Google’s on an uncompromising mission. It wants to give its users access to accurate information, unique content and the finest writers. It continually tweaks and improves its algorithms so that the best of the web gets the exposure it deserves.
Unfortunately, there’s a flipside: a penalty. That’s the consequence of Google taking issue with something on your site. Sometimes a penalty is well deserved, but even if you know you’re in the wrong, you probably want to do something about it.
What Is a Google Penalty?
Google has been changing its ranking algorithms since December 2000. That’s when it released its toolbar extension. At the time, the toolbar update represented a sea change that would create the SEO industry as we know it. In fact, it was the first time PageRank was published in a meaningful or usable form.
Over the next decade-and-a-bit, Google continued to refine the quality of its search results. Over time, it begins to eliminate poor quality content and elevate the good stuff to the top of the SERPs. That’s where penalties – come in.
The Penguin update was rolled out in 2012. It hit more than 1 in 10 search results overnight, wiped some sites out of search entirely, pushed poor quality content off the map and forced optimizers to think much more carefully about their content strategy. Since then, SEO professionals have been very tuned in to Google’s plans, fearing the next update in case it results in a penalty for a site they’re working on.
Recognizing a Penalty
Penalties can be automatic or manual. With manual penalties, you’ll probably be told, but you may not always know you’ve been targeted if the cause is algorithmic. Those penalties may take even the most experienced SEO professionals by surprise.
For algorithmic penalties, here are some sure-fire clues.
Your website is not ranking well for your brand name any more. That’s a dead giveaway. Even if your site doesn’t rank for much else, it should at least do well on that one keyword.
Any page one positions you had are slipping back to page two or three without any action on your part.
PageRank for your site has inexplicably dropped from a respectable two or three to a big fat zero (or a measly PR of one).
The entire website has been removed from Google’s cached search results overnight.
Running a site search – site:yourdomain.com keyword – yields no results.
Your listing – when you eventually find it in Google – is for a page on your site other than the home page.
If you see one or more of these factors, you can be pretty sure that a penalty has affected your site.
Google is continually tweaking and revising the way it indexes content.
While it does publish clues about its algorithm updates, it rarely comes clean about all of its reasons for changes. Fixing things can be tough.
To get you off on the right track, here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: 50 common reasons for Google taking issue with your site. While we’re not saying we know the definite reasons for a penalty, we do know that these factors all contribute.
Some swear it doesn’t happen, but actual evidence is mixed. Buying links could certainly be seen as an attempt to manipulate PageRank, and therein lies the controversy. If you’ve been buying bad links (and lots of them), your actions could have caught up with you.
Excessive reciprocal links
Swapping links was once an innocent marketing tactic until it started to be abused. If you’ve been exchanging lots of links with clients, it could be seen as a manipulation attempt.
Hopefully this one’s obvious: any duplicate content on your site makes it less useful in Google’s view, and that could result in a penalty. Make sure your content is unique and well-written; use tools like Plagiarism Checker
Overusing H1 tags
Correctly structuring content helps with SEO. The H1 tag helps Google to understand what the page is about. Excessive H1 tags could be seen as an attempt to pump Google’s listing with keywords.
Internal 404 error
Google wants to know that you tend to your content and weed out any errors and problems. If you’re delivering 404s inside your own website, it’s a sure fire signal that your users aren’t getting the information they ask for.
Links from sites in another language
This one seems unfair, right? You’ve got a legitimate link from a client in another country, yet it’s technically counted against you. Well, Google’s reasoning is sound: users generally tend to prefer one language, so linking to sites in another language isn’t that useful for them.
Keyword stuffed content
There are all kinds of weird and wonderful ‘rules’ about keyword density in content. The truth is that none of these rules are proven, and a very high keyword density is a flag for poorly written content. If Google detects a weirdly high number of keywords in a page, it may penalize you – rightly or wrongly.
Some web designers use footer links as a navigational aid; some try to manipulate PageRank by using the footer as a place to pass link juice unnaturally.
