There are many reasons why a website can be hit with a Google penalty and you don’t have to look far to find a debate about if they are fair, what constitutes a penalty and how you can avoid one. Something we can all agree on is that nobody wants to receive one.
This guide will explain:
- Exactly what a Google penalty is.
- How to avoid getting one.
- How to find out if you have already received one.
- How to recover from one if you already have.
Definition of a Google Penalty
A Google penalty is the negative effect(s) on a websites search engine rankings seen after Google and/or their algorithms detect that the website is using techniques or strategies which are outside of or against their guidelines.
Whether you already know that you have received a penalty, are trying to work out if your website is suffering from one or know that you haven’t received one at all but want to know how to avoid getting one, this guide will help.
How to Avoid a Google Penalty
If you haven’t received a penalty yet, great work! We will start by looking at how to avoid one in the future.
To avoid a Google penalty, you have to know what can cause one. Below we will go into detail on exactly what kind of strategies and techniques can land you in SEO hot water so you know what to avoid.
Top Tip: A good rule of thumb is to honestly ask yourself, “would I be happy explaining what I am doing and why I am doing it to the head of Google’s spam department?” before implementing any new technique or strategy. If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t go ahead with that strategy or technique.
Be Careful Working with SEO Agencies
Not working with an SEO agency? Skip to the next section: Avoid THESE SEO Strategies.
Every website or business owner wants to find success online and see their domain at the top of the search results. Many don’t know how to make that happen so they put their trust in an SEO agency to help them find success online. Unfortunately, not all agencies use strategies within Google’s guidelines and very few explain the risks of using such techniques to their clients.
If working with an SEO Agency, hire the right one.
Many business owners trust that the marketing agency they outsource their SEO campaign to will help ensure that their website avoids a Google penalty. Unfortunately, more often than not this is not the case.
There are some questions that you can ask your current or new agency to work out if the strategies that they will employ pose a significant risk:
1. Would you be happy explaining what you are doing for my website and why you are doing it to the head of Google’s spam department?
One of the easiest questions you can ask your SEO agency is the same one you should ask yourself before implementing any new SEO strategy or technique. If they answer anything but a resounding “yes!”, run a mile.
Some of the lower-quality agencies will claim that you can only rank for high competition keywords using strategies that fall outside of Google’s guidelines. Some will even claim that there is no SEO strategy that isn’t outside of Google’s guidelines. What they are really saying is that they aren’t experienced or skilled enough to deliver an SEO campaign that doesn’t rely on attempting to game the system or manipulate the search results.
The highest-quality SEO agencies (and the ones that actually rank for competitive keywords) know that not only do “white hat” SEO strategies keep your website within Google’s guidelines, they can be 100 times more effective than any “grey hat” or “black hat” SEO technique.
Definition of Black Hat SEO
Black hat SEO covers any and all strategies, techniques and tactics that go against or fall outside of Google’s guidelines. Such strategies are seen as unethical and manipulative and aim to make the website using them rank higher in the search engine result pages (SERPs). When successful, black hat SEO can result in lower-quality and/or spammy results ranking for target keywords and provide an unfair advantage for those using them.
Definition of White Hat SEO
White hat SEO is the opposite of black hat SEO. It covers any and all tactics, techniques and strategies that operate within Google’s guidelines. Such strategies make use of the highest-quality methods with a focus on creating a website and online reputation that is genuinely better than the main competitors and more useful for searchers.
Definition of Grey Hat SEO
Grey hat SEO falls in between black hat and white hat methods. It can include tactics, techniques and strategies that could be considered natural and genuinely useful for business owners, website users and searchers which are being done in an attempt to game the search results.
Sources: Google Webmaster Guidelines
2. What is your approach to link building?
There is no doubt that link building is a huge part of SEO. I don’t think any professional marketer would disagree that in order to rank strongly for any reasonably competitive keyword, you will need some decent links pointing at your website. How you go about building links though could be the difference between ranking top and receiving a Google penalty.
When you ask this question, a high-quality agency will quickly start speaking about the difference between earning links vs “building” them. They will look to build links that have other benefits besides helping your Google rankings.
