Google penalties aren’t new, but they’re still a huge concern for SEOs.
It’s scary to think that organic search traffic can be virtually wiped out overnight. You could go from wildly profitable to just getting by—if you get hit by a penalty.
In case you’re brand new to SEO, here’s the short version of what penalties are:
If you violate Google’s guidelines (and get caught), Google will slap your site with a penalty so that all your search engine rankings decline dramatically (often 50+ spots each).
Despite your best efforts to comply with Google’s guidelines and recommendations, you may still get hit with a penalty.
Some penalties can be caused by factors completely out of your control such as negative SEO attacks.
And they’re pretty common: Matt Cutts has said that over 400,000 manual penalties are doled out every month.
Regardless of what triggered the penalty, and whether it’s for a personal site or a client’s, you need to be able to diagnose what caused it and fix it. In most cases, you can get almost all of your search traffic back in the short-term.
Before we get started, I want to reiterate the devastating effect of being penalized.
Google is by far the biggest search engine, responsible for 68.3 percent of searches. To get an idea of the size of the search engine, consider this: it handled over 12.6 billion searches in October 2014.
To put it simply: Google represents a huge source of potential organic traffic.
But the quality of that traffic is what always amazes me. Fifty-seven percent of B2B marketers say SEO has the biggest impact on lead generation.
In addition, typical outbound marketing leads have a 1.7% conversion rate. But organic search leads? They have an amazing 14.6% close rate.
If you’re ready to get rid of any penalties holding back your organic search traffic or you’d just like to prepare for future problems, let’s get started.
Step 1: The 2 types of penalties (and how to tell which one you have)
One potential challenge is determining which penalty (or penalties) are affecting your site.
Sometimes it’s really easy, but sometimes it takes some digging, which I’ll show you in a second.
The first thing you need to know is that a traffic drop does not always mean you were penalized.
In many cases, traffic drops can be caused by technical issues:
- server issues
- robots.txt blocking access
- crawling issues
- improper redirects
In addition, a traffic drop can be caused by other factors. For example, if you’re in a seasonal niche, traffic will vary dramatically depending on the time of the year.
Traffic drops can also be caused by algorithm changes or changes in the SERP layout. These are typically small changes, but if Google adds a big carousel to your main keywords search results, it can have a fairly big effect on your search traffic.
There are many things that can indicate a penalty on a site:
- page rank (PR) goes to zero—if you’re fixing a really old site since PR is no longer updated
- traffic drops on individual pages
- traffic drops on specific keywords
- a big traffic drop overall
- a significant number of pages get de-indexed
- an entire site gets de-indexed
Penalties come in all shapes and sizes, so there isn’t exactly one definitive sign of a penalty.
As I said at the start of this section, there are two main types of penalties, and they need to be treated differently.
Penalty type #1 – Manual
Google employs manual quality raters. It’s impossible for the current algorithms to detect all types of guideline violations accurately. Sites can be flagged as potential guideline violators and then evaluated by the quality raters.
If the quality rater sees something fishy going on, they can give you a penalty.
The good news is that unless you’re doing something shady on purpose, you’re not very likely to ever face a manual penalty. For example, not long ago, there were mass manual penalties given to sites that obviously tried to use private blog networks (PBNs) to boost rankings.
The other good thing is that Google is pretty transparent about these penalties.
To check for any manual penalties, log into Google Search Console (SC, formerly Webmaster Tools).
You can see a penalty in two places. When you get penalized, you will usually get a message about it.
Click on “All Messages” in your main account dashboard (to see messages for all sites), or click on “Messages” on the side menu for any individual site.
Alternatively, you can look in the “Search Traffic > Manual Actions” section of the menu. Hopefully, it says you have no penalties, but you might see something like this:
There are many different types of manual penalties. Some will be site-wide, while others may only affect specific pages.
Note that if you’re investigating an old penalty, it’s possible for the penalty to have expired. All manual penalties expire at one point or another although some last much longer than others.
If the penalty expires, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you fixed the issue (although you might have). If you haven’t, you’ll likely get hit again if you ever have another manual review.
