What Is a Google Penalty and How Do I Avoid It?
There are two forms of “penalties” that SEOs think about when they refer to a Google penalty.
One is a manual action penalty, which is site-specific and intentionally applied. The other type of “penalty” is really more of a consequence. It happens when a site loses rankings as a result of the Google algorithm.
Google reports that manual actions occur less and less frequently as the algorithm gets smarter. For example, Google applied 2.9 million manual actions in 2020, which is far fewer than the 4 million sent in 2018 and the 6 million in 2017.
Since algorithmic hits account for ranking drops more and more, calling them search engine penalties sounds fair to me.
Below I’ll give more details about both types and why penalties exist. Feel free to jump ahead:
- How webmaster guidelines and penalties work
- What is a Google manual action penalty
- What is an algorithmic penalty
How Webmaster Guidelines and Penalties Work
Google’s “Webmaster Guidelines” help website publishers understand what can cause a penalty or poor rankings.
These guidelines are centered on quality. A quality website will provide a good user experience. Websites that offer a good user experience have a better chance of competing in the search results.
Websites that create a bad user experience and violate Google’s guidelines can either receive a manual penalty from Google, or just not rank — or both.
The webmaster guidelines are driven by basic quality principles that include the following:
- Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
- Don’t deceive your users.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
- Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.
So how do you avoid deceiving your users and create a high-quality site? Google gives a list of things not to do in its “quality guidelines,” which should be a roadmap for your website. For example, don’t use automated tools to build your webpages. And avoid duplicate content as much as possible.
The guidelines also include some pretty basic lessons on spam.
But even if you consider your website and business to be on the up and up, you can still unknowingly get yourself into trouble.
Why? Perhaps you didn’t study the webmaster guidelines closely enough, and accidentally got yourself into a link scheme. Maybe it was the guest posting service you hired that got you a penalty. Or, it could be that you hired a cheap SEO service that put your website on a bad trajectory.
Even the savviest of businesses have been caught up in bad SEO practices. So if you do happen to get a drop in rankings or even a manual penalty, don’t feel bad. Just make sure you hire the right SEO professional to fix it.
What Is a Google Manual Penalty?
A manual penalty is reserved for those sites that are violating Google’s webmaster guidelines. This is a very specific action that an employee of Google applies to your site in particular. (This contrasts with an algorithm, which might impact or “penalize” many sites.)
Google explains why manual actions exist:
Ever since there have been search engines, there have been people dedicated to tricking their way to the top of the results page. This is bad for searchers because more relevant pages get buried under irrelevant results, and it’s bad for legitimate websites because these sites become harder to find. For these reasons, we’ve been working since the earliest days of Google to fight spammers, helping people find the answers they’re looking for, and helping legitimate websites get traffic from search. …
Our algorithms are extremely good at detecting spam, and in most cases we automatically discover it and remove it from our search results. However, to protect the quality of our index, we’re also willing to take manual action to remove spam from our search results.
When Google doles out a manual action against your site, you will receive a message from Google.
Of course, you can check the Manual Actions report at any time in Google Search Console. If you’re in the clear, it looks like this:
And Google gives some helpful information on that here:
Manual actions can be detrimental to your website. Just listen to former Googler Fili Wiese talk about how having one stops the growth of your website:
So it’s important to address these manual action notices right away. You can find more information from Google on how to address those here.
How Google’s Algorithm Updates “Penalize”
Recently, I wrote about why sites lose rankings. Algorithm changes are one of those reasons. Keep in mind that Google makes more than 3,000 improvements to Search each year, including frequent algorithm updates. And the ranking algorithms consider hundreds of different factors.
Changes to the ranking algorithm can include new factors being added, factors being reorganized, or factors being increased or weakened in strength. For example, the Page Experience update takes several preexisting ranking factors and combines them with new “core web vitals” to create a new ranking signal.
Then you throw Google’s AI into the mix — RankBrain, which helps deliver what it believes to be the most relevant results — and your rankings could change in an instant.
As a result, any websites that are not weathering the changes that Google is making may experience lost rankings and traffic. This may feel like a penalty. And of course, you want to avoid Google penalties of all kinds. However, keep in mind that an algorithmic penalty is just Google trying to serve the highest quality sites on Page 1 of the search results.
If you’ve experienced this, the smart thing to do is to understand how your website can improve so that it’s more like the websites that are now ranking in your place. As I’ve always said: SEO should beat the competition, not the algorithm. So get up, dust yourself off, and start analyzing the top results.
If you need an expert SEO to help you address a Google ranking penalty or otherwise improve your website’s visibility, contact us for a free quote and consultation today.