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How to Avoid Google’s Three Most Common Ranking Penalties and What to Do If You Get Slapped By Them

By Casey Markee on Apr 08, 2013 - 05:15 PM

How to Avoid Google's Three Most Common Ranking Penalties and What to Do If You Get Slapped By Them
—by Casey Markee

2012 was a roller coaster year for webmasters. Google took sites from gasping highs to gut churning lows! ...punctuated by episodes of anxious uncertainty. But you've been paying attention, right? And following our advice. So most of the drama passed you by. Chances are, you breezed through 2012 unaware of the panic by other sites owners and managers who felt helplessly victimized by Google's constantly evolving arsenal of penalties.

Regardless, we're passionate about keeping you on top of the arms race. With that in mind we've gone ahead and dissected Google's 3 most commonly applied penalties so you can avoid them, or even recover from them should you ever need to.

1. Panda Content Penalties: Google's search results ranking algorithm update known as Panda was first unleashed in February 2011. Panda's initial goal was to penalize sites that 'scrape' content from other sites resulting in duplicate content within Google's search results. In an effort to continually improve the efficiency of penalizing these offending sites, Google has since been updating Panda's algorithm at irregular intervals of approximately once a month. Sites that are effected by a Panda update typically experience a ranking drop anywhere from 10-50 spaces, with some pages disappearing from the search results entirely.

To date there have been 24 updates (aka, refreshes) of the algorithm, the most recent being January 17th, 2013. This penalty is almost uniformly on-site metric based with triggers including; low-quality or spun content, high bounce rates, low average site visits, keyword over-optimization, and excessive anchor-text-rich internal linking. As you know, we've been regularly updating you regarding the details of Panda via your SEN membership.

So, how do you avoid a Panda filter penalty?

  1. Avoid strategies designed to 'trick' the search engines!

  2. Add social sharing buttons and increase social signals.

  3. Clean-up your internal linking, especially footer links and excessive anchor-text-rich optimization.

  4. Finally, minimize cross-links from sites you control.

If your site has been negatively impacted by Panda you'll need to correct every single one of your on-site offenses, then wait for Google to re-run the algorithm against your site. Once Google sees you've made the corrections, your site logs will register a clear uptick in referral traffic and your rankings will improve coinciding with the recorded date of the new Panda update.

2. Penguin Webspam Penalty: Penguin is Panda's 800lb gorilla. Penguin is a harsher Web-spam level penalty, slapping sites that are guilty of any of the following infractions:

  1. spun content,

  2. low-quality content,

  3. questionable linking practices — especially excessive anchor-text-rich links,

  4. cross-domain link schemes,

  5. keyword stuffing,

  6. excessive on-page optimization,

  7. or, in Google's eyes, just being evil.

Penguin can drop a site like a rock! ...and similar to Panda, can be page-specific, plummeting pages anywhere from 10-100+ spots. Since Google first announced Penguin in April 2012, there have been two updates; one in May, another in October 2012. The original purpose of Penguin was to reward higher quality sites while punishing those that, in Google's eyes, were spamming Google to achieve good rankings. Of course our previous Search Engine Strategy Updates have covered Penguin in detail and as a SEN member you have several in-depth resources available to you regarding Google's Penguin update that we suggest you take advantage of.

To recover from a Penguin slap you'll need to conduct a detailed site audit to correct and remove low-quality content, improve user engagement, and eliminate any spam triggers. You must also conduct a substantial backlink audit and then remove questionable links through a process called link pruning (we'll talk more about that below).

Penguin, like Panda, is considered an algorithmic update. As such, if your site is penalized or dropped, a reconsideration request will not work here. Instead, you must correct your on-site issues, conduct link pruning to remove questionable links, build in better and higher-quality links going forward, and wait for a new Penguin refresh to be run against your site. As is the case with Panda, when Google sees you've made the corrections your site logs will register a clear uptick in referral traffic and your rankings will improve coinciding with the recorded date of the new Penguin update.

3. Unnatural Links Penalty: Historically, site owners have always complained about Google's reluctance to communicate about penalties. But in January 2011 they loosened their lips with the emergence of unnatural links notices. And since April 2012 they've delivered well over a million of them to Webmaster Tools accounts.

Unnatural link notices are basically a statement from Google saying unnatural links to your site were detected and Google believes their purpose is to artificially influence rankings or PageRank. As such, your site has been manually assessed a penalty. Google has stopped the flow of PageRank passing through your 'suspicious' unnatural links and they've filtered out whatever specific anchor-text-rich keywords you're targeting. This type of penalty results in a significant drop in rankings.

