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How Many Types of Google Penalties are There?

cleartwo-blog-How-many-different-penalties-does-Google-have–ds

Has your website suffered a sudden drop in rankings or organic traffic? Have you seen a notification in your Google Search Console and don’t fully understand why you’re being punished?

Well, don’t panic because this article will tell you what the different types of penalties mean for you and how to fix them. Firstly, we want to make the difference between ‘algorithmic penalties’ and manual penalties very clear:

Algorithm or Penalty?

Google penalties can be often confusing, so there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding them such as people confusing ‘algorithmic penalties’ with actual penalties. Algorithms will never dish out penalties, but as anyone who has fallen afoul of an algorithm can attest, it definitely feels like a penalty.

Google uses a variety of algorithms to help users find relevant and useful information, with Penguin and Panda being the most high-profile examples. These algorithms prioritise sites with relevant information and helpful layouts but don’t actually ‘penalise’ sites which don’t meet their ‘quality standards’ – they just aren’t included in searches like approved sites.

However, the teams of human reviewers that Google employs to manually review and rate websites which don’t meet Google’s quality standards absolutely DO dish out penalties. These manual penalties come with notifications in your Google Search Console, so it’s very easy to tell if you are the victim of a manual action by Google.

Being able to tell the difference between a manual penalty and triggering an algorithm is vital when trying to resolve the issue causing drops in your site traffic and rankings. The main difference in how you deal with a manual penalty or algorithmic event is how much you’ll need to interact directly with Google.

Manual penalties come with notifications and advice in the Google Search Console, requiring you to file an appeal (or “Reconsideration Request”) to lift them. Contrastingly, algorithmic events have no accompanying notifications and don’t need you to submit a response to have them lifted.

Now that we’ve made the distinction between manual penalties and algorithmic events clear, we’ll list all the different types of Google penalties, what they mean and how to fix them.

Cloaking/Sneaky Redirects

In a nutshell, cloaking is when websites show different pages to users and Google, while sneaky redirects send users to a different page entirely. Both of these acts violate Google’s webmaster guidelines, though there are two kinds of penalties for these offences:

  • Partial matches when only parts of your site are affected
  • Site-wide matches when your whole website is affected.

How to Fix

In order to resolve these issues, you need to make sure that visitors to your site and Google get the same treatment:

  1. Visit Google Search Console > Crawl > Fetch as Google, then fetch pages from your site.
  2. Compare the content on your site to the content fetched by Google.
  3. Remove any differences between the two versions of your site so they are the same.
  4. Check all the redirects on your site and remove any that:
    • Send users to unexpected destination.
    • Conditionally redirect (such as only redirecting users coming from Google).
    • Are otherwise “sneaky”.
  5. Submit an appeal after fixing these issues.

Tip: These so-called “sneaky” redirects are often created by CMS plugins and written in JavaScript.

‘First Click Free’ Cloaking Violations

These cloaking penalties are issued to sites that show all the content on a page to Google’s crawlers but limit the content users can see, especially if they come from Google’s services. Examples of this are sites that force users to register, subscribe or login to see the full content, such as the New York Times (which makes users “Create an account or log in to keep reading.”)

As with the cloaking and sneaky redirect penalties discussed previously, penalties for these offences can be issued as partial or site-wide matches.

How to Fix

As before, you need to make sure that visitors to your site and Google get the same treatment:

  1. Make changes so that you show Google’s crawlers and Google’s users the same content.
  2. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: Use Google’s ‘first click free’ policy so that users can see a full article or page on your site before having to subscribe/log in/register when coming from Google’s services.

Cloaked Images

Cloaking can also apply to images on your site, so make sure that you are displaying the same images for all visitors to your site (Google or otherwise). Images may be penalised for cloaking if they:

  • Are obscured by other images
  • Are different than the image served to Google’s crawler
  • Redirect users away from the image

How to Fix

Consistency is key: make sure that visitors to your site and Google see the same images by:

  1. Showing the exact same image to Google’s crawlers as visitors to your site.
  1. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: Check the plugins on your site to make sure they are making image cloaking issues.

