Understanding Google Penalties: What to Know for SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) has become an essential part of online marketing, even for small businesses.

“We all plug into our mobile phones, tablets, and computers to keep up with the ever-changing world in which we live. For this reason, an online presence in the form of a website is vital,” notes Taylor Litle, marketer for Big Rentz, adding, “Whether in-house or outsourced, it should be in your business plan to hire one or two individual(s) to create, maintain, and monitor your website in order to stay up to date with changing software and technology.”

SEO is a big part of that, and it’s easy to integrate SEO practices into your content creation efforts when you know how. Using SEO helps you get the most out of your content. It can mean the difference between your website buried deep in the search engine results pages (SERPs) behind your competitors, and sitting at the top of the first page.

However, like many other marketing tactics, SEO is capable of being abused. If you fail to follow the rules of SEO, it can result in penalties, which move you further back into the SERPs and away from your customers.

However, don’t let the prospect of penalties dissuade you from learning about SEO and integrating it into your online marketing — chances are, if you haven’t paid mind to SEO yet, you’ve already incurred penalties just by failing to optimize your content. You can easily regain ground in the SERPs by getting started with some basic SEO tactics.

What Are Penalties?

If you’re just learning about SEO, you might be wondering, “What are penalties?”

SEO penalties are tied to the history of search engines and the way that Google searches the web. The “crawlers” or “spiders” that search engines use to scour the web and produce search engine results are capable of being manipulated, and marketers made quick work of figuring out shortcuts to the top of the SERPs.This resulted in a lot of spammy content showing up when users would use Google.

Google had long worked to reduce the amount of spam in the SERPs, but hadn’t made its efforts public.

“Google plays its cards very close to its chest, and for good reason. As one of the world’s leading search engines, it’s important that these trade secrets do not become common knowledge to ensure that companies cannot exploit vulnerabilities in the code to promote their sites unfairly,” explains a resource from AGI.

However, since 2012, Google has been transparent about the tactics and algorithms it uses to generate helpful results. Google then introduced the Penguin update, an adjustment to the Google search algorithm that impacted 1 in 10 search results.

You can be penalized by Google for a few reasons:

  • Paid Links: “Paid links” are links that a business has paid to have placed on a given webpage. Prior to 2012, it was assumed that any link could be placed on any page without negative consequences — regardless of relevancy or the quality of the website. The Penguin Algorithm changed that, and now, if you’re caught paying to have a link placed on a webpage, you’ll be penalized.
  • Comment Spam: This refers to the practice of using the comments section of articles, which are intended to be a place for readers to leave their thoughts about a piece of content, as a way to gain links back to a website. The errant marketer would search for websites with a comment section, likely indiscriminate of any relevance to their business, and leave a comment there including a link back to their website.
  • Blog Networks: Sometimes also referred to as “link farms,” blog networks are one of the biggest red flags that Google is on the lookout for on its search for bad content. Blog networks are a group of blogs that seem to have no affiliation with each other, but which are actually ran by a single person or business as part of a scheme to earn money from businesses willing to pay for links, and to promote the other blogs in the network. These tend to be a concern if you’re looking to use guest posting as an SEO tactic.
  • Guest Post Blogs: Some blogs accept contributions from guest authors, usually professionals in their niche or bloggers who owned similar blogs to their own, as a way to gain new content for their readers. Businesses aiming to improve search result rankings used this as an opportunity to contribute articles that included links back to their websites, but that had no value to the reader. The linked websites were often very promotional in nature and irrelevant to the rest of the article, and articles were often spun or poorly written — in short, spam.

There are a few ways that the content on your own website can cause you to be penalized as well.

Content that is too “shallow” — low quality, with little reader value — is considered a red flag by Google. Keyword stuffing is a tactic where a piece of content on a business’ website was written specifically to contain a high number of keywords related to the company’s products, or other keywords related to the business, that the business hopes to rank for in the SERPs. Content that is not optimized for mobile users is now also a red flag, considering mobile users now outnumber those on their desktops.

As you’ve read through this overview of penalties, you may have noticed that they all tend to have one thing in common: when something is done to benefit the business first, not the user, it tends to result in a penalty.

How Penalties Impact You

When penalties initially became public knowledge, websites that violated search engine rules were encouraged to improve their practices — if they wanted good results in the SERPs, they needed to provide content that was worth a high page rank.

However, even if you’re not a crafty SEO specialist, you may be impacted by penalties without realizing it. By now, it should be clear that even if you’re not trying to “game” Google, good search results are dependent on good content.

Some of the ways you can tell if you’ve been impacted by a penalty include:

• Your website no longer appearing in searches for your brand name.
• Your SERP rankings are for a page other than your homepage.
• Your website is moving backwards in the SERPs without changes to your website.
• Your website disappearing from the SERPs entirely.
If you notice any of these signs, you might be subject to a penalty.

What to Do If You Get a Penalty

If you’ve received a penalty, don’t worry — with a little work, you’ll be able to fix the error. Since each penalty is dependent on your website’s individual issue, fixing it will depend on what caused you to receive it.

The priority of mobile optimization is a more recent development that has resulted in many penalties, but Google has issued a variety of tools to help you ensure your content is optimized for mobile users. Responsive design — a design approach that places the user experience, expectations, and needs first — is the key to mobile optimization: “No matter what device your site is being displayed on, it always needs to look exactly the same,” notes a resource from Quickbooks on web design. Starting in 2018, Google will be assessing all websites based on their mobile functionality and user experience (UX).

Google has also issued tools that you can use if you’re being penalized for bad links. The Disavow Tool can help you remove spammy links from your link profile and regain some ground in the SERPs.

If your penalty was manual, meaning someone manually issued the penalty and it wasn’t the result of the work of an algorithm, you may have the opportunity to reach out to whoever issued the penalty once you’ve resolved the issue that caused it and request a re-review of your site.

Paying attention to SEO can help you avoid penalties, and get ahead of the competition — especially if they aren’t making efforts to optimize their content. Even for seasoned SEO specialists, optimization is sometimes about trial and error, so don’t worry about getting it all right when you’re first starting to work on your website. The truth is, even investing a little bit of extra time into SEO can give your online marketing efforts the boost they need. It takes a little bit of work to learn how to make the most of your content, but the results are worth it.

Victoria is a writer and social media geek who explores topics like branding, content creation, and marketing strategy. She creates actionable guides that help people understand marketing, and loves learning all there is to know about consumer psychology.

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