The more complex SEO becomes, the more important specificity becomes in the semantics of discussion and analysis. Otherwise, confusion can emerge, newcomers can be misled into pursuing unfruitful or even harmful strategies, and even experienced search marketers can experience trouble forming accurate distinctions.
A perfect example of this is the term “link building.” The literal, specific interpretation of the phrase implies the manual action of building inbound links on external sources, which is often a bad idea (unless you’re embedding them in valuable content or they’re truly valuable for the users encountering them). Yet the phrase “link building” can refer to any action designed to earn a site more links, including the creation and syndication of citation-worthy content, which involves no direct building whatsoever. I’ve seen multiple discussions with search marketers arguing the merits and faults of link building, with participants using conflicting interpretations of the term.
One of the most egregious infractions of SEO semantics has come to rest on the term “Google penalty,” and derivative phrases like “penalize.” We’ve all been guilty of abusing this term at one point or another, myself included, usually under the impression that the use of the word will be made clear by its context. The problem is, most newcomers and outsiders see this phrase and are unable to recognize the distinction between a formal, literal Google penalty, and what we often refer to as a “penalty.” Hopefully, this article will clear up that confusion and reestablish a standard in our community for the usage of the term.
The term “penalty” has evolved to mean any kind of negate effect on your site’s search rankings, but in actuality, a Google penalty is a manual, near-permanent action that Google takes to intentionally throttle traffic to a given site. Anything else is just the result of a new algorithm update, a new considering factor, or even the emergence of a new competitor.
There are clear black and white areas here. For example, if your site is host to a deliberate financial scheme, with infectious malware and universally bad link connections, it should be no surprise when you fall off the face of Google search ranks. If your site drops a rank or two overnight, but more or less retains most of its positions, that’s an innocent drop as the result of an algorithm change, and has nothing to do with Google punishing your domain.
The gray areas come into play with major algorithm updates or significant drops. For example, when Penguin rolled out, a number of sites experienced major declines in search visibility and organic traffic thanks to Google’s new way of evaluating link quality. This was more significant than a gentle overnight change, but also affected millions of business owners simultaneously, making it impossible to categorize as a literal, manual penalty. Similarly, a new bad link or spam-like piece of content could cause your ranks to suddenly drop (without being associated with a penalty).
Changes like these can be construed as a “penalty” since they are designed to decrease the visibility of sites infringing on Google’s best practices. Many formal definitions of a Google “penalty” include sudden algorithm changes in their description. However, major algorithm changes are designed to:
The term “penalty,” especially in reference to a manual action, implies a punitive measure that isn’t inherent in Google’s broader pushes. Also, negative shifts due to algorithm changes are often easy to reverse with simple changes to your approach or modifications to your site and backlink profile. Actual penalties are notoriously difficult to remove (just as prison sentences are hard to carry out).
Now that you have a clear understanding of what Google penalties aren’t, let’s take a look at what they are. Google tends to reserve manual penalty actions only for the most egregious offenders, and as a result, they tend to be harsh and hard to get rid of. Some of these offending actions include:
Furthermore, if you’ve received a manual Google penalty, it won’t just sneak up on you. Most offenders get advanced warnings before the penalties take effect, and when they do, they get an explicit notification sent to the email address of their webmaster (this notification will also be on display under your Webmaster Tools dashboard, if you’re ever in doubt).
This has been, at times, a lengthy discussion of semantics, but there are a handful of important practical takeaways. First, understand that most search rank volatility is not the result of a penalty, even if you lose substantial ground in the ranks. Second, real penalties are terribly hard to remove (but aren’t very common). Third, if you have been manually penalized, you’ll know about it. Otherwise, a handful of basic strategic changes and a commitment to ongoing quality are all you need to restore your position. Don’t let yourself fall victim to a “Google penalty” scare.