Google Penalties: Strategists and SEO Pros Share Their Insights

Even after these past few years, the phrase, “Google Penalty,” has a way of stopping one in their tracks as if frozen. Not everyone is affected that way, but it is still common enough. It is a similar reaction that some people have over the mention of going to the dentist.

That fear has subsided for some. As people gain knowledge about the penalties and the process of penalty removal, the fear begins to dissipate. There are some people who do not care about Google penalties and can live blissfully in spite of them.

There is one thing that remains constant. That is that the perspectives of Google penalties vary from one person to the next person. The understanding also varies. Many times this is easily identified in the difference between those who have experienced it and those who have only heard about it. There is also a defining point between those who have experience removing penalties (SEO Pros) and those who may have only done it for themselves. That doesn’t mean that there is a right or wrong way, but there are different perspectives.

Survey for the Identification of the Perspectives

We set up a survey to ask people what they thought about Google penalties. We welcomed those who had experience, as professionals, and we welcomed those who may not have experience, but had opinions. We received some interesting responses, which is the basis for the opinion that opinions vary. (I know, you are all thinking that that is quite obvious!)

Now that we have discussed the background, we have one more thing to cover before digging into those perspectives and tips.

The Relationship Between the Reconsideration Request and the Penalty

Many times the terminology gets people all hung up, so let’s get some of that cleared up first. There is so much more that could be explained, but we will touch on just a couple of items here. As you will see, the SEO pros, quoted below, are consistent with what we are about to share. Also keep in mind that while there is no right or wrong perspective, some have more experience. So, for those of you that are newer to SEO, let’s just define a couple of these things.

First of all, when Google sends a person a message (you know, the nasty message) that talks about a potential penalty, it is just that, a potential penalty. If you notice the verbiage it says that you “may” experience traffic drops or be excluded from SERPs (Search Engine Results). It doesn’t say that you “are” excluded or that you “will be,” but that you “may be” excluded and the traffic to your site may be affected.

The key element here is that you need to check your stats to see if you have indeed been affected. If your traffic has dropped (especially in comparing to the same time last month, the same time last year), then it is true that Google has taken an action.

If you have an option to submit a reconsideration message, then it is a good idea to submit a request to Google to be reconsidered. Why is this important? If you have an option to do so, it means that Google has identified an issue. In order to get on Google’s good graces, you will want to respond and ask Google to “reconsider” your site and find that you are no longer an offending party. You see, with the reconsideration, you are either asking Google to 1) remove you from the naughty list (currently no traffic impact); or 2) include you in Google search (penalty as evidenced in traffic stats). To check for this, visit Google Webmaster Tools > [click on site] > Search Traffic > Manual Actions.

Ok, we have only scratched the surface, and haven’t even talked about disavows, emails to webmasters to request link removals, and so much more. If you are a novice, this should be enough to have a basis to understand the rest of this article, which is all about what the interviewees have to say about their perspective on those Google Penalties.

Hopefully this helps to put some of the responses, below, in context. Also, you will get some great nuggets of tips from our SEO experts, below. For those of our surveyed guests who are a bit more novice you will realize that you are not alone in your fear of a Google penalty and also have a chance to see that there is hope. There are even solutions in the most drastic circumstances, as you will see.

(Author’s Note: There is no such thing as a “dofollow” link. However, I have changed any interviewees’ reference to “follow” links to “dofollow” links for clarification. No matter what the terminology, it is a reference to a link that is NOT a nofollow link.)

Two Questions That Started the Discussion:

  • What are you thoughts and perspectives on Google penalties?  Do you have experience or insight to share with us?
  • What have you learned, going through the Google penalty process?  What success tips can you share with us?

Two Three Sections

There are two sections of this article (three if you count all of what is above). The first section is the “Perspectives” section. It is about what people think of the Google Penalties and the Google Penalty Process. Ranting aside, it is interesting to see how the perspectives are similar and yet different, depending on how much experience a person has with SEO and specifically the penalty removal processes.

The second section is about tips and advice on how to remove the penalties. Much of that section is brought to you by the SEO professionals. There are also some gems from non-professionals, as well.

Are you in a hurry? You could skip the perspectives section (after all, you likely have your opinion, right?) and go to the tips section.

