Google’s declared goal is to satisfy the user’s search intention as best as possible. This means that the search engine searches and prioritizes the pages in the index according to the content that corresponds to its opinion (a.k.a. the ranking algorithm) of the search query.
However, with technology (smartphones, smart devices, Internet of Things), user behavior is also constantly evolving, which in turn leads to a constant evolution of search algorithms and with them those Google’s guidelines for webmasters.
For example, the search engine giant does not like to see attempts to achieve fast rankings through so-called Black Hat SEO. Those who do not adhere to these guidelines will be punished and receive a so-called Google Penalty. The same applies to Google updates, which unavoidably happen again and again.
Why is a Google Penalty so much feared?
Whether via smartphone, laptop or tablet, whether for research at work, planning the next trip, or finding building instructions for bombs: more and more people are using search engines to navigate the web.
This also increases the dependence on the ranking in the search results. Google is an important traffic supplier for many websites – if not the most important traffic source. Of course, there are other search engines (e.g. DuckDuckGo, Bing, Yahoo…), but Google still has mobile and desktop market shares of over 90%.
In any case, it is a fact that a Google Penalty can lead to ranking losses or even deindexation. This can have dramatic consequences for any company if important keywords, URLs or even the entire website are affected by the penalty.
Depending on the intensity, this can lead to significant revenue losses if the company’s success is significantly tied to its web presence and thus to the traffic from Google. It is enough to slip to the second or third search results page because here the traffic already drops rapidly.
SEO Tip: Avoid dependencies. Try to spread the mix of traffic sources (search engines, social media, e-mail marketing backlinks) as broadly as possible so that the dependence on Google is never too high.
How do I recognize a Google Penalty?
You can recognize a Google Penalty by a drop in the visibility of your website and by sudden, rapid ranking losses of individual URLs, individual keywords or even the entire website. And this without you having just made major changes to your website (for example, changes to the robots.txt file that controls the crawling of your page?).
Then it may be a Google Penalty.
A look at Google Analytics can also help. Because as a rule, significant ranking losses go hand in hand with strong traffic losses. In case of a manual penalty, you will be informed in the Google Search Console.
What triggers a Google Penalty?
The reasons for a Google Penalty can be different. The majority of penalties were caused by the major Google updates of the last few years. Search engines are getting smarter and are increasingly adapting to human language and user behavior as technology advances. The latest major update in this direction is BERT, which has improved the search engine’s understanding of language by leaps and bounds since October 2019 thanks to NLP. This changes and expands the ranking factors that “good content” must deliver. If your page can’t keep up (anymore), this may result in a Google Penalty.
For example, the Panda Update made a clean sweep of thin content – and thus put a stop to those webmasters and SEOs who created as many URLs as possible with little content (and even less useful content for the user).
Then there was also the Penguin Update, which put an end to massive link building through link buying of irrelevant content. Many of the Google updates resulted in numerous penalties because the corresponding domains had previously taken measures, which then no longer corresponded to the new Google guidelines.
However, users also have the chance to report a page to Google as spam. In rare cases, there may also be court orders that result in a page being removed from the search engine index. Another option is a manual penalty by the Google Search Team. More about this below.
How do I avoid a Google Penalty?
Basically, the following always applies: Keep up to date with the developments in search engine optimization. Find out about major Google updates, because they are milestones in the further development of Google algorithms.
- Avoid obvious link buying or selling.
Link building is one of the cornerstones of search engine optimization. For a long time, the more backlinks a domain had, the better – regardless of whether these links made any sense thematically or not. So backlinks were bought and sold en masse. However, this violates Google’s guidelines and so the links that were once useful from an SEO point of view became harmful backlinks. Instead, use links with added value for the user.
- Avoid over-optimization of your website
Don’t overdo it with pure SEO measures. Because Google doesn’t want you to optimize your site for the search engine, but for the user. Or to put it another way: Google wants you to primarily do UEO – User Experience Optimization. While this is not an established term, it captures the focus best. Too many measures that are clearly aimed at improving your rankings are not welcome.
- Use different anchor texts for your links
Make sure you vary your anchor texts and don’t always use the same hard, keyword-optimized anchor text for a URL. Hard, keyword-focused link texts may give the user too little background information about the content behind the link (UEO!) and cause immense annoyance to the search engine, as it is simply unnatural.
- Avoid duplicate content and poor quality content
Don’t just copy content from others (that would also be plagiarism and can cause legal trouble) or your own. This is especially true for store pages for product variations. Yes, it is tedious. But the user notices it and quickly moves to the place where he gets added value instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. The search engine notices it even more and doesn’t know with which product variation you want to rank now. This can lead to keyword cannibalization.
SEO Tip: If it is unavoidable that the content is very similar (e.g. product variations), then work with Canonical Tags. This way you mark one of your product variations as the original and refer to this URL on all other variations. Then the search engine does not stumble and does not have to wonder which of these variations is now important.
Canonical tags can lead to more stable rankings: You have only one URL in the SERPs, you don’t compete with yourself anymore and the search engine doesn’t have to constantly test which variation works better on which position.
- Make sure your site is optimized for mobile devices
You probably know it from yourself: to find the next restaurant, you pull out your cell phone. For the way there, too. And on the train, you read the news or find out about topics that interest you. On. your. mobile. phone. Please make sure that users can easily navigate your website with their cell phones. The importance of a mobile-optimized site is also shown by Google’s Mobile First Update, which was launched in March 2018. The Google Core Update of March 2019 also indicates that mobile accessibility (along with user experience) is becoming increasingly important.
