3 Steps to Take When You Suspect an Algorithmic Penalty From Google

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3 Steps to Take When You Suspect an Algorithmic Penalty From Google

The dreaded Google penalty. It can strike you out of the blue quickly, and is very unpleasant to deal with. In the face of plummeting web traffic, you have to pinpoint the cause and then take steps to recover. Often an unexpected algorithmic update is the culprit, especially if several occur in a row (we’re looking at you, October 2013). Fortunately, finding the source of the problem and fixing it is possible.

Here are the steps to take to diagnose the problem and resolve it.

1. Find Out if it’s a Manual or Algorithmic Penalty

Google penalties typically fall under on of these two different categories. Your first move should be to discover which category the penalty falls under so you can take the appropriate steps to fixing it.

The first type is the manual penalty. Manual penalties are usually easier to identify, because they are often accompanied by a message from Google within your Google Webmaster Tools account. Manual penalties happen when Google’s spam algorithm is flagged by something relating to your website, and Google decides to apply a manual penalty on your site’s rankings. This action can be against individual pages within your website, or can apply to every page on your domain. In severe cases, your entire domain may be removed entirely from Google’s index. The only way to respond to a manual penalty is via a reconsideration request, which Google must then approve before the penalty is revoked.

The second type is the algorithmic penalty. This type happens naturally as Google updates its algorithms. A small change – or series of changes – can create an automatic penalty that will cause your site to suddenly drop in search listings. Google Penguin and Panda are common culprits.

Algorithmic penalties are typically harder to detect, because they aren’t usually accompanied by any notification within Google Webmaster Tools. However, the severe drop in organic search traffic usually leaves no doubt about their presence.

So, it’s fairly easy to discover whether you have an algorithm or a manual penalty, as long as you have a Google Webmaster Tools account setup. Simply log in and check the “Manual Actions” section under “Search Traffic.”

If you have an algorithmic penalty, then you’ll need to determine whether it’s being caused by Google Panda or Penguin. In a nutshell, the difference between the two is that Panda targets elements on your website itself that hinder usability, while Penguin looks for unnatural inbound links to your website (ie, links that were paid for or built without editorial approval).

The easiest way to figure out which algorithm is affecting your website is to look at your analytics data. Drops in organic search traffic that correspond with known algorithm updates are a fairly clear indication of which algorithm is affecting you. For a complete list of algorithm updates and what days they fell on, see Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History.


2. Apply the Correct Antidote

Once you’ve identified which type of penalty you have, you can take the next steps to fixing the problem.

Manual penalties will include a message within Google Webmaster Tools that notifies you of what action was taken, and why. Often, manual penalties are a result of manipulative link building. In these cases, you need to remove as many links as possible, which often involves auditing your entire inbound link profile and contacting each of the webmasters that own the websites that link to yours, politely asking them to remove the link. Thereafter, a well-written reconsideration request needs to be filed.

Algorithmic penalties are a bit trickier because you’ll often have no indication as to what caused the penalty. This is where your detective skills come into play. Use your analytics data and compare it to the Moz algorithm change history. Using these tools, you should be able to determine whether the penalty was Panda-related or Penguin-related.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to which algorithm is causing the penalty, you can take appropriate action. If it’s Panda, then your site has usability issues. Too many ads on your page, not enough content, duplicate content, poor site speed, and poor navigation structure are common triggers for Panda.

Start by assessing the ads on your website; are there more than two per page? Are there too many above the fold? Next, assess your site’s content. How many pages of content are there? Is the blog updated frequently? Is the quality of the content great, or is it shallow? Is there duplicate content across your site’s pages, or plagiarized content from elsewhere on the Web?

Next, assess the speed of your website. Pingdom has an awesome and easy speed testing tool here. Website speed is often reliant on your hosting provider. (If your website is based on WordPress, then WordPress-specific hosting is ideal.) Finally, assess your site’s navigation structure. Is it user-friendly and logical? Or does the navigation clutter the interface?

For more help recovering from Google Panda, see “The Holy Grail of Panda Recovery – A 1-Year Case Study.”

Penguin penalties require link audits, removals, and disavows. For an overview of the steps to take to recover from Penguin, see “Penguin 2.0: Your Roadmap to Recovery.”

3. Design and Execute a New Gameplan

Link cleanup is frustrating, expensive, and time-consuming. It’s way easier to avoid a penalty than to recover from one. So, redesign your online marketing strategy going forward – it’s time to play by the new rules.

Old tactics that worked years ago are no longer viable (and clearly, can get you in trouble these days). Start with a solid content marketing strategy. A smart content strategy will take care of all the other aspects of SEO by attracting inbound links, providing fuel for your social media campaign, and becoming the engine that drives fresh, unique content on your website. For help building a content strategy, see “How to Evaluate and Overhaul Your SEO Strategy” and “7 Ways to Find What Your Target Audience Wants and Create Epic Content.”


