What Are Google Penalties and How To Recover?

There are two types of penalties, algorithmic and manual. Algorithmic penalties do not involve any human component, whereas manual penalties do. While the details of what prompts Google to perform a manual review of a website are not always evident, there appear to be several ways that manual reviews can be triggered.

We will examine different types of Google penalties in this article, and provide you with the best ways to recover from them if your website was penalized.

Major Potential Triggers For Google Penalties

1. Spam report

Any user (including your competitor) can file a spam report on Google. Google receives large volumes of these reports every day. Google evaluates each report, and if it finds one credible (it may run some type of algorithmic verifier to determine that), then it conducts a manual review.

2. Algorithmically triggered reviews

While this approach has never been verified by Google, it’s likely that Google uses algorithms to trigger a manual review of a website. 

The premise is that Google uses algorithms like Panda, Penguin, and others that identify large quantities of sites whose behavior is bad, but not bad enough for Google to algorithmically penalize them, so these sites would be queued for manual review. Google could also implement custom algorithms designed to flag sites for review.

3. Regular search results reviews

Google maintains a large team of people who perform manual reviews of search results to evaluate their quality. This effort is primarily intended to provide input to the search quality team at Google that they can use to help them improve their algorithms. However, it is quite possible that this process could also be used to identify individual sites for further scrutiny.

Once a review is triggered, the human reviewer uses a set of criteria to determine if a penalty is merited. Whatever the outcome of that review, it is likely that Google keeps the notes from the review in a database for later use. Google most likely keeps a rap sheet on all webmasters and their previous infractions, whether they result in a penalty or not.

Types of Manual Penalties

Manual penalties come in many forms. The most well-known types of penalties are link-related, but you can also get a variety of other penalties. Some of the most common types of manual penalties are discussed in the following sections.

1. Thin-content penalties

This penalty relates to pages that don’t add enough value to users in Google’s opinion.

Unfortunately, when you receive this type of penalty, Google doesn’t provide any guidance on what the cause might be. It does tell you that it is a thin-content penalty, but the rest is up to you. There are four primary triggers for thin-content penalties:

Pages with little useful content

As the name of the penalty suggests, pages with very little content are potential triggers for this penalty. This is especially true if there are a large number of these pages, or if there is a particular section on the site that has a significant percentage of its pages deemed thin.

Thin slicing

This happens to publishers who implement pages that are really designed to just garner search traffic. What these publishers often do is build pages for each potential search query a visitor might use, even if the variations in the content are quite small or insignificant. To use an earlier example, imagine a site with information on nursing schools with different pages with the following titles:

  • Nursing schools
  • Nursing school
  • Nursing colleges
  • Nursing universities
  • Best nursing schools

Sometimes publishers do this unintentionally, by autogenerating content pages based on queries people enter when using the search function for the website. If you decide to do something like this, then it’s critical to have a detailed review process for screening out these thin-slicing variants, pick one version of the page, and focus on it.

Doorway pages

These are pages that appear to be generated just for monetizing users arriving from search engines. One way to recognize these types of pages is that they are usually pretty much standalone pages with little follow-on information available, and/or they are pages that are largely written for search engines and not users. The user arriving on these pages basically has two choices: buy now, or leave.

Poor integration into the overall site

Another issue to look for is whether parts of your site are not well integrated into the rest of the site. Is there a simple way for users to get to these pages from the home page, from the main navigation of the site, or at least from a major section of the site? If you have a section that appears to be isolated from the rest of your site, that could result in a thin-content penalty.

Once you believe you have resolved these issues, you need to submit a reconsideration request. Once you have filed this request, you simply wait until Google provides a response. This process normally takes two to three weeks.

If you are successful, then you are in good shape and just need to make sure not to overstep your boundaries again in the future. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board to see what you might have missed.

2. Partial link penalties

Another possible manual penalty is a partial link penalty. This is sometimes called an “impacts links” penalty, as that term is part of the message you get from Google. These penalties indicate that one or a small number of your pages have been flagged for bad linking behavior. Normally, only the rankings and traffic for those particular pages suffer as a consequence of this penalty.

Unfortunately, Google does not tell you which of your pages is receiving the penalty, so you have to determine that for yourself. This penalty is normally caused by too many questionable or bad links to pages other than your home page. 

The cause is often a link-building campaign focused on bringing up the rankings and search traffic to specific money pages on your site. 

One of the more common problems is too many links with keyword-rich anchor text pointing to those pages, but other types of bad links can be involved as well. 

