5 SEO Questions with Marie Haynes: Google Algorithms, Penalty Fixes and Pro Tips for Site Owners

Melanie Nathan

Jun 06, 20187 min read
Google Algorithms, Penalty Fixes and Pro Tips for Site Owners

This week we have an extra special treat for the awesome SEMrush community. Google penalty and algorithm changes expert, Marie Haynes, is here to answer questions regarding how to diagnose and fix search engine penalties you may be incurring on your website.

While links are still important to Google’s algorithms, Google is getting really good at figuring out which links are true mentions and which are just there for SEO reasons.

— Marie Haynes

Since 2008, Marie has spent the majority of her time helping site owners who have been negatively impacted by Google algorithms. And, although Marie is best known for her Google penalties prowess, she’s also an incredibly brilliant and talented SEO, author and speaker.

Without further adieu, I present the fantastic Marie Haynes...

1. What is your penalty or algorithm pet peeve? If you could clarify ONE thing to website owners about Google penalties or algos, what would it be?

Stop trying to find tricks and loopholes to help you rank better! If you have been doing SEO for more than a few years, then you likely remember the days where you could take a mediocre article and make it rank on the power of links and a few on-page tweaks. While links are still important to Google’s algorithms, Google is getting really good at figuring out which links are true mentions and which are just there for SEO reasons. 

I still see so many people who are looking for the trick that is going to launch them to the top, whether that trick is link building, Private Blog Networks, redirecting expired domains, etc. 

Preferably, what is working now is providing the best information of any of the sites that you compete against. If your pages are essentially the same as everyone else’s, unless you have tremendous brand recognition and authority in your space, you are likely not going to be able to rank well.

2. What are the Google penalties that you see websites getting hit with the MOST?

I am actually not seeing as many manual actions as I used to see. Back in 2012, it was not uncommon for me to get an email almost every day from someone who needed help removing a penalty. But now, I get just a small handful of requests for manual action help every year.

Most of the manual actions that I get requested to help with are pure spam penalties. If your site gets a pure spam penalty, then this is a really bad sign. Usually, sites that get this type of penalty cannot recover, although we have been able to help a few get back on their feet again.

I have only seen a couple of manual actions for unnatural links over the last year. I believe that this is because Google is really confident in their ability to ignore links algorithmically. The sites that I have seen that received manual actions were ones that were heavily involved in either link buying or in large widget/tool link schemes.

What we do see a lot of these days, are algorithmic hits. While these are not technically penalties, they sure can feel like one. If your site was ranking really well for your top keywords and then the algorithm changes to prefer other sites, it certainly can feel like a penalty.

We have been able to help quite a few sites recover after an algorithmic hit. But, there is rarely just one thing that needs to be fixed. It is usually a complete overhaul of quality that needs to happen in order to see improvements after this type of decline.

3. What is the best way for a site owner to definitively tell if they have been hit by a Google penalty?

If you think you may have a manual action, you can go to Google Search Console (the old version, not the beta version) and then click on Search Traffic → Manual Actions. You will see the penalty in there.

If you think you have been affected by an algorithm update, this is hard to diagnose. I recommend segmenting your traffic to show just Google traffic. To do this in Google Analytics, go to Acquisition → All Traffic → Source/Medium and then choose Google organic traffic. Then, look for obvious sustained drops that line up with known or suspected algorithm updates. 

You can find many of these dates in SEMrush:


Alternatively, I have kept a list for many years now of known and suspected algorithm updates.

It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether an algorithmic update has affected your site. In some cases, seasonal dips can interfere with analysis. Or, it may be that perhaps a competitor has just started to outrank you. A drop in traffic is not always due to a penalty.

4. What is the general procedure for fixing a penalty and making everything ok with Google again? Does a penalty REALLY ever actually go away?

The answer to this question depends on the type of penalty that is given. Google says that any manual action can be removed. However, removal of a manual action doesn’t always result in improvement in rankings. If you received a manual action for unnatural links, once you remove or disavow those links, it is not like you are going to start receiving the flow of PageRank that you once had. As such, in most cases, if you get a manual action for unnatural links, rankings will not be as good once the penalty is removed.

If you have an algorithmic hit, in many cases these can be reversed, but it can take a lot of effort and time.

We always recommend looking at the following to find areas for improvement:

  • A full technical site audit, including page speed assessments.
  • Reviewing the site in the eyes of Google’s Quality Raters’ Guidelines.
  • Having an unbiased look at competitors to determine whether it is incredibly obvious that your site has the best information. 

In some cases though, algorithmic hits cannot be fixed. For example, in February of 2017, I believe that Google made it so that E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust) was a big ranking factor. If you were a financial site that used to rank well, but if you have no actual real-world financial experience, then you likely lost rankings to the well known big brands in the financial space. You may not have anything obviously wrong with your site. But, Google is recognizing that people prefer to get their advice from those businesses who are known as the leaders in their space.

5. What three tips do you have for site owners regarding Google penalties and algorithms?

1. Manual actions are almost always given to sites that have been massively breaking the rules.

If you have built a couple of links or have two pages that could be doorway pages or have a bit of copied content, you likely don’t need to worry about getting a manual action. 

2. Start paying more attention to the value that your competitors give to searchers.

If Google’s goal is to show the absolute best results to searchers, then you need to be that best result. It can be really difficult to look at your own website and see its flaws. It happens often in a site review; we will say, “Look, your competitor has a better page because they include a buying guide, extra photos, a video to tell people how to use the product, and original reviews. “ Even though it is obvious to us that the competitor has the best site, our client often can’t see this. They will often point out that they have a nicer design or that their competitor has spammy links. But ultimately, the sites that provide the best information are winning.

3. Stop looking for SEO wins that scale.

If you have thought up a way to get hundreds or thousands of links, there is a good chance that this is going to be seen as a link scheme by Google. If you have got an idea to create a page to rank for every city in the US, there is a good chance this will be seen as a doorway scheme. If you are pulling in a product feed so that you can suddenly have millions of new products, don’t expect to rank for these products unless you can make your pages even better than those that are already ranking.

Content Creation

Google has said that every page that is in their index is considered when they determine the quality of a website. Be sure that everything that you produce is really really good. In the past, as SEOs, we often would tell businesses to blog every day. Now, I say, “Blog only when you have awesome stuff to share.” 

If your content creation process is focused on providing incredible value, you will see wins over time.

To recap:

  • When it comes to rankings, stop trying to "trick" Google. Instead, actually provide the BEST information of any of the sites you compete against.
  • Google has gotten really good at identifying links for SEO purposes. Therefore, stay away from link buying.
  • If you think you have been affected by an algorithm update, try segmenting your traffic to show just Google traffic then look for obvious drops that line up to known algorithm changes.
  • Keep in mind that if you get a manual action for unnatural links, rankings will NOT be as good, even once the penalty has been removed.
  • Blog only when you have awesome content to share. Sites that provide the best information are winning the rankings war.

A Big Thanks to Marie Haynes

Marie is a very busy lady, and we truly appreciate her time answering these questions. We suggest you follow her on Twitter and pay attention to what she says during algorithm fluctuations. She doesn't blog often, but she does have a super informative paid newsletter that anyone in SEO can learn a lot from, and recently she has been sharing her thoughts weekly via video

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