Understanding Google Penalties and Their Recovery Steps

By understanding Google penalties and what causes them, you can then understand, comply and work to resolve any issues that might have arose.

Many people are confused when it comes penalties handed down by Google. Most commonly is confusing an algorithm and a penalty, as these are two completely different things. For example, algorithms are updates like Panda and Penguin. These rely specifically on a set of calculations and rules in order to automatically deliver a desired outcome.

In the case of both of the aforementioned algorithms, Google’s end game is for websites to be “rewarded” in the search engine results when they meet their pre-determined quality standards, which are set forth by their webmaster guidelines. Google has hired numerous human reviewers who sit behind a computer and review and rate websites manually. These websites are ones that sometimes slip through the cracks of the search engine giant’s algorithms and don’t actually meet the quality standards.

Now, it can often feel as if you are being reprimanded when you don’t meet those standards because you are essentially receiving the same consequence – a huge decrease in organic traffic. However, it is crucial that you understand the difference between an actual penalty and simply prompting an algorithm. This is because it will determine how you move forward with recovery. Basically, the primary difference is whether or not you will need to interact with Google directly.

If you have manually been penalized by Google, you will receive an action report on the Google Search Console. When the violation has been corrected, there will be a requirement that explains the problem origins and a resolution within the “Reconsideration Request. However, this will not be necessary if there was just an algorithm issue.

Below, we will focus on manual penalties and the recovery steps for each one:

Sneaky Redirects and/or Cloaking

A sneaky redirect will send a web user to a page other than the one shown to Google. Cloaking is defined as the act of showing varying pages to web users than that is actually shown to Google. Both of these actions are in violation of the webmaster guidelines.

There are two types of penalties:

  • Partial Matches – This will affect portions of your website.
  • Site-Wide Matches – This will affect your entire website.

The Recovery

  1. Go to Google Search Console – Crawl – Fetch as Google. You will then fetch the pages from the impacted sections of your site.
  2. Take the content from your page and the content that has been fetched from Google and compare them.
  3. Work to resolve the variations between the separate pieces of content so that they’re the same.
  4. Check the redirects and remove any redirects that do the following:
    1. Send site visitors to an unanticipated destination.
    2. Conditionally redirect (for example, redirect users that come from a specific source).
    3. Are “sneaky” in any other way.
    4. Submit the reconsideration request to Google once the issues have been corrected.

Tip: In some instances, these redirects may be created by a CMS plug-in, so check your .htaccess file. They may also be written in JavaScript.

First Click Free: Cloaking

This specific cloaking penalty is imposed against sites that restrict content to users, particularly those coming from Google, yet show it to Google. According to the First Click Free policy by Google, a website is going against the policy when it requires that users subscribe, register or log in to see the site’s content.

There are two types of penalties for this one as well:

  • Partial Matches – This will affect portions of your website.
  • Site-Wide Matches – This will affect your entire website.

The Recovery

  1. The content that is shown is required to be the same on the website for all users, including those coming from services offered by Google, as well as for Google. Make the necessary to be in compliance.
  2. Submit the reconsideration request once corrections have been completed.

Tip: Utilize the First Click Free policy. Let users see a full article without subscription, registration or logging in when coming from services offered by Google.

Cloaked Images

Cloaking does not only apply to content, as it refers to images as well. For instance, images that:

  • Are difference than the image that is served.
  • Are concealed by a different image.
  • Redirect site visitors away from the intended image.

The aforementioned are all examples of cloaking images.

The Recovery

  1. Change it so that the image shown to Google is the same image shown to the users that visit your website.
  2. Submit the reconsideration request once the issue has been corrected.

Tip: Make sure to check your plug-ins to ensure that they aren’t the cause of your image cloaking problem.

Hacked Site

With content management systems, such as WordPress, hackers are on the prowl looking for any exploit that they can get their hands on in order to inject malicious links and content. It is often difficult to locate and repair because it is cloaked. If Google finds it, a notification pops up that “This site is hacked”. This, of course, usually leads to a demotion in the search engine results.

The Recovery

  1. Get in touch with your web host. Begin building a support team.
  2. Prevent further damage by quarantining your website.
  3. Utilize the Google Search Console to see if you can identify the exact hacking type.
  4. If it is spam or malware, assess the damage.
  5. Try to identify the vulnerability to see how and where the hacker got in.
  6. Close the vulnerability by cleaning your site.
  7. Request a review by Google and ask that they reconsider the ‘hacked’ label.

Tip: Make sure that you are always proactive and maintain a backup of your site. Keep security features installed and up-to-date at all times.

Keyword Stuffing/Hidden Text

This particular heading really needs no introduction, as it is self-explanatory.

Like the first two penalties, there are two types:

  • Partial Matches – This will affect portions of your website.
  • Site-Wide Matches – This will affect your entire website.

The Recovery

  1. Go to the Google Search Console – Crawl – Fetch as Google. Next, fetch the pages that have been affected from your site.
  2. Check for any text that is similar in color or the same as your page.
  3. Check for any hidden text utilizing CSS positioning or styling.
  4. Completely remove or re-style the hidden text so that it is now noticeable to the human user.
  5. Remove paragraphs with repeated words that have no context or fix them.
  6. Fix alt text and title tags that have strings of repeated words.
  7. If there are any other instances of hidden text or keywords stuffing, remove or fix them.
  8. Turn in a reconsideration request once the issues have been corrected.