Ideally, the only message you will see in that section is “No manual webspam actions found.”
Penalty type #2 – Algorithmic
If you think you have a penalty but you can’t see any manual actions in SC, it’s probably an algorithmic penalty. Essentially, Google creates different algorithms to detect spam and other violations, and when it finds something, it penalizes the site.
The annoying part about these penalties is that you don’t get a nice clear message in SC or anywhere else. You’ll need to do a bit of investigating to figure out what your penalty was caused by.
To recognize which algorithm(s) “hit” your site, you need to match the date when you saw the penalty occur (sharp traffic drop or index issue) with the date when Google ran one of its algorithms.
If you continuously monitor your site’s search engine health, you’ll have a much easier time with this because you’ll know that the current algorithm that every SEO news site is talking about is the one affecting you.
If the penalty occurred in the past, don’t worry—you can still figure it out.
The first step is to identify when the penalty hit you. For this, you’ll want to use SC, Google Analytics (GA), or both.
If it’s a traffic issue, GA is the easiest. If it’s an indexing issue, you’ll need SC.
For a traffic issue, log into GA, and select a wide date range in your default audience overview panel. The day you were hit by the penalty should be pretty obvious:
Mark down the date for later.
If it’s an indexing issue, go to “Google Index > Index Status” in SC, and see where the drop occurred.
In this case, you’ll likely have to record a date range of when the indexing issue began since it’s not usually as clear as traffic drops.
Now, you have two options to identify which algorithm caused your penalty.
The first is the manual option. Go to Moz’s algorithm calendar to see when past algorithms were run. Find the date that you had written down for your traffic drop and see which algorithms occurred before or on that date (sometimes it takes a few days for an algorithm to fully run).
In most cases, you can be pretty confident that you’ve identified the algorithm that caused your penalty.
The other option is to use a tool such as the Panguin Tool. To use it, you have to log in with your GA account. It will then line up a graph of your traffic with lines that indicate when algorithms were run:
If you’re a visual person, this might be easier.
Now that you know whether your penalty is manual or algorithmic (and which one in particular), your next step is to understand what the penalty was for.
Each algorithm targets a different type of violation. So if you understand the algorithm that affected you, you’ll know which violation you need to fix.
Step 2: Understand your penalty
Now I’m going to outline all the most common penalties that affect sites. Note that there may be others affecting you—it’s just pretty rare.
Let’s start with the most common manual penalties.
Google uses the backlinks pointing to your site as a measure of its quality. Of course, Google only wants to count “natural” backlinks that were created without your involvement.
There’s a little bit of a grey area when it comes to the question what is or isn’t an “unnatural” link, but if your link looks like a paid link or part of a link scheme, Google won’t like it.
Unnatural link actions come in a few different forms.
First, you may see “Unnatural links to your site—impacts links.” This manual action isn’t actually a penalty.
If Google determines that some links aren’t legitimate, it may discount their linking value altogether and give you this message. No action on your part is required although you may want to look into why you’re attracting shady links.
Second, you might just see “Unnatural links to your site.” This is the bad one. Essentially, Google has seen that these unnatural links make up such a big part of your link profile that it labeled your site as untrusted. This penalty will affect your traffic.
This is why negative SEO can be effective. If someone sends a ton of spammy links to a small website, that changes the site’s link profile a lot. But if they send them to a site like Quick Sprout, it won’t have much of an effect.
That’s why Quick Sprout hasn’t gotten a penalty like this even though others have pointed unnatural links to the site.
Finally, you can also get a manual action for having “Unnatural links from your site.” This refers to the links on your site—the links in your content. If you’re linking out a ton using suspicious exact anchor text or have site-wide links to spammy sites (among other things), you could get hit with this.
This penalty also needs to be fixed. Sometimes it will be a site-wide penalty, but it will often be placed on just a few pages if it’s a localized issue.
Google’s primary goal is to help users find what they’re looking for. If the first page in your search query returns pages of regurgitated information, essentially saying the same thing, you’d feel frustrated.
