Matt Cutts, Google’s head of search spam, answered a question about Google penalties in his latest Webmaster Help video where a user writes in to ask:
How can you tell if your site is suffering from an algorithmic penalty, or you are simply being outgunned by better content?
Although the user didn’t specifically ask about manual actions, Matt starts by briefly touching on that subject. Matt reminds everyone if you have been hit with a manual penalty by Google’s webspam team you will receive a message in Google Webmaster Tools. The notification will come with a message that explains why you were penalized and give you an idea of how you can go about correcting the penalty.
Speaking directly to the user’s question, Matt says it’s tough to answer because the webspam team doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about algorithmic penalties. The webspam team writes code that could have a negative impact on certain sites, but that all goes into the holistic ranking. Matt says it’s tough to call it a penalty when it could be benefitting other users at the same time.
On any given day, Matt says the odds are good that Google is rolling out some kind of algorithmic change. When they roll out a change that could have a noticeable impact, Matt says they try to give users a heads up about that. For example, the Panda and Penguin algorithms.
Matt says Panda has gotten to the point where it’s become integrated within the indexing and changing the index on a regular basis. As a result, Google has stopped notifying users of every individual change related to Panda. Matt describes Penguin, on the other hand, as “a switch that flips.” Penguin changes roll out at a certain time, so Google is more open about notifying users when they may be affected by a particular change.
If your site is not ranking the way you’d like, Matt says it’s difficult to say whether that’s due to a penalty or not. The good news is that it’s always possible for the algorithms to re-score your site after you make changes or improvements to the content.
To hear Matt’s full response in his own words, please see the video below: