25 Ways to Get Penalized in 2012

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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.

4. Hiding links in CSS, Javascript or other file types

The search engine robots become more advanced every day when it comes to the types of files they’re able to crawl and understand. As a result, hiding links in supplementary site files (particularly those that provide CSS and Javascript info to a site) isn’t the sneaky way to increase link juice that it used to be.

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.

Sujan Patel
Sujan Patel has over 12 years of digital marketing experience and has helped hundreds of clients increase web traffic, boost user acquisition, and grow their... Read Full Bio
Sujan Patel
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  • Nick Stamoulis

    A lot of these tactics have always carried an element of risk, but the search engines seem to be getting much more serious about upholding their guidelines. If you’ve toyed with any of these and gotten away with it in the past don’t expect them to work for much longer.

  • Matt Gibbons

    Good stuff! Only one I would disagree with is #19: multiple H1 tags. If there’s a logical reason for it, multiple H1s are ok and may get you good results. Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth (Matt Cutts): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIn5qJKU8VM

  • Paul

    I would also recommend avoiding using heavily-optimised internal anchors, I’ve done a lot of testing around this and have seen that it almost always causes pages to drop significantly.

    • Chris Longley

      Hmmm, Wikipedia better watch out then Paul! They internally link all content over and over again with in content links. But admittedly the ratio of anchor text to content / pages must be tiny as well.

  • Jonathon

    Great post. Unfortunately I still see a lot of SEO companies that use underhanded techniques and they “seem” to be getting away with it to some degree. A few local SEO companies that I know of have a high degree of spammy links plastered around the internet, yet their own website rankings are still high and they’re doing the same for their clients, who seem to be succeeding right now too. I believe it’s short term success…but we will see.

  • David Hitt

    “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…”

    Really? Even if the link exchange is done as part of a legitimate referral practice by the business in question? Are you saying that an architect’s site can’t include a page with links to subs the work with, like engineers, drywall contractors, etc?

    Does anyone have any empirical evidence that these sorts of practices bring obvious penalties and how is one to know where the threshold between legitimate and illegitimate lies? If this penalty exists at any scale, it seems to fly in the face of what is a centuries old practice of recommending colleagues whom you trust…

    Thanks for the post.

    • Amir @ Blue Mile Media

      I don’t think something like that would get you penalized. It might not be a lot of SEO benefits, but I do it for client sites all the time for added resources because it definitely is helpful for their clients and the users. But this is when the theme is relevant for the 2 sites.


    • JMC

      There is a limit for everything, and there are people that simply ABUSE of this practice.

    • Sam Page

      I agree 100% that this will NOT get you penalized. Guess what, 1/2 of these things mentioned are considered “above board”. Ever heard of a “website downtime penalty”? This is just regurgitated hubris from this author. His first bullet is “Cheap Spam Links”.

      Note the dofollow links on his author bio.

  • Alex

    Can’t wait for them to work full-power. Unfortunately sites with low-quality paid link and over optimized are still in the top, at least in local Google searches.

  • Julie Larson

    This is a great list! Thank you for sharing!!!

    Regarding #18 Meta Tag Keyword Stuffing – Is that referring to Meta Keywords or Tags that you add when you post a WordPress blog? What is a reasonable number of Tags to add?

    Thank you!!!

    • Jared Voyles

      He’s referring to the use of meta keywords. It’s best practice to simply not bother with meta keywords at all.

      • Julie Larson

        What about “tags” on posts? Are there any best practices as to how many tags to use?

    • haris

      hey tags depends on content . I must say add max 5 tags not more then 5.

  • Rosana Levesque

    For the last 5+ years I’ve heard paid links are bad. Buying site-wide links are black hat, Google doesn’t like them and so forth. So I have refrained myself from doing it.

    The truth is in many markets, Top 1st Positions in Google are dominated by people who do just that, buying links in forums, and other sites.

    The difference in number of backlinks with comparable sites is as much as 10:1…. With one site providing 20K links alone: sitewide links.

    Same with some SEO companies … paid links…

    So unfortunately for those of us who have followed “The Rules”, competition is just unfair, being the “good guys” sometimes doesn’t pay off…

    In my opinion: Do paid links work? I say yes

    • Rob Jenkins

      Paid links do work, and so do many of the black hat SEO tactics. The problem is, when they stop working, you don’t drop in the rankings, you get removed, or penalized so severely you cannot recover. The white/grey SEO takes longer, but it also lasts longer and is less susceptible to Google algorithm updates.