All of the links on your site should be visible and useful to users. Anything that’s hidden is considered suspicious. Never make a link the same color as the background of a page or button, even if you have an innocent reason.
Broken external links
If you don’t keep links up-to-date, Google will assume you don’t care about the user experience and are happy to pack visitors off to various 404 error pages. Check links periodically and pull the duff ones.
Sometimes website managers pull content from other sites in order to bulk our their own pages. Often, this is done with good intentions, and it may be an innocent error. But Google sees this as pointless duplication. Replace it with your own original content instead.
Less ethical optimization tactics include disguising text on a page to manipulate the theme or keyword weighting. It goes without saying that this is a big no-no.
Anchor text overuse
Once upon a time, SEO experts worked on linking certain keywords in order to reinforce their authority. Since the 2012 Penguin update, the over-use of anchor text linking is strongly discouraged. Switch out your forced, unnatural keyword links for honest links phrased in real English.
Neglecting what now? ‘Hreflang’ is designed to notify Google that you have intentionally published duplicate content for different languages or localities. The jury’s out as to whether it really helps, but using it can’t hurt in the meantime.
Website timing out or down
When a website goes down, everyone gets upset: the visitor, the webmaster and the search engine. If Google can’t find your site, it would rather de-index it rather than keep sending visitors to a dead end.
While domain names aren’t that risky in themselves, domain names with keywords in might be. Consider the anchor text linking issue: if we repeatedly link to that domain, Google might see that as anchor text manipulation. If you do use an exact match domain, make sure it has plenty of great content on it, otherwise Google will assume you’re trying to fool people into clicking.
Some experts still believe rented links are valid and useful for SEO. They pay for them on a monthly basis and change them around occasionally. However, we’d consider them paid links, and so would most of these experts on Quora.
Using blog networks
As far as Google is concerned, any kind of network is a sign of potential SERP manipulation. Most blog networks have now shut down or given users the chance to delete all of these incoming links. You should too.
Affiliate links all over the place
Google isn’t necessarily opposed to affiliate websites, but a high number of affiliate links is a red flag that the content may not be up to scratch. Although it’s possible to mask affiliate links with redirects, Google is wise to this tactic, so don’t rely on it.
We all need to link pages together, but Google is constantly scanning those links for unnatural patterns. A classic example is a web developer credit in the footer of a page. Don’t just nofollow: remove them entirely.
Overusing meta keywords
Meta keywords have been a topic for debate for some time. They are way too easy to manipulate. Make sure you use no more than five per page.
If your site’s slow to load, your users will get frustrated. Many, many factors affect hosting speeds, so this is quite a tricky problem to assess and troubleshoot. Use a caching plugin or a CDN right away. You could also move your site to a data center closer to your most frequent visitors: that’s a little more involved. Check your pagespeed on Page Speed Checker
Spinning is content theft. It could land you in hot water if the Google penalty doesn’t catch up with you first. Bought some super-cheap articles? Sometimes content is spun by the ‘writer’, so you may not even know about it. If the price was too good to be true, that’s a sign you may have bought spun articles.
Most commenting systems have an automated spam detection system, but some comments still make it through. Keep a close eye on the comments you’re getting. Also, don’t let spam build up; if you don’t have time to moderate it, switch commenting off entirely.
Black hat SEO advice
If you publish information about manipulating SERPs using black hat methods, expect to be penalized.
If your site has been hacked, Google will quickly remove it from SERPs. Act quickly to contain hacking attempts and restore sites from backup if the worst does happen.
Speedy link building
It’s natural to want your new site to rank quickly. Don’t overdo it. Lots of similar links pointing to the same place is a sign of automation. Don’t artificially bump your link velocity: make gradual changes over time.
We’ve all used forums awash with signature links. Sometimes there are so many, it can be hard to locate the actual posts. If you add a forum link, use good, natural linking techniques and consider making it a nofollow too.
Hiding your sponsors
Having a sponsor is no bad thing. Plenty of sites wouldn’t exist without them. Don’t try to hide your sponsors, but follow the rules: nofollow sponsor links and make sure Google’s news bot doesn’t crawl pages where those links can be found.