This is bad for the searcher, so Google actively tries to reduce the amount of thin or duplicate content that shows up in search results. These pages are defined as producing “little or no added value.” It includes:
- automatically generated content
- thin affiliate pages
- content from other sources. e.g., scraped content or low-quality guest posts
- doorway pages
This manual action shows up as “Thin content with little or no added value” in SC.
This penalty can have varying levels of impact on your search traffic. Usually it reduces a site’s traffic by 5-50% (a big deal) depending on the severity of the issue.
Spam: There are also a few manual actions related to spam. Spam can mean a wide variety of things. It includes excessive or malicious cloaking, scraping content, automatically generated content, and more.
It’s rare to get the “pure spam” penalty unless you created a spam site on purpose. At this point you’re probably better off starting from scratch.
However, other spam penalties can also hurt your traffic and aren’t necessarily your fault. For example, the “User-generated spam” message refers to things like spam in comments or forum profiles. These can be cleaned up with a bit of work, and your traffic will go back to normal.
Another manual action is “Spammy freehosts.” Spammers typically use cheap or free web hosts. If a host primarily hosts spam sites, Google may penalize all sites on that web host. If you picked the wrong host, you’ll need to find a new one.
Those are the most common manual actions taken on websites.
Now, let’s get into the algorithmic penalties, which cause a ton of trouble for website owners.
The Panda algorithm
The Panda update was first released in 2011. It made a huge impact on the search results. Since then, it’s been released about once per month, although the frequency has gone down over time.
You have to remember that Google keeps its algorithms as secret as possible. For Panda, webmasters were told that it was an algorithm that looked at content quality. It was intended to prevent low-quality, or “shallow,” content from appearing in search results.
The problem with that is knowing what low-quality content is. Google has a list of over 20 open-ended questions that help you determine that:
Which isn’t very helpful…
SEOs, journalists, and others have since analyzed the updates to learn more about Panda and make it a bit less vague.
It turns out that Panda actually penalizes sites for a variety of reasons:
- poorly written content
- “shallow” content (too brief or short to be valuable)
- substantial duplicate content (either copied from elsewhere on site or another site)
- content that adds no real value
Content farms composed of hundreds of thousands of short, brief keywords focused around long-tail keywords got hit the worst initially.
The surprising part of Panda is that even if you have issues only on one part of your site, the entire site could be penalized. Panda penalties can also be quite severe. Some sites lost virtually all organic search traffic overnight.
Google was granted a patent for Panda in 2014, which cleared up things further. It’s pretty bland and technical, but essentially what it says is that Google creates a site-wide modification factor based on quality factors (listed above), inbound links, and brand searches.
If a site doesn’t meet a certain score, the modification factor is applied to the entire site. This is why the entire site can be affected even if there is only a small number of low quality pages.
The Penguin algorithm
The other groundbreaking algorithm, aside from Panda, is Penguin.
It works in a similar way, run every once in a while. The first version was released in 2012, affecting over 3% of queries (huge).
It hit the offending sites really hard:
Unlike Panda, which is about content quality, Penguin is mainly about a site’s backlinks. The algorithm was designed to find unnatural link patterns.
There are many different unnatural link patterns that could get your site into trouble. Here are the main potential backlink factors:
- link velocity – a site should naturally gain links over time. It’s rare for a site to have a sudden large influx of links and then a drop off to very few (common with spam).
- link quality – a natural site will have a mix of high and low quality backlinks. An unnatural site could have a strangely high number of low quality links or a strangely high proportion of very high quality links.
- link diversity – if 90% of your backlink profile comes from blog comments, it’s unnatural. Similarly, backlinks should have varied anchor text. If all links have the same anchor text, you’re likely trying to manipulate the search engine to rank for that phrase.
Note that Penguin is a page-specific penalty. If you get hit by it, it may affect your overall traffic (because those strong pages no longer pass authority), but your other pages still have an opportunity to rank.
In some cases, Penguin can find unnatural links and will discount their value without penalizing you. If you only experienced a small traffic drop after an update, this is likely what happened. The devalued links were helping you rank before, but now they don’t count for anything.