Each section is broken down into two groups:

  • the strategic thinkers, or everyday people who have run into Google Penalties, or have an opinion; and
  • the SEO professionals that have experience doing this for their clients.

There are some common tools listed in the perspectives and tips and here are those links to the Google Resources:

[Thanks to Casey Markee for many of the informational links, above.]

Section 1: Perspectives on Google Penalties

Perspectives from the Strategists

Alex H. Yong
Alex H. Yong (Writer, Journalist)
Yes. Thought I’d never get a penalty but I now know what they’re like. I did a reconsideration request and nofollow’d my links and shortly thereafter I was in the clear.

I use nofollow a lot, which proves Google has me in a state of mild fear. I sent them a few notes via [Google Webmaster Tools interface]. Those contained a notable amount of emotion and opinion and it felt good to get those thoughts officially off my chest.

I’ve had one of my websites that received a Google penalty, but I’m not sure if it was Penguin or Panda, I just saw a dramatic decrease in traffic in a very short period of time until almost all of my traffic was gone.

I tried looking into the problem but I couldn’t fix it so I gave up on that website and started fresh. I’m not sure you can really recover from a penalty, so in my opinion I think it’s better to just start fresh instead of focusing all your energy into fixing the website.

Denisa-Alexandra Cinca
Denisa-Alexandra Cinca (Blogger, MyBloggingThing)
Kari (Professional Blogger, Writer)
On March 20, 2014, I got the message from Google that I had unnatural outbound links from one of my sites. I knew where the links were coming from because I had been accepting daily guest posts on my site, and even though the articles were original and pretty decent, the posts linked out to some random sites that had nothing to do with the articles themselves.

The message stated that a manual spam action had been applied to my site.

The recommended actions were to add “nofollow” to the paid or inorganic links and remove problem links, so that is exactly what I did. It took me a few days of continuous work to fix everything, but I had the spam action revoked six days after I received the message.

I haven’t received a penalty notice but I did use a blog network back in 2012 to rank one of my websites. It worked very well but after the Panda and Penguin updates I saw the site drop from the number 1 spot.

I decided to leave the links as they were and after coming back to the site in 2014, I noticed that most of the links had been discounted by Google and running a AHREFs report confirmed most had been deleted.

There were a few left that were from spam websites so I decided to use the Google Disavow Tool to request a removal. So far I have had no response from Google.

Paul Manwaring
Paul Manwaring (UX Expert and Web Analyst, Blogger)
Matt B. Gates
Matt B. Gates (Web Developer)
I received a Google Penalty in March of 2014. My site was a rank of 3 at the time and was about a year old. I was [presumably] targeted for being associated with a guest blogging site. The majority of my links were dofollow.

What did I do about it?  I added some code to the site to nofollow every link on the site. This penalty did not affect my traffic at all, only my rank. After about two days, and a request for the penalty to be lifted, it was removed and my rank was returned.

I still nofollow every link on my site. I depend on the traffic that the site receives. I expect most of my contributors to depend on that, too. I will occasionally dofollow a link. It is pick-and-choose. Other than that, everything is nofollow and that protects the entire website along with the hundreds of contributors who have made the website possible.

Perspectives from the SEO Professionals

I’ve been working as an SEO for almost a decade now and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a number of sites hit by Panda penalties.

Panda penalties:

Five years ago, content duplication and syndication were not an issue. In fact, it was a standard practice. When Panda rolled out, I had a couple of websites that got hit hard.

Ryan Stewart
Ryan Stewart (Content Marketing Expert, Webris)
Casey Markee
Casey Markee (President, Media Wyse)
As someone who performs “Professional Penalty Audits” for a living, I can honestly say there are not many manual or algorithmic penalties that I haven’t seen. From Panda and Penguin, to manual actions like unnatural links and thin content, penalty issues are something that “most” average site owners will experience at least once in their lives.

Penalties shouldn’t be feared, though. Sure, false positives do happen, but they are rare. Instead, penalties provide you (and in many cases your marketing staff) a chance to reevaluate your current marketing approach. Contrary to popular belief, penalties don’t happen in a vacuum. If you have triggered a penalty, it’s most likely because you chose a shortcut and in doing so, did a disservice to your site visitors and target audience.

