In 1995, a chance meeting at Stanford sowed the seed for one of the most influential and innovative companies in history. Sergey Brin was assigned to show Larry Page around the Stanford campus. Although the two reportedly disagreed on everything they spoke about during that tour, they struck up a relationship that would prove to be both long-lived and fruitful. Together, they created Google. Once a basement operation, the search engine would become the world’s largest and most powerful. It would fundamentally shift not only how we search, but how we interact with the internet and each other. Google has become so ingrained in our society; it is hard to imagine life without it.
There are nearly 5 billion Google searches conducted each day; we rely on Google to help us find answers to our medical and legal questions, to help us locate vital services, to look up showtimes and restaurant menus, to find out where we are and figure out where we are going. We don’t search; we Google. While Google has since created a host of groundbreaking products – Maps, Docs, Chrome, Android, YouTube, and Gmail to start – Search remains its best product, the one that changed everything.
It not only changed how people search; it changed how businesses operate. While there are many other ways to bring traffic to your website, and other search engines for which to optimize, Google is the major highway by which potential customers/clients arrive at websites. Consider these statistics:
- 58% of purchase decisions begin on search engines.
- 61% of consumers use search engines in product research decisions.
We use search engines whether we are shopping online or off. And, of course, Google is equally integral in nonretail businesses and websites. Driving traffic to a blog, for instance, maybe crucial in generating ad revenue instead of straight sales. In any event, Google is the main conduit to websites.
Changes and innovation from Google are no small matters. The Mountain View, California-based company updates its algorithm 500 to 600 times per year. The majority of these are minor changes and tweaks, but others send shockwaves throughout the business and SEO communities. Panda and Penguin are two of those most famous, or infamous, of these updates, and countless blogs, presentations, webinars, videos, webcasts, and infographics have worked to explain, commiserate, and advice the sites which are affected by the changes – as well as those who wish to avoid penalization.
Given the amount of traffic and visibility Google can provide for search engine optimized websites, any obstacle that blocks that flow has a profound effect. As Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales said, “If it doesn’t exist on Google, it doesn’t exist.” What do you need to know about penalties, and how can you avoid them? If it is too late to prevent such a penalty, how can you find a cure?
What Are Google Penalties? Algorithmic vs. Manual Sanctions
Google’s goal is to improve search quality and experience for users. Penguin, for instance, rolled out in April 2012 targeted “low quality” sites that violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by using techniques such as cloaking, keyword stuffing, link schemes, and duplicate content. Panda, the first iteration of which was released in February 2011, took aim at “content thin” sites. Those with scraped, low quality, and/or copyright infringed content are impacted.
These sites have not been “penalized” per se. That is, Google has not imposed a penalty. Instead, its bots have crawled sites and have discovered factors that affect page rank. Scraped content, over optimised metadata, unnatural links, and other items send a red flag to Google, and as a result, a site can rank much lower for targeted search terms than previously. This is completely algorithmic; it is cause and effect.
An algorithmic “penalty” can be remedied relatively easily. If the penalty is, for instance, due to unnatural links, a website owner or manager can conduct a thorough link audit and remove bad links.
You cannot necessarily control which sites link to your site, so there may be links from low-quality sources. To counter the harm that these can cause, the Link Disavow tool is invaluable. After you have submitted your request to disavow, or dissociate yourself from undesirable links, and clean up your internal links, the waiting game begins. Google must process the request, and, as Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand says, “Even if you’ve cleaned up your links with disavow, you have to wait until the Penguin Update is run again before you’ll see an impact.”
Regardless, the wait should result in a more favorable spot in the SERPs, or search engine results pages. Just as the penalty is assessed objectively, so, too, is it lifted impartially. It is, essentially, as though Google is saying, “Nothing personal; your site is fine now, so we’ll index it.”
Manual penalties, on the other hand, are assessed subjectively. A site trips some sort of alarm switch within the algorithmic system; it alerts human operators that a problem may be occurring, and it is sent for review. When you hear news stories – and horror stories – of Google penalties, you are hearing specifically of these manual penalties. The reason they inspire so much trepidation is that manual penalties are notoriously difficult to lift.
Manual Penalties Shake Websites Big and Small
Perhaps the most well-known site to be slapped with a Google manual penalty for link irregularities is JC Penney. In early 2011, the USbased retail giant was outed by the New York Times for shady links. The Times questioned why JC Penney was top-ranked for hundreds of queries, from little black dresses to Samsonite luggage to grommet topped curtains. They achieved top spots in many searches for branded items, such as Samsonite carry-on luggage, in which one would expect Samsonite would rank more highly.
JC Penney, or rather, its SEO firm, had created links from a variety of irrelevant, low-quality websites to JC Penney’s site. The phrase “black dresses,” for instance, was found on a site called nuclearengineeringaddict.com and linked directly to the retailer’s black dress section. This happened thousands of times, driving JC Penney to the top of the search engine results pages for endless queries.
