In the digital marketing world, a notification that your website has been penalized by Google is one of the worst pieces of news you can get. Given the search engine’s dominance in the marketplace, it might be considered akin to a summons from the emperor.
If you’ve got a sinking feeling in your stomach and a deepening sense of dread, we can’t say we blame you. But there are ways to cope—and more importantly, ways to monitor if you’ve actually been penalized by Google.
Types of Google penalties
First, you should understand that there are 2 types of penalties.
The first is a manual penalty, which is straightforward notification from Google that you’ve been penalized. This typically happens through Search Console, the venue where Google “talks” to webmasters. This is the preferred way of getting penalized, meaning it’s less serious. You know what’s happening, why it happened, and after you fix the problem, you can submit a reconsideration request.
Pro tip: If you’re a small business that doesn’t have a full-time developer on-staff, we recommend assigning a team member to check Search Console at least once a month. Search Console contains a host of information that will help or hurt your marketing efforts, including the tools to prevent the penalty from happening in the first place.
The second type of penalty is more ominous—the algorithmic penalty. The algorithmic penalty occurs when Google’s “spiders” have basically turned on you without any notification or explanation. In fact, there’s no way to know with 100 percent certainty that you’ve been penalized in this way.
But there are telltale signs that can you give a pretty good idea that you’ve been hit with a dreaded penalty.
Common signs of a Google penalty
#1: Sudden loss of organic search traffic
Perhaps that steady flow of monthly traffic that was coming through the organic search channel on Google Analytics is suddenly dying on the vine. Before jumping to any conclusions about being blacklisted, make sure you run through some alternate scenarios.
- Did your keywords decline in popularity? If your organic search results follow the 80/20 principle, then you’ve got a small number of pages contributing to a big chunk of the results. Run an analysis of keyword traffic to see if your marketplace simply shrunk.
- Is your most popular content seasonal? Maybe you’re in a business where there’s a natural ebb and flow to traffic, and now is just a slow time. Many websites suffer from this problem to some degree and individual industries will have their own unique down time. For instance, if you run an air conditioning business, you can expect a traffic slowdown in the winter.
If these don’t explain your loss of search traffic, then research if a Google algorithm update was released around the time of the change in your traffic patterns. If an update coincides with your traffic woes, it’s possible you might have run afoul of changing best practices and need to optimize your site once more.
#2: Sudden loss in rankings
In a chicken versus egg scenario, penalized sites often lose traffic which results in a drop in rankings—or a drop in rankings leads to less search traffic. Regardless of which comes first, a loss of either traffic or rankings will undoubtedly affect the other sooner or later.
If you suspect you’ve been penalized, use tools like SEMRush or other SEO ranking checkers to compare how your rankings have trended over time. If you see a big drop, you may have been hit with a penalty.
#3: Notification of a “manual action” (in Search Console)
As we mentioned above, a manual penalty (or “action”) is the less serious of the 2 types of Google penalties. Nevertheless, it’s important to take quick and appropriate action if you’re served a manual penalty in order to restore your website’s adherence to Google’s best practices.
Here are some examples of different types of manual actions Google imposes on websites and what you can do to correct them:
- Unnatural links to/from your site. Maybe you took the advice of a black-hat SEO consultant and bought a package of links to your site, thinking they would improve your domain authority and search position. If so, you should fire the consultant and disavow the links immediately. You can check this and take remedial action within Search Console. A similar problem might be a high number of strange links on your site, presumably done for the sake of a misguided link exchange program. Get rid of them immediately.
If you receive this manual action, it means Google has recognized unnatural inbound or outbound linking practices on your site and believes that either A) they are out of your control and therefore Google won’t penalize your site’s overall rankings, or B) you have been engaged in deceptive link schemes or manipulative link practices and therefore your site’s overall rankings will be affected. Link detox may be able to get this penalty lifted from your site sooner, though it will likely be a long and painful process.
- Hacked site. This notification means Google has detected a malicious code on your site and applied a manual action until the security issue is resolved. Remove all malware and malicious code as soon as possible.
