website. An unusually large number of links from low-quality websites can have a damaging effect on your website. How relevant the linking site is to your own site also plays a part. For example, a health site should have most of its backlinks from other sites that are also connected to the health niche.
The diversity of link sources. A natural backlink profile should include links from a variety of sources. Having all your site’s backlinks from blog comments is a major red flag, for example.
Anchor text. Anchor text is the hyperlinked, clickable piece of text that is displayed on the screen and it is a small ranking factor for web pages. In the past websites would use only their target keywords as their anchor text and spam links all over the web. Google prefers to see a variety of anchor text phrases as it displays a more natural, less spammy way of linking to your website.
How to Find Low-Quality Backlinks
The first step to reversing a penalty caused by poor-quality backlinks is to find all of the links that are pointing to your website. There are a number of paid tools available that will do this for you like Ahrefs, which will also give you a host of other information about your website’s content, links, and keywords.
If you want a free way to find your site’s backlinks, you can use Google search console by navigating to the “search traffic” tab and selecting “Links to your site” from the drop-down menu. From there, you will be able to download a file containing all the links pointing to your website.
Now you have your list of backlinks, you need to find the ones that are causing the penalty from Google by using the criteria mentioned above. Of course, this could take an absolute age for sites with many backlinks.
Luckily, there are some tools like Monitor Backlinks that allow you to upload your link file and use various filters to look over your entire link profile to find ones that are low quality.
How to Remove Low-Quality Backlinks
After finding the links responsible for your penalty, you need to remove them from your site. There are two primary methods to getting this done.
Ask the Webmaster to Remove Backlinks
The first method to try is to personally email the webmaster of the linking site and ask them to remove the backlink. This is the best method of removal since it gets rid of bad links completely.
You will, of course, need to find the email address for the webmaster of the site linking to you, which can be a tedious process. Many websites with have a “contact us” page with an email address.
If you can’t find an address on their site, you can use Whois.com to find their details. If their details are private on Whois.com, there are also web-scraping tools such as Voila Norbert that will find email addresses associated with any site you specify.
As long as you are polite in your email and straightforward, most webmasters will be happy to remove the links. If a webmaster asks for payment to remove your link, do not give them anything. Instead, move on to the disavow method outlined below.
Use the Disavow Tool
If you don’t get a response at all, you will need to disavow the links yourself so that Google ignores them.
To do this, you need to create a disavow report, which can also be done using the Monitor Backlinks tool. Once you have created the report, log in to your Google webmaster tools, navigate to disavow, and upload your report there.
In around 4 weeks, you should start to see an improvement in your search rankings if you removed the correct links.
Other Major Algorithm Updates
Penguin and Panda are the two most well-known and discussed updates but they are far from the only ones that can have an influence on your website’s Google rankings.
As mentioned earlier on, Google is making small updates and changes to the way it ranks websites every single day. However, every now and then, it makes a more substantial update that has a much larger impact on the SERPs.
Below is a list of seven more major updates that have been made by Google since Penguin and Panda. We have also listed some information to help you recognise and remove potential penalties caused by these updates.
Hummingbird, launched on August 22nd 2013, was designed to help Google interpret the intent of the searcher. Instead of displaying search results based only on exact-match keywords, Google was now able to use related terms within the content to decipher the topic. This meant you could now rank for a search phrase even if your content did not include the exact phrase.
Sites with low-quality content and those that use keyword stuffing are at risk of a Hummingbird penalty.
Steps to take: Produce high-quality content that covers a topic more broadly instead of producing content that only satisfies a specific keyword or phrase. You should also feature a wide range of related keywords and synonyms throughout your content.
Pigeon, launched between July and December 2014 (depending on your location), has more of an effect on local ranking results by linking more traditional SEO practices to the local search results.
Websites and local businesses that rely on Google’s local search box but have not focused on using good SEO methods will be at risk of a Pigeon penalty.
Steps to take: Focus on traditional SEO techniques to boost your local search rankings. Gaining relevant backlinks and writing content to serve your customer will help improve your results.
Mobilegeddon, launched on April 21st 2015, highlighted the importance of mobile browsing by giving preference to mobile-optimised web pages.
If your site is not optimised for mobile, you will be penalised in the search rankings. The fact that mobile traffic is increasing all the time also means you should certainly have a mobile version of your site available by now—or even better, a responsive website designed to run well for any device.