Always ask for a sample of the types of links they have built for their clients (tip: if they say they can’t show you that because of privacy protection, confidentiality, insert lame excuse here, find a different agency).
When reviewing the quality of the links they have built for their other clients, ask yourself one simple question that a legendary link specialist, the late Eric Ward, often shared:
If Google didn’t exist, would I still want this link?
3. Have any of your current or previous clients received a Google penalty?
This one is pretty self explanatory. Asking this could quickly weed out the lowest-quality agencies although bare in mind that many won’t tell you if any of their previous clients have suffered from a penalty.
Also keep in mind that just because an agency used to use grey or black hat tactics (which at one point worked incredibly well), it doesn’t mean they still do. If they had clients receive penalties years ago who have since recovered, the agency could have learnt a big lesson and even be one of the safer agencies to work with now. You will have to determine whilst speaking with them if you think that this is the case.
4. Do you have any penalty recovery experience?
If an agency is one of the few that successfully uses only white hat strategies, they are also likely to have a lot of penalty recovery experience.
Working with an SEO company that knows how to fully recover from a Google penalty (and ideally has successfully done so in the past) suggests that they also know how to find SEO success without using black or grey hat techniques.
Avoid THESE SEO Strategies
The strategies listed below are ones that have either been publicly named and shamed by Google themselves (for example here in their quality guidelines) or are widely known to be used for spam and/or low-quality SEO campaigns. They can result in Google penalties and/or reduced visibility in the search results.
To protect your website, its current rankings and its future organic performance, you should avoid using the strategies listed below and make sure that any SEO agencies you work with also stay away from them.
Link schemes are so dangerous because they can be so hard to spot by those not well versed in SEO, Google and the penalties that they hand out to those trying to manipulate their search results.
Google uses links to determine which websites are consistently providing credible, trustworthy, authoritative and genuinely useful content (such good content that they want to talk about and share it via links in their own content). Looking at links in this way early on helped Google pioneer informational retrieval and positioned them as the dominant search engine. This also means that it becomes a real issue if people can successfully use links to manipulate the search results to their benefit. For this reason, Google has been known to penalise those caught using link schemes in an attempt to game the search results.
Following a low-quality/the wrong link building strategy can (whether you knew it was being done for your website or not) result in severe Google penalties and extreme drops in organic performance.
A wide range of link schemes exist and new ones are still being invested/discovered to this day. In general, you should avoid following any strategy that looks to build links for purely an SEO advantage.
I recommend sticking to the strategy mentioned above. Before undertaking any new link building strategy, ask yourself “if Google didn’t exist, would I still want this link/these links?”. If the answer is no, you should avoid that strategy and find a new one.
Automatically Generated Content
Automatically generated content (often referred to as “spun content”, “auto-generated content” or “content spinning”) is a technique that involves mass producing content and often relies on using existing content copied from other sources.
Often the goal of a content spinning strategy is to create a large amount of content targeting a huge set of keywords (usually these will be longer, less competitive search terms referred to as “long tail keywords”).
As automatically generated content is created by software as opposed to an expert on the topic, it will often appear thin, low-quality and written for search engine robots/spiders. It will likely provide a lower-quality user experience and lack the credibility and trust that searchers would like to see from the pages ranking at the top of the search results.
Much like the notes above on auto-generated content, you should avoid user-generated content (UGC) that could lower the quality of your website and be considered spam.
User-generated content such as forums, comment sections and post submissions can be a great addition to a website and provide a lot of value to users whilst fostering a real community. However, they need to be heavily moderated to keep things relevant, high-quality and useful.
Unmoderated UGC can (and likely will) result in offensive, spam and even illegal content being posted by disruptive and malicious parties. The issue for you as a business owner is that every piece of content published under your domain is a reflection of the website as a whole. If a lot, or even just some, of it puts users of your website at risk (of being exploited, manipulated, harmed or offended) you are likely to see your search results limited or even entire sections of your website removed from the search results.
Doorway pages (also referred to as gateway pages) are pages created purely for SEO reasons and to rank for specific keywords. Such pages provide little to no value to users and can result in a poor searcher experience. For this reason, websites using such techniques can experience limited search visibility.
