Getting a Google Penalty: Manual vs AlgorithmicGoogle Penalty

Prudence as the First Line of Defence

It’s easy to say prudence is, and always should be, your first line of defence from Google’s Webspam team. But that doesn't stop many webmasters and SEOs continuing to ignore this simple piece of advice. The desire to get links quickly and move ahead of your competition in the SERPs (search engine results pages) is understandable, but ultimately a dangerous strategy to follow.

By engaging in genuine outreach and content marketing there’s no reason you can’t build up a healthy backlink profile from day one. Link audits are also a powerful weapon in your defensive arsenal and should be conducted on a regular basis to keep your backlink profile fit, healthy and free of bad links. Of course as your web presence begins to grow at a faster rate, it’s never possible to have complete control over your burgeoning backlink profile. Inadvertently drifting onto Google’s Webspam teams radar is always a danger. With some pretty high profile companies like LastMinute.com and Halifax having been hit by manual penalties recently, it’s clear that no one is immune. The whole business of dealing with a penalty from Google is something no webmaster really wants to think about, but it’s important to know what to do if it has happened to you. In this series of guides we’ll be looking at every aspect of dealing with a penalty from Google, from identifying and taking down bad links, to putting together a reconsideration request to Google.

The Manual Penalty

Manual penalties are given out by Google’s Webspam team and result from your site breaching one of Google’s Webmaster’s Guidelines and being flagged for review. The head of Google’s Webspam team, Matt Cutts, has become a portent of information to frustrated webmasters and ever watchful SEOs, he regularly answers questions on Google’s Webmasters Help channel on YouTube and his blog is also worth keeping an eye on for important updates and tips.

Manual penalties are easy to spot as they are accompanied by a message from Google that can be found in your Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) account and clicking on the ‘Manual Actions’ tab. Google will also inform you via Gmail.

The reasons for receiving a manual action penalty vary in nature but can be broadly classified into onsite related penalties and offsite related penalties. For the purpose of this series, we’ll be concentrating on the offsite penalties, those that are primarily due to unnatural links.

Manual actions can vary in severity, being applied to a single page, section or link within your site or to the entire domain. Manual actions can also expire after a time, how long this takes varies depending on the nature of the misdemeanour.  Of course not dealing with the penalty by fixing what went wrong and submitting a reconsideration request is foolhardy and could see you end up with a more severe warning in the future. Once your site has been flagged, you can rest assured Google will be keeping a closer eye on you in the future.

There’s no doubt that confusion can arise from the content of Google’s manual penalties as well. This is just another reason to keep an eye on what Matt Cutts is saying on the matter, as well as clarifying exactly what guidelines your site is in breach of, before setting out to rectify the problem.

 

A Google Webmaster Tools manual action notice

 

Types of Google Manual Actions

There are several reasons Google may decide to issue a manual penalty against your site and in each case Google have issued advice on what to do to if you receive one, usually in the form of a video featuring Matt Cutts. Below we’ve listed all the major Google manual actions and linked to the relevant Google video for more advice:

  • Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects Cloaking is the practice of presenting Google with one webpage and another to the human user in an attempt to manipulate rankings. Sneaky redirects are when websites redirect users to a different URL from the URL they requested with the express intention of tricking or manipulating search rankings.
  • Hacked site If Google detects that malware or a third party has hacked your site or your site has become compromised for any reason then it will issue a manual action until you address the issue.
  • Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing Hidden text and keyword stuffing are old black hat methods for manipulating your site’s rankings. Hidden text may involve dropping keywords into the webpage but hiding them with techniques like white text on white background or placing the text behind an image. Keyword stuffing is even more primitive and simply means the overuse of keywords on a page with the intention of manipulating search rankings for that keyword.
  • Pure spam The pure spam label refers to sites that most web savvy users would immediately be able to identify as ‘junk’. These are sites that are using black hat techniques to manipulate rankings. This could involve sites scraping content, automatically generating gibberish or spinning thin content as well as using a range of other bad practices. So called ‘churn and burn’ sites that are set up purely to create money by using spammy content are also included in this penalty.
  • Spammy freehosts If enough spammy sites exist on a single free web hosting service then Google may take out a manual action on the entire service. If you run a service like this then there are many ways to prevent spammy content getting out of hand.
  • Thin content with little or no added value Thin affiliate pages, cookie-cutter sites, doorway pages, automatically generated content, or copied content all come under this manual action and all come under the umbrella of sites that don’t provide valuable or unique content.
  • User-generated spam This kind of spam is generated by users of your site and as such will usually occur from the abuse of profile pages, blog comments and forums. This kind of spam is often automated and can be prevented through the use of CAPTCHA systems and anti-spam plugins.
  • Unnatural links from your site Links from your site designed to manipulate search rankings for another site can incur a manual penalty. Manual actions from unnatural links will be covered in much more detail in the next post in this series.
  • Unnatural links to your site Links pointing to your site that are unnatural for some reason (ie they’ve been purchased) can often incur a manual penalty. Manual actions from unnatural links are covered in much more detail in the next post in this series.
  • Unnatural links to your site—impacts links This manual penalty notice doesn’t directly affect your site but rather indirectly, as there are unnatural or manipulative links pointing to your site. Manual actions from unnatural links are covered in much more detail in the next post in this series.

The Algorithmic Penalty

The second type of penalty you can receive is an algorithmic penalty. To explain what this means you have to understand a little bit of the background to how Google’s search engine works.

An algorithm is basically a set of complicated inter-related formulas that allows Google’s search engine to rank sites in its results pages. The algorithm looks at onsite signals (how the site is structured) as well as offsite signals (the number and quality of external links pointing to the site) to ascertain how high to rank the site on any given search term.

Google’s algorithms are constantly being updated and from time to time a major update is released that addresses problems that have become endemic issues that Google feels are compromising the integrity of its search results. The last of these major updates was Panda 4.0 and rumours abound of an imminent update to its Penguin Algorithm. Updates to these algorithms can result in your site dropping in the SEPRs for certain keywords or phrases. In worst case scenarios your site may drop out of the SERPs altogether.

The first major problem with receiving an algorithmic penalty is that, unlike a manual penalty, you don’t receive any notification that you’ve been penalised. Because Google’s algorithm is an independent piece of code, when Google’s web spiders come to crawl your site and find it to be in breach of their guidelines, they will apply the penalty to your site without warning. Watch this video from Matt Cutts for a fuller explanation of the relationship between manual and algorithmic penalties.

The second major problem with an algorithmic penalty is that you won’t know what it is exactly that you’ve done to breach Google’s Guidelines. Keeping an eye on your search rankings will help you identify the rough date that your site dipped or dropped off and this data is extremely important as it will allow you to identify what (if any) algorithm update may be responsible for the penalty. For a comprehensive list of all updates, use this great list of Google’s algorithm change history from Moz which is constantly being updated.

Conclusion

Getting a penalty from Google is totally avoidable but letting your guard down with regard to your backlink profile can lead to sloppy link building and before you know it, you could be staring at one of the 400,000 manual penalties Google hands out every month. The important thing is not to panic. If you’ve got a manual penalty then there’s every chance you can clear it up. If you find your site has dropped off the rankings without warning then you may have been penalised by Google’s algorithm.

Over the next couple of months we’ll be releasing further posts in this series of guides that will look at dealing with both manual and algorithmic penalties, as well as how to identify and take down bad links and an in depth look at how and when to use Google’s Disavow tool.