Unless you have a million friends that are clamoring to visit any website that you throw up, promoting a domain online is tough. While there are many ways to gain traffic, most webmasters rely on Google’s organic search results to attract page views. Consequently, Search Engine Optimization is a critical concern for nearly every site on the web. Getting blackballed by Google by being dropped from their index is a fate to be avoided. As such, skirting Google penalties is extremely important.
Google Penalties Explained
Simply put, a penalty is a downgrade in a website’s ranking or status in Google’s expansive index. They can be either manual or algorithm-based depending on a site’s failings. A manual penalty occurs when the Google Search Quality Team determines that a site breaches Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Algorithmic penalties are completely automated and can be harder to diagnose. Long story short, attempting to “game the system” from Google’s point of view using black hat SEO tactics results in search results penalties.
The Usual Penalty Suspects
Penalties can occur for two big reasons: deliberate violations of Google’s site quality guidelines and accidental bad practices. In the deliberate violation department, the biggest culprit is linkspam and other shady linking practices. Look at the official Google Webmaster Guidelines if you need a primer. For instance, using paid links to juice your PageRank number will get a site penalized. Oftentimes, algorithm updates like Penguin are the cause of a SERPs downgrade. For egregious offenders, Google assesses a manual penalty.
Besides obvious manual SERPs downgrades and big-time algorithm updates, there are more subtle reasons why a site is affected by penalties. For instance, site quality algorithms like the infamous Panda can lower the PageRank of an entire site. This causes all pages on a domain to suffer in the rankings. Weak content, duplicated content and keyword stuffing all translate into a lousy experience for end users. Badly formatted content and a lack of microdata can also hurt. Finally, bad user experience metrics like unusually high bounce rates always hurt.
Performing Penalty Diagnostics
If you need to know if your site is suffering from a Google penalty, the best way to find out is to head straight to the source. Go to your Google Webmaster Tools account and look at the “Manual Actions” tab under the “Search Traffic” menu. If you want independent corroboration, use a tool like the Website Penalty Indicator by FE International. Alternatively, type “site:yourdomain.com” in Google search to see if it shows up. If it doesn’t, you’ve been penalized.
Recovering from a Penalty Punch
Once you know what’s hurting your SERPs, you can fix the problem. If you’re suffering from bad backlinks, use the Disavow tool from Google to disown them. Once you’ve dealt with bad links, turn your focus towards content and structure. Clean up your weak or spun content for one thing. Next, use your Google Webmaster Tools account to clean up your site structure. Good XML sitemaps, canonical tags and robots.txt files matter. If you’re still penalized, file a Reconsideration Request to get back in Google’s index.
Keeping an Eye on Things
Ensuring that Google doesn’t instantly or gradually downgrade your site in the SERPs is an ongoing struggle, to put it mildly. Use Google Webmaster Tools paired with automation services like IFTTT to give you a heads-up if something is wrong with your site’s content or structure. The people at Google are constantly tweaking their algorithms to ensure that their results are relevant and of high quality. Staying on top of your site’s current health will ensure that penalties don’t occur.