Google Penalties & The Causes Of Them

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Google may penalise your website for one of two reasons – using manipulative methods to increase your site’s rankings or providing a poor experience to people who visit your site.

Manipulative methods fall into one of two categories – on-site or off-site. On-site refers to methods used within the technical set-up of your site. Off-site refers to methods relating to backlinks, which are the primary factor that Google use to determine the trust and authority of a site.

A penalty can either be a manual one or an algorthimic one. A manual penalty is where someone from within Google has manually reviewed your site and determined that it has breached one or more of their guidelines. An algorthimic penalty is where your site has tripped a filter/safeguard built into Google’s algorithm.

Algorithmic penalties fall into one of two categories – Panda or Penguin. Panda penalties relate to the usability of your site and the quality of your site’s content. They roll out, unannounced, on a monthly basis. Penguin penalties relate to over-optimisation. They roll out only at certain times of the year, and are generally accompanied by an announcement from Google.

Your whole site can be penalised or just specific pages of it. If too many of your pages breach Google’s guidelines, it’s possible for every page on your site to be penalised as a consequence – even the pages that don’t breach any of the guidelines.

In some instances, your site may be completely removed from Google’s index, however, the most common scenario is that it will drop 10-100 positions in the search results for multiple keywords. If your site drops just a few positions in the search results, it’s very doubtful that it’s received a penalty. It’s more likely that either:

  • Some of the sites that were below yours have improved their trust and authority through additional backlinks.
  • Some of the backlinks that were causing your previous rankings have been devalued by Google.
  • Google has updated their algorithm  to give slightly different weightings to various on-site and off-site factors.

A penalty can be applied to work done on your site months, or even years, ago. It’s quite possible that something that you did last year, that resulted in your site ranking highly from then until now, is now the very thing that has triggered a penalty.

Just one of the issues listed below can be enough for Google to penalise your website, however, often it will be a combination of them.

Over Optimised Anchor Link Text

Google thinks there are too many links pointing at your site using anchor link text (the text that forms the clickable part of a link) that exactly matches, or very closely matches, the keywords that you’re trying to rank for. The exact percentage permitted is not known, and probably varies from industry to industry, however, if more than 20% of the links pointing at your site are anchor text optimised then it can be a problem.

Too Many Links From Low Quality Sources

Google thinks there are too too many links pointing at your site from low quality and/or spam sites. Every site will naturally have some low quality links, however, when that percentage reaches 75+%, then it becomes a problem. A low quality source is a subjective term, but as a guideline, consider sites that have an Open Site Explorer Domain Authority of less than 10 or an Ahrefs Domain Rank of less than 40 as being low quality.

Too Many Links From Irrelevant Sources

Google thinks there are too many links pointing at your site from sources that aren’t relevant to the topic of your site. For example, if your site is travel related, yet very few links come from sites, or pages on multi-topic sites, that are travel related, then it raises a red flag. Again, the exact percentage permitted is unknown, but if less than 25% of the links pointing towards your site are in some way relevant, it’s an issue that you need to address.

Paid Links / Link Schemes

Google thinks either:

  • You have paid people to link to your site.
  • You have received payment from other sites to links to them.
  • You have paid for a program or service that automatically builds links for you.
  • Your site is part of a network that has agreed to link to each other.
Deceptive / Manipulative On-Page Tactics

Google thinks aspects of your site exist to deceive or manipulate visitors or its algorithm. Common examples are:

– Hiding text to make a page seem more relevant to a keyword than it really is.
– Automatically redirecting vistors to a different page to the one they clicked on in the search results.
– Forcing visitors to stay on the site by disabling the funtionality of the web browser’s back button.
– Giving visitors no other option but to click on an advert.

On-Site Keyword Over-Optimisation

Google thinks you have excessively used on your site the keywords that you want to rank for. For example, unnaturally repeating the same keyword phrase within the main text of a page, or using the exact keyword phrase in the title, url, header tags, image tags and internal links. Whilst you do need to use keywords on your site, you need to use them in a balanced way.

Low Value / Thin / Over-Lapping / Duplicate / Non-Unique Content

Google thinks too many pages on your site don’t provide enough substance and value to visitors to your site. For example, you have lots of pages that either:

  • Have very little content on them.
  • Are shallow in nature and don’t state anything beyond the obvious.
  • Exist solely for the purpose of ranking for a specific keyword.
  • Are the same, or nearly the same (with just a few words changed), as other pages on your site.
  • Have the exact same content can be found elsewhere on the web.
Ad Heavy Page Layout

Google thinks your site either has too many ads or that the positioning of the ads negatively affects your site’s usability. There are no specific guidelines, but having more space, measured in pixels, on pages given to ads than to content is advised against. Also not advisable is making visitors having to scroll down before they see the main content of the page.

Low Engagement / High Bounce Rate

Google thinks that visitors to your site aren’t satisfied with what they find because they either spend very little time viewing it or click back to the search results without viewing more than one page of your site (called a bounce). If your site has a bounce rate of more than 50% and/or an average viewing time of less than 30 seconds, then it could cause your site to be penalised.

Outbound Spam Links

Google thinks you’re either permitting spam to be housed on your site or aren’t being active enough to prevent it. This can happen if you allow visitors to create new pages on your site or to add new content to existing pages. For example, visitors may be leaving blog comments, posting in a forum, or creating profiles/accounts for the sole purpose of linking back to their site with optimised anchor link text.

Hacked / Malware

Google thinks your site is a danger to visitors because it’s been hacked into or infected by malware. This is a problem because people visiting your site then risk having their computer compromised. A hacked site can also have outbound links hidden in it – normally to spam websites, and particularly to xxx, pharmecutical and gambling ones.

If your site has received a manual penalty, you’ll be notified of it via your Google Search Console account. If your site has received an algorithmic penalty, you won’t received any notification of it from Google, however, an instant, significant and long lasting drop in rankings and traffic is a clear indicator that your site has been hit with an algorithmic penalty.

To have a manual penalty overturned, you must fix the…

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