The robots.txt file should be used to tell search engines how to deal with your site. While there are legitimate reasons for excluding pages from robots.txt, do it sparingly: excessive blocking could be the cause of your penalty.
Links to suspicious sites
Never associate yourself with a website that is doing something ethically or legally dubious. Hacking, porn and malware-ridden sites should be avoided. Also, try to remove links to other sites that have been penalized in the past, assuming you know about it.
Businesses sometimes try to use multiple landing pages in order to improve their position in SERPs. Some companies also try to improve their position by creating lots of one-page websites optimized for a single keyword, then funneling users through to another site. Google considers this kind of thing to be bad practice.
Google doesn’t like to see too much of a good thing. An over-optimization penalty usually means you’ve gone a step too far in your bid to obsessively out-SEO everyone else in your industry. Cool it and publish some natural content before your rank suffers.
The controversy around advertorial content was perhaps the most well-known of the pre-Penguin 2 debates. An advertorial is basically a page of content riddled with paid links, and often these pages were being used for aggressive manipulation of search results. The most famous example was Interflora: read about its penalty here.
Too many outbound links
When linking to other websites, keep it natural. A high quantity of links is a sign that you’re swapping links with people for the sake of mutual SEO benefit.
If you’ve received a penalty on your site, using a 301 redirect could transfer the penalty to a new location. What’s more, the penalty could linger if you remove the redirect later. To be safe, don’t do it. Check Redirect checker
Aside from the obvious 404 error, there are a range of others that Google really hates to see. 302 (temporarily moved) isn’t ideal; if you really must redirect something, use 301. Also, if you see any 500 errors, deal with the root cause as soon as you can.
Some blogging tools and CMS platforms make it all too easy to create duplicate metadata by accident. While metadata isn’t a cause for a penalty on its own, it can be a sign of a duplicate content issue on your site. In any case, it’s undesirable; try to deal with it. Check on Meta Tags Analyzer
Your site NEVER deserves this penalty – but it is something you should know about. If you’re really unlucky, an unethical competitor may try to shove your site down the SERPs by getting it penalized. The most common cause is a malicious backlink campaign.
Google is waging war against some of the keywords most frequently appearing in spam sites. ‘Payday loans’ is a good example of a keyword that has already been targeted, although some people feel that it could do more. If you legitimately operate in an industry that’s rife with spam, expect to be caught in the crossfire.
Don’t be sneaky and put links into script files. Google is much better at analyzing scripts and picking out weird links that shouldn’t be there.
Poor mobile websites
Google can normally detect a valid link between your mobile site and your website. If it’s poorly designed, it may not. Make sure the mobile site is sent to a device where the user agent is set to mobile.
Few outbound links
Google wants to see content that references other content of a similar standard. If you don’t share the love, it might look like an attempt to attract traffic unnaturally.
Domain has a bad rep
You may have innocently purchased a domain with a bad history, and that could cause you problems when you try to build a new site around it. Unfortunately this is often a dead end street; you may be best cutting your losses and buying another domain rather than throwing more money at the problem.
Even if you don’t steal content, someone else could steal yours. This is troublesome, since getting the content removed could involve filing multiple DMCA takedown notices or pursuing sites in court. If you’re penalized for this, try asking Google to remove the stolen content.
Advertising is OK when treated as a secondary concern. Ads should never dominate the page content or play second fiddle to an article or blog.
Using a content farm
Over the two years since Panda was phased in, it has been considered poor form to buy content from a ‘farm’ (defined as “sites with shallow or low-quality content”). If your content is poorly researched, light on detail or exists mainly to fill up the page, employ a professional rewrite it.
Beware of quick fixes
Don’t employ anyone that claims to have a magical, foolproof technique that will help to get your site to the top of the SERPs. The only way to rank well is to put in the groundwork over time.
How to Identify If Your Site is Filtered or Penalized?
When you need to learn if your website had been filtered or penalized, Marie recommends looking at just a few core factors:
I’d recommend the following:
Check GSC –> Search Traffic –> Manual actions to make sure that you don’t have a manual penalty.