A good rule of thumb to avoid this issue is to write for your website users first and search engines second. There is definitely a time and a place for keyword research but it should not form the totality of your content strategy.
Scraping content involves taking (“scraping”) content from other websites (often more reputable ones) in order to create and publish pages targeting a large number of keywords/search queries. When done for this reason, content scraping can increase your risk of receiving a Google penalty.
Content scraping is not always bad though. A website can scrape content from a source/multiple sources and providing they add additional value to users, they wont necessarily receive a penalty. If you are following a content strategy that involves scraping, you should spend some time researching the potential consequences of implementing it ineffectively and ensure that you are adding significant value for users to minimise the risk.
Hidden Text and Links
Hidden text and links are sometimes used by black hat SEOs to manipulate the search results. They can be deceptively hidden in a number of ways. For example, the color of the text or links could be changed to white to match a websites white background so that users can’t see it/them but search engine bots and spiders crawling the websites source code can. Another example would be a website owner hiding multiple keywords and keyword variations in an attempt to better optimize their website for the target keyword(s).
It is important to note that some text and links can be hidden without malicious intent and to some extent, we trust that Google’s algorithms can identify such cases. However, if you do know that your website uses hidden text or links, be sure to check that they couldn’t be interpreted as an attempt to manipulate the search results.
Cloaking is to present different content or URLs to website users than to search engines. For example, a website might display a HTML page to search engine spiders/bots but place different content over the top of it using flash or iframes for real users. Or a website might insert keywords when it is being crawled by search engine robots but not show them to users. Such strategies are often used when a website has been hacked and the hacker(s) don’t want to website owner to know that their website has been compromised.
Cloaking makes it difficult for search engines to know exactly what content they are seeing and what content the websites users (and their searchers) are seeing. Not knowing this could put people using the search engine at risk if they end up being shown malicious, offensive or even illegal content after clicking through on one of the search results.
If your website uses technologies and languages which are frequently used for cloaking (like JavaScipt or Flash), you will want to check that you aren’t showing different content to search engines than you are to your users.
Tip: Previously Google offered a free tool to see fully rendered versions of your pages however the tool has since been depreciated and is no longer active. You can however still see what content Google sees when they crawl your website by testing your URLs here.
Affiliate programs aren’t inherently bad and using one to monetize your website can be a great idea. You do however want to avoid being labeled as just another low-quality affiliate website that offers little to no additional value to users.
You don’t have to look far to find the thousands of Amazon affiliate websites out there that use near enough the same thin content to try and rank for buyer guide type keywords. If all of these websites ranked strongly in the search engine result pages (SERPs), searchers would struggle to find any genuinely unbiased and useful websites when looking for detailed, informative reviews of the products they are considering.
When setting up an affiliate website, you must ensure that you are adding a significant amount of value and really standing out from the countless other websites trying to rank for your target keywords. There are a few ways to do this and some examples include:
- Make sure that you have more informative, unaffiliated content published on your website than you do purely affiliate content.
- Find ways to help searchers/users sort through the affiliate content and find the best products for them (not just the product that pays the most commission).
- If possible, aggregate useful information from multiple trustworthy sources without plagiarising their content or devaluing their website(s).
The practise of inserting irrelevant or unnecessary keywords into your content is commonly referred to as “keyword stuffing”. The practise results in a poor user experience and if Google thinks you are using such a strategy in attempt to target and rank for more keywords, they could penalise your and/or filter your website in the search results.
Sneaky redirects are often similar to cloaking and aim to show different content to search engines than the content that is seen by website users. If you redirect search engine spiders to one page (or don’t redirect them at all) and send website users to a different page, you risk being penalized and seeing your search results limited.
How to Find a Google Penalty
If your SEO performance has dropped and/or you aren’t getting the results you expected from your efforts, you might have received a Google penalty. Before you can start fixing the issue(s) with your website and/or increasing your organic performance though, you will need to determine if in fact you have received a penalty.
Google Search Console Notification
The most accurate and concrete sign that you have received a penalty will be a message/notification in your Google Search Console account telling you that this is the case. Keep in mind that this will only be the case when you receive a more severe penalty. If you don’t have a Google Search Console account set up, you can do so here.