…Penalty issues are something that “most” average site owners will experience at least once in their lives. -Casey Markee

I have handled Google penalties on behalf of clients who have approached us with this problem. I would say, from experience, that it is wise to adhere to Google’s guidelines [as opposed to] any potential penalty you may be facing. Until there is a change in the search market share [(i.e. another search provider powerhouse equal to Google)], it is best to keep a position on Google. Michael Bergen
Michael Bergen (Content Marketing Manager, Riverbed Marketing)

Konstantinos (Co-founder, Beakon)
Who hasn’t received a Google penalty? Back when the big G first released their lovely bird, Penguin, one website I managed was hit by the update. The reason was simple. Spam links. Though, it was those links that gave me the first page ranking on Google! The website was totally blasted and disappeared from Google rankings!
Some of my clients came to me because of a manual penalty from Google, related to unnatural links that were pointing to their website. In cases like this it’s very important to understand what type of links Google considers “unnatural” vs. what you [consider to be unnatural links]. Lately Google’s Web Spam Team (GWST) has been providing better examples of the links that cause the penalty, to give you guidance. In some cases they have been known to [converse] with you about those links.
Tom Shivers (Founder, Capture Commerce)
Andrew Isidoro

Andrew Isidoro (SEO Manager, and Freelance SEO)

As a freelance SEO, I’ve dealt with my fair share of link removals, reconsideration requests, and disavowal campaigns.  While some are fairly straightforward, others are huge affairs that require some serious work.
I was a black hat maniac before [changing my ways].  So yes, penalty is my everyday thing, [as a result].

The worst thing is that I used to think Google “unfairly” penalized my website, not realizing that what I was doing was wrong.  At that time, I joined the bandwagon of Matt Cutts-haters.

That embarrassing part is gone and past me now.  I’ve stopped doing this since about 2 years ago because it is definitely ethically wrong. We tend not to realize that what we do is wrong.  The fact that you get penalized means you must be doing something wrong.  So quickly find what you did wrong and fix that.  If you’ve gone too far, it’s easier to create new clean website.

Darmawan (Founder, PanduanIM)

Section 2: Tips That Have Proven Successful

Success Tips from the Strategists

Alex H. Yong (Writer, Journalist)

I’m not an SEO. I deal with the fear by often using Twitter [outbound links] instead of a guest’s domain… [I think] it is harder for [Google] to [complain] if all my [outbound links] go to Twitter.
For me, it doesn’t really concern me that much; I mean if you are not using any black hat techniques you should be fine. A great tip is to focus on building your audience and traffic with white hat techniques. Denisa-Alexandra Cinca

Denisa-Alexandra Cinca (Blogger, MyBloggingThing)


Kari (Professional Blogger, Writer)

My motto has always been to create original and decent content that relates to my niche. Even though the ‘gurus’ that I followed in the beginning told me to spin content or create content that was made for search engines, I’ve never been able to create subpar content. Or, at least I don’t think it’s subpar!

I should say that I have always focused on SEO, especially on-page SEO. But, I’ve never used it in a way that looks unnatural. It doesn’t read well for real people, and even though you can still find some really crappy articles (that are keyword soaked) ranking well in Google, it isn’t going to last. One day they are going to get penalized, and I would rather have long-term sustainable content than a successful post for a few months.

I think Google penalties, for the most part, are fair. If you try to cheat the system, you risk the chance of getting caught. What I learned from my experience was to concentrate on high quality links. Then you’ll never worry about another Google update.

My tip is simple; if you don’t want to risk getting a penalty then don’t try to cheat.

I’ve had one site running for over five years. I’ve never tried to gain backlinks unnaturally and everything has grown organically. Guess what? I’ve never been hit by Google updates and I don’t even care about them with regards to this one site.

Paul Manwaring (UX Expert and Web Analyst, Blogger)

Ryan Stewart

Matt B. Gates (Web Developer)

Google is your number one fan and Google is your biggest source of traffic whether you want to accept it or not.

They will deliver you the most visitors of any search engine that exists. As much as you might want to rebel and go against Google, understand what Google is doing in the long run and abide by their rules. A nofollow link is still a link, but without rank juice, and rank juice shouldn’t mean anything anyway. Google themselves created that mess.

