Google bases its ranking formula on the quality and quantity of backlinks pointing to a particular website. Sure, there are other ranking signals as well (website content, layout, page loading speed, content freshness, social signals, etc) but the backlinks pointing to your site are the ones that can make your site rank on the first Google page or send it into oblivion.
Most consultants have easily learned the dark art of search engine manipulation, repeating the same keywords over and over in their content and building tons of low quality backlinks to their clients’ website pages. And the search engines (including Google) have bought that for a long time, rewarding those websites with top rankings.
Then came the Panda / Farmer algorithm update, causing havoc in the SEO world. All of the sudden, the online giants that were scraping the web and / or creating low quality content, having websites with millions of worthless pages, saw their income slashed. And the same thing happened to some of the smaller websites; they used to rank even though they had thin content pages, which were repeating the targeted keyword every 20…50 words, but now their good rankings were lost for good.
Still, the restless Google engineers were secretly working at an algorithm update that was going to have an even more dramatic impact. The Penguin update was launched on the 24th of April 2012, penalizing many websites that were trying to manipulate Google’s search engine. As with all the algorithm updates, some innocent website owners were affected as well, but Google didn’t care too much about that, having achieved the main goal of cleaning up its search results pages once again.
The main purpose of the Penguin was to devalue the websites that were over-optimizing their pages and (most of all) were engaged in various spammy link building techniques (think public blog networks, low quality article marketing sites, etc).
But maybe you’re a good person; you didn’t do anything wrong, and yet your website is now penalized. What should you do if your website was hit with a penalty all of the sudden? Head over to Google’s Webmaster Central forum and ask the volunteers to help you understand what went wrong; you will get good advice 9 times out of 10.
Nevertheless, most website owners were penalized because they did something bad, or because they have used the services offered by a less skilled / careless SEO consultant. Let’s begin by discussing the most important Google penalties.
1. The Unnatural Links / Manual Penalty
This is by far the most severe problem; it is a manual penalty placed by one of Google’s employees on a website. While the Panda and Penguin penalties are algorithmic (triggered by a formula), the unnatural links penalty is applied by an individual who has studied your website and its backlinks and found them to be shady. In fact, if you (or the SEO consultant that you have worked with) did some really spammy things, the website might even be deindexed, completely removed from Google’s index, so it won’t show up in the search results no matter what you do.
But why is this penalty so drastic? Well, since a Google employee has applied it, you will need to convince another Google employee to revoke it. As you can probably guess, these manual investigations require quite a bit of human power, so they are probably triggered when one of your competitors files a spam report, telling Google that your website violates their webmaster guidelines.
Google’s spam team might also monitor some of the most competitive money making niches and I am sure that they are using a computer-based filtering mechanism which highlights the websites that have unnatural linking profiles. As an example, getting many high PR backlinks in a short period of time may also trigger a manual website review, which can lead to a manual penalty.
Want a real life example? Let’s assume that a website receives 1,000 visits per month; what are the odds of it getting 1,000 backlinks per month? Or what are the chances of a new website to get 5 x PR6 dofollow links within its first month of existence?
The Google people are really smart, so they have figured out how to identify many of the manipulative backlinking profiles. Just think at machine learning, the process of discovering new things by learning from the existing data sets. Basically, the Google engineers have fed the algorithm with spammy sites, and now the algorithm has learned to identify them by itself. I guarantee that the success rate is less than 100%, so a few innocent sites might get hit as well, but this is something we’ll have to live with.
2. The Penguin Penalty
A Google Penguin penalty is very similar with the unnatural links penalty; the links coming from bad neighborhoods, unrelated websites, over optimized anchor text (lots of backlinks that use the same keyword for their clickable text) can all trigger a Penguin penalty. The good news is that since these penalties are algorithmic, they will disappear automatically as soon as the negative factors that have caused them are gone. You don’t need the action of a Google web spam team member to revoke a Penguin penalty; by fixing the problems the good rankings will be automatically restored.
Google’s over optimization penalty appears when most of the backlinks pointing to your website have the same text. Google has taught us to use exact match anchor text for years, and the webmasters have done that religiously. Actually, Google didn’t encourage anyone to do that, but this was what you were supposed to do in order to rank #1 for a specific keyword.