Steps to take: Ensure your entire website is mobile-friendly, fast and provides a good user experience to your mobile visitors. You can use Google’s mobile-friendly test to see how your site performs on mobile. It will also give you some information on where you can improve.
Google RankBrain, launched on October 26th 2015, is an extension of the Hummingbird update discussed earlier. RankBrain is a machine learning system that is designed to help Google determine searcher’s intent by learning more about the reason for each searcher’s query and identifying related phrases and terms within your content.
Websites that provide a poor user experience and do not cover topics to a sufficient level of depth are at risk of being dropped in the search rankings.
Steps to take: Provide more in-depth content and discuss subjects that are both related and relevant to your initial target key phrases. Using tools like LSI graph can help you uncover related phrases that can help your website’s Google rankings.
Possum, launched on September 1st 2016, and the aim of the update was to vary the local search results by taking into account the searcher’s location; the closer you are to a business, the more likely it is to be displayed in the SERPs.
The results of different search queries were also affected by this update. Different results would be displayed for different variations of a keyword. For example, personal trainer New York would display a slightly different set of results to New York personal trainer.
Businesses and sites with a larger amount of local competition are most likely to be impacted by this update.
Steps to take: Adjust your content to target a larger number of keywords relating to your local business.
Fred, launched on March 8th 2017, targets poor-quality sites that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines. In particular, Fred was designed to flag sites that use thin-content for the sole purpose of generating revenue from low-value articles.
Affiliate-style blogs have the potential to be hit hard by the Fred update. If Google feels the content on these sites is only there to generate commissions, it will punish them by reducing their search rankings.
Steps to take: Make sure your website contains content that is genuinely useful to your visitors and answers their search queries. Generating revenue via adverts of affiliate links is fine if they actually serve your audience. Remove any adverts or links that are not directly related to the topic of your articles. Having a good number of pages that do not contain any revenue-generating content is also a good idea.
Medic/Your Money, Your Life (YMYL)
The recently coined “Medic” or “Your money, your life” (YMYL) update, launched on August 1st 2018, is Google’s latest big algorithm change. At the time of writing, the update is still only a few weeks old so there is likely to be some missing information about all of its potential effects.
What we do know is that it was launched by Google to reward sites that publish content that recognises user intent and provides a user experience based on this. The name “medical” comes from the fact that many medical and health sites seem to have been affected by the update. The “your money, your life” descriptor relates to websites producing content that aims to make money based on information relating to happiness, security, finances, or similar lifestyle decisions.
The reason for this is that Google wants to be certain that sites containing such valuable information are trustworthy and providing the correct answers.
Websites that could be largely affected by this update are those within these YMYL type niches that aren’t deemed authoritative enough by Google.
Steps to take: The only thing Google has come out so far and stated is that websites should be focused on building great content if they want to perform well in the search results. Taking steps to build more authority around a topic may also help your case. Some steps that may be helpful include creating a strong “about me” page and writing in-depth articles that are more likely to be shared by others within your industry.
How Long Does It Take to Reverse a Google Penalty?
Unfortunately, reversing a penalty from Google is usually not a fast process. The changes alone can take a long time to make depending on how many violations your site is making.
For a manual penalty, even once you have made all the necessary changes and submitted a reconsideration request via Google search console, it can take a number of months until you see your traffic and rankings back up to where they were.
After the request is received, a Google human reviewer will take another look at your website and decide whether it is still in violation of their search guidelines. Getting to this point usually takes 2 to 4 weeks.
You then need to wait for the search rankings themselves to update and allow your site to climb back to its previous position. There is no set timeline for how long this will take since there are so many factors at play and new websites competing for your keywords popping up every day.
Please note you don’t need to submit a reconsideration request for an algorithmic penalty. All you can do for these penalties is make the right revisions and wait for the algorithm to pick up on those changes.
While you wait for your rankings to improve, the focus should be on creating new content that adheres to Google’s guidelines and provides the best possible user experience for your readers.
5 Reasons Your Site Hasn’t Recovered from a Penalty
Sometimes, you can feel like you’ve all of the changes needed to bring your website back towards the top of Google’s SERPs but you aren’t seeing the results you would have hoped for. Provided you have waited at least a few months after improving your website, if you haven’t seen a rankings boost, the following are the likely reasons:
1. Google’s algorithms have not refreshed yet
Some of Google’s algorithms do not run on a constant basis. If your website has been hit with a penalty from an algorithm that needs to be refreshed, you will have to wait until this happens.
