Google penalties are some of the most frightening—yet most poorly understood—elements of search engine optimization (SEO). With the power to dramatically reduce your site’s rankings and visibility in search engines, Google penalties are a real threat, but at times, the legends surrounding them venture into “boogeyman” territory.
Every webmaster should work to learn more about Google penalties—both to avoid them from applying to your site and to learn to take appropriate action if and when a penalty ever emerges. But the topic is so overrun with misinformation and fearmongering, it’s hard to get a straight answer on how penalties work.
That’s why we’ve created this all-in-one guide to Google penalties, so you can learn how to avoid them, how to assess them, and most importantly, how to recover.
Google ranks sites based on both relevance (which is tied to keywords and topical focus) and authority, which is calculated primarily using the quantity and quality of external links pointing to your pages. Though the algorithm used here is complex, the more links you have pointing to a page, and the more trustworthy those links are, the higher that page is going to rank for various relevant queries.
If this is the first you’re hearing of this, you might be tempted to figure out how to place as many links as possible on external sites to build up the authority of your top pages (and your domain overall), but as experienced optimizers know, Google has safeguards in place to protect against this. These days, Google has algorithms that evaluate how “natural” a link is, and may penalize your website if too many of your links appear suspicious or unnatural.
It’s possible to attract links completely naturally, relying solely on the quality of your content to entice your readers to cite you as a source, but this method is inconsistent, and won’t allow you to grow as quickly as you could with a formal link building strategy.
So, spamming links isn’t an option, but you can intentionally build “natural” links by including them as a citation in your off-site content. Basically, the process works like this:
If you want your links to appear natural, however, you’ll need to make sure your citation is sensible. In general, your citation should meet the following criteria:
If you’re not used to link building or working with a white-hat link building service, that list of criteria may seem intimidating. So instead of relying on these characteristics individually, I’ve defined seven different archetypes of citations you can use to link to your brand in ways that fulfill all these important requirements.
Specific Modes of Citation
These are the seven types of citations you’ll be building if you want your links to seem natural and count toward your domain and page authority. Each one has advantages and disadvantages, and should be used in different contexts. Your best approach is to use each of these in balance with each other, across the entirety of your campaign.
Let’s start with a discussion on what actually constitutes a “Google penalty.”
Google has the power to take a manual action against a site that shows signs of violating Google’s terms of service. In this situation, a human being reviews the site in question and issues a manual penalty against the site. After the penalty is issued, some or all of your web pages will either suffer a massive ranking penalty or be omitted from search results entirely, depending on a number of factors (including the type and severity of the offense). There’s no clear visual indication that the pages are lower in rank, but their visibility will plummet. In all cases of a Google manual penalty, you will be specifically notified of its issuance.
This is the only type of formal penalty that exists. However, your web pages may decline in rank for other reasons; these ranking declines are often referred to as “penalties” even though there is no human, manual action involved.
Usually, if you notice a sudden decline in your search rankings, it’s because Google has issued a change in its algorithm. Google does this periodically as a way to improve the quality and accuracy of its search results; as a byproduct, it reevaluates the pages in its index, and some pages may fall in rank while others increase. Typically, these algorithm changes focus on refining Google’s quality standards; though the specific details aren’t published, it often means tightening restrictions on how Google “sees” your content and external links.
Either way, there are strategies you can use to recover from your ranking decline. In the event of a manual Google penalty, you’ll need to make specific changes to your site and request a manual review from Google directly. In the case of search engine ranking page (SERP) volatility due to an algorithm change, tweaking your current efforts may be enough to bring your rank up over time.
You may notice your pages sharply decline in rankings, or disappear from search rankings altogether, at some point in the future. If this happens, your first step is determining what type of “penalty” you’re facing.
Your ranking decline is likely attributable to one of these three root causes. The only exception is if a sudden influx of high-authority competition has challenged your previous domination over the keyword cluster.
Now, let’s dig into the motivations for a Google manual action. The vast majority of websites will never have to worry about getting a manual penalty, since they’re typically reserved for sites that are intentionally and grievously offending Google’s terms of service. Few webmasters are taken wholly by surprise when they discover their site has been targeted with a penalty.
These are some of the top reasons for “true” Google penalties (aka, manual actions):
There was a time when no backlink was a bad backlink; those days are gone.
At one time, Fiverr was a great place to get foundational backlinks from directories and bookmark sites. You could get hundreds of these links for the cost of five dollars. Not all would stick, but for five bucks you couldn’t go wrong.
If you don’t know it, a job on Fiverr is called a “gig.”
These days it seems Fiverr is used as a hunting grounds for potential customers; the starting point is the gig. You can still get some reasonably decent work done for five dollars, but for most vendors the upsell is the attraction. To be fair, in some cases the upsell services are pretty good.
As far as Fiverr and Google goes, Google isn’t targeting Fiverr because they’re just a platform for putting together vendor and customer. The problem lies in the type of backlinks being offered from the people selling the service.
