The infamous Google penalty.
Over the years various Google penalties have worked to clean up the SEO industry. They have dominated SEO news at times and have given many a black hat SEO sleepless nights.
The good news is that if you follow our SEO guides, you have nothing to worry about. The threat of a penalty can be a daunting prospect but then so is the threat of jail. The reality is that if you aren’t breaking the law, you rarely even think about jail.
In this article we’re going to explore the following:
  • The biggest misconception: Google moves the goal posts
  • What is a Google Penalty?
  • How can we avoid them?
  • What impact can a penalty have on a website?
  • How do websites recover from a penalty?

The Biggest Misconception: Google moves the Goal Posts

This has to be one of the largest misconceptions in the entirety of SEO.
It’s up there with statements like “SEO is Dead”, “it’s all about keywords and tagging” and “SEOs are tricking the search engine algorithm”.
Rid yourself of this nonsense. It’s an oversimplified statement based on a biased point of view.
The fact is that whilst search engine optimisation may evolve over time, the underlying theory has remained constant. We explain this in our article on how search engines work.  A search engine is trying to provide the best results and experience for each search. This is their primary goal, any deviation or reduction in this value for the searcher is bad for business.
This misconception has been proliferated by SEOs that have not focussed on this theory. View it as a complaint by people who should have known better.
It’s the same as someone running a cross country race. The organisers have set out a course but not explicitly stated that you couldn’t dip under the ropes and take a shortcut. Everyone knows that the shortcut is cheating, but some people try to exploit it. When the race organisers then have to say “come on guys, you can’t take a short cut, you’re disqualified”, the cheaters say that the rules have been changed.
It’s the same with Google Penalties.
The organisers shouldn’t have to say that no shortcuts are allowed. Just like they shouldn’t have to state that you can’t use a motorbike or tie the shoelaces of your competitors.
Google aren’t constantly moving the goal posts. The updates that result in penalties are them adding rules to prevent exploitation.

What is a Google Penalty?

Short answer: when a website’s rankings experience a drop due to it being found to contravene Google’s Webmaster guidelines.
Synopsis of a longer answer: it is often used to describe an algorithmically applied, or manually applied penalty. However, technically it only refers to manual penalties assigned by Google’s webspam team. You’ll also receive a notice of manual action via your website’s Search Console account.
This is a beginner’s guide so we don’t need to go into the technical differences between the two. If you’re interested, you can have a read of both Marie Haynes’ explanation on Ahrefs and this one from Search Engine Journal. Suffice to say that manual penalties and algorithmic ‘updates’, ‘filters’ or ‘anchors’ have a very similar effect. You lose rankings and traffic.
It is worth noting that in times gone past, if your website received a penalty, it was applied to the whole site. Furthermore, that if it was as a result of a major update that you often had to wait until the next update for it to reverse. Whilst both of these situations can still occur, they are not as common. Nowadays, negative effects can be felt by individual pages instead of the entire site. Furthermore, many algorithmic effects operate in real time. As such, in many circumstances there is no need to wait until the next update to retrieve lost rankings.
For simplicity’s sake, a Google penalty is when a website experiences a negative effect. This is usually a noticeable loss in search visibility due to spammy practices. You can also experience a negative impact for Security Issues but let’s save that for a later date.
If you’re interested, the two best known updates that have brought penalties are the Panda update and the Penguin update.

How can we avoid them?

If you start to read up on how to avoid Google penalties, much of the advice will focus on highlighting things to avoid. Don’t keyword stuff. Avoid low authority websites for link building. Keep your keyword rich anchor text below a certain percentage.
Don’t do this and don’t do that.
Useful in specific circumstances when applied to specific SEO practices. Google actually provide a list of items to stay clear of
Not useful for getting a true understanding of why a website might receive a penalty. That’s the real power. If you understand the why, the what becomes obvious. You can apply the theory to any aspect of SEO and make your own decisions. No longer will you decry any ‘moving of the goal posts’.
There are 3 key steps to avoiding a Google Penalty:
1) Read and understand Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines. In fact, read Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, their intro to SEO and anything else you can get your hands on.
2) Never ever forget that the user comes first. Always remember what Google and other search engines are trying to achieve.
3) Keep up to date. Move with the times. Keep learning.

