Assessing Google's Penalties

A few times a year in the SEO industry, the sky falls…just after the rankings do. In the Year of the Panda, many SEOs and online marketers felt the wrath of Google like never before. Many sites lost their rankings in 2011 (and not due to competition pushing them out), some sites lost their revenue and a few sites lost everything. Many agencies and so-called experts were forced to explain to their clients “why the site isn’t getting traffic any longer.”

In the book SEO Secrets, Danny Dover breaks penalties into two broad categories. By labeling the penalties Algorithmic and Manual, I believe he makes penalties easy to understand. Just remember:

Algorithmic Penalty = Panda

Manual Review Penalty = Message from a member of Google’s spam team in your Webmaster account

An Algorithmic Penalty is generally an effort to make the search results more accurate and effective, while minimizing user manipulation opportunities. So when one of the search engines experts has determined a way to lighten the impact of dishonest tactics, that ranking signal is added to the equation and essentially acts as a penalty for shady behavior. So what are the indications of new signals being added? Simple: losing rankings and traffic. In the case of Panda, it was entire industries.

As a result, links have lost their juice. One of the most common practices for manipulating search engines rankings using content farms to provide massive amounts of inbound links. For years companies would invest in building low-quality content sites with the intention of providing inbound links for clients. These inbound links would increase rankings for many clients with little effort. Throughout the Panda updates, article submission sites and other forms of user-generated content sites were losing value due to an overall low quality of content.

The silver lining is this: you can get your site out of this googleplex by improving your “quality score.” Become trustworthy through links from more authoritative, trusted websites than your own.

A Manual Penalty, however, generally means your site or specific pages of your site have been put in a holding cell. The repercussions are worse, and it takes a lot of due diligence to correct. Sometimes a domain has to go the graveyard. So what are the signs? Well, of course, traffic and rankings.

To be more specific, Google will play Houdini.
Top pages (sometimes the home page) which previously ranked will be buried. When Google assesses a penalty like that, it is usually in response to cloaking, keyword stuffing, and link selling or buying. In really bad scenarios, Google will remove domains. In that case, just pack it up.

What are the steps to correcting?

Having a search audit performed by experts is an obvious place to start, but if your “experts” got you into this digital pickle, you might look elsewhere for the audit.

The primary functions to execute in search of the problem:

  1. A Examine Link Profile. Why? Because this is where most things go wrong. Links are where Google spends most of its resources (remember – how Google views links is what makes the engine unique).
  2. A On-Site Analysis. Checking for duplicate issues that could be perceived as spam, canonicalization, and robot files. Yes, robot files. Your CMS is capable of doing crazy things from time to time, as are humans. Occasionally that results in mistyping and misclicking.

More Resources:

Google’s Webmaster Blog
Google’s Webmaster Malware & Spam Forum