A Google Penalty is a misnomer.
Google issues Manual Actions on sites whose practices violate the company’s guidelines.
But Google does not issue penalties algorithmically (even though we state otherwise below).
When webmasters claim their site was “penalized” by the latest Google update, it’s incorrect.
Sites that drop in search results from a recent update are most likely over-optimized (most often this occurs as the result of one’s link building strategies) in one area and under-optimized in others.
This lack of optimization on a web page level, can look like a penalty from Google, but it simply indicates a lack of understanding of all the factors impacting your rankings.
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.
But, if you’ve ever received a Google penalty notice like the following, it could send your cortisol levels climbing:
As the saying goes:
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
But, if you’ve already been hit with a Google penalty, there’s a solution for that too.
Here we discuss the types of Google penalties and how to best recover when you are hit with a Google penalty.
What are the Different Types of Google Penalties?
There really only TWO types of Google penalties:
- Algorithmic Penalties
- Manual Penalties or “manual actions”
These are some of the top reasons for “true” Google penalties (aka, manual actions):
- Sneaky redirects. Sending a visitor to a different URL than the one they originally requested is considered malicious. Simple 301 redirects aren’t usually a problem here; instead, this tactic attracts penalties when it takes users to a spam site through doorway pages, or a site completely different than the one the originally wanted.
- Keyword stuffing (and/or hidden text). Back in the day, you could fool Google’s search crawlers by “hiding” invisible text in the background of your site; it was a method of keyword stuffing, or getting as many target phrases on your site as possible to increase its relevance. Not only is this strategy ineffective (thanks to Google’s many content quality updates), but it will also earn you a manual penalty if you’re discovered to be using it.
- Cloaked images. Similarly, if you’re intentionally hiding images on your site for the purposes of fooling visitors or gaining a ranking advantage, you’ll likely earn a penalty.
- Link schemes (and/or spam). Unnatural links or link schemes are one of the most common motivations for Google taking manual action because links are so important to any search ranking strategy. Building links to your website is enormously beneficial if you’re employing best practices and prioritizing the quality of those links, but if you’re spamming links, building low quality links or taking part in link schemes, it’s only going to hurt you. Link swaps, link circles, and other forms of spam links are all frequent targets here.
- Thin content. Most instances of “thin” (i.e., weak or low-quality) content are sorted out by Google’s algorithmic quality indicators. However, in some cases, it may be severe enough to warrant a penalty.
- Expired information. In some cases, allowing information related to your site to expire, such as job postings, for a prolonged period of time could lead to a manual action.
- Hacking issues. If your site has been hacked or if its security has been compromised, Google may manually block the site from appearing in search engines to protect its typical users.
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.
Which Type of Google Penalty Is Affecting Your Site?
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.
- Check Google Search Console & Google Analytics. Google Search Console, the modern rework of Google Webmaster Tools, is your one-stop dashboard for all matters related to the health of your website in the context of Google Search. If your site has been manually penalized, you’ll receive a message on this platform notifying you of the penalty and giving you specific instructions on how to proceed. If there is no message here, then congratulations—your ranking decline wasn’t the result of a manual Google action.
- Evaluate your recent activity. Next, evaluate your SEO strategies and determine if any of your recent activity could be responsible for a sudden change in the evaluation of the quality of your site. For example, if you’re experimenting with a new link building strategy and the quality of your sources is questionable, that may be the root cause of your issues. Low-quality content or website layout changes may also be responsible.
- Determine whether there has been an algorithm change. If there isn’t a manual action on your site, and you haven’t changed anything with your strategy lately, your ranking change is likely due to an update to Google’s algorithm. Moz keeps a running list of every Google algorithm change, including minor ones, so check their algorithm change timeline and see if a new algorithm adjustment aligns with your newfound volatility. If so, that may be the root cause of the problem. If the ranking volatility is new, the algorithm may not be listed yet. You can use a Google search volatility or Google penalty checker tools like SEMRush’s Sensor to see if the entire index has been shaken up.