10,000 backlinks to your site is one ad we still see being offered. This sounds great (for five dollars), but if this is true then you can count on your site being penalized. The blasting of backlinks to your site may have worked in the past, but now this will only cause you trouble.
I will make 1000 comment backlinks to your site. This is another ad we see on Fiverr. Unless this is done systematically, over a period of a year or so, you can be sure this tactic will negatively impact your SEO efforts. And there’s still controversy on whether comment backlinks in mass have any significant impact on rankings.
I will get 200 great backlinks to your site. What is a great backlink? We would very much like to know what a great backlink means.
I will submit your site to 100 article directories. The best article directory of the group, Ezinearticles, seems to have lost some of its clout for SEO experts.
So, even if five dollars doesn’t pinch your pocketbook, the effectiveness of these gigs isn’t there anymore and not to mention the penalties you website might receive because of them.
The short answer? Of course. Bing is a search engine that uses an algorithm to rank websites based on relevancy and quality. So it of course has measures in place to penalize those sites that try to game the system in their favor.
One way to look at this question is if you should bother optimizing your site for Bing. So much of the focus in SEO land is on optimizing for Google that Bing tends to get lost in the shuffle. That being said, it’s becoming increasingly important to optimize for Bing. Many mobile devices come with Bing integrated — that means users are going to opt for this search engine over Google. And that means more searches for your industry related terms through Bing. You can guess where this train of thought goes next, right?
So yes, you must use all of your SEO know-how for Bing, too.
It can be difficult to discern if you have a Bing penalty unless it’s severe. I’m talking the having all of your pages removed from the Bing index sort of severe. A significant breach of the Bing Webmaster Guidelines will net you this result. What constitutes a penalty is actually pretty easy for anyone familiar with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to guess:
All of these are serous issues that could lead to your site being delisted from the search engine results. While duplicate content is not explicitly stated as a reason for a site to be delisted, it has been reason enough in the past, so it’s best to avoid.
On-site optimization is important for SEO, to say the least. Not only is it necessary to give search bots something to crawl and index, on-site optimization is also your best opportunity to optimize your pages for specific keywords. However, without the power of inbound links, your SEO campaign doesn’t stand a chance of success.
+ 1. Feature your business.
+ 2. Cite specific facts, metrics, or research.
+ 3. Give a quote.
+ 4. Point users to further information.
+ 5. Use yourself as an example.
+ 6. Utilize your author bylines and profiles.
+ 7. Cite yourself as a contributor, partner, or affiliate.
+ Miscellaneous Tips for Better Link Building
Building quality, natural, penalty-free links is every webmasters’ goal. Here are a just a few ways and means.
Your first option is to write a piece of content that focuses specifically on your business. In most link building tactics, you’ll need to find a way to introduce your brand into the body of an article, but here, you may be a part of the headline. This citation style is advantageous because it allows you to freely cite yourself, using a homepage and a brand mention, without the possibility of seeming irrelevant since the entire article is about you.
The downside is, of course, that most publishers won’t accept content like this—it reads as too self-promotional. To succeed here, you’ll need to be choosy about where you’re getting published and how you’re syndicating your work.
Your choice in content type is the real secret to getting this type of content successfully published.
Keys to effective use:
This is an effective strategy for your first few links, since it doesn’t require much finesse.
Citing specific pieces of factual information may be the safest way to build a link. Though publishers vary in how they set and enforce formatting standards, it’s generally a basic journalism requirement to link to your sources, especially for numerical facts like dates, percentages, and other statistics.
Specific information like this makes written content stronger and more convincing, and most publishers require at least a handful of facts to support your claims in every article you submit.
You need to include stats, and you need to link to your sources when you include them. Basically, that means you have a free pass to link to your site—as long as it contains valuable statistics for you to reference.
These are just three prominent examples, but I’m hard pressed to think of a piece of content that couldn’t be improved by the inclusion of more supporting facts. Literally any piece of content could use this citation style.
Keys to effective use:
The biggest hurdle to overcome here is sourcing some original facts to reference; this typically means conducting original research, which might include a full-blown survey, or even a simple poll on your brand Facebook page (or Twitter page).
If you don’t have original research to offer but you still want to contribute something valuable to an external piece, consider contributing a quote by an influencer or decision-maker within your organization. There are multiple ways to approach this, but two are especially common.
First, you could copy and paste a short section of a blog post on your site into a post you’re writing for an external publication. Second, you could ask someone in your organization for a quote (or make one up, attributing it to them with their permission), and cite the name of your organization when you name your source. For example, you could lead into your quote with something like: As Nate Nead of SEO.co explains, “(quote).”
Again, you’re expected to cite a source here, so it’s a free opportunity to build a link as long as you have something valuable to add.
