(This post was originally posted over at the SEMpdx blog. I’m posting it here on my website as a writing example.)
Receiving a Google Penalty can be a devastating blow for any website.
Whether it’s a site-wide or partial match, manual actions applied to a domain by Google can see organic search traffic appear to fling itself off a cliff.
While the previous example is a reported penalty, recovering from an algorithmic penalty can sometimes be hard to diagnose. It can also be harder to recover from, as when a manual action is applied to a site you have a direct connection with Google to let it be known you fixed issues that they identified.
The most frustrating part of receiving a Google penalty is not receiving much (or any!) information from Google on what exactly they are seeing that is causing the penalty.
This can lead any webmaster or SEO agency down rabbit holes of “What ifs…” which can often lead to dead ends and wasted time.
In this guide we will be covering how to help diagnose any penalties you may be receiving from Google – both manual action or algorithmic – and ways to help recover.
First a quick word – sometimes a penalty can be extremely complicated. That’s when you likely need Google penalty removal experts like MKG Marketing Inc. to step in and be a guiding hand. If you’ve tried to follow this guide and haven’t had much success or if it seems too daunting, please get in touch with us today.
How do you know if a site has a Google penalty?
Knowing if a site has a penalty can either be extremely easy or a little difficult to diagnose.
If you have claimed your website at Google Search Console, you will receive a message in your Google Search Console account that tells you (at a high level):
- What the problem is
- Why it’s a problem (why it goes against Google’s guidelines)
- Steps on how to fix
You’d think Google would give you as much information about the problem, why it’s a problem and a clear path to how to fix… but they don’t.
For the above example, which is a partial match penalty due to unnatural inbound links, the best Google gave was two different URL ‘examples.’
To give you an idea of how insignificant this help was, the actual number of unnatural inbound links our Google Penalty Recovery Service SEO team found was five digits.
Diagnosing an algorithmic penalty from Google is a little trickier in that you won’t be receiving any messages from Google about it.
Instead, you’ll have to rely on your web analytics platform and viewing or potentially looking at the last 90 days worth of data in your Google Search Console profile… though we’d recommend the former over the latter.
What you’ll need to do is view your Google organic traffic by day. Using your web analytics platform that hopefully shows a nice line graph of performance or by exporting the daily data and using Excel for a chart will make it significantly easier.
Once you see any big drops, cross-reference the date to a trustworthy Google algorithm change resource such as the Moz or Search Engine Land resources.
Sometimes a drop will be a day earlier or later than the reported date… we’ve actually seen a latent effect up to two weeks after a date.
Sometimes, you’ll see a drastic drop of Google organic sessions… other times you might see a real gradual slope. It depends on the penalty based on the algorithmic update.
You have a Google Penalty. Now what?
You’ve received either a message in your Google Search Console profile about a manual action or you’ve diagnosed an algorithmic penalty by looking at your web analytics and finding a drastic or gradual drop around a specific Google algorithm update.
First of all – take a deep breath. And breathe. Many websites receive Google penalties and recover. You’ve just made an important step that many do not: knowing that you have a Google penalty applied to a website.
Now begins the hard part.
There are two very different ways of going about trying to get in the good graces of Google. It depends on whether you had a manual action or if you’ve found an algorithmic penalty. We’ll go over ways to fix both.
How to fix a Google Penalty – Manual Action
The nice thing (?) about a manual action penalty is that Google is telling you what the issue is.
Now – you just need to be smart about finding the core cause and fixing any issues because of it.
Let’s pretend you received a penalty for unnatural inbound links to your site. Like we mentioned, Google will give you likely an example URL or two of these types of inbound links.
It’s now your job to go about finding these inbound links that exist on the World Wide Web and fixing them.
In order for Google to approve your reconsideration request, they need to see that you spent a significant amount of time trying to fix the issue.
Think back in high school in your algebra class. In order to receive credit for a correct answer, you didn’t just give the answer to a problem; you had to show your homework about how you arrived at your answer.
For an approved reconsideration request, this type of thinking also applies.
Google can apply a manual action for a whole slew of reasons. Really, you can classify the 12 different ways into three different buckets:
You’ll need to track down all instances of unnatural inbound links and fix them by either:
- Contacting site owners
- Submitting a disavow file with URLs of the links you’d like to disavow
This can be time consuming. Rather, it will be time consuming. We like to use Open Site Explorer to find inbound links for us to then start looking to scrape for webmaster contact details or to include in a disavow file.
The thing is: each instance will be different. You’ll need to identify what the pattern is with the unnatural inbound links to find all of those types of inbound links.
An example: one of our Google Penalty Recovery Service clients had old widget links that pointed back to their website. We were able to find all instances because the widget links appended a parameter at the end of the URL back to the site. By using OSE, we were able to find all of those instances and start getting to work.
If you receive a thin content penalty, you’ll need to figure out what pages on your website quality as being thin.
We like to use Screaming Frog SEO Spider to run a full site crawl and look through the output, specifically the HTML columns of word count and text ratio. These two items are our main identifiers for any URLs that have thin content.
