One unfortunate part about the world of SEO is that sometimes things go wrong.

This can happen because you:

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If SEO has gone wrong for you, this chapter will go through what you need to do get back on track.

Diagnosis

There are two major ways to learn that you have a problem.

The first way you learn of a problem is seeing a large drop in the organic search traffic to your site.

Sometimes that drop can be catastrophic in nature, and it might look something like this:

The other way you might learn about a problem is if you get a message directly within Google Search Console telling you about it.

If you haven’t signed up for Search Console, do so immediately.

Here’s where you can find these messages in Search Console:

Overview of Manual Penalties

When you get notified about a problem within Search Console, this is considered a manual penalty.

What that means is that a person at Google actually analyzed your site, and as a result, assessed a penalty to the site.

When this happens, the message in Search Console normally gives you some high level description of the problem.

The three most common manual penalties are:

Here is an example of such a Search Console message focused on links:

Here is an example of a manual thin content penalty notice:

Once you have a manual penalty, you must follow a basic three-step process:

  1. Determine the cause of the penalty. (For example, if you have a link penalty, you need to determine which links Google doesn’t like.)
  2. Remedy the problems.
  3. Submit a Reconsideration Request to Google asking them to remove the penalty.

Overview of Algorithmic Penalties

These are caused by algorithms that Google uses to identify sites that they consider to be poor in quality, and then lower your rankings.

The most well-known of these are:

  1. Panda (now part of the main Google algorithm): Focuses on identifying poor quality content.
  2. Penguin (now part of the main Google algorithm): Targets poor quality links.
  3. Search Quality: A lesser known algorithm that evaluates site/page quality.
  4. Top Heavy Ads: Focuses on sites that use too much advertising.
  5. Payday Loans (Spammy Sites): Identifies spammy SEO practices that Google has seen as a common practice on payday loan sites, but the algorithm is applied to any site using those practices.

Technically, Google considers these to simply be algorithms, and not penalties, so we’ll go with their terminology.

But the practical impact on you is the same: you see a drop in your traffic.

If you have one of these algorithms hurting your traffic, you need to try to figure out what the cause is, as Google doesn’t tell you about these with a message in Search Console.

Google used to announce updates of algorithms like Panda and Penguin, but that doesn’t typically happen any longer, so that will leave you with the challenge of working it out on your own.

This will require a strong understanding of what the algorithms do, and then a harsh look at your site to see if you can figure out what the problem is.

Links Google Doesn’t Like

If you’ve received a manual link penalty, this section will help you determine what types of links may be causing the problem.

You can also can use this section to understand the types of links that Penguin is likely to act on, but for Penguin it’s important to understand that affects are more subtle.

I’ll discuss Penguin specifically in more detail a bit further down in this guide.

As you saw earlier in this guide, Google considers links to be an important part of their ranking algorithm.

For that reason, many publishers are anxious to get as many links as they can, but unfortunately, there are certain types of links that can hurt you.

Basically, what Google really wants you to do is obtain links that are editorial in nature.

What that means is the links can’t be something that you paid for, provided compensation for, or that otherwise were given to you for reasons other than the linking party genuinely wanted to reference your site.

This is because Google relies on these links to act as votes for your content, and each vote is an indicator that your site has some level of importance.

More votes signifies more importance.

However, all votes for the content of your site are not created equal. Some are far more important than others.

The reason why Google doesn’t like certain types of links is that the nature of those links may indicate to Google that they are non-editorial in nature.

If you have too many of these links pointing to your site, it starts to impact the quality of their search algorithms, and this is why Google takes action on them.

With that in mind, here are some of the most common links that can cause problems:

This is obviously contrived.

The writer couldn’t even take the time to write the article in such a way as to put the words “buy” and “cars” in the same sentence.

Note that it isn’t bad if some links to your site use rich anchor text, but if you’re getting a large percentage of links that do so, that’s not normal, and Google will see that as a problem.

Cleanup Up Link Related Problems

If you’ve received a manual link penalty, or are worried that your site is in danger of having that happen, you should work on cleaning up your link profile.

Here’s the basic nine-step process for doing this:

  1. Build a complete list of links to your site. Google Search Console provides a list of links, but unfortunately, that list isn’t complete. For that reason, we recommend that you also obtain data on links to your site from Moz’s Link Explorer, Majestic, and Ahrefs. The reason we use all three of these sources, plus Search Console, is that each will find links that none of the others do.
  2. Deduplicate the list as much as possible, as each tool will show many of the same links that the other tools do.
  3. Begin analyzing all of the links. Generally speaking, you don’t need to look at more than two or three links per domain linking to you.
  4. Mark links that you see as problematic as you’ll need to address them.
  5. Repeat three and four until you’ve been through links from each of the domains linking to you.
  6. Reach out to sites that you want to remove links from, and request their removal.
  7. Repeat the outreach to those that don’t respond to increase your chances of success. Don’t make this request more than three times, and spread it out a bit so you aren’t a complete pest.
  8. For those links that you can’t get removed, use Google’s disavow tool to tell Google you want to discount those links.
  9. Once steps 7 and 8 are complete, the hard part of the labor is done.

In step 8, I reference Google’s disavow tool.

This tool allows you to list all the links pointing to your site that you think might be bad, and to tell Google to not credit them to your site.

Basically, it acts as a shortcut to removing potential links.

This might lead you to ask, why should I take the time to manually request link removals then? Can’t I just list all the bad links in the disavow tool?

The reason you should still request removals is that Google likes to see the extra effort.

From their perspective, when they’ve penalized you it’s because you were over the line in what you were doing, and they want to see clear evidence that you won’t do it again.

When they see that you make the manual removal effort, it acts as a signal that you are sincere in your intent to not violate their guidelines again. This is particularly important in the case of manual penalties.

