Using SEO to get to the top of Google can be hugely lucrative and quite possibly the most cost-effective way to drive traffic and new leads to your website.
SEO compromises of a number of on-site and off-site techniques and finding the right balance can deliver the most effective and sustainable results. However, get on the wrong side of Google and you can subject to a hefty penalty and you will typically find yourself falling several positions or losing your elusive page 1 rankings.
About the Author:
Daniel Tannenbaum is an SEO consultant based in London with over 8 years of experience in SEM marketing. For help with your penalty, email [email protected]
What is a Google Penalty?
To maintain quality of search results, Google will administer a ‘penalty’ to individual sites if they feel that the website is not in line with its guidelines. This may be a result of work you have done or something that was done externally. It may have been completely accidental or perhaps you were trying to manipulate results through the use black hat or grey hat techniques.
Google penalties can be immediate or only emerge upon the release of an algorithm update, which Google rolls out around 3 to 4 times per year to manage quality.
How Do I Know If I Have a Google Penalty?
You will know if you have a Google penalty if you have fallen drastically for some of your target keywords. This may involve being on page 1 and falling to page 10 or off the grid, virtually overnight. You may be tracking this manually or using reporting tools such as AWR, SEMrush or Moz.
You can also check your Google Search Console and check under ‘manual actions’ for any mention of a penalty. A penalty may be administered to just one individual landing page, rather than the whole site. This was an update by Google a few years ago, rather than punishing every keyword on your site.
How Can I Get a Google Penalty?
You can get a Google penalty by using SEO techniques that are not in line with Google’s current guidelines. Usually trying to ‘game’ the system and find quick ways to manipulate Google searches would be more likely to cause a penalty. Sometimes, it can be totally unexpected and manifest, despite following all the right guidelines. The difference between perfect SEO and a penalty can sometimes be a very thin line.
1. Over-optimisation of keywords
If you have a main keyword that you are trying to target e.g ‘car insurance’ or ‘builders in London’ – you need to find a good balance of keywords in the content and ensure it does not look spammy or forced.
The keywords can be mentioned in the meta-titles, meta-descriptions, meta keywords, headings and general content.
You may want to limit the amount of times that you use this target phrases, such as only once or twice in the meta-titles or descriptions, not using meta keywords at all, mixing up your headings and maybe only using the main keyword 3-4 times per 100 words.
A good starting point is looking at competitors on page 1 and analysing how many times they use the specific keywords and replicating this technique.
2. Too much content
We know that content is good for SEO, after all, there is a phrase coined by Google that ‘content is king.’
However, you have to be smart and practical with your content. Using feeds to generate content, getting foreign writers to blast your site with 10,000 words per day or producing content which does not answer the question (known as thin content) – is not going to look natural in Google’s eyes.
You need to be sensible with the amount of content on your site. A landing page or blog with 400-1,000 words is going to be a safe approach and uploading content every few days rather than one-go, is also going to get on the right side of Google.
3. Poor link building – directors, blogs and spam
Undoubtedly one of the most common reasons for Google penalties is through poor link-building. Acquiring links is essential to mastering SEO, since every link is deemed a recommendation and passes on the juice to your site.
Whilst historically it was a case of ‘the more links the better’ – today it is about intent, quality and looking natural. Signing up to lots of paid directories, spammy looking blogs and random sites is going to be your site on the edge and likely result in a penalty during the next algorithm update.
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4. Too much exact match anchor text
When getting backlinks, you will hyperlink certain words or phrases. If you hyperlink the ‘exact match,’ it is the exact terms that you are trying to rank for
e.g personal loans or casino bonuses.
Although relevant, if you have lots of exact match anchor text and the majority of your links are pointing towards the same landing page, Google will pick this up as too forced and this could cause a penalty.
The best practice is to have a range of anchor text across lots of different pages on the site e.g some on the homepage, some on money pages and blog posts too, creating an equal and more natural looking distribution.
If you have been penalised, consider taking your exact match anchor text and replacing it with phrases like read more or find out more here and diverting these to a mix of pages.
5. Exact match domains and partial match domains
A domain with the exact words you are looking to target is called an ‘exact match domain’ (e.g creditcards.com or healthinsurance.com) and when you have most of the words you are looking to rank for in your domain and another word too, it is known as a partial exact match (e.g quickwebhosting.com or besthomeinsurance.com).
