How to Identify and Fix the Most Common Google Penalties

Monday, November 2, 2020 | By Tim Stoddart

Google Penalties

Penalties can happen to any website, and it usually isn’t out of malicious intent. Google penalizes websites so they can sift through spam and deliver better, more accurate search results to users. However, after you’ve received a Google penalty, it isn’t always easy to get your rankings back. To avoid this mess in the first place, let’s take a look at the most common Google penalties, how to avoid them, and how to fix them if your website gets hit with one.

What are Google Penalties?

A Google penalty is just what it sounds like – a punishment imposed upon a website by Google for breaking a rule or disobeying their best practice guidelines. A website may be penalized for using black-hat SEO techniques or even as the result of an updated ranking algorithm.

The last thing a business owner wants is for their website to be slapped with a penalty. When your website gets penalized by Google, your target audience may be unable to find your website, services, and even your GMB listing. If your website can’t be found, you’ll see a decrease in traffic, phone calls, and ultimately, revenue. 

Google’s primary job is to provide its users with high-quality and relevant search results. As a result, if they notice a website that is obviously trying to manipulate search results, they may punish that website with a penalty. Although they’re a pain to deal with from a website owner’s standpoint, penalties stop websites from trying to out-smart the algorithm, allowing Google to deliver the best possible search results. 

Understanding the Types of Manual Action Google Penalties

Most of the time, Google penalties refer to algorithmic penalties, such as the Panda update or Penguin update, which were systematic updates that resulted in sweeping penalties for many websites. When an algorithmic sweep occurs, you’ll see the entire SEO community begin worrying about dramatic fluctuations in their rankings. However, there is also something called manual action penalties – a type of penalty that is imposed on an individual website due to a problem on that particular website.

If your website gets hit with a manual action penalty, you’ll receive a message in your Google Search Console (GSC). You can also check for manual action penalties yourself by clicking the “Manual Actions” button on GSC. Any messages in GSC will describe the type of penalty that was placed on your website and it may affect only certain pages or your entire site as a whole.

According to Google, the 12 types of manual actions that may be applied to your website are:

  • User-generated spam
  • Spammy free host
  • Structured data issue
  • Unnatural links from your site
  • Unnatural links to your site
  • Thin content
  • Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects
  • Pure spam
  • Cloaked images
  • Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing
  • Sneaky mobile redirects
  • AMP content mismatch

The Most Common Google Penalties and How to Fix Them

Most of the time, if you’re using white-hat SEO techniques, you won’t have to worry too much about getting a manual action penalty. If you do, Google has outlined the steps you need to take to fix the penalty and resubmit it for review. If approved, the penalty will be lifted and you can start working towards improving your rankings once again. Here are 6 Google penalties we see the most and what steps you can take to have the penalty lifted.

Unnatural Link Penalties

In 2012, Google updated its algorithm to target link spam and unethical link building schemes. This update is better known as the Penguin algorithm update

Before Penguin, link volume played a larger role in determining a web page’s score and ranking. As a result, some low-quality sites engaged in manipulative link building practices where they obtained a large number of links from other low-quality sites, and they would still appear in the top search results – more so than some of their higher-quality competitors.

Today, if you’re acting on a spammy link-building scheme, Google may hit you with one of two penalties for unnatural links:

  1. Unnatural links pointing to your website
  2. Unnatural outbound links that your website is hosting

Fixing Toxic Inbound and Outbound Links

If you haven’t started link building yet and have a brand new site, all you need to do is follow white-hat link building practices. This means not paying for links, getting links from high-quality websites, and avoiding spammy websites. After you’ve had your site for a while, it’s a good idea to run a link audit every few months to analyze your links and clean up any low-quality ones that are pointing towards your site. You’ll want to do the same thing with the external links coming from your site.

You can get a list of backlinks by using tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, or Search Console. Each will give you an option to view or download a list of your inbound and outbound links so you can go through them and determine which ones are against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

If you identify a backlink that you’d like to remove, the first thing you should do is reach out to the website owner and ask them to remove it. In most cases, they’ll be more than happy to do so. If you’re unable to contact the site owner or they won’t remove your link from their site, you can compile a list of toxic backlinks, use Google’s Disavow links tool to signal these links to Google, and finally, submit a reconsideration request to the search engine to disregard the backlink when ranking your site.

Hacked Site or Pure Spam Penalties

If your website gets hacked, you may be susceptible to a hacked site penalty or a pure spam penalty. Oftentimes, the reason websites get hacked is so a hacker can inject malicious links and other spammy content on a website. If Google picks up on this, they might place a notification into the search result that says “this site is hacked,” which can hurt your rankings and visibility in the organic search results. Or, they may simply mark your site as “pure spam,” which is something no website owner ever wants to see their site labeled as.

It’s always best to be proactive and prevent your site from getting hacked altogether by installing security features on your website. More importantly, always have a clean and recent backup of your website and its files so you have access to these items if your site does get hacked.