Make sure your Google Analytics tracking code is working properly.
If you are seeing drops in rank checkers, check rankings manually on an incognito browser to see if the rankings truly are down.
Make sure you’re looking at Google organic traffic and not all traffic. I have had several cases where a site has contacted me because of a traffic drop, when in reality all that happened was they stopped running PPC ads.
Losing organic search positions and, consequently, traffic, does not necessarily indicate that your website was filtered algorithmically.
You could have simply been outperformed by your competitors in organic search results.
It is so common that a site may think that they’re being penalized, when really the issue is that a competitor is starting to beat them. And often, it’s really hard to compare your own site to competitors objectively.
For example, take the March 9, 2018 algorithm update. Google confirmed that this was an update that rewarded high quality sites. It wasn’t a demoting algorithm update. As such, if you saw drops on March 9, it’s not that you were demoted as low quality, but rather, other sites were promoted above you. […]
[…] But even then, you’d want to be critically assessing your own site to figure out how you can make it the best of its kind.
When we look at sites that have seen drops, we like to look at who is gaining amongst their competitors. Sometimes it is obvious that one particular site is suddenly seeing gains. If that’s the case, then we look at it and say, “Why would I prefer this #1 ranked site over the site that used to be #1?” Usually the answer to that question is obvious.
If there is no obvious competitor that is emerging as the winner, but rather, everyone seems to be beating you, then this could be a sign that your site (or perhaps your page) is being demoted due to low quality.
It’s usually not straightforward though whether you have problems. And ultimately the answer is the same in every case: DOEVERYTHINGYOUCANTOIMPROVEUPONQUALITY. It’s rare these days that you can fix a traffic drop by finding and fixing a smoking gun. In most cases, you’re not going to be able to remove a few pages or do a disavow or tweak a few things and see a return to good rankings. In order to recover from a quality hit you need to make extensive improvements.
Among other useful metrics, you will be able to get a list of links pointing to your website, that Google knowns about.
The list includes all types of links (good and bad, follow and no-follow).
Google will not tell you which links are good or bad, you will have to export the links in an Excel spreadsheet and manually review each link to decide whether is a good link or a potentially toxic link.
Toxic links will be added to a disavow file and submitted to Google (more on this below).
Here are the steps to manually analyze your link profile:
Step 1: Login to Google Search Console. If you haven’t done this already, you need to add and verify your website (all variations).
Step 2: Click Links from the left menu.
Step 3: Click more under ‘Top Linking Sites’.
What you see now is a list of all the domains that have links pointing to your website.
You can click on any domain to see to which pages on your site it links to.
Optional: You can click Export Data to export the details as a CSV file (Excel sheet) or Google Docs.
That was the easy part.
What you need to do now is to analyze each link and make a decision as to whether you want to keep it or drop it.
A few tips to help you in your decision:
#1 – You can safely ignore links from social media networks. Most of the links are “nofollow” anyway and those that are not, cannot hurt your domain’s reputation.
# 2 – You can safely ignore links coming from domains that no-longer exist. It is very common to click on a domain to see the incoming links and find out that it has expired or is no longer available.
It’s a matter of time for Google search console to update the data and remove these links.
#3 – Don’t remove links just because they look weird. It is normal for every website to have some weird links pointing to it.
Google is not after odd looking links but links that can actually influence their ranking algorithm and this is where you should concentrate.
#4 – For each link ask yourself these questions:
Is the sole purpose of the link to pass pagerank from one page to the other?
Does this link adds real value to the article or website that is posted on?
Would you be concerned if a Google employee was reviewing the quality of this link?
Is the website that is posted on a quality website with traffic or is it just a repository of articles with outgoing links?
Is the link in a comment field that does not add any value to the conversion?
Is the link in a website targeting people in a specific country that has nothing to do with your target audience?
The experienced SEO’s can spot bad backlinks easily but fortunately there are tools (as we will below), to assist you in this process.
