For a moment, let’s consider this scenario. Maybe — because you decided to check out this guide — it’s something you are experiencing at this very moment.
You’ve got a great website. Organic traffic and conversions have been increasing steadily. SEO appears to be your best marketing lever. Then, all of the sudden, your rankings plummet for your most important keywords. 75% of your website traffic disappears overnight. Your business is threatened.
Naturally, you are panicking. What caused this? What do you do?
The bad news: more than likely, you are experiencing the consequences of a Google algorithm update or Google penalty.
The good news: this article will help you identify the cause of your loss in organic rankings and traffic, get started on the processes for recovering those rankings and organic visitors, and implement measures to prevent these issues from reoccurring again in the future.
You are probably reliant on search engines for a significant portion of your traffic. If you can avoid penalties and optimize your site as quickly as possible in anticipation of and response to algorithm updates, you will be at a competitive advantage in your industry.
Let’s get started.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Understand the difference between a Google algorithm update and Google penalty
- How do I identify issues related to a Google algorithm update and recover accordingly?
- What is a Google penalty? How does Google penalize websites?
- How do I check for or learn about a Google penalty?
- How do I fix and recover from a Google penalty?
Understand the difference between a Google algorithm update and Google penalty
If your organic rankings and traffic suddenly drop, at least one of two things could be happening.
- You could be on the receiving end of a Google penalty.
- You could be experiencing the impact of a Google algorithm update.
Understanding the root cause and the differences between these two circumstances is key because the processes for identifying and resolving the associated effects are completely different. Webmasters and marketers, and even SEOs, often mistake algorithm updates for penalties.
If you are impacted by a Google algorithm update:
- There is no notification from Google.
- You do not need to work with Google to resolve and recover from the problem.
The upcoming Core Web Vitals update, for example, is an algorithmic filter that will automatically raise some sites higher and other sites lower in the rankings based on a new set of signals that measure the quality of a site’s user experience. Poorly designed websites that don’t load fast, have annoying pop-up ads, or are tough to interact with will likely be pushed down in the rankings. It will not “penalize” sites per se.
If you are impacted by a Google penalty:
- There is a notification from Google.
- You need to work with Google to resolve and recover from the problem.
Receiving an alert in your Google Search Console (we’ll cover this soon) that a portion of your website, or the entirety of your website, has been removed from search results due to an issue such as unnatural backlinks is an example of a manual penalty issued by Google’s review team.
How do I identify issues related to a Google algorithm update and recover accordingly?
Before diving in-depth into Google penalties, let’s touch quickly on how to address and recover from algorithm-related issues.
Being on the wrong side of an algorithm update certainly feels like a penalty when you are losing rankings and organic traffic. But the difference from a penalty is key, especially when it comes to developing a recovery strategy.
Recall that if you are dealing with issues related to an algorithmic filter, there are no notifications from Google. This makes them difficult to diagnose, but you can assume you’ve been filtered if a page you expected to rank for certain keywords drops precipitously or disappears entirely from the search engine results without any alerts in your Search Console.
There are a couple of tools and blogs that help determine if an algorithm update has caught your site in a filter. Specifically, they help you analyze your organic rankings and traffic numbers for any drops that coincided with recent algorithm updates.
- Moz has great tools for this. Check out their page on Google’s Algorithm Change History. Also check out their Mozcast page, which shows turbulence and comparisons over a 24 hour period in Google’s algorithm based on certain keywords and SERPs they track.
- This Panguin tool can be linked to your Google Analytics account to map traffic to the precise moment an algorithm update went live, so you can determine whether your site was impacted.
- Subscribe to the Google Search Central Blog, which announces new ranking factors and core updates via blog posts.
- Follow John Mueller, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, on social media. He has a very helpful Twitter account that often touches on algorithmic filter issues.
Keep in mind that losing rankings and traffic could also be a result of being outperformed by competitors in your industry. If their web pages moved up while your web page moved down in the rankings, be sure to analyze their competing pages to see what might have caused the drop and how they might be serving users better.
With that, let’s move on to Google penalties.
What is a Google penalty? How does Google penalize websites?