The steps to recover from this type of penalty are:

  1. Pull together a complete set of your links as described in “Sources of Data”
  2. Look for pages on your site, other than the home page, that have the most links.
  3. Examine these pages for bad links 
  4. Use the process described in the “Link Cleanup Process” to deal with the bad links.
  5. Submit a reconsideration request

Once you have sent in the reconsideration request, the only thing you can do is wait. As noted previously, it normally takes two to three weeks before you get a response. 

Google will either let you know you have succeeded and confirm that it has removed the penalty, or it will tell you that you have failed, in which case you have to take a deeper look at your links and figure out what you missed in your previous attempt.

3. Sitewide link penalties

Manual link penalties can also be applied on a sitewide basis. This usually means more than a few pages are involved, and may well also involve the home page of the site. With this type of penalty, rankings are lowered for the publisher on a sitewide basis.

The steps to recover from this type of penalty are:

  1. Pull together a complete set of your links as described in “Sources of Data”
  2. Examine this list for bad links as described in “Links Google Does Not Like”
  3. Use the process described in the “Link Cleanup Process” 
  4. Submit a reconsideration request as described in “Filing reconsideration requests”

Once you have sent in the reconsideration request, the only thing you can do is wait. It normally takes two to three weeks before you get a response. 

Google will either let you know you have succeeded and confirm that it has removed the penalty, or it will tell you that you have failed, in which case you have to take a deeper look at your links and figure out what you missed in your previous attempt.

Other types of manual penalties

Some of the other manual penalties include:

1. Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects 

You can get this message if Google believes you are showing different versions of pages to Googlebot than you show to users. To diagnose this, use the “Fetch and Render as Google” tool in Search Console to retrieve the page. 

Use the tool to load the same page in another browser window and compare the two pages. If you see differences, invest the time and effort to figure out how to remove the differing content. 

You should also check for URLs that redirect and send people to pages that are not in line with what they expected to see—for example, if they click on anchor text to read an article about a topic of interest but instead find themselves on a spammy page trying to sell them something. 

Another potential source of this problem is conditional redirects, where users coming from Google search, or a specific range of IP addresses, are redirected to different pages than other users.

2. Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing 

This message is generated if Google believes you are stuffing keywords into your pages for the purpose of manipulating search results—for example, if you put content on a page with a white background using a white font, it’s invisible to users but search engines can still see it. 

Another way to generate this message is to simply repeat your main keyword for a page over and over again in hopes of influencing search results.

3. User-generated spam 

This type of penalty is applied to sites allowing user-generated content (UGC) that are perceived to not be doing a good job of quality control on that content. It’s very common that sites with UGC become targets for spammers uploading low-quality content with links back to their own sites. 

The short-term fix for this is to identify and remove the spammy pages. The longer-term fix is to implement a process for reviewing and screening out spammy content to prevent it from getting on your site in the first place.

4. Unnatural links from your site 

This is an indication that Google believes you are selling links to third parties or participating in link schemes, for the purposes of passing PageRank. The fix is simple: remove the links on your site that look like paid links, or add a no-follow attribute to those links.

5. Hacked site 

Google will communicate this penalty by sending you a message in Search Console and/or by showing indications that your site has been hacked (and is dangerous to visit) in the search results. 

The most common cause for this penalty is failing to keep up with updates to your content management system (CMS). Spammers take advantage of vulnerabilities in the CMS to modify your web pages, most often for the purpose of inserting links to their own sites, but some- times for more nefarious purposes such as accessing credit card data or other personal identifiable information. 

To resolve the problem, you will need to determine how your site has been hacked. If you don’t have technical staff working for you, you may need to get help to detect and repair the problem. To minimize your exposure going forward, always keep your CMS on the very latest version possible.

6. Pure spam 

Google will give you this message in Search Console if it believes that your site is using very aggressive spam techniques. This can include things such as automatically-generated gibberish or other tactics that appear to have little to do with trying to add value for users. If you get this message, there is a strong chance that you should simply shut down the site and start with a new one.

7. Spammy freehosts 

Even if your site is clean as a whistle, if a large percentage of the sites using your hosting company is spamming, Google may take action against all of the sites hosted there. Take care to make sure you are working with a highly reputable hosting company!

For any of these problems, you need to address the source of the complaints. When you believe you have done so, follow the procedure outlined in “Filing reconsideration requests”.