      • Andres

        White hat is riskier because somewhat that is considered white hat today, will be black hat tomorrow. Directories were ok for years, now they are black hat..

    • sandy

      Hi Rosana,
      Can you please let me know, where can i buy paid links.

  • Gary

    Thanks for the awesome list. I think I am going to link to this list. It is crazy how many people really think those fiverr gigs are going to work to help them get ranked.

    Rosana – I agree with you. It does seem like those are the types of people who get ranked first in search engines. People are buying and selling links every single day. I think the new key to backlinks, it guest posting. That is what can put you over the top if you can make sure it is relevant and what you are posting is of good quality. Look for blogs that have large social media following, because these are the places where your guest post can really go viral.

  • Brylle

    This is a really good list on how webmasters can get hammered by one of Google’s updates.

    About Google penalizing sites with ads above the fold, how strongly is Google implementing this? I still find numerous websites that still place their ads above the fold and are still ranking well in the SERPs.

  • Marsh

    check link of this site link:http://www.cssdrive.com/. All links are hidden in JavaScript and is having PR-7. Isn’t Google Smart Enough to figure out the links. I think these links are promoted by dynamicdrive.com free scripts.

  • Mathew Sinclaire

    Completely agree with Rosana. I know some big sites which are doing paid links from last 5 years and they are in top of Google. Even I worked for some of those sites.

  • Marcos Lujan

    You forget links in widgets and themes



  • jasjot singh bains

    Hi Sujan
    Nice post. Can you give the names of a few blog networks which were penalized, as you mentioned in point 8?

  • apentium

    Bad / questionable seo techniques seem to be still working out for many sites. Anchor text spam, site wide backlinks, paid links are all visible phenomenon with top ranking sites. Now, the question is if they are there on the first page in just say 2 months? Google is doing its algo updates right and in different phases. Sooner or later all misbehaving sites will be caught.

  • Sumit Rawat

    Nice article though. What if travel website has something to offer in every page of the website like in footer links, so how come it could be disadvantage, i have seen so many websites in top results having footer links linked with every internal page.

  • Ricky

    I really like the part that broken internal links and manipylative anchor text backlink may harm your website ranking. I had also experienced that Google completely deindexed one of my website after being down for almost 3 months. I had no data with me and the host ran away with my backup. I had to restart from the scratch and I still see heavy penalty despite of trying too hard to get away from it.

  • Norm

    A competitor of ours recently took our #1 spot for some secondary keywords (not our most important, but still highly valued). I’ve been watching their backlink report for a few years. They have templates that have been downloaded in installed on various blog sites like blogger. A high percentage of these templates are on foreign language sites and domains. Many have hidden links. The links are in the source code, but not visible on the site. Another high percentage use image alt tags, often with spacer.gif. The rest have their link in the template footer of every page on the template.

    I always felt these links were highly devalued, and more recently thought they would at least get a penalty. They have not, and in fact continue to increase their positions over time. I also know what we have been doing and have monitored other competitive firms, and I am not buying that other sites are dropping which is accounting for this increase for this firm.

    I guess my point is, Google is not as good at detecting some of these methods as they would have us believe.

  • Matt Coffy

    Another great post, Sujan! Google seem to always be changing, but that doesn’t mean all is lost once you get penalized. Experimenting and trying what works is definitely a must. This article is definitely on my bookmark. Thank you for sharing.

  • Sal Hakim

    Thanks Sujan for a quick run down on avoiding Panda penalties. I agree with most of the things with the exception of H1 tags. It was confirmed by Matt Cutts that you can use multiple H1 tags if it make sense and is used appropriately.

  • Patrick

    This is a pretty comprehensive list. The thing I worry about is this – will Google see things that are totally on the up-and-up (seen as white hat) today as being unkosher (against its guidelines) tomorrow? I hope Google finds a happy-medium so that more than just big brands can rank for highly-trafficked keywords. If they do find a way to include the relevant “small guy” in the top of search, that would help cut down on the spam and penalty-types of offenses.

  • Eric Gesinski

    Sujan – a good list, but have you considered that a decent number of people will use this list to generate negative SEO approaches for their competition? Until Google irons out details, what’s to stop people from using this as an effective technique to knock out competitors?

    For established sites I don’t think it’ll do much damage, but for newer sites this could be quick and effective. I think the best approach to avoid this is to make sure your site is well established in the listings before someone can have a chance to do damage.