You can find this by logging in to your Google Search Console account and navigating to Security & Manual Actions > Manual Actions as highlighted in the screenshot below.
Have a message in your Google Search Console account telling you that you have received a penalty? Skip to the next section: How to Fix a Google Penalty.
Sudden Drop in Organic Traffic
One of the common indirect signs that you have received a Google penalty is a sudden, sharp drop in organic traffic. It is possible that this can be on a page level (you only see a drop on one of a few pages on your website), although most often it will be across the whole domain (the majority if not all of the pages on the website).
It is important to note that drops in organic traffic (sudden or gradual) can also be caused by Google updates (Moz keeps a great up-to-date list of all the Google updates here) and/or technical issues on your website. Any sudden drop in organic traffic requires further investigation whether it ends up being caused by a penalty or not. Some common issues that can cause sudden drops in traffic besides a penalty include:
- New noindex tags being placed on the wrong pages.
- Stray robots.txt commands that block Google from crawling new and existing content.
- A new Google update which has resulted in other websites being positioned higher in the search results than your website.
- A re-designed website which dramatically changed the functionality, performance and/or usability of your website.
- Dramatic changes to content which could have lowered its quality, changed its intent and/or changed the main keywords being targeted.
If you have experienced a sudden drop in organic traffic and aren’t sure why, you might want to consider hiring an SEO company to look for you. Selecting the right one though is vital in correctly identify the cause of the drop, effectively recovering from it and avoiding future penalties.
Think you need to hire an SEO company? Jump back up to this section: Be Careful Working with SEO Agencies for advice on selecting the right one.
If only some of your pages are being indexed, it could suggest that Google is choosing not to index others. First, make sure that the ones not being indexed don’t have noindex tags on them and that they aren’t being blocked from crawling in your robots.txt file. If this is not the case, proceed to investigate why they aren’t showing up.
In the screenshot above, you can see a quick check that you can do to test if your page is indexed or not. Simply go to Google and search “site:” before pasting the URL that you want to test. If you see a message like the one above, the URL is not indexed and you need to find out why.
Tip: Another good test to run is to search “site:yourdomain.com + keyword” but replace “keyword” with the main keyword the URL you want to test for a penalty is targeting. If it doesn’t show up at all, that isn’t a good sign. If it shows up but not as the first result, this could suggest that another page is better optimized for it and/or that you have keyword cannibalization issues which will require further investigation.
How to Fix a Google Penalty
So, you know that something is holding your website back and you are convinced that it is a penalty. Now you need to find out how to fix it.
Over the years, Google has rolled out countless penalties and algorithms that aim to filter toxic, spammy and/or manipulative websites out of their search results. After all, a huge part of surfacing the best search results is throwing out the low-quality websites so searchers never come across them.
The first step to penalty recovery will be in identifying which penalty your website has been hit with, a manual or an algorithmic one.
Manual or Algorithmic Penalty?
Some penalties that Google uses to keep low-quality websites and actors out of their search results are given manually by the web-spam team. Usually, you can fix the issue(s) that they have told you caused the penalty and ask that someone from their spam team manually reviews your website. Providing that you have adequately fixed the issue(s), the penalty will be removed and you should start seeing your organic traffic returning to normal.
Definition of a Manual Penalty
A manual penalty (also known as a “manual action”) is an action issued against a website when a human reviewer at Google has determined that pages on the website falls outside of Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. As a result, some or all of that website will not be included in the Google search results. Most manual actions aim to prevent attempts to manipulate the search results.
As mentioned above, you can quickly find out if you have a manual penalty by logging in to your Google Search Console account and checking the ‘Security and Manual Actions’ tab. If there are no notifications in the ‘Manual Actions’ section, you do not have a manual penalty.
You will need to work out next if you have an algorithmic one by using the information below.
Other penalties are algorithmic and Google won’t outright tell you what you have done to receive it. There is no individual who has reviewed your website manually and penalised it and consequently there is no team or individual that you can ask to re-review it once you have implemented your fixes.