As the last step in a recovery process, if you cleaned up your links because you received a manual link penalty, you will need to fill out a reconsideration request. You can read more about that below.

One last point: Recovering from link problems is aided by attracting high value links as well.

This is something you should be trying to do on an ongoing basis.

How to do that is beyond the scope of this section of the guide, but learning how to do this is a cornerstone to the success of any SEO strategy.

Penguin Recovery Process

Penguin used to generally lower rankings for sites that it determined were using poor link building practices.

But, as of the Penguin 4.0 release on September 23, 2016, Penguin simply discounts links that it doesn’t like.

In other words, there is no direct punitive aspect to it.

However, don’t trivialize that impact.

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If you’re aggressively investing money in adding links, and those links don’t count, that investment is wasted ­– probably not something you want to do.

The other thing that happened with the Penguin 4.0 release is that it got rolled into the main part of the Google algorithm, so Penguin updates are no longer announced.

As a result, there is also one scenario in which a Penguin action may seem like it’s a penalty.

If you’re busily obtaining links that the Penguin algorithm currently does not discount, they’ll be helping you improve rankings and organic traffic.

Perhaps you have found a way to obtain links that are actually non-editorial in nature, but they currently work.

But, if at a later date, a Penguin update comes out that starts to discount those links, you will suddenly lose all the benefit you were getting from those editorial links.

This will feel exactly the same as a penalty, though in fact, it’s not that at all. This is one of the reasons I suggest that you focus only on earning editorial links in any link building strategy that you implement.

Unlike a manual penalty from Google, if Penguin has begun to discount your links, there is no value in filing a reconsideration request.

You just need to work on getting high quality, 100 percent editorial links, and this is always the best strategy related to earning links.

Doing this is hard, I know, but that’s why it works.

Content Google Doesn’t Like

Just as there are types of links Google doesn’t like, there are also types of content that Google doesn’t like.

Some of the most important types of these are:

Google wants to see the unique value add of your site. They aren’t going to let you receive search engine traffic if you simply aren’t adding much unique value to users who visit your site.

To be clear: the mere existence of your site, or having a nice navigation hierarchy, aren’t examples of unique value.

Better examples of quality content are:

These are just a few examples.

The bottom line is that Google wants to see what it is that makes you special.

It’s OK if you have the best plumbing site that services Rhode Island, or the best marriage counseling site in Pasadena.

Just produce unique content related to what you do, and that is specific to your local market.

If you serve broader markets, such as all of Europe, then the challenge content-wise is greater, and you have to be prepared to step up to meet it.

Continually Improving Content Quality

It’s easy to say that if you’ve been hit by a thin content penalty, or Panda, that you need to improve your content quality.

However, it would be better to say that you need to improve your content quality whether or not you’ve been impacted by either of these.

You should be thinking about this all the time.

If you publish a website, then continual improvement of the quality of the content on it needs to be a core mission of your website team.

It’s a competitive world out there and Google loves quality content.

There’s no win in letting your competition get an edge on you.

Invest the time and energy to make your site the best it can be, from the perspective of adding value to users who come to it.

Keep the focus tight to the marketplace you serve.

If you’ve been hit by a manual thin content penalty, and you believe you fixed the problem, then the next step is clear: file a reconsideration request.

Panda Recovery Process

Google’s Panda algorithm is also a part of the main Google algorithm.

However, unlike Penguin, it can take actions that lower overall site rankings if it detects content quality problems on your site.

Sadly, there is no simple way to tell if a traffic drop is due to Panda.

If you suspect that it is, you’ll need to closely examine the content across your site to see if you detect quality problems.

Also, a reconsideration request won’t help you here. All you can do is fix the content quality issues and then wait and see.

It may take Google a few months to re-crawl your site, see the improvements, and then rerun the Panda portion of their algorithm on it (even though it’s now considered part of the main algorithm, it still works this way).

Frankly, the best way to deal with content quality has little to do with Panda or any manual penalty.

You should be obsessed with it.

You need to have a continual focus on improving content quality on your website, and have ongoing programs to keep making your site more and more valuable to users.

It’s a competitive world out there. It’s likely that one or more of your competitors is beginning to think this way. This is exactly the behavior that Google wants.

Here is way to frame it: “Be the Answer That Users Want, and You Become the Answer That Google Wants.”

If you use this mental approach, you’re changes of staying clear of worries about Panda, or any manual content penalties will go way up.

Reconsideration Requests

If you’ve been hit by a manual penalty, and you believe you’ve fixed the problem, you must file a reconsideration request.

Google won’t notice that you’ve fixed it, and you must notify them before they will take a look at it.

There are some key elements to a reconsideration request.

Here is a summary of the most important ones:

Those are the basics, but it bears repeating:

Don’t send a reconsideration request until you’ve made a serious effort to address their concerns.

Otherwise, you’re wasting the reviewers time, your time, and delaying the eventual recovery of your website.

Other Types of Penalties

There are many other penalties that are beyond the scope of this guide to cover.

For the most part, these arise from more advanced forms of trying to deceive Google, so hopefully you will never encounter these.

Here is a brief list of some those other types:

Summary

Recovering from a penalty (or an algorithm, like Panda or Penguin) should only be viewed as the first step.

Treat it like a warning shot across the bow.

Just because you’re able to recover doesn’t mean that you can’t get hit again.

In the future, you should avoid the behavior that led to the problem.

But look beyond that.

All the work that you did to recover should be a clue as to what you need to do to thrive in Google.

If you had to deal with thin content, then take that as a signal to keep focusing ongoing energy on improving your content.

Or, if you have a link-related problem, keep investing energy in doing the types of things that attract high quality editorial links to your site.

Then you can move past survival, and into a world where your traffic keeps growing over time.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita
All screenshots taken by author