Like with specific facts, quotes can be used liberally, in almost any piece of content you can imagine. Just be sure you or whoever is providing the quote is well-qualified to do so.
Keys to effective use:
This doubles as an opportunity to promote someone else’s personal brand, so make the quote count.
So far, I’ve been discussing how to use links as a mode of direct citation, crediting a source for information or acknowledging the source’s existence for credibility purposes. Here, we’re going to shift gears and use links as a way to send readers to somewhere else.
This mode of citation is a method of elaboration. Most articles you’ll write for external publications will be limited in scope and length, so you won’t get to explore your points fully in the body of your primary work. For example, you may make reference to the importance of marketing in a crowdfunding campaign, but you won’t be able to embed a definitive guide on the subject.
Readers may be interested in learning more than you’re permitted to include, so your link serves as a gateway to introduce that content. Here, you can include your links inconspicuously, using your target subject matter as anchor text, or introduce your link with a phrase like, “to read more on this topic…”
You may even be able to mention your brand by name. However, I find that using the title of the asset or content you’re directing the reader to gets the best click-through rate (assuming you’ve used a great title). For help choosing a great title for your content, see 101 Title Ideas for Your Next Blog Post.
See what I did there?
Keys to effective use:
The quality of your work here will significantly impact how your link is interpreted; these need to be really high-quality, in-depth pieces.
This method is useful because of how flexible it is, but it’s also prone to making you appear too self-promotional, so be wary. The idea is to present a series of examples of some topic, either as the focal point of the piece or as illustrations in one specific section of the piece. You could also use your brand as a standalone example to illustrate your article’s point, but it’s usually better to have yourself as one of several examples.
The easiest way to do this is in list format, with each list item containing another example, but you can also mention yourself in an aside in the body of your content. For example, if I’m writing a section within an article about the benefits of getting exposure on major media publications, I might include something like this:
Acquiring brand mentions across the web brings many other benefits aside from just the obvious SEO value of inbound links. Did you know your conversion rates can go up as a result of them, too? One way to help with this is to include logos of the publishers on which your brand has been mentioned; this creates social proof and aligns your brand with trusted media outlets. For example, look at the homepage of SEO.co and you’ll notice that we have a scrolling banner which lists many of the logos of publications on which we’ve been featured. We’ve seen a 34% increase in conversion rates since we implemented it.
Keys to effective use:
Using yourself as an example may seem easy at first glance, but there’s a thin line of relevance to walk here.
Rather than citing yourself in the body of your content contributions, you can rely on citations found within your author profiles and bylines. Usually, when you’re accepted as a recurring guest author or columnist on a specific external publication, you’ll be given a dedicated page or blurb explaining who you are, what your expertise is, and possibly including a headshot and links to other resources.
You should optimize this area to show off your main area of specialty, and you’ll usually be given allowance for at least one link to your site (often the homepage) as well as your social media profiles. This link will pass authority to your site, like any other link, and will attract some traffic (but usually not as much as a link in the body of an article).
Relying on this one-time, permanent citation can come in handy when working with publishers that frequently remove your in-article links, esteemed publishers that have rigid linking standards, or those that you don’t plan to contribute to on a regular basis.
Rather than being tied to any specific content types, you’ll be creating bylines and profiles with specific types of publishers.
Keys to effective use:
Depending on how they’re used, links in author profiles can be one of your most powerful resources. Don’t underestimate them.
Similar to your author profile, you can also build a semi-permanent standing link to cite yourself as a contributor, partner, or affiliate of some other site. These don’t need to exist on sites that publish your work specifically; as long as you’re affiliated with the site in question in some way, you can likely build a link there.
You can have your brand listed on a dedicated page, get your link mentioned on specifically related pages, or potentially even build your link in the footer of a site, depending on the circumstances.
This citation method is best understood through examples:
Keys to effective use:
The art of link building itself warrants a guide of its own, which I’ve written and published here: SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide.
But for now, consider the following tips to use in conjunction with the preceding citation “archetypes.”
If your site’s pages fell in rank due to an algorithm change, you can take the following steps:
If Google has sent you a message notifying you of a manual action, there are some steps you can take to resolve the issue. After you’ve been able to fully resolve the issue, your rankings should be restored to their former glory as soon as the index updates.
Hopefully, Google will review your request in a timely manner and approve of the changes you made. If it rejects your appeal, you’ll receive a detailed explanation as to why, and what steps you can take to resolve the problem.
As you gain more experience building links, you may find yourself favoring some citation styles over others; this is fine, as most of them will pass authority to your site in the same way. To be successful, you just have to make sure your links are valuable, natural, and on high-authority sites.
There’s no concrete way to know how long it will take for you to recover after a manual penalty is lifted. Enterprise level sites can able to recover faster than smaller websites, simply because of the sheer volume of positive signals that come from larger websites. The amount of time it will take to recover will ultimately depend on the number of positive signals your site is sending to Google.