Search engines like Google are constantly on the look out for websites employing “black hat” practices, and issue either algorithmic or manual penalties to downgrade the rankings & traffic of such sites. Such penalties are often accompanied by devastating loss of ranks, traffic & sales.
As this is a continuous and evolving process, at times even legitimate websites are caught in the cross-fire. Examples are:
- A badly configured Content Management System / Shopping cart being hacked, or festooned with spam comments, leading to penalties
- Website owners which relied on cheap fly-by-night SEO “companies”, which gave short term results, without caring for penalty consequences down the line.
- Duplicate content or keyword stuffing done by in-house members who did not know better.
- Changes in Google Webmaster guidelines.
How to identify if a website is hit by a penalty?
Penalties are broadly of two kinds:
- Manual: These penalties are manually issued by a Google Employee or team member after manually reviewing a site. While there are obvious symptoms of such a penalty; it also comes with a notification in your Google Webmaster Tools account.If you don’t have this Tool setup; we can set it up, and it will still show a notice of such a penalty, if applied to the website in the recent past.Google has issued almost 3 Million Manual Penalties in 2019 alone, and if not addressed correctly, such a penalty can be an Extinction Level Event for many websites.
- Algorithmic: Google also routinely finetunes its various filters, to downgrade (or devalue) sites using questionable SEO tactics. Such penalties are levied by computer algorithms, and the effects vary from mild to severe.
So, the following are tell-tale symptoms of a website hit by either type of penalties as above:
- A marked or sharp drop in organic visitors (as seen via Google Analytics or similar tool), or a sudden drop in transactions.
- A marked and persistent drop in conversion rates, not explainable by seasonality or holiday downturns.
- Loss of rankings for few or majority of keywords
- Able to find site in Google Results for only the brand name, and nothing else
- Unable to find site in Google Results for the operator yoursiteurl.com
- Penalty Notice in Google Webmaster Tools (if setup for your website).
Types of Google Penalties
- Manual Penalties
- Unnatural Links warning: Usually the outcome of shady links created by a cheap SEO in the past. Impact: Severe
- User Generated Content SPAM: If your website is not setup correctly, certain bots can misuse your comments & reviews fields to mass-products links TO their own websites. Unfortunately, your own website can be penalized for this, as it causes a poor experience for your visitors. Impact: Moderate to Severe
- Hacked website: Your website is labelled as hacked in Google Search results, leading to sharp drop-off of visitors and rankings
- Thin Content: If your website has very little content of value.
- There are others like Pure Spam, Hidden Text, Sneaky redirects, Rich Text abuse etc., but these are ones where there is likely an intentional rule-breaking by the webmaster, and thus knowledge of what went wrong.
- Algorithmic Penalties
At times, algorithm changes are not penalties per-se (though their effects are no less devastating!), but merely a change in the logic by which websites are ranked. Other times, websites employing say shady link building tactics are explicitly pushed down by the algorithms.It is possible to recover from both.There is a whole host of such penalties, as google makes almost 300 changes to their algorithms each year. These can be likened to earthquakes, which vary on a Richter scale of 1 to 10, and it makes sense to focus on the big ones, as they cause the maximum havoc:
- Penguin: Identifies sites with unnatural links (both TO and FROM a website!). Links can be deemed unnatural if they are from poor quality sources; are generated in a quick period of time, or have similar anchor texts (with little keyword diversity).To put it in other words; if links are built in a shady manner, there are tell-tale signs, which google and pick on. Cheap SEO “companies” resort to such link building practices by an army of low paid employees with no contextual understanding, or via software, and the result is often a Penguin penalty.
- Panda: Targets sites with low quality of weak content, which is shallow, poorly written, or adds very little value.
- Mobilegeddon: As Google adapts to a mobile-first world (most people conduct searches and shopping via a mobile device); and its algorithms reflect this trend by rewarding mobile-friendly sites
- Site Layout / Ad penalty: If your website has a lot of ads “above the fold” i.e. in the top part of the screen, or mobile viewers see a big screen-covering popup (called “interstitial”), it hampers their experience, and google may demote such sites in their results.
- There are several other algorithm-based adjustments, and their impact at times is subtle. However, cumulatively, they cause a gradual decline in traffic, to reflect the decreased prominence of your site for google (or increased prominence of your competitors!).
Algorithmic penalties require specific actions to recover, whereas a Manual Penalty requires systematic and thorough effort to overcome. The broad steps are:
- Backlink Profile Analysis: This is done via several tools as well as human review
- Analysis of any previous Outsourced SEO / Inhouse SEO work: This at times can instantly pin-point existing or even potential problems. E.g. the same website can be hit by a combination of penalties few months apart.
- Rank Checks: Google Webmaster Tool also gives access to historic ranking data, so a before-after comparison is possible.
- Google Analytics: Organic traffic is studied in detail, and drops are matched to known algorithm deployment dates, to pin-point problems.
- A plan is created to recover from algorithmic penalties (e.g. make website mobile friendly, OR delete poor content and add valuable content). For manual unnatural link penalty, the process includes:
- Identifying, and reaching out manually to webmasters to delete poor quality / toxic links and document contact (minimum 3 times). This is the hardest, yet most crucial part of the exercise.
- Using the Disavow tool to disown links which cannot be removed. This step is considered a last resort; and only disavowing links will not be sufficient to remove a manual penalty.This step requires careful understanding – indiscriminate use of this can cause more problems than what it is intended to solve.
- Make certain pages as 404 (delete the pages), or mark them as noindex
- Removing any links TO toxic websites.
- Ultimately, send a well-crafted reply to the Penalty Notice, with details of all work done, documentary evidences, and demonstrating a sincere intent to not indulge in such practices down the line.
You need to convince a human Google reviewer to give your website a second chance, so careful work; documentation thereof; and a well-crafted message is essential to succeed in removal of a manual penalty.
Afterfirst is skilled at penalty removal, and we would love to help you recover from penalties, head-off any potential penalties in future, and give you a well laid-out plan to thrive in your post-recovery period.