Hacked Site

Hackers are constantly looking for vulnerable websites and exploits within content management systems like WordPress to inject malicious links and content. While DDOS attacks and ransomware are often immediately obvious, hacks can be cloaked and difficult to detect until the damage is done.

When Google notices that your site has been hacked, they will insert notifications into the search results for affected pages, leading to demotions in organic search results. Because no website is truly un-hackable, you must be vigilant, adopting robust defences and security protocols to avoid losing search engine rankings due to hacks.

How to Fix

Work to protect your site and ward off future attacks by:

  1. Building a support team with your web host
  2. Quarantining your site by taking it offline to prevent any more damage
  3. Using the Search Console to determine the type of hack you were victim to
  4. Assessing the damage done – if spam and/or malware were used
  5. Identifying any vulnerabilities your site has to figure out how the hacker got in
  6. Cleaning your site to close off the vulnerability used by the hacker
  7. Requesting a review so Google may reconsider your ‘hacked’ label

Tip: Be proactive, install security features and regularly backup your site so you can quickly restore it if the worst happens.

Hidden Text and/or Keyword Stuffing

This penalty is very self-descriptive and means that Google has found your site guilty of using hidden text or keyword stuffing. Both penalties relate to the manipulation of written content with the aim of dishonestly boosting a site’s search engine ranking and can be issued as partial or site-wide penalties.

How to Fix

Get rid of any content or keywords that cannot be seen by users by:

  1. Using the Fetch as Google function on your Google Search Console to view the affected pages
  2. Search for text that blends into the background of your site
  3. Look for hidden text that’s using CSS styling or positioning
  4. Edit or remove any hidden text so human users can easily read it
  5. Fix or delete any paragraphs of repeated words that have no context.
  6. Amend <title> tags and alt text with repeated words
  7. Get rid of any other instances of keyword stuffing
  8. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: Don’t mistake JS dropdowns or tabbed content for hidden text, as they are generally acceptable ways to add content to a page in our mobile age.

Pure Spam

Spam, Spam, Spam, egg and Spam, hold the egg. Unlike other penalties, no one can plead ignorance to a Pure Spam penalty. This penalty is generally reserved for sites that intentionally and aggressively engage in spammy techniques such as automatically generated content, cloaking and plagiarised content. As with the previous penalties, these penalties can be issued in partial or site-wide forms.

How to Fix

Because the Pure Spam penalty is reserved for serious offenders, you might get a second chance by:

  1. Getting your act together and following the Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by the letter, assuming this is your first Pure Spam
  2. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: If this is your second Pure Spam penalty, it’s probably best to shut down your site and start over, as Google rarely gives third chances after sites violate their trust.

Spammy Free Hosts

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and you should likewise be cautious about any hosting provider that offers “free” services. Google has been known to take manual action against entire hosting providers for unscrupulous actions, so make sure that your site is hosted with a reputable company, such as UKFast.

How to Fix

Spammy Free Host penalties work on guilt by association, so treat yourself to reliable hosting and:

  1. Migrate to a ‘name brand’ hosting provider that you can trust
  2. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue

Tip: Reliable hosting costs >£100 a year and won’t give you Google penalties, unlike the “free” offers.

Spammy Structured Markup

If you don’t follow Google’s guidelines for using rich snippets and markup content that is invisible to users, misleading or irrelevant, you will be penalised for ‘spammy structured markup’. As with the other penalties, you may be penalised on a partial or site-wide basis and can be avoided through careful observation of Google’s guidelines.

How to Fix

In short, follow Google’s guidelines and you should be fine, though to fix a penalty you need to:

  1. Update or remove existing markup so it abides by Google’s rich snippets guidelines
  2. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: Don’t spam rich snippets, follow the guidelines and you’ll be fine.