  • Bill Sebald

    I’ve never heard that down time can get you penalized. Filtered, yes, but not a penalty. Can you share your source on that?

  • rico_suarez

    Scraper sites will get penalized? I see them all over the place on page 1, after Penguin and Panda…

  • Soniya

    A helpful list. I really don’t understand how google functions , There are a lot of sites with questionable links still doing well, while some sites have been badly affected. Also even if we follow all the guidelines there is no way to be sure about the site ranking.

  • Gabriel Gayhart

    Hilarious post… you basically just told all SEO’s to cease from trying to build links. Matt Cutts owes you lunch,

  • Trollistan

    I recently bought paid links but this is sad man, my main purpose of buying links was to advertise my website, not to get high pr..Looks like I made a bad investment…

    And I spent 2-3 days submitting my blog to blog directories and I added their link in reciprocal which in short means link exchange..Well If Google doesn’t allow any of the above stuff then seriously what’s the genuine way of running a site with qualitative content :S ?

  • David Patterson

    I have done a few experiments myself with the #1 tactic but not for my clients. I wanted to see if the rumors I heard were true. I decided to test this tactic against a manufacturing website that was 15 years old and ranked highly for a competitive keyword. Their backlink profile was massive and natural. I had someone test 50,000 spam comments for one keyword phrase to their website in May 2012 just to see if it would work. Their site stayed still for about 2 weeks. After that it dropped to page 2 in a few weeks and then re-stabilized at #4. I never really thought negative SEO could impact an online site that easily but now I am more sure of it than ever.

    Has anyone also heard of bloggers requesting financial compensation to have a link removed from an article on their site for their “time”?

  • Free Fly

    “10,000 links for $10” ? Hehe…you can get much more for as low as 5$! 🙂
    Been there, done that….but I will never do it again!

  • Tino

    For german readers, we have designed an Infographic inspired by this great article. Please feel free to make use of it 🙂

  • rummynation

    This is great list for the people from SEO Industry especially from the prospective of penguin and panda updates . Anchor text aspect is more important for getting higher ranking in Google in 2012.

  • hoang vu

    Thank you for the post. I read it again and again to get some useful information in my seo

  • Roy

    Hi Sujan,
    I bought three keywords domain name which was in my field and completely copied all the content of my main site to another three domains and make them live on google. And guess what, my main site is almost gone and sometimes my another three sites showed up on google first page.
    I am trying to fix this by removing my other domains from google. I’ll leave my main site as it is.
    Also i m thinking to divert those domains to my main sites.
    Do you think it will help..?
    Feeling so low and stupid in myself by not knowing about duplicity of contents.
    Any help from you will be very much appreciated.

  • David Sabino

    It is important to realize who Google and web designers are serving when writing content. Keyword stuffing makes for really difficult reading and results in a low satisfaction user experience. Build the web for users and keep content king! Establish yourself as an expert in the industry and your customers will trust you with their business.

  • steven

    Would you recommend getting rid of all link exchanges even if they are legitimate ones.

  • TheBigK

    I discovered this article and wish to discuss point #11 a bit in more detail. Is there any evidence that large number of internal broken links push the domain down in SERPs? (Top posting) Folks on Google Webmaster Forums have been unanimously denying that these errors have any effect on the Google.

    On our website, the Disqus plugin created a large number of 404 errors – about 99k of them and all were phantom links pointing to non existent destinations on our own domain. The fall in crawl rate and traffic has been almost in sync with the rise of these 404 errors reported in GWT.

    I’ve seen that several SEO auditors and webmasters have found a similar trend and have claimed that they got their rankings back after they fixed the problem through redirects.

    I’d like to have an opinion on this.

  • Matthew Shuey

    The amazing thing is that Google will not penalize you for ANY of these blackhat techniques. You will actually get rewarded for spamming the search results. How can a guy with 50 websites all with the same exact content rank #1? By doing all of the things listed above.

  • Ash

    Thanks Sujan for the shortlist. I like to see little more elaboration at #12 about over optimization. And also regarding #11, if this is the case then may be site’s speed is an important factor in SERPs as clearly mentioned by Matt Cutts in one of his interviews.


  • Engine

    Thank you so much for all these awesome tips 🙂 It’s a lot of information for us all 🙂

  • Taylor

    Thanks for list, but this is nothing that Webmaster Guidelines does not tell us. Also, I have seen huge success from various websites that : buy links, spin content and use doorway pages. If implement poorly these sites get hit, if implemented well they can get huge SEO ranking.