To recover from this penalty you'll need to conduct a detailed link audit, remove any questionable links AND then build in new, better links! This link removal process is called link pruning, something we'll discuss more in detail in a moment.

Check List: How to Know if You've Actually Been Penalized

If you notice a sudden, significant drop in your overall Google traffic that persists for a period of several days...

and / or notice your previous keyword rankings have been substantially reduced...


...these changes do not coincide with Google changing their algorithm recently...

then may have a penalty weighing you down. (What? think Google's going to make this simple?) Here are 2 quick tests that will reveal if you've been banned vs. penalized.

  1. Enter into Google (replace with your actual domain, of course). If any of your site's pages appear in the listings then, good news, you have not been banned — though you may still be partially penalized.

  2. Next, run a search for your domain name, i.e. If your site isn't ranked #1 for your own domain name, you've likely been penalized.

To make it a little easier, look at the following flowchart (click the image to expand):


Below is a screenshot of the Panguin Tool which you should use to visually line up your Google Search Queries and Google Analytics traffic with recent Google algorithmic changes.

Panguin Tool Picture

The Panguin Tool analyzes Google Analytics site traffic profiles and positions that data over a graphic that corresponds with recorded Google algorithmic updates. This highly useful visual shows whether you've been affected by a Panda / Penguin refresh, or a Top Heavy update (launched in January 2012), or some other data update. We strongly recommend the Panguin Tool as a suggested first step whenever you're conducting a penalty troubleshooting audit.

Conducting a Site Review and How to Get Help!

site-review-help.jpgIn the world of the Web, Google is a trusted brand, a household name and practically an institution. If you're to succeed online, you must stay on good terms with them. And, if you fall out of grace, then it's paramount you get back in their good graces as quickly as possible!

Should a penalty occur, start by fixing the problems on your site (duh!). Make a list of everything you think might be objectionable. Remember, Google is notoriously tight-lipped about communicating penalties to site owners — but they do notify you through your Google Webmaster Tools account once they get around to reviewing your request. Regardless, you shouldn't expect their help. They want you to figure out how to methodically and systematically unwind their penalty.

By the way, the best place to find help is the Google Webmaster Help Forums. This often overlooked resource is invaluable for diagnosing and unraveling penalties.

When you're ready to request a site review by both Google engineers and other SEOs you should use the Crawling, Indexing, and Ranking forum. Be prepared to provide your URL for review and to receive BLUNT criticism of what may be causing your problems. And because of their candor, here's where you can expect to get the solid advice that'll help you identify the penalty triggers that are handicapping your SEO efforts.

Link Pruning 101: What it is and When you Need it!

Link Pruning GraphicLink pruning, a relatively new term in the vernacular of SEO, involves the identification and removal of what Google thinks are superfluous links that exist to artifically improve rankings within a site's backlink profile. The necessity for link pruning is usually spurred by either a Google algorithmic update or an Unnatural Links notice

If you've experienced a Panda or Penguin slap, or received one of the million+ unnatural link notices that Google sent during 2012, then it's a good idea to re-evaluate your backlinks and perform some link pruning where appropriate in order to recover competitively in the rankings. As I am sure you're aware, an onsite search will reveal several resources on link pruning available to you as a SEN member.

Most would agree the task of link pruning can be challenging. And Google expects that offending sites should "strive to remove at least 85% of suspicious links." Obviously Google is looking for, at least, a good faith effort to remove as many of these links as possible. The problem is, of course, that oftentimes you can't remove certain offending links that, by definition, exist on sites outside your control. Fortunately, Google has a tool to assist you.

The Google Disavow Link Tool: Use With Caution!

Link pruning got a bit easier this past October with the advent of the Disavow Link Tool — first introduced at Pubcon Las Vegas then formally announced on the Webmaster Central Blog.

Disavow Link Tool Graphic

As we explained in a previous Search Engine Strategy Update, the goal of the Disavow Link Tool is to assist site owners who've been unsuccessful unwinding the penalty through multiple reconsideration requests.

In other words, the purpose of the Disavow Link tool is to provide guidance to Google on links you've tried REPEATEDLY to remove on your own. And here's the important part, pay close attention:

The Disavow Links tool is not a substitution for link pruning as it will not remove links.

Worth repeating: you should only use the Google Disavow Tool after you have tried to remove specific links on your own, several times, and been otherwise unsuccessful. And, remember, the links you enter are just suggestions. Google's under no obligation to honor your requests.

Most importantly, Google wants to see a clear BEST EFFORT on your part to negotiate the removal of these questionable links BEFORE you resort to using the tool. If you're unfamiliar with the Google Disavow Link Tool, we suggest you review our previous write-up in SEN and also watch Google's introductory How-To video on its proper use.

