Have you seen a recent drop in your website’s traffic levels? Perhaps you’ve received a notification of unnatural SEO practices in your Google Webmaster Tools account?
Unfortunately, SEO penalties can happen to any website, at any time. While it is possible to repair the damage incurred by these negative effects, it’s ultimately much more effective to take a proactive stance on penalty prevention by avoiding the following known penalty causes:
1. Cheap spam links
That “10,000 links for $10” offer you see being advertised on Fiverr and other services won’t actually be a great deal if the influx of new, low value backlinks pointing at your website triggers an SEO penalty!
2. Paid links that pass PageRank
Buying links for advertising purposes is find, but be sure they’re denoted as sponsor links and use “nofollow” attributes appropriately. Purchasing links for the sole purpose of passing PageRank violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
3. Link exchanges
Partnering with other websites to exchange links with each other leaves a very noticeable footprint to the search engines, which may choose to penalize these obvious manipulation attempts in the SERPs.
5. Low distribution of anchor text
Again, be aware that search engines often issue penalties based on detectable patterns. If you’ve built links using just a handful of SEO keyword phrases as your anchor texts, you run the risk of having these trends identified and penalized.
6. Excessive link velocity
Building too many links, too quickly is a sure sign of attempted SERPs manipulation. Instead, think natural and focus your efforts on acquiring fewer, higher quality links for each new site you build.
7. Links from foreign language sites
Relevancy matters when it comes to links, which is why the search engines may issue penalties to sites that receive a large number of inbound foreign language links. If the readers on the referring site can’t actually benefit from your content, it’s best to avoid the link type altogether.
8. Blog network links
Many of the web’s most popular blog networks were recently devalued by Google, though there are plenty of others still operating. Avoid these at all costs, as they’ll likely be the subject of future Google penalty actions.
9. Sitewide/footer links
Links that appear in blog sidebars and footers (so that they appear on all pages of the blog) represent typical areas of manipulation to the search engines. When building links to your website, focus your efforts on acquiring more valuable in-content backlinks instead.
10. Links to and from bad neighborhood sites
Because the search engines use inbound links to determine relevancy, building links from bad neighborhood websites (that is, those in the adult, gambling and other illicit industries) paints your own website in a negative light. Avoid these links at all costs!
11. Broken internal links
Periodically, take the time to ensure that your site is free of broken internal links. Too many un-crawlable pages represent a poor user experience, which the search engines attempt to devalue in the SERPs.
12. On-site over-optimization
Using SEO to promote your website is fine – until you reach the point where every page on your site makes use of every single SEO technique known to mankind! Keep your on-page SEO natural and use it to improve the user experience (not just your SERPs rankings) to prevent over-optimization penalties.
13. Website downtime
If your website is down for too long, too often, it’s possible that you’ll incur a search engine penalty, as these regular absences demonstrate that your site isn’t doing its best to serve its visitors.
14. Duplicate or scraped content
While you won’t be penalized directly for posting duplicate content (as this would put the entire press industry out of business), you risk having your web pages filtered out of the SERPs in favor of the original content copies. Replace any instances of duplicate or scraped content on your website with unique articles to ensure your highest level of natural SERPs visibility.
15. Low value content
Google and the other search engines have made it known that they want to prioritize high quality content in the search results. Even if your site hasn’t been penalized yet for posting thin content, be aware that future penalties may be coming that will make this a reality.
16. Spun content
Similarly, in an effort to fill your website with content, avoid the use of article spinning programs that spit out illegible, automated garbage that can’t be understood by human readers. This type of spam content will likely be the target of future search engine penalties.
17. Advertising real estate
If you choose to include paid advertisements on your website (for example, display blocks published by Google Adsense), make sure that these features don’t take up too much of your website’s real estate – especially above the fold. Google has explicitly stated that doing so could result in penalties.
18. Meta tag keyword stuffing
This one’s an oldie, but a goodie. While it won’t hurt you to include a few keywords in your website’s meta tags, don’t stuff in thousands at a time. Doing so is a clear indication that you’re engaging in manipulative SEO.
19. Multiple H1 tags
Because H1 tags confer a small SEO benefit, some webmasters have seen modest ranking improvements by including several of these headline tags on each page of their websites. However, this is easily detected by the search engines and is best avoided if you want to remain penalty-free.
20. Cloaked pages
All of the pages on your website should be open and accessible to the search engines. Because hiding pages through the use of cloaks goes against this, it’s a quick way to guarantee a penalty if these pages are ever detected on your site.
21. Doorway pages
Similarly, making use of doorway pages which cause the search engines to see different content than what’s made available to visitors is a well-known, well-established way to bring about search engine penalties on your site.
22. Hidden or manipulative content
This penalty cause is pretty widely known, but just in case you haven’t heard it – pasting hidden content to your website that’s the same color as your site’s background isn’t a legitimate way to improve your SEO!
23. Abuse of automated query tools
Making use of unauthorized automated query tools that ping Google’s API too frequently goes against the web giant’s Webmaster Guidelines. Though it’s an uncommon penalty cause, it’s one that large sites (or those making use of black hat techniques) should be aware of.
24. Hacked websites
If your website demonstrates evidence of being hacked, you may find yourself stuck on Google’s blacklist, which will prevent your site from ever displaying in the SERPs.
25. Promoting black hat techniques
Finally, Google isn’t above manually penalizing website that brag about the SEO loopholes they’ve discovered and exploited. If you do decide to engage in black hat SEO (and we really recommend that you don’t), the least you can do is to keep your success to yourself!
Of course, it’s also important to keep in mind that things change all the time in the SEO world – so this list shouldn’t be construed as the “end all, be all” of penalties your site might experience in 2012. It’s important to stay up-to-date on search engine changes as they occur and to adjust your own SEO techniques accordingly as new information comes to light in order to keep your site safe in the long run.