So, before proceeding to the next step (i.e. to actually remove bad backlinks from Google), you need to go through all your links and prepare a list of all the links that you want to remove from your link profile.
How to find bad backlinks using SEMRUSH
Another faster and more efficient way to make sure that your link profile is always clean is to use a link auditing tool.
A tool has a number of advantages:
It can automatically check the backlinks and propose which ones are possibly toxic.
It can create the disavow file for you.
It can run the process every month and update you when it is needed to take action.
You can connect the tool with your Google Search Console to retrieve the links automatically so you won’t have to do any manual work.
#2 – Go to Projects from the left menu and click Add New Project
#3 – Give your project a name, type your domain and click Next.
#4 – From the Dashboard click SET UP under the Backlink Audit option
#5 – Select Root Domain as the campaign scope and click Brand Settings
#6 – Specify your brand name. Semrush will automatically detect your brand name from your domain name but if you use any other names for your brand (or in different languages), add them and click Domain Categories.
#7 – Select all the categories your domain is associated with and click Target Countries.
It is important to select the right categories because this will help SEMRUSH identify risky links (coming from categories unrelated to yours) and give you more accurate results.
Note: We recommend removing backlinks from sites: poker, porn, casino, judi, togel. Some of their sites and keywords have been on Google's blacklist
#8 – As a final step, type the country associated with your target audience and click the Start Backlink Audit button.
SEMRush will start analyzing the links that they know about.
In order to get more accurate results, you need to connect semrush with your Google Search Console so that they can import the links reported by Google.
#1 – Click connect next to Google Search Console.
You will be prompted with a screen that looks like this:
Basically, all you have to do now is to give access to your Google Search Console to the specified email so that semrush can access your link data.
If you don’t know how to do this, click the show more details button to get step by step instructions.
Once this is done, you will get a screen similar to this:
You can see at a glance the total number of links and the percentage of links that are considered by the tool toxic or potentially toxic.
#2 – Analyze toxic links
Click on the toxic links to get a list of all the links that are considered by semrush as toxic.
Make sure that you click the Follow filter so as to exclude links that are nofollow.
A few things to note:
Semrush identifies toxic links based on a number of factors.
Among other things, it checks the authority domain and page, the number of outbound links, the anchor text used for the links and the relevancy of the website.
What you need to do now is review those links and decide whether to keep them or add them to the disavow file.
You can use the same criteria as the manual process (explained in Step 4 above).
To keep a link, you can click the Keep button and whitelist the domain.
To add the link to the disavow file, click Delete and then To Disavow.
#3 – Analyze potentially toxic links
Repeat the process above but for the ‘potentially toxic links’.
How to remove Bad Backlinks
Once you identify which bad backlinks to remove, either using the manual or automatic method, the next step is to submit a request to Google to remove them.
What do we mean by “remove backlinks”? The term remove backlinks can be a bit confusing because the links will not be actually removed from Google or from the web.
When we say “remove backlinks”, we mean to give instructions to Google not to take into account those links when it comes to passing pagerank from one website to the other.
The links will still show on your Google search console but they will not be taken into account by the algorithm.
Step 1: The first step you need to take is to try and contact the webmasters and ask them to either remove the links or add the nofollow tag so that no pagerank is passed.
In the majority of cases, this is very difficult but it’s a necessary step you need to take before proceeding to the next step.
Step 2: Get rid of pages that have bad backlinks pointing to them. This is not a good solution but it’s an extra step you can take (with Step 3 below).
The easiest way to ‘get rid’ of a page is to change the URL or un-publish it so that Google will get a 404 error (not found) when trying to access that page.
Step 3: When everything else fails, use the Google disavow tool.
What is the Google disavow tool?
The Google disavow tool is an advanced feature and you should use it with caution.
As stated by Google, if used incorrectly, it can do more harm to your website than good.
Basically, the Google disavow tool is a feature that allows you to upload a file to Google with a list of links you don’t want Google to takee into account.
How to prepare the disavow file (Manual way)?
Take the list of links identified from the steps above and add them to a .txt file using the following format:
Use # in front of a line to add any comments.
