It’s a nightmare scenario for any marketer. Yesterday your site was on the first SERP and now it’s on page 50 and you have no idea why—you changed nothing in your pages or your link strategy, but your ranking and inbound traffic have both fallen off a cliff. You’ve been hit by a Google penalty. Don’t worry: we’re here to help.
The first thing to do is figure out what sort of penalty you’ve been hit by. There are two main types of penalty: manual penalties and algorithmic penalties. Manual penalties have, as you’d expect, been manually applied by somebody at Google. An algorithmic penalty is based on one of Google’s automatic processes detecting something suspicious about your site profile. Penalty-causing or penalty-risking behaviour is sometimes called negative SEO, and that’s a good way to conceptualise it-if SEO helps you rise through search ranks, negative SEO is the force pulling you back down.
Google has a huge team of reviewers whose whole job is to check whether sites conform to their quality guidelines. If they feel that you have failed to live up to them, they will hit you with a penalty that can be difficult to remove. Around 400,000 manual penalties go out each month. If you’re serious about understanding the issue I’d recommend reading the full guidelines yourself, however they are long so-for the sake of brevity— here’s the core things to be aware of:
If you’ve been hit by a manual penalty, the specifics of the issue will appear in your Google Search Console. Once you’ve solved that, you’re almost good to go. But, if you’re dealing with a different sort of penalty:
This used to be very clear-cut with regularly announced releases, but it’s a bit muddier these days. The definition of negative SEO continues to expand, but in incrimental ways. Rather than releasing big block updates, Google now constantly modifies Penguin with a series of smaller rolling updates. The Moz keeps a running update tracker that I recommend, if you want to know what the latest changes are. The old updates still stick around though, and Penguin’s classic features are still a major source of algorithmic penalties.
Panda penalties apply to a whole section of the site, as well—if Panda picks up one blog post it deems to be low-quality, then it’ll hit the entire blog or even the entire site if it thinks the problem is bad enough. Panda’s last update was in 2015 and it’s not clear whether there are any more planned, but it is still very much in effect. Because Panda is no longer being updated, a Panda penalty will relate to new content you created, not changes in Google policy.
If you’re having trouble figuring out which change specifically has affected you, go back through your analytics and find the day when traffic dropped—if you compare it with the update release schedule and check the update documentation, it should be obvious what the issue is.
First, take steps to correct the issue. Google don’t look kindly on you if you come to them asking for a penalty to be removed but you haven’t done anything to stop the bad behaviour. Even if you’re not the one responsible, they like you to have reached out and tried to get things changed.
For manual penalties, the next step is going into the Google Search Console, Traffic → Manual Actions → Request a Review. From there, you can submit a formal request to get your penalty removed. As I mentioned, make sure you’ve done everything in your power to fix the problems first.
For algorithmic penalties, if you’ve correctly fixed the problem then the penalty should go away on its own. Give it a day or two and see whether you start to course-correct. If it’s not working, try something else. From personal experience, you tend to get it fairly quickly. Especially with the smaller, more precise updates we’ve had since 2015, it’s a lot easier to tell what you’ve done to anger the Great Penguin.
It gets a bit harder if the problem relates to something you did, or something that happened external to your website like a malicious backlink campaign. First, make a list of all content you launched up to 48 hours before the drop. Then, do a backlink audit and see if anything new has come up. Sometimes it’s an intentional malicious attack meant to tank your ranking, but often it’s just spam sites autogenerating backlinks. If a link looks suspicious, do not follow it—scammers will sometimes try to trap curious webmasters with spam links that lead to phishing sites.
Once you’ve identified any troublesome content or backlinks, go through the checklist we’ve covered above. It can be painstaking work, but these penalties can end sites, and need to be taken seriously. Your SEO campaign has been pushing you up, but negative SEO will drag you right back down.
Getting hit with a Google Penalty can ruin your day, and if you’re reading this article while desperately trying to get back on the first page of Google, I wish you the best of luck and I hope I’ve helped. You’re not alone here: BMW, the BBC and the Washington Post have all been hit by major penalties over the years, and they’re all still doing fine. May Penguin and Panda forever be on your side.
If you want to learn more about preventing future penalties, check out our article on SEO best practices. CodeClouds has design, development and eCommerce experts, and we’re happy to help you out with whatever project you need.