A penalty is never a good thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in sports or by a search engine online, it represents a huge disadvantage in any given field.
Whether you like it or not, Google penalties are a thing, and pose a serious threat to your website’s visibility in organic search results. When crawling and indexing your website, the search algorithm analyzes it and may penalize you if it detects anything that goes against Google’s primary goal – delivering the most relevant content that the users search for.
If you respect the rules of the game, the algorithm will rank you higher, and if not, your website will be shoveled out of the SERPs and away form potential visitors.
Once you enter the penalty box, it can take months, or more than a year to recover.
That’s why it is vital to know what are the most crucial Google penalties, how to diagnose them, and, above all, how to successfully avoid them.
Read on to find out!
What Is a Google Penalty?
According to HubSpot, a Google Penalty is:
“A Google penalty is a punishment against a website whose content conflicts with the marketing practices enforced by Google. This penalty can come as a result of an update to Google’s ranking algorithm, or a manual review that suggests a web page used “black hat” SEO tactics.”
What this means is that Google wants nothing else except organic approaches and results. Any move from your side indicating that you are trying to artificially inflate your website’s ranking will sound the alarm and Google will investigate what exactly you are doing to gain more traffic. If Google doesn’t like your tactics, you will be penalized or, worse, be completely removed from the Google index.
The Algorithm Behind Google Penalties
Google has a complex and extremely smart ranking algorithm that regulates the SERPs, and positions your website exactly where it should be. It’s an algorithm that is updated more than 500 times per year! That’s why it’s getting harder and harder to outsmart Google with quick schemes and black-hat SEO strategies.
Google’s algorithm relies on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to surface what the users look for. These signals include things like the specific keywords that appear on websites, the freshness of content, your region, and PageRank.
For example, one specific signal of the algorithms is called Penguin. It detects anything that Google considers as scheming, spam, irrelevant, and stuffed with keywords.
Overall, there are two types of penalties that Google can use against you:
- Manual Penalties: They occur when a real person from Google’s spam check team reviews your website and discovers something suspicious. These penalties can be caused by reports from users or your competitors, and sometimes they can happen randomly if the person in charge spots your links and tactics as malicious.
- Algorithmic Penalties: These are penalties that are applied directly by Google’s algorithm, without the involvement of human personnel or manual intervention. They’re more common because the Algorithm works in real-time, is faster than humans, and quickly scans and weeds out links that it doesn’t trust.
Each of these Google penalties can have serious consequences on your business. You need to constantly work to avoid them. It can only be done by using white-hat SEO tactics, high-quality content, and organic link building.
How to Diagnose a Google Penalty?
When doctors diagnose diseases, they look for symptoms. This is what Google looks for too when they analyze your website, and you should be doing the same if you want to diagnose the symptoms before it’s too late for your search rankings.
Generally, what you need to check for is whether your page:
- Has a slight drop in search rankings for certain keywords, which is a minor symptom but should be monitored.
- Has a big drop in search rankings for certain keywords, which is a serious symptom that needs investigating.
- Is completely de-indexed from the Google search engine – major red flag that calls for immediate attention.
The following things can cause a Google penalty:
- Most of your content contains pop-up ads.
- Your content is stuffed with keywords.
- Short-form content, with low-quality, and questionable value.
- Not localized site content to cater to global visitors.
- Bad link-building practices to increase page authority.
- Content has “inherited” backlinks from adult, gambling, or otherwise low-quality pages.
- You don’t have a legitimate security certificate (HTTPS).
- Republishing content from other websites without their permission.
- Your website has loading issues.
- Your website is not mobile-friendly.
To learn what has happened with your website in the past, and if you still need to recover from a Google penalty, you can use tools, such as the FE International’s Website Penalty Indicator, Barracuda’s Panguin Tool, and, of course, check your reports in the Search Console.
None of these provides exhaustive results, but analyzing and cross referencing the data from all of them can provide you with valuable insights. These can show you which Google penalties your website has been affected by, if any, and at what point did that happen.
More often than not, penalties are the result of algorithm updates. The search engine changes the rules of the game and, all of a sudden, pages that were considered to be ok, are now in danger of dropping out of the SERPs.
If you get a penalty as a result of an algorithmic check, figuring out the issue can be complicated. You need to find a correlation between recent algorithmic updates and your traffic drops, and understand how you may have violated the rules with your SEO practices.