Google's Quality Rater Guidelines

Google is a Tech Giant. Unsurprisingly it’s know for its tech, i.e the fabled ‘Google Algorithm’………which is actually lots of algorithms bundled together.
What they are less known for is an army of Quality Raters that help them evaluate search results. Real humans that judge websites according to Google’s guidelines. Their job is to help continually improve the search engine, to help test updates and provide feedback.
That’s where the Quality Rater Guidelines come in. It’s what these Quality Raters use to understand what is expected and how to rate websites. As per the guide:
“The General Guidelines primarily cover Page Quality (PQ) and Needs Met (NM) rating: however, the concepts are also important for many other rating tasks”
It makes sense for us to study this free information. It isn’t speculation from the SEO world. You don’t need to analyse the efficacy of the information. It’s straight from the horses mouth. It shows us what Google expect, and therefore what they don’t expect.
Alongside the Quality Rater Guidelines, we would highly recommend also reading the following information directly from the Big G:

Focus on the user

If you’ve already read some of our guides, this should be coming as no surprise. If you haven’t, just hop over to the ‘The Fundamentals of SEO‘, ‘How Search Engines Work‘ and ‘Why SEO is important‘ articles.
Focussing on the user should be your primary concern. It’s prevalent throughout Google’s own literature. It’s a key theme throughout our guides here at Catchworks. It’s espoused by most leading SEOs, marketers and sales teams.
Ignore the user at your own peril. It goes so much further than just avoiding spam. It’s a business critical concept.
Placing the search engine higher on the list than the user is problematic to say the least. It sets you on a slippery path, away from providing real value to the user and towards trying to manipulate search results.
Avoiding spam, and therefore penalties, is relatively simple. Ask yourself the question: does this provide a better user experience. If it doesn’t impact the searcher’s experience, you should question it further.

Keep up to date

Search engine optimisation is like any other industry that involves lots of technology, it changes. It’s dynamic.
You’ll want to keep up to date. The foundations of providing the best experience and most value to the searcher will remain. However, there are constant changes in the tools available to SEOs. As such, it’s important that we remain relevant and flexible.
Furthermore, when Google does release an update we want to be aware so that we can react where necessary. Hopefully you won’t be worried about a penalty due to spam, but nonetheless it’s prudent to remain alert.
Here’s a few resources that will help to alert you to changes in the market, Google updates and new techniques or platforms:

What impact can a penalty have on a website?

As mentioned earlier, the impact can vary dramatically. Sometimes only a single page can be negatively effected, others times it can be an entire site. It does depend on what went wrong.
In addition, the severity of a penalty can vary. For example, a manual penalty on a single page may result in a significant drop in rankings. On the other hand, an algorithmic update can result in other content being preferred over yours. This may mean a drop in rankings but not to the same extent as a manual penalty. Again, there are large variables at play here.
The biggest penalty is known as being ‘de-indexed’. This is where your transgressions have been deemed bad enough to remove said site or webpage from Google’s index entirely.
You definitely don’t want this to happen.
It means that your website will not be returned anywhere in Google’s results. Not good, and it does happen!
Needless to say that you want to avoid penalties of any kind. The end result is a loss of search visibility, wasted time and in some cases, a long road to recovery.

How do websites recover from a penalty?

This is not an easy question to answer. If we go by the book and only consider manual actions or security issues then it makes life a little easier.
You will need to read the message in Search Console carefully, rectify the issue and then submit a reconsideration request.
That’s probably an oversimplification because it might involve the removal of lots of spammy backlinks (as an example). Whilst Google say that a reconsideration request can take up to two weeks, it can take a lot longer.
Algorithmic penalties or ‘anchors’ are much harder. For starters, you don’t receive a notification in Search Console, so you don’t know exactly why your site has been negatively impacted. In addition, Google rarely give many details on their updates which compounds the issue. Finally, if it occurs directly after a major update then this could help in identifying the issue. However, if it happens as part of Google’s real-time updating/crawling, it’s going to take some time.
Some webmasters will know straight away. If they’ve knowlingly engaged in a particular type of web spam then it could be obvious. For those less overtly spammy, you need to be systematic. Run through all of the known web spam issues and rectify any that you fall foul of. Look at indexing issues. Look at competitors and the value they offer to the users.
There is a considerable amount of literature out there on how to recover from Google penalties. This is a beginner’s guide so we want to give you an overview of penalties and related information. Hopefully it has been useful and you now know that penalties are something you want to avoid at all costs!

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