Google Penalties: What They Mean, and How to Avoid Them
May 26th 2022 | By Steve Grant
We talk a lot about ‘Google penalties’ in SEO. About how breaching best practice, or not following guidelines, can lead to a drop in rankings, or worse still, disappearing from the search results altogether.
If you’ve been working hard at achieving top rankings, and all of a sudden find that you’ve fallen off the search radar, it’s going to be more than frustrating. It could actually be financially damaging, and harmful for your brand reputation too.
Let’s take a look then at how Google penalties work, and how to avoid them.
What are Google penalties?
Google is committed to providing its users with the best possible search experience. It therefore works tirelessly to set down best practice guidelines, so that website owners are aware of what is expected of their sites.
If a website is found to be attempting to manipulate rankings, or is in breach of the webmaster guidelines, it may be penalised. This could lead to particular pages, or entire sites, being ranked further down the search listings, or left out of search results altogether.
Google has a dedicated team making sure all websites follow its guidelines. If they find there are websites that don’t comply, they’ll issue a manual action.
Algorithm updates are primarily designed to reward good behaviour, with sites that have improved overtaking those that haven’t. So it could be that even if a site hasn’t done anything wrong, others will steal its positions from under it.
Google updates its search algorithms on a regular basis, so it’s vital to keep on top of any guidelines updates to ensure you don’t fall behind.
What to do if your website suffers a Google penalty?
The place to start if you believe your website has been penalised by Google is by determining what type of penalty it is.
A manual penalty is where a human reviewer finds a website is in breach of guidelines. This type is simple to pinpoint, as you’ll be issued a notification by Google Search Console. This notification will give you the reasons for the action, allowing you to fix it easily.
Typical Google cheats that could damage your rankings due to penalties include keyword stuffing, copy or image cloaking, fake reviews, spammy links, poor content, issues with structured data or sneaky mobile redirects, for example.
If you’ve been penalised following an algorithm update, however, it can be more of a challenge to identify. With no notifications, the first you will probably know about it is a drop off in enquiries, because your online visibility has changed for the worse. This is why it’s so important to monitor web traffic, so you’ll be in the know straight away.
Keeping up to date with algorithm updates is also crucial. Any good SEO agency will be on top of these, and will know they’re coming and what the likely implications will be well in advance.
What is important, is to get on the case straight away and start doing what you can to put things right, because it can take a while to get back on track after a rankings drop.
How to get back on track following Google penalties?
It very much depends on the root cause of the penalty as to what the solution will be. Here are some of the most common reasons for Google penalties, and what to do about them.
Sneaky redirects and cloaking
Sneaky redirects are when users are taken to a different page to what Google sees. Cloaking is when a site displays different pages to users compared to what it shows to Google.
You can identify both via Google Search Console, which will show you the differences between the content on your website, and that which Google sees. From here, you’ll be able to resolve the differences, and remove any deceptive redirects.
Once that’s done, you can submit a request to Google to reconsider your site.
Google uses links to understand what content may be helpful to its users, and also to ascertain site authority. But if links are not well deserved and earned through legitimate sources, then a site will be penalised, especially in light of the Link Spam Update of 2021.
You can avoid penalties by making sure you follow Google’s best practice for linking. This includes creating your own quality content that others will naturally want to link to, as well as avoiding the likes of paid-for links and automated linking programmes.
Getting rid of spammy links you already have might not be so easy, as you’ll need to manually request that links are removed. But it’s worth doing. Once everything has been rectified, again you can request a reconsideration from Google.
Poor or duplicate content
If Google considers the content on your website or any one of its pages to be low quality, perhaps because it’s automatically generated, scraped content or a poorly written guest blog, it may penalise it. Similarly, if there is duplicate content, either from pages on your own site, or taken from elsewhere on the web, you’ll likely suffer a penalty.
To rectify the issue of poor quality content, look at the likes of bounce rate and time on site to pinpoint the pages that are of little interest to users. Then you can go ahead and edit or rewrite those pages, or even get rid of them completely if they’re not needed.
There are various tools you can use to check for duplicate content.
Always remember that Google rewards rich, quality content. So keep this in mind when writing or rewriting your web pages.
Once you’re done, again submit a reconsideration request through Google Search Console.
Issues with structured data
Google has guidelines for structured data, and they are obligatory. If your website is found to contain spammy structured data or content, such as content that’s marked up but not shown to users or is manipulated in some other way, you’ll receive a manual action.
It’s actually fairly simple to rectify this penalty. All you need to do is run through all your structured data mark-ups, ascertain whether any of them are in breach of the guidelines, and then amend or update them. Once you’re done, you can request a reconsideration.
Google’s Manual Actions page lists all potential penalties and how to fix them.
Google penalties… Prevention is better than cure
Obviously it’s much easier and more beneficial to avoid Google penalties rather than to have to spend time rectifying them. Being familiar with and following Google guidelines to the letter will help you do just that, as will staying on top of all the latest algorithm updates.
Here at Figment, we make it our business to stay on top of all the changing trends in search engine optimisation, making sure our clients’ websites are fully compliant with current best practice, and are ready for any forthcoming algorithm updates.
Need help staying on top and avoiding damaging Google penalties? Talk to Figment.