To stay ahead of such penalties, it’s best to stick only to the verified SEO tactics, stay in the loop of new updates, and act swiftly when changes occur.
On the bright side, if you get manually penalized, the staff from the Google Webmasters department will notify you as the website owner with a letter/email that outlines all the reasons why you have been penalized. Along with the notification, you will also get instructions on how to recover and improve your SERP position. This information is also available in the Search Console.
The Crucial Google Penalties That You Need to Avoid
The following sanctions will result in a negative impact on the search rankings of your website because they indicate your content is somehow not compatible with Google’s algorithm, rules, and updates.
1. Google Penguin Penalties: Purchasing Links
Google’s Penguin update was first launched in 2012 to fight for spammy links that made their way higher in SERPs of Google. Something needed to be done to solve that problem and convince advertisers that advertising via AdWords is still a tactic that has high ROI when it comes to search engine results and clicks.
While the algorithm has been around for quite a while now, it is still relevant today. In fact, Google’s John Mueller recently reconfirmed this He said that, the internet being the way it is today, manipulative and spammy links will just be ignored most of the time, but, if they form a “very strong pattern” on the website and show intentional misuse, a penalty may be in place.
Penguin targets the following practices as triggers for a penalty:
- Link Scheming: Buying links from low-quality and non-relevant websites, intended for developing an artificial depiction of relevance and reputation.
- Keyword Stuffing: Populating your page with too many keywords and keyword repetition in order to cheat the rank with the manifestation of relevance for specific search phrases and keywords.
What will save you from the Penguin penalty is to not even think about the black practices above!
Never opt for link purchasing! If you want stellar search rankings, you need to make an effort to obtain links organically. To that end, consider doing the following:
Outreach with Value
The best approach towards link building outreach is to connect with the right people that can take your website to the next level by including your link somewhere in the article. Talk to authoritative bloggers and page owners and form a real connection with them.
These people need to be leaders in your niche, post content relevant to your products/services, and be known as credible figures, not as spammers. Also, make sure that the websites that you outreach to are not stuffed with ads, pop-ups, inconsistent content, and bad grammar.
Make a list of potential partners, and remember that these websites need to be relevant and authoritative. To evaluate a link opportunity and page authority, you can use Moz’s Link Explorer. This will tell you how much the audience appreciates the site in terms of domain authority, links and traffic.
If you want to check viable pages in a batch, you can use Ahrefs, one of the best tool for backlinks and SEO analysis used by top marketing experts, including Neil Patel.
Remember that authoritative website owners probably receive hundreds of outreach emails per week, so they won’t bother with your link if you don’t provide real value to the audience and if you haven’t developed a relationship with them first.
You don’t want to send them an email like “Hey, sup, I have this link that you may be interested in.”
You must be humble, careful, provide a compliment, and if possible, don’t ask for anything in return:
“Hello there (Name)
I’ve been reading your blog for (years/months). I always learn something new and get tons of value, especially with (the area that you get value in). At (Company/Website), we’re working hard on the new content that we thought you may be interested in.
We’re about to publish an (Article/Infographic) that outlines (information about a topic). It’s called (Name of the article/link/infographic). It is packed with actionable information, data, best practices, and more. Does it sound like something that you consider useful?
Would you like to send you the link to review it?
If they don’t reply back, you can always follow up. The best time to follow-up is within a week. Don’t be annoying and beg for your link to be reviewed. Instead, mention even other interesting articles/links from your site and again, try to form a relationship with the person that you outreach to, and retain their attention. And make sure to not send more than two follow ups, or else it will start to feel like spam.
Get Reviewed by Bloggers/Vloggers
If you have a SaaS or offer other products with easy to demonstrate merits, you can outreach to bloggers, vloggers, podcast hosts, and other influencers to write a review or shoot a video about your product that showcases its traits and includes your link to increase your link juice organically.
Write Compelling Guest Posts
If you land a guest post on a well-known website in your industry, you can improve your SERP position literally overnight!
The easiest way to find a guest blogging opportunity is to conduct a Google search for websites that can accept your article. You can use the following formulas in your search query:
- (keyword/phrase) + “write for us”
- (keyword/phrase) + “submit guest post”
- (keyword/phrase) + “contribute to our blog”
For example, if you write about Graphic Design, you’ll be presented with lots of guest blogging opportunities:
You’ll need to make a list with the relevant sites that accept guest posts about your topic and check each site’s credibility (again with Moz’s Site Explorer and/or Ahrefs).
