What is a Google penalty, how does it happen and what does it mean for my website?

Say the word penalty and watch people start to shift uncomfortably, talk about a Google penalty and anyone involved within digital marketing, will be getting worried. So what is a Google penalty and why is it so bad?

In brief, a Google penalty can mean your website is automatically brought straight down the listings, which is not good for any business! So why will Google put a penalty against your site? It is usually for one of two reasons, either your site has tried to manipulate search listings, for example, key word stuffing or manipulative link-building, or your website has poor levels of satisfaction for those visiting your website.

One of the most frustrating and costly problems is it can take a long time to recover, it is highly recommended that expert advice is sought.

What action should you take?

There are a number of actions you can take to help your website to recover from a Google penalty. Not all penalties are actually penalties; your site could lose visibility due to an algorithmic change such as Google’s Penguin or Panda where unfortunately your site has dropped down the rankings, or it could be where you have had a manual action or penalty placed upon it. This could be because of manipulative techniques implement or black hat link-building implemented with the objective of increasing a site’s rankings within the SERPs.

Your actions are first going to be to determine what has caused the penalty. Your actions will be determined by whether your site has received an actual penalty or fallen foul of a recent update to the algorithm.

Here are some of the best tips to try to mitigate your Google penalty:

Avoid panicking, but most of all be honest to yourself!

The best thing to do is to remain calm and rational. Diving in the deep end and trying to make quick judgments and acting on impulse will usually get you nowhere. It is well worth being rational and taking an objective and thorough look at the data you have available through a variety of tools. The most likely reason for the penalty can usually be identified within a relatively short period of time.

Sometimes mistakes do happen. One of the best bits of advice that can be offered is to follow Google’s own rules. If it is a simple, honest mistake explain what has happened, be honest and disclose all the information that you can and Google will correct the error.

Work out if you have a manual penalty

Google’s Webmaster Tools can be a great resource for webmasters and digital marketers. A manual penalty will be showing under search traffic / manual actions section of Google’s Webmaster Tools. Anything showing under this heading is a result of a manual penalty being issued by the Webspam Team.

If there are no manual actions showing up, your lost visibility is probably due to your site falling foul to a recent algorithmic update. So you possibly won’t be the only site that has been affected. Big updates are usually widely published, and the algorithm name is usually an animal beginning with ‘P’, for example Penguin and Panda.

Check for algorithm changes

As discussed above, if there is no manual action, and this is a good thing, then it is algorithmic related and can be a lot easier to rectify. What your job will be is to figure out if it is an onsite or an offsite factor that does not comply with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

One of the references it is well worth making is to a site which can track all the Google updates. From this you can compare the peaks and troughs in traffic coming through and refer these to your organic results and the dates of the updates. From here you can see if there has been a trend related to the update.

Judge and analyse how big the problem is

If it is a slight drop in traffic, then is it due to an update? Or is it simply a case of your website is not as up-to-date as it could be. Be objective and try to look through the eyes of someone that has not seen your site before.

Search for key terms that you were ranked for

What were the terms that were ranking prominently for previously? Assess this against your current search term rankings. Are those terms still relevant, or do they seem to have not been affected? In some cases it could be a cause of seasonality decrease in search volume rather than a decrease in your websites visibility.

Review your SEO strategy

The first thing to do is have a look at Google’s quality guidelines. There are two main points that you should review:

1). Consider the content that you currently have incorporated throughout your domain. Is it in line with those quality guidelines and most importantly is it unique and user-focused? If not then here is your problem!
2). Have you or a digital marketing agency previously built a large number of low quality back-links from sources such as social bookmark sites, paid site-wide links or other manipulative and low quality sources? One other thing to note is Google seems to have a habit of making note of things you have done in the past. Often forgotten by people, Google penalties are often linked to legacy tactics.

When it comes to SEO, check, check and check again and ensure you are not only complying with Google’s quality guidelines but you are strictly adhering to them.

Give yourself an Audit

Have a look at your back-link profile, tidy it up if required by requesting low quality links pointing to your domain are removed from third party sites and also links that can’t be removed are disavowed. If it looks fine then it is time to move onto a more detailed audit. This can be a detailed and time consuming process, but is a necessity if you want to have the potential in the future to re-build your sites trust within Google.

It is worth mentioning that once your back-link profile is more sanitary it does not mean that your site’s rankings with miraculously be restored, the links built to the domain were designed to manipulatively and artificially inflate the prominence of the site within the SERPs. Once your site complies with Google’s guidelines the site will re-appear in what would be its natural position without the back-links being present. This can be a shock to some site owners as they expect their sites rankings to return to how they were before they felt the wrath of Google. This is not the case, but provides the site owner with more of a clean slate to build a more ethical campaign moving forward.

If the link profiles look satisfactory, your problem as a best guess is probably going to be related to onsite factors. Narrowing it down, it is probably going to be content, or the way you have set up your site.

In days gone by, Google used to rate SEO before link-building. The case currently stands that Google is reviewing your site’s structure, content and the user experience.

Sense check your content

The last point to consider is actually looking through your content, putting yourself in the user’s shoes. Do you want to read this? Is it relevant? Is there any duplication or is it fresh content written by an expert? Think it through, if there are any points that aren’t top notch then act on it and polish it up. Onsite content should not be solely for the search engines, but also a valuable resource for visitors to the site, helping them make an informed decision before looking to make a purchase or a enquiry through the site.


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