A Google penalty is a penalty applied by Google to websites using manipulative black hat SEO tactics or that are providing bad user experiences. Ultimately, any website that contravenes Google’s webmaster guidelines is at risk of being hit with a penalty. Bad onsite content – thin content and scraping, etc. – was targeted by Google following the Panda Update in 2011, while 2012’s Penguin Update targeted a range of linkspam techniques.

So what are these penalties and how can they be avoided? It’s imperative to avoid a penalty at all costs, as the result could be potentially catastrophic for your website.

What are Google penalties?

Google penalties are applied in two distinct forms; algorithmic and manual.

Algorithmic penalties are automated penalties delivered to sites which have contravened the Webmaster guidelines. You may not always be notified that your site has been hit with an algorithmic penalty, so it can sometimes be difficult to understand exactly why a penalty has been applied to your site. Since the Penguin 4.0 update, algorithmic penalties are more focussed on devaluing spammy links to your site rather than the site itself, but it’s still worth avoiding any of the linkspam that Penguin originally targeted.

Manual penalties, on the other hand, are divvied out personally by a member of Google’s spam prevention team. If a manual penalty is received, you’ll be told directly through your Google Search Console. Fortunately, through a manual penalty you’ll be told what rules your site has broken, allowing you to quickly remedy them.

What will these penalties do?

Although you won’t necessarily be told you’ve had a Google Penalty levied against you, you’ll certainly know about it. A sudden, big drop in SERPs is an indicator that you’ve been hit with a penalty. Every website moves around in the rankings every so often, so a drop of two or three places for a search term is nothing to worry about. But 10, 20, 100 places down? You’ve probably been hit with a penalty and you’ll need to act to remedy it (but more on that later).

In some rarer cases, you may find that your site has been entirely de-indexed from Google. This means that even if a user types the exact URL into Google, your site won’t appear in the search results at all. Needless to say, being de-indexed from Google can have some seriously negative knock on effects for your site and business.

How do I avoid penalties

The simple answer is to just focus on providing the best possible user experience. If you’ve been hit with a penalty through Panda for your onsite experience, focus on delivering good content that is relevant and valuable to the users of your website. It boils down to this: If you can create original content that your users want to read, there’s no reason that you’ll be penalised for your onsite SEO. Avoid any and all onsite black hat tactics such as keyword stuffing and cloaking and you’ll be absolutely fine.

Penalties delivered through Penguin that target linkspam associated with your site can be more difficult to avoid, but with a basic knowledge of above board SEO techniques, you can avoid penalisation. Identify any linkspam that your site may be engaging in and stop it, this includes using anchor text excessively or working with spammy guest blogs – our full list of the main linkspam tactics can be found here.

Another, more recent Google penalty introduced in January 2017 is the intrusive interstitial penalty. This penalises websites that use intrusive adverts such as pop-ups that have a negative effect on the mobile user experience.

Avoiding Google penalties is really very simple: create valuable content and build your web presence through legitimate methods.

I’ve received a penalty, now what?

Although getting a Google penalty can sound scary, don’t fret too much!

Sites targeted through Penguin 4.0 can find their penalty lifted quite quickly, as long as Google can see that they are making an effort to avoid any dodgy linking tactics.You can always use Google’s backlink disavow tool to remove your connection to any spammy sites that are linking to your own, however it’s always best to attempt to remove the links yourself if possible.

Whereas algorithmic Penguin penalties are constantly checking to see if your site is any better on the linkspam front, for onsite spam targeted by Panda you might have to wait a while. If you have received a manual penalty and have subsequently cleaned up any onsite spam, good news! You may appeal to the spam-prevention team with a reconsideration request, they will then decide if your site follows the guidelines and will, hopefully, reinstate it. However, if you have been hit with an algorithmic penalty for onsite spam, you will likely have to wait around a month after the penalty before it’s lifted, while you wait for the next algorithm update.

Hopefully you now have an understanding of how to identify, avoid and (if the worst comes to the worst) recover from the penalties that Google can apply to your site.