For example, if you wanted to rank high for “seo consulting”, all you needed to do was to create lots of links using “seo consulting” (exact match) as anchor text for your backlinks. Broad match anchor text keywords would include “seo services”, “website promotion consulting”, “search engine optimization” and so on, but most consultants used what was working best, without trying to build a natural looking backlinks profile.
The Penguin has changed that for good, lowering the allowed exact match anchor text percentage to 10-15%. And since many of the websites that were ranking on the first Google page have an exact match anchor text percentage of 90-95% now, this has to be diluted to 10-15%. It’s not impossible to do that, but the actual process can take a lot of time.
The over optimization penalty is just one of Penguin’s spam fighting techniques; if your website gets lots of backlinks from low quality sources and / or many high PR backlinks in a short period of time, it might be hit by the Penguin as well.
3. The Panda Penalty
This penalty will affect the entire site most of the time; fortunately, since the problem appears because Google applies a duplicate content / thin content penalty on your website, you can simply rewrite the poor content and get rid of the thin pages (50-200 words pages) to have the penalty lifted automatically.
4. The EMD Update
What about the EMD (exact match domain) algorithm update? I have covered that in a detailed article; basically, if you had a domain like FreeSeoConsulting.com, the fact that it included the targeted keyword (free seo consulting) was actually helping it get higher rankings. Google launched the EMD update at the end of September 2012, reducing the advantage provided by EMDs. As an example, if your website ranked #1 for the targeted keyword because of the EMD boost, it could have been pushed at the bottom of the first page, or even to the second Google search results page as a result of the EMD update.
This is not a penalty, so there isn’t anything that you can do to fix it. Keep creating high quality content that attracts links and try to get backlinks from highly authoritative websites – that’s all you need to do in order to regain the good rankings your website had before the EMD update.
Page or Site Penalties?
No matter the penalty your site has gotten, it is important to know that the penalty can hit a single page or your entire website. If you want to make sure that it’s a page-level penalty, create a new page for a related keyword and see if it ranks well. In fact, most Penguin penalties are known to affect a single website page, but if this is the home page, your entire site is pretty much toasted, because most backlinks point to the home page anyway.
Penalty Recovery Step by Step
So how do you determine if your website has been penalized? Losing a few powerful links could lead to lower search engine rankings, which lead to significant website traffic losses. For example, if you used to rank #5 and you have gradually slipped to #12, it doesn’t mean that your website is penalized, but that your main competitors use the services of a better SEO consultant.
Begin by verifying if your site can be found in Google’s index. Type site:yoursite.com into Google’s search box (notice that there isn’t any space between the “site” operator, the colon and the actual domain name. Don’t use the http, www, etc part of your domain name – it isn’t needed. If all is well, you will see an image that is similar with the one on the left site.
Google shows that my website has a number of 89 web pages which can be found in its index; if you get a “your search did not match any documents” message for your website and its name was typed in correctly, your site was removed from Google’s index. This will only happen when you are doing nasty things like using your website as a part of a blog network, a link wheel, etc. In fact, if your website got deindexed, I am pretty sure that you are going to know why that has happened.
Google Unnatural Links / Manual Penalty Recovery
But let’s assume that the “site” operator has returned some results; this means that the worst thing that could happen now is an unnatural links penalty. Do you have a Google Webmaster Tools account? It’s time to open one in case that you don’t have it, and then add your website to that account; if you have gotten a manual penalty, you will see a note that details it in the “All Messages” tab.
Google could have penalized your site because it might have been a part of (or using) one or more blog networks, or because it has acquired links by paying for them, etc. Once again, a competitor filing a spam report could also trigger a manual investigation of your site, followed by a manual penalty.
OK, so now you know that you have gotten an unnatural links penalty – what can you do about it? Unfortunately, a simple “I’m sorry! I won’t do it again” won’t be enough; Google wants to see that you have done everything in your power to clean up the mess before revoking the manual penalty.
Stop using your site as a part of a blog network if you did that. Try to get rid of all the poor links one by one, creating a document that keeps track of all your efforts.
Create a list which includes the links pointing to your website using your Webmaster Tools account and other tools like Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer, etc. Merge the links from the individual lists into an Excel spreadsheet, and then remove the duplicate URLs to get the master backlinks list.
How can you identify those bad links?
– First of all, check all the sitewide links, those that are placed in the footer, blogroll, etc sections of a website. Not all of them are bad, but having too many of them is definitely dangerous, not to mention that they can quickly increase the exact match anchor text percentage, which can lead to a Penguin penalty as well.