Links Google Does Not Like

To understand the types of links that Google does not like, we need only review Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s original thesis, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”). At the beginning of the thesis is this paragraph:

The citation (link) graph of the web is an important resource that has largely gone unused in existing web search engines. We have created maps containing as many as 518 million of these hyperlinks, a significant sample of the total. These maps allow rapid calculation of a web page’s “PageRank,” an objective measure of its citation importance that corresponds well with people’s subjective idea of importance. Because of this correspondence, PageRank is an excellent way to prioritize the results of web keyword searches.

The paper’s author uses the citation list to acknowledge major sources he referenced as he wrote the paper. If you did a study of all the papers on a given topic area, you could fairly easily identify the most important ones, because they would have the most citations (votes) from other papers. 

Generally speaking, you do not buy the placement of a citation in someone else’s research paper. Nor do you barter such placements (“I will mention you in my paper if you mention me in yours”), and you certainly would not implement some tactic to inject mentions of your work in someone else’s research paper without the writer’s knowledge. 

You would also not publish dozens or hundreds of poorly written papers just so you could include more mentions of your work in them. In principle, you can’t vote for yourself. 

Nor would you upload your paper to dozens or hundreds of sites created as repositories for such papers if you knew no one would ever see it there, or if such repositories contained a lot of illegitimate papers that you would not want to be associated with.

Of course, all of these examples have happened on the Web with links. All of these practices run counter to the way that search engines want to use links, as they are counting on the links they find being ones that were earned by merit. 

This means that search engines don’t want you to purchase links for the purpose of influencing their rankings. You can buy ads, of course—there is nothing wrong with that—but search engines would prefer those ad links have the nofollow attribute so they know not to count them.

Additionally, pure barter links are valued less or ignored altogether. From 2000 to 2005, it was quite popular to send people emails that offered to link to them if they linked to you, on the premise that this helped with search engine rankings. Of course, these types of links are not real citations either. 

Google will not place any value on the links from user-generated content sites, such as social media sites, either. Anywhere people can link to themselves is a place that search engines will simply discount, or even potentially punish if they detect patterns of abusive behavior.

Here is a list of some of the types of links that Google may consider less valuable, or not valuable at all:

Article directories 

These are sites that allow you to upload an article to them, usually with little or no editorial review. The articles can contain links back to your site, so the simple act of uploading the article results in a link. The problem is that this is a form of voting for yourself, and Google started punishing sites that actively obtained links from article directories with the Penguin 1.0 release on April 24, 2012.

Cheap directories 

Many directories have sprung up all over the Web that exist only to collect fees from as many sites as possible. These types of directories have little or no editorial review, and the owner’s only concern is to collect as many listing fees as possible. There are a few quality directories, such as the Yahoo! directory, Business.com, and a few others.

Links from countries where you don’t do business 

If your company does business only in Brazil, there is no reason you should have large numbers of links from Poland and Russia. There is not much you can do if people choose to give you links you did not ask for, but there is certainly no reason for you to proactively engage in activities that would result in your getting links from such countries.

Links from foreign sites with a link in a different language 

Some aggressive SEO professionals actively pursue getting links from nearly anywhere.

Comment spam 

Another popular technique in the past was to drop links in comments on forums and blog posts. This practice became much less valuable ever since Google introduced the nofollow attribute, but aggressive spammers still pursue it. 

In fact, they make use of bots that drop comments on an automated basis on blog posts and forums all over the Web. They may post 1 million or more comments this way, and even if only .001% of 1 percent of those links are not nofollowed, it still nets the spammers 1,000 links.

Guest post spam 

These are generally poorly written guest posts that add little value for users and have been written just to get a link back to your own site.

Guest posts not related to your site 

This is a type of guest post spam where the article written does not really relate to your site. If you sell used cars, you should not expect Google to see any value in a guest post you write about lacrosse equipment that links back to your site. There is no relevance.

In-context guest post links 

Another form of guest posting that Google frowns upon posts that include links in the body of the article back to you, particularly if those links are keyword-rich, and if they don’t add a lot of value to the post itself.

Advertorials 

This is a form of a guest post that is written like it’s an ad. Given the structure, it’s highly likely that the site posting it was influenced to do so in some manner. If you are going to include guest posting as part of your strategy, focus on sites that don’t permit these types of guest posts.

Widgets 

One tactic that became quite popular is building useful or interesting tools (widgets), and allowing third-party websites to publish them on their own sites. These normally contained a link back to the widget creator’s site. 

If the content is highly relevant, there is nothing wrong with this idea in principle, but the problem is that the tactic was abused by SEOs, resulting in Google wanting to discount many of these types of links.

Infographics 

This is another area that could in theory be acceptable but was greatly abused by SEOs. It is not clear what Google does with these links at this point, but you should create infographics only if they are highly relevant, highly valuable, and (of course) accurate.

Misleading anchor text 

This is a more subtle issue. Imagine an example where the anchor text of a link says “information about golf courses,” but the page receiving the link is about tennis rackets. This is not a good experience for users, and is not something that search engines will like.

Sites with malware 

Of course, Google looks to discount these types of links. Sites containing malware are very bad for users, and hence any link from them is of no value, and is potentially harmful.

Footer links 

Once again, there is nothing inherently wrong with a link from the footer of someone’s web page, but as these links are less likely to be clicked on or viewed by users, Google may discount their value.

Links in a list with unrelated links 

This can be a sign of a purchased link. Imagine you find a link to your “Travel Australia” website mixed in a list of links with an online casino site, a mortgage lead generation site, and a lottery ticket site. This does not look good to Google.

Links from poor-quality sites 

The links that have the most value are the ones that come from very high-quality sites that show substantial evidence of strong editorial control. Conversely, as quality drops, editorial control tends to as well, and Google may not count these links at all.

Press releases 

It used to be quite popular to put out lots of press releases, complete with keyword-rich text links back to your site. Of course, this is a form of voting for yourself, and this is not the way that press releases should be used to promote your site.

Bookmark sites 

There are many quality sites for saving interesting links for your own benefits, such as Delicious, Evernote, Diigo, and many others. However, as these are user-generated content sites, their links are nofollowed and thus have no value in ranking your site.

Not all of the types of links in the preceding list will necessarily result in your site being penalized, but they are all examples of links that Google may not want to count.

Link Cleanup Process

The first part of the link cleanup process is to establish the right mindset. As you review your backlink profile, consider how Google looks at your links. Here are some rules of thumb to help you determine whether a link has real value: 

  • Would you want that link if Google and Bing did not exist? 
  • Would you proudly show it to a prospective customer right before she is ready to buy?
  • Was the link given to you a genuine endorsement?

As you review your backlinks, you may find yourself at times trying to justify a link’s use. This is usually a good indicator that it’s not a good link. High-quality links require no justification—it’s obvious that they are good links.

1. Sources of Data

Google provides a list of external links in the Search Console account for your site. The problem with this list is that it tends to be incomplete, thus we recommend that you also pull links from several other sources. Some of the best additional sources include Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, Ahrefs, and LinkResearchTools. 

The combination of data from all of these tools will show a more complete list of links. Of course, there will also be a lot of overlap in what they show, so make sure to deduplicate the list. However, even the combination of all these sources is not comprehensive. 

Google shares only a portion of the links it is aware of in the Search Console. The other link sources are reliant on the crawls of their individual companies, and crawling the entire Web is a big job that they simply do not have the resources for.

2. Using Tools

There are tools available to help speed up the link removal by automating the process of identifying bad links. These include Remove’em and Link Detox. These tools can potentially help you identify some of your bad links. However, it is a good idea to not rely solely on these tools to do the job for you. 

Each tool has its own algorithms for identifying problem links, and this can save you time in doing a full evaluation of all your links. However, keep in mind that Google has spent more than 15 years developing its algorithms for evaluating links and it’s a core part of its business to evaluate them effectively, including detecting link spam. 

Third-party tools won’t be as sophisticated as Google’s algorithm. They can detect some of the bad links, but not necessarily all of the ones you will need to address. 

You should plan on evaluating all of the links—not only the sites labeled as toxic but also any that are merely suspicious or even innocuous. Use your own judgment, and don’t just rely on the tools to decide for you what is good or bad.

3. The Disavow Links tool

Google provides a tool to allow you to disavow links. The Disavow Links tool tells Google that you no longer wish to receive any PageRank (or other benefits) from certain links. This gives you a method for eliminating the negative impact of bad links pointing to your site.

Note that Google includes the following text: “You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough.” This is good advice, as Google employees who review reconsideration requests like to see that you have invested time in getting the bad links to your site removed.

Once you select a site and click the Disavow Links button, you are taken to another screen that includes the following warning:

This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you only disavow backlinks if you believe that there are a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you.

On this screen, you need to click Disavow Links again, after which you’ll be taken to a third and final screen.

One important tip: considering that the link data you have is incomplete, it is best practice to disavow entire domains. In other words, if you see one bad link coming to you from a domain, it is certainly possible that there are other bad links coming to you from that domain, and that some of these bad links are not in the data available to you. 

An example would be a guest post that you want to disavow. Perhaps you have done only one guest post on that site, but the post will also appear on category pages and date-based archives on that blog. If you disavow only the post page, you still have many other bad links from that site that Google has found.

4. The Link Removal Process

The most important part of the link removal process is recognizing the need to be comprehensive. Losing a lot of your traffic is scary, and being impatient is natural. If there is a manual link penalty on your site you will be anxious to send in your reconsideration request, but as soon as you do, there’s nothing you can do but wait. 

If you don’t do enough to remove bad links, Google will reject your reconsideration request, and you have to go through the whole process again. If you end up filing a few reconsideration requests without being successful, 

Google may send you a message telling you to pause for a while. Make a point of being very aggressive in removing and disavowing links, and don’t try to save a lot of marginal ones. This almost always speeds up the process in the end. In addition, those somewhat questionable links that you’re trying to save often are not helping you much anyway. 

The Penguin algorithm is updated only once or twice per year. If you have been hit by that algorithm and fail to recover during an update, that means waiting for another 6 to 12 months before you have another chance.

With all this in mind, you also want to be able to get through the process as quickly as possible.

Precategorizing the links is quite helpful in speeding up this process. For example, you can identify many of the blogs simply by using the Excel filter function and filtering on “blog.” This will allow you to more rapidly review the links for problems. 

Tools such as Remove’em and Link Detox will do this for you as well. This step is especially helpful if you know you have been running an aggressive guest posting campaign, or worse, paying for guest post placements. Some additional tips include:

  • You do not need to worry about links that are marked as nofollow. 
  • Links from sites with very low PageRank for their home page probably are adding little to no value to your site. 
  • Links from very low-relevance pages are not likely to be adding much value either.

In addition, contacting sites directly and requesting that they remove links can be quite helpful. Google likes to see that you’re putting in the effort to clean up those bad links. Remember that reconsideration requests are reviewed by members of the webspam team at Google. 

This introduces a human element that you can’t ignore. The members of this team make their living dealing with sites that have violated Google’s guidelines, and you are one of them.

As we noted in “Sources of Data”, even when you use all the available sources of link data, the information you have is incomplete. This means that it’s likely that you will not have removed all the bad links when you file your reconsideration request, even if you are very aggressive in your review process, simply because you don’t have all the data. 

Showing reviewers the good faith effort to remove some of the bad links is very helpful and can impact their evaluation of the process. However, there is no need to send link removal requests to everyone in sight. 

For example, don’t send them to people where the link to you is marked with nofollow. Once the process is complete, if you have received a manual penalty, you are ready to file a reconsideration request. 

If you have been hit by Penguin, all you can do is wait, as reconsideration requests won’t help you there. The only way to recover from Penguin penalties is to wait for the next algorithm update.

Filing reconsideration requests

The first thing to realize about your reconsideration request is that a person will review it, and that person likely reviews large numbers of them every single day. Complaining about what has happened to your business, or getting aggressive with the reviewer, is not going to help your cause at all.

The best path is to be short and to the point:

#1. Briefly define the nature of the problem. Include some statistics if possible.

#2. Explain what went wrong. For example, if you were ignorant of the rules, just say so, and tell them that you now understand. Or, if you had a rogue SEO firm do bad work for you, say that.

#3. Explain what you did to clean it up:

  • If you had a link penalty, let them know how many links you were able to get removed.
  • If you did something extraordinary, such as removing and/or disavowing all of your links from the past year, tell them that. Statement actions such as this can have a strong impact and improve your chances of success.

#4. Clearly state that you intend to abide by the Webmaster Guidelines going forward.

As already noted, keep your reconsideration short. Briefly cover the main points and then submit it using the Search Console account associated with the site that received the penalty. In fact, you can’t send it from an account without a manual penalty.

Expected reconsideration request timeline

Once you have filed the request, you now get to wait. The good news is that you generally get a response in two to three weeks. Hopefully, you will be successful! If not, you have to go back to the beginning of the process to figure out what you missed.

Conclusion

​​Traffic losses due to manual penalties or algorithmic updates can be devastating to your business. One defense against them is to reduce your overall dependence on Google traffic, but for nearly any business, traffic from Google is one of the largest opportunities available. 

For that reason, it is critical that you conduct your SEO efforts in a way that is in line with Google’s expectations of publishers—creating compelling websites and then promoting them effectively in accordance with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines).

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