Getting a Google Penalty is every webmaster’s worst nightmare. After all, it can send years of hard work down the drain. Now only does it affect your site traffic but it also impacts your site’s rankings in the SERPs.
It can be daunting to face such a situation. If you’re facing a Google Penalty, know that not all hope is lost. Google Penalty recovery is tough, but with the right moves, you can get your rankings back.
In this post, we’ll look at different ways you can use help your site recover from any Google penalties. Before we get into the details, let’s first take a look at the basics.
What is a Google Penalty?
A Google Penalty is like a punishment given to a website. Google hands it out to those websites which may have defied the marketing practices or guidelines enforced by Google.
Sometimes, a penalty can also be given after an update to their ranking algorithm. Or it can also come after a manual review where Google suspects that a website may be using black hat SEO strategies.
If you are new to SEO, it’s easy to mistake an algorithm update for a Google penalty. Algorithms mainly rely on a set of calculations and rules to make sure they deliver on the desired outcome.
Usually, these algorithms are designed to reward websites that match up to their quality standards. Google’s webmaster guidelines defines the criteria to meet these standards.
Apart from this, Google also employs human reviewers who manually review websites and rate them. They mainly check sites that may have passed through the algorithm but don’t really meet the quality standards.
Even if you are on the wrong side of an update, you may feel like you have been hit by a penalty. In both cases, the end result is almost the same — you lose out on a lot of organic traffic.
What Do You Get Google Penalties For?
In this section, let's take a look at some of the common penalties that strike websites. Of course, there are other penalties too. But here we are only looking at the common ones.
- Unnatural Links: Google sees backlinks as a way of measuring the quality of your website and its content. If Google suspects that a link looks like it was paid or like it’s a part of a link scheme, you are in trouble.
Examples of unnatural links include:
- Low-quality, hidden, or keyword-rich links that are embedded in a site’s widgets.
- Links in the templates or footers of various websites
- Optimized links included in a forum’s comments or signature
- Text advertisements that can pass PageRank
In such cases, Google may not count the linking value at all and they may even hit you with a penalty. Mostly, this penalty will be placed on certain pages if the issue is localized. Only sometimes, they give a site-wide penalty.
- Low-Quality or Duplicate Content: Google wants to give their users the best experience. If your content isn’t providing them with any value, you can expect a Google penalty.
Low-quality or duplicate content includes:
- Content that is automatically generated
- Doorway Pages
- Scraped content
- Guest posts that are low-quality
- Thin affiliate pages
This penalty can have a significant impact on your search traffic. For this penalty, Google shows a manual action with the following message, “Thin content with little or no added value.”
In some cases, it may be unavoidable or even necessary to use duplicate content. For instance, if you are writing an article that includes quotes or lyrics of a song, you will have duplicate content.
To show Google that you acknowledge the duplication and are acting in good faith, you can use canonical tags. This can redirect their attention to one piece of content.
Spam: While it’s rare to get a penalty for spam, it does happen. Spam can include everything from excessive cloaking to scraping content. You aren’t likely to get a penalty, especially for spam, unless you create a spam website.
Another thing you need to be careful of is “Spammy freehosts.” Typically, spammers use web hosts that are cheap or free. If a host is known for hosting primarily spam websites, Google may choose to penalize all the sites that are linked to that web host. So, be careful while picking a web host for your site. A wrong choice could end up hurting your site’s growth in the future.
These are all of the manual actions taken. Algorithmic penalties are based on two Google algorithm updates: Panda and Penguin. Let’s take a look at what they are before we jump into the recovery process.
Panda Penalty: This penalty aims to check the quality of the content that a site is publishing. What’s surprising about this penalty is that it affects your whole site even if you may have issues on only one part of your site.
While the patent for Panda is pretty technical and bland, it does clear up the way it works. What it says is that Google has created a site-wide modification factor. When it came around for the first time, Panda affected content farms the most. That’s because of what the algorithm update was targeted at.
It’s based on quality factors and aims to get rid of duplicate, shallow, inbound links, brand searches, and poorly written content. When a particular site doesn’t meet the criteria, Google applies the modification score to the whole site. So, even if you have a few low-quality pages, it could end up affecting your site.
