Google Penalty 101: Common Penalties & How to Avoid Them
Being hit with a Google penalty is every SEO professional’s worst nightmare. As Google’s search algorithm continues to evolve with the aim of offering users the best possible results, the requirements set by it will inevitably produce winners and losers.
Google’s guidelines are there for a good reason – to improve the overall quality of search results and to prevent those attempting to cheat the system from moving up the rankings. Whether it be intentionally or non-intentionally, websites that fail to live up to Google’s guidelines may be hit with a penalty that can spell disaster for their online success.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most common types of Google penalties, as well as offering some tips on how best to avoid them. Before we do so, it’s important to first say a word on what qualifies as a penalty in the first place.
What are Google Penalties?
Google penalties refer to the negative impact to a website’s search ranking performance that occurs as a result of its failure to meet Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
When talking about Google penalties, it’s important to note that the term ‘penalty’ itself is subject to some debate. Generally speaking, actions on behalf of Google may negatively impact a website’s search rankings in two distinct ways – as a result of algorithm updates or a manual review. In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at each of them in turn.
Algorithm Updates & Manual Actions
With Google updating its search algorithm more than 500 times each year, page rankings are bound to vary from time to time.
Whilst many of these updates do not have a major impact on websites’ search performance, Google does release a set of core algorithm updates annually, many of which have more far-reaching effects on page rankings. Examples of important updates that have been implemented in recent years include Google Panda, Google Penguin, Google Hummingbird, Google Pigeon and the Google Mobile Friendly Update.
Whilst changes in Google’s algorithm can most definitely have a negative impact on your rankings, we needn’t necessarily describe these changes as ‘penalties’. Algorithm changes are part of Google’s broader mission to continually make improvements to the quality of its search results. Websites that have taken a hit as a result of an algorithm change needn’t necessarily have done anything wrong. For this reason, a Google algorithm ‘penalty’ likely should not be described as such in the strictest sense of the word.
Manual actions on the other hand see more direct involvement from Google in that they are taken by human reviewers. In most cases, manual actions are taken when a website attempts to manipulate the search index using illicit tactics. For this reason, manual actions may be considered much closer to what many SEO professionals describe as ‘penalties’.
At present, Google categorises several different types of manual action that range from thin content to pure spam. Here are some of the most common manual actions websites might be faced with.
You may have heard that achieving high rankings is all about delivering useful content, and it’s true that content quality is a significant ranking factor for Google. As a result, thin content that provides no real value to the user may also be penalised.
The question as to what exactly defines thin content is tough to answer. More often than not, thin content is often of low quality, offering little benefit to the website user. It may be stuffed with keywords, copied from elsewhere or written solely for the sake of it. Whatever the reason, publishing low-quality content may well do more harm than good.
The term ‘cloaking’ refers to the process of displaying users a different webpage than the one analysed by Google bots. Much like the other tactics we’ll discuss later on, cloaking is considered to be part of black hat SEO – the umbrella term for SEO practices that violate search engine guidelines.
A website may engage in cloaking in a number of different ways. They may for example present search engines with a page that includes specific keywords whilst displaying completely different content to human web users. The goal here is to trick search engine spiders into ranking a page on the basis of different content than that which is being shown to users themselves.
Websites that make use of cloaking risk being subjected to a manual action by Google, which could involve heavy penalties and even complete removal from the search rankings. Ouch.
Link building is a common tactic used by SEO professionals to boost their website’s ranking potential. Google treats valuable and authentic links as a type of referral, and the number of quality backlinks is a factor used by Google to determine page rankings. Inversely, web pages that have a significant number of unnatural, low-quality backlinks may be subject to Google’s unnatural links penalty.
Backlinks may be considered unnatural for a variety of reasons. They may be coming from unrelated and unreputable websites, or you may be making use of excessive reciprocal linking. When it comes to link building, quality should be the guiding principle for both inbound and outbound links.
Keyword Stuffing or Hidden Text
Keyword stuffing is one of the most widely denounced practices in the world of SEO. Gone are the days when stuffing keywords served any kind of purpose in boosting your rankings. Instead, making use of keywords in an unnatural way is now likely to incur a Google keyword penalty.
The damaging potential of keyword stuffing isn’t just limited to the most obvious examples (such as including your target keywords over and over again in the page copy). Google is also smart enough to pick up on similar techniques even when someone attempts to hide them carefully.
Well-known examples of this include using a font size of 0 or selecting a text colour that is the same as the page background. All of these techniques are considered illicit, and you should make sure to avoid them at all costs.
Redirecting the Sneaky Way
Making use of sneaky redirects is another well-known route towards penalisation. Many forms of redirect are entirely harmless, but Google penalties exist to punish websites who are intentionally using redirects in a way that is similar to cloaking.
In many cases, this will involve redirecting users to a different page to the one being shown to search engines. It could also involve redirecting users to a page that is different to the one they intended to navigate towards. Sneaky redirects may attract a penalty regardless of whether they relate to desktop users or mobile users, so make sure to steer clear of them.
Google does not look kindly on spammy techniques of any kind, but pure spam leaves little room for interpretation. Spammy content of this kind truly is in a league of its own when it comes to misleading both users and search engines, so it’s no surprise that Google actively penalises spam-ridden websites.
Spam may take on many forms. It may concern automatically generated, badly written, intentionally repetitive or entirely duplicated content. Whatever the case, websites with spammy content can fully expect to receive a pretty hefty manual action from Google.
Avoiding Google Penalties
Unsurprisingly, one of the most effective ways of avoiding getting penalised by Google is to steer clear of black hat SEO techniques of all kinds. Making use of any of these illicit practices is likely to draw Google’s attention at some point or another, so don’t run the risk.
There may be some cases where it isn’t entirely clear whether a certain technique is in line with Google guidelines. Luckily, Google themselves advise you to take a step back and consider whether you would feel confident justifying your strategy to one of their employees or a fellow competitor. If the answer is no, the odds are you’re in questionable territory.
Keeping an eye on the latest algorithm updates can also help you monitor their potential effect on your web page rankings. Platforms such as the Search Engine Journal offer valuable resources to help you do so, providing you with the information needed to stay ahead of the curve.
Monitoring Penalties with Google Search Console
You can determine whether or not your website has been subjected to a penalty by using Google’s webmaster service Google Search Console. If your website has been penalised manually, you will find a notification of any actions taken in your inbox. The notification will include the reason for your penalty as well as offering advice on how to address the problem.
Once you’ve resolved any outstanding issues, you can ask Google to review the changes by clicking on the “Request a Review” button in Google Search Console. If you’ve made the required changes and are able to provide documentation to prove it, it shouldn’t take too long for the penalty to be removed.
Identifying ‘penalties’ that arise as a result of algorithmic updates is more difficult, and this is where keeping up to date with algorithm changes can make all the difference. Any significant changes you see occurring in your search performance should be checked against any potential algorithmic changes happening around that time. The upside of addressing an algorithmic ‘penalty’ is that there is no need to request a review once you’ve taken the necessary action.
The kind of action you take to resolve the problem is largely dependent on the reason for the penalty. If you’ve been penalised for thin content, you will have to beef up your content accordingly. If unnatural links are the root of the problem, you will have to carefully review and improve the quality of your link building strategy. Whatever the case may be, tools such as Google Search Console are crucial to maintaining a more search engine-friendly website.
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