Google Penalty: Removal Guide -How to Find, Fix & Avoid
Google penalties (or search engine penalties) are the bane of many websites, having the potential to wipe out organic search traffic overnight. So you can avoid these setbacks and carry on with your SEO strategy, we’ve prepared a 5-step plan to send those penalties packing!
Despite your best intentions and attempts to comply with Google’s guidelines, there’s still a chance that your site will be hit with a penalty, so it’s important to know how to deal with them. Regardless of what brought on the penalty, you need to know what caused it, how to fix it and how to avoid similar penalties in the future.
Step 1: Which type of penalty do you have?
First things first – you need to know what kind of penalty you are dealing with. Penalties can come in two main forms (manual and algorithmic) but before we get to that, you should know how to detect a penalty. Because penalties can come in all shapes and sizes, there is no definitive test to detect a penalty, but you should be on the lookout for indicators such as:
The page rank (PR) dropping to zero
Traffic dropping on individual pages
Traffic dropping on specific keywords
Large traffic drops overall
Multiple pages getting de-indexed
(in extreme circumstances) an entire site getting de-indexed
Type 1 – Manual:
Google employs ‘manual quality raters’ to accurately detect violations of their guidelines when their algorithms cannot. These workers will scour the web for violations of Google’s guidelines, often following up on sites flagged by the algorithms. Thankfully, it is rare for sites that try to follow the guidelines to be manually penalised and you will be notified of any penalties in the Google Search Console.
Type 2 – Algorithmic:
If you believe you have a penalty (due to the indicators mentioned above) but can’t see a notification in the Search Console, it’s probably an Algorithmic Penalty. As these penalties are given by Google’s own algorithms, it can be harder to find out what caused the penalty without doing some detective work. Since Google tends to run its algorithms on specific dates, you can find out which algorithm penalised your site based on the date and work from there.
By using Google Analytics and the Search Console, you should be able to narrow down the period when the penalty began and use that to search for which specific algorithm dished it out.
Step 2: Understand Your Penalty
After you’ve determined the type of penalty affecting you, it’s important to understand the reasons why you were penalised. To help you better understand the nature of penalties, we’ve outlined a number of common penalties, what they mean and how to fix them, starting with the most common manual penalties:
So-called unnatural links are backlinks to your site that were created with your involvement, particularly paid links and link schemes. In many cases, Google will simply flag these links with a notice saying “unnatural links to your site—impacts links' ' which discounts their linking value but isn’t completely disastrous.
On the other hand, the message “unnatural links to your site” means that Google has determined these unnatural links make up a large portion of your links and labelled your website as untrusted. Naturally, being an untrusted website will affect your traffic and you should address this message by disavowing these unnatural links quickly to repair the damage.
Lastly, you can be penalised for “unnatural links from your site” which refers to outbound links on your website which use suspicious exact anchor text or link to spammy sites, you may see this penalty on your Search Console.
Because Google’s primary goal is to help users find useful information related to their search queries, they will prioritise original content and devalue other sites. Google will prioritise sites that have unique and/or useful content over those that feature:
Automatically generated content
Thin affiliate pages
Plagiarised/lifted content – e.g. guest posts, scraped content
Penalties relating to poor content will display the message “thin content with little or no added value” in the Search Console and have varying levels of impact depending on the severity of the issue.
The term spam generally refers to the intrusive presence of something low-quality in high amounts, such as plagiarised content, excessive cloaking and more. Your site could be penalised for “user-generated spam” which can be cleaned up with a bit of work in the comments and forum sections or for “spammy freehosts”. Now, the penalties for “spammy freehosts” are a classic example of being tarred with the same brush, as Google sometimes penalises all websites under a host that is known for hosting spammy sites. If you’re unfortunate enough to see that notification, consider switching hosts.