Penguin Penalty: This penalty is mainly about backlinks. Unlike the Panda algorithm update, Penguin affects only specific pages. So, if you are hit by this Google penalty, your recovery needs to be done only for certain pages. All of your other pages will still have a chance to get ranked.
Here are some of the factors related to backlinks that could get you in trouble and give your site a penalty:
- Link Diversity: If most of your backlinks come from your comments section, that’s considered unnatural. Similarly, if many links have the same anchor text, that’s also a bad sign. Google understands that you’re trying to manipulate the search results.
- Link Quality: Typically, most sites have a number of low and high-quality backlinks. If you have a high number of low-quality links, you attract Google’s attention. Conversely, even if you have a high number of high-quality links in your profile, that raises suspicion as well.
- Link Velocity: If a website gains a lot of links over a short period of time, that’s considered unnatural.
Google Penalty Recovery: Finding the Problem
The first step for Google penalty recovery is to understand the cause of your Google penalty. Only then can you move on with the recovery process. You need to determine if it was caused by a manual penalty or when an algorithm trigger happened.
You may notice that your traffic dropped suddenly. In such a case, you first need to figure out the reason for the loss of traffic. For each cause, there is a different Google penalty recovery method.
There are mainly two forms of Google penalties that can be applied to your site: Manual Action and Algorithmic Penalty. Let’s take a look at what the recovery process for them is.
To check if you have been hit by manual action, you need to go to Google Webmaster Tools. Go there and check your notifications. If Google has taken manual action against your site, you’ll be notified about it clearly. They will also mention the reason for the penalty. Based on that, you can work on the recovery process.
Image via Bruce Clay
Looking for manual actions is easy. It’s a straightforward process. When it comes to algorithmic penalties, it’s not the same.
You don’t get a notification from Google, so you need to search for yourself. For this, look at the total time period for which you saw a drop in your traffic. Jot it down and check if Google had announced any algorithm updates during that time.
Know that each update comes with its own set of changes. While Panda focused on content quality, Penguin was more about anchor text distribution and backlinks.
Google Penalty Recovery: Identifying and Removing Bad Backlinks
Another common reason why you may be hit with a Google penalty is bad backlinks. There are different kinds of bad backlinks out there.
Not sure if you’ve got bad backlinks? Check out this list to make sure you aren’t in the grey zone.
Bad backlinks can come from:
- Websites that have duplicate content
- Websites that are not related to your site’s niche
- Sneaky redirects
- Cloaked links
- Site-wide backlinks
- Backlinks that come to your site from directories
- Advertorials and sponsored content
- Backlinks from various gambling and adult websites
- Backlinks that are added through comments that are auto-approved
- Hidden text backlinks
These are the different kinds of bad backlinks that you can look for on your website. If you find them, you need to remove them before you get hit with a Google penalty.
If you already have been given a penalty, here is what you need to do for recovery. Whether it’s an algorithmic penalty or a manual action, it’s important for you to analyze your backlinks. That’s the first step for Google penalty recovery.
For this, you can use backlink analysis tools like Moz Link Explorer, Majestic, and others. Once you do an analysis of your backlinks, you’re likely to figure out which links may have caused the dip in your rankings.
Alternatively, you could go to Google Webmaster Tools. From there, you can download all the backlinks for your site. You’ll find the option under: Search Traffic → Links to Your Site → Who links the Most → More → Download latest links.
To find the bad backlinks, take a look at the list of dofollow backlinks. They are the links that have passed PageRank. To identify the bad backlinks from it, you can use the backlinks analysis tools that we’ve mentioned above.
Finding the bad backlinks is only half the job done. There is a lot more to do for penalty recovery. To identify the bad backlinks, you’ll have to check each of the links manually. Remember to check the links in your blog comments twice. To find more bad backlinks, you can check to see links that show a Pagerank of zero.
To make it easier, just select “Filters” and click on “PageRank.” You’ll see a drop-down menu where you can select “0” under the option of “Domain.”
It’s a good idea to manually check each link that shows up with this method. It’s also recommended that you check sites based on their domain extension.
Removing Bad Backlinks
If you find links that may be hurting your rankings, it’s time to get rid of them. For penalty recovery--and to improve your Google rankings– you will need to write an email. Address it to the webmaster of the specific website whose bad link you want to remove.
