What is a Google Penalty?
Google has a set of guidelines that all webmasters must follow to make sure websites in the search engine index are contributing to Google’s aim to deliver useful and relevant results to users.
If a website breaches the conditions of the Webmaster Guidelines then Google may impose a penalty on the website. Practices that breach search engine guidelines are often referred to as Black Hat SEO, with permitted practices known as White Hat SEO.
One common misconception is that an algorithm change is an algorithmic penalty. An algorithm change is just that, a change in how Google organises the search engine results pages. As a result, sites may feel like they have been penalised, but they have in fact just suffered negatively as a result of the algorithm change.
One such example of an algorithm change is the Google Penguin update in 2012. This update was designed to catch and reduce the visibility of websites that had been found to buy links or interact with link networks in order to increase their Google ranking.
Websites who were negatively impacted by the Penguin update may have also been served with a manual penalty, but it’s important to clarify the algorithm update itself was not a penalty.
What are the main causes of a website receiving a penalty?
Google deems a number of different practices in violation of their guidelines. Some are detailed below.
Paid Backlinks and Link Schemes
A backlink is a link from another website to yours. Backlinks play a big part in determining a webpage’s search ranking. They are a signal of approval from other websites, and a strong indicator that the website contains useful and relevant content.
Backlinks can become problematic when webmasters start to pay for them or coerce other sites into putting their stamp of approval on a certain page. This is because the website may not have genuinely good content, but will still be reaping the SEO benefits of that link.
Keyword stuffing is when keywords are excessively repeated on a page, to the extent that quality of the content is undermined. Webmasters may decide to do this to rank for the keywords they are stuffing into their content. This is against the guidelines as it creates a negative user experience.
Cloaking is another poor exercise when websites present different URLs to search engines than they do to users. This is in violation of the guidelines as it does not present users with the results they expect.
Automated content describes content that’s been generated programmatically. This includes content that is nonsensical but contains keywords, translated text that doesn’t make sense, scraped text from search results or feeds and combining content from other sources without demonstrating added value.
How does Google penalise black-hat SEO?
The penalty that Google may decide to strap on a site may vary greatly depending on the severity of a webmaster’s malpractice.
Webmasters will be notified via Google Search Console if they are in violation of the guidelines, and in most cases are given time to correct this. Webmasters can then submit a reconsideration request to Google.
The impact of a manual penalty imposed on a website can be devastating for businesses, reducing traffic, visibility, and sales from organic search.
Can a Google penalty be overturned and if so how?
Google Search Console will provide an explanation as to why Google has decided to give you a penalty. It is important that you put right any wrongs Google has spotted before putting in a reconsideration request.
In the case of a penalty regarding link schemes or the manipulation of backlinks, you could remove the offending links, or disavow to indicate to Google you do not wish these links to influence your rankings.
Following the submission of the reconsideration request, Google may decide to remove the penalty. If they don’t they will send a sample of the links they are unhappy with. These can then be analysed and the offending links removed, before submitting another reconsideration request. This can happen repeatedly before Google considers lifting the penalty on your website.