- What is a Google penalty?
- What are the common causes of Google penalties?
- How to recover from manual Google penalties
- Google Penalty FAQs
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a complicated discipline, and even following the best practices won’t necessarily keep your site outside of Google’s firing line.
If you’ve noticed a sudden dip in website traffic or found you’ve dropped several positions in search results, your website may have fallen victim to a Google penalty.
Avoid any long-lasting implications by addressing the penalty and resolving the issue as quickly as possible. Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to appeal and rectify Google penalties; however, you need to identify the cause of the penalty before you can take action.
We’re going to outline the two types of Google penalties and the steps you can take to fix common SEO issues and restore your site’s rankings.
What Is a Google Penalty?
Google dishes out penalties to websites that violate their Webmaster Guidelines. There are two main types of Google penalties:
- Algorithmic Penalties: Issued as a result of an algorithm update, e.g. Google Panda
- Manual Penalties: Issued by human auditors working for Google to maintain quality standards
High-profile updates such as Google Panda and Google Penguin are algorithms and not penalties, meaning they assign a rank or status to a page based on a set of rules or factors.
However, the Google Panda update, for example, was designed to penalise websites that publish poor or thin content and reward sites that produce high-quality content in line with their Webmaster Guidelines.
Google introduced penalties to prevent black-hat SEO tactics, which refers to using manipulative techniques to improve a website’s ranking performance. However, while algorithm updates have successfully reduced unethical practices, sometimes they wrongly penalise sites that may have made an honest mistake or done nothing wrong at all.
If this has happened to you – don’t panic! As it’s an error on Google’s end, the search engine will fix it.
Conversely, some websites that fall short of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines still manage to slip past the algorithms.
Nonetheless, understanding the difference between an algorithm and a manual penalty is vital for developing a recovery strategy. Failure to learn how to deal with a manual penalty versus an algorithmic event could result in a devastating loss of organic traffic and cause your website to drop further down SERPs.
Common Causes of Google Penalties
While there are several ways to incur a Google penalty, these are the most common triggers:
- bad backlink profile
- keyword stuffing
- hidden links
- irrelevant keywords
- sneaky redirects
- structured data issues
Penalties carry different levels of severity depending on the violation. One of the most severe penalties Google issues is the domain penalty, which impacts the entire website – pages, posts, products, images and categories.
How to Determine Whether You’ve Received a Manual or Algorithmic Penalty
When dealing with Google penalties, the easiest way to determine the difference between a manual and algorithmic penalty is whether there is a need to communicate directly with Google.
When a manual penalty is imposed, you will receive an action report via Google Search Console (GSC). You can always check whether you’ve received a manual penalty by going to the Manual Actions tab in the Security & Manual Actions element in the toolbar. If there is a green checkmark reading “No issue detected”, you’re in the clear.
If you’ve taken action and fixed the issue, you must explain the origins of the problem and the steps you took to resolve it by placing a “Reconsideration Request” in GSC.
On the other hand, there’s no need to file a “Reconsideration Request” if an algorithmic penalty has hit your site. However, as Google won’t notify you directly, you’ll need to check your ranking performance.
You can do this by using the Website Penalty Indicator or logging into your Google Analytics (GA) dashboard and comparing traffic levels with any known Google algorithm updates.
Suppose your traffic dipped when Google launched an algorithm update; it’s likely that the change has impacted your website. To investigate the matter further, go to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium in GA and analyse your traffic levels for any significant changes over the last 12 months.
However, a drop in traffic doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been hit by an algorithmic penalty. For example, some businesses receive periodic fluctuations in traffic due to seasonality, making significant gains during peak season and losses in off-peak seasons.
Increased competition can also affect your search performance. That said, if you think you’ve been hit by a Google penalty, perform a full site and content audit to help you uncover any potential errors.
When performing an audit, focus on the following:
- Server hosting platforms
- Indexing issues
- Quality and optimisation of content, metadata, and keywords
- Backlink quality
Even if you’re confident that your website is performing as it should, SEO audits should be part of your regular marketing strategy. Algorithm changes or manual errors can impact even innocent marketers.
With that being said, let’s look at the steps you can take to recover from a Google penalty.
How to Recover From Various Types of Google Penalties
Here are some valuable tips you can follow to restore your rankings and recover from some of the most common causes of Google penalties.
Cloaking and/or Sneaky Redirects
According to Google, cloaking is presenting different pages or URLs to users than that shown to Google. Sneaky redirects are similar in that they redirect users to a different URL than they initially requested or clicked through in Google search.
Both are a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and could cause a portion of your site or the whole website to be removed from the index. Are you having trouble getting some pages indexed? We’ve written a handy guide on how to get your pages ranking faster.
How to Resolve Cloaking and/or Sneaky Redirects
Go into Google Search Console and fetch pages from the affected portion of your site. Then, compare your content with that shown by Google and fix any variations between the two so they display the same.
Once you’ve removed any “sneaky” redirects, submit a reconsideration request to Google with details of your actions.
As previously mentioned, cloaking refers to the practice of serving different content to that initially requested by the user.
When it comes to images, Google would perceive the following to be a violation of its Webmaster Guidelines:
- Serving images that are masked or hidden by another image
- Serving images that are entirely different from the expected image
- Using an image to redirect users to another URL
How to Resolve Cloaked Images
Remove any redirects and make sure that the image showing in Google is the same image displayed on your website. Check that the image is also displaying correctly when a user visits your site via mobile.