You should also know that Penguin is a massive algorithm. In the past, it’s taken more than a few weeks to run it fully. If your traffic dropped weeks after a Penguin update started, it could still be what penalized your site.
Finally, remember that Penguin is algorithmic, while those unnatural link actions in SC are manual penalties. They have nothing to do with each other, and it’s actually possible to get hit by both.
Other less common animal-themed penalties
Panda and Penguin are the two most common algorithms that cause penalties, but they are not the only ones. Google releases more than 500 algorithm updates per year; some just make more of an impact than others.
Other fairly well-known algorithm updates that may have affected your search engine traffic are:
- The Pigeon algorithm – an update that changed how Google served results for local searches
- The Payday algorithm – an update specifically targeting very spammy queries (think diet pills, gambling, etc.)
- The Mobile-Friendly update (“Mobilegeddon”) – focused on returning results that are mobile-friendly on mobile searches
Step 3: Identifying and fixing all relevant problems
You should have a good idea of why you were penalized at this point.
Some issues are easy. If you have unnatural links pointing out, reduce the number of links you have in your content, and don’t link out to too many low-authority sites. If you have spam on your site (comments, user-generated content), delete it, and stay on top of it in the future.
A few of the penalties aren’t quite as simple, and that’s what I’ll be going over now.
Fixing unnatural links (manual penalty): The “unnatural links to your site” penalty is one of the most tedious and time-consuming penalties to fix, but it needs to be done.
The first step is to find the unnatural links, which means you need a list of all the backlinks pointing to your site.
Although you can get a portion of them from SC, you’ll need to use a paid service such as Ahrefs or Majestic if you want a complete list. This is important because without a complete list, you won’t be able to fix the issue and get the penalty lifted.
Search your domain name in either backlink database tool, and click on “inbound links”:
This will bring up a list of all the backlinks they have in their databases. You can click “export” to download a CSV file (open in Excel or Google Sheets).
Now you need to figure out which links are unnatural. The problem, as you might guess, is that it’s going to be hard to go through a few hundred thousand backlinks if you have a big site.
In that case, you can use an appropriate tool to flag possible unnatural links. There are a number of such tools, e.g.,
- Link detox
- Link risk (Kerboo)
All of these work the same way. You can enter your domain or upload your list of links, and the tool will analyze them using its own secret formulas.
Although these aren’t cheap, if you’ve lost thousands of visitors (or more) from a penalty, they’re worth it.
In addition, they have other useful features to help identify penalties easier and even to make email outreach more efficient (I’ll get to why in a second), which will save you time and money:
In any case, you’ll now have a list of high risk links:
Not all of these are bad. Although these tools can catch obvious bad or good links, they’re far from 100% accurate. What they should be used for is to narrow down the best and the worst. Everything else needs to be inspected manually—yes, this will take a lot of time.
Some unnatural links are easier to spot than others. They might be unnatural if they:
- contain “SEO” words in the URL – such as “links”, “seo”, “directory”, etc.
- are forum profiles
- blog comments with anchor text other than a real name
- are a poorly written article or clearly spun
- from a site that’s very generic and doesn’t look like a real brand
Mark down all of the links that you think Google might consider unnatural. Even though this is subjective, you don’t necessarily need to be perfect to get the penalty removed.
The first and best option is to remove the links. Google expects you to make a real effort before removing any penalty.
If you have control of the linking site, remove the link—easy. This is possible if you built a ton of low-quality web 2.0 sites, used article directories, or created a private blog network.
In most cases, you won’t control the linking site, so you’ll have to ask the owner to remove it for you. If it’s a forum profile or another link that the site owner can’t control, mark it down for the second option.
You should have a list of all the links you’d like to remove in a spreadsheet. Now you need to find contact information, ideally at least the name and email address of each site owner.
You can do it all manually, visiting each site and finding a contact page or email address, or you can use a fairly inexpensive contact finding tool such as Contact Finder.
Simply enter a domain or, even better, a list of URLs into the tool:
Then it goes and tracks down multiple ways of contacting authors on that site:
If you have a ton of URLs to sort through, this will save you hours.