When it comes to guest blogging opportunities, you need to look for sites that:
- Are in the same industry.
- Your target audience reads them.
- Have a big number of followers, comments, likes, and shares.
- Have an excellent content distribution strategy.
Just like when you outreach for link inclusion, you should be careful when you outreach for a guest blogging opportunity. You need to know how to form a relationship with the blog owners. Subscribe to their newsletter, add valuable comments in their blog comment sections, engage with them on social media, etc. Whatever you do, make sure that you’ll be recognized immediately, and make a good impression.
A powerful guest blogging pitch will have the following traits:
- Attractive subject line: Blog owners can be extremely busy people. Don’t start with a generic email subject line. Start with the guest post topic instead of a non-specific “I Want to Be Featured on Your Blog.”
- Intro: Your introduction should ignite the blog owner’s interest. You can outline the problem that your post will solve, you can tell the questions that you’ll answer and describe the solutions that you plan to show in the post.
- Body summary: This is where you include the key details and the sources that you’ve researched to develop your content topic. Be specific and explain what the post is about. Communicate the benefits to the readers and support your post with evidence and data.
- The post type (listicle, how to…): Tell the blog owner how you plan to format your blog post. Perhaps together you can develop a combination that will help the audience to better digest the topic.
- Conclusion and proper salutations: Again, be short. Ask politely if they’re interested in the topic, and include your signature – don’t forget to add your name, job title, company, phone number, and social media profiles.
When you outreach, remember that every relevant blog has its own guest blogging submission rules, so make sure that you will respect them before writing your drop them an email, and that your content can live up to their standards.
2. Google Panda Penalty: Duplicate Content
The main goal of Google is to provide the best content for the users. Duplicating or copying content is not what’s best for your target users.
You must have a unique content or a fresh POV on a topic that will differentiate your blog from the rest in your industry. The best way to avoid this Google penalty is to stay focused on producing original quality content, and marking up any default and/or system duplications with the proper canonical tags.
Here’s how you can protect your website from the Panda penalty for duplicate content:
Have Your Readers in Mind
First of all, you shouldn’t write for search engine bots. You need to write for your readers. This means that you must have content that is unique, readable and relevant, not pages that are stuffed with keywords, recycled topics, and bad links.
You need to provide value to your readers. By providing value, you’ll build relationships through every article, and that will increase content sharing and web traffic, which consequently, will increase your search rankings.
Update Your Content
No website starts with the best content. If you have older content that needs a revamp, new links, or information that should be removed, you have to address it and update according to current algorithm standards. Short-form content can always turn into a long form, which will create additional opportunities for links and proper keywords usage.
Eliminate Duplicate Content
By hosting duplicated content on your website, your chances of getting penalized by Google have just increased. It is important to ensure that your content is written carefully and that it is unique. For this purpose, you can use a tool such as Copyscape.
If you discover duplicated content on your website, here’s what you can do to avoid a penalty:
- Use a 301 redirect to point out to the original page.
- Use the proper canonical tags.
- Completely removing the duplicate content.
- Rewriting the content to an unrecognizable point.
Furthermore, keep in mind that this content may not have been created intentionally, so you are not only looking for copy-paste and plagiarism issues. WordPress often creates duplicate pages, and these can also be caused by product parameters, tracking cookies, and content syndication.
Whatever the case, make sure to keep your website clean, marked up, and free from obvious duplications.
3. Google Panda Penalty: Low-Quality Content
If you want to be ranked higher in the SERPs, you must have quality content. The more value you provide to your readers, the more quality backlinks you’ll get.
Panda can affect your website if you have too many pages with low-quality content. To scan your website for issues, you can use a tool called Screaming Frog. You can connect it with the page’s Google Analytics data and scan each page for potential problems.
When you discover your problematic pages, you can rewrite them and add brand new and relevant content, or if, for some reason, you can’t do that,, you can remove it altogether.
Here’s how you can avoid the Panda penalty:
- Don’t copy: Remember how annoying it was when a fellow student copied your test or research paper? The same goes for websites and Google rankings. If you copy someone else’s content, Google will detect it. Instead of copying, use other page’s ideas just for inspiration.
