Are you a webmaster who has suffered from the unfortunate experience of one day waking up and finding that your website is no longer ranking well for the keywords you have target and previously been performing well for? This is a nightmare scenario for many webmasters out there and there are several reasons for this to occur. Firstly, it is possible that your SEO efforts are being outmatched by more determined SEO’s and that you simply are not working as hard as they are. It is also possible that minor changes to Google’s algorithm’s have also caused changes to the ranking index and you have experienced a rankings drop because of it. Possibly some of your previous backlinks have been devalued and this will affect their performance benefits. But, for some of you unfortunately it may be a case of the dreaded Google Penalty hitting your site because you have upset the almighty Google Gods.
SEO is all about increasing the visibility for your site in the search engines and particularly in Google. Getting your website to rank well for high traffic keywords can make all the difference between you receiving a good amount of traffic and making a lot of money, or having a site that is just not worth operating. The majority of traffic received by most websites are from referrals from search engines and if you are not visible to the search engines your site is more than likely not going to be found. If you are getting this traffic and cruising along knowing you are ranking well for niche specific keywords, the worst thing that could happen is for you to either experience a sudden unexpected major rankings drop or for you to be de-indexed altogether. I cannot think of too many worse feelings when you are operating an online business than this. SEO is a financial investment as well as a major investment in the time taken to perform the work and knowing that all of your hard work and effort has just been reduced to being worthless is something I do not wish on anybody.
So what are the reasons for this to happen? Why would Google seemingly punish us and send our websites into the depths of oblivion? Well, Google is a company that make a huge amount of profit by providing us with the search platform millions of people use every day. It is not a given right for us to have our websites listed within their search index and there are rules which we have to follow to be able to have our sites visible within their search results. SEO is sometimes about pushing those rules and boundaries to be able to make our sites as visible as possible. There are a lot of different methods we can use to lift our ranking for those valuable keywords and some of them are just plain and simply against Google’s rules and guidelines. If Google catch you breaking their rules they will not give you any warning and your keyword rankings will suffer because of it. There have been several high profile instances of this happening recently, none more so than J.C Penny and Overstock.com. Both of these companies were caught increasing their rankings by utilising links which they had paid for or encouraged people to place in exchage for discounts to increase the rankings for very valuable keywords, therefore placing their sites at the top of the rankings and receiving a lot of traffic because of it.
Now, the unfortunate thing about this is there are many millions of websites out there that do exactly this. There are online marketplaces which specialise in selling backlinks which will help increase the performance of your website. Google are well aware of the practise of buying and selling backlinks but their guidelines specifically state that you cannot do this for the purpose of increasing or artificially inflating your PageRank. There are certain attributes (rel=”nofollow”) that Google want to see on links that are bought and sold and if they are not in place it could potentially cause you to be penalised with a very sudden rankings drop or even to be removed from their index altogether.
Google have 2 different types of penalties, These are algorithmic and manual penalties. Algorithmic penalties are something that has been picked up automatically by its systems and flagged during the crawling and indexing stages. Manual penalties are slapped onto your site by the google Web Spam team and are quite often as a result of someone reporting your site as a spam site or as hosting inappropriate content or off topic content such as porn on a website that does not directly advertise as hosting porn. Determining which of these has hit your site is quite difficult and it is best to check firstly in Google Webmaster to see if there are any messages being displayed showing you what the problem may be.
There are a few reasons which could cause you to suffer a dreaded Google Penalty and I have listed a few of them for you below -
1 Cloaking – This is probably one of the worst things you could do to your website in Google’s eyes and is something that will not be forgiven very easily at all. Cloaking is the practice of serving up a different set of information to the Googlebot than to normal viewers of your website. This is done by essentially identifying the Googlebot via either it’s IP address or Agent type and displaying different information purely to to manipulate your search rankings. Google wants to see the exact same information that is being seen by anyone else that is viewing your website and if it doesn’t you will be punished by having your website completely de-indexed. It is not worth running the risk of doing this and is something which I highly recommend you never ever do.
2 Keyword Stuffing – This is a technique which is as old as the search engines themselves and is again something which should be avoided altogether. By increasing the effective keyword density for a particular set of keywords you are trying to tell Google that those keywords are very important to your website and should be noticed. There is a lot of differing opinions about what a proper keyword density is, but the rule of thumb is is that you should be writing for your readers and not for the search engines. Google looks at the title, meta description, header tags, bold text, body text, image titles and image alt attributes and take all of these things into consideration when determining keyword density. You cannot have too many instances of your targeted keywords throughout these elements in the page otherwise you will suffer a penalty. The punishment for this is more than likely going to be a -30 or -40 demotion in your rankings for the keywords you are deliberately targeting.
3 Hidden Text – Placing text which is not visible to your readers but is designed to be found by the Googlebot is a another punishable offence in Google’s eyes. It is too easy to again increase the efective keyword density on your pages by hiding some of the text so it cannot be seen by your readers. This can be done by creating minute pixel sized pieces of text or by hiding your text behind different elements in your CSS layouts. It can also be done by making the text the same colour as the background or somehow blending it with other parts of your webpage. Google have become extremely good at being able to identify if this is happening and you are going to suffer if you get caught. The penalty for this will be at least a -30 demotion for either the page it is discovered on or possible your entire site.
