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Step 14: Avoiding Google Penalties

Referee with penalty flag

How can you avoid Google penalties and protect your website's SEO health? That's the topic of this vital lesson, because search engine penalties are affecting more and more sites. With every new algorithm update, Google seems to tighten its standards a little more and catch more websites operating just outside search engine guidelines — causing their rankings to slip and revenues to plunge.

In this SEO tutorial step, you learn:

  •  The four main types of Google penalties to be aware of
  •  Why websites get penalized
  •  Guidelines for avoiding Google penalties: Penguin, Panda and Payday Loan
  •  About manual action penalties

Google Penalties to Avoid

Anything that directly violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines can result in a penalty against your website. Don't let the cute black-and-white animals fool you; if you suffer from a Google penalty, it will probably be costly and difficult to recover. Penalties range from a slight, temporary ranking hit (a slap on the wrist) all the way to a semi-permanent expulsion from the search engine's index. Search engine penalties are not fun to deal with, but you can take steps to minimize the factors that contribute to SEO penalties. It all starts with a basic understanding of the most common reasons why sites get penalized and lose rankings as a result.

Panda penalty

Google Panda Penalty

Panda has been part of Google's algorithm since February 2011. The Google Panda update aims to prevent poor quality content from making it to the top of search results. If Google thinks your website provides low-quality content, you may get hit with a Panda penalty, and it will be harder for your website to rank. Examples of low-quality web content include: "thin" pages with little or no added value or text; product pages with manufacturer-provided descriptions and no original text; and duplicate content.

How to Avoid a Panda Penalty: Keep Panda fed and happy by providing original content, especially in text. With a Panda issue, you can earn your way back up the search results by fattening up your thin content, eliminating duplicate pages (or blocking them from search engines), and generally providing high-quality content for your site visitors.

Penguin penalty

Google Penguin Penalty

The Google Penguin update attempts to combat web spam by detecting link spam and demoting websites engaged in it. When a site's link profile (i.e., the full list of incoming links from external sites) includes too many unnatural or seemingly deceptive backlinks, Google suspects that site of trying to manipulate search rankings — and Penguin's feathers get understandably ruffled.

How to Avoid a Penguin Penalty: If Google catches wind of your website buying or selling links, negotiating link exchanges, participating in link farms or engaging in any kind of unnatural linking, then your site will get penalized.

If you notice your organic traffic (i.e., the number of site visitors coming to your site from search results) dropping off suddenly, it may very well be due to a Penguin penalty. Avoid this link penalty by regularly monitoring your backlinks and removing links that could potentially hurt your rankings. (Stay tuned — you'll learn how to do this in Step 15.)

Payday Loan sign

Photo by Jason Comely (CC BY 2.0), modified

Payday Loan Penalty

Google updated its algorithm in June 2013 specifically to address the quality of results for heavily spammed queries such as "payday loans," "viagra" and pornography-related keywords. Dubbed the Payday Loan update, it has had several new releases that have improved it over time.

How to Avoid a Payday Loan Penalty: This update targets web spam. Sites penalized by the Payday Loan update tend to be heavily involved in link schemes, spam, and often illegal activities. There are many reasons to steer clear of these types of activities, beyond just losing your organic search engine rankings.

Manual Actions

Besides all of the algorithmic penalties, it's also possible for a search engine employee to manually cause your website to go either up or down in the rankings. Google has hundreds (thousands?) of people called quality raters who manually review websites and can levy penalties or even kick a site out of the index. What triggers a manual review? Possibly, the search engine suspects foul play and wants to take a closer look. Or it may be re-evaluating a website that has cleaned up its act and requested "reconsideration" for indexing.

How to Avoid a Manual Action Penalty: Manual actions can result from anything in direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, but may relate to thin content (see Panda Penalty, above), unnatural links (see Penguin Penalty), overt web spam (see Payday Loan Penalty), or other issues. If you receive a manual penalty, Google will notify you. All manual penalties can be found in ​Google Search Console and should be resolved sooner rather than later. Best advice: Avoid manual penalties by reviewing and following Google’s webmaster guidelines for quality, technical, design and content.


In this video, Google's Matt Cutts answers the question, "How can you tell if your site is suffering from an algorithmic penalty, or you are simply being outgunned by better content?"

He ends by explaining the good news — if it is an algorithmic penalty, then fixing problems and improving the site WILL enable it to rank higher the next time the algorithm runs.




"How can you prepare for the future of SEO?" Bruce Clay addressed this question at a recent conference, and his response was fortunately captured on video.

His advice — In the short term, monitor and get rid of "junk links." Long term, reinforce your subject relevance through proper site structure. These strategies help you avoid Google Penguin penalties and other "disasters."

Watch this brief interview by ClickZ to hear Bruce's full answer.

Building on the important topic of avoiding Google penalties, the next step in the SEO tutorial shows you how to monitor your backlinks and remove unwanted links that could sink your SEO ship if a Penguin penalty occurs.

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Related blog posts and articles:

What a Website Can Do about Thin Content — 4 Common Scenarios and Solutions
Manual Penalty Actions Reported in Google Webmaster Tools
9 Tips for Getting Your Manual Link Penalty Overturned
3 Ways to Keep Google Panda Fed and Happy

Do you think you've been hit with Google penalties? We can help. Read about our SEO Penalty Assessment and optional link pruning services that can help businesses identify and recover from Google penalties.