Google’s on an uncompromising mission. It wants to give its users access to accurate information, unique content and the finest writers. It continually tweaks and improves its algorithms so that the best of the web gets the exposure it deserves.
Unfortunately, there’s a flipside: a penalty. That’s the consequence of Google taking issue with something on your site. Sometimes a penalty is well deserved, but even if you know you’re in the wrong, you probably want to do something about it.
What Is a Google Penalty?
Google has been changing its ranking algorithms since December 2000. That’s when it released its toolbar extension. At the time, the toolbar update represented a sea change that would create the SEO industry as we know it. In fact, it was the first time PageRank was published in a meaningful or usable form.
Over the next decade-and-a-bit, Google continued to refine the quality of its search results. Over time, it begins to eliminate poor quality content and elevate the good stuff to the top of the SERPs. That’s where penalties – come in.
The Penguin update was rolled out in 2012. It hit more than 1 in 10 search results overnight, wiped some sites out of search entirely, pushed poor quality content off the map and forced optimizers to think much more carefully about their content strategy. Since then, SEO professionals have been very tuned in to Google’s plans, fearing the next update in case it results in a penalty for a site they’re working on.
Recognizing a Penalty
Penalties can be automatic or manual. With manual penalties, you’ll probably be told, but you may not always know you’ve been targeted if the cause is algorithmic. Those penalties may take even the most experienced SEO professionals by surprise.
For algorithmic penalties, here are some sure-fire clues.
- Your website is not ranking well for your brand name any more. That’s a dead giveaway. Even if your site doesn’t rank for much else, it should at least do well on that one keyword.
- Any page one positions you had are slipping back to page two or three without any action on your part.
- PageRank for your site has inexplicably dropped from a respectable two or three to a big fat zero (or a measly PR of one).
- The entire website has been removed from Google’s cached search results overnight.
- Running a site search – site:yourdomain.com keyword – yields no results.
- Your listing – when you eventually find it in Google – is for a page on your site other than the home page.
If you see one or more of these factors, you can be pretty sure that a penalty has affected your site.
Why Has Google Penalized My Site?
Google is continually tweaking and revising the way it indexes content.
While it does publish clues about its algorithm updates, it rarely comes clean about all of its reasons for changes. Fixing things can be tough.
To get you off on the right track, here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: 50 common reasons for Google taking issue with your site. While we’re not saying we know the definite reasons for a penalty, we do know that these factors all contribute.
- Buying links. Some swear it doesn’t happen, but actual evidence is mixed. Buying links could certainly be seen as an attempt to manipulate PageRank, and therein lies the controversy. If you’ve been buying bad links (and lots of them), your actions could have caught up with you.
- Excessive reciprocal links. Swapping links was once an innocent marketing tactic until it started to be abused. If you’ve been exchanging lots of links with clients, it could be seen as a manipulation attempt.
- Duplicate content. Hopefully this one’s obvious: any duplicate content on your site makes it less useful in Google’s view, and that could result in a penalty. Make sure your content is unique and well-written; use tools like Copyscape and CopyGator too
- Overusing H1 tags. Correctly structuring content helps with SEO. The H1 tag helps Google to understand what the page is about. Excessive H1 tags could be seen as an attempt to pump Google’s listing with keywords.
- Internal 404s. Google wants to know that you tend to your content and weed out any errors and problems. If you’re delivering 404s inside your own website, it’s a sure fire signal that your users aren’t getting the information they ask for.
- Links from sites in another language. This one seems unfair, right? You’ve got a legitimate link from a client in another country, yet it’s technically counted against you. Well, Google’s reasoning is sound: users generally tend to prefer one language, so linking to sites in another language isn’t that useful for them.
- Keyword stuffed content. There are all kinds of weird and wonderful ‘rules’ about keyword density in content. The truth is that none of these rules are proven, and a very high keyword density is a flag for poorly written content. If Google detects a weirdly high number of keywords in a page, it may penalize you – rightly or wrongly.
- Footer links. Some web designers use footer links as a navigational aid; some try to manipulate PageRank by using the footer as a place to pass link juice unnaturally. There’s a short discussion about this on Moz.
- Missing sitemap data. Google uses the XML sitemap to parse your site’s structure and learn how it’s put together. Make sure your XML sitemap is available and up-to-date, and then submit it in your Webmaster Tools account.
- Hidden links. All of the links on your site should be visible and useful to users. Anything that’s hidden is considered suspicious. Never make a link the same color as the background of a page or button, even if you have an innocent reason.
- Broken external links. If you don’t keep links up-to-date, Google will assume you don’t care about the user experience and are happy to pack visitors off to various 404 error pages. Check links periodically and pull the duff ones.