In many ways, having an exact match or partial match domain can be a good factor for SEO, specifically for local SEO searches or terms with little competition. It is when you are dealing with very competitive industries like insurance, finance or casinos, where penalties are handed out more regularly.
The reason it can lead to a penalty is because of the risks of over-optimisation. You can potentially mention too many keywords and get too many backlinks to your brand with exact match anchor text, especially if you have the word loans or insurance mentioned too many times.
A penalty could also be caused due to sub domains such as (apply.carinsurance.com and information.carinsurance.com). Once a popular method, it is not exactly within Google’s recommended guidelines and many sites have suffered as a result, namely fashion brand, ASOS. This could however, be effective for portals or pages that you do not need indexed by Google.
To overcome a penalty, you may need to make your anchor text more unique (like read more, click here, read this guide) and use less keywords in your URL, meta-title, description and headings.
6. Your dev site is still live
This is one that can often go under the radar. But if you have built a new site or have upgraded to a new one, it is possible that you have dev site or staging site live too. Google won’t like this, because it means that you will have duplicate content and a full copy of your website being indexed too. This is a no-no.
Just simply remove the dev site or de-index it using a robots.txt file or adding a no-index to the header.
7. Third party spam or attack
You can be penalised due to the impact of an external spamming or attack. By no fault of your own, you can be targeted by competitors and this is very common in competitive industries like casinos, payday loans, hosting and more.
Known as ‘negative SEO’ – the competitor might have hacked your website and filled it with spam, or even sent a bunch of spammy links to your website using bots, link farms or poor quality SEO companies.
Equally, if you have been hacked, maybe not even for SEO purposes, your site could still fall in rankings if it is does not work as per usual.
To overcome this, you can beef up the security on your website, by using an SSL if you do not already have one or using wordpress plugins such as Wordfence.
To remove poor quality links, try find the source of them and get them to stop or continue to use the Google disavow tool on Search Console to take away any poor links. Google is getting better at understanding poor quality links and by removing or disavowing these and continuing to add good links, can effectively bring your rankings to their original position.
8. Redirecting domains
A popular technique in SEO history was taking old domains or expired domains that were strong and had lots of backlinks, and redirecting them to your own site to give you a boost. Today, there are still a number of sites that rank on page 1 that use this technique.
Sure, redirecting one or two domains can be normal. You might have rebranded or acquired another company, so redirecting them is normal.
When you are redirecting lots of sites, this might be a little fishy and something that Google could pick up on.
Very simply, just turn off the redirect and see if your rankings improve.
9. Too many errors and 404 pages
If your site has too many page errors or 404 pages, this is something that Google can detect and may penalise you for.
Broken pages emerge from changing URLs too often or pages being deleted, but still part of the navigation.
For any deleted or changed URLs, just make sure that they are redirected to a relevant page. This is known as a 301 redirect and is something your developer can do or you can use the Redirection plugin in WordPress.
To find your crawl errors, you can use Google Search Console, Screaming Frog (free version) or brokenlinkchecker.com
10. Poor user experience
In today’s SEO landscape, a poor user experience will cost you rankings and very possibly lead to a penalty.
This is referring to things that make the experience hard for the user such as slow site speed, lots of pop-ups, page redirections and poor user experience on a mobile.
There are a lot of basic things you can do to improve user experience, but being simple is a good start. A nice navigation bar at the top, a strong footer at the bottom and using the likes of WordPress, Squarespace or Wix mean that your site is automatically responsive for all devices, mobile, desktop and tablet. Try not to overcomplicate things.
Can You Come Out of a Google Penalty?
Yes, very much so. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for the next Google algorithm update to happen for your results to come back. This is how it used to be and webmasters use to sometimes wait months and months to restore their results.
How Long Does a Google Penalty Last?
Sort out your website, the original results can be restored in a matter of days or weeks, but certainly not months.
You can recover from a Google penalty by doing the following:
- Re-writing the content on your site
- Removing excess content on your site
- Removing poor quality links on your site (manually contacting each link provider)
- Improving the user experience
- De-value poor quality links using the Google Disavow Tool
- Remove any redirecting domains
- Clean up any broken pages or crawl errors
- Speak to an SEO consultant or specialist
If you have made a lot of good SEO changes, you can ask Google to reassess your website or page and the response can be almost immediate to restore your rankings.
Go to Google Search Console > URL Inspection > Enter the URL > Request Indexing
Want to discuss further? Speak to the author of this piece, Daniel Tannenbaum, by emailing [email protected]