Thankfully, all these manual penalties come with notifications and can be reversed with a bit of work. However, the algorithmic penalties awarded by Google are rarely so easy to understand, as you’ll learn in the section below:
The Panda Algorithm:
First released in 2011 and now let loose to trawl the net roughly once per month, the Panda algorithm is intended to prevent low-quality or ‘shallow’ content from appearing in search results. However, Google likes to keep its algorithms shrouded in secrecy and the definition of ‘shallow’ content is open to interpretation.
While Google has provided a list of 20+ open-ended questions to help you determine whether your content is ‘shallow’ or not, it isn’t particularly helpful. After plenty of scrutiny and analysis from journalists, programmers and others, we now know that the Panda Algorithm will penalise sites that contain:
Poorly Written Content (think grammatical mistakes, spelling errors etc.)
Shallow Content (which here means content too brief to be valuable)
Duplicate Content (copied from your own site or others)
Content that adds no real value
When searching for these factors, the Panda Algorithm awards a score based on the quality of the content, inbound links and brand searches. If your site doesn’t meet a certain score, then it may be penalised, even if there are only a few low-quality pages letting you down.
The Penguin Algorithm:
Initially released in 2012, the Penguin Algorithm affected over 3% of search queries, which is a massive amount, even back in 2012. The Penguin Algorithm focuses on a site’s backlinks, penalising unnatural links based on several factors including:
Link Velocity – the rate at which your site gains links over time, which ideally increases slowly
Link Quality – most websites will have a mix of high- and low-quality links, but if the ratio is out of balance it raises suspicion
Link Diversity – backlinks should be all over the place, not concentrated in blog comments, for example.
Because the Penguin Algorithm gives page-specific penalties, being penalised for unnatural links on one page may not affect your whole website.
While Panda and Penguin are the two most well-known algorithms – responsible for most penalties – Google has released upwards of 500 algorithm updates a year. Other fairly well-known algorithm updates that may affect your site include:
The Pigeon algorithm – affects results for local searches
The Payday algorithm – targets very spammy queries (like gambling, weight loss, etc.
The Mobile-Friendly update – promotes mobile-friendly sites on mobile searches
Step 3: Identify and fix all relevant problems
By this point, you should have a good idea of what caused your site to be penalised and should work to fix those issues so you can get rid of the penalties and avoid them in the future. While some penalties are easy to get rid of, others are more complicated, which we’ll go over now.
Fixing Unnatural Links:
Receiving a penalty for “unnatural links to your site” is extremely tedious and time-consuming to reverse, as you need to find, evaluate and purge all ‘unnatural’ backlinks. Firstly, you need to make a list of all the backlinks to your site, which is easiest when using multiple services such as the Search Console and Ahrefs.
After you’ve compiled a list of all the backlinks to your site, you need to figure out which of these links are unnatural, which may be easier said than done. If you have a large site with hundreds or thousands of backlinks, you should consider using a flagging tool to highlight possible unnatural links, such as Link Detox, Link Risk, or Linkquidator.
While these tools are a great help in identifying unnatural links, they are not perfect, and you really need to go through the suspect backlinks manually. After identifying the unnatural backlinks to your site, you need to remove or disavow them.
If you have control of the linking sites, removing the unnatural links is easy, but if the site is controlled by someone else, you will have to file a request or disavow that link. Try contacting the site owner/administrator directly and politely ask them to remove the link or reach out to Google directly and submit a list of all links you want to disavow.
Fixing Thin Content:
While writing short articles for SEO purposes may seem like a good way to improve your rankings, Google penalises content that isn’t particularly useful or entertaining. If your site is deemed to have ‘thin content’ you must rewrite the content in question or delete it.
Similarly, you need to be vigilant for duplicate content, deleting it or adding a canonical link in every case that you can find. By using the Search Console and tools such as Siteliner, you can find duplicate content on your site and work from there.
