The Top Google penalties and how to avoid them

Penalties in any aspect of life are never fun. And if you are a marketer or SEO agency you definitely want to avoid a Google penalty. It can be a major setback to the success of the website. It could mean either that your ranking drops significantly or that your site disappears altogether from search results.

In this article we take a look at some of the most common Google penalties, and the best ways to avoid them. Whether you are a marketer or an SEO agency, you need to be informed and smart to stay ahead of the game.

What is a Google penalty?

Google’s aim is to continually provide the most relevant and accurate search results. Any action by a website – whether deliberate or accidental – that could unfairly manipulate those results is likely to attract a penalty.

There are two main ways you can be penalised by Google:

  • Automatic penalties

Some websites are penalised automatically, without any specific intervention from Google. This can often occur when Google changes its algorithm to favour higher quality updates. The algorithm uses preset rules and conditions to rank websites automatically. If your website has been adversely affected by an algorithmic change you will not necessarily be informed by Google but will notice the drop in rankings or disappearance from SERPS that we referred to earlier.

  • Manual penalties

Even though newer Google algorithms such as BERT are getting smarter, there are still websites that do not meet Google’s quality standards managing to slip through the net. So Google also currently has a system of manual penalties. These are immediate penalties given by a Google employee via Google Search Console if your website is deemed to be violating Google’s Terms of Service. 

What are the most common penalties?

If your website is deliberately undertaking any kind of illegal, harmful or malicious activity, a Google penalty would not come as a complete surprise. But for most site owners, a penalty can be given either because of a simple mistake, or due to well-intentioned efforts to improve the ranking of your site.

Some of the main ways that you can attract a penalty are as follows:

  • Poor quality content

If any of your content is either unoriginal or poor quality, this could result in a penalty. So beware of content that is low quality, duplicated within the site, spun or auto-generated, or scraped from other websites. 

  • Keyword stuffing

Still on the topic of content, you need to be careful to avoid the practice known as keyword stuffing. Guidelines about keyword density in content seem to change regularly but, as a rule, if keywords are used too often and don’t flow naturally within the text, this is an indication of poorly written content. Also avoid any attempt to disguise keywords within other text.

  • Content policy violation

Most of Google’s content policy violation rules are pretty obvious, but you should always be aware of them, particularly if your products or services have some tenuous link – however legitimate – to any of the banned areas.

You need to avoid any content that is:

  • Dangerous or derogatory
  • Sexually explicit or exploitative
  • Violent or shocking
  • Exploiting a sensitive event
  • Cruel to animals
  • Hacked.

Full details can be found in the Google ads policy guidelines.

  • Cloaking or redirects

Cloaking is the process of displaying different pages or images to users than to Google. Sneaky redirects will send users to a different page from what is shown to Google. 

Even though these could either be unintentional or happen without your knowledge (for example with mobile apps or even hacking) you could still be penalised.

  • Bad links

This covers a multitude of sins. You can be penalised if your internal links don’t work, or if you link to irrelevant or poor quality sites, or if you have poor quality sites linking to you.

Don’t be tempted to buy links, even if you think it will boost your rankings. Google is very hot on “unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links.”  So make any links relevant, and ensure that they are visible to users so that they can choose whether or not to follow them.

  • Missing or misleading site map and/or structured data markup

Ensure that all the information on your site that Google will use in search rankings is up to date and correct. For example:

  • XML sitemap
  • Robots.txt file
  • Schema markup
  • Rich snippets guidelines

This information is critical in informing search engines how to deal with your site. Excessive errors or omissions could lead to a penalty.

  • User generated spam

User spam can be out of your control but could still result in a penalty. In particular, keep a lookout for comment spam including adverts, irrelevant links or spammy usernames.

Even though most commenting systems have some kind of automated spam detection system, you still need to be watchful. If you are not able to moderate it on a regular basis, another option to consider is switching off commenting altogether.

How can you recover from a Google penalty?

If you are unlucky enough to receive a Google penalty, there are steps that you need to take to mitigate the effects of that.

The main thing to do is to find out what led to the penalty. You should be notified by Google about the reason for a manual penalty. Once the violation is fixed, you will need to give all the details to Google via a Reconsideration Request.

Tracking down the reason for an automatic penalty can be more difficult. You can find the approximate date of the penalty by checking Google Analytics for when your traffic dropped. If this date coincides with a Google algorithm change then this is the most likely reason for your automatic penalty. In which case you need to find out more about what those changes mean, and make the necessary changes to your website that will get you back on track.

Otherwise work through the reasons we listed above to ensure that your site fits with Google’s webmaster guidelines

But be aware that, whatever you do, it will take time to regain your rankings to their pre-penalty level. The best strategy is to do all that you can to avoid a penalty in the first place.

Five ways to avoid Google penalties

Five of the best ways to avoid penalties are:

  • Work constantly at keeping your website up to date and in line with Google’s webmaster guidelines.
  • Prioritise users not search engines. Make your website interesting, relevant and engaging.
  • Always publish high quality content, and monitor for spam or hacked content.
  • Keep abreast of all changes affecting SEO. For example, identifying new keywords, using keywords in meta descriptions, optimising your title tags, 
  • Ensuring that your links all work and that there are no irrelevant or disreputable inbound or outbound links.

If you can do all the above on a regular basis you will stand the best chance of avoiding a Google penalty and the damage that it can do to your rankings and reputation.