So, you think you’ve been hit with a Google penalty. Thanks to Google’s branch algorithms - Panda and Penguin - there are many reasons why your website’s SEO may have taken a hit. It could be related to how well your copy is written, you could be duplicating content, or you may not be updating it regularly enough.
More likely, however, is that you have been penalised for blackhat link-building practices. Google’s algorithms have gotten very good at spotting toxic links and are clamping down on them with force.
You’re not alone, though. According to Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s webspam team, the world’s biggest search engine hands out more than 400,000 manual penalties every single month. That’s a hell of a lot and comes on top of all of the automated algorithmic penalties that Panda and Penguin enforce.
A rebuilding effort should start with identifying the issue, and for that you’ll need some knowledge into how penalties are caused.
What Exactly Does A ‘Penalty’ Mean?
The webspam team at Google is essentially split into two divisions for the two types of penalties: algorithmic and manual.
The algorithmic team focuses its efforts on the constant improvement of Google’s search algorithms, such as Penguin, which is an algorithm modifier that deals with so-called unnatural backlinks. These algorithms work quietly away in the background every time a user types something into Google search.
All webmasters need to be aware of the Google algorithm modifiers and do everything that they can to ensure their websites are abiding by the rules.
The manual team is made up of Google analysts located all over the world. It is their job to manually sift through web domains looking for black hat SEO practices that may be in place, such as those sites that may be involved in link-building schemes, use automatic link building software, and/or appear to be buying links from other webmasters.
If the manual team finds that any pages on your domain are in breach of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, then you can expect to receive one of two penalties.
The first is a partial manual penalty that only affects the rankings of the pages on your site that are in violation of the guidelines, while the second will affect the rank of your entire site.
If your business relies heavily on a web presence – and let’s face it, that’s pretty much every business in 2016 – then it is not an overstatement to say that this could spell the end of your discoverability online, and there’s a chance you’ll have to rebuild your website from scratch.
So, before we go on to taking you on a walkthrough of how to remove a Google Penalty, I want to make one thing very clear: by far the best tactic is to try and ensure that you don’t receive a penalty in the first place.
As with so many things, prevention is infinitely better than cure, and so you can do no better than playing by Google’s rules, staying on top of current SEO trends and making sure that all of your SEO tactics are above the board.
However, from time to time, stuff happens. You may not have intentionally gone out to breach Google’s rules, and of course you cannot help it if toxic sites have linked to yours. But – and this is a big but – since you are the webmaster, it’s down to you to monitor all the links to your site.
What’s interesting is that only 5% of websites hit with Google penalties submit a request for removal. This means that thousands of websites are throwing in the towel and jumping ship at the first sign of the proverbial black flag.
This isn’t necessary, however, as there is a road back to SEO salvation. It’s not an easy road to travel, and will require a fair bit of work and patience, but you can get the penalties removed and recover your traffic and ranking, and here’s how.
1. Analyse the cause
The first thing you need to establish is why your site has been penalised. It may have been a manual penalty or an algorithmic one. To see if it was manually applied, head to Google’s Search Console and see if you have any messages explaining the reason for your penalty.
If there are no messages, then you will need to do some more work to find out the manner of algorithmic penalty you have received. Moz keeps a record of the change history for all of Google’s algorithm updates, so use this to try and correlate the period where your website was hit with an update.
If you have been penalised by Panda, then your penalty is likely to be connected to the quality of your content. Go through your blogs and make sure that you are not duplicating material from other sites, that your content is well written, of a high standard and a decent length (500 words at a minimum).
However, if you have been penalised by Penguin, then bad links may be the source of your woes.
2. Bad day at backlink creek?
You need to make sure that your link building is in order, and this can be the most labour-intensive phase of the penalty removal process.
If you have backlinks from websites that have themselves been penalised or banned by Google, your site is likely to have been punished also. This may seem unfair, but you can’t expect Google to rank you for links from dodgy sites and it is your responsibility to keep track of where your links are coming from.
Similarly, you will also be hit for links that come from websites that are irrelevant to the type of content that you publish, and websites with poor quality or duplicate content.
Avoid sidebar links, ad links, footers or widgets as well. Links from forum posts or comments threads are also a no-no, as are links from adult or gambling sites, not to mention all websites with infuriating, excessive advertising, constant redirects and more.
There are a tonne of reasons that links could be deemed as toxic, but the vast majority of Google penalties are related to backlinks. The fact that Google is coming down on these things is good as it means that these old ways of gaming SEO are being stamped out, which will improve the user experience for everyone. For more information on bad links, Google’s own webmaster help pages should offer some further guidance.