After the New York Times exposed the century-old company, Google imposed a manual penalty, which lasted for 90 days before it was lifted. During that time in the penalty box, JCP lost visibility for scores of keywords. Samsonite carry-on luggage, for instance, went from number 1 to number 71. Top-ranked living room furniture fell to number 68. Remember, it is the rare consumer who will look beyond page two of the SERPS, so this is significant.
More recently, UK’s biggest web flower vendor, Interflora, and several UK newspapers were penalised by Google for using “advertorials.” These thinly disguised editorial hybrids were placed by Interflora in several newspapers, and Google believed that this violated their link guidelines. Matt Cutts wrote:
Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or “advertorial” pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations. The consequences for a link selling site start with losing trust in Google’s search results, as well as reduction of the site’s visible PageRank in the Google Toolbar. The consequences can also include lower rankings for that site in Google’s search results.
JC Penney and Interflora rebounded, and they did so with relative speed and ease. But they have name recognition and customer loyalty on their side, as do other big businesses that have been busted for link schemes of various kinds, including Overstock.com, Forbess, and even Google itself!
The same penalty applied to a small web business could be devastating. Sites without the name recognition, infrastructure, and resources to combat a penalty may well never recover. In fact, Google’s webspam chief, Matt Cutts, said, “If you’ve cleaned up and still don’t recover, ultimately, you might need to start all over with a fresh site.”
Can You Recover from a Manual Google Penalty?
An algorithmic “penalty” is typically discovered when sites have significant visibility on the SERPs. One day, they are literally off the radar. A manual penalty is different; Google sends warnings to website owners, indicating that a site has been found in violation of webmaster guidelines.
Your website can recover from a Google penalty; what is not likely, however, unless you’re an Interflora, JC Penney, or Google, is that your traffic will rebound to pre penalty levels. It is more probable that you will be, essentially, starting over. You will, though, be starting over fresh and clean – which is a much more favorable condition than you find yourself in now. There is no “back” button to deal with a Google penalty. You cannot undo that. Moving forward, though, you can create a stronger site that pulls in traffic on the basis of stellar content and design and which casts off the weight of unnatural and bad links.
Bad Things Happen to Good Sites
Taking a moment, we would like to reiterate that just because you have received this notification of penalty does not mean you did anything wrong, or that you did anything intentionally wrong. In some cases, as we saw with JC Penney, an outside firm was responsible for the link manipulation; in other cases, low-quality links are attaching themselves to your site without your knowledge or consent, or you have been the victim of “negative SEO.” And in some cases, you made a mistake or an error in judgment and are now paying the consequence.
Are there cases in which site owners are indeed at fault, intentionally manipulated Google, and deserve the penalty? Sure. This is exactly why Google institutes these penalties. If you have purchased links, used Do follows to spam comment sections, or engaged in other deleterious behaviour, it is time to clean up your links and SEO practices.
Removing Google Penalties
This is a bit of a misnomer. You do not remove the penalty. Google does. The process starts with the letter from Google, as shown above. You will notice that there is a link that will submit your site for reconsideration. At this stage, you are not ready for this.
Forgo clicking on the link, and instead examine what Google is telling you. Your site is suspected of using unnatural or artificial links in order to manipulate PageRank. The only logical next step is to conduct a thorough link audit. Use Webmaster Tools to look at the links coming into your site, and use a tool such as Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer, or Link Research Tools (all highly recommended by experts).
NOTE: As you go through your link audit, use a spreadsheet (preferably on Google Docs) to list all of the unnatural or potentially unnatural links you find. As you continue through the process, document everything you do to remove or disavow these links and copy letters to webmasters and other communications to a file. You will need this later for your reconsideration request.
You may have several thousands of incoming links: how do you know if they are unnatural or artificial? You are going to have to go through the links (the tools make it easier) and ask several questions:
- Is the link from a domain that Google has not indexed or which has a low PageRank? This could mean there is a quality problem.
- Is it a no-follow link? If so, you don’t need to worry about that because Google doesn’t follow them. They have no impact.
- Look at the anchor text for over optimisation. This can indicate an unnatural link or an attempt to manipulate rank.
- Does the link appear with pay-per-click links, such as those for pills, pornography, gambling, etc.? This is guilt by association!
- Does the link come from a link network?
- Look for sitewide links, especially footer and blogroll links.
- Look for automated and paid links. Buying links used to be white hat practice; it is not any longer.
- In Webmaster Tools, go to Traffic>Links to Your Site>Who Links Most>>More. If you see that one site is responsible for a large number of links, it may indicate sitewide links, which may be unnatural.
Removing Bad Links
Here is a glimmer of light: you do not need to remove all the bad links. Google needs to see a good faith effort and significant progress. End of glimmer! Now, on to the work of removing or disavowing these links. The first step is to look at links that point to internal pages. These are the easiest to deal with because you control them. There are a few ways to do this:
- Use robot.txt to request that Google not crawl these pages.
- Change the URL of the pages or move them to a new URL – and make sure to leave the bad links behind.
