Google Penalties: What Are They and What Do I Do If I Have One?

Building an online presence with SEO is tough, time-consuming work. It’s what we do every single day for our clients. But it’s rewarding to see web pages on diverse subjects like landscaping, low-voltage electrical installation, and even bricklaying rise in the rankings month after month.

If you’ve been handling your SEO for your business’s website, I’m sure you know what I mean.

But sometimes? That’s not the picture. Sometimes it feels like you’re doing everything right, but when you load the first page of the search engine results page (SERP), you’re nowhere to be found. For subject after subject, no matter how compelling the content you write, your site struggles to crack the bottom of the second page.

It doesn’t seem to be on the search engine results page at all. What gives?

Well, believe it or not, you might have been hit with a Google penalty.

A Google Penalty? But My Favourite Search Engine Is Bing!

Bing has their version of this too, don’t worry. As we often do in the SEO industry, we’re using Google as a metaphor for search in general. Although it’s barely a metaphor, considering Google holds the lion’s share of search volumes performed every day; some estimate Google’s omnipotence to be as high as 85% of the market.

So, a Google penalty. Feel free to substitute your favourite search engine wherever you see that, as they all use similar principles to generate their rankings. Although how each engine develops its rankings and present them in searches is obviously that company’s secret sauce.

What’s a Google Penalty?

Pretty much exactly what it sounds like, although there are different sorts. A Google penalty means that Google has decided that, for many reasons we’ll go into further below, your website isn’t something they want at the top of the SERPs for a given subject. Or at all. In fact, most of the time, if you’ve been hit with a penalty, you will be scrubbed entirely from the SERPs. For months. Or until the problem is resolved in Google’s eyes.

If you’re a small business owner who relies on website traffic to generate sales or leads for in-person services, I don’t need to tell you how devastating this can be. You’ve essentially made yourself banned from the Internet.

Okay, not literally. However, the effect is pretty much the same.

How Is It Legal for Google To Do This? Doesn’t My Website Have Rights?

Nope. It’s Google’s service. You want in on it (and by all indications, you do), you play by their rules. You make them look bad by violating their terms of service, and you’ll be penalized for it.

What Can Google Penalize Me For?

A lot, actually. However, they make it easy for you to figure that out. If you’re building a website for a small business, you should check out the incredible wealth of resources that Google has provided for Webmasters in their Search Console help section.

This really tells you everything you need to know about being a webmaster and playing by Google’s rules.

The only issue? Well, there is a lot of information there. Moreover, technical SEO jargon and commands are mixed right in with more generic content SEO information. So it’s not exactly an easy beach read. If you want to know everything there is to know about playing fair in the world of SEO, you’re going to need to devote a day or two to tackling this guide.

We’re going to go over a little breakdown of the most common types of penalties and how you might have gotten them.

Major Spam/Pure Spam Penalty

If you’ve received a notice from Google on your search console page that your site is riddled with pure spam, it’s very likely that your site has been wholly scraped from the search engine listings. Gone. Like it was never there.

This is pretty extreme. So Google only reserves it for extreme cases. I’m sure you’ve seen a website once or twice in your travels around the Internet before that violated this policy. You know the sort: a website completely filled with gibberish with a few keywords thrown in. It might look like this:

Christmas rose. This flower is linked with the story of the birth of the savior and how a little shepherdess named Madelon, desirous of offering a gift to welcome the newborn King, was blessed by an angel with a beautiful white flower tipped with pink, later named as the Christmas Rose.

While it’s (mostly) syntactically valid, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s certainly not the sort of text you’d expect to read about flowers, which usually might talk about related things like growth season, where it’s been cultivated, whether it can grow in shade or light, or whether it’s annual or perennial.

The most likely culprit? Spun or recycled content. If you plan to build your online empire by cherry-picking text from other sites, well, it’s not going to take long until you’ve been hit by penalties.

Worse is when spammy websites use technology to reuse a single source page and algorithmically vary the nouns and verbs on it to create a ‘new’ piece of content. It’s a little hard to explain without an example, so here’s one:

The little child went to the store to pick up some brick pavers for their house.

If I were to spin this content, it would become:

The small kid left to the shop to grab a few clay paving stones for their home.

See how it doesn’t quite work? It’s grammatically correct. Moreover, no native English speaker would have trouble understanding its meaning. No web searcher would consider these two sentences different enough to justify featuring on separate pages.

Listen, writing content is hard. We know. Our content writers have a tough job. Are you reusing a sentence or two? Spinning a single paragraph and adding some updates? This is part of the gig. Websites that get hit with pure spam violations will be 100% composed of spun or recycled content like this.

That’s gibberish. And that’s not a site I or anyone else who uses Google wants to visit.

So if you’ve been hit with this Google notification about a penalty, you or whoever is running your website needs to change tack fast.

Spam Penalty

What’s the difference between ‘pure spam’ and ‘regular’ spam? Well, a spam penalty isn’t quite so dire as some of the others on the list. It usually suggests that the website as a whole isn’t low-quality, but there are some weak pages, such as a few instances of spun content, not dozens.

