Jesse McDonald

The Beginner's Guide to Identifying and Recovering from a Google Penalty

If you are new to the SEO world, let me be the first to say, “Welcome!”  You are stepping into an industry requiring an incredibly rewarding skill-set that is paired with an incredible community of people.

Assuming that you are in fact reading this as someone new to the industry, I would imagine that it is safe to say that not-too-recently you have felt absolutely overwhelmed with all of the new information you have been taking in.  With the constant talk of keywords, on-page, off-page, and algorithm updates it is very easy to get the motivational wind knocked out of you.  Then you begin hearing people talk about penguins, pandas, and some fish named Fred.  

How are you ever supposed to keep up and learn all of this stuff?

Trust me, it gets easier with time and practice.  Just keep at it and you will eventually get the hang of it.

With all of that said, I would like to take a moment and give you some insights on how to identify if a site has been hit with a penalty, what kind of penalty you might be dealing with, and give some recommendations on how to recover.

Types of Penalties

From a very top level, there are two main types of penalties a site could be facing.  Manual penalties and algorithmic penalties.  Manual penalties are given when a Google employee manually reviews a site and determines that some aspect of the site is breaking Google guidelines.  Algorithmic penalties are caused by a signal triggering a specific element within Google’s algorithm.  Determining which of these might be impacting your site is a crucial first step to fixing any penalty-related issues.

Manual Penalties

If you feel that your site has been hit with a penalty, the first place you should check is Google Search Console. Within this platform, you will receive a notification that tells you if your site has acquired a penalty from a manual review by a Google employee.  This notification will tell you the reason for this penalty acquisition and give you resources to use as guidelines that will help you fix the issues that led to this penalty.

Once you have identified the type of penalty you have acquired and gone through clean up efforts, be it a link clean up, correcting poor implementation of markup data or even a site hack, you will now need to submit a reconsideration request.  This document should outline why you believe you received the penalty, the actions that you went through to correct the issue, and reassure Google that you will make sure to never let this happen again.  It is important to own up to the mistake.  If it was made by a previous SEO, make sure to mention that you are taking over the account from someone else but that you will do everything in your power to correct any issue moving forward.  Accountability and honesty are absolutely crucial to having this penalty removed from your site.

If you submit a reconsideration request and it gets denied, don’t get discouraged.  This could mean that you need to go through and be a bit more thorough with your clean-up efforts or simply rewrite your request submission. Check out this article on Search Engine Watch by Marie Haynes for more information on manual penalty cleanups and reconsideration requests.

Algorithmic Penalties

This is the area that gets a bit more challenging.  When a site has been affected by an algorithmic penalty, you will not get a notice from Google. Instead, you have to comb through data to determine if your site is being impacted. Then, you have to look at several factors to determine what part of the algorithm is causing problems to your site.

Along with not receiving a notice from Google when a site has acquired an algorithmic penalty, there is no reconsideration request process. In the past, the SEO would have to go through the cleanup process of what they believed was impacting their site and hope for a speedy update cycle.  

Over the past few years, Google has incorporated their Penguin (link quality) and Panda (content quality) algorithms into their main algorithm which updates around twice a day. That means that you no longer have to wait for these individual algorithms to refresh to see the efforts of your clean up. Before being incorporated into the main algorithm, site owners would have to wait anywhere from 1-2 years just to see these algorithms update. That would mean that whatever penalty was acquired would continue to impact these sites for the entire length of time between refreshes.  

For Those New to SEO

When learning SEO, it is always good to go back and study how things were done in the past to get a full perspective on the current climate of the industry. I would highly recommend going through Search Engine Journal’s History of Algorithm Updates to understand what types of major changes have happened over the years. This will also help you determine if a site you are working on has been hit in the past with a penalty and determine if you need to perform a cleanup initiative.

How to Determine if Your Site Has an Algorithmic Penalty

Anytime I am prospecting a potential client, I always throw them into SEMrush to look at their Organic  Visibility history. This information within the Domain Analytics section of the tool is a great way to determine if a site has been previously affected by an algorithmic penalty.

One of the first things you want to look for is major dips in your site’s organic visibility. One of the best parts of this tool is that SEMrush does a great job of annotating major changes in the algorithm. Within the last year, they have added these annotations to this chart which makes it very easy to make a better judgment on if you have a penalty and what type it could be.

SEMrush Organic Visibility chart showing a decline from a penalty and the incline post clean-up.

All this being said, with Panda and Penguin in the core algorithm, it will be a bit more difficult to determine moving forward if it is content or link-related straight from this chart. It is still a great place to start to see if your site is being impacted by an algorithmic penalty.

You should also look at overall rankings and traffic to your site. Huge drops in rankings can be a big indicator or a potential penalty. Do keep in mind that I’m not talking about a drop in a one or two positions.  I’m talking several page drops to full disappearance.  These don’t always mean your site has received a penalty but they would definitely indicate a need to do some research and compare these drops to recent updates.

