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The Complete List of Google Penalties & How to Recover

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The Complete List of Google Penalties & How to Recover

There’s a lot of misinformation FUD surrounding Google penalties. The most common one is mistaking an algorithm for a penalty.

High-profile updates like Penguin and Panda aren’t actually penalties; they are algorithms. Algorithms rely on a set of rules and calculations to automatically deliver the desired outcome.

In the case of Panda and Penguin, the end game for Google is to reward websites in the search results that meet their “quality standards,” as defined by webmaster guidelines. Google also employs an army of human reviewers to manually review and rate websites that slide through the algorithms but don’t meet Google’s quality standards.

Being on the wrong side of an algorithm sure “feels” like a penalty. The net result can be the same — a huge and sometimes devastating loss of organic traffic.

Understanding the difference between having your website impacted by a manual penalty vs. triggering an algorithm is important. It determines how to proceed in terms of developing a recovery strategy.

The most notable difference in dealing with a penalty vs. dealing with an algorithmic event is the need and opportunity to interact directly with Google.

A website that is penalized by Google will receive a manual action report via Google Search Console. Once the noted violation is fixed, there is a requirement to explain the origins of the problem as well as the resolution in a “Reconsideration Request”. Conversely, there is no need (or ability) to file a reconsideration request to escape an algorithmic smack-down.

This post will focus on known manual penalties and steps for recovery.


Cloaking and/or Sneaky Redirects

A magician's black hat and wand to represent cloaking

Cloaking is the act of showing different pages to users than are shown to Google. Sneaky redirects send users to a different page than shown to Google. Both actions violate webmaster guidelines.

This penalty comes in two forms:

  • Partial matches affecting portions of your site.
  • Site-wide matches affecting your whole website.

The Fix

  1. Navigate to Google Search Console > Crawl > Fetch as Google, then fetch pages from the affected portions of your website.
  2. Compare the content on your web page to the content fetched by Google.
  3. Resolve any variations between the two so they end up being the same.
  4. Check all redirects and remove redirects that:
    • Send users to an unexpected destination.
    • Conditionally redirect (ex: only redirecting users coming from a certain source).
    • Are otherwise “sneaky”.
  5. Submit a reconsideration request after fixing these issues.

Pro Tip: These types of redirects are often created by CMS plugins, may be in your .htaccess file, or could be written in JavaScript.


Cloaking: First Click Free Violation

This cloaking penalty is levied against websites that show full content to Google but restrict content viewable to users, specifically users coming from Google’s services in accordance with Google’s First Click Free policy. A website is not in compliance with the policy if it requires users to register, subscribe, or log in to see the full content.

This is another penalty that comes in two forms:

  • Partial matches affecting portions of your site.
  • Site-wide matches affecting your whole website.

The Fix

  1. The content shown to users coming from Google’s services must be the same as that shown to Google. Make any edits necessary to come into compliance.
  2. Submit a reconsideration request after fixing the issue.

Pro Tip: Utilize Google’s “First Click Free” policy. Allow users to see a full article on your site without registration, subscription, or logging in when coming from Google’s services.


Cloaked Images

Cloaking applies to images too. For example, serving images that:

  • Are obscured by another image.
  • Are different from the image served.
  • Redirect users away from the image.

These would all be considered as cloaking.

The Fix

  1. Show the exact same image to Google as the users of your site.
  2. Submit a reconsideration request after fixing the issue.

Pro Tip: Check any plugins you have installed to ensure they aren’t creating an image cloaking issue.


Hacked Site

Hackers are constantly looking for exploits in WordPress and other content management systems to inject malicious content and links. This is often cloaked and difficult to find and fix.

When Google picks up on this, a notification that “This site is hacked” is inserted into the search result for affected pages. This often leads in a demotion in the organic search results.

The Fix

    1. Contact your web host and build a support team.
    2. Quarantine your site to prevent any more damage.
    3. Use search console to help identify the hacking type.
    4. Assess the damage if spam or if malware.
    5. Identify the vulnerability to figure out how the hacker got in.
    6. Clean your site to close the vulnerability that let the hacker in.
    7. Request a review and ask Google to reconsider your hacked labeling.

Pro Tip: Be proactive. Always have a clean and recent backup of your website. Install website security features on your site. If you are technologically challenged, use a website security platform like Sucuri for protection.


Hidden Text and/or Keyword Stuffing

The heading says it all. Google has discovered your website is guilty of using hidden text or keyword stuffing.

This is another penalty that comes in two forms:

  • Partial matches affecting portions of your site.
  • Site-wide matches affecting your whole website.

The Fix

  1. Navigate to Google Search Console > Crawl > Fetch as Google then fetch pages from the affected portions of your website.
  2. Look for text that is the same or similar in color to the body of the web page.
  3. Look for hidden text using CSS styling or positioning.
  4. Remove or re-style any hidden text so that it’s obvious to a human user.
  5. Fix or remove any paragraphs of repeated words without context.
  6. Fix <title> tags and alt text containing strings of repeated words.
  7. Remove any other instances of keyword stuffing.
  8. Submit a reconsideration request after fixing these issues.

Pro Tip: Don’t confuse tabbed content or JS dropdowns with hidden text. In an increasingly mobile world, those are perfectly acceptable ways to add content to a page.