While writing the email, make sure you send it from your company email address (vs. a personal one). Remember to keep the tone of the email professional and polite. Make sure you list all the links you want removed. You want to make it easy for the webmaster to remove the bad links. Don’t spam the webmaster during your recovery process but send up a follow-up email if it’s necessary. That’s all that’s needed from your end.
Some webmaster may remove their links while others may not oblige. In some cases, webmasters may even demand some money to remove links.
If a webmaster ignores your email or asks for money, you will need to disavow the entire domain of that particular website.
Disavowing an Entire Domain
For penalty recovery, disavowing a domain is sometimes the only option left. For this, you can go to “Monitor Backlinks.” For each backlink, you’ll see a settings button in the row. Click on it and add a tag to all the selected links. You can select a tag like “disavow.”
By filtering this list, you can get the complete list of tagged links. Next, you can export it and take it to the Disavow Links Tool. It can take around 2-4 weeks to get your report processed. Once it has been processed, you will be able to see a change in your site’s rankings.
Image via Disavow Links Tool
Google Penalty Recovery: Fixing a Penguin Penalty
If you have been hit with a Penguin penalty, you really can’t do much. But that doesn’t mean you should give up right away. The first step is to get rid of unwanted links. They could bad or unnatural links. Use the steps mentioned previously to remove them.
In addition to this, it’s advisable to check your anchor text distribution. This is to check where you are getting links. The easiest way to do this is to use Ahrefs’ Backlink Checker. It’s free to use and can give you a detailed report in a matter of seconds.
Image via Ahrefs
In your report, go to the “Overview” tab. Here you will see the anchor text distribution for your site. A healthy report would show naked URLs, brand name keywords, variations of targeted keywords, and more.
If you see only match keywords in the report, that should be a matter of concern for you. It means your site is vulnerable to a Penguin penalty. You need to remove the given keywords.
From the “Backlinks” tab, you will be able to identify the exact source of the anchor text. Based on that, you can also find referring domains associated with it. Just like with backlinks, you’ll have to write an email to the webmaster. If they don’t remove the links, then you can also use the Disavow Links Tool.
Google Penalty Recovery: Fixing a Panda Penalty
Panda penalties are mainly focused on websites that show a lot of ads and those that have a slow site speed, poor content, or poor navigation. In short, it covers everything that you need to look at to provide users with a good user experience.
The first step for penalty recovery is to check your website’s speed. You can use a tool like Pingdom for this purpose. It will show you how long it takes for your web pages to load.
Next, you need to look for web pages that are low-quality or duplicates. To check this, go to Google Webmaster Tools and look for “Search Appearance and “HTML Improvements.” These sections will show you how many duplicates you have on your site.
Once you find these pages, you have two options for recovery. You can no-follow them or delete them completely. If you can do that, you’re done with the complete penalty recovery process for your site.
Extra: What Happens If Someone Stole Your Content?
Sometimes people search for "duplicate content" when their content has been republished on another site without permission. It makes sense to call this duplicate content, but you'll find that the suggested solutions are outside of your control since they rely on another site owner.
Fortunately, this is an annoyance at worst. Google admits that there are "edge cases" where the duplicate content might outrank original content for some ultra low-value, longtail searches. They maintain that the original site should rank higher on legitimate keyword phrases.
While it's not likely to be a Google Penalty, we included it here because people want to arm themselves for a similar situation.
Recently a writer named Anna explained that content she wrote and published on her own site had been repurposed without permission on another site. They were passing it off as their own. Initially, there are no authorities who you can complain to easily*. To get "stolen" or republished content taken down, you need to contact the site owner.
- Try "contact us" on the page. If that doesn't work:
- Search the domain in the WhoIs database. There should be at least one abuse email to contact.
- Send a professional email that lists the link of the article. Do not threaten. Do not let your irritation seep in. Ask them to remove the article.
- If they refuse to remove the content, you can ask them to use rel=canonical tags on their page to name your content the original content.
- *And finally, if they refuse to cooperate, you can consider actions through DMCA.
No webmaster wants to face a Google penalty. But if, for some reason, you are hit with a penalty, there is hope for recovery. The recovery process is tedious but it can help you improve your site’s reputation and search engine rankings.
For Google penalty recovery, you need to get rid of your bad backlinks and remove your duplicate content. In addition to this, you need to make sure that you are not uploading any low-quality content and doing anchor text distribution well.