Fixing Your Hacked Site and Avoiding Pure Spam

If your site gets hacked, the first thing you need to do is contact your web host, quarantine your site by taking it offline to prevent any more damage, and change all of your passwords. Next, use Search Console to identify what type of hack it was, if there is any malware on your site, and how much damage the hack had on your site as a whole. You’ll want to look for things like:

  • Spammy links, images, added pages, or content that has been added to your site
  • Malware or phishing on your site

Before you start cleaning up the damage, you need to figure out how hackers got into your site in the first place so they don’t regain access and hurt your site all over again. There are many different ways in which your site could be vulnerable, including:

  • Weak or reused passwords
  • Viruses on your computer
  • Outdated themes, software, or plugins
  • Bad coding practices
  • Open redirects 

Once you’ve identified and fixed your site’s vulnerability, you can clean up the hack and push your website back online. If Google has marked your site as hacked, you’ll need to request a review for them to remove the hacked labeling. 

User-Generated Spam Penalties

User-generated spam is content that is generated by the actual users of the website. It is usually found in the format of comments, guest posts, user profiles and bios, and forums. Examples of user-generated spam are:

  • Guest posts published by users that are clearly promotional or spammy in nature
  • Posts or comments with foreign languages, graphics, or multiple off-topic links
  • Spam comments that are auto-generated

Put simply, if the content doesn’t add value to your website and is only put there to either hurt your site or benefit another site, it’s most likely user-generated spam.

There are two different types of Google penalties associated with user-generated spam:

  1. Partial match penalties that only affect certain portions or pages of your website.
  2. Site-wide match penalties that affect your entire website as a whole.

Removing User-Generated Spam From Your Site

If your website has a forum, allows comments on blog posts, or lets users log in and make their own guest posts, you can expect a lot of user-generated spam – and if your website hosts these types of platforms, it’s your job to clean it up. 

Make sure you’re going through your comments, posts, and any other type of user-generated content on your site on a weekly basis. Better yet, you can install a plugin like WP-SpamShield or Akismet on your website to filter out spam comments for you. However, some spam may make it through these filters, so you’ll still need to perform maintenance on your site by checking through this content on a regular basis.

Another thing you can do to combat spammy user content and manipulative link schemes is by setting all of your user-generated links to nofollow using the rel=”nofollow” or rel=”ugc”. This signals to search engines that you don’t want to pass any SEO value onto the links placed on your site by users and helps you avoid this type of penalty. 

If you’ve already been hit with a penalty, simply identify and remove the content, take steps to improve the moderation of user-generated content on your site, and request a review from Google once you’re no longer in violation of their guidelines.

Thin Content Penalties

If you know anything about SEO, you know that content matters a lot, and low-quality content will not only fail to perform as well as high-quality content, but it can also trigger a Google penalty. Thin content that has little to no added value can come in many forms, with the most common being: 

  • Spun content that is created by scraping RSS feeds to generate multiple variations of similar pieces of content 
  • Content that copies or duplicates content on other high-ranking web pages
  • Duplicate content that is copied and pasted from other websites
  • Duplicate content that is created by you, but that is posted on several different places throughout your site
  • Auto-generated content including auto-translated text
  • Low-quality guest posts or affiliate pages with no unique information
  • Doorway pages that are created in order to rank for multiple high-volume search queries that end up taking users to the same destination

Thin content penalties can be partial matches, affecting only portions of your site, or site-wide matches that affect your entire site. Avoid this penalty entirely by investing time and energy into developing original, thoughtful, and informative content.

Identifying and Removing Thin Content

There are several steps you may have to take to identify all of the different possible types of thin content. First, you can run a site audit to see which pages have low word count or low text to HTML ratio and consider adding more unique content to those pages to make them more informative. If you’ve knowingly placed any spun content on your website, remove those pages and begin writing unique content to put in their place.

You may also need to use duplicate content detection software to recognize any plagiarized content on your site. Be sure to remove any duplicate content and replace it with original and valuable content.

Lastly, you’ll want to identify and fix any affiliate pages that don’t add value to your site as well as doorway pages that could be seen as manipulative. Once you’ve cleaned up your content, you can submit a reconsideration request to Google to fix your penalty.

Hidden Text/Keyword Stuffing Penalties

Keywords are at the foundation of any SEO strategy, but if you’re using them incorrectly, it can hurt your rankings and result in a Google penalty. Keyword stuffing is just what it sounds like – cramming far too many keywords and key phrases into a single piece of content. Hidden text, on the other hand, is a bit more sneaky and is almost always a deliberate action to manipulate search engines.

Hidden text might come in the form of using white text on a white background, placing text behind an image, positioning the text to be off-screen, or setting the font size to zero. In short, if you’re adding keywords and text in places that you don’t intend users to see simply to up your keyword volume, you’re using hidden text – a deceptive content marketing technique. 

