With Euro 2020 having just come to a very heart-retching close for the England team, penalties are probably the last thing on people’s mind right now. If we weren’t in the SEO industry, we’d leave it well alone. But, penalties are important. If you get penalised by Google, it means that your target audience can’t find your website, which means they can’t buy, and we don’t need to tell you that’s bad for your business.
What is a Google Penalty?
First things first, what is a Google penalty? To put it simply, it’s where your website doesn’t meet Google’s quality standards, which you can find in their Webmaster guidelines. With algorithms getting ever smarter, and with human reviewers on hand to make sure that sites meet the required standards, ensuring that you’re not using any Black Hat SEO techniques is now more important than ever.
Are Algorithm Penalties and Manual Penalties the same?
If you work in SEO, you’ve obviously heard of algorithm penalties. Just to make things confusing (thanks Google!), algorithm penalties happen when Google’s updated its algorithms, and your site falls short of the new rules. This is why it’s so important that you make sure you work on your site to ensure you’re not impacted negatively because of Google’s Core Web Vitals, for example.
Manual penalties are not related to algorithms but are all about following Google’s best practices. Google employees will go through and manually penalise you if your site is guilty of any of the following offences. Plus, did you know, people can actually report your website to Google if they believe you’re being spammy?
So, what can cause a Google Penalty?
There are a number of different causes, some of which can be purely accidental, to those more severe where people are going out of their way to manipulate search results. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the most common causes our team have seen, and how to fix them.
Keyword Stuffing and Hidden Text
Back in the early days of SEO, people used to add keywords as many times as possible to get their site to rank. Nowadays, however, adding too many keywords to your texts is what’s known as keyword stuffing. When you’re writing a text, you need to make sure that your keywords sound natural, as Google wants you to write for users, not for search engines. Also make sure that your keywords are adapted to be grammatically correct, as people shouldn’t be able to spot what your keywords are.
If you’re worried your texts might include too many keywords, read your copy out loud. If the keywords sound natural, you’re fine. If they sound robotic, make sure you go through and edit those sections.
While keyword stuffing can happen accidentally, hidden text isn’t something that’s done quite so innocently. This is done by using white text on a white background, locating text behind an image, using CSS to position text off-screen, setting the font size to 0, or hiding a link by linking to a hyphen or small character.
To check for this issue, head to Google Search Console and go to Fetch as Google. Then, look for text that is hidden in your CSS styling or positioning. Once you’ve identified where the problem areas are, get rid of the hidden text and then ask for Google to reconsider your site, which we’ll talk about in more detail later.
One of the main reasons people get hit by a manual penalty is because of unnatural linking. Any behaviour that involves creating unnatural links to/from your site is a clear violation of webmaster guidelines. This can include buying links or posts that contain links, exchanging goods for links, or excessive link exchanges, plus much more.
If you’re guilty of buying links, or you’re worried your SEO agency has done so, you need to act quickly. Download all of your links from Google Search Console and audit the links. Next, try to get the offenders removed, add rel=”nofollow” to non-conforming links, and disavaow any links that you can’t get rid of. Once that’s done, then submit a reconsideration request.
Cloaking is when you show Google something and website users something else. This can happen not only with webpages, but also images and links. This happens when, for example, desktop users are redirected to a web page, yet mobile visitors are redirected to a spam site. Or this could be when a certain image is covered by a different image or there’s a redirect that takes a user away from the image in question.
In order to fix this issue, do the same as above, and head to Fetch as Google in Google Search Console. Once you’re there, analyse your content and make sure that your end users see exactly what Google sees. You should also go through your redirects and URLs to ensure they match up, and they’re not what Google classes as sneaky.
Structured Data Issues
Google uses structured data to help it understand what a web page is about. Schema is used to provide information about a page content, which is coded into a page. When dealing with structured data, make sure you follow rich snippet guidelines. Also, don’t mark-up blank pages or pages where the info is invisible to a user. Plus, you should never mark-up content that could be classed as misleading.
In order to fix this issue, you need to review your structured data to make sure it follows Google’s guidelines. Once you’ve got rid of any offending items, simply submit a reconsideration request.
No Added Value
No matter what marketing department you’re in, you have to add value. And that includes web content. If your web pages are found guilty of not adding value, you could risk a penalty. Pages that find themselves in violation often include auto-generated content, low-quality guest blog posts, pages with little to no content that adds no value and content scraped from more reputable websites.
To fix these pages, there are a couple of things you have to do. First, identify duplicate content and make sure you either delete it or replace it. Add to pages with low word counts and write more content around pages that simply focus on special offers. Once you’ve done then submit a reconsideration request.
If someone says that forums, comments, and the like are the best way to get your rankings up, don’t listen to them!
Make sure that you’re checking for advertisements that are disguised as comments, comments with irrelevant links, spammy usernames, and automated or off-topic comments. If you find any of these on your site, make sure you get rid of them ASAP and then request a review once you’re done.
Google has a number of policies in place to protect people from harmful content. This could include adult content, terrorism-related sites, and pretty much anything you’d find distasteful and harmful. If you own an adult website, or something similar, make sure you follow these guidelines very closely, as you don’t want your website getting into trouble.
Types of Google Penalties
The actions we’ve just covered could have a whole range of consequences. If you’ve been struck with a Google penalty you may only realise when your website has been penalised. There are different impact levels depending on how severe the violation:
This is probably the least severe Google penalty. This means that either one, or a specific number of keywords lose their rankings. All other keywords will remain unaffected.
You can tell if you’ve been hit with a keyword penalty if your search volumes suddenly drop from say the top 10s to down to the 100s.
URL or Directory-Level
This type of penalty will see a specific URL suddenly lose its rankings. Only that specific page will be affected, and the rest of your site will remain as normal.
To check if you’ve been hit with a URL penalty, head to your analytics tool, like the Searchmetrics Suite, and see if a particular URL or directory has dropped.
If you’ve been hit by a domain-wide penalty, keywords across the whole of your website will have taken a massive decrease.
Look like you’d do with a URL or directory level penalty, take a look at your site-wide keywords. If you’ve suddenly gone from ranking in the top 10 to going to the 100s, chances are you’ve been hit by a penalty.
Delisting is the most severe of all the penalties, as Google will remove your site completely from Google. This means that none of your content will show up, even if you make a specific search for the site in question.
Now we’ve talked about penalties, how do we fix them? Luckily, if it’s your first-time offence, this is pretty easy with the help of Google Search Console. First of all, make sure you fix the issues. Then, submit a reconsideration request.
Just be careful – if you’re a serial offender, Google isn’t going to be forgiving, so make sure you ensure you’re only using White Hat SEO techniques after your offence. Otherwise, you risk having to start your website from scratch as your website could be delisted.
It’s important to note, that a reconsideration request only works for manual penalties, not algorithm penalties.
Having trouble with Penalties?
If you’re having trouble with penalties, or your website isn’t performing as it should, get in touch with us here at Searchmetrics. We have a team of talented SEO consultants on hand to help you get your website back on track.