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How to Avoid Google Penalties

Google home pageIf you have a website, you know how important it is to appear near the top of Google's search results page.

But if you notice a sudden drop in web traffic, could it be due to a Google penalty?

Maybe, let's discuss…


There are two types of Google penalties: Algorithmic and Manual.

The Google algorithm is the complex set of rules that determine the order of search results. Google's goal is to provide the most relevant results for its users.

Algorithmic penalties can occur when Google updates its algorithm and determines that a website has low-quality content and/or poor-quality backlinks (links from other sites to the target website).

Manual penalties can be applied by Google employees if a website violates their guidelines. This involves a manual review by a human, which is triggered by automatic scanning software that flags potential violations.

In addition to the two types of penalties, there are various levels of penalties.

A keyword penalty is the mildest level and prevents your site from “ranking” for the violating keyword (ranking means having your site show up in a prominent position when someone uses a particular keyword).

According to study of data from 230 billion web searches by market research firm SparkToro, 94% of all searches are on a Google property (Google Search, Google Image Search, and YouTube).

A URL penalty prevents one or more pages from ranking, while a sitewide penalty affects the entire site.

A site delisting penalty is the most severe and means Google removes your entire site from its database. It's like a town blocking all roads and sidewalks to a physical store; even if people know it exists, there's no way to get there.

How to Avoid Penalties

1) Check your backlinks (other sites linking to yours) and disavow any bad ones

Links from low-quality or “spammy” sites pointing to yours will hurt your Google rank and could lead to a penalty.

You can see who's linking to your site with a tool like this one. (I'm not endorsing any particular tool, just showing an example.) If you find bad backlinks, you can use a Google tool to “disavow” them.

2) Make sure your content is high-quality and unique

The best thing you can do to improve your ranking and avoid penalties is to have relevant and well-written content.

Always write original content — do not copy and paste from other sites. In addition to helping your Google ranking, this will make site visitors more likely to stay on your site.

3) Secure your site

A hacked site will seriously hurt your Google ranking. If your site is built on the WordPress platform, make sure you use a skilled developer familiar with WordPress security to lock down your site.

All sites, regardless of platform, should use strong passwords and multi-factor authentication for logins (this is where you have to provide a code texted or emailed to you in addition to a username and password).

Your site should have a valid SSL certificate (this shows the URL as “https://” and causes a “secure site” padlock to appear in some web browsers).

You should regularly run anti-malware software on your site and keep its underlying software updated. And you should also make frequent backups.

4) Don't stuff keywords

Don’t try to “game” Google's algorithm. They've got teams of Ph.D. data scientists that are not going to be fooled.

Keyword stuffing is the artificial addition of keywords where they wouldn't naturally occur and/or the overuse of keywords. Only use relevant keywords and keep them to no more than about 3% of the total text content.

Google can easily detect keyword stuffing and will penalize you severely because it directly impacts user experience.

5) Make your link text flow naturally

Link text is the word or phrase that show up when you include a link to something. It should read like a natural part of the overall text. Link text should be varied - don't use the same phrase (e.g. “click here”) a lot.

It's generally better to include several words than just one (e.g. using “learn how to maximize SEO” as the link text is better than just linking the word “SEO”)

How to Know if You've Incurred a Penalty

You should be periodically monitoring your web traffic so unusual patterns become obvious. If you see a sudden decrease, check your Google search console (go to “security and manual actions”). If there's a penalty, you'll see it here.

Detecting algorithmic penalties is harder - there are some tools that show general Google algorithm stability, but they won't be able to identify specific problems with your site.

How to Resolve Penalties

For manual penalties, Google will explain the reason in the search console and provide links to helpful resources you can use to fix things.

Fix the problem (keeping track of what you did) and then submit a reconsideration request via the search console, explaining what you did. A real person will review this and decide what to do (so be polite and patient).

For algorithmic penalties, you have two paths…

1) If a recent algorithm update is the cause, there will be several articles online explaining the changes and advising site owners what to do (because the update may be affecting many other sites, too).

2) If you got penalized because of less-than-legitimate search engine optimization (SEO) attempts, you'll need to un-do them and then do an honest appraisal of your site content to make sure it's high-quality, well-written, uses good links, has no bad backlinks, and doesn't use keyword stuffing.

Penalty Prevention

It's much easier to prevent Google penalties than to resolve them.

You can do this by following the guidelines above.

If you're not sure about the legitimacy of a search engine optimization technique (especially if proposed by your developer or an SEO consultant) you can check with us for a free, no obligation assessment.

We're also happy to do an overall SEO analysis of your site (again, free and with no obligation).