Finally, you need to send an email and ask the owner to remove the link (this is where that Link Detox feature is helpful). Try to craft the best email you can—you need to successfully remove at least some links if you want to get the penalty lifted:
- be polite
- try to find the person’s name
- send one email per domain (even if there are multiple links)
- keep it short
Here’s a template you could use:
I’ve recently gotten a message from Google that says my website – [website name] – has unnatural links pointing towards it, which I’ve been penalized for. I’m currently trying to remove any potential unnatural links.
A link analysis tool has flagged a few links from your site to mine as potentially unnatural links:[list_of_links_here]
I’d be grateful if you could remove the links to my site.
Please let me know if you can help me out.
The second option is to submit a disavow file. This is a list of URLs or domains that you’re telling Google to ignore.
It’s pretty simple:
- you can add comments by starting a line with “#”
- when disavowing an entire domain (recommended), start the line with “domain:” and don’t include anything after the extension (no slashes or text)
- put one domain or URL per line
This will be an important part of getting the penalty removed. I’ll go into much more detail about it in the next section of this post.
Fixing thin content: If your site has a ton of 300-500 word articles that don’t add much value, you have two options:
- rewrite them to make them valuable
- delete them
Either option will work, so it’s up to you.
Duplicate content is also a fairly easy fix in most cases. You can either delete it or add a canonical link.
To find duplicate content on your site, start with SC.
Go to “Search appearance > HTML improvements” to see if you have any issues:
Click the number to see specific cases of duplicate content.
Alternatively, you can use a tool such as Siteliner. Enter your domain, and it will find any duplicate content, plus sort it by percent match:
Note that the free version only covers scanning of 250 URLs, so large sites will have to either upgrade or rely on SC.
Fixing a Panda penalty
It’s important to understand that both Panda and Penguin are algorithmic penalties. Even if you fix the issue, you will have to wait until the algorithm is run again to see if you were successful.
Since a Panda penalty can be triggered by many different things, here is a list of most common fixes you should implement:
- get rid of any thin or duplicate content (see above)
- create unique meta tags and titles for each page (if not done already)
- go through all articles to see if they read awkwardly: if the keyword seems forced, replace it with a synonym
- reduce or eliminate any link cloaking
Fixing a Penguin penalty
Although you’ll have to wait for the next refresh for Penguin as well, the good news is that Penguin will soon begin refreshing continuously. It’s been quite a while between the last few updates, but both major algorithms should run more often at some point in the future.
The first thing you can do (but don’t necessarily have to) is remove any unnatural links, using that tedious and time-consuming process I outlined for a manual unnatural link penalty.
There are other causes for a Penguin penalty. The bad part? You can’t do much about them.
If your link velocity is screwed up because you previously bought links or someone attacked your site, you can’t do anything to fix it. Most of these are low-quality links, so if you follow the removal and disavow steps, it might be enough to get your penalty removed.
Most SEO experts don’t spend too much time removing low-quality links after a Penguin penalty because of link decay. After about a year, most of these links will “disappear.”
The better use of time and resources is to invest into attracting more high-quality backlinks. Remember, Penguin is based on some sort of ratio between low-quality and high-quality links. While you can improve that ratio by removing low-quality links, you can also improve it by adding high-quality ones.
Due to the length of time between Penguin penalties and degree of ambiguity behind them, removing one is not easy. That being said, it is possible.
Step 4: (for manual penalties) Put your best foot forward and ask for reconsideration
If you were hit by a manual action, you can submit a reconsideration request (also called a review request). In effect, this means that you believe that you’ve taken sufficient action to fix the problem and to ensure it won’t happen again.
Once the request is sent to Google, a new manual quality rater is assigned to revisit and re-evaluate your site. If they are satisfied, the manual action will be lifted.
To submit a review request, go back into SC and find the manual action under “Search Traffic > Manual Actions.” For each manual action applied to your site, you can click the red “request a review” button to bring up a form:
This is where you’ll write and submit your reconsideration request.
Now, the actual process of submitting the request is simple. You just type in the box (or copy and paste from somewhere else), and click submit. What isn’t simple is gathering what you need to include in the reconsideration request.
