Google Search Engine Penalties: A Resource Guide

  • Published
  • May 22, 2014
Google search engine penalties resource guide intro image
Learn about Google search engine penalties in this resource guide for beginners

You wake up one day and go through your usual daily routine of checking traffic numbers for your business website. You log in to Google Analytics, and then, your heart drops. It looks like your site traffic has plummeted overnight, with the graph line looking like it had just nosedived off a cliff’s edge.

Does this sound familiar to you? If so, then you just experienced every site owner’s worst nightmare: your business website was penalized by Google.

This week’s Local Search Tips blog post is all about Google penalties. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, because Google had just unleashed their latest algorithm update – Panda 4.0 – earlier this week. So that hypothetical scenario I described above? That might have been your reality.

Keep reading this beginner’s guide to Google search penalties to find out:

  • What they are
  • How to check if your site has been penalized
  • How to recover from a penalty

What is an algorithmic penalty?

Image of Google search algorithm updates
Your site may be penalized in search as a result of Google algorithm updates

Google penalties come in two forms: algorithmic or manual.

Search algorithms refer to the computer processes and formulas employed by Google to transform a searcher’s keyword queries into answers. Changes are made to Google’s search algorithms on a daily basis (to the tune of 500+ per year!). Generally, these changes are relatively minor and you won’t even notice them. But occasionally, major algorithm updates do occur.

Whether it’s in response to low-quality content or linkspam, only one black hat SEO tactic is generally targeted at a time per algorithm update. And if you happened to be employing that strategy at the time of the update rollout? Your website probably suffered from an algorithmic search penalty as a result.

Examples of Google search algorithm updates
Over the years there have been countless Google algorithm updates, spanning across a wide array of topics. Here are just a few examples:

  • Freshness Update – Launched November 3, 2011. Webpages with fresh, recently updated content were rewarded with greater search visibility.
  • Ads Above the Fold (“Top Heavy”) Update – Launched January 19, 2012. Devaluation of sites with too much ad-space and not enough content displayed in the upper half of a webpage that’s visible to users without scrolling down.
  • Exact-Match Domain (EMD) Update – Launched September 27, 2012. Large-scale crackdown on low-quality websites with domain names that exactly match their target keyword (e.g. http://www.targetkeyword.com).
  • Payday Loan Update – Launched June 11, 2013. Punished sites that were going after notoriously spammy keywords (e.g. payday loans, porn, etc.).

However, there are really only two major algorithmic Google search engine penalties that you should be concerned about:

  • Google Panda – Initially launched in the U.S. on February 23, 2011. Rolled out in Canada and affected all English queries worldwide on April 11, 2011. Regular updates unleashed every few months up to present-day. Targeted websites with low-quality content.
  • Google Penguin – Launched April 24, 2012. Regular updates unleashed every few months up to present-day. Targeted websites connected to spammy link schemes.

What is Google Panda?
Your business website may be in danger of a content-related search algorithm penalty (i.e. Google Panda) if there is a clear pattern of “thin content” found across multiple pages of the site.

What does this mean? Basically, your website could receive the thin content label if it’s comprised of low-quality, shallow pages with little or no original content, and the content that’s there provides little or no added substantial value to users. Consider this:

  • If you are involved with affiliate programs (where you refer users to other sites to buy something in exchange for financial compensation), then you are at risk.
  • If you have numerous doorway pages (where you are trying to game search engine results, and content housed on these webpages are substantially similar to each other), then you are at risk.
  • If you have a thin syndication website (where the bulk of your website text is dependent on posts pulled from low-quality article banks), then you are at risk.

Not sure if your site is suffering from the negative effects of a content-related search algorithm update? What you need is a search engine optimization report card, one that can be used to grade the quality of content on your business website. Luckily for you, I have one already created for assessing the SEO health of businesses applying for our new FS Local Experts program! I recommend going through the checklist to see how many violations your site may have.

Content quality checklist

Yes / No Content exists on all important webpages.
Yes / No Content is relevant to your business.
Yes / No Content is written for users, not for search rankings.
Yes / No Content is free of misspellings and grammatical errors.
Yes / No Content isn’t duplicated, both on-page and in backend SEO elements.
Yes / No Content isn’t cloaked or hidden from users, but visible to search engines.
Yes / No Content is fresh and regularly updated.
Yes / No Content in the form of blog posts or articles are associated with individuals.

What is Google Penguin?
Your business website may be in danger of a link-related search algorithm penalty (i.e. Google Penguin) if it’s clear you’ve been participating in deceptive and manipulative link spamming tactics.

What does this mean? Basically, your website could receive the “linkspam” label if Google detects an unnatural or artificial link profile for inbound links pointing to your website and/or outbound links pointing from your website. Consider this:

  • If you had ever paid for and/or sold links (where PageRank is passed between sites and impacted search rankings), then you are at risk.
  • If you had ever employed user-generated linkspam strategies (where you had aggressively posted spammy content on blog articles or message board forums with links pointing back to your site), then you are at risk.