Algorithmic and manual penalties are difficult to recover from, but it’s definitely possible. In many cases, you’ll need perseverance and patience; it’s not uncommon for reconsideration requests to be rejected several times before you finally get one granted. Ditch old SEO tactics that can get you in trouble, and start working on a strong content strategy. That, paired with a social media marketing initiative, will deliver the results you’re looking for, while keeping you safe from Google penalties.

Top Image from Shutterstock, screenshot of Webmaster Tools taken 1/19/2014.

Jayson DeMers
Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or... Read Full Bio
Jayson DeMers
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  • Martin Woods

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences of Google penalties, I know that there are a lot of people out there struggling with them, I’m personally deal with them on a daily basis. Most of them have no idea that they have an algorithmic issue…

    I just wanted to share a bit about my experience about the subject. I’ve been specialising in manual actions and algorithmic issues since before Penguin & Panda. There is a lot of bad information out there when it comes to them so this really helps.

    #1 “Manual penalties are usually easier to identify, because they are often accompanied by a message from Google within your Google Webmaster Tools account.” <<< This is so important, there are several high profile people who have been going around saying that you only have a manual action, if you have a message in Webmaster tools. I know of several cases when this wasn't true, and it always pays to just be open; ask Google if you suspect something isn't right.

    #2 Identifying a algorithmic penalty is a lot easier with this cool tool http://www.barracuda-digital.co.uk/panguin-tool/ which correlates your Google Analytics traffic to Google updates (via Moz Cast)

    #3 Great to see someone explain Panda issues in a concise way as you do, I always get people to answer the question "If you landed on this page, what are your honest opinions. Would you leave straight away, or so you think the page adds value to your search experience?" If they hesitate then you know more needs to be done to improve the page.

    One thing I would add is that here in the UK it doesn't matter if you have the best content marketing strategy in the work ,and build loads of great natural links. If your domain has a history of link spam, either from low quality links or traceable paid links then expect a bumpy 2014. We've seen Urwin Mitchell be removed from Google this week and they won't be the last!

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

    • Daro Zadro

      Hi Martin,

      Couple quick question on your items:

      #1 – Ask Google? Where? How do you ask Google? We have a particular client that is just locked in an algo penalty and can’t seem to figure out whey. I would love to know to reach out to Google…

      #2 – The Panguin Tool is fantastic and something we used extensively in the past. However, I haven’t seen this tool work in weeks. Does it work on you end?

      Thanks much!


  • David Black

    Good info – Could you tell me where I find the ‘Moz algorithm change history’?

  • James Halloran

    Very nice simplified run-down on what to do. Thanks for writing this! It’s definitely a good reference for some of our clients.

  • presta

    Thanks for sharing important guidelines on Algorithm penalty and how to deal with it .Its really a better approach to define our SEO targets at the start to quantify result in a better way

  • john steven

    Hi, Thanks for sharing such a useful information. I have bookmarked this site for further posts and can u tell me when will google is update???

  • Dean Signori @ SWS

    I have been dealing with 2 seperate algorithmic penguin penalties from October 2013 and took the machete option and disavowed 99% of the domains – some were done 2 months ago.some a month ago and nothing has changed the ranks & affected pages have still not improved. These are not particularly tough searches either so a site with no or few links would still have a better rank than these 2 sites they have not even got back.to pre link.building levels – such a bummer and I dare not build links again :/

  • Rajesh

    Just wanted to add two penalty checker tools which I’ve used : fruition.net & http://www.barracuda-digital.co.uk/panguin-tool/

  • Avinash Kumar

    Very nice information. I was looking for this post. Can you tell me how I can find if it is Panda or Penguin Update ?

  • Spencer

    @Dean I feel your pain, some of my personal sites got hit by Penguin 2.1 and I have done everything possible to try and recover but it seems this update is not one that you can recover from. I think the best bet is to push the content to a brand new domain and start a new SEO campaign, also I’m pretty sure the Disavow tool has next to no effect.

  • Aamir Siddiqui-SEO Karachi

    This is the good differentiation of a manual penalty sandbox vs an algorithmic penalty sandbox and manual penalty is removed by removing or disavow the bad or crap links and submit the reconsideration request to Google.
    Algorithmic Penalty happens due to the algorithmic changes by Google like the Google Penguin, Google Panda and Google Humming Bird Updates and you have to overhaul all website structure remove site-links and the change the duplicate content put updated XML Sitemaps and change other stuffs like that. Good Post Jason!

  • Julia McCoy

    Hi Jayson,
    Excellent article! Many companies have actually asked us (how to know) in order to recover, especially when Google Panda struck in 2011. I didn’t have much of an answer for them at the time, but quickly learned that it’s all mostly related to content. In 2014, it still about content. Lucky for us, we are a content agency. This is a great resource to point them to.

  • Jeff Taylor

    I think what’s important in your case and any other, just like we tell our clients following audits/outreaches/removals/disavows, is that just because you have gone through the process, it does not mean you should expect a full recovery to pre-linkbuilding levels (and certainly not to the level of rankings you enjoyed while the black hat techniques were working their magic).