If you’re trying to hide something from users to benefit your rankings, you could be hit with a penalty. Penalties placed on websites for keyword stuffing or for the use of hidden text may affect just small portions of our site or our entire site as a whole. Avoid this by focusing on providing informative, descriptive content in the form of text and images. 

Eliminating Hidden Text and Keyword Stuffing

You can identify instances of keyword stuffing by heading over to Google Search Console > Crawl > Fetch as Google and pull pages you want to look at. Identify portions of text that are either hidden using CSS styling or positioning or any text that is the same color as the background. You can also use the search function to locate keywords on a webpage, spot keyword stuffing, and find the pages you need to rewrite.

Delete any hidden text on your webpages, remove instances of keyword stuffing, and rewrite paragraphs or phrases that contain too many keywords. Once you’ve fixed your content, you can submit a request for reconsideration.

Sneaky Redirects and Cloaking Penalties

Sneaky redirects refer to a practice where websites send users to different pages than what is shown on Google. Usually, these redirects send users to pages that have little to nothing to do with the intent of their search query. Cloaking, on the other hand, is when a website shows different pages to users than they show to Google. Both practices are manipulative attempts to display websites one way to Google bots and another way to humans.

Sneaky redirects such as these are usually created by CMS plugins or are written into .htaccess files. These penalties can also come in the form of partial matches or site-wide matches. 

How to Spot and Fix Sneaky Redirects and Cloaking

To fix any redirects, you’ll need to crawl your website with a tool like Moz or Screaming frog. Navigate to the portion of your crawl labeled “Redirect URL” or “redirects” to analyze all of your redirects to determine whether or not they all make sense. If any of your redirects are sending users to a page that has another to do with their search query, be sure to redirect that page to one that is more appropriate.

Another step you’ll want to take is to see how Google bots view your website to identify any cloaking. You can do this by going to your Google Search Console and navigating to Crawl > Fetch as Google, to fetch the pages from your website that you need to analyze. Then, compare the content as you see it on your website to the content as it is fetched by Google to identify any differences between the way your site is displayed to humans and to bots.

If any issues are found, take the necessary steps to fix these variations so bots see your web pages in the same way humans do. If you’ve been hit with a penalty for cloaking or sneaky redirects, clean everything up, then submit a reconsideration request to Google.

Submitting a Reconsideration Request to Google

Identifying and fixing problems on your site that caused a penalty is the hard part, but it’s important to know what steps to take after you’ve fixed the problems on your site. Once you’re hit with a penalty, cleaning up your site alone isn’t going to get rid of the penalty – you have to submit a reconsideration request. Fortunately, Google makes this easy to do in Search Console.

Upon opening up Search Console, navigate to Manual Actions and click “request a review.” You will be asked to provide information about the steps you took to clean up your website and make sure it is in accordance with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. It’s in your best interest to be as specific as possible when submitting this request, so if you’ve done a link audit and removed a bunch of bad links, you’ll want to include a list of the links you removed and what actions you took to remove them.

In addition to outlining the steps you took to clean up your site, you should include a thorough explanation of the ways in which you plan to prevent the issue at hand from happening again in the future. We suggest double-checking your request to make sure you’ve included all pertinent information to ensure that everything goes well.

When you’re sure that your site is ready and the information you’ve provided is complete, you can submit your request, upon which you should receive a confirmation from Google that your request has been received. Then, you wait to hear from Google about whether or not your request was approved. 

If approved, your manual action penalty will be removed and you will be notified, so all you’ll need to do is continue making sure your website is using white-hat SEO techniques. If denied, Google will inform you that you are still in violation of their guidelines, in which case you’ll need to review your website’s problems once again.

Avoid Google Penalties by Choosing a Marketing Company You Can Trust

If you see your website drop in rankings, it doesn’t always mean you’ve received a penalty. It could just mean there was an update to the algorithm or that your competition has stepped up their game. However, if your website does get penalized by Google, there’s no need to panic. Penalties are fixable, it’s just important that you take the steps to fix it immediately to reduce the impact on your traffic and phone calls. 

Still, penalties can happen to anyone, even those who are enacting the most honest and straight-forward marketing techniques. You can take an extra step to avoid Google penalties by hiring a digital marketing company that you can trust.

At Stodzy Internet Marketing, we have over 10 years of experience navigating the evolving Google algorithms and keeping up with the latest trends in healthcare marketing. When you choose us, you’ll have our guarantee that we’re using white-hat methods that will deliver you real results – not penalties. 

Ready to get started? Contact us today for a free consultation and no-obligation site audit.

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Tim Stoddart

Tim Stoddart is the CEO of Stodzy Internet Marketing. He lives in Nashville with his wife and hit adorable pitbull, Alice. Tim loves to write about digital marketing and personal growth. You can learn more at TimStodz.com

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