    Seems to me its all about your business strategy, if you are trying to build a brand then obviously don’t risk buying links or black hat techniques. If you are trying to sell a non branded product then have at these tactics, spread out your risk and expect some of your sites to get hit.

    Don’t be a sheep SEO.

  • Val

    While I never did any spammy backlinking, I compiled a report on my backlinks and found several instances where adult sites used a G-rated article I had published on an article site and put a link to my site. Has anyone tried the rmoov tool for finding and contacting webmasters to get these links removed?

  • Rachel

    I think it’s also a mistake to concentrate on Google, which SO many webmasters seem to do. I run several sites and, because of agressivelyg writing what I saw Yahoo and Bing were putting high up in search, most of my sites are now climbing those charts and, thus, getting a lot more traffic.

    We now get around 50 percent of our traffic from NOT Google, and that’s the way I prefer it. After all, for all these people concentrating on Google search, they’re screwed again every time Google makes another change.

  • Joe Moody

    In the beginning, now, and in the future, it’s about creating good content (like this article). Google Analytics watches how long people stay on a page and how they engage with a site. Trying to game the system is self-defeating. Just make awesome stuff.

  • Marshall

    Unfortunately Google does not obey the robots.txt file anymore and will crawl wordpress tag pages listing them in the google index but with a statement that they are blocked by the robots.txt file. I think this is Google creating duplicate content in its own index and then penalizing my site for duplicate content. IMHO there is never a reason for Google to be indexing tag pages or crawling in the wp-content directory which is where plugin and theme files are stored.

  • Dan Vassiliou

    Very helpful to us SEO specialists. A handy checklist, eloquently laid out as well. You may have wanted to add that Repetitive links from the same sources can often cause Google to penalise you site, unless there are enough alternative sources where there are links coming into your site.

  • Michelle

    Thanks for sharing. Did this come from experience or a summary of what Google Webmasters have shared?

  • Harland

    Overall, very valid points, the only thing I wish you would have expanded on further is #3 Link Exchanges. I just read an article on Eric Wards website last night about why reciprocal links will always be viable. Where, in a nutshell, reciprocal link spam can not be determined by a fixed number. So, what may be considered spam for one niche may be considered very natural for another.

    The goal, first and foremost, should be to provide value to your user, a resource, a real linkable asset. So, again from Eric’s example of an organization whose goal is to “conserve bats”, it makes perfect sense to exchange links with similar sites who provide additional/related content. It was also found that the top 3 bat websites had a 100% link exchange ratio, 80% for the top 5.

    But, if you get into a broader topic and the reciprocity is 80%, that would raise flags/patterns. Bottom line is the user comes first to enhance their experience. If the primary goal of linking to other sites is based strictly on search engine rankings alone, you will devalue your website quicker the window of opportunity closes.

  • Greg

    Recommending people *don’t* engage in blackhat techniques – all SEO is an attempt to manipulate google into ranking us just a little higher – or way higher if you’re ambitious.

    It’s just a matter of the scale of your manipulation… do you do small sneaky manipulations or large grandscale 10,000 site wide manipulations. They are both at the end of the day manipulation of google’s rankings, and thus blackhat.

    All SEO is blackhat – get used to it.

  • keyword removed

    How we can be sure that google penalized our website? Is some kind of message in google wembaster tools? Thank you for this posting 🙂

    • Tushar Thakur

      You will not get any message in most of the case. But you can easily come to know that you website is no longer ranking in the search engines and obviously traffic goes down.

  • Sanjay

    Awesome Post. I agree with it as my client site . SERPs got down as with #3 , #15 and # 18 . I would like to add EMD and Partial EMD to your list. It one thing damaged us.

  • Anz Joy

    Recommending people *don’t* engage in blackhat techniques – all SEO is an attempt to manipulate google into ranking us just a little higher – or way higher if you’re ambitious.

    It’s just a matter of the scale of your manipulation… do you do small sneaky manipulations or large grandscale 10,000 site wide manipulations. They are both at the end of the day manipulation of google’s rankings, and thus blackhat.

    All SEO is blackhat – get used to it.

  • trizha abad

    Thank you for this information. I’m about to buy a gig from fiverr but I changed my mind after reading this. 🙂

  • Abhishek Raj

    Now, Google is going to penalize sites sharing widgets, plugins and templates or themes. This is because people put a link in the themes which passes the link juice.