Step 2: Understand Your Penalty
After you’ve determined the type of penalty affecting you, it’s important to understand the reasons why you were penalised. To help you better understand the nature of penalties, we’ve outlined a number of common penalties, what they mean and how to fix them, starting with the most common manual penalties:
So-called un-natural links are backlinks to your site that were created with your involvement, particularly paid links and link schemes. In many cases, Google will simply flag these links with a notice saying “unnatural links to your site—impacts links” which discounts their linking value but isn’t completely disastrous.
On the other hand, the message “unnatural links to your site” means that Google has determined these unnatural links make up a large portion of your links and labelled your website as untrusted. Naturally, being an untrusted website will affect your traffic and you should address this message by disavowing these unnatural links quickly to repair the damage.
Lastly, you can be penalised for “unnatural links from your site” which refers to outbound links on your website which use suspicious exact anchor text or link to spammy sites, you may see this penalty on your Search Console.
Because Google’s primary goal is to help users find useful information related to their search queries, they will prioritise original content and devalue other sites. Google will prioritise sites that have unique and/or useful content over those that feature:
- Automatically generated content
- Thin affiliate pages
- Plagiarised/lifted content – e.g. guest posts, scraped content
- Doorway pages
Penalties relating to poor content will display the message “thin content with little or no added value” in the Search Console and have varying levels of impact depending on the severity of the issue.
The term spam generally refers to the intrusive presence of something low-quality in high amounts, such as plagiarised content, excessive cloaking and more. Your site could be penalised for “user-generated spam” which can be cleaned up with a bit of work in the comments and forum sections or for “spammy freehosts”. Now, the penalties for “spammy freehosts” are a classic example of being tarred with the same brush, as Google sometimes penalises all websites under a host that is known for hosting spammy sites. If you’re unfortunate enough to see that notification, consider switching hosts.
Thankfully, all these manual penalties come with notifications and can be reversed with a bit of work. However, the algorithmic penalties awarded by Google are rarely so easy to understand, as you’ll learn in the section below:
The Panda Algorithm:
First released in 2011 and now let loose to trawl the net roughly once per month, the Panda algorithm is intended to prevent low-quality or ‘shallow’ content from appearing in search results. However, Google likes to keep its algorithms shrouded in secrecy and the definition of ‘shallow’ content is open to interpretation.
While Google has provided a list of 20+ open-ended questions to help you determine whether your content is ‘shallow’ or not, it isn’t particularly helpful. After plenty of scrutiny and analysis from journalists, programmers and others, we now know that the Panda Algorithm will penalise sites that contain:
- Poorly Written Content (think grammatical mistakes, spelling errors etc.)
- Shallow Content (which here means content too brief to be valuable)
- Duplicate Content (copied from your own site or others)
- Content that adds no real value
When searching for these factors, the Panda Algorithm awards a score based on the quality of the content, inbound links and brand searches. If your site doesn’t meet a certain score, then it may be penalised, even if there are only a few low-quality pages letting you down.
The Penguin Algorithm:
Initially released in 2012, the Penguin Algorithm affected over 3% of search queries, which is a massive amount, even back in 2012. The Penguin Algorithm focusses on a site’s backlinks, penalising unnatural links based on several factors including:
- Link Velocity – the rate at which your site gains links over time, which ideally increases slowly
- Link Quality – most websites will have a mix of high- and low-quality links, but if the ratio is out of balance it raises suspicion
- Link Diversity – backlinks should be all over the place, not concentrated in blog comments, for example.
Because the Penguin Algorithm gives page-specific penalties, being penalised for unnatural links on one page may not affect your whole website.
While Panda and Penguin are the two most well-known algorithms – responsible for most penalties – Google has released upwards of 500 algorithm updates a year. Other fairly well-known algorithm updates that may affect your site include:
- The Pigeon algorithm – affects results for local searches
- The Payday algorithm – targets very spammy queries (like gambling, weight loss, etc.
- The Mobile-Friendly update – promotes mobile-friendly sites on mobile searches