The first step to make before even starting to optimize your website for Google is to check if your domain is under a penalty. A website that is penalized by Google cannot achieve good rankings so your priority is to find out which algorithmic changes are affecting your web property and create a recovery plan.
What are Google Penalties?
Beginners to blogging and webmasters that don’t have much experience online hear the words panda, penguin, pigeon, hummingbird and wonder why all the online World makes a fuss about these animals.
The answer is pretty simple, these are the names that Google (and the press) gave to the different set of changes Google is making to their ranking algorithm.
Every year Google officially states that they are making hundreds of changes to their algorithms in order to improve the quality of their search results. Everytime they make a change there are winners and losers. This means that some websites are positively affected because they get better rankings (which means more Google traffic) while some other websites are losing traffic because their rankings were lowered or lost completely.
Why do you care?
It is well known that you cannot achieve too many things online without Google. Like it or not Google is the best source of traffic especially if you are looking for targeted traffic. Getting your website on the top positions of Google produces a number of benefits that you just cannot ignore.
So, that’s the first reason why you should be able to tell if your website is filtered by the Google algorithms.
Another reason is that if you know from which Google update you are penalized you can take corrective actions so that next time there is a change, you are out of the penalty (this is not easy but it happens if you make the effort).
Finally, recognising Google penalties can answer the question ‘Why did I suddenly lose my traffic?” since if you are hit by a penalty the changes in your traffic will be more than visible.
How to tell if your website has been penalized by Google?
Let’s see how to track and identify Google penalties.
Step 1: Login to Google Webmaster tools
If you have not yet registered your website with Google webmaster tools, this is the time to do it. Webmaster tools is the medium Google is using to communicate with webmasters and inform them about potential problems their websites may have and this includes manual penalties as well.
Before showing where exactly you can find this in Webmaster tools, it should be mentioned that there are 2 types of penalties and it is important to know their difference.
#1 – Manual Penalty: A human (probably from the webspam team), imposed a penalty to your website. This can happen because of a number of reasons and it can be either site-wide i.e. affecting the website as a whole or partial i.e. affecting only some pages of your site.
When this is the case, Google will give you an indication of what the problem is together with a list of actions you can take to correct the issues. Once you make the necessary changes, you can submit a reconsideration request and they will tell you if the penalty has been removed or not.
#2 – Algorithmic Penalty: This is the most common type and it is automatic. Algorithmic penalties are not reported to webmaster tools and there is no option to fill in a reconsideration request. They only way to identify if you were hit by an automatic penalty is to use the method described below.
Algorithmic penalties are a result of the continuous changes Google is making to their ranking algorithms (that’s when the animal names mentioned above are gaining more importance for webmasters).
Going back to the example, you can login to webmaster tools to see if you’re website is under a manual penalty. You can find this under SEARCH TRAFFIC / MANUAL ACTIONS.
If you see the message “No manual webspam actions found” then you are clean and you don’t have to take further actions; you need though to continue with the steps below to find out if you were impacted by an algorithmic penalty.
In case there is a manual penalty, you need to read the message with the reasons carefully, try to correct the problem and then request a review of the site.
Step 2: Login to Google Analytics and review your Google traffic
The best way to check if your website was penalized by an automatic penalty is to login to Google analytics and review your Google organic traffic. If you see a drop in traffic during the dates that Google released an algorithmic change then most probably you were hit and that’s the reason that your traffic dropped.
Select your website from the Google analytics dashboard and then go to ACQUISITION / ALL TRAFFIC / SOURCE/MEDIUM. From the list select GOOGLE / ORGANIC. What you see now in the report is the number of visits you get from Google search results.
Next, select the reporting period from the top right and go back as much as you can (preferably from January 2011 since Google released a major update – named Panda – in February 2011).
What you need to do now is compare the dates that you see a major drop (or increase) in traffic with the dates that an update was released. This handy guide from moz shows all the dates in the last 15 years that Google made a change to their ranking algorithm.
You can also create annotations in the analytics report so as to have the dates that a change was made in the same view as the report graph.
If you see a sudden drop in traffic in a date (or close to the dates) that an update was released then look in the moz report to see what kind of update it was and start reading on what you can do to recover.
What happens when your website is penalized?
The first thing that happens is that you lose your Google traffic (or part of it). The second thing is that you also lose some (or all) of your Google trust and this means that you need to show good faith and be patient until you gain it back.
Google does not like websites that are spammy or are trying to trick their algorithm and that’s why they remove them from their index. Getting back to the index does not mean that you will regain your rankings and return to the pre-penalty stage and in addition it will be harder from now on to achieve high rankings.
They want to show good websites in their SERPS and violating their guidelines is a very bad move and it is your responsibility (not theirs) to play with the rules all the time.
How long do penalties hold?
Manual penalties are in effect until you submit and successfully pass a reconsideration request or until they expire. Some penalties may hold for 6 months while we have read of cases that penalties stay for 2 years before they expire.
Just to make it clear that if a manual penalty expires, this does not mean that the website is clean and will recover rankings and traffic. It simply means that the penalty is no longer showing in webmaster tools but if you did not do anything to correct the issues, the website will most probably be caught by the automatic penalties and still be hit.
When you are hit by a change in the ranking algorithm, you should take corrective measures as soon as possible and wait for the next release of the algorithm to see if you recovered or not. There are some cases that recovery can be faster as there are algorithmic changes that are continuous but in the majority of the cases you will have to wait for the next panda and penguin update to see if the changes you made are producing positive results.
What to do if you are in trouble?
There is no quick answer, search Google about this and you will see various opinions and many things you can do. To save you valuable time, read my summary steps below:
Unnatural link pointing to your website – if you did any of this: buying links, exchanging links, guest posting for links, commenting for links, submitting your website to thousands of spammy directories – then most probably you got a manual penalty and a message in webmaster tools.
What you can do to recover? Ask webmasters to remove the links (or “nofollow” them), document your efforts, use Google disavow tool to ask Google not to take into account those links and submit a reconsideration request. If you fail the first time, take your time repeat the process and submit a review request again.
Unnatural links pointing from your website to other sites – if you used to sell links or have many links in your pages pointing to other sites, then remove those links (or “nofollow” them) and submit a reconsideration request.
Thin content – If your website has many pages that have little or no content then either delete them or merge them together. “No index” the pages that are not useful and try to add useful content that is unique and original.
Duplicate content – Google doesn’t like content that is not unique so if you are constantly copying content from other websites stop doing this and follow the same steps as with ‘thin content’ above.
Optimise your website – Having a non SEO friendly website is not a reason for getting a penalty, but in situations that you are in trouble by a penalty it helps optimising your website as much as you can. You can use my SEO audit checklist to optimise your website for Google.
How to avoid getting penalized by Google?
The best way to recover from a Google penalty is to avoid it in the first place. From my experience webmasters are always looking for shortcuts to get higher rankings and this leads them into doing things that Google does not like.
I have said many times that in order to achieve good results with Google you need to be patient and play by the rules. Don’t believe what you read about increasing your rankings with tricks that can get you into trouble.
The recipe of success has been the same in the last 15 years I am working online and this is no other than: publishing hiqh quality content, adhering to all google webmaster guidelines, following changes that affect SEO (like https, going mobile friendly, avoid keyword anchor text when linking out, ‘no follow’ external links etc) and promoting your website and content through white hat channels (think social media). If you do this consistently for a number of months, you will start getting noticed and if your content is good it will attract natural links that will improve your Google rankings.