Algorithms are getting better and better at detecting spam and black hat techniques in general. In most cases, these URLs are automatically discovered and pushed down in search results. But despite the increasing sophistication of the algorithm, some websites still avoid algorithmic triggers that don’t meet Google’s quality standards. People are still trying to trick their way to the top of search results. It’s bad for user experience and for good websites because this content gets buried under poor results and thus becomes harder to find.
For these instances, Google still employs human reviewers who manually flag, review, and penalize sites that are in violation of these guidelines.
A Google penalty refers to a manual action from Google. These are issued by a human reviewer who has determined that a website attempted to manipulate the search index, or at least that it conflicts with certain quality standards enforced by the search engine.
How do I check for or learn about a Google penalty?
These penalty messages can be viewed in Search Console by performing the following query in Google Search: Search Console -> Search Traffic – > Manual Actions.
If there are no actions, you will see a green checkmark. Otherwise, you will see a number count at the top of the report.
There are two types of manual actions: site-wide matches and partial matches. A partial match action means that some of the site has been temporarily removed from search results. A sitewide match means that the entire website has been removed from search results. Every manual action is accompanied by information about the reason it was issued and how it is affecting your organic channel.
How do I fix and recover from a Google penalty?
Interestingly enough, according to Kissmetrics, only 5% of penalized websites are submitting reconsideration requests to recover their positions in organic search results. That’s to say, the average webmaster or site owner is not noticing and responding to these penalties.
So, it might be the case that increasing awareness of issues with your site is the first step.
Start by reviewing recent Google algorithm updates, which are committed to increasingly rewarding the best and most appropriate content for a given query, coupled with a great user experience. These upgrades have been building on top of each other for the last 15 – 20 years.
Look closely at the Panda and Penguin updates in particular, which were introduced in the early 2010s. The Panda update focused on content quality, reducing the number of sites with thin or duplicate content and excessive ads from ranking well. The Penguin update focused on backlinks and cloaking, reducing the number of sites with lots of low-quality backlinks and keyword-stuffed pages from ranking well. The standards introduced by these two updates are responsible for the majority of penalties issued today.
In general, the guidance from these updates will help you audit your site for problematic SEO tactics. As you navigate through the site, ask yourself:
- Does the majority of your content contain pop-up ads?
- Is the majority of your content keyword stuffed?
- Is the majority of your content error-laden and low-quality?
- Is your site relying on a link scheme?
- Is your site cloaking any content?
Here is the full list of manual action penalties that a site could qualify for today:
- User-generated spam
- Spammy free host
- Structured data issue
- Unnatural links to your site
- Unnatural links from your site
- Thin content with little or no added value
- Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects
- Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing
- Pure spam
- Cloaked images
- AMP content mismatch
- Sneaky mobile redirects
- News and discovery policy violations
All of this said, typically, backlink profiles are the genesis for most manual actions. In fact, the unnatural links penalty is most commonly issued by Google. So, always be analyzing your backlink profile for possible issues.
- Look for over-optimized anchor text and backlinks from poor-quality sites.
- Look from backlinks from websites that Google has banned or penalized.
- Look for backlinks from sites that have low-relevance to your industry.
- Look for backlinks from sites with lots of thin or duplicate content.
- Look for backlinks from sites with lots of advertising, forum links, and comment spam.
With each analysis, use this tool to disavow links and also email with webmasters of these sites with link removal requests.
If you are facing a penalty and you have submitted a reconsideration request to Google, the penalty lift can take anywhere from several days to several weeks or months. You will be informed by email when the request is received, and once again when the process is completed and the penalty has been removed.
It makes sense that any time Google announces plans to release a core update, webmasters start to talk about the potential for penalties. Maybe you are reading because your site has (possibly) experienced a drop in rankings due to the June “Core Web Vitals” update.
That said, there are a number of reasons why your rankings and website traffic could be suffering consequences. This article set out to divide those reasons into two buckets — manual action penalties and the aforementioned algorithm updates — and to provide strategies to identify, resolve, and ultimately recover from each.
In terms of staying out of the penalty box and avoiding algorithmic filters, perhaps the biggest takeaway from this article is to simply align with Google’s mission to organize the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful. Broadly speaking, if you can produce high-quality content, secure links from reputable sources in your industry, and build a fast-loading and responsive website you will almost never have to worry about these problems.