Tip: Make sure that you are not confusing JS dropdowns or tabbed content with hidden text. With today’s mobile-age, these are both acceptable ways to add page content.

Pure Spam

This particular penalty is levied against websites that tend to aggressively partake in a combination of spam-related techniques, such as scraped content, automated gibberish, cloaking, etc. – all of which are against the webmaster guidelines.

This is yet another penalty that has two types:

  • Partial Matches – This will affect portions of your website.
  • Site-Wide Matches – This will affect your entire website.

The Recovery

  1. For first offenders, clean up your act and start complying with the webmaster guidelines set forth by Google.
  2. Submit your reconsideration request to Google once the issue has been corrected.

Tip: If your second offender, then you will have to shut your site down and start from scratch. More often than not, you won’t get another chance after you have broken Google’s trust.

Spammy Free Hosts

While it sure would be nice, free hosting doesn’t exist. If you come across a hosting service that claims they’re free, don’t mess with them. You’ll save money upfront, but they aren’t reliable and you won’t be able to control the spammy ads. Google has actually threated to take action against these services. Don’t take the risk in getting caught up with them.

The Recovery

  1. Get yourself on a quality shared hosting service.
  2. Turn in a reconsideration request once you have made the switch.

Tip: Start off with a reputable hosting service and shell out the cash for it. It is possible to find quality shared hosting without spending a fortune.

Spammy Structured Markup

If you fail to stay on par with the rich snippets guidelines and markup deceptive or unrelated content or markup content invisible to site visitors, then you can expect a penalty to be handed down from Google.

This penalty has two types:

  • Partial Matches – This will affect portions of your website.
  • Site-Wide Matches – This will affect your entire website.

The Recovery

  1. Simply update existing or remove markup content that violates the rich snippets guidelines.
  2. Turn in your reconsideration request once the issues have been corrected.

Tip: Follow the guidelines and avoid the temptation to surrender to this type of spam.

Thin Content with Little to No Value

Shallow or low-quality content pages that tend to trigger this particularly penalty will most often come in the following form:

  • Spun content / Auto-generated.
  • Scraped content from other sites.
  • Thin affiliates pages with no added value, OEM descriptions, and/or zero unique information.
  • Doorway pages.
  • Low-quality blog posts (typically guest blogs).

This penalty has two types:

  • Partial Matches – This will affect portions of your website.
  • Site-Wide Matches – This will affect your entire website.

The Recovery

  1. Determine if there is any spun or auto-generated content and remove it.
  2. Identify any low-quality affiliate pages that offer no value beyond the retailer or manufacturer. Add value to them or remove them.
  3. Use plagiarism software to detect content that is found on the internet elsewhere. Replace and/or remove that content.
  4. Find any content that has low word counts and add to those pages to make them more informative and useful.
  5. Locate doorway pages and remove them.
  6. Turn in a reconsideration request once the above issues have been corrected.

Tip: Take the time (and necessary resources) to create high-quality, unique, informative and useful content.

Unnatural Links to Your Website

This is a very common penalty that websites deal with. Almost always, the culprit is the same: participating in link schemes or buying links in order to boost your placement in search engine results. This is a clear and obvious violation of the webmaster guidelines.

The Recovery

  • Go to the Google Search Console and download all of the links to your website.
  • Perform a full audit on these links in order to try to identify the ones that may have violated the linking guidelines.
  • For non-conforming links, remove or add the following attribute: rel=”nofollow”.
  • If you can’t remove links or get them no-followed, disavow them.
  • Turn in a reconsideration request once you have completed cleaning your link profile up.

Tip: Take the time to build your links the “legal” way and stay away from link schemes.

Unnatural Links from Your Website

Just as you can buy links, you can also sell them and Google loves to get webmasters on this. These links are known as unnatural, deceptive, artificial and manipulative.

There are two types of penalties:

  • Partial Matches – This will affect portions of your website.
  • Site-Wide Matches – This will affect your entire website.

The Recovery

  1. Use the same a rel=”nofollow” attribute to remove/modify the links so they won’t pass PageRank any longer.
  2. Turn in a reconsideration request once you have successfully removed the non-compliant links.

Tip: Just know that it’s impossible to get one of these links by Google. So, it’s best to avoid this type of scamming altogether because they won’t waste a second in handing out a penalty to you for partaking in this type of violation.

User-Generated Spam

Have you ever received an e-mail that offers page one results through extremely cheap SEO? Well, that’s user-generated spam and it can be found in forums, user profiles, comments, and guestbook pages.

This has two types:

  • Partial Matches – This will affect portions of your website.
  • Site-Wide Matches – This will affect your entire website.

The Recovery

  1. Determine which pages site visitors can leave comments.
  2. Watch out for spam in:
    1. Comments with non-relevant links.
    2. Advertisements in comments.
    3. Off-topic, generic, or auto-generated comments.
    4. Spammy usernames.
    5. Remove any inappropriate and spammy content.
    6. Make it so that unmoderated content cannot appear on your site.
    7. Request that Google review your site, as it is not in violation any longer.

Tip: Always stay proactive by setting it up so that user content must be approved before appearing on your site.

The Key Takeaway

In order to build a strong presence online, you need to make sure that you know and fully understand, not to mention follow, the webmaster guidelines that Google has created. Google is the largest search engine in the world. They didn’t get on top by not knowing what they were doing, so don’t think that you can’t get one over on them. Don’t cut corners no matter how tempting it may be because those few steps that you took forward by cutting those corners will only put you back 100 steps when you are penalized by Google.

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