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.
Can Websites Get SEO Penalties on Bing?
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.
Penalties on Bing
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:
- Malware and spam (even user generated spam content)
- Duplicate or thin content
- Keyword stuffing
- Link schemes
- Social media schemes
- Cloaking and hidden content
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.
How to Recover from an Algorithm-Related Google Penalty
If your site’s pages fell in rank due to an algorithm change, you can take the following steps:
- Research new algorithm changes. First, try to track down the specifics on the algorithm change that affected your site. Google doesn’t typically publish much information on these changes; if it does, it may direct you to a specific area, like onsite content or external links. Your best bet is to review sources of SEO news and information, and review the data provided by the experts there. Chances are, they’ve been affected by the algorithm changes too, and have a better idea of the steps necessary to counteract the effects.
- Evaluate your backlink profile. If the root cause seems to be your links, you should spend some time analyzing your backlink profile. Moz’s Link Explorer is a good tool to start with, but any tool that lets you check your current profile of backlinks will do. Look for any new links that may have compromised the rest of your strategy, or links from low-authority sources. Links from sources unrelated to your industry may also be a problem.
- Remove problematic links. If you track down problematic links, your best bet is to remove them. The vast majority of links can be removed easily by writing to the webmaster of the site in question. If you’ve attempted to remove the link directly with no avail, you may need to use Google’s Disavow tool to remove the link from consideration completely.
- Audit your content and keyword strategy. You’ll also want to pay close attention to your content and keyword strategies. If your onsite content is thin, with limited details, few references, or “fluff” in the body of the articles, it may be time to overhaul your content strategy. If you find instances of “keyword stuffing” (i.e., including keywords and phrases in an unnatural context), remove them immediately.
- Double check your site’s technical structure. There are dozens of things that can go wrong with the technical structure of your site, including problems with the robots.txt file, problems with your structured markup, mobile optimization issues, and more. If content and links don’t seem to be the source of the problem, it’s likely a technical issue with your site. Be sure to check out our beginner’s guide to SEO if that appears to be the problem.
- Apply better habits. It’s not enough to merely make changes to your site as it exists today. If you want to continue ranking higher and avoid penalties in the future, you need to develop and retain habits that last for the long term. Review your current strategy and make sure your team is aligned with goals and approaches that will favor your site’s future rankings.
- Be patient. Changes to your SEO strategy take time to manifest. After finding the root of the problem and making corrections, it may still take weeks to months for your rankings to go back to normal. They may even fall again in the wake of a new algorithm change. It’s important to be patient, and focus on doing things the right way. Your efforts will pay off eventually.
How to Recover from a Manual Google Penalty
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.
- Discover why you were penalized. Google is very helpful to webmasters. If you receive a message informing you that you’ve been penalized, you’ll also receive a detailed report on the nature of the problem—as well as which web pages are affected. You’ll also be presented with a “learn more” link, where Google will provide helpful information to walk you through a resolution of the problem.
- Correct the issue. The obvious next step is correcting the issue. With many websites, this is simple, since the problem is localized and Google will walk you through each step of the problem. For example, you may need to remove embedded text on your pages, or remove links that were built using suspicious sources. Make sure to correct all pages that may be affected.
- Appeal the manual action. When done, you can use Google Search Console to Request Review. Here, you’ll have a chance to write directly to a Google representative, explaining how you corrected the problem and where you site stands now. Make sure the issue is fully corrected before submitting the appeal, and include as many details as possible, including the steps you took to fix the problem.
Yes, recovery is possible!
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.
How Long Will Recovery Take?
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.
If you find yourself struggling and need some extra help, feel free to contact us or check out our link building services; we’ll help you get the links your site needs to succeed.
Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams for SEO (search engine optimization)
- including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing leading, building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams. When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii.
Over the years he's written for publications like Forbes
, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, ReadWrite
and other highly respected online publications. Connect with Tim on Linkedin
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