Definition of an Algorithmic Penalty
Despite popular belief, an algorithmic penalty isn’t actually a penalty. A drop in your rankings following an algorithm update simply means that other websites which perhaps weren’t given the credit they truly deserved prior to the update are now being viewed more favourably. This could change in the future or, if you can see why those websites now outranking you might be seen as more relevant and useful for searchers, you may wish to take action to improve your website. You might have to wait until the next large algorithm update to see the full effects of any improvements you have made.
List of Google Penalties & How to Fix Them
The below list of penalties are manual actions recognised by Google here. If you receive one of these manual penalties, you will find a notification in your Google Search Console account with details on which one you have received. After fixing the issue that caused the manual action, you will be able to submit a reconsideration request and (hopefully) have the penalty lifted/removed.
Unnatural Links to Your Website
If Google detects that your website is using unnatural, manipulative, deceptive and/or paid links to increase your PageRank and manipulate the search results, they will take manual action against your site. This can result in some or all of your website being removed from the SERPs.
After Google has taken action against your website for using unnatural links, you will have to work to have the links removed in order to recover.
How to fix it:
Follow the steps below to try and have your manual penalty removed:
- Find and download a list of links to your website in your Google Search Console account.
- Audit the links manually (or use a third-party tool like SEMrush and combine additional link data from Majestic SEO and ahrefs for a wider look at all of the domains linking to your website) to find low-quality, toxic and/or manipulative links.
- Add any manipulative, paid for, toxic, spammy and/or low-quality links to a disavow file.
- Upload your disavow file in your Google Search Console account.
- Submit your reconsideration request to Google.
- Wait to see if your manual action/penalty gets lifted.
Definition of a Disavow File
A disavow file is a text (.txt) file that contains a list of domains and/or URLs that you don’t want Google to take into account when ranking your website in the search results. In one, you would list any toxic, low-quality, manipulative and/or paid for links that could result in a penalty (or that already have resulted in a penalty).
Unnatural External Links
If Google and/or their algorithms detects that your website is externally linking out to other websites in an unnatural, manipulative, deceptive way and/or selling links to increase the PageRank of others and manipulate the search results, they will take manual action against your site. This can result in some or all of your website being removed from the SERPs.
How to fix it:
If you receive this penalty, you will need to identify the links that were paid for or that violate Google’s guidelines and remove them. Once you have done that, you can submit a reconsideration request in the Manual Actions tab of your Google Search Console account and wait to see if the penalty gets lifted.
You may receive a manual penalty if you allow website users to publish content on your site (through things like forums, comments and/or user profiles) and they submit low-quality, spammy and/or manipulative content.
How to fix it:
If you allow users to submit content to your website, you should make sure that you moderate what is being published. You must delete or remove any off topic, overly commercial, automatically generated and/or low-quality content.
Spammy Free Host
Whilst Google tries to be precise when manual penalising websites, if the majority of websites on a given hosting service/server are spammy, they might take action against the whole service.
The best way to avoid this it to be careful where you host your website. Go with reputable service providers and do your due diligence when hosting your website on any of the cheapest hosting options.
How to fix it:
If you have already received this penalty, you will need to audit all of the other websites on your hosting service and identify any potentially low-quality and toxic ones. You should remove those which could present issues and/or consider upgrading your hosting service.
Structured Data Issues
Google will take manual action against websites using structured data in a way that violates their guidelines and/or attempts to manipulate website users. Website owners should ensure that their structured data offers a fair and accurate depiction of what the page it is published on is about and offers. Things like having structured data for content that is invisible to users and/or misleading users (e.g. by having job application structured data, collecting applications but not intending to hire anyone for the role) can result in manual actions being taken against your website.
How to fix it:
If you find on the receiving end of this manual action, you should audit all of your structured data and ensure that it fully complies with Google’s structured data guidelines.
Thin, low-quality and shallow content creates a poor user and searcher experience. If Google detects that enough pages on your website feature thin content, they may take manual action against it by removing some or all of it from the search results. Avoid using duplicated, thin affiliate and or automatically-generated content. If you have already received this penalty, you will need to make significant improvements to your on-site content before submitting a reconsideration request.
