There are SEO professionals that have an idea about Google penalties, and there are SEO professionals who know how to handle and remove Google penalties.
Unfortunately, the two are not always the same person… Then there are those who almost like hypochondriacs, scream PANDA! Or PENGUIN! Just make you waste time and spend money with every rise and fall of traffic and search queries on a search engine. But that’s none of my business.
I wrote before about the use of tactics that are likely to become controversial, like quality content, and talked extensively about link building.
When executed incorrectly and, in a manipulative way, these tactics may culminate in severe manual and/or algorithmic penalties. To deal with any kind of penalties, it’s necessary to understand how they work. The logic that leads to its implementation (manual and/or algorithmically), and what we can do, in a direct or indirect way to influence them. Mostly, any type of penalty can be reverted, but some may be more laborious than others. Many professionals are in the front row to sell, promote themselves as “the greatest”, but forget the exit tactic when possibly all goes haywire. It’s always very easy to get in, the tricky part, is to get out.
Debunking a few misconceptions around penalties
Now that I have externalised my daily dose of rhetoric speech… Onwards! First, however, let’s debunk some myths about penalties that, in one way or another, always find space in the vocabulary (or site) of the common charlatan:
Not all Google penalties results in the removal of a website
A penalty, is a way to manually compensate an attempt in manipulation of organic search results. So, it has to adapt to the tactics used and, most importantly, to the intent of the manipulator. If someone is trying to manipulate search results using link spam, it doesn’t make sense to remove the website. It’s enough to intervene in the effect of those links. However, sometimes there is the need to insert an extra element in order to educate.
Not all Google penalties cause a rise or fall in search results
Just as not everything you do is reflected in a visible way on your site, some types of penalties may also manifest only in ways that are unnoticeable at first sight. This type of penalty, may act in conjunction with others.
There is no duplicate content penalty
I’ve lost count on how long SEOs are still hammering this. I’ve heard so many theories that I’ve lost count! Duplicate content is not more than — You guessed! — Content duplication! The performance of a website in organic search results, can be affected by numerous algorithms and ranking factors (yes, these two are two different things). But correlation and causality are also two different things, and often unrelated. Although, you may have read or heard the contrary coming from an “expert” near you.
A website is not penalised for having a high number of 404 URLs
Obviously, if your important pages return an
HTTP 404 Not Found status, your site will not show up in search results for which those URLs would be relevant. Dexterity is in the ability to distinguish URLs that are valuable and should be working, from irrelevant URLs that are generated during the crawl process of any web site. When Google finds a site with hundreds or thousands of 404 URLs, it treats each URL individually. It’s not something that, in a direct way, affects the site as a whole.
Bounce Rate does not influence your ranking
I have already wrote about this topic in a previous blog post Bounce Rate Demystified. Have a read there, not worth to be writing again here.
Now that, we debunked some misconceptions commonly used when the “expert” actually meant to say “I Don’t Know”, we can move ahead.
My site was penalised by Google. Now what?
Easy young Padawan! Before entering a blind and uninformed path, correlating erratic performance with hypothetical penalties, you do need to do some research work and performance analysis of your website.
Algorithmic changes VS Manual Penalties
Before indulging in this matter, we need to clarify three essential things:
- Algorithmic changes are NOT penalties. Technically speaking, the effect of an algorithm is not a penalty. It can feel and look like a penalty, but it’s actually a recalculation of the factors influencing rankings.
- Algorithms adapt to the characteristics of a website. After crawling, and processing all internal and external information, that influence classification signals of a website in organic search results.
- Algorithmic changes are not reconsidered through the same processes that manual penalties are. However, virtually all types of negative influence and manual penalties have the potential to be reversed.
It’s no secret that Google makes hundreds of algorithmic experiments in search. Some of these experiments result in algorithmic or infrastructure changes, others don’t. According to the latest numbers released by Google, between 2014 and 2015 were carried out a number of experiments that resulted in about 1.000 algorithmic changes.
Commonly referred to as “algorithmic penalties”, algorithmic changes can target a set of characteristics of a website. The visible outcome, is usually reflected as a rise or fall in search rankings. The difference between algorithmic changes and manual penalties can be a muddy scenario. It’s not something you can immediately learn, and, without years of experience, you won’t be able to immediately distinguish between the influence of an algorithmic change and a manual penalty. One needs to look at the details to read and understand the behaviour of a website. Different websites may react differently to the same type of algorithmic changes.