Pure Spam

Unlike many of the other penalties, no one can plead ignorance when it comes to this one. It is reserved for websites that aggressively engage in a combination of spammy techniques, including the use of automated gibberish, scraped content, and cloaking, among other egregious violations of webmaster guidelines.

This is another penalty that comes in two forms:

  • Partial matches affecting portions of your site.
  • Site-wide matches affecting your whole website.

The Fix

  1. If this is the first offense, get your act together and comply with  Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
  2. Submit a reconsideration request after fixing the issue.

Pro Tip: If this is the second offense, shut it down and start over. It’s highly unlikely that Google will give you another chance after breaking their trust.


Spammy Free Hosts

There’s no such thing as “free hosting.” What may be saved upfront in hosting fees will be flushed down the toilet in spotty reliability and spammy ads that you can’t control. Google has threatened manual action against entire hosting services. There is no point in taking that risk.

The Fix

  1. Migrate to “name brand” shared hosting.
  2. Submit a reconsideration request once the migration is complete.

Pro Tip: Avoid “free hosting” and suck up the $40 bucks a year for reliable shared hosting.


Spammy Structured Markup

If you don’t follow the rich snippets guidelines and markup content invisible to users or markup irrelevant or misleading content, you will be penalized. This penalty also comes in two forms:

  • Partial matches affecting portions of your site.
  • Site-wide matches affecting your whole website.

 The Fix

  1. Update existing markup or remove any markup that violates Google’s rich snippets guidelines.
  2. Submit a reconsideration request after you’ve made these changes.

Pro Tip: Resist the temptation to succumb to rich snippet spam; follow the guidelines.


Thin Content With Little or No Added Value

Low-quality or shallow pages that trigger this penalty generally come in the form of:

  • Auto generated / spun content.
  • Thin affiliate pages with OEM descriptions, no added value, and/or no unique information.
  • Scraped content from other websites.
  • Low-quality (often guest) blog posts.
  • Doorway pages.

This is another penalty that comes in two forms:

  • Partial matches affecting portions of your site.
  • Site-wide matches affecting your whole website.

The Fix

  1. Identify and remove auto-generated or spun content.
  2. Identify affiliate pages that don’t provide added value beyond what the manufacturer or retailer offers. Thicken or eliminate those pages.
  3. Use duplicate content detection software to identify content found elsewhere on the web. Remove and/or replace that content.
  4. Identify content with low word counts and where appropriate, thicken those pages to be useful and informative.
  5. Identify and remove doorway pages.
  6. Submit a reconsideration request after fixing these issues

Pro Tip: Invest time and resources into creating content that is both unique and useful.


Unnatural Links to Your Site

This is far and away the most common penalty. The root cause is always the same: buying links and/or participating in link schemes to boost organic SERPs. This is a clear violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines.

The Fix

  1. Download the links to your site from Google Search Console.
  2. Audit these links to identify any that may violate linking guidelines.
  3. Remove or add a rel=”nofollow” attribute to non-conforming links.
  4. Disavow any links that you are unable to get removed or no-followed.
  5. Submit a reconsideration request after you’ve cleaned up your link profile.

Pro Tip: Invest time and resources into building links the right way and avoid link schemes.


Unnatural Links From Your Site

Google loves busting webmasters for selling links. In fact, any links that exist for the primary purpose of manipulating search rankings are ripe for triggering a manual penalty. In Google vernacular, these are considered “unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links.”

This is another penalty that comes in two forms:

  • Partial matches affecting portions of your site.
  • Site-wide matches affecting your whole website.

 The Fix

  1. Remove or modify these links by adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute so they no longer pass PageRank.
  2. Submit a reconsideration request after removing non-compliant links.

Pro Tip: Use a machete and not a scalpel when cleaning up these links. Google has handled hundreds of thousands of these penalties and you won’t “get one” by them. Instead, you will only prolong the pain.


User-generated Spam

You know those daily spam emails offering cheap SEO and page one results? You can thank those “black hat SEOs” for creating this headache. (For the record, this is NOT link building.)

User-generated spam is usually found in forums, comments, guestbook pages, and user profiles. This penalty is another one that comes in two forms:

  • Partial matches affecting portions of your site.
  • Site-wide matches affecting your whole website.

The Fix

  1. Identify pages where users can leave comments.
  2. Look for spam in:
    • Advertisements posing as comments.
    • Comments that include non-relevant links.
    • Spammy usernames like “Cheap Viagra”.
    • Auto-generated, generic, or off-topic comments.
  3. Remove all spammy and inappropriate content.
  4. Prevent unmoderated content from appearing on your website.
  5. Request a review once your site is clean and no longer in violation.

Pro Tip: Be proactive. Don’t allow unmoderated user-generated content to appear on your website.


The Takeaway

You can’t game Google. If you want to build a sustainable web presence, you must know, understand, and follow Google Webmaster Guidelines.

Resist the temptation to cheat and cut corners. Now, more than ever, SEO is a marathon and not a sprint.

Image Credits

Featured Image: Pixabay
In Post Image: Pixabay

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Chuck Price

Chuck Price

Founder at Measurable SEO

Chuck Price is founder of Measurable SEO and former COO of We Build Pages (now InternetMarketingNinjas.com). He's been in digital ... [Read full bio]

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