ecommerce SEO

What is a Google Penalty?

With most consumers now turning toward the internet for answers to their needs, it’s more vital than ever for businesses to have a strong search engine showing. Search engine optimisation is the art and science of getting your website to display prominently on the first page of a search engine’s results page. Because Google is the most popular and widely used search engine, it makes sense for SEO strategies to focus primarily on appealing to Google’s search algorithms.

However, Google is constantly changing its rules and algorithms in order to better serve the needs of its users. The purpose of these algorithm changes is to eliminate low-quality results or filter out sites that may not be relevant or useful for searchers. A website that was perfectly optimised a few years ago may no longer meet the search engine’s standards. In some cases, over optimisation and outdated strategies can work against you. Sites that break certain guidelines may even be penalized, dropping their rank significantly.

If your website has dropped unexpectedly from the first page of search results, algorithm changes and penalties may be responsible. By understanding the difference between these issues, you can better identify the problem and take steps toward improving your SEO rank.

What is the Difference Between a Penalty and an Algorithm Filter?

An algorithm change and a manual action penalty can both have a large impact on your SEO efforts. However, if you don’t know which issue is responsible for your lost rank, you may not know where to start with resolving the problem.

In simple terms, algorithmic changes happen automatically as a result of changing search algorithms. Search engines utilize a complex code that takes multiple factors into account when determining which sites should be displayed most prominently on the search engine results page (SERP). Some factors looked at include the quality of the content, the size and depth of website, the number of links within the site, the number of links back to that site from other places on the web and the use of keywords.

When an algorithm changes, some things that were previously very important to SEO may be devalued while other things have greater value attached. In other words, a site that ranked well before the algorithm change may no longer fit the requirements of the new algorithm, leading to a reduced ranking, this IS NOT A PENALTY!

A Google penalty, on the other hand, is a manual action applied specifically against a particular website. These are applied by individuals working for the search engine whose job it is to identify and penalize websites that do not follow the search engine’s rules and guidelines. In other words, people who are found to be gaming the system or “cheating” in any way will be penalized. In some cases, the penalty may lead to de-ranking or even having a website removed from the search listings entirely.

The purpose of an algorithm change is to improve the overall quality of the SERP for users. By looking at the needs of searchers, search engines can optimise the user experience by providing the type of results most needed and appreciated by users. An SEO expert should, ideally, attain a high position on the SERP by acting in good faith and following content guidelines to create high-quality and useful content that will meet the needs of users. Unfortunately, not every SEO consultant works in this way; some use so-called “black hat” techniques that are meant to game the system. By exploiting loopholes, these black-hatters can artificially inflate their SERP rank without adding anything of value for users. Left unchecked, this can lead to a decrease in quality, which is why search engines act vigilantly to protect their results from these underhanded strategies.

The best-known Google algorithm changes are the “Panda” and “Penguin” updates. These represented major changes in the way search engine results were chosen and displayed, and an SEO expert who is not intimately familiar with these changes may fail to stay competitive.

What is Google Panda?

Google Panda was an algorithm update rolled out over a period of several months in 2011. It has been updated and modified many times in the years since in order to continually improve its effectiveness at achieving its goals, but the core of the Panda update has stayed the same since the beginning.

Panda was developed as a way to combat low-quality web content. Prior to the Panda update, websites could easily achieve search rank through utilising keywords and specific linking strategies. This meant that even thin, useless web content could rank high on the SERP. You may recall seeing some of these sites on search results in the years prior to 2011. Common offenders included websites that were blatant copies of other sites and pages that were nonsensical but filled with keywords. These sites were often heavily laden with advertisements and made money for their developers while frustrating users who were searching for quality information rather than thin, repetitive or poor quality content.

The Panda update addresses a number of quality issues. Websites that fail to meet the standards laid out by the Panda algorithm will lose rank automatically and sink to the bottom of the search results. Some of the things that Panda actively weeds out include:

– Duplicate content
– Low-quality or surface-level information
– Lack of page authority
– High ad-to-content ratio
– Overabundant affiliate links
– Content that does not match the “promise” in the query

Some types of sites and SEO strategies were affected especially hard by Panda. So-called “content farms” were one of the early losses. These sites were large conglomerates where users, often low-paid amateur writers, would write massive quantities of short low-quality articles across a wide number of topics. Sites that pulled a “bait and switch” technique to lure users in with certain keywords without delivering on those keywords were also targeted by the update.

Overall, the effect of the Panda update has been a positive one for users. It has, however, had a major impact on many websites and especially the way that business is done online. Making a profit from ad revenue alone is much harder now than it once was due to the increased quality requirements for web content. However, it is clear now that the Panda update is here to stay; sites that want to remain competitive in the future will need to be developed with an eye toward meeting the standards and best practices of Panda.

