July 11, 2018 | Sarah Danks
Penalty on the Google Field!
What’s Google’s sole purpose? To provide users with the most relevant, best information possible. Why? Because They want people to continue using their search engine (playing the game, if you will)!
To that end they’re constantly updating the search engine algorithms (1-2 times per week at least) to provide the best possible SERPs to their users.
What happens from these algorithm updates is this: sites are crawled, and those that don’t abide by The Rules are penalized. Website owners might not know they’ve received a penalty right away (after all, it’s not as if Google knocks on your door and throws a red flag on your living room floor), but savvy webmasters are usually pretty quick to realize something’s amiss.
Just as in football, there are a couple types of penalties Google doles out (although They don’t use differently colored flags).
Two ways websites are penalized:
- Manual penalties — This is somewhat self-explanatory: someone on the spam team has physically given your website a penalty. These are easy to ascertain since you’ll receive a notification via Google Search Console (if you don’t have this set up already, then I advise you to read about GSC and why you need to start monitoring it immediately).
- Algorithm penalties — As I mentioned before, these are penalties that occur when Google updates its algorithm, crawls your site and finds things that they deem to be “gaming the system.” Pretty much the only indicator you’ll have if you’ve received this type of penalty is a major drop in organic traffic from Google. It’s up to you to wade through your Analytics account and see what/where/when/why and remove the offense.
But before we get into that, it’s good to know the most common causes of penalties on the Google field.
Common Google Penalties
Unnatural/bad/massive paid incoming links
This one’s kind of like grasping the facemask in football. If you purchase mass quantities of links (also known back in the day as “link farming“), it’s only a matter of time before you get slammed with a penalty. Google’s Penguin algorithm update (from the spring of 2012) guards against the acquisition of unnatural links.
The only reason webmasters buy links in mass quantities is to attempt to game the system to show up higher in the SERPs (since 3rd-party incoming links are still one of the strongest credibility factors in Google’s algorithms).
However, sometimes incoming links are out of your control. “But I didn’t buy those links — those sites just linked to me out of the blue!” Yup, unfortunately it happens (kind of like when the ref calls a penalty on the quarterback for delay of game, but it was the coach who didn’t get the play to him in time).
And, while it’s technically not your fault, it IS your responsibility to deal with these links. Many times webmasters aren’t even aware they’ve been link spammed until they’re hit with a penalty — which sucks, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
What to do if you’ve been penalized for bad links:
After you’ve been notified of “your” penalty in Search Console, take the time to remove the spammy links. You can either do this manually or through Google’s disavow tool (but beware of using this without knowing exactly how; it can actually harm you more than help if you use it incorrectly!).
Then, once you’ve cleaned up the bad links, be sure to put in your reconsideration request.
Low quality/scraped/thin content
This is a penalty of sheer laziness and trying to do things too quickly, so I’m going to say it’s equal to intentional grounding. If your website is full of low-quality content, then you’re at risk of being penalized. This Google algorithm update — named Panda — from early 2011 was a biggie.
So many “big box” type sites were gaining major visibility at the top of the SERPs by using super-shallow content. Well, the Panda update put (and is still putting) the kibosh on this type of gaming — also known as content farming — by penalizing sites with “low levels of original content.”
What to do if you find yourself penalized for low-quality content:
Obviously the easy fix to this penalty is simple: CREATE GOOD CONTENT. Don’t scrape other sites, don’t produce mass quantities of poorly written, useless and/or shallow content, and so forth.
If content is worth writing on your site, do it well and don’t half-ass it.
This one, akin to too many players on the field, is somewhat related to Panda but it warrants its own discussion. Any SEO worth his/her salt knows dupe content is bad…
…but it still happens.
Sometimes it’s an honest mistake — you’re creating content on your website/blog and you inadvertently throw the same piece of content onto two separate URLs. No biggie. Google’s not going to blow the whistle.
HOWEVER: if you are in the habit of copying/pasting entire sections of websites (or even entire websites) into separate domains in the hope of showing up in SERPs under both domains (as some black hats are still wont to do), then get ready to sit on the sidelines for unsportsmanlike conduct.
What to do if your penalty is duplicate content:
Duh. Remove it. Stop doing that sh*t.
If it’s honest-to-goodness “oops, I didn’t realize I was doing that!,” then depending on how or why you’ve got dupe content you’ll want to set up the rel=canonical tag on your site/blog. That’ll ensure you don’t continue adding duplicate pages in the future.
This one’s a tough one to liken to football, but I’ll tackle it anyway: illegal formation. A Google algorithm update from 2013 named Payday targets spammy queries. When I originally wrote “What Exactly is a Very Spammy Query, Anyway?” it was the day after the launch of this very specific algo update so we weren’t sure what the heck was going on.
Turns out this algorithm update — and the resulting penalty — is very niched. Search Engine Land explains this in more detail. Long story short: websites trying to optimize for spammy queries such as “payday loans,” “pornography,” etc. are often involved in unethical link schemes.
What do you do if you’re penalized via the Payday algo:
I have nothing against the porn business. To each their own, and all that. But, no link scheming! Clean up the bad links, don’t engage in (over-use) of reciprocal linking, etc.
Then, file your reconsideration request and keep it clean, guys.
This one’s got encroachment written all over it. This algo update (from 2012) is called the Pirate penalty. This one targets sites that’ve been repeatedly tagged for copyright piracy (hence the moniker). You can read more about this algo update over at PlagiarismToday. They do a good job of summarizing this delicate matter.
I’m going to assume most of the people reading this are NOT at risk for this penalty, since the types of sites that get hit are file-sharing types of websites.
What to do about a penalty for copyright infringement:
If you’ve received massive quantities of DMCA notices and Google’s snapped into action, sorry. I really don’t know what you should do other than find a new career and get out of the piracy world.
Okay, that’s a bit harsh. The aforementioned article on PlagiarismToday also mentions how to go about protecting your site from this penalty if you’re legitimate.
I’m not getting defensive but…
…let’s all just play nicely so we don’t get penalized in the first place, okay?
No need for unnecessary roughness, kids.
Some webmasters are intentionally gaming the system and are probably well aware of the impending doom of penalties (like the players who rough up the kicker); but to think you’re doing everything right and incur a Google penalty can feel like getting hit by the block you never saw coming.
While this post is a summary of some common types of Google penalties — and how to recover after the flag toss — if you want to know how to basically not anger the Google refs in the first place, check out my other post about keeping your website safe from penalties.
If you’re all about creating quality content on your website, take that ball and run with it, Forrest. But, if you’re still not sure if holding onto your habits is all that bad, check out the much more comprehensive list of things that can get your site penalized that KISSmetrics has compiled.
So…instead of waiting for a penalty to occur, how do you go about NOT receiving one?