– Then, look for backlinks that have suspicious looking anchor text: medical products, red niches… you get the idea. These links weren’t built by you, I know, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have to go.
– How can you identify a poisonous links coming from a site belonging to a public blog network? Just load up that site and check its content; if it has lots (hundreds or thousands) of random posts using spun text and links out to all sorts of websites operating in various industries, you need to get rid of that link right away.
– Is one of the websites linking to you clearly selling links or engaging in reciprocal linking / link exchanges? Then Google doesn’t want to see it in your backlinks profile.
– What about the low quality links that come from PR n/a websites? There’s a reason why Google didn’t feel that those sites deserve even a minimum PageRank value of zero, so they should go, especially if they come from websites like thebestseodirectoryever.com and the like.
– Sites that contain viruses, malware, spyware and other sorts of naughty things are considered to be (and they actually are) very dangerous, so try to get rid of all the links coming from them as quickly as possible.
– Did you pay somebody to build those 5,000 forum profiles in exchange for a measly 20 bucks? They might have helped your website rank better several years ago, but now they’re hammering it.
– Blog commenting continues to be effective when it is done properly, but if you spam the web with “Great post!” comments on unrelated sites, linking back to your website, you are telling Google that you deserve to be slapped.
I could go on and on, but I think that you have gotten the idea: the low quality links that come from unrelated sites have to go. It’s a time consuming process, because you have to contact the webmasters one by one, but that’s the only option you have if you want to get rid of a manual penalty. Sometimes you will be able to find a contact form or an email address on the website; if these contact methods aren’t available you can use a WHOIS service to get an email address that can be used to get in touch with the website owners.
Some of the webmasters will remove the link, others will ask money in exchange for the favor, and some of them will never reply to your emails. You should try and email each webmaster at least 2 or 3 times, writing down the date of each link removal request. Also, it is a wise move to set up a dedicated email account (use Gmail, Yahoo mail, etc) just for your link removal campaign; this way, you will have all the emails in a single, easily accessible place.
Tell the website owners that your site was penalized by Google and that linking to a penalized site (your site) can get their sites penalized as well. Let them know that if they don’t respond to your email you will be forced to file a report which includes their site using the Disavow Links Tool (I’ll explain what this tool does below). Be polite, but firm – this will maximize your chances to have those links removed.
Don’t forget to document all your link removal efforts; it’s best to show the Google employee that you have done everything you could in order to get rid of those spammy links.
Now that you did your best to remove those links, the time has come to use the Webmaster Tools account, sending Google a reconsideration request in which you detail all your link removal efforts and promise that you will never do such nasty things again. There is no need to send a reconsideration request for algorithmic penalties (Panda, Penguin and whatever other animals will be thrown at us in the future).
Since you might have removed some links that were actually helping, rather than hurting you, it would be wise to try and attract some fresh, high quality backlinks as well; otherwise, your website might not rank well, even though the penalty was lifted.
Penguin Penalty Symptoms
As you now know, a manual penalty can be easily identified; a Penguin penalty is much harder to detect because you won’t see any messages in your Webmaster Tools account. Nevertheless, there are several signs that can help you identify a Penguin penalty.
a) Sudden website traffic loss which can be identified by studying the data offered by your website analytics package (Google Analytics, Clicky, Piwik, etc). If you haven’t installed Google Analytics on your website yet, it’s time to do it now. Don’t use GA if you are worried that you are giving away too much information, of course; there are many free, open source alternatives.
But let us assume that you have an analytics package which tracks your website; if your site was receiving 50 visitors per day and all of the sudden the number has decreased to 5…10 visitors per day, this might be a clear indication of a Penguin penalty. A tool like Panguin could prove to be very useful, because it allows you to determine if the website traffic loss overlaps with one of the known Google algorithm updates. You’d have to log into Panguin using your GA info, though, and some of you might want to keep the GA login details private. These checks can also be done manually, of course.
b) Do you monitor your keyword rankings on a regular basis? I have listed two free rank trackers in the 101 white hat seo tips article, so there isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t do that regularly. A sudden, significant ranking loss (jumping from 5 to 100 for a particular keyword, for example) could indicate a Penguin penalty.
c) If you type your website’s domain name into Google’s search box, it should be listed as the first result on the first page. If you see other sites that link to your website ranking above you, the site is now penalized.
d) If your website used to rank well for a set of keywords, and now it ranks much lower, showing a different, much less relevant page in Google’s search results, it’s pretty clear that it was hit by a penalty. Type “your keyword site:yoursite.com” (without using the quotes) in Google’s search box; you should see your website’s most relevant pages in the search results.