Thin Content

As stated before, Google works hard to direct users to helpful, relevant results for their search queries, not thin or low-quality content. This penalty can come in partial or site-wide forms and while there are many types of low-quality content that might trigger this type of penalty, steer clear of:

  • Automatically generated content
  • Thin affiliate pages with little to no unique info
  • Plagiarised or “scraped” content
  • Low-quality blog posts (especially from guest bloggers)
  • Doorway pages

How to Fix

As many SEO experts will tell you, content is king, so improve your site’s content by:

  1. Identifying and removing automatically generated content
  2. Expand upon or delete affiliate pages that don’t add value
  3. Use a plagiarism checker to find content found elsewhere and remove or replace it
  4. Edit or expand on pages with low word counts to be more useful
  5. Find and remove doorway pages
  6. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: Invest in useful, unique and well-written content to attract organic traffic.

Unnatural Links to Your Site

This type of penalty is the most common offence levelled at websites, comprising roughly 90% of all Google penalties. These penalties are caused by buying links and/or taking part in link schemes to boost organic Search Engine Results Page rankings, which are clear violations of Google’s webmaster guidelines.

How to Fix

If you have knowingly bought links or used link schemes, get those unethical links deleted ASAP by:

  1. Downloading a list of backlinks from the Google Search Console
  2. Audit these links, looking for any that violate the linking guidelines
  3. Add or remove a ‘nofollow’ attribute to the offending links
  4. Disavow any links you cannot remove or add ‘nofollow’ attributes to
  5. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: Build your links the right way – avoiding link schemes – to avoid penalties.

Unnatural Links from Your Site

Google loves to penalise webmasters for selling links or engaging in link schemes, so any links that exist to manipulate search rankings are likely to call down Google’s wrath. In their own words, Google will penalise any “unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links” with a partial or site-wide penalty.

How to Fix

  1. Remove or alter the offending links with a ‘nofollow’ attribute so they don’t pass PageRank
  2. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: Go on a purge and remove ALL the undesirable links on your site, as Google won’t let any slide by.

User-generated Spam

Another self-descriptive penalty, user-generated spam is low-quality content posted by users, such as forum posts, comments, and user profiles. Keep an eye out for comments that just promote a business or service without contributing anything of worth, as these will bring down a partial or site-wide penalty from Google.

How to Fix

Websites that allow users to post content without moderation are especially vulnerable to this charge, so make sure to:

  1. Identify pages/sections where users can post content
  2. Highlight spammy content such as:
  • Adverts disguised as comments
  • Comments with irrelevant links
  • Spammy usernames like “Stockport Graphic Designers”
  • Automatically generated, generic or irrelevant comments
  1. Remove all the spammy/inappropriate content
  2. Stop unmoderated content from showing up on your site
  3. Submit a penalty appeal after you’ve resolved the issue.

Tip: Actively moderate your website so that users don’t post rubbish that will get you penalised.

Expired Jobs

When trying to recruit online, you need to use current information so that you attract the right type of candidates and avoid the wrath of Google for posting inaccurate data. While Google offers a wide variety of tools to promote available vacancies in your business – such as job posting structured data – you need to abide by the rules if you expect a helping hand from Google.

Using job posting structured data is an effective way to get job postings to appear prominently in Google, but if your posting is inaccurate or outdated, Google may strike it down. While using direct integration to post the vacancy on your own site offers a great deal of freedom, using a third-party site – like Monster or Indeed – means that you are not liable for any outdated postings.

How to Fix

In order to avoid an expired job penalty, ensure that your postings are accurate by doing one of the following:

  • Remove the Job Posting structured data markup from your site
  • Remove the offending page entirely
  • Add a noindex tag to the page
  • Ensure the valid through property is populated and in the past.

Tip: Make sure that all your job postings are current, accurate and honest.

Conclusion

When working on SEO, it’s important to realise that you are trying to work with Google rather than against it, so do your best to follow their guidelines at all times. Trying to cheat the system with shortcuts like link schemes will only hurt you in the long run, as Google works hard to determine the most relevant results for search queries, excluding any it deems ‘illegitimate’.

Resist the temptation to cut corners and work hard on making your website something that users will want to search for if you want them to search for you. If you’re still unsure of how to improve your site’s SERP rankings and draw in more traffic, reach out to a member of our SEO team today.

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