- Scraped content. Sometimes website managers pull content from other sites in order to bulk our their own pages. Often, this is done with good intentions, and it may be an innocent error. But Google sees this as pointless duplication. Replace it with your own original content instead.
- Hidden content. Less ethical optimization tactics include disguising text on a page to manipulate the theme or keyword weighting. It goes without saying that this is a big no-no.
- Anchor text overuse. Once upon a time, SEO experts worked on linking certain keywords in order to reinforce their authority. Since the 2012 Penguin update, the over-use of anchor text linking is strongly discouraged. Switch out your forced, unnatural keyword links for honest links phrased in real English.
- Neglecting hreflang. Neglecting what now? ‘Hreflang’ is designed to notify Google that you have intentionally published duplicate content for different languages or localities. The jury’s out as to whether it really helps, but using it can’t hurt in the meantime.
- Website timing out or down. When a website goes down, everyone gets upset: the visitor, the webmaster and the search engine. If Google can’t find your site, it would rather de-index it rather than keep sending visitors to a dead end.
- Keyword domains. While domain names aren’t that risky in themselves, domain names with keywords in might be. Consider the anchor text linking issue: if we repeatedly link to that domain, Google might see that as anchor text manipulation. If you do use an exact match domain, make sure it has plenty of great content on it, otherwise Google will assume you’re trying to fool people into clicking.
- Rented links. Some experts still believe rented links are valid and useful for SEO. They pay for them on a monthly basis and change them around occasionally. However, we’d consider them paid links, and so would most of these experts on Quora.
- Using blog networks. As far as Google is concerned, any kind of network is a sign of potential SERP manipulation. Most blog networks have now shut down or given users the chance to delete all of these incoming links. You should too.
- Affiliate links all over the place. Google isn’t necessarily opposed to affiliate websites, but a high number of affiliate links is a red flag that the content may not be up to scratch. Although it’s possible to mask affiliate links with redirects, Google is wise to this tactic, so don’t rely on it.
- Site-wide links. We all need to link pages together, but Google is constantly scanning those links for unnatural patterns. A classic example is a web developer credit in the footer of a page. Don’t just nofollow: remove them entirely.
- Overusing meta keywords. Meta keywords have been a topic for debate for some time. They are way too easy to manipulate. Make sure you use no more than five per page.
- Slow speeds. If your site’s slow to load, your users will get frustrated. Many, many factors affect hosting speeds, so this is quite a tricky problem to assess and troubleshoot. Use a caching plugin or a CDN right away. You could also move your site to a data center closer to your most frequent visitors: that’s a little more involved.
- Spun content. Spinning is content theft. It could land you in hot water if the Google penalty doesn’t catch up with you first. Bought some super-cheap articles? Sometimes content is spun by the ‘writer’, so you may not even know about it. If the price was too good to be true, that’s a sign you may have bought spun articles.
- Comment spam. Most commenting systems have an automated spam detection system, but some comments still make it through. Keep a close eye on the comments you’re getting. Also, don’t let spam build up; if you don’t have time to moderate it, switch commenting off entirely.
- Black hat SEO advice. If you publish information about manipulating SERPs using black hat methods, expect to be penalized. Matt Cutts hinted at this in a video blog.
- Hacked content. If your site has been hacked, Google will quickly remove it from SERPs. Act quickly to contain hacking attempts and restore sites from backup if the worst does happen.
- Speedy link building. It’s natural to want your new site to rank quickly. Don’t overdo it. Lots of similar links pointing to the same place is a sign of automation. Don’t artificially bump your link velocity: make gradual changes over time.
- Spam reports. Google has published an online form for spam site reporting. Your site might have been submitted as a potential source of spam, genuinely or maliciously.
- Forum linking. We’ve all used forums awash with signature links. Sometimes there are so many, it can be hard to locate the actual posts. If you add a forum link, use good, natural linking techniques and consider making it a nofollow too.
- Hiding your sponsors. Having a sponsor is no bad thing. Plenty of sites wouldn’t exist without them. Don’t try to hide your sponsors, but follow the rules: nofollow sponsor links and make sure Google’s news bot doesn’t crawl pages where those links can be found.
- Robots.txt flaws. The robots.txt file should be used to tell search engines how to deal with your site. While there are legitimate reasons for excluding pages from robots.txt, do it sparingly: excessive blocking could be the cause of your penalty.
- Links to suspicious sites. Never associate yourself with a website that is doing something ethically or legally dubious. Hacking, porn and malware-ridden sites should be avoided. Also, try to remove links to other sites that have been penalized in the past, assuming you know about it.
