One of the most important aspects of taking care of a site’s search ‘appropriateness’ is knowing what can get you penalized by Google (or any other search engine for that matter). Knowing how to assess the situation correctly so that you can tell if you have just been served a penalty can help you significantly to get the site back at the top for your search terms.
Unfortunately, it’s a sure thing that Google is not going to publish the criteria it uses for deciding who gets penalized. So we have to make an educated guess. In the SEO community, our opinions come from spending a lot of time–in some cases years–observing what does, and doesn’t get good results. As with just about any other aspect of SEO, most of what I’m about to say here will be met with cyber-cries of ‘but I disagree,’ or ‘I can prove otherwise,’ pr even expletives! That’s the nature of what we do–there’s always a lot of room for disagreement.
If you have been following SEO best-practices closely for some time, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll fall foul of the search engines to the degree that you get penalized. But sometimes as SEO warriors, we inherit a bad situation that someone else has created, and it’s not always obvious at first glance.
Google Sandbox or Penalty?
Before I continue, it’s worth mentioning that there’s a difference between a Google penalty and being flung in the Google sandbox. Actually people have questioned whether the sandbox even exists. But I think it’s fair to assume that it does. It is a common phenomenon that a new site will simply fail to show up: it won’t get indexed at all for weeks, or even months. It seems that until a new site or new pages earns its trust as far as Google is concerned, it sometimes don’t show up (are not even indexed) for a long period of time; Ann Smarty has already explained that in detail so I’ll leave it to her. Then all of a sudden those pages or sites appear without the webmaster making any changes, much to everyone’s relief.
Penalized: Knowingly or Unknowingly!
Sometimes an unscrupulous marketer–and I don’t use the term SEO here because in my book, search engine optimization does not include underhanded tricks of any kind–will use a technique that he knows may have a backlash later on, in order to achieve short- term gains to impress site owners. He or she will do this on the assumption that by the time the penalty is served up by Google, he or she will be long gone and no one will know what happened (and maybe even call said marketer back and pay them more money to sort it out).
More often though, a penalty is served simply because someone did something unknowingly.
So whether you are a freelance SEO or an in-house SEO you will need to be aware of what it looks like when a site has been penalized so that you can do a little detective work to find out what the problem is and quickly get your site back into the search stream.
The most obvious sign that you’re being penalized is if you’re not showing up in a search for keywords that you’re clearly optimizing for. But perhaps the first thing you’ll notice is a sudden, drastic falling-off of traffic. Be careful here though: a sudden decline in traffic doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been penalized. It could just be that search trends have changed and the terms you were optimizing for are suddenly nowhere near as popular as they were. This does happen, and it’s one of the reasons why we recommend constant review of the search terms you use.
But there are other more subtle signs of search engine penalties.
The Specifics of Getting Penalized
- If you feel that a Google penalty may have been incurred for any reason, the place to start is Google Webmaster Tools. Here you will find complete check lists to help you detect a problem if there is one. Go through the list and make sure that you are complying with Google’s list of best practices.
- Compare your site’s Microsoft rank with Google. If you are on page 1 over at Bing and Yahoo, yet you’re not even showing on Google, then chances are you have been penalized.
Just to recap, although you can find this information all over the Web, here are items that Google WILL CERTAINLY impose a penalty for:
- Keyword stuffing: putting the same two or three keywords over and over again throughout your page will trigger alarm bells over at Google.
- Cloaking: any form of disguising text is a huge no-no with Google.
- Obviously-commercial content, where a few sentences that are usually not useful to anyone are woven around a set of keywords, purely for the purposes of Adsense, will probably get you penalized.
- If you link to a website that is in a ‘bad neighborhood’ you could incur a penalty. Even sharing an IP address (as with shared hosting) can seriously damage your site if you have some notoriously bad sites on there. This is just one reason why it’s worth paying a bit extra to get the best shared web hosting: avoiding being associated with the spam and porn sites.
- You’re acquiring links too fast and it doesn’t look natural: Google may assume you’re buying them or doing something else unethical to attract attention.
- There has been disagreement lately over whether duplicate content will get you a penalty. I say it most definitely will (I’ve tested this one out many times myself). Even if, best case scenario, Google chooses to honor the most relevant version of the content, whether that be because it’s most relevant to the website, oldest (and therefore original) version, or for some other reason, who would want to take that chance if you can pick the option to have fresh, unique content on your website or blog?
- If all your pages have the exact same title tags, again you’re going to get penalized. Each title tag for every page of your site should be unique and carefully chosen.