What is Google Penguin?

Rolled out in 2012, Google Penguin followed on the heels of the Panda update and sought to further improve search engine results by filling in some of the gaps left by Panda. The two algorithm changes work in tandem to provide high-quality content to search engine users. This means that content that follows the guidelines laid out by one algorithm update may still have a low rank if it fails to meet the requirements of the other update.

Whereas Panda’s update was focused primarily on the quality of web content, Penguin’s focus is more on hidden or back-end SEO strategies. The two factors that Penguin addresses directly are keyword stuffing and link schemes. In both cases, the purpose of the update is to close up loopholes and make it harder for black-hat SEO tactics to crowd out well-meaning and high-quality websites on the SERP.

Keyword stuffing is a form of over optimisation where a webpage has more iterations of a keyword than are necessary to get an idea across. When writing about a topic, certain keywords will be used naturally in the course of explaining it. The goal of Penguin is to keep keyword saturation at a natural level rather than allowing sites to use a keyword multiple times for search engine optimisation without actually adding value to the page.

Link schemes are somewhat more challenging to understand, especially if you are not an SEO expert. Essentially, what you need to know is that search engines determine the value or authority of a website in part based on how many other websites link back to it. A site that is referenced frequently by other places on the internet should, it stands to reason, be authoritative and high-quality. Therefore, a common search engine optimisation technique involves building “backlinks,” or keyword-focused links to your website from other places on the web.

Prior to Penguin, it was common for some site developers to build backlinks through spammy means. For example, they may have littered blog comment sections, low-quality web articles and even forum posts with irrelevant links back to the website. Some black-hat developers used automated systems to do this work for them, sometimes generating thousands of backlinks within a very short period of time.

These strategies no longer work in a post-Penguin world. The site rank and authority of the backlinking site is now an important factor in SEO. In other words, spammy links back to your website will actively hurt your search results.

What is a Google Manual Action?

Panda and Penguin are algorithm updates that work automatically to weed out websites that don’t meet their quality standards. Because search engines rank websites based on their adherence to algorithmic factors, a change in algorithm will automatically de-rank a site. Modifying your content to better meet the standards of the search engine is in many cases enough to reverse these effects and return your site ranking.

Manual actions are a little bit different. As the name suggests, a manual action is applied manually to your account. In other words, an actual human working for Google will review a potentially problematic webpage and determine whether or not it is in violation of the search engine’s quality guidelines. Sites that are flagged for manual action may be demoted or even removed from the search results until the issues are resolved.

Manual actions are reserved primarily for activities that are actively harmful or even illicit. Whereas algorithm updates help to spotlight the highest quality search results, manual actions exist to police especially egregious offenders. In this way, these penalties can help webmasters as much as end users: By identifying suspicious activity on a website, Google can help you discover hacking and other malicious activities that you may not even be aware of.

Manual actions are commonly taken for:

– Pages that have been hacked by third parties
– Pages that have user-generated spam in the comments section or other location
– Spammy structured markup or hidden code
– Unnatural or suspicious backlinks and external links
– Cloaking and sneaky redirects
– Pure spam, including automated content, duplicate content or “article spinning”
– Hidden text

Many of these techniques are used as attempted sneaky work-arounds to bypass the requirements laid out by the search algorithms. In other cases, your site may be targeted by third-party black-hat groups trying to sabotage your SEO by generating spammy backlinks or hacking your site. By placing a manual penalty on the account and notifying you of the problem, you can find and resolve these issues before they get out of hand.

How to Identify a Google Manual Action

Determining whether your website has been affected by an algorithm change can be a challenge. You may notice a dramatic decrease in web traffic or SERP rank that coincides with a particular update, but that is not necessarily a sure sign that the update is directly responsible. Other factors, such as competition, can affect your ranking as well even if you’re not technically doing anything wrong.

Manual actions, however, can be easily identified. Whenever you site is penalized by a manual action, you will be notified directly. You will receive an email about the action taken; the information will also be available in the message center of your webmaster control panel.

The report you receive will detail:

– Which part of your site is in violation of the webmaster quality guidelines
– Why the action is being applied
– Which parts of your site will be affected by the manual action

It is not uncommon for a few pages of a larger site to receive manual action while the rest of the site goes untouched. When you receive your report, you can study the reasons and affected areas so that you have a road map for moving forward and repairing the problems.

What is the Potential Impact of a Google Penalty?

Whether the penalty in question is a manual action or the result of algorithmic non-compliance, having your website penalized by Google can have potentially major and even devastating effects on your business.