After taking the appropriate action, submit a ticket to Google for reconsideration.
Keyword stuffing is the practice of overloading content with the same target term and manipulating search in hopes of ranking higher for relevant queries in SERPs.
While it is tempting to cheat the system, we strongly advise against this as the consequences could be far more severe.
It is considered a black hat SEO tactic by Google and could result in your web pages being demoted in rankings or removed from the search index altogether.
How to Resolve Keyword Stuffing
Google’s Webmaster Guidelines states that keywords should be used appropriately and within context.
To fix the issue, first, go to GSC > Crawl > Fetch as Google and review the web pages that Google has flagged for using keyword stuffing.
Remove words or phrases that have been repeated excessively and sound unnatural. Restyle paragraphs without context and focus on creating information-rich content that uses the target term in all the right places.
It would help if you also looked for hidden text using CSS styling or positioning, ALT text containing strings of repeated terms and any other instances of keyword stuffing on the page, including title tags.
Once you’re happy with the changes you’ve made, submit a reconsideration request to Google.
Do you know what keywords you’re looking to include on your website? Check out our free keyword ranking reports that help you track your position changes on Google every week.
In the past, web administrators would use freehost microsite spam to build effective links and point those back to their primary site.
However, hosting platforms that advertise themselves as “free” are red flags. There’s no such thing as “free hosting”, and Google is clamping down on these hosting services by threatening to take manual action related to spam.
While you might be saving upfront in hosting fees, all that could be worth nought if your website becomes a source of malware and spam.
How to Resolve Spammy Hosting
Simply put, you need to migrate your website to a well-known web hosting provider.
Most people use Hostinger, which has fast page loading times and several shared hosting plans. However, there are other good hosting providers out there if you take a little time to research.
Once you’ve migrated your site to a reliable hosting provider, submit a reconsideration request to Google.
Sneaky Mobile Redirects
Sneaky mobile redirects are crafty redirects that occur on mobile, which is also a direct violation of Google Webmaster Guidelines.
If discovered by Google’s human auditors, they may remove all flagged URLs from the index. While mobile versions of websites tend to display content differently from the desktop alternative, it should not send users to an unrelated page than the one they initially requested.
Most web administrators create responsive websites that allow the website to adapt to smaller screens, which is legitimate.
Be aware that sometimes mobile versions of websites redirect users to completely different URLs without the web administrator knowing, especially if a code, script or element has been added that creates a redirection rule for users visiting via their mobile devices. It’s best to remember to focus on promoting the best user experience possible.
How to Resolve Sneaky Mobile Redirects
There are several ways to fix a sneaky redirect. First, if you have not intentionally created a sneaky mobile redirect, go to GSC and check the Security Issues report to see if your site’s been hacked.
If you haven’t been hacked, investigate your website’s third-party scripts and elements to determine whether they are causing the issue. Should that be the case, follow these two steps to resolve the issue:
- Remove third-party scripts or elements you have no control over or debug the issue and reinstall if it is a crucial script
- Test whether the redirection has stopped occurring on mobile or a device emulator
- “Request A Review” of the issue in GSC, explaining how the error occurred and steps taken to resolve the matter
If you’ve knowingly created a crafty mobile redirect, correct the issue to ensure you are compliant with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Then, after testing your site on mobile, submit a “Reconsideration Request”, giving an honest account of how the issue occurred.
Providing you have fixed the issue, Google should revoke the manual action, so regularly check your GSC account.
Search engines are placing more importance on content now than ever before, and as a result, low-quality, shallow pages don’t make the cut. Google released its EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) guidelines to help content marketers and website managers when crafting quality content.
Google believes web pages that lack content offers little or no value to users. So to serve valuable pages to users, Google began purging thin content with the first Panda update in 2011.
Thin pages generally come in the form of:
- Auto-generated content
- Doorway pages
- Low-quality affiliate pages
- Scraped content
- Low-quality guest blogs
The penalty for thin content could affect a portion of your website or the entire site.
How to Resolve Thin Content
Fetch pages marked as having thin content and determine whether they need to be removed or beefed up to add more value.
Remove auto-generated, duplicate content and doorway pages. Consider repurposing and padding out affiliate pages that don’t add value beyond what the manufacturer or retailer offers. Similarly, add to web pages with low word counts to improve their value to users.
After taking the appropriate action, submit a reconsideration request.
Google Penalty FAQs
Will Google issue penalties for poor-quality backlinks?
Google issues penalties for poor-quality links that it sees in your backlink profile.
Check the status of your backlinks by using analysis tools such as Moz Link Explorer and Majestic. Alternatively, use Google Webmaster Tools and all the backlinks pointing towards your site to do a thorough analysis.
How quickly will my website recover from a Google penalty?
Recovery time differs depending on whether you received a manual or algorithmic penalty.
If you received a manual penalty, your site would recover once the reconsideration request has been accepted, which tends to take between 10-30 days.
However, recovery from algorithm penalties can take significantly longer, with some online stores stating that it took them six months to a year to recover.
How do I fix a Google penalty?
- If you received a backlink penalty, use the Disavow Tool to remove bad links.
- For other Google penalties, fetch the pages in Google Search Console or perform a site audit to identify pages with issues and fix them according to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
- Once you’ve taken the appropriate action, submit a Reconsideration Request.