Last Updated on December 9, 2021 by Scott Charleboix
In this post, avoid search engine penalties, search engines actively penalize websites they feel are trying to manipulate the results. Usually, this is related to a violation of the Google Webmaster Guidelines, which sets out rules that webmasters are expected to follow in order to avoid being penalized. However, there are also penalties for being overly aggressive with nearly any aspect of SEO: excessive keyword repetition, too many keyword links, on-page optimization that is “too perfect”, etc.
Therein lies the challenge and the paradox of SEO: webmasters need to take enough action to make their websites readable to search engines and help them figure out what the website is about, but not so much that they start to look like a manipulator (“web spam” in search engine parlance). In this Action, we’ll give you an overview of search engine penalties, and three “Golden Rules” to keep in mind to help you stay on the search engines’ good side.
Avoid search engine penalties
Not all SEO is bad
Some webmasters feel that if they so much as think about SEO, they risk being penalized by the search engines. Unfortunately, the search engines propagate this view with frequent misinformation and ‘witch hunt” campaigns designed to make an example of prominent rule-breakers. They often talk about the intentions of an algorithm change (eg, “Panda is about finding quality websites“) rather than its actual function (Panda looks at a series of website attributes and attempts to guess whether a site has more in common with what their reviewers have categorized as “quality sites” or “low quality sites”), in order to give an exaggerated view of their capabilities.
They even build in random delays and unexpected movements into the search results to try to confuse webmasters as to the effectiveness of their SEO efforts. However, if you pay less attention to what search engines say, and more attention to what they do, you will find that search engines consistently reward websites that engage in SEO.
These days, almost no competitive keyword has high ranking results that have NOT performed SEO work. Even Google’s Head of Web Spam Matt Cutts has acknowledged the valuable role that SEOs play in helping search engines find and understand a site’s content.
The most important thing to understand is that despite the fear-mongering (usually from folks most interested in selling you paid search ads), doing SEO will not get your site penalized. Instead, your site gets penalized when you break one of the search engine’s rules, which sadly many sites do unintentionally and unknowingly. Since these rules are constantly changing, and are sometimes unwritten, it’s easy to go awry. Learning about SEO — including factors that can cause penalties — is the best way to ensure you don’t accidentally get on the wrong side of the search engines.
Types of search engine penalties
There are 3 different types of penalties which may adversely impact your website’s search engine rankings:
- Manual actions are one-time actions triggered by a site review by a Google employee (or other filter), and causing your site to be completely dropped from Google’s search results (or ranked so low it might as well be dropped). Manual actions are generally for the most egregious of violations, and the only way to recover is to fix the problem and submit a reconsideration request.
- Ranking drops are one-time actions like manual actions, but not quite as severe. Frequently they impact only a single keyword or page. For example, your site may get a +40 penalty, where overnight your Google ranking drops from #2 to #42. +99 is another common ranking drop.
- Algorithmic penalties are the least severe type of search engine penalty and occur when the search engines don’t consider your site to be web spam, but just don’t think you should be ranking as highly as you are. Algorithmic penalties feed into the ranking of your site just like algorithmic factors (like number of links, use of keywords, etc.) do, but instead of being positive factors, they are negative. The much-ballyhooed Google Panda and Penguin updates are examples of algorithmic penalties. Many sites suffer from algorithmic penalties without being aware of it, which can make improving your rankings feel a little like swimming upstream: you must fight much harder for every inch of progress.
How to tell when you’ve been impacted by a penalty
The best way to determine if your site has been impacted by a search engine penalty is to watch your analytics closely. If one day you see a sudden large drop in traffic referred from Google but no change in traffic referred from Bing or Yahoo!, it’s likely that you’ve just been hit by a penalty. Note that day-to-day fluctuations are completely normal, and can be impacted by day of the week, holidays, news events, and even weather.
Search engine penalties will show up as a much larger traffic drop than any of these events, and the traffic will stay at the new, lower level rather than recovering to the normal trendline. Another useful technique is to search your brand name in Google. Unless your brand name consists of common generic words (like “Can I Rank”) or the site is very new, you should see your site ranking highly in the results.
You can also try searching for a unique sentence off one of your site pages: again, if the sentence is truly unique, a non-penalized site should appear close to the top. Finally, you can check to see if your site is still in Google’s index by searching site:yourdomain.com. If no results are returned, bad news: your site has been removed from Google’s index, and you will need to submit a reconsideration request to recover.
Golden rule #1: Consider users first
Google’s web spam team is very interested in the intentions behind your actions. For example, a common web design pattern for an FAQ page is to use an accordion-style system which initially hides text on the page using the CSS property “display: none”, and slides down to reveal the text when a user clicks on a question. This use of “display: none” is good for users and search engines have no problem with it.
However, suppose you decide you need more keyword usage on your page but don’t want to ruin your elegant design, so you use “display: none” to hide a huge list of keywords. This usage of “display: none” is clearly intended to improve your search engine rankings, not help users, and would result in a penalty if detected by Google’s web spam team. A similar thought process can be used when considering use of keywords in site navigation or title tags: if it’s good for users, it’s probably not excessive.
If you’d feel a little sheepish trying to explain how “Home Mortgage Loan, Mortgage Rates, Mortgage Calculator, Home Loan Refinancing” is the best page title for users, that may be a sign you’ve put the needs of search engines above the needs of users and are risking a penalty.
Golden Rule #2: In all thing’s moderation
Buddha advises that moderation is the path to enlightenment. In SEO, moderation may well be the path to higher rankings. Once you first start to see signs of success from an SEO practice, it can be tempting to jump in with both feet and push that practice to an extreme. These examples are what not to do, they’re not meant or intended on what you should do.
- Adding the keyword to my title tag helped me rank, so now I’ll add 10 keywords!
- Distributing a press release worked great, so next month I’ll send out 50 press releases!
- Making my target keyword bold is good, so including it 3 times in bold, 5 times italic, once for every type of heading, 7 times in image alt tags, and twice in internal links will be even better!
- Adding 20 pages to my site tripled my traffic, so now I’ll add 1,000 pages!
In SEO, pushing any good practice to its extreme turns it into a bad practice, and is likely to trigger penalties.
Golden Rule #3: Diversify your strategies
A corollary to rule #2 is that you should never rely too much on any one strategy to deliver ranking results. As in investing, diversification reduces your risk by limiting your dependency on any one factor. Suppose blog guest posts are working well for you, and you manage to grow both your traffic and your search engine rankings by publishing hundreds of guest posts, to the exclusion of all other marketing channels.
Then one day Google decides that blog guest posts are a form of manipulation and starts penalizing any sites that build links in such a manner. Overnight your rankings plummet.
In addition to protecting against risks, diversification also helps you avoid penalties. Search engines want to see “natural” link profiles that suggest that a website engages in a wide variety of marketing practices and user engagement: guest posts, blog comments, directory listings, press, tweets, Facebook shares, and editorial links all combine to create a brand footprint that suggests “Yes, this is an important site” much more than off-the-charts scores in one area, and zero everywhere else.
To quickly summarize, there are penalties for being overly aggressive with SEO, so don’t use “excessive” keyword repetition, too many keyword links, on-page optimization that is “too perfect”, etc. and then hopefully you won’t fall victim to the Google algorithm.
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