If you were here for the dawn of the Internet, a link was a link and a link meant that you were just sending someone somewhere else. Make your contributors or sites you’re linking to understand that you respect and support them completely, but they do not need a follow link for your support. Traffic is far more valuable than any rank.  Work on building and getting traffic [rather] than rank. You will survive as a website in the long run.

I’ve worked on many blogs that have noticed changes after a Google update, and the response has always been sensible. Don’t go nuts removing old content, just be sure that new content falls in line with the new guidelines. For instance, we stopped writing posts that were under 300 words long.

Being sure to stick to Google’s guidelines is generally a good way to have a successful blog, as it generally means you’re doing the right things: lengthy posts with unique content, not having links to or from dodgy neighborhoods, etc. Once you’re following their… best practices, stop worrying about Google and start working on other traffic generators like social media and your mailing list.

Angela Alcorn
Angela Alcorn (Writer, Editor)
Johnny P.
Johnny P. (SEO)
First of all, you ought to understand why Penguin posed such tough challenges for you. Many of you had aimed to touch with sky within a short time without really studying the key areas of website performance.

You never really had the time to do any research (involving Google analytics) on things that are being searched naturally. Following black hat strategies to shoot things up meant denying the honest efforts of your competitors. You have to start from the scratch and that includes removing irrelevant links, removing broken links and writing the content naturally without stuffing keywords.

Success Tips from the SEO Professionals

How to identify [penalties]:

The best way to tell if you’ve been hit by a Panda penalty is to check your Google Analytics account. Check Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages. Then, add an Organic segment. Set the date range to the last year.

This will show you traffic to your pages from search engines over the last year. If there is a sharp drop in traffic to one or more of your pages, chances are you got hit with a Panda penalty.

How to fix:

There are a number of potential reasons for a Panda penalty, all related to duplication issues: content, titles, metas, etc.

The best way to find this out is through Google Webmaster Tools. Check under ‘HTML Improvements.’ There you will need to determine if there are duplicate pages on your site. If you have an ecommerce site, it’s very common to have duplicate descriptions for similar products. This is an extremely common cause of Panda slaps.

Under Title Tags, you should see all different ones. If you see duplicates, there is a good chance you’ve been hit by Panda. The best solution is to identify the pages with duplicates, re-write so it’s [not duplicated], and then resubmit the pages through Webmaster Tools for reconsideration.

Ryan Stewart

Ryan Stewart (Content Marketing Expert, Webris)

Casey Markee

Casey Markee (President, Media Wyse)

It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when” you or your clients will be impacted by a Google algorithmic or manual penalty. As with everything, knowledge is power. Google provides detailed resources [linked above] on how to approach manual actions that are the most common penalties one will receive.

As for algorithmic penalties, knowing how each of these work (Panda is Content & UX-related, Penguin is Links and WebSpam-related) will go a long way in preparing your sites and the sites of your clients for any possible fallout. Just reviewing the Wikipedia entries on Panda and Penguin [linked above] will provide the average site owners with “some” understanding of how these work and what practices [they] should avoid.

With Panda, Google published a “23 Questions to Ask of your Site Content” [linked above] way back in 2011, which continues to be the standard to insulate yourself from its bamboo grips. Penguin in contrast, is all about working within the Google Webmaster Guidelines. Do you tend to run out and grab every link you can, regardless of niche or quality? Or maybe you design your content for search engines first and not for visitors? Then Penguin is probably going to waddle onto your site very soon.

There are typically two penalties you will need to watch out for, manual action penalties, and algorithmic penalties. Each presents its own process for resolution.

Manual action penalties can be link related and are discovered as notifications within Google Webmaster Tools. These will typically require link disavows and a reconsideration request be filed once you’ve taken due diligence to request removal and disavow unnatural links.

You’ll typically see a repetitive pattern of keyword optimized anchor text spanning across multiple web properties, as the leading culprit to the penalty.

If the issue is serious, you may receive an algorithmic penalty through the Penguin algorithm. This typically corresponds with sharp drops in inbound traffic in analytics that matches with key Google search updates. The same corrective path would be needed, but you may not see an improvement until the next manual refresh and update of the Google search engine algorithm.