Just take a look at the pages that Google considers to be relevant for “white hat seo” on Randombyte’s website; if you’d see a “contact us” page there, for example (and not the page that used to rank for the targeted keyword in the past) it would be quite clear that the site is penalized.
e) If you copy a long, unique phrase from one of your website pages and paste it into Google’s search box, your website should appear in the first few search results pages, unless you have used a short, common phrase like “welcome to my site”.
f) If your website has a high exact match anchor text percentage, it is the ideal candidate for a Penguin penalty. In fact, the most important Penguin penalty signal is the exact match anchor text percentage, which can show if a particular website was optimized for SEO purposes or if it has gained its authority naturally.
Take a look at this anchor text profile; I chose to hide the actual keywords, but you can easily see that more than 73% of the anchors were targeting a particular keyword or slight variations of it. This site used to rank #1 for a competitive, two word SEO services related keyword, and now it can’t be found in Google’s top 100 anymore. Actually, the owner now uses Google’s AdWords (paid ads) to attract new clients for his SEO business.
Penguin has learned that normal people don’t link to your website using “seo consultant new york” all of the time; some might use “here’s a smart seo consultant”, others might use “ny website marketing ” and so on. By having lots of laser-targeted anchor text backlinks you are practically telling Google that you have built them by yourself, so your site is going to get penalized.
Penguin Penalty Recovery
So how do you fix a Penguin penalty? To begin with, identify and get rid of all the spammy links; follow the same methodology described in the “Google Unnatural Links / Manual Penalty Recovery” section of this article. There is no need to document your link removal efforts, of course, but it is wise to keep track of what you did anyway.
Then, try to acquire high quality backlinks from trustworthy websites through guest blogging, high quality content creation, and so on; use the URL of your website and / or your company name / brand as anchor text for the newly created links.
The recovery could take several weeks or even months, depending on the following Penguin refresh; nevertheless, since Google plans to incorporate Penguin into its algorithm, rather than running it several times per year, the recovery process might be sped up in the future.
Panda Penalty Symptoms
Most Panda penalties affect the entire site, leading to a sudden website traffic loss. If your site used to rank on the first Google search results page for several keywords and now it can’t be found on the first 3-5 pages, you might have been hit by a Panda penalty. Of course, if you have engaged in link buys and other spammy SEO techniques, your site might have gotten a Penguin penalty as well, but let’s assume that it’s only been hit by Panda for now. To get started, you could use the Panguin tool referenced above to determine if the traffic loss coincides with one of the known Panda updates.
If your website has several pages with duplicate content, or if it uses content that is available on other sites, it’s an ideal Panda candidate. Believe it or not, there are people who will copy your content and sometimes even rank higher than you do, hitting your site with a Panda penalty during the process. Nevertheless, a DMCA takedown notice will solve the problem, not to mention that Google will quickly remove the offender’s website from its search results if you notify it and can prove the accusation – I’ve seen this happening several times.
But let us assume that it’s the other way around; you have dozens or hundreds of 20… 200 words website pages and / or you are using content that was copied from other people’s websites, with them knowing (or not) about it. Google is now able to understand that your site doesn’t add too much value to the web, so it doesn’t want it to be displayed in its first few search results pages.
Let’s consider a simple illustration: most E-commerce sites simply copy / paste the manufacturers’ product descriptions on their website pages, and this makes them ideal candidates for a Panda penalty. The same thing goes for pages that were created for SEO reasons, without having a useful purpose. As an example, pages like “cheap-mens-watches”, “affordable-mens-watches” and “inexpensive-mens-watches” that are belonging to the same site are clearly telling Google that it’s time for a Panda punishment.
Having too many ads on your website also signals the fact that those pages were created to be profit machines, rather than authoritative, useful information sources that deserve good rankings. And having big ads which push the useful page content below the fold, making the visitor scroll down in order to see the actual page content is another huge, Panda-triggering mistake.