Not sure if your site is suffering from the negative effects of a link-related search algorithm update? Here is the link version of my SEO report card. Use it to grade the quality of links pointing to/from your business website, and see how many violations your site may have.

Link quality checklist

Yes / No Links coming in or out are connected to quality, Google trusted sites.
Yes / No Links are generated to provide value for users, not for gaming search results.
Yes / No Links are not over-optimized with keyword-spammed anchor text.
Yes / No Links to/from your site aren’t connected to doorway sites or link farm networks.
Yes / No Links pointing to your site aren’t generated through article marketing link schemes.
Yes / No Links are not acquired via paid, sitewide and/or reciprocal link exchanges.
Yes / No Links aren’t user-generated via spammy blog or article commenting and/or forum posting.

What is a manual penalty?

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Your site may be penalized in search as a result of manual actions on webspam

A manual action performed by Google on your website is a very bad thing. It’s worse than an algorithmic penalty because it’s unique to your site. If you employ shady black hat SEO techniques, you run the risk of Matt Cutts and his webspam team finding out and slapping a manual sitewide penalty on your entire website, or partial penalty on specific pages and sections of your site.

So even if the infraction in question would normally result in an algorithmic penalty, if Google finds out you’re performing the offending act at extreme levels they will take manual actions against your site.

Generally, websites suffering from manual actions are classified as pure spam sites. Websites may receive the pure spam label if they aggressively employ black hat SEO strategies that clearly violate Google’s webmaster guidelines. Consider this:

  • If you’re trying to rank for keywords by stuffing them in autogenerated gibberish (where nonsensical, random, gibberish text is programmatically published as webpage content), then you are at risk.
  • If you’re trying to rank for keywords by stuffing them in cloaked or hidden text (where different content is displayed to users vs. what’s seen by search engines), then you are at risk.
  • If you’re trying to rank for keywords by stuffing them in scraped content (where text is directly duplicated from other websites and published on your site as your own), then you are at risk.

How do I know if my site has been penalized?

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Log in to Google Webmaster Tools to confirm if your site has been manually penalized

Confirming whether or not your business website has been penalized manually is easy. Simply do a quick check on Google Webmaster Tools.

Note: Don’t have an active account for your business website? If not, you should sign up right away for access to detailed reports about your webpages’ search visibility on Google.

Log in to your account, select your site, then access the “Site Dashboard > Search Traffic > Manual Actions” page using the sidebar navigation links. If you’re greeted with a “No manual webspam actions found.” message, then congratulations! Your website is clear of any manual search engine penalties by Google.

If you want to check whether your website was negatively impacted by a Google search algorithm update, the best place to start is by logging into your Google Analytics account.

Note: Don’t have an active account for your business website? If not, you should sign up right away for insights on your site’s web, mobile and social traffic.

Log in to your account, select your site, then access the “Acquisition > Channels” page using the sidebar navigation links. Click the “Organic Search” link within the “Default Channel Grouping” column. In the top right corner, select the date period dropdown and extend the date range as far back as you wish. I recommend pulling it back to the same date a year ago to start, then going as far back as April 2012 (when Google Penguin launched) or February 2011 (when Google Panda was released). Notice any significant drops in your organic search traffic? If so, and you had already eliminated the possibility of a manual penalty? Then your website was likely impacted by a search algorithm update.

How do I recover from a search engine penalty?
You can recover from negative effects caused by algorithm updates on your own without having to file a reconsideration request (more on that later). Simply identify the infractions, and fix them. Algorithmic penalties will automatically be lifted on their own. It’s just a matter of waiting for Google’s search spiders to crawl your website and acknowledging the changes you’ve made. Once that happens, your rankings and organic search traffic numbers should slowly revert back to normal.

As for recovering from a manual penalty? First, start by identifying the infractions. Second, go through and fix them. Make sure your site is completely free of them. But make sure you also document the entire procedure! Lastly, file a reconsideration request to Google. Give a brief back story, then provide proof that you have cleaned up your act. Keep in mind the entire process will take time, and recovery won’t be instant. Google will eventually respond to your reconsideration request with a reply message to your Google Webmaster Tools account.

Have a business website that’s penalized? Tried everything, but can’t get traffic numbers back to what they once were? Leave me a comment below!

Karina Shum


Search Marketing Expert at FS Local


Here at FS Local, Karina is the go-to person on all topics pertaining to search marketing, and is the resident WordPress expert. She supports buying handmade and enjoys befriending fellow local artisans at the Toronto Bead Fair, Creativ Festival, and One of a Kind Show. Her current love? The colourful jellybean houses of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

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