Search engine penalties are the bogeyman of the Internet marketing world. They’re deadly. Just a few tweaks in the omnipotent algorithm could send your online business hurtling off the tracks. If you’re not careful, a penalty will crush your business.
I’ve seen it happen. I’ve had to guide people through the crap that comes with penalties. Along the way, I’ve discovered how to steer clear of the penalties. This article will explain step by step how you can avoid an algorithmic penalty, stay in Google’s good graces, and keep your revenue sky high.
But before we get started, let’s first go over the penalties.
There are two things you need to understand about the penalties I am talking about:
- I’m talking about algorithmic penalties in this article – There are two types of search engine penalties — manual and algorithmic.
- A manual penalty happens when an actual human in the Googleplex looks at your site and decides to put the kibosh on it. You’ll typically get a Google Webmaster Tools notification.
- An algorithmic penalty happens when your site violates Google’s quality guidelines in some way and you lose rank. Google uses a complicated algorithm that determines where your site is going to end up when users input queries. If you do naughty things (in the algorithm’s eyes), then you lose your status on the search results totem pole. You can see a good example of this by looking at the graph above.
- I’m talking about preventing the penalty, not recovering from it – When you get an algorithmic penalty, your rankings will decline relative to how badly you violated the guidelines. Recovery is gradual, but possible. I’m going to explain how not to get whacked in the first place.
Now that we got that out of the way, here are the six ways that will ensure you avoid an algorithmic penalty, plus a bonus infographic with even more tips to avoiding penalties below at the end.
Lesson #1: Know the rules and follow them
The most important thing is that you do exactly what Google tells you to do. Like it or not, they make the rules, and you have to follow them. The days of gimmicky SEO tricks are over.
They tell you in plain English, “follow our guidelines.”
If you make your living online, this is your bible. The simplest way to follow the rules is to use one simple strategy: create killer content for your audience – no tricks, just create darn good content.
There’s a lot more, but that’s the bare bones basics.
Read the guidelines. Everything that follows in this article assumes adherence to the guidelines.
Lesson #2: Do a content audit
“Content audit” sounds nauseatingly corporate, but it’s the brutal reality. This is the only way to know what you’re doing wrong and to get out of the crosshairs of the algorithmic penalty.
A content audit doesn’t need to be complicated. Here’s the idea:
- Know Google’s guidelines.
- With this knowledge, look over every page of your site to make sure that it follows the guidelines. Make sure that your content quality is high, that there is no keyword stuffing, that images are alt-tagged, and that there aren’t any violations. Make it airtight.
If your website has thousands of pages, use Google Analytics to target your top pages according to the number of visits. Just go to Behavior > Site Content > All Pages.
Start with your top traffic pages and work down.
Spammy content is the number one cause of algorithmic penalties. Improve all your content, and you’ve won half the battle.
Lesson #3: Clean up your link profile
Too often, people wait until they’ve gotten a manual penalty to do a link profile audit. Instead, you should play defensive SEO by tidying up your link profile every now and then. It’s not as hard as you think.
One of the most important factors that Google uses when indexing your site is the quality of your link profile. A “link profile” is a list of your links. The algorithm ranks your site based on two main features of these links:
- The quality of the source of the links – did the links come from a good website or a spammy website?
- The anchor text used for the links – what is the text used for the link?
You can get a list of all of your links from Google Webmaster Tools. Navigate to Search Traffic > Links to Your Site.
From there, click “more” under “who links the most.” Then, click “download latest links.”
Voila! You have a list of the links that Google is using to rank your site. Review this list every two months. Look for:
- Spammy linkbacks
- Optimized anchor text
When you find harmful links — and you will — send an email to the webmaster of the site and request that they remove the link.
If the webmaster does not respond or comply, use the disavow tool to remove the link from your profile.
Spammy backlinks are the number two cause of algorithmic penalties. Clean up your link profile, and keep cleaning it up, and you’ll probably never get an algorithmic penalty.
So far, so good. In only three steps, you’ve basically mastered the art of dodging the algorithmic penalty bullet.
But there’s more that you need to know in order to really stay clean.
Lesson #4: Fire your SEO
Your SEO might be doing more harm than good. Don’t get me wrong, I love (some) SEOs. But there are other SEOs and agencies that might be doing sinister things to ruin your website.
You would not believe the number of people I’ve talked to who have been burned by their SEO or SEO agency and left with a penalized site.
Some SEOs are still doing stuff like:
- Spamming your site with low-quality links from content mills and directory listings.
- Using outdated techniques such as cloaking, optimized anchor texts, and keyword stuffing.
Before you pull the trigger, however, have an open conversation with your SEO. Here are some questions you can ask:
- What exactly are you doing on the site? What pages? What kind of content? What kind of code? What kind of internal linking? Show me.
- How are you gaining backlinks? Where are they coming from? Show me the sites. What is the domain authority of each site from which you’ve gained backlinks? What anchor texts are they using? How did you get them?
You need to understand if your SEO is sabotaging your site or actually helping it.
Lesson #5: Stay on top of Google’s algorithm updates
The only way to know if you’re violating algorithmic rules is if you understand the always changing algorithm.
Thankfully, there are ways to stay up-to-date on the changes. Moz’s algorithm change log gives you an up-to-the-minute reporting on every algorithm change.
If you keep your ear to the ground in the search community, you’ll hear about the changes. Usually, it’s the major changes such as Penguin or Panda that could affect your site.
Lesson #6: Keep creating great content
I’ve saved the best for last. In today’s search world, nothing matters more than content. Content marketing just plain works.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Create content consistently because content marketing isn’t a one-and-done thing. It takes daily work.
- Produce the best writing that a human being is capable of producing.
- Make different kinds of content. You know how I love infographics and videos. These are valuable, proven to engage users and increase traffic forms of content.
When you make insanely good content, people will visit, click, learn, read, share, and go crazy over it. The links will come. The rankings will rise. And, best of all, you’ll avoid the penalties.
By playing smart, you can win the search game. You’ll start intuiting what Google wants, how the algorithm works, and what you need to do to succeed.
I’ve seen this work. The success of Quick Sprout is due to my defensive game and my content marketing skills. Thousands of others whom I’ve helped have experienced success, too. I know that an algorithmic penalty can be avoided, so do whatever is in your power to avoid it.
To help you avoid any current or future Google penalties, I’ve also created an infographic that shows you some more of what you should and shouldn’t do.