    My feeling, and subsequent observations are that sites being hit by Penguin or a manual unnatural links penalty are those same ones that also have all sorts of other problems going on; duplicate content, thin content, bad internal linking practices, etc..And, that when the worst of those gets resolved (reconsideration successful, audit/removal of Penguin-inducing links completed) that a good whack more problems continue to exist on the site that are contributing to either a slower climb back up the rankings or none at all, like in your case. That, and it’s been said (known?) Google aren’t too quick to getting around to re-indexing your site and immediately attributing positive net rankings increases due to your having cleaned up what was technically your own mess. My mom never patted me on the back for cleaning up my own mess…it was a given that I had to do this without reward..kind of like how it’s playing out for a lot of us with big G. Industry folk purport you need to wait for the next big algo updates to see any movement, but it seems more like a “we’ll get to it when we get to it” kind of thing..unless of course you’re a big brand who also happens to spending tons of coin on PPC…these guys seem to (and do I guess) have a direct line to G, and money talks. Are their disavow files and subsequently their rankings dominance being re-allocated more quickly? Hard to say..but I’d have to guess yes.

    I also firmly believe that the advent of Hummingbird and the “new” algorithm that no matter how authoritative a website may be that the days of dominating page one for all your industry money kw’s is over. I know I’m preaching to the choir when I tout content as the great equalizer…but the same happens there like it did with black hat linkbuilding practices…the ones with limited resources (people and $) look for the shortest possible route to a top organic search ranking. No matter if stats are “not provided”, if you know your consumer you know the kw’s for which you must rank. The less competitive niches will be filled with garbage..as will the others..and G knows it. So, we’ll have certain industries where G is forced to rank crappy stuff and others (like SEO for example – where there are TONS of great people out there sharing/educating, etc..) where it will be near impossible to rank (well..as in Top 10) unless you’re tackling a more obscure subject or have the luxury of writing/working for an outfit that has legs on the web.

    Great article Jason. Like @James I plan to use it as material for clients who haven’t yet grasped the differences nor understand how to resolve either penalty situation. – Jeff

  • Jeff Taylor

    Sorry @Jayson, didn’t mean to get your name wrong! Cheers,

  • Aamir Siddiqui

    Good points to be noted Mr. Jeff. But the big thing is we are just compelled to be dependent on G and there is no alternate solution to rank well over the internet and besides of all these things happening people are just still stick to G. Due to the fact that G has most utilizable search engine over the world whether its organic search or ppc vendors put stuff on Google and consumers also want to see it there leaving behind other SE.

    • Jeff Taylor

      There’s no denying G’s ultimate power when it comes to ranking for commercially viable kw’s. BUT, I don’t think they will maintain that stranglehold that much longer, in the sense that they’ll maintain the 80-90-99.9% dominance they currently enjoy in almost all markets.

      Sites like FB, Amazon, and LinkedIn have invested heavily in search (semantic and non), and search within those platforms only increases as more people come online. B2B services will migrate to well-administered local platforms, that maybe G will have a really big hand in (G+?) and maybe not.

      Conventional search will never go away, and as the technology used to decipher context, relevancy, and authoritativeness becomes more accessible I think we’ll see somewhat of a boycott against G, not because they haven’t served us well, but because they are the only ones that have served us, and we’re taught to believe that monopolies are bad. Not to say I wouldn’t pull a Hot Tub Time Machine “a la Lougle” if given the opportunity…

  • Josh

    This is great advice for identifying which type of penalty you’ve incurred, but I’d love to know more about how to address an algorithmic penalty. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time, run numerous tests, and even implemented a new website design to try and address an unknown algorithmic penalty and still seem to be coming up short.

    I’ve used the Moz algorithm change logs, I’ve used server logs (to see where the bots go/ do not go), and I’ve optimized where I can for both SEO and usability. Any changes I’ve seen have been minimal. I’d love to see a guide that walks me through identifying where my problem lies in relation to an algorithmic penalty.

  • Aamir Siddiqui-SEO Karachi

    Yes you are almost right as G has come up with humming bird so FB has also a great stuff called knowledge graph and G has Google glass so SIRI has come up with Voice Search Optimization . This is the long list to go on and more technological advancements to be seen i the year 2014.

  • Spook SEO

    But can you cite what is the reason for the Expdia who get a major hit last January 2014? Is this made by Penguin, still?

  • Haritha sen

    Thanks for the wonderful simple steps about Google algorithm penalty, i had bookmarked this site for further posts, please updating more articles.. Thanks again. –

  • ok12taycik

    Hello Penguins penalty after scanning my system was subjected to a system did to remove whatever you do not, please could you help me with this in regards. I read all the articles still have not found a solution what should I do? best regards.

  • swathi seo

    Wow, finally i got good site my searching criteria, i had searching many sites about Google algorithm and its penalty of websites, Here you shared very useful guidelines, Thanks for sharing, keep updating

  • Aisha Kapoor

    How to find out whether it is Algorithmic or manual ?