When you want to disavow a particular URL, add the full link i.e https://example.com/link1.html
When you want to disavow ALL links from a particular domain, using this format: domain:example.com.
Here is an example of a well formatted disavow file:
What happens next?
You need to be patient and wait for Google to process your file. Monitor your rankings for any changes and keep monitoring your backlinks for new domains (or links) that need to be added to the file.
Important notes regarding the Google Disavow file:
Submit the file to all website variations i.e. to your https:// and https://www versions.
Whenever you want to add a new domain or links to the file, make sure that you keep the existing one.
When you want to remove a link from the disavow file, re-submit the file again without those links.
Instead of using single URLs, use the domain (domain:example.com), to ensure that all links from that domain are not taken into account.
Even if Google decides not to take into account some links because they are included in the disavow file, they will still be shown in the Google search console.
Google will never tell you or give you an indication as to which links are good or bad and which links are taken into account when accessing the quality of your website.
I have submitted a disavow file but my rankings did not improve, why?
That’s a very popular question and one that doesn’t have a precise answer.
There are many reasons as to why your website may not rank high in Google.
When you lose your Google trust then everything else become more difficult.
That’s why it is important not to engage into actions that can put your website into Google’s radar.
Asking Google to remove links from your profile, it’s just one action you can take.
What else you can do is make sure that your website meets the high-quality standards defined by Google, keep publishing content that deserves to get links and try to get natural links that will not get you into trouble.
Finally, if you have lost your rankings and have a lot of bad backlinks pointing to your website then it may be better to start from scratch with a new domain rather than trying to fix a situation that is not reversible.
When you follow Google webmaster’s guidelines and concentrate on creating a website that provides value to the users, then you don’t have to worry about removing bad backlinks from Google.
Google’s algorithms are clever enough to differentiate between links that are spammy and links that were built for the sole purpose of tricking their system.
There are cases though that a company you hired did something wrong or you did something wrong without knowing it.
In such cases, performing regular audits of your backlink profile is not a bad idea.
It can help you pin-point links that are hurting your domain and it would be better if these links were submitted for removal using the Google disavow tool.
The process is straightforward:
Identify links that are potentially toxic.
Add those links in a .txt file (formatted according to Google’s guidelines).
Submit the file to Google using the disavow tool.
As a final word, when it comes to Google penalties, prevention is always the better cure.
Be careful on who to hire to work on your SEO, make sure that they use white hat practices and that you know in detail how and from where they plan to build backlinks to your website and for what purpose.
Faqs Google penalty recovery
What is a Google manual penalty?
A Google penalty is the negative impact on a website's search rankings based on updates to Google's search algorithms or manual review. The penalty can be a by-product of an algorithm update or an intentional penalization for various black-hat SEO techniques.
What is Google manual action?
Manual actions are Google's way of demoting or removing web pages or websites as a whole. They aren't related to Google algorithm changes like Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird, or the others. They are simply Google manually punishing websites for spammy behavior.
What is an unnatural link?
Generally, unnatural links are artificial links mainly intended to manipulate a page's ranking. These can include purchased links or links created by scrapers and spammers that attach themselves to your site under the radar and potentially link your site to another in a bad neighborhood of the internet
How do you know if Google has penalized my site?
There are two ways to find out if your website was penalized by Google. The first one is through the Google Search Console and the second is by looking at your Google analytics traffic reports and comparing your traffic with the dates the Google updated occurred.
Do internal links help SEO?
Internal links also connect your content and give Google an idea of the structure of your website. They can establish a hierarchy on your site, allowing you to give the most important pages and posts more link value than other, less valuable, pages. So using the right internal linking strategy can boost your SEO!
What is internal and external linking in SEO?
Internal links, also known as inbound links, are hyperlinks that directs the reader to the target page on your website, whereas an external link is a hyperlink that directs the reader to a reputable page on a different website.
Google Penalty Recovery
Learning more and more about Google's penalties, Did you receive a manual action report in Google Search Console? This post shows you how to rebound from Google penalties.