To make your website fit for mobile first, the load time in particular needs to be jerky. A common obstacle to fast page loads is image files that are far too large, or loading the site entirely. Progressive Web Apps (PWA) or Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) are two ways you can implement Mobile First well.
Which types of penalties are there?
Google primarily makes a difference between penalties caused by the algorithm and manual penalties. The former are imposed by the algorithm if it detects violations of Google’s guidelines when crawling your page. These penalties can be against:
- Rankings for specific keywords,
- certain URLs
- certain directories
- the entire domain
A keyword penalty means that you are banned from the top positions in the SERPs for a specific keyword or a few others. Rankings for other keywords are then not affected, but only individual ones.
If your domain was ranked #1 or on the first page for the specific keyword for weeks or months, your position for this keyword suddenly dramatically drops. Often the domain then suddenly falls in the search results to page 3 or 4 of Google’s search results page or even further back.
URL or directory level
With this penalty, a specific directory or URL of a domain is affected, regardless of which keywords they rank for. It may well be that a inner page of a domain ranks for several keywords. This is even very likely with extensive content. If this inner page is penalized, all rankings for this URL will be penalized. The inner page or an entire directory would either be removed from the Google index or only be found very far down in the results.
Domain or subdomain level
The penalty follows the same pattern as the penalty at the directory or URL level, but for the entire domain or subdomain (host). The domain or subdomain remains in the index and the URLs can still be found via a site query, but your rankings are lost. Google users will no longer find your website. All positions in Google are gone.
The de-indexing (also called delisting) is the hardest Google penalty. The domain with all its inner pages is completely removed from the index and deleted from the search engine’s database. Even a site query would then reveal that no pages can be displayed.
A delisting or deindexation usually follows due to a massive violation of the guidelines or an accumulation of various violations. A court order can also lead to Google having to remove entire domains from the index.
Manual action by the Google spam team
First, check whether your page has been penalized by Google’s algorithm or by a manual measure.
The difference is: You will not be informed about an automatic penalty, but about a manual one.
It is therefore important for every SEO to enter his domains in the Search Console. There you will also be informed about manual penalties. Of course, there are more reasons to set up Search Console.
You would see the message of a manual penalty in the Search Console inbox as well as under “Search queries” –> “Manual actions”. If the domain has lost visibility, then an automatic update could be the cause.
Unfortunately, Google does not reveal in the notifications exactly which measures have to be taken to have the penalty lifted again. However, the spam team gives clues when it comes to unnatural link building, for example. Up to three example links are given, which have led to the punishment. However, this is not a complete list, but only examples.
The most common causes for manual penalties are, for example, unnatural backlinks, doorway pages, cloaking and spam.
A little tip: In this video Matt Cuts from Google explains the actions of the Google Spam team:
The following reasons, for example, can be triggers for a manual action:
- Unnatural inbound backlinks
- Unnatural outbound backlinks
- Unmarked paid content with outbound follow links (paid links)
- Spam pages
- Low content with little or no added value for the user
- Hidden content (e.g. white text on white background)
- Keyword spamming (unnaturally frequent use of a keyword in the text), etc.
Google’s Search Quality Team also uses spam pages reported by users. You can report these pages directly to Google via Spam Report.
How long does a penalty last?
Here again, a differentiation must be made as to whether this is an algorithmic penalty or a manual measure.
The algorithmic penalty is lifted at the moment when the reasons for the penalty are no longer found after a crawl by Google. The algorithm then no longer responds to the signals worthy of punishment and usually releases the domain completely from the penalty. Ranking losses are usually fully recovered.
In the case of a manual penalty, a reconsideration request must be submitted to Google. This works via the Search Console. There you can explain what measures you have taken to eliminate the offending rule violations. Once the request is submitted, the Google team evaluates these requests and decides whether or not to remove the Google Penalty. There is no guarantee that a removal will occur and is solely at Google’s judgment. If the first request is not cancelled, you can always make a new request. However, this only has a higher chance of success if further measures have been taken by the webmaster.
Google explains in its Webmaster Help the procedure of the request for a new check.
How can I fix a Google Penalty?
Whether your domain has lost visibility due to a manual action or due to a penalty by the Google algorithm is actually irrelevant. The important thing now is that you fix the penalty promptly in order to quickly counteract further losses in terms of rankings, traffic and, of course, sales.
To fix a Google Penalty you first have to find out what the most probable cause for the penalty is. In case of a manual action by Google, you will be given hints in the Search Console.
In case of algorithmic penalties you will not get any information. So you have to find it on your own. Check if any recent (perhaps long outdated) SEO actions have been taken that violate the Google Quality Guidelines.
If that’s not the case, you should check if there was a recent Google update.
A little tip: It is important that you keep a cool head during Google updates and first wait a few days to see if your rankings don’t recover on their own.
Final thoughts about Google penalty
A penalty by Google can cause massive damage. If the visibility of pages in the search results pages drops or disappears, fewer potential customers will find your website. The consequence: new orders drop or collapse, sales will stop. Especially if a large share of traffic comes from Google, the effects can be dramatic. The good news: you can get out of an algorithmic penalty as well as out of a manual spam measure – at least most of the time. Google does not give a guarantee, but we have seen many domains recover after a penalty.
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All the best,