- Use a 301 redirect to point visitors from the old page to the new (and hopefully Google approved) version.
If you have paid service for links, request that these be removed. If the service tries to get you to pay a removal fee, contact Google and let them investigate. They often take action against sites like this.
What if the links come from external websites over which you have no control? That is obviously a tougher nut to crack. Prioritise your unnatural links and select those that need to be removed. Any links which have been purchased should be at the top of your list.
You are going to have to start emailing webmasters now, and this can be a very unpleasant part of the recovery process. If you have spammed blog or forum comments, owners will not be eager to extend you the olive branch. You need to make your request humbly.
When contacting any webmaster, be polite, be respectful, and never threaten. You are, essentially, asking these people to do you a favor and take down the link. They do not have to; Google is not breathing down their necks, it is breathing down yours. That is, your desperation does not mandate action on the part of other webmasters. And remember, document your attempts.
There are tools that you can use to pull contact information, initiate contact, send reminders, and record actions automatically. Some good ones include:
- Remove ‘em
Some website owners will remove the links; others will not. Regardless, document your attempts and make every possible effort to remove as many bad links as possible.
For links that are completely unassociated with your website, you can use the Link Disavow tool to tell Google not to take these links into consideration when determining your PageRank. Use with caution, though; you don’t want to go right down your list and disavow 1000 links. Your site’s performance will suffer. And, as Google reminds us: “In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.”
In other words, Google can tell which links are untrustworthy, and the search engine doesn’t want you to try to pull one over on them. Use this if you have a high number of spammy and unnatural links that are impacting your performance in the SERPs.
After work you have done everything within your power to clean up your link profile, it is time to on your reconsideration request. Be sure to include:
- Acknowledge the problem. We received Google’s notification of unnatural or bad links. These links are a result of…fill in the blank. Here is the place to take responsibility for spamming, paying for links, and other frowned-upon practices. If an SEO firm did this without your consent, or with it, be sure to mention this to Google.
- Layout the steps you have taken, from link audit to webmaster contact to remove these links.
- Mention specific URLs that were particularly abundant or problematic.
- After you have talked about what you have done to remedy the problem, discuss why it will not recur. You might have received training in proper SEO and link-building techniques; you might have fired your SEO firm and retained a legitimate practitioner in its stead; you may have taken off your black or grey hat and put on a white one.
Be specific in your reconsideration request, even if it is not complimentary to yourself or your company. Google would rather see, “I engaged in spam commenting,” or, “We purchased links,” than, “I am completely blameless, and someone is out to get me.” They also want to see, “We are not going to do this again moving forward. We are going to focus on high-quality content and legitimate, proven SEO tactics.”
To that point, start on a content campaign. Write relevant, interesting articles and blog posts; produce videos on topics in which your audience is interested; use social media to engage with your target audience. This will help when Google lifts the penalty and begins crawling and indexing your site once again.
After the Reconsideration Request
It typically takes Google two to four weeks for Google to respond to your reconsideration request. Manual penalties are imposed by humans, and reconsideration requests are also handled by humans. If it is felt that you have removed enough links, or worked hard enough to remove them, the penalty may be lifted. That’s the best-case scenario.
Google may deny your request, and this leaves you with a few options: continue your work removing unnatural links, or if you feel you have done everything in your power, move to a different site. The latter is the last resort; if you can make a greater effort to clean up your links, try it, and resubmit. If even then your request is denied, then it may be time to cut your losses.
Many sites, though, have had their Google manual penalties lifted. The key is making a thorough, good-faith attempt. Google doesn’t expect you to remove each and every link; it is impossible. What they do demand is that you do your damnedest, and prove it to them.
You will not see a magical boost in your PageRank, unfortunately. To recover and to build your visibility back up, it is important to stick to the straight and narrow and do a little old-fashioned hard work.
- Make sure your code is clean. Check for hidden content, malformed anchors, bad canonicals, and other elements.
- Concentrate on content. Get rid of thin and duplicate content. For instance, retailers can write original product descriptions rather than relying on those supplied by the manufacturer. If you have more fluff than stuff, you need to go back and fill it out with relevant, high-quality information.
- Implement Author Rank.
- Build and cultivate high-quality links. Your solid content will help with this, as will a concerted outreach campaign. You could, for instance, ask B2B partners to link to your site; you could use social media; you could make sure you are listed in relevant business directories. All of these are legitimate means of building links.
A Google penalty can be frightening; it is certainly an email that no one wants to read. But it is one that you cannot ignore. Avoiding penalty is, of course, the best course of action. But if that is no longer an option, fight to regain your PageRank and ensure your site is not penalised again for the same mistakes.
Many other sites have incurred penalties and have worked diligently to address the problem. It takes time and effort, and it can be frustrating trying to appease the world’s largest search engine. But because so much of our traffic originates here, and so many of our customers and clients depend on Google, it is worth the effort. There is life after a Google penalty. The quality of that life depends on you.