Penalties from search engines, mainly Google, have become more and more common in the past few years. Some penalties have resulted in crippling the organic traffic of some big name sites and tons of little guys, too. Like many aspects of SEO there’s a bit of mystery involved, so in this post, we break down the details about what penalties are, how your site could get one and how to tell if you have one.

What is a penalty?

Just like in hockey, a penalty is something that you don’t want against you or your site. Let’s start with the two biggest search engines, Google and Bing. Duane Forrester of Bing says they really don’t penalize sites unless they’re doing some “really bad stuff, like hacking, malware and things like that.” Google on the other hand, deals out two types of penalties, algorithmic and manual:

  • Algorithm Penalty: This is a penalty that has affected your site because one of Google’s many algorithms. For example, the Panda algorithm affects sites with low quality and duplicate content.
  • Manual Penalty: This type of penalty is usually called a manual action or manual penalty. Google has looked at your site and determined that it violates their lengthy search quality guidelines, so they slap a manual penalty on your site(s). Google has a whole team of manual spam fighters that spend their time looking for sites that violate their guidelines.

How did you get a penalty?

Algorithm: If you’ve noticed a sharp decline in your organic traffic and are left wondering if you were caught in Google’s cross hairs, we have some news for you: You maybe have been hit by one of Google’s two biggest algorithms, Panda and Penguin, both of which are very different.

Panda addresses sites with low quality, thin and duplicate content. An example of this would be when, in the past, many SEOs recommended having “SEO only pages” for long tail versions of top keywords in order to gain better rankings. There would be several of these pages for each variation of the keyword with almost the exact same copy. You can see how these types of activities are of zero value to the user and more for “gaming” the search engines. The Penguin algorithm discounts sites that have artificially been ranked because of having a high number of artificial backlinks. The Penguin algorithm also rewarded high value sites, which in turn pushed down lower quality sites. The Panda update would be what the majority of small businesses have been hit by.

Manual: Your site might get hit with a manual penalty because it violates one, some or all of Google’s Search Quality Guidelines. Recently, that might have meant some guest blog posting that we clued you in on in our video, What’s New With Google. Other things Google says can get you a manual penalty include deceiving your users, link schemes (like paid links), cloaking, sneaky redirects and scraping content. If you’ve used an SEO company in the past, hopefully not a dodgy one, you might want to do an audit of your backlinks.

How to tell if you have a penalty

Algorithm: Unfortunately, Google won’t let you know if you’ve received a penalty as a result of an algorithm. Luckily our friends at Moz have a pretty accurate timeline of when algorithm updates land. Using that, in combination with your own analytic data, you can get a pretty good idea if your site’s been whacked by a Penguin or Panda update. Google also announced that they no longer roll out the updates on one day, but rather over the span of a few. This might be harder to tell if you’ve been hit. Here are some more good resources to help you find if your site’s been affected: Barracuda’s Panguin Tool and Fruition’s Google Penalty Checker Tool.

Manual: Luckily, Google will inform you if you’ve been struck with a manual penalty. We say “luckily,” but that’s a message you never want to see in your inbox. Google has also increased the details they provide you and clarity of these messages. They will tell you what general guideline you’ve broken, and hopefully also provide you a link(s) to some backlinks that are violating the guidelines and even a video. Here’s an example of what a manual action looks like.

Google Penalties: All You Need to Know

Now you have an overview of what an SEO penalty is. There are many different penalties and each one is very specific to the individual site’s situation. Because of that, it’s tough to give blanket advice on how to repair your site from penalty. If you have any questions about penalties shoot them our way.

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