Currently, between some of the most widely discussed algorithmic changes we have:
- Quality related algorithm changes, like “Panda”: These algorithms looks at many factors and have as main objective to bring more quality results, and less content made exclusively to rank in search engine’s organic results;
- Spam related algorithm changes, like “Penguin”: Algorithms targeting SPAM in general (no, not just links). Although it has special focus on spammy links that have been created with the intention to manipulate and inflate relevance;
- Experience related algorithm changes, like “Top Heavy”: Focuses on reducing the amount of sites that have a high amount of ads above the content. Often hindering access to its content;
There are many other types of algorithm changes that I will not address here. For those curious, Search Engine Land maintains a comprehensive and updated list of most algorithmic changes.
Dealing with negative symptoms caused by algorithm changes
Negative symptoms caused by algorithmic changes aren’t that straight forward to solve. One of the characteristics of algorithmic changes, is that they do not require a reconsideration request to be sent. To reverse a negative scenario caused by algorithmic changes, the only actions you need to take are:
- Identify the cause of the negative algorithmic influence;
- Make the necessary changes so that it ceases to affect your site*1.
It’s extremely important to have a good understanding of the issue you are dealing with. Not only regarding the site and its problems, but also about what kind of algorithms you may potentially be fighting with it.
*1 There are algorithmic updates that depend on manual updates for new factors to start being considered. Currently, and at the time of publication of this post, algorithmic updates like Panda and Penguin, are some of those examples. The “Panda” algorithm, aimed at combating low quality results, has some real time functional characteristics. But it’s limited to the use of previously and manually updated dataset.
Manual penalties are applied occasionally, and adopt various forms that can be more or less severe, depending on the specific intention of the manipulation. Each type of penalty, is also adjustable in many different ways. Manual penalties have three main objectives:
- Clear SPAM;
- Identify false negatives and train algorithms;
- Educate Webmasters, SEOs and website owners;
Contrary to what happens with algorithmic changes, for virtually all penalties that are applied manually, a warning is sent to the Search Console accounts that have access to the website data. These warnings, usually explain the type of penalty and, in some cases, include examples of the problem identified. Once the problem is solved, the webmaster or site owner, can request a review for the manual penalty to be revoked.
Some types of manual penalties
There are two large groups of penalties that can be applied manually:
- Penalties related to on-page issues: Hidden Text/Hidden Links, Keyword Stuffing, Doorways, Syndicated Content, Gibberish or Automated Content, etc.
- Penalties related to off-page issues: Buy links, Sell Links, Link schemes, Link spam, etc.
Some of the most common types of symptoms of a manual penalty are: Complete or partial removal; Demotion in search results; Cut of PageRank flow; among others. It is also common, sometimes, a combination of one or more of these.
For those who want to avoid the heartbreak of having a website penalised manually, or algorithmically, Google makes available a comprehensive set of Quality Guidelines, and also a blog specially aimed at communication with Webmasters.
As if it were not enough to get into ethically questionable tactics, the majority of reconsideration requests usually fails at the first attempt. This happens, specially, due to lack of in-depth knowledge of quality guidelines. But also because of the misconception that you can continue doing SEO à la 2005. Like having a complete disregard of quality guidelines, and assuming that techniques like planting links with diversified anchors, or “stealth” (LOL) PBNs will work.
In the end, it all depends on how much and how long you want your business to thrive in the results. You have two ways:
- The easy road and short-term: You buy that link building package, together with that original content article pack, and a list of keywords for $1.500. Adopt the approach that, after all, success is easy is cheap — Idiot was that other guy, who came up with the competitive advantage talk…
- The more difficult and long-term: You invest in a Digital Marketing Strategy, work the digital presence of your brand and its competitive advantage, and claim the rewards down the road.
Assess the risks of a Google penalty
Most of the time, the easy way is not the right choice. Unfortunately, many still ignore the high risk of having a website penalised in search results. Whether with a manual or algorithmic penalty, it can easily become quite complicated, not to mention how long it will take to get resolved. While manual penalties go into a queue, and are eventually evaluated by a human in the Search Quality team within a few weeks, an algorithmic penalty can become almost a trial and error game for the uninformed Webmaster. And, as if that were not enough, you don’t know immediately when you get out if it. For every change you make to your site, you need to wait for Google to crawl and process again all factors that influence the ranking of your site. If all goes well, you will likely see results.
Obviously, everyone receives the quality of service they are willing to pay. And usually, the quality of an SEO service is proportional to the price. Usually, cheaper service comes with a low quality outcome. So watch out when choosing your agency or consulting.
Some final advice regarding Google penalties
- Remember, you can do everything on your site, the site is yours; But it’s Google’s index;
- If you want to remain in Google’s index, you have to play by the rules;
- You can break the rules whenever you want, no one will take you to prison. However Google reserves the right to protect itself against manipulation attempts in the way they find most appropriate;
- Just because that other competitor is doing, it does not give you carte blanche to do the same. After all, with regards to infringing quality guidelines all comes down to what I always say: It’s not IF Google will catch you, it’s WHEN!