What Causes A Google Penalty and How To Recover

If there’s one thing you don’t want to hear in the SEO world, it’s that you’ve been hit with a Google penalty.

So what exactly is a Google Penalty?

Google works to make sure the best and most relevant content shows up in its results pages. It does so by constantly releasing algorithms which check the quality of websites.

There have been a few notable algorithms, including:

  • Panda: first released in February 2011, Panda aimed to reduce websites of low-quality, particularly websites with little or automated content.
  • Penguin: this algorithm was announced in April 2012, and took aim at websites violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by manipulating the number of links pointing to its website.  
  • Mobilegeddon: released in April 2015, ‘mobilegeddon’ boosted mobile-friendly pages in its search results.
  • Fred: one of the latest algorithm updates, and is still unconfirmed by Google. Released in March 2017, Fred appears to take aim at private blog networks (PBN).      

How can you tell if your website has been penalised?

You may or may not get notified if you receive a penalty. If the penalty is manual, it’s likely you’ll be notified. However, if it is algorithmic, you may be left in the dark. This is why it’s important to know the signs of a penalty.

Signs of an algorithmic penalty include:

  • Not ranking for your brand name
  • Drop in PageRank
  • Any pages one rankings have now slipped onto page two or three
  • Your page has been completely removed from Google’s rankings
  • Other pages will rank, but not your home page

These are clear signs that you have received a penalty.

What causes a penalty?

Sometimes, people intentionally undertake black-hat SEO tactics in order to manipulate search engine results pages. For example, stuffing keywords in content, hiding keywords in hidden text, and having excessive amounts of poor quality links to your site. These techniques are frowned upon by Google and can result in a penalty.

However, often the mistake will be unintentional, and a penalty can come as a surprise. It helps to know what causes a penalty in order to avoid being stung.

Some causes of penalties include:

  • Links: if you’ve got a lot of links, particularly on low-ranking, unrelated websites, chances are you’ll get a penalty. To avoid being penalised, it’s best not to purchase links. It’s also important to make sure the links included on your website are linking to high quality websites. Associating yourself with a low ranking, suspicious website can cause a penalty. Avoid linking to other websites that have been struck with a penalty.     
  • Hidden text: keywords help you rank, so people often place keywords on their website in small font and the same colour as their website. This means visitors to the website won’t see the text, but Google will.
  • Keyword stuffing: using too many keywords, and keywords that are out of context, is a clear manipulation of Google’s guidelines.
  • Content: Google only wants the best pages appearing in its results, and will therefore avoid ranking pages with duplicate content. Make sure all your content is original to avoid a penalty. If you’re using a content farm, or have spun content, chances are both Google and your readers will be able to tell. While it may be full of keywords, it will read unnaturally, and therefore won’t rank. Finally, if your content is too thin, it may end up with a high bounce rate, as people will not find what they came to the page for. If this happens too frequently, Google will review your website.
  • Website design: your website should be all about the user. When your website has problems, it’s negatively affecting the user experience, and Google knows it. Problems your website may have that can cause a penalty can include your website going down, slow site speed, 404 and 302 errors, and a poor mobile website design.  
  • Ads: your site may be penalised if it’s crammed full of ads. Furthermore, if you’re considering legitimately promoting your website or blog, you can consider advertorials, just as long as you use a nofollow attribute to avoid a penalty.  

What to do if you’ve received a penalty

Whether or not it was intentional, you’ve received a penalty. The hardest part is often knowing you’ve received a penalty and what the cause was.

Fortunately, penalties aren’t forever, and can be fixed.

Ways you can resolve your penalty include:

  • Tracking backlinks: if your links are the cause of the penalty, you can manually try and remove the links.
  • Disavow links: if you received a penalty because of a link on a troublesome website you do not control, you can contact Google and ask to disavow the link. However, Google recommends you manually try and remove the link first.
  • Clean up your website: remove anything that was causing the penalty from your website. Once this is done, request a reconsideration from Google.
  • Create a new domain: if your home page has completely been removed from Google’s search results, the best option may be to start again with a completely new domain name.   

If you’re trying to build up your website’s ranking and want to avoid receiving a Google penalty, it’s best to stick to white-hat SEO strategies. This includes:

  • Including relevant backlinks on your website
  • Having a well-designed website
  • Increase your brand signals by including details such as your physical address and contact number
  • Increase your following on social media. Just make sure you avoid buying followers, as this can also cause a penalty.
  • Increase your Trust Flow by gaining links on legitimate, authoritative websites.