- Landing pages. Businesses sometimes try to use multiple landing pages in order to improve their position in SERPs. Some companies also try to improve their position by creating lots of one-page websites optimized for a single keyword, then funneling users through to another site. Google considers this kind of thing to be bad practice.
- Over-optimization. Google doesn’t like to see too much of a good thing. An over-optimization penalty usually means you’ve gone a step too far in your bid to obsessively out-SEO everyone else in your industry. Cool it and publish some natural content before your rank suffers.
- Advertorials. The controversy around advertorial content was perhaps the most well-known of the pre-Penguin 2 debates. An advertorial is basically a page of content riddled with paid links, and often these pages were being used for aggressive manipulation of search results. The most famous example was Interflora: read about its penalty here.
- Too many outbound links. When linking to other websites, keep it natural. A high quantity of links is a sign that you’re swapping links with people for the sake of mutual SEO benefit.
- Redirection. If you’ve received a penalty on your site, using a 301 redirect could transfer the penalty to a new location. What’s more, the penalty could linger if you remove the redirect later. To be safe, don’t do it.
- Error codes. Aside from the obvious 404 error, there are a range of others that Google really hates to see. 302 (temporarily moved) isn’t ideal; if you really must redirect something, use 301. Also, if you see any 500 errors, deal with the root cause as soon as you can. Find invisible errors with this WebConfs HTTP Header Check tool.
- Duplicate metadata. Some blogging tools and CMS platforms make it all too easy to create duplicate metadata by accident. While metadata isn’t a cause for a penalty on its own, it can be a sign of a duplicate content issue on your site. In any case, it’s undesirable; try to deal with it.
- Malicious backlinks. Your site NEVER deserves this penalty – but it is something you should know about. If you’re really unlucky, an unethical competitor may try to shove your site down the SERPs by getting it penalized. The most common cause is a malicious backlink campaign.
- Targeted keywords. Google is waging war against some of the keywords most frequently appearing in spam sites. ‘Payday loans’ is a good example of a keyword that has already been targeted, although some people feel that it could do more. If you legitimately operate in an industry that’s rife with spam, expect to be caught in the crossfire.
- Smuggled links. Don’t be sneaky and put links into script files. Google is much better at analyzing scripts and picking out weird links that shouldn’t be there.
- Poor mobile websites. Google can normally detect a valid link between your mobile site and your website. If it’s poorly designed, it may not. Make sure the mobile site is sent to a device where the user agent is set to mobile. Matt Cutts also suggests using a separate subdomain.
- Few outbound links. Google wants to see content that references other content of a similar standard. If you don’t share the love, it might look like an attempt to attract traffic unnaturally.
- Domain has a bad rep. You may have innocently purchased a domain with a bad history, and that could cause you problems when you try to build a new site around it. Unfortunately this is often a dead end street; you may be best cutting your losses and buying another domain rather than throwing more money at the problem.
- Content theft. Even if you don’t steal content, someone else could steal yours. This is troublesome, since getting the content removed could involve filing multiple DMCA takedown notices or pursuing sites in court. If you’re penalized for this, try asking Google to remove the stolen content.
- Prominent ads. Advertising is OK when treated as a secondary concern. Ads should never dominate the page content or play second fiddle to an article or blog.
- Using a content farm. Over the two years since Panda was phased in, it has been considered poor form to buy content from a ‘farm’ (defined as “sites with shallow or low-quality content”). If your content is poorly researched, light on detail or exists mainly to fill up the page, employ a professional rewrite it.
- Beware of quick fixes. Don’t employ anyone that claims to have a magical, foolproof technique that will help to get your site to the top of the SERPs. The only way to rank well is to put in the groundwork over time.
How to Deal With a Penalty
Figured out the cause for your penalty? You’re halfway to fixing it – if it’s fixable at all.
Every problem will require a slightly different solution, but here are some things you can try.
- Don’t panic. Even massive websites suffer from penalties.
- Disavow troublesome links. Ask Google not to count troublesome links that are harming your website. Here’s the link to the disavow tool, and here’s Matt Cutts’ advice on the subject.
- Get some links removed. While disavow is good, it’s not perfect. Put in some legwork and try to get some of the links taken down.
- Request reconsideration if your penalty was manual.
- Wait it out. Sometimes it takes Google a while to act on your changes and disavow requests, and then it could take a while for it to re-crawl your site.
In a few cases, it’s better to abandon a site rather than fight a Google penalty: if your domain has been tarnished, there’s little you can do. But most penalties can be fixed with a little effort, some hard work and an ethical approach to rebuilding your site.