4 Bad Neighbourhood Links – If Google determine that a particular website is no good and you happen to be linking to it, this can cause a Google penalty to be incurred. You need to be extremely careful of which sites you decide to link to from within your own site. If you are linking to something that is determined to be illegal or even to a porn site and you are not running a porn site yourself Google could determine you to be doing the wrong thing. If a site has been de-indexed from within the Google index it is not a good idea to be linking to it. Sometimes it s extremely difficult to control this and it is one of the harder penalties to pick up on straight away. But it is very important that you be proactive in making sure the sites that you link to are suitable in Google’s eyes. Check on the links that you are giving often and make sure the content is really suited to the niche market you are in is the best piece of advice I can give you.
5 Duplicate Content – This has become even more important in recent times particularly since the Google Panda update. Google does not like duplicate content and it is always best to have fresh, unique content on your site. Auto-blogs and scraped content are getting severely punished within Google’s index and they can determine who the original source of the content is via timestamps within their own index. Copying other people’s content is not going to get you very far at all and could land you in trouble with the original author as well. You are very likely to receive a major Google Penalty either on a page level or for your entire site if you are caught by Google.
6 Anchor Text Optimisation – Having too many of the one anchor text pointed to any page within your site is commonly known as an over optimisation penalty. It is very important to mix up the particular anchor texts which are pointed to any page and they need to look as natural as possible. You really need to ensure that the anchor texts seem as natural as possible and the best way to consider this is by looking at your page as someone who knows nothing about SEO or anchor texts and seeing how they would describe your pages. Try different variations and mix the words around in different order to configure them differently.
7 Link Farms – Using networks of websites which are purely set up for the purpose of passing on PageRank is going to land you in some deep trouble with Google. If you are luck you may only get a -50 penalty for the keywords you are caught targeting and at worst your entire site is either going to receive a -950 penalty or be de-indexed altogether. Google do not allow PageRank to be manipulated in any way and you will be punished if you are caught. This is fair warning. Don’t come back to me crying because all I am going to say is “I told you so”!!
Diagnosing a Google Penalty
There are quite a few things you can do to actually diagnose whether you have really been given a penalty or if you are just suffering from a decrease in rankings because of your SEO strategies. Using Google to actually do this is the best way and here a few things which you can do -
1 Site:domain.com search – This is a very common method of discovering which of your pages have actually been indexed by Google. By performing a site:yourdomain.com search you will see if the pages that are in question are actually within Google’s index. If this command returns no results your website has either been de-indexed or had never actually been within the index before.
2 Domain Search – If your domain is blahblah.com just do a serch for this in the Google search page. Your website should return as the number 1 result and if it doesn’t you have certainly been penalised for something. You then need to dig deeper to find out exactly what the issue it.
3 Brand Search – Remove the .com or .net or whatever TLD you are in and just do a search for your domain brand. You should appear at the top of the results and a tell tale sign of a Google penalty is that you will appear far down the results, typically on page 3 or 4.
4 Safe Browsing – Google can detect any malware which may be hosted on your site. Use the http://www.google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site=domain.com URL to check to see if they have flagged any inappropriate content on your site.
5 PageRank check – use a tool suck as SEO Quake to determine if your site has lost any PageRank as this is a tell tale sign that Google has issued a penalty of some sort.
6 Recent Changes – Have you recently made any changes to your website such as modifying or adding “alt=” tags to any of your images or modifying the <h1> or <h2> tags? Have you changes any of the body text or title elements to increase the effective keyword density of any of your targeted keywords? If you have and these are the only changes to your site I suggest changing them back and waiting for Google to re-index your site. If this is the fault you will return back to your normal rankings quite quickly. Use social bookmarks or other forms of high authority sites to get your site reindexed as quickly as possible.
7 Paid Links – If you are utilising paid links to boost the PageRank of your site or to deliberately increase the keyword placement I suggest removing these links from whatever sites you have them placed on. This can be extremely time consuming and quite difficult to do but unless you do this the algorithms that Google uses are going to continue to flag your site and nothing will change until they are removed. If you are hosting them on your site remove them as quickly as possible or add the “rel=nofollow” tags to them so they do not pass on any SERP or PageRank benefits. Use the link:domain.com command to see what sites are linking to your website or use a tool such as RankTracker to determine what backlinks you have pointing to your site.
There has been a lot of discussion as to what penalty will actually be applied to each of the above problems and quite often it will actually depend on how bad the actually problem is and if it is the first offence for the website in question. The penalties are going to range anywhere from a -30/-40 penalty to -50 for paid links all the way to -950 or de-indexing for cloaking. There are also more than likely going to be “timeout” period applied to each of these penalties and this means your site is not going to recover for a certain amount of time after the problems have been fixed. These are typically going to be 30 days or 90 days but there are reports of penalties lasting for up to 2 years.
No matter what the penalty none of them are good and all will result in a substantial loss in traffic and performance for your website. The easiest and quickest way to really fix the problem is going to be to file for a reconsideration request under the Google Webmaster tools and wait for a reply. If you haven’t fixed the issue there is a good chance that you will get an answer within a few weeks as to why you have been penalised and if it is an algorithmic or manual penalty. Either way, you are not going to return to your past rankings unless the changes are made so it is best to admit to your faults during your reconsideration requests and just use it as a learning experience. Remember, Google do not have to answer to anyone and your website only “deserves” to be in their index if they deem it as suitable. Without the traffic you receive from them there is a good chance your website is not going to perform as well as it should.