There’s also a technical spam penalty that you can get if you create doorways to hide the ‘true’ content of the site from search engines. Humans see one version, and search engines see another. I don’t need to tell you how this signals some probably shady stuff going on.

So what do you do if you’ve received this notice? Well, you need to do a complete audit of every landing page on your site. Did you throw some up in a hurry? Were you maybe not feeling very inspired the day you wrote one, and just reused paragraphs from other sections of your website? Well, that’s an easy way to get a spam penalty.

The solution? Rewrite your weak content. From scratch. Don’t rush it, take your time and make sure your landing pages are something that your customers or other human beings might enjoy reading. Then resubmit for reconsideration.

Hacked Content Spam Penalty

This one is bad news. If you aren’t using SSL (secure socket layer) on your site, it can happen pretty quickly. You might think that spammers or hackers have no interest in your electrician business’s website, but then again you might also think they have no interest in your Grandmother’s Facebook account, and they definitely hacked that too.

The fact of the matter is that if you’re not using proper security, then your website is vulnerable. When spammers take advantage of weak points in your site’s architecture, they can redirect your users to all sorts of damaging or phishy links.

Google really wants to avoid spammers from showing up in its search engine results. And for good reason: not every user of the Internet has the tech literacy or even just the attention span to keep vigilant for spamming and phishing attacks every hour of the day.

How to fix this one? Contact your web hosting provider as soon as you can. If you’re not tech-savvy enough to fix this issue, find someone who is—fast.

Unnatural Outbound Links or Inbound Links

If you’ve been hit with this penalty, odds are you know it’s coming. Because this means you or someone with the authorization to manage your site peppered your pages with dozens or even hundreds of links to low-quality websites. And why?

Well, probably to cash in on short-term increases in rankings. If an SEO company or a contractor you’ve hired is promising you the moon, it’s generally a good indicator of being involved in a link-buying scheme. And link-buying is against Google’s terms of service. Note: it’s not against Bing’s terms of service. However, Bing doesn’t like it either. You may not get a ban or a penalty from Microsoft, but there will undoubtedly be consequences.

Did you think that the shady person on an Internet forum offering thousands of ‘white hat SEO’ links for $1 was too good to be true? In this case, they might have been.

How to fix this: make heavy use of the disavow REL and nofollow commands in your Google Search console.

Stop engaging in Black Hat SEO techniques. They aren’t worth the potential risks.

How Do I Know When I’ve Been Hit by a Google Penalty?

Aside from the sound of your wallet lighting itself on fire and your search engine traffic careening off the side of a cliff?

That’s easy. Google will tell you. Right there in the Google Search Console. Sometimes, they’re extra helpful, and they even identify which URL or individual page they’re talking about. But not always.

When you receive a notification from Google that your site has a penalty, it’s essential to perform an audit of your content, links, and descriptions in order to remove the offending pages or links and to identify potential vulnerabilities for new ones.

How Do I Make the Penalty Go Away?

I wish there were an easy answer to this question. But penalties are pretty rare. It’s somewhat unusual that you’d just stumble into one. However, it does happen.

Ultimately, the only way to make your Google penalty go away is to fix the problem.

This might mean a complete overhaul of your website. It might mean using nofollow to remove thin pages from Google’s search index until you can rebuild your site with thicker and meatier content. It might mean tracking down all those thousands of backlinks to see if they’re all coming from shady or suspicious sources.

When you’ve fixed whatever it is that Google identified as a problem, you need to resubmit your website for reconsideration. Google will get back to you. If all went well, you’ll receive an approved request. Then you can celebrate. However, if you didn’t go far enough, they might turn you down, which puts you back at square one.

There’s no fast or easy way to completely overhaul your site when you’ve been hit by a Google penalty. You may need to accept lower revenues from advertising or leads for up to a month while you and your SEO professional diligently work to resolve the crisis.

The good news is that none of this work will be for naught. Improving your content, disavowing spammy backlinks, and making your website more pleasant and functional for visitors to use are things you should be doing anyway—and they’ll bring nothing but benefits to your SEO strategy.

I Don’t Have a Google Penalty, But My Website Has No Traffic. What Gives?

It sounds like, for whatever reason, your SEO strategy isn’t working. Maybe it’s time to have a professional take a look? LinkNow Media is one of the fastest-growing web marketing and SEO companies in North America, and we have nearly 10,000 satisfied customers to prove it.

We have no restrictive contracts, so you’re welcome to give us a trial run.

Let us build you a website and generate some legit Internet presence using tried and true White Hat SEO techniques, including excellent original content and legitimate backlinks. Want to learn more?

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Aubrey Grant

Author: Aubrey Grant

About Aubrey Grant

Aubrey is a copy writer and Head of Content at LinkNow Media. An expert content marketer, he is obsessed with developing strategic solutions that emphasize elegance and simplicity. Although generally mild mannered, he has been known to fly into rages at the sight of a semicolon.