Websites that fail to meet quality standards are penalized by search engines by having the pages de-ranked or, in some cases, removed from the search results entirely. Without appearing in search results, your website will lose its visibility. For most businesses, this translates to lost profits.

It’s estimated that more than 93 percent of all web searches are performed on Google. This means that a site that is penalized by that search engine will become essentially invisible to the overwhelming majority of web users. Even dropping off of the first page of the search engine results can have a devastating effect: Most people do not bother to click past the first or second page of results when searching for something online. If your site is buried on page 10 due to penalties, practically no one will find your page.

If you rely on your website as a primary marketing tool or a way to sell products, having your page de-ranked can be financially devastating. It takes time to regain your SERP position after modifying and improving your site content. You may also face the added challenge of defeating competition that has risen in rank during your penalty period.

This is one reason why it is essential to build your website’s content around Google’s webmaster guidelines and best practices. If you are hiring an SEO consultant, you will want to choose someone who is experienced in building successful sites in a post-Panda world.

High Profiles Hit by a Google Penalty

If you have found your site penalized by manual actions or algorithm changes, you are in good company. Many high-profile websites and large brands have fallen afoul of the search engine’s changes. Some of these big names include:

– Mozilla
– Overstock
– JC Penney
– Washington Post
– WordPress

These brands were penalized for things like suspicious linking strategies and even single-page spammy content. This goes to show that every brand must be vigilant to protect itself against possible penalties and stay proactive about monitoring a site’s content, even user-created content like blog comments.

How Long Does a Google Penalty Last?

In general, a penalty will last until the underlying issue has been resolved. However, fixing the problem will not yield instantaneous results. The site must be re-indexed and assessed by the search engine. Depending on the severity of the penalty, the competitiveness of the niche and other similar factors, improving page rank may take anywhere from one month to several years.

Algorithmic penalties are harder to overcome than manual actions because they cannot be manually overridden. A site that de-ranks organically must attain its new rank organically as well. Sites de-ranked by manual penalties may have an easier time bouncing back.

In some cases, a Google penalty recovery service may be used to help systematically improve page rank. In other cases, a site may benefit from being removed completely and rebuilt from the ground up. Speaking with an SEO consultant with experience in the matter can help you to understand your options when faced with de-ranking.

How to Recover From a Google Manual Action?

In many ways, recovering from a manual action is easier than reversing the effects of an algorithmic change. It should be the first thing that you address when trying to repair a penalized website.

There are a few reasons why manual actions are easier to overcome than algorithmic penalties. First, you will receive a detailed report explaining exactly what is wrong with the site. This shows you what needs to be improved. Review the information sent to you and make the highlighted changes; this will rescue your site from the penalty.

Because these penalties are applied manually rather than automatically, they can also be overridden and reversed manually. After you have made the changes detailed in your report, you can contact Google to have the site reviewed. If all problems have been cleared up, the action can be reversed. This means that your site’s rank may be restored relatively quickly.

However, just because cleaning up your search rank can be simple does not mean that it is easy. You may need the help of a Google penalty recovery service to assist in tracking down and disavowing links, identifying and fixing thin content and handling other such issues. Working with a professional can help to improve your odds of having a reconsideration request accepted swiftly and letting your site return to its former glory.

The best way to prevent de-ranking is to work with SEO professionals to ensure that your site remains complaint with the most up-to-date rules and guidelines laid out by the search engine you are trying to rank within. By taking a proactive approach, you can prevent de-ranking before it happens and maintain good organic search results.

Because rules and algorithms are constantly being updated and modified, continuing to study and adapt your practices will pay off in the end. Staying up-to-date on the rules can also help you to spot potential trouble areas before your rank is affected too much. Most importantly, keeping your content in line with the search engine’s best practices will help you to ensure that your site’s visitors are receiving the best possible user experience and will come to trust your site as an authority.


I was fortunate enough to be well placed in my SEO career with regards to this subject, at the time of Google Penguin I was working at one of the UK’s top SEO agencies (Optimise had not been born at this time) and I was delegated to set-up a small team to help businesses impacted by Google’s new algorithm changes and also the various waves of Manual Actions we started to see from about 2012. Since then I have helped numerous companies dig their way out of Penguin, Panda and other algorithm issues as well as solving numerous Manual Action problems. This has given me unique perspective of what Google is looking for and what it hates, so if you are have having SEO woes please get in touch with me.

By Stephen Sumner

Stephen has worked across 100's of websites in his 21 year SEO career including leading start-ups, award-winning agencies and leading consumer brands. Today Stephen works directly with clients in a number of capacities to help their SEO and he also operates a number of niche websites of his own.