- Write long-form: Google loves long-form content, and readers will be engaged more if your content is more detailed and actionable. Shorter blog posts don’t always guarantee quality and actionable advice. A well-researched and written article is so much better than publishing short and meaningless articles every day.
- Focus on quality: You need to understand what your audience wants. There’s no point in publishing low-quality content that your readers don’t want to see. It all comes down to providing as much value as possible to retain their attention.
- Don’t overuse keywords: You can’t fool Google anymore. If it’s appropriate, include your main keyword in your article title, somewhere in the first two paragraphs, and only when it’s needed throughout the content. Read your content out loud and make sure that it doesn’t sound spammy or that you don’t overuse keywords to an unnatural level.
4. Penalty for Distorting Content with Cloaking
Google Webmasters define Cloaking as:
“The practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engine robots”
It’s a black hat SEO tactic that some web owners still use to try and deceive search engines. If you succumb to it and get detected, it can get you completely removed from Google’s index.
Cloaking involves distorting the content that is being accessed by search engines by developing a layered content that can make search engines believe that your website hosts different content with the help of a misleading link.
To avoid cloaking, you need to always focus on developing valuable content for your audience and make sure that search engines will see the exact same pages that your visitor sees. Forget about all sorts of cloaking, and focus on relevancy and quality instead.
5. Penalty for a Slow-Loading Website
Humans no longer have patience with slow-loading websites. Google also ranks slow-loading websites lower than the websites that fast.
Furthermore, with the 2021 Core Web Vitals Update, your performance and page experience of your website became even more important. Even if you don’t directly get penalized, your ranking may drop in favor of pages that load faster and provide a better UX.
You can review the Core Web Vitals Report in the Search Console to identify whether there are any issues, and address them in a timely manner.
To diagnose your website if you have speed problems, you can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights.
The tool will notify you of all the problems that cause your website to load slow and what you can do about it to improve your website speed immediately.
If you use WordPress, you can dramatically increase your website speed and avoid penalties by, among other things, using a sturdy caching plugin or a Content Delivery Network (CDN).
6. Broken Links Penalty
Google’s algorithm always keeps an eye if your web content is up-to-date, and that’s why it is able to discover even the deepest hidden errors within your website.
One of these errors is the 404, or broken links. Broken links provide a bad user experience, and that’s why you must regularly scan your website and fix them. For this purpose, you can use the W3C Link Checker.
If the 404 error is caused by a false URL from another website, you just need to implement a 301 redirect from the false URL to the right target. The same goes if the broken link comes from your website too. If you don’t have where to redirect the broken link, it’s best to delete it from your page.
7. Punishment for Not Being Mobile-Friendly
Google has now officially switched to mobile first indexing for most of the web. This means that they prioritize the mobile versions of websites, and show in the SERPs only the content available there. The reason for this is, that over the past few years, mobile searches have consistently overcome desktop ones.
Recommended: How to Optimize Your WordPress Layouts for Mobile Traffic
In fact, Google started to reward mobile-responsive websites way back in 2015, and lots of those that didn’t adopt the responsive design and platforms were punished with traffic reduction. Google dropped the rankings of these pages in SERPs, and as a result, they lost a significant number of clicks and views.
Having a mobile-friendly website means that your site:
- Doesn’t use software that is not common on smartphones (Flash Player).
- Uses text that can be read without zooming.
- Auto-adjusting elements and content for different screen sizes.
- Links and buttons are at an appropriate distance so it can be easier to click on them.
Check if your website is mobile-friendly with the Google-Mobile Friendly test.
The obvious way to avoid being penalized for not being mobile-friendly is to have a mobile-responsive website/CMS. The best way to ensure this is to use WordPress because the platform itself offers a mobile-responsive experience from the start.
However, if your theme is an older one, it still may not be mobile-friendly, so make sure to double-check just in case and contact your WordPress agency for help, if needed.
Whether you acquire bad SEO practices intentionally or not, you may be penalized by Google. Now that you know the most crucial Google penalties that can destroy your business online, your website rankings and SEO practices are entirely in your hands.
If you respect Google’s rules and collaborate with their main goals and principles in providing the best possible content and experience for the users, you can ensure that you’ll be able to escape the penalties and successfully scale your online presence.
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