How To Ensure a Successful Reconsideration Request

Google Reconsideration Request GraphicOnce you've identified and corrected your site's penalty issues — pruned your unnatural links, updated your page layout, cleaned-up your keywords and on-page content and complied with Google's Webmaster Guidelines in detail — you must petition Google to reconsider your site.

Here's where the site reconsideration request comes into play. Located within your Webmaster Tools account, the reconsideration request is your direct line back into Google's good graces. In completing this request, you're expected to disclose all possible Webmasters Guideline violations that may have triggered your penalties. Then you must list the actions you've taken to correct the problems.

Finally, be sure to include a statement that says something to the effect of: your site is now in compliance with Google Webmaster Guidelines, AND you promise never, ever, to repeat the offending action again.

And be sure to keep your promise! ...because Google considers the most important signal by a site recovering from a penalty to be a history of good behavior. If you've been subject to a penalty in the past, and then repeat as an offender, don't be surprised if Google hands down a death sentence. Remember, it is their search engine! ...and they can do almost anything they want in terms of ignoring future reconsideration requests.

As to timelines, Google previously made repenting site owners sweat for a month or two before considering their reconsideration request — probably to allow for time to see if the site established some history of good behavior. But now Google makes it clear that most reconsideration requests take no more than 2-3 weeks to process after which time you will ALWAYS receive one of the following four responses:

  1. Google informs you there is no penalty that's been manually applied to your site's ranking. Instead, you just need to make your site better.
  2. Your reconsideration request was successful and the manually applied penalty has been removed.
  3. Your site still has issues and the manually applied penalty is still in place. In the case of unnatural link notices, Google may partially unpenalize your site but advise you to continue link pruning.
  4. Google has processed your reconsideration request — Google-speak for we've received your request and are still mulling things over in regards to the penalty status of your site. We call this a "limbo" request.

The #4 response is NOT the one you want to receive. The problem with having your request in limbo is that you can't really know what to do next. Do you continue to make changes? Do you wait for more information? Do you keep looking and submit another reconsideration request? It's hard to even give advice on this, but our best recomendation is to do all of the above!

A limbo request may mean that you'll need to submit multiple reconsideration requests to get the penalty lifted. But be aware that Google has stated that submitting multiple reconsideration requests can actually slow down or even reset your review process. So our BEST advice is to get it right the first time! ...fix everything that could possibly cause a penalty prior to submitting any reconsideration request.

By the way, here's a sample reconsideration request to use as a template:

To Whom It May Concern:

I recently found that my site was no longer indexed in Google (or suppressed in the rankings) due to what appears to be an applied penalty. Upon further inspection by a consultant, I realized I was doing a few things that were questionable according to your Webmaster Guidelines.

In particular, I was doing the following (insert your reason here - buying links, hidden text, excessive cross-linking, etc.). I have corrected these issues and would humbly ask that if there still exist other issues I need to address that you will let me know so I can immediately correct them and reinclude my site into your index.

I will certainly read the Google Webmaster Guidelines in more detail from this point forward and can assure you that I will be much more discriminating in the future in how I market my site.

Please accept my sincere thanks in advance for your consideration of my request.


Guilty Webmaster

Again, most reconsideration requests are reviewed within 2-3 weeks. So, if the proper corrective action is taken, your site should recover fairly quickly. However, if you don't receive a response within a month, we recommend asking for assistance in the Google Webmaster Help Forum for further insights into the penalties that might be affecting your site's rankings.

Heed these cautionary words from the man in charge: Google Engineer Matt Cutts:


Also be sure to watch this YouTube tips video provided by Google to assist you in covering all the bases when formulating your reconsideration request.

Some Final Thoughts...

We've focused this article on only three of the most common Google penalties, making no attempt to cover the other eight. So be sure to use your SEN membership to stay caught up on the rest of Google's penalties — especially if your site drops suddenly in the rankings and none of these penalties seem to apply.

Always bear in mind the best strategy for avoiding penalties is pre-emptive. By knowing the rules ahead of time, and following them, your chances of experiencing a Google-slap is small. That's assuming, of course, you design a content-rich site that brings true value to your target audience. When building links, go for quality over quantity. Ultimately, Google rewards such sites with top rankings that are sustainable, leading to the high traffic counts and the profits that naturally follow. favicon.ico

If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right!

Casey Markee
Professional Search Engineer

Casey Markee is a SEN Google penalties expert who has successfully unwound penalties for dozens of our members. If you need help getting your site back up in the rankings after a suspected penalty then now is the time to schedule time with Casey before your rankings are gone permanently.

Edited by: Stephen Mahaney