Fixing a Panda penalty:
Because algorithmic penalties can only be awarded and removed by the algorithms themselves, you must wait for the algorithm to run again before the penalty can be removed. As mentioned before, the Panda Algorithm focuses on content and can be fixed with these fixes:
Delete the/duplicate content
Make unique meta tags/titles for each page
Review content, replacing keywords that seem forced or read poorly
Eliminate link cloaking
Fixing a Penguin penalty:
The good news is that Google is working towards running their algorithms more which means that you may be able to get penalties removed quicker than ever. The bad news is that Penguin penalties can seem arbitrary and, in some cases, there is little you can do about the root cause for your penalty.
Removing unnatural and low-quality backlinks will help to get your link ratio back into a healthy range, but there’s not much you can do to fix your link velocity. By removing undesirable links and working hard to attract more high-value links, you can improve your ratio which should help to fix the cause of your Penguin penalty.
Step 4: Fixing Manual Penalties
For manual penalties, you can submit a review request (also known as a reconsideration request) after you have taken action to fix the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again. After you send the request, a manual quality rater will revisit and re-evaluate your site, lifting the penalty if they are satisfied you have fixed the original issue.
By opening the Google Search Console, you can see any manual penalty applied to your site and submit a form to try and appeal them. To have the best chances of appealing your penalties, you need to ensure that your request is filled out correctly with all the necessary information.
Part 1 – Fix the Issue(s):
By now, you know why you were penalised and what you should do to fix the issue: all that’s left to do is fix the issue and record your progress to prove to Google that the problem is solved. The person reviewing your site won’t just take your word for it, so make sure to compile documents that corroborate the steps taken to solve the issue that was penalised.
Part 2 – Explain How it Happened:
Where possible, make sure to explain how the issue came about in as much detail as possible in your review request. This will help to convince the person re-evaluating your site that you have taken steps to reverse bad decisions or weren’t responsible for the issue.
Part 3 – Show Your Workings:
In order to get your penalty repealed, you should explain how you fixed the issue, ideally with a step-by-step account, to show that you have made an effort to fix things. Make sure to include any supporting documentation as proof so the reviewer has no reason to doubt you.
Part 4 – Prevent it From Happening Again:
Much like with any good apology, you need to demonstrate that you have learned your lesson and will try to avoid making the same mistake again by following Google’s guidelines in the future. If your penalty was due to bad links, for example, you should demonstrate that you understand the quality guidelines and will respect them going forward.
Step 5: Learn from Your Mistakes
Getting a penalty removed is no simple matter, so save yourself a huge amount of time and effort by taking a proactive approach to avoiding them. Abiding by the guidelines and rules put out by the major search engines is key, but you should also adopt the following good practice techniques to be sure:
Technique 1 – Perform regular audits:
Make sure your site is in the good books by performing content and technical SEO audits on a regular basis, making sure to check:
Links – Use a reliable link database to monitor your backlinks for unnatural links.
Search Console Messages – This is where notifications and penalties will show up first.
Duplicate Content – Make sure to weed out duplicate content regularly.
Spammy Blog Comments – Reader engagement and feedback is great, but not if they raise the chances of getting flagged for spam.
Technique 2 – Monitor SEO News:
Because Google is constantly updating its algorithms and guidelines, you should stay up to date on the latest developments, so you aren’t caught out. It’s much easier to adapt to policy changes than it is to fix a penalty, so monitor industry news and SEO to make sure your site is always up to code.
Technique 3 – Avoid Shortcuts:
Increasing traffic to a site isn’t easy, especially if you’re just starting out, but you should always be wary of sketchy techniques and things that sound too good to be true. Truly successful websites take years to build, so don’t give into temptation and allow penalties from blackhat techniques to destroy the work you’ve done.
As Google works hard to keep its reputation and provide one of the best search engine services out there, they are going to continue to penalise sites that won’t abide by their rules. If you work hard and follow the advice in this article, you can rise to the top and avoid being setback by Google penalties as well as adopting good practices that will serve you well for years to come.