Performing an Algorithmic Penalty Clean Up

Once you have determined if your site has been hit with a penalty and what type of penalty you are dealing with, the next step is to perform a cleanup initiative. Always keep in mind that a clean up should be performed with great care. Don’t try to speed through the process. Take your time and make sure you do this correctly.

Link Clean Up

If you feel that your site has been hit with a link-related penalty, it is important to perform a link clean up.  The first thing you are going to want to do gather a list of backlinks for your site. Personally, I like to gather these lists from as many tools as possible to make sure I’m not missing anything. If you are unsure of what tools to use, definitely check out SEMrush, Majestic, Moz, Ahrefs, Kerboo, and Link Research Tools, just to name a few. It is also important to pull the list of links found in Google Search Console.

Once you have your list together, go through the links and determine what is good and what is bad. This is where things get a little tricky because there is down concrete way of judging if a link is good or bad. This is something that just comes with time link building and looking at tons of websites. If you are in a place where you are new to link building, try reaching out to some industry professionals and see if they will mentor you.

Disavow

Once you have your list of links that you want to keep or get rid of, you are going to want to move into the disavow process. The disavow.txt file, when uploaded to Google Search Console, tells Google that you no longer want to associate with the domains/urls listed. Google has released a comprehensive guide to using the disavow tool correctly so make sure you read that if you have never performed a disavow before. Once Google recrawls these links and compares them to your latest disavow file, you should begin to see the benefit of this cleanup effort. The recrawling aspect of this is what can make a link clean up take a fair amount of time to recover from.  

It is also very important to reach out to these sites and try to have the link physically removed, if possible.  By doing so, you are eliminating the possibility of the site passing any equity to your site at all because there is no link as opposed to relying on Google to see this site in your disavow and cross-reference that with the recrawl of that specific link.

Content Clean Up

If you are noticing a significant drop in rankings for a particular set of related keywords out of nowhere, checking your content is a great place to start. It is a good bet that the content relating to that specific keyword group is being considered as low-quality. This could be due to thin, spammy, or even duplicate content.

If you think you are being affected, one of the first things you should do is run your content through a plagiarism checker, especially if you yourself did not write the content. If you find that your site has plagiarised content, you are going to want to go through and give it a rewrite.  After doing so, try submitting the new page to index through Google Search Console.  If this was, in fact, the cause of the rankings decline, you should see the rankings recover pretty quickly, given that you ranked well for these keywords in the first place and caught the penalty in a timely manner.

If you believe you have a content-related penalty, take a look at your internal link structure for the page you believe is being impacted. You could also be running into an issue regarding a spammy internal link structure. If this is the case, go through your site and try updating your anchor text or removing any links that might be excessive, like having several of the same links to a page on your homepage that utilizes the exact same anchor text.

Always Be Monitoring

It is important to keep a constant eye on your site’s performance within Google. While their algorithm is smart and can figure out a lot on its own, I am a big believer in fixing what you can and not relying on Google. If you have a link to your site that is very obviously spammy, go ahead and remove it. In my mind, it is always better to solve the problem before you have to redeem yourself in the eyes of Google.

While the possibilities for improving your site move well past these penalty suggestions, these are great places to start. I highly encourage you to take a look at your site using the above tips and seeing if there is something you can do to improve your organic performance.

I'm a beginner at SEO and found this page incredibly useful.
Nicola Yap
I'm glad you found the article helpful! :)
Thank you. I'm glad to read this information.

I have a question, why the percentage of keyword is decreased? is it because the content is too many keywords, so getting a penalty ?
Ayana Putri
There are a few things that can create a drop in keywords, from a penalty perspective. The first thing I would look at would be the possibility of the site in question being a victim of keyword stuffing and spammy anchor text. Next, I would look at the possibility of an large number of low-quality links pointing to the site, especially if a single page is pulling all the weight for that specific keyword group.
So. Much. YES.

This is exactly why a backlink audit is the first thing I start with when taking on a new link building project.
Melanie Nathan
An audit of a site's backlink profile can be so informative to a campaign. I agree. It's one of the first things I do when I get a new site. I'm glad you liked the article, Melanie!
A great and simple breakdown. Thanks, Jesse. This is something I can use with my clients as a primer instead of having to explain everything myself ;)
George
Hi George! I'm glad you found the article helpful. I hope it this makes your client communication easier.
I like the fact that you highlighted the activity of reaching out to the site to have the link physically removed and don't just rely on the disavow file, I really push this idea as having thousands of spam comments still visible can't also be good for your brand. I've actually seen a massive uplift for a large website by just reviewing and refreshing their content as often a lot of static content is out of date after a few years as things change, even focusing on the top 100 pages can make a massive difference to your business.
David Iwanow
I'm glad you liked the article, David! Staying up-to-date on both links and content are so incredibly important.
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