We additionally like to look for pages that have a significant of outlinks, as it could be an indicator of a page set-up during a time many years ago for “SEO purposes” or even very old, deeply hidden link farms that some websites forgot even exist on their domain.
After finding all of the URLs, you’ll then need to decide:
Do we keep these URLs and add unique, beneficial content to them or do we delete these URLs?
We also look at page authority (e.g. ranking power) and inbound links to all URLs to make these decisions.
Web hosting / HTML issues
There’s a whole slew of reasons why you might receive a manual penalty due to spammy hosting or unnatural ways you try to use the code on your site in a malicious way to rank for terms. This includes things like cloaking, structured data that shouldn’t exist on a page (such as review JSON-LD schema code for pages of which do not have reviews listed on them) and hidden text (typically by deploying text that is the same color as the background color, allowing search engines to ‘read’ the text but users to not see it naturally).
For security issues, you’ll need to review your server logs or hosting account for any issues. This is very different based on what host you use and type of server it is on.
For items like cloaked images or other code considerations, you can use Screaming Frog SEO Spider to look at things like page size, to look for any pages with a bloated number. Also investigate any plugins that you might have installed, if you have a WordPress website, and ensure they are reviewed well.
After fixing: the reconsideration request
Perhaps the most important element of all of the work you’ll be doing is crafting your reconsideration request to overturn the applied penalty.
Writing a comprehensive, complete request that shows your homework is crucial in Google accepting it or. denying it and asking you to do more work to fix.
We’ve found that by including some specific items, you can have greater success at having an accepted reconsideration request:
- Show your work. You want to be keeping a running tally of all of the work you’ve done, even if it’s simply a checklist of items you’ve gone through. Examples we’ve included are lists of webmasters (yes, including email addresses) we’ve contacted to try to get them to remove a link, a timeline of changes deployed on a website for bolstering content or removing URLs and adding redirects, and even listing social media accounts we had our client’s site reach out and try to contact to remove links. To make this super easy, have your “homework” be GSheets or GDocs and supply links within your reconsideration request.
- Hired help. By including the name of a company or consultant you hired to help perform the fixing work, you are showing to Google that you’re using actual money resources and have taken this penalty seriously. Bonus points if they’re a certified partner.
- A written timeline of events. Even if your Google Sheet or Doc shows it, write out a timeline of events and steps you took to fix the issue in the actual request. Be thorough and show attention to detail.
You’ll typically wait 1-2 weeks to hear back after submitting your reconsideration request.
If you receive a notice saying that they have not approved the reconsideration request, don’t fret: you aren’t restricted to waiting for a certain amount of time to re-apply. But you will need to absolutely put in more work to show you took the disapproval seriously.
How to fix a Google Penalty – Algorithmic
You’ve identified the algorithmic update that prompted your organic search traffic to take a nosedive. Great! Now what?
You need to understand the type of algorithmic update, what it took into consideration, identify the problem content or link issues, and fix them up.
Types of Google algorithm updates include:
- Content. Typically known as Google Panda updates, these have been rolling out for several years now. Other content-focused updates include updates such labeled as Phantom and RankBrain.
- Inbound Links. Typically known as Google Penguin updates, these have also been rolling out for several years now.
- Other. A whole slew of typically smaller updates that have rolled out that target specific algorithmic updates, including Pigeon (focus on local listings), Payday (targeting websites that had spammy pages) and more.
Unfortunately, you’ll go about fixing your site differently based on the type of algorithm update you identified as being the issue.
For content, it’ll be about identified spammy or “thin content” that exists on your site and either deleting the page or bolstering the content with unique, worthwhile information.
For inbound links, it’ll be about identifying spammy inbound link practices that happened in the past and setting up a disavow file to make them “not count” as part of your inbound link profile.
Other algorithm updates can sometimes be a bit tricker: Pigeon is looking at your site from a local query perspective and identifying any issues. Payday is much like content where you’re looking for low quality content on your website.
So it goes.
The hard part about an algorithmic penalty is the time to recovery and tracking it. You typically want to make a change and wait a couple of weeks to measure impact. If you have identified, let’s say, five things you want to fix, you want to prioritize what may have the most impact and start there.
Typically, you’ll see recovery within two months time if you fixed the issue. You will likely not see a drastic uptick in organic search sessions but more of a gradual normalization of traffic.
You’ve fixed the penalty, now: how do you recover?
Recovery happens once the reconsideration request is approved for manual actions; you typically see a fairly noticeable bump of organic traffic 2-4 weeks after approval.
For algorithm fixes, you have to wait 1-2 months to see if traffic is rebounding to a normal state.
For both, you can amplify the gains made short-term and long-term by having a trusted SEO partner on your side. When you start having pages rank competitively again is the perfect time to have refreshed on-page SEO practices in place. Or when you have abolished a certain amount of inbound links, replacing them with trusted quality links is a great way to start re-establishing your authority on a subject and improving your domain authority.
Any questions? Or have any tried-and-true ways you fixed any manual actions or algorithm Google penalties? Please share in the comments!