Focus on really identifying common anchor text (link text) patterns that are repetitive and spanning across separate webs properties. Typically this will show the trails of link building automation tools or other unnatural link building activity conducted over time. It’s important to identify the manual action penalty through Google Webmaster Tools, or the Algorithmic penalty where traffic drops can be seen that match with recent Google update dates.

If you are experiencing an issue with a link penalty, it’s important to know you’re not totally at fault. As a specialist in this field I can say that there have been numerous sites with link building activities from the early 2000’s that have simply made them a victim of the times in Google’s eyes, over a direct offender in today’s world.

Michael Bergen

Michael Bergen (Content Marketing Manager, Riverbed Marketing)

Konstantinos (Co-founder, Beakon)

What I did -along with praying- was that I used a tool to find these links and report them using Google Webmaster Disavow Tool [linked above]. I used cognitiveSEO for that job. It is a great tool at a more affordable price than others. After a lot of updates, plenty of disavowed links, and a couple of years, the website is back on the 1st page, achieving the top 3, due to local SEO.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Google is the giant and all we have to do is play by their rules. Try to keep your link building strategy clean. Don’t trust a SEO agency that promises the top 3 positions within a month, and always, but always manually, check your links. The disavow tool is your only hope against negative SEO!

Evaluating the link profile to identify unnatural links is the most time consuming because you often need to reach out to the webmaster or owner of the site and request that the link be removed [or] nofollowed. [The other option is to] file for disavow.

Everything you do must be documented so the Google Web Spam Team (GWST) can verify that you have changed your ways, repented of your link spam sins, and vowed to never go that route again – even if it was the fault of your webmaster.

Finally, it’s time to use all of that documentation as reference material for your reconsideration request. Make it simple and to the point, take full responsibility rather than playing the blame game. Then wait and see what GWST says or does.

When they do lift the penalty, it can take 2-3 months for your site to begin ranking again.

As a SEO pro I’m mostly in agreement with Google’s unnatural link penalties, but I have seen unnatural link penalties that I thought were pure politics.

Google knows people want to rank well in their natural results so when they suggest or even tell you that your rankings will increase if you have secure URLs or a mobile friendly site, be wary and wait to see if what Google claims is true. Most of the time when Google cracks down on unwanted search results, no one knows it’s coming.

Tom Shivers (Founder, Capture Commerce)

Andrew Isidoro

Andrew Isidoro (SEO Manager, and Freelance SEO)

Handling a Google penalty isn’t easy but diagnosing what is wrong is more important than anything. There are a number of Google penalties that can cause your organic visibility to drop so make sure you are dealing with the right one before you go hacking apart your link profile. The last thing you need after being caught up in a Panda refresh is to start removing decent links to your websites pages.
There’s no instant way in SEO, you can’t always manipulate the system. So, do SEO the right way.

Create remarkably helpful content, build the real backlinks, build relationships with other bloggers, and do real marketing. If you’re doing this, you won’t have any concern about penalties.

Darmawan (Founder, PanduanIM)

Ron Sanders
Ron Sanders (Online Marketing Strategist, Profit Labs)
I use a software tool called SEO Spyglass to check the backlink profile of the home page and other popular pages within there website. [This tool] organizes the links according to penalty risk, which allows you to easily sort which links Google is having issues with in their report.

You create a text file of all the bad high penalty risk links and save the file.

You will now need to add your file to the disavow tool [Login to the] Google Webmaster Tool and head on over to the Google disavow tool. Choose your website, click the disavow links button, then choose the text file of links you had previously saved and submit.

Google usually takes a week or two to start disavowing the links. Keep in mind this will not remove the links from the search. Google will simply turn them to nofollow and not give them any credit.

Reading through these perspectives and tips provides a lot of consistency in thought and some very usable step-by-step processes to use in your own penalty-removal and penalty-prevention strategies. Be sure to read these with a grain of salt, understanding that not all perspectives or approaches apply to all people. That is where Search Engine Journal and the SEJ community is here to help. The resources available on this site (including the podcast), help you to wade through the available options and make the right decision for you.

Now, all that is left is for you to share with us in the comments, below. We are eager to hear YOUR perspectives and strategies!

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