You need to take the time to fill out your request correctly. A large portion of these requests are rejected, and sometimes it takes multiple requests to finally get one approved.
Part #1 – fix ALL the issues (and document them)
At this point, you already know why you were penalized and what you need to do to fix the underlying issue.
The next step is to actually fix the issues and to record your progress. When you submit a reconsideration request, the manual reviewer won’t just take your word for it when you say you fixed things. You need to compile documents and spreadsheets that prove you really did what you said.
Here are a few examples of what Google suggests to include:
This is extremely important if you have a penalty for unnatural links. If your penalty is for something that’s an on-site issue, then the screenshots aren’t as important as the reviewer can see the final result.
Part #2 – Why did it happen?
If possible, explain why the issue came up in the first place. For example, if you have an unnatural links penalty, you could explain that you hired an SEO company that you trusted, but then you found out that they were building unnatural links.
Part #3 – How did you fix it?
Explain how you fixed the issue in a step-by-step procedure.
Google wants to see that you made a real effort to fix the problem yourself.
This is where it’s important to include any supporting documentation that proves your efforts. While you can’t attach a file to the request, you can include a link to a Google Doc or other online file.
Part #4 – How will you prevent it from happening again?
The final part of a reconsideration request is basically telling Google that you learned your lesson.
If you built bad links that led to the penalty, you can write a few paragraphs about your understanding of the fact that your actions were against Google’s quality guidelines and that you understand what the guidelines are for. Write to show the reviewer that you won’t try to manipulate Google in the future.
Step 5: Don’t get penalized again…
I don’t think I need to tell you how much time can be wasted fixing these penalties.
The best-case scenario is to not get penalized again. There are three main ways to drastically reduce your chances of a future penalty.
Plan #1 – Perform regular audits
It’s important to ensure that your site remains in Google’s good graces. Perform both technical SEO audits and content audits on a regular basis.
- monitoring links – use whatever link database you want to monitor your backlinks. If you see that someone pointed 10,000 spam links towards your site, disavow them before they can cause any problems.
- check SC messages often – if your site gets hacked, you will get a message so that you can fix the issue before too much damage is done.
- check for duplicate content – use the tools outlined in the above sections to test for duplicate content. This is especially important if you own a site that allows user-generated content.
- don’t allow spammy blog comments – I love to encourage readers to comment on my posts, but you don’t want people to comment just for the sake of getting a backlink. These are typically one-line comments with a keyword in the user name. Don’t approve these.
Sometimes, penalties are out of your control, but performing audits every few weeks or months can help you spot most issues before they result in a penalty.
Plan #2 – Monitor SEO sites
Google changes its quality guidelines on an on-going basis. They evolve with the Internet. In the beginning, getting exact anchor text links was a good thing, but now such links can get you penalized.
It’s important to monitor SEO blogs and news sites to make sure you know about any big changes that could lead to being penalized in the future. It’s better to be proactive about fixing violations than trying to fix a penalty.
Quick Sprout is a good place to start, but so are SEO news sites like Search Engine Land and the Moz blog.
Plan #3 – Avoid the shortcut
Building traffic to a site isn’t easy, especially if you’re a beginner SEO/marketer. When you see someone on a forum claiming to be getting tens of thousands of visitors a month to their site with blackhat techniques, it’s tempting to use those techniques as well.
But remember that any successful site took years to build. It took me over three years to get 100,000 visitors per month to Quick Sprout. Those rare blackhat success stories don’t last—they get penalized eventually.
Penalties are a part of SEO, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
You need to not only understand what penalties are but also how to identify and fix them. I’ve given you five really in-depth steps that show you exactly how to do this.
If you’re a professional SEO, add penalty evaluation and removal to your arsenal.
If you’re a business owner, you can use this guide to fix any existing penalties you have and protect your site in the future. As you can see, it can take a lot of work and expertise, so if you know that you have a penalty, it may be worth hiring an SEO expert to help you out.
To wrap up, I’d like to ask you to share any stories of being penalized and how you’ve tried to fix them in the past. Please leave me a comment below with the details.