How to Figure Out If You’ve Been Hit By A Google Penalty: A Step-by-Step Guide

Talk to ten different online marketers about Google penalties, and there’s a good chance they’ll regale you with ten different yarns about times they come across a penalised website; how they did or didn’t fix and how utterly destructive they can be.

When a website is hit with one of the aforementioned catastrophic penalties, it’s easy to see – rankings and traffic drop like a lead balloon.

But, what about those subtle manual penalties?

Well, they’re much harder to spot and more often than not, they slip under the radar. According to Digital Grain, only 5% of penalised websites are being submitted for reconsideration each month, which points to the idea that people just aren’t aware their site has been punished.

An explanation of a google penalty

Anyone who runs a website is dependent on the might of the Google juggernaut for a consistent stream of traffic, so it’s good practice to keep abreast of all the latest goings on when it comes to Google penalties. Not least because it gives you an edge over your competition, but it gives you a heads up should Google come a-knockin’ and you need to make changes quickly.

Stage 1: Review The Big Algorithm Updates

Over the last few years, Google has constructed many new algorithms designed to perfect the content the internet has to offer; whilst also refining the process of placing it in front of the user that is searching.

Graphic showing the timeline of Google algorithm updates

We’ve created an in-depth guide for each significant update, so if you think that your website is starting to slip, you can refer to our guide to you can get your site out of reverse and back into drive.

Panda, 2011

Google logo with panda eyes as the two O's

Updates came before Panda, but it was the first of the widely known and potentially catastrophic updates.

It was developed to derail websites that contained thin and poorly written content, spammy or excessive ad usage and possible sites that were behind the times regarding design.

Secure Update, 2014

We’ve heard a lot about some high-profile hacking cases in recent years.

To combat the increasing sophistication of hacking it’s vital that we stay one step ahead.

The secure update was released in 2014 with the aim of making webmasters aware of the dangers online and to encourage them to invest in an SSL certificate; a critical element that keeps customers e-commerce data safe and secure.

Mobilegeddon, 2015

mobile crashes to earth representing the mobilegeddon algorithm

Mobilegeddon is where the upcoming Mobile First Index first began to take shape.

Sure, Mobilegeddon sounds a little aggressive; as if the world might collapse in on itself at any given moment, but it’s far kinder than that.

This update was designed to give preferential treatment to sites that operated using a design that put mobile first and made websites scalable on portable devices.

Penguin 4.0, 2016

Graphic of a penguin wearing sun glasses and chainsaw representing the google penguin algorithm Penguin was given life back in 2012 as a method of combating spam with less than honourable intentions. Penalties were focused around anything that could be considered black hat, such as keyword stuffing and poor quality links.

Penguin is now in its fourth adaptation, which punishes weak links rather than a site in its entirety. This is helpful for sites that have been the victim of a malicious link campaign.

Intrusive Interstitial Penalty, 2017

This update further confirmed Google’s commitment to mobile. The Intrusi…let’s just call it the IIP shall we? The IIP punishes sites with interstitial adverts and other forms of pop-up content that hinders the functionality of a page on a mobile device.

Not every ad focused website will deteriorate, but the sites that hinder UX will be next in Google’s crosshairs.

These algorithms are being tweaked and refined on a consistent basis, and most of them will be fortified every twelve months or so to ensure that searchers are getting precisely what they want when they type something into the search engine.

Stage 2: Purge Black Hat SEO Techniques

Dark picture of a man wearing a black hat

It’s not possible to delve into everything that Google has ever said and done, but if your intentions are to ensure that your customer has the very best experience on your website, then you’re ticking a lot of Google’s boxes.

The following list highlights a few issues that may incur the wrath of Google’s quest for user-experience perfection:

  • Content contains a disproportionate amount of pop-out ads.
  • Content rammed full of keywords.
  • Short, unoptimised content.
  • You’ve created or inherited poor links from low-quality sites that are promoting gambling and adult content.
  • Your website isn’t running HTTPS.
  • You’ve copied content from other sites.
  • Your site is slow and not optimised for mobile and similar devices.

Stage 3: Diagnosing a Penalty

Without knowing precisely what has made Google mad, how can you fix it?

Use Penalty Lookup Software

If your site has been hit by the Google iceberg, it’s not always possible to tell immediately. Tools like PowerSuite Rank Tracker can match up anomalies in your organic traffic with the latest algorithms when they are released, which means that you can amend the problem quickly and focus on ensuring you don’t fall into the same traps again and again.

SEO Powersuite penalty tracker results

Tools like SEMRush allow you to run audits on your website, so you can see exactly where your site needs improvement before your smacked down with a penalty. This is something you should be doing regularly.

SEMRush warnings graphic

Of course, when it comes to site errors it’s never possible to eradicate all errors, but this is where a little common sense comes in to play; prioritise your issues and work through the list starting with the things you think are affecting or could affect your website.

Stage 4: Prevention is Better Than the Cure

As the old saying goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure’. The best course of action is to avoid penalties in the first place.

Renegade website owners who purposefully attempt to cheat the system will crash and burn sooner or later. Generally speaking, the penalty will come to those who:

  • Lack knowledge and attempt to replicate the work of a professional SEO.
  • Purposefully violate the essential terms of SEO.
  • Partake in black-hat practices.

But if you do get a penalty, how you figure out the cause will depend on the kind of punishment you get.

For example, if you’re found wanting and Google hands down a manual penalty, you’ll be told via Webmaster Tools and by other correspondence such as email or letter, which at least gives you a fighting chance of getting back on the straight and narrow.

Webmaster tools manual penalty warning

But, when your site falls foul of an algorithm change, your position becomes somewhat more precarious. This involves finding a connection between what Google’s algorithm is about and how it contributed to your losses.

Here are a few of the things you can do to sidestep all of these issues in the first place:

  • Disavow below par or spammy links.
  • Ensure your anchor text is diverse and natural.
  • Remove duplicate content.
  • Create shareable long-form content that contributes to debate and gets people talking.
  • Ensure your site is running smoothly for UX purposes.

Remember that your websites ill fortune may be down to more general website problems, which may have no relation to any penalty, such as indexing problems etc.

SEO is as much about refining old strategies as is it creating new ones, which means you must always be on guard to sudden changes in rankings and traffic. Otherwise you’ll never know whether you must change up your approach or switch back to tried and tested.

If you need help diagnosing or recovering from a Google penalty, why not contact the E-commerce SEO experts? At POD we’ve had great success with helping our customers make a success of their online business after a penalty.