Panda Penalty Recovery
Fortunately, the websites that were hit by a Panda penalty are much easier to fix. The most important penalty factor is the low quality / duplicate content, so go through all the website pages one by one and rewrite their content, making them meaty and useful. Get rid of the pages that don’t provide any value and / or merge several thin content pages into a meaty one that offers great information.
Use canonical pages to tell Google which is the preferred version, in case that you really need to keep several pages with similar content on your website. Fix all the broken links (both internal and external) and don’t forget to add high quality content to your website on a regular basis.
The Panda algorithm has been refreshed a few times per year until now, but since it’s going to be integrated into the regular search algorithm, the penalty recovery should be much faster in the future.
What About the Disavow Links Tool?
Sadly, the Penguin has made it much easier to attack somebody else’s website, so you might get a penalty without doing anything wrong. Since the search engine giant is aware of this, it has created a tool which tells Google what links it should ignore when it comes to ranking your website. Here’s a video from Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, explaining how you are supposed to use the tool.
Should you use the disavow links tool if your website was penalized? If you have gotten an unnatural links (manual) penalty, the disavow tool won’t be of help; the people at Google want to see that you have done a lot of work, trying to manually remove the bad links. In fact, they will check to see how many of the bad links on their list are still alive before even thinking about lifting the manual penalty. So do your best to remove as many links as possible and use the disavow tool for the few ones that you were unable to remove because the webmasters didn’t respond to your emails, have asked an enormous amount of money in exchange for their work, etc.
On the other hand, if we are talking about a Penguin (algorithmic) penalty, the disavow links tool might be of help. Google has stated that this tool should only be used to help you get rid of the links that you were unable to remove by contacting the website owners; this means that you should try and manually get rid of as many bad links as you can, and then use the disavow tool for the others.
So is it really necessary to manually remove the links if your website has gotten a Penguin penalty? Since we are talking about an algorithmic penalty, you won’t have to prove anyone that you did your best to get rid of the bad links. Nevertheless, by going through the links one by one, you will eliminate the risk of removing several good links that were actually helping your website rank. Sure, if you have control over the bad links, it’s always better and safer to remove them manually.
There isn’t any reason why you should use the tool to solve a Panda penalty, of course – that site was penalized because of its poor content, and not because of its backlinks.
How long will it take until the penalty is lifted?
If your website was hit with a manual penalty, you will have to wait for several days to several weeks until you receive a response to your reconsideration request. If you did your best, you might get some good news; otherwise, you will receive a message that encourages you to continue to clean up the backlinks profile of your website. And if the penalty is revoked, rest assured that it’s the first and last time they’ll do you this favor.
Once that you have gotten the good news message, the penalty recovery process can take several days to several months – it won’t happen instantly. But please be aware that if your site was also hit by a Penguin anchor text over optimization penalty, you’ll need to deal with that (and wait for a Penguin refresh) as well.
For algorithmic-based penalties, the recovery process can take several weeks to several months, depending on the next Panda / Penguin refresh. The good news is that these intervals will be much shorter when Panda and Penguin are integrated into the search algorithm, rather than being run separately.
Does this article have an end?
I started to ask myself the same question a while ago, but it looks like after 5000+ words we’re finally coming close to an end. I have shared pretty much everything I know about penalties and recovery here, but the truth is that nobody can guarantee that your website will recover. In fact, even if your website recovers, it might not regain its initial rankings because many of the spammy links that were actually helping it rank well in the past are now removed.
These things being said, it is important to know that many websites have gotten rid of the penalties by applying the exact methods presented in this article.
One word of advice: the Penguin algorithm is constantly learning to identify artificial link patterns and it’s got more and more data at its disposal each day. This means that you have to carefully weigh the risks and decide if you want to create sites that can go down in flames, or build a long term business online. Not only that, but Google fine tweaks its algorithm hundreds of times per year, so if you plan to engage in shady SEO techniques in the future, you’d better understand the risks prior to doing that.
Is your website penalized? Then by all means try and get the penalty lifted, but maybe it’s time to start a new site as well! As mentioned above, nobody can guarantee that a penalized website will regain its former rankings, so it’s best to be prepared for an unpleasant outcome too. In fact, you should build a backup website today even if your current site is doing great; it is always better to have two traffic sources for your business rather than having a single one.
Did you make it this far? If this is the case, I think that both of us need to be congratulated! If you like this article, feel free to share the love using one of the social media buttons below; this will encourage me to continue to write comprehensive guides like this.