How to fix it:
After receiving this penalty you will need to analyse all of the content on your website (paying particular attention to any examples of thin content included in the manual action report) and identify any potentially thin content. You should take steps to significantly improve the content on your website and delete, remove any thin content and/or set any low-quality pages to noindex.
Cloaking and/or Sneaky Redirects
Any time you are showing different pages to Google (or any search engine spiders) than to users, you are at risk of receiving a manual penalty. Google takes cloaking and sneaky redirects seriously and will take manual action against those they determine are using such strategies to manipulate the search results. If you are using similar strategies for legitimate reasons (like putting up a paywall to prevent access to specific articles), make sure that you use structured data to inform Google of this).
How to fix it:
Pay attention to any details reported in your Google Search Console account and be sure to analyse any redirects you have in place and look for anything that Google could be interpreting as an attempt to manipulate their search results.
The pure spam penalty looks to remove websites which publish mainly spammy content like automatically-generated, scraped and/or aggressively optimized content. Such content provides little to no value to searchers and can result in a poor searcher experience.
How to fix it:
If your website has received this penalty, you will need to make significant improvements across the board and submit a reconsideration request to have it removed once your content is up-to-scratch.
Cloaking images is another strategy to display different content to search engines than you show to users. The strategy suggests you are trying to hide something and/or manipulate the search results and can result in some or all of your website being removed from the SERPs. The practise can also lead to poorly designed and optimized rich and featured snippets and Google image results.
How to fix it:
Much like the sneaky redirect/cloaking penalty above, if you receive this penalty, you should look for any available details in your Search Console account and make sure to clear up instances that could suggest you are trying to cloak your images.
Hidden Text and/or Keyword Stuffing
Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing (often the 2 strategies are used together), as discussed above, can lead to irrelevant and low-quality content.
This is a spammy technique which has been around for some time and originated years ago when search engines used keyword density to determine the relevance of a page for a given keyword. As the search engines have moved away from using this signal to determine how relevant a page is for a given keyword (due to how easy it is to manipulate), they have also got better at identifying those using the strategy in an attempt to manipulate their search results.
Keyword stuffing often looks spammy and low-quality and as such, those using it may attempt to hide the numerous keywords in their content by hiding it. They might make the keywords show in a white font on a page with a white background so search engine spiders can see it them but users can not. Google can now render pages and see what users would see and as a result, can easily discover when such strategies are being used.
How to fix it:
If you receive this penalty, you will need to dial back your on-site optimization and make significant improvements to your website. Make sure that you aren’t hiding any mentions of keywords and/or that you are not being overly aggressive in your approach to on-site optimization.
AMP Content Mismatch
Accelerated mobile pages (AMP) can be great for improving speed and performance for those searching on mobile devices. However, website owners should not show dramatically different content via AMP pages than shown through their canonical equivalent URLs.
Definition of AMP
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) are landing pages created and designed in AMP HTML. This code is more streamlined and can be interpreted easier and faster by browsers. Many AMP pages can also be served directly from Google’s AMP Cache offering even quicker results. The content on AMP pages should not differ significantly than the content found on its canonical webpage (it should be about the same topic and offer similar information).
How to fix it:
After being hit with this penalty, you will need to compare your AMP URLs to your standard URLs and make sure that their content and information doesn’t differ significantly.
Sneaky Mobile Redirects
Some websites will redirect users on mobile devices to different content than that which users on a desktop and/or search engines see. Sometimes redirects can be genuinely useful and beneficial to users. However, when done sneakily and to manipulate the search results, they result in a poor user experience and can result in manual action being taken against your website.
How to fix it:
After being slapped with this penalty, you will need to adjust your mobile redirects to ensure that Google and their algorithms don’t continue seeing any of them as sneaky and/or manipulative.
Most website owners have worried at some point or another about receiving a Google penalty. Even those with the best intentions can fallen victim to shady SEO tactics carried out by an agency that they trusted. The bottom line is that taking real ownership of the content, set up and performance of your website is absolutely crucial whether you are actively working on your own SEO campaign or entrusting an agency. Get familiar with Google’s quality guidelines, regularly monitor your Google Search Console account and make sure that you are putting your website users first at every stage and you should be able to avoid the dreaded google penalty now and well into the future!