Is Your Site Being Punished By Google?

Posted / 27 July, 2015

Author / Enginess

If you want to get traction online, you’ve got to be in business with Google. Unfortunately, if you don’t play by its rules, Google can take your traffic away. Here’s how to recognize if you’re being penalized by Google and what you can do about it.

Google is the primary traffic driver for most websites. In May, it was responsible for 64.1% of all desktop traffic in the US. And if you were to look into your own analytics, our bet is that most of your organic traffic is Google.

The fact is that if you want to get traction online, you’re going to be in business with Google. Unfortunately, if you don’t play by its rules, Google can also take that traffic away.

Here’s how to recognize if you’re being penalized by Google and what you can do about it.

What is a Google Penalty

A Google penalty is either a manual or automatic action taken by Google specifically against your site for violating its guidelines. Basically, Google thinks you’ve broken the rules, and is getting you in trouble.

There are two kinds of penalties: manual ones and automatic ones.

Manual penalties are when someone on the Google Search Quality Team notices your site is violating its guidelines, and is penalizing you for it.

Algorithmic penalties are when the same thing happens, except it’s detected by a computer, not flagged by a person. For the most part, algorithmic updates are going to be caused by either Penguin or Panda. Penguin updates relate to over-optimization (buying links, too much keyword optimization), and Panda is related to user experience.

A penalty is not if you’ve fallen two or three slots for a specific keyword or search. Someone else is just getting more traffic, or has hired a new SEO firm, or redesigned their site. Basically, search results aren’t set in stone, and something happened. You can go tweak and change your site and content to regain your spot.

How to recognize a penalty

How do you know if you’ve been penalized? If it was a manual penalty, you would have received a notification through your Google Webmaster Tools account informing you of the action taken by Google, and some indication of what particular behaviour caused the penalty. So that’s pretty easy.

If it’s an algorithmic penalty, there’s a little more guesswork. Here are some signs you’ve been penalized (adapted from the KissMetrics blog):

  1. Your website is not ranking well for your brand name any more. You should pretty much always rank for your brand name.
  2. Page one positions that have moved one or two pages back (not one or two slots) when you didn’t do anything and your traffic didn’t change leading up to it. A steady decline isn’t a penalty.
  3. Your PageRank has dropped from two or three to one or zero.
  4. Searching your site for a keyword through Google (e.g. [keyword]) doesn’t return any results.

If your site exhibits two of these signs, then you’re likely suffering an algorithmic penalty. And the signs can also tell you how bad your penalty is.

For example, if your site’s not returning any results when you search then you’ve probably been removed from the index. This is a big move by Google, and it means your penalty is pretty severe.

If, however, your page has only moved some page one position back a few pages, then it’s probably a new update that you can fix relatively easily.

What to do about it

Manual penalties are relatively straightforward to fix. If you get a manual penalty, it’s probably because you’ve been running some “black hat” SEO tricks like link buy-ing (more on that below). Even if you haven’t, when Google emailed you, its web spam team probably explained the problem so you know what you have to do.

Stop doing whatever bad thing you’re doing (or whatever Google thinks you’re doing).

Then, you send Google a Reconsideration Request. If it’s approved, the penalties are removed from your site. If it’s rejected, you haven’t fixed the problem well enough and need to go back and try again.

Algorithmic penalties are, again, a little more complicated. First, you need to figure out what caused your problem.

There are a couple of ways you can do this. If you’re doing some black hat SEO, stop immediately and purge your site of your ill-begotten backlinks. Google has caught up with you.

Black hat SEO includes:

  • Over-optimizing anchor text (having too many links that all say exactly the same thing)
  • Too many links from low quality sites (usually link buying/farming)
  • Hiding text by making it the same colour as the background

If you’re not deliberately breaking the rules, your best bet is to take a look over all your back links and make sure there are no obvious red flags. If not, it’s probably not a Penguin (over-optimization) problem.

If you think your site is being penalized for its user experience, then all you can really do is work to improve it. Begin producing more focused content. Some Panda penalties are drives by thin content and low engagement. Improving what you’re publishing is the best way to fix that.

You should also make sure you’re only linking relevant things, since Google penalizes irrelevant or spammy outbound links.

Finally, if Google feels that your site is hacked or is at risk, then it’ll penalize you to protect your users. Here’s how you can find out if your site’s been hacked.

For an algorithmic update, there’s not a single solution. Make sure your behaviour is in line with Google’s guidelines.

Then make sure your backlinks are clean and high quality, cutting out any low quality ones as you go. Here is a useful guide to Anchor Text Optimization that will help with this process.

Then, make sure your outbound links are relevant, and you’re producing high-quality content for your users. Your goal is really to just improve your site as much as you can, so that it’s more in line with what Google has in mind.


A penalized site can be a tremendous loss for a company, both in the opportunity cost of lost business and in the cost of fixing it. But don’t worry – even the biggest sites can be penalized by Google, and they get their search rankings back. You can too.

The best thing to do is figure out why you’re being penalized, and then begin taking steps to rectify that specific situation. With a little bit of work, you’ll be ranking again in no time.

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