3. Link delving
At this point, you should have an idea as to why you have been penalised, making it time to trawl through your backlinks to identify and remove the ones that have damaged your ranking.
Go to the Google Search Console and click on the search traffic link in the left-hand menu. Select the option that says “Search Traffic”. Once you have done this, select “Links to Your Site”. You now see who links the most to your website by clicking the option labelled. Click “More >>” and then the option to download the latest links.
While the Google Search Console is a good starting point for this guide, when running a link audit, I always use link data from as many sources as I have access to.
Tools like the Majestic Backlink Analyser, Ahrefs, SEMrush and Moz all have backlink databases that are generally larger and more comprehensive than what is available in the Search Console. Ideally, you should look to download your links from at least one other source and combine this data with what you’ve downloaded from the Search Console. Insert this data into a spreadsheet as you may have hundreds if not thousands of backlinks and you need to be organised.
Your links will be a mixture of both natural and unnatural links, and your job now is to sift through them all to identify which is which. Ultimately, you want to remove all unnatural backlinks, but, very importantly, keep all of the natural links.
When identifying unnatural links, the main things you should be looking for are links from the following:
- Blog comments
- Spammy business directories which are unlikely to offer any value
- Sitewide footer links
- Sidebar links
- Links that have been paid for
- Links which are on 'thin' content pages
4. Seek and destroy
Now, you really do need to be careful at this point. Ultimately, if you are not a specialist you could end up causing more damage to your site by erasing links which are actually doing you some good.
If you are not 100% confident you can identify a bad link, I recommend checking out the tools available from Link Detox or Cognitive SEO.
Once you’ve ran the check, you will essentially come across three types of links: natural, unnatural, and suspicious. Keep the natural links whilst removing the unnatural ones and at the very least having all of your suspicious links changed to ‘no-follow’.
These tools will give you a pretty good idea as to which links are causing you harm but, it has to be said, aren’t 100% accurate all of the time.
I use Link Detox due to the fact it has such a great UI for analysing links. We do always check manually, though, and would urge you to do the same, as such tools can make mistakes.
5. Take action (politely)
Now comes the tricky part. Once you have identified all of the bad links that you want removed, you are going to need to get in touch with site owners, explain the situation, and ask them to change the links pointing to your site to ‘nofollow’ or remove them entirely.
Send an email to the webmaster and ask in a polite fashion for them to remove the link. Use a professional email address that has your company name in it and make sure that you explain the nature of the problem and where the link is located clearly, making it easy for them to help you.
Make sure that you monitor the emails so that you can tell which ones have been opened and use a spreadsheet to keep track of all of the requests. Once they have received your request, they will either remove the link (optimum situation), ignore you, or ask you to pay them to remove the link.
If your request is ignored or they ask for money, you will need to go through the process of disavowing the domain in question. Do not under any circumstances pay anyone anything.
The disavow tool is useful but should only be used carefully. Google’s documentation on how to use the tool contains this scary little disclaimer:
Using the disavow tool incorrectly can hurt you. You should only be disavowing links that you know were made with the intention of manipulating Google's results, otherwise you could potentially disavow a site that has lots of great, natural links that are in fact giving your site an SEO boost.
These sites are keepers, so it’s essential that you know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the site you’re disavowing is a bad egg. Indeed, the disavowal tool is a last-resort measure only.
6. Submit a reconsideration request
Once you believe you have done all you can to identify bad links and either have had them changed to ‘no-follow’, disavowed, or removed altogether, now is the time to get in contact with Google and ask them to reconsider the penalty.
You need to explain very clearly everything that you have done to clean up your website, and what you have put in place to try and prevent a build-up of bad links from occurring again in the future.
Helpfully, Matt Cutts – Google’s head of webspam – has made this video on how to submit a successful request.
7. Be patient
Once you’ve completed all of the above steps, the waiting game begins. The hard work is over and, with any luck, you will get your penalty removed by Google, and you should see the beginnings of recovery in a few weeks – and once the real-time Penguin update finally arrives, this time should be significantly shortened.
Whilst it does take a bit of detective work and can be a real pain in the proverbial, Google Penalties can be dealt with. It’s obviously frustrating when negative SEO is used against you, but remain calm and it can be resolved to your benefit. Make sure you keep up to date with all of Google’s guidelines, terms and conditions and you’ll be much better equipped to prevent penalties in the future.
Please let us know if you have ever been hit with a Google penalty and what, if anything, you did about it.