Unfortunately, these refreshes can be few and far between so all you can do is make sure your site is ready for when it comes around.
2. Your website still contains poor links
If you haven’t been thorough enough in your link removal process, there could still be some bad links that are holding your site back. A good piece of general advice is to perform a link audit on a consistent basis. This gives you a better chance of removing more low-quality links and the whole process will be shorter if it is done more often.
3. More than one issue is impacting your site
Although the majority of penalties come as a result of the backlinks pointing towards your site, there could be more issues at play. Performing a full site audit using tools like Google webmaster, Screaming Frog, and Ahrefs will give you an overall picture of the state of your website.
Sometimes, crawl errors, duplicate title tags, or incomplete meta descriptions could be damaging your rankings.
4. Poor content and low authority
We’ve already mentioned it numerous times in this article, but having high-quality content is a huge factor for Google and it seems to be becoming even more important as the machine learning algorithms get more sophisticated.
A website with great content will naturally build a strong following and backlink profile. All of this together goes a long way toward increasing the perception of authority in the eyes of Google. An authoritative, trustworthy website is always going to be prioritised over a site with fewer signals of authority surrounding it.
5. You still have a poor link profile
You may have removed or disavowed all of the low-quality links that were pointing to your website, but this may not be enough by itself to improve your search positions. If you don’t have any good-quality links towards your articles and pages, Google will still see your link profile as being relatively poor.
You need to focus on gaining some high-quality links. The best way to do this, and least likely to get you penalised, is simply to write excellent content that people want to share and link to. Paid advertising can be one way to jump start a post’s popularity, especially one social media networks where your audience is mores likely to share your valuable content.
You could also try writing a few guest posts for other blogs inside your niche. Inside the guest post, you will be able to place a link or two back to your own website. This is a tried and tested method used by numerous bloggers to improve their backlink profile.
However, there is an argument for using the time spent guest-posting to put extra content on your own blog instead. Our advice here would be to only bother with guest posting on blogs that are popular and have a large amount of traffic themselves.
How to Protect Yourself from Google Penalties
Using all the information above, you should now be able to create a website that is free of search guideline violations and is at minimal risk of an update penalty.
The general theme from Google is its desire for publishers to create content to match the intent of the users of their search engine. Once the intent of the user is recognised, you can then write your articles and pages to satisfy it.
To give you an example of user intent, let’s take the key phrase “Best running shoes”. The intent of this user is to find a website which outlines the best available running shoes on the market. Google can use its algorithms to understand this and is likely to show review type posts and lists that compare the most popular running shoes on the market.
If you create an article that covers absolutely everything somebody would need to know when searching for the best running shoes, you stand a good chance of ranking well in the SERPs.
Another thing that’s extremely clear to see from the previous updates is that Google does not appreciate those who try to trick their system into giving them higher search ranking spots.
Using tactics with the sole purpose of bettering your rank position puts you at risk of being flagged for spammy or unnatural practices. Individuals using these kinds of methods are often looking for ways to get higher ranking more quickly. While it may be successful in the beginning, it is not likely to last once Google realises what you are up to.
You should also properly familiarise yourself with the guidelines from Google. Knowing exactly what factors Google uses to rank a website has always been difficult as they don’t like to share them in detail. This makes sense because the more people know about a system, the easier it becomes to game that system.
Finally, you should try to make sure you keep on top of updates by being involved in SEO communities and reading up on the latest tips to keep your search engine rankings intact. Following social media profiles like Google Search Liaison on Twitter will help to keep you on top of the changes.
As you have probably grasped, it can be rather tricky to keep on top of all the updates Google is making to the way it runs its search engine. All of these factors add up to one big headache for website owners who rely on their Google traffic, and a penalty would be devastating.
In all honesty, the best way to protect yourself from a Google penalty is to put all your efforts into building a great website filled with super-useful articles and tools. The rest of the puzzle (backlinks, etc.) will all fall into place if your content is worthy of it. Google’s algorithms are getting smarter every single day and the best websites will be the ones that climb to the top and stay there for the long haul.
If you have been unfortunate enough to have received a penalty from Google, you can rest assured in the knowledge that they can be reversed but it will take a bit of time and sometimes a lot of effort.
As a business owner, this is probably time that you do not have and effort that could be spent elsewhere. This is exactly why we off our Google penalty removal service.
If your site has been struck by a penalty, our expert removal service can help to get your ranking and search traffic back on track.