An introduction to Google penalties

Posted on September 16, 2019


The term ‘penalty’ is thrown around a lot in some SEO circles, and sometimes it’s not the most accurate word to be using. Whenever a site has a fluctuation in the rankings leading to a dip in traffic, the first response you may hear when you question this change is that the site has been given a penalty by Google.

You may be told this whether your site has indeed been penalised by Google or whether a change in the search engine’s algorithms has simply resulted in the site dipping in the rankings.

What is a Google penalty?

In terms of SEO, the term ‘penalty’ is the result of one specific action and this is when a human Google reviewer gives the site a ‘manual action’. The reviewer will have gone to your site and looked around, and will have dampened the site’s visibility within the search results because it is deemed to have violated the Webmaster Quality Guidelines in some way.

The result of a penalty can range from a small downturn in the site’s rankings, to something as extreme as full removal from the search results, depending on what the violation is.

What are the guidelines?

Google’s Webmaster Quality Guidelines can be seen here and include some general advice guides such as how to help Google find your site’s pages. The manual actions on the list include unnatural links to your site, AMP (accelerated mobile page) content mismatch, structured data issues and hidden text and/or keyword stuffing.

The vast majority of manual actions will come from violating one of its guidelines. Google will also let you know if your site has been affected by one of these actions through Google Search Console, making it crucial to have this set up for your site.

How can I overcome the penalty?

When you are informed about your manual action, Google will also let you know how to fix it. Once you have done this, you then submit your site for review, which is known as a ‘reconsideration request’. This asks Google to remove the penalty. If Google deems that you have sufficiently completed the action required and decides the site no longer violates the guidelines, the penalty will be removed.

What about algorithmic penalties?

When your site is given a downward turn because of a Google general algorithm update, this is NOT a penalty. This is because it has not been manually applied as a result of a Google review, but instead as a consequence of an algorithm update.

Algorithm updates affect sites both positively and negatively, meaning that whatever is highlighted in the update means your site either adheres to it or no longer does. This will result in your site either seeing an upward movement in the rankings or a downward turn, with the latter often known as an ‘algorithmic devaluation’. As this isn’t as easy to explain, especially to clients who may be less aware of the jargon in the industry, the term ‘penalty’ often gets thrown around for this too, but is inaccurate.

To ensure your site adheres to Google’s guidelines, and to keep it visible in the search results, why not get in touch with Engage Web?

Operations Manager at Engage Web
Drawing from a broad pool of experience that ranges from university studies in English Language to his work as a medical receptionist in a busy GP practice, Alan fits right at home as Engage Web’s Operations Manager.
Alan Littler
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