- Thin content. Perhaps at one time your organic search strategy was built around mass-producing short-form content on as many different topics as possible. You meant well and maybe it produced some short-term results. But over time, as more long-form content appeared on other sites, it displaced your content and resulted in the Google spiders seeing too much low-value content on your website.
Unfortunately, now Google has decided that your site content provides little value to your users. They may believe your content is automatically generated, overly promotional or was obtained from other low-quality sources (i.e. scraped content). Doorway pages are also viewed as low quality by Google. Replace all low quality content with content that is new, valuable and unique.
Pro tip: Learn how to optimize your content based on Google’s own editorial guidelines.
- Pure spam. Black hat practices such as scraped content, automated gibberish, cloaking, and other black hat practices are considered spammy and may be slapped with a manual penalty. To recover from this action, you’ll need to scrub any pages and links that are considered spammy by Google.
- User-generated spam. A manual penalty for user-generated spam is caused by the behavior of visitors and members of your site via spammy or offensive blog comments, forum posts or profiles. Try to eliminate all spammers and computer-generated profiles from your user-generated content. This may be a long and difficult process, depending on the scope of your website, but necessary.
- Cloaking and sneaky redirects. Cloaking is when your site contains content that is shown to Google, but not to visitors. Sneaky redirects are when you have pages that are indexed by Google, but you automatically redirect users to another page they wouldn’t have visited normally. Both cloaking and sneaky redirects can be a result of hacking. Whatever the cause, you’ll need to remove the hidden content and sneaky redirects immediately.
- Keyword stuffing. If Google discovers an overuse of keywords aimed at optimizing a website for a particular keyword/phrase or group of keywords, they consider it spam and will issue a manual action. Again, this can happen due to hacking. You’ll need to find and remove instances of keyword stuffing, then ask Google for reconsideration.
- Spammy freehosts. Using a free hosting service isn’t a problem per se. But it’s common for these services to accumulate a lot of spam-loaded websites. When that happens, you may suffer by association. Google can usually tell the difference between your site and the host, but not always.
- Spammy structured markup. The purpose of a structured markup is to help make your site stand out in search and be more readable to Google spiders. Tampering with your structured site markup too much by using a markup on pages that don’t match your content will earn you a manual penalty. The only solution is to remove any instances of misused structured markup.
#4: Not showing up in Google search
Is your site not showing up in Google search results at all?
You can do a quick test to see if your site has been indexed by typing your exact domain name or URL with no other words (for example: www.seo-e.com) into Google search.
If your site is new, then perhaps Google just hasn’t had time to index it yet. But if it’s not new, then you’re likely dealing with a serious penalty and your site may have been temporarily or permanently removed from Google. A “deindex” or “ban” is the most severe action Google can take to penalize a site.
How to avoid a Google penalty (best practices)
When it comes to a Google penalty, it’s best to avoid incurring one in the first place. We know that some of the problems listed above might be beyond your control. We also know that Google’s constant changes in their algorithm—and the commentary they generate from SEO professionals—can leave you befuddled.
Keep things simple by focusing on these timeless principles of quality:
- Pay for a legitimate hosting service.
- Produce quality, original content that addresses the pain points of your audience.
- Use keyword research to your advantage, but insert the keywords sparingly and not in a way that upsets the grammatical flow of the page.
- Only add links that service as a valuable source for your visitors.
- Build your website for real people, NOT a search engine. Paradoxically, the search engines will respect you more.
In addition to looking at the signs we’ve listed above, there are a number of online tools (many free) that you can use to check if your site has been penalized. Start by installing Search Console for your site (if you haven’t already) and check for notifications or manual actions, then make the necessary adjustments. Third-party sites like ismywebsitepenalized.com will also tell you if your site is penalized, not indexed yet or banned altogether.Do you think you might have been penalized? Get a free site audit from SEO Advantage and we’ll find out for you, then give you advice on the best steps to take to fix your site.