Few things are more devastating to a business which depends on search engine traffic to generate sales than getting whacked over the head with a Google penalty. Literally overnight the heart of any company can be ripped out. If you do your own search engine optimisation work then it's obviously vital that you understand what could cause Google to give you a penalty, which is basically a negative ranking modifier applied within their search engine algorithm.
But just as importantly, how do you know if somebody you have employed to carry out this work is doing damage your online reputation that you may never recover from?
So it's vital that you understand how you can avoid a Google penalty in order to protect your business, which means being aware of the key things that can generate one.
What Is A Google Penalty Anyway?
Google has become the world's top search engine because it has worked hard to ensure that peoplereceive high quality and relevant results when they search. This has allowed them to generate huge revenues from advertising.
To protect their market position Google works hard on its algorithm. This algorithm contains more than 200 ranking factors, which when put together determine the best sites to display any search term entered.
To try and stop people from manipulating the system, Google has developed a set of rules for website owners around what is expected of them. These include detailed quality guidelines that are pretty unambiguous.
If you break the rules then you could be hit by a penalty. Google penalties come in two forms, automatic algorithmic penalties and manual penalties (manual actions).
Let's Spell Out The Types Of Penalty You Can Get
Manual penalties are dished out by the search quality team. Sites are reported or flagged and then receive a human visit. If the guidelines are compromised then the site is manually penalised.
The automatic penalties come in two main forms:
The penguin updates are refinements to the Google algorithm which specifically look for low quality links that point to a website. As well as the quality of links, they also analyse link anchor text. If the only links pointing at your site are stuffed full of keywords for example, then that's not looking natural and you can expect to be sniffed out eventually.
The Panda updates are all about looking at the quality of what is on each webpage. If your site contains duplicate content, thin content (for example, a sales page with just a few paragraphs (of keyword-stuffed text) on it, or just generally low quality content such as machine generated content (usually known as spun content).
How will I know if I've been hit by a Google penalty?
If you keep on top of your websites metrics around rankings and visitors then there are several clear-cut signs to watch out for. Not all of these are immediate signs that your site has been hit by a penalty, but if those signs persist then it's time for alarm bells to start ringing.
You should always have your website hooked up with Google's Webmaster Tools. This is free for anyone with a Google account, so the first step is to get your website set-up inside Google Webmaster Tools.
One of the first places you can be made aware of a penalty is within your Webmaster Tools account. You will usually receive a notification telling you that unnatural linking has been found, or that you have been penalised.
The second thing you can do quickly is to search for your site by brand or company name. Unless it is something really common, then it should appear on the first page. If you search for it and you can't find it anywhere then that is a real red light.
Another big clue is if your traffic suddenly decreases sharply. If you have been removed from the index then it will almost completely disappear overnight, if you have been hit with a smaller penalty then you should see a dip where the rankings are taking a hit. Use your Google Analytics reports to detect a drop in search engine traffic.
Key Tips To Avoid Getting A Google Penalty
Okay, so now we understand exactly what a Google penalty is and what it looks like when you get one, let's discuss how you can avoid the entire situation in the first place.
The first thing you should do is to be completely familiar with Google's quality guidelines. If you're going to employ an outside agency to optimise your website then it's still vital you know about them, so that you can question the people who are going to be entrusted with your rankings (and potentially the future of your business).
Broadly, the ways to avoid a penalty are simply to stay within the boundaries of the quality guidelines:
1. Don't build shady links.
Try to get natural links, but if you are building links make sure they are from trusted sources wherever possible. Also, make sure the anchor text of your links varies. Real people do not write online content with keyword links all over the place.
2. Create pages for people not search engines.
Look at each page on your website and ask yourself if it adds value to a visitor’s experience. In terms of future content, make sure you have a fully developed content marketing strategy in place so that your website develops into a strong resource that is obviously not set out to rank purely to push people through to sales content or affiliate offers.
3. Make sure your site structure ticks all the boxes.
This means making it a responsive design. It means having about, privacy, terms and contact pages. It means showing you are active on social media through displaying links to your accounts. It also means having a sitemap, a robots.txt file and nofollowed links where appropriate.
My final word here is around being calm and consistent.
If revenues are down, or your rankings are not improving then it can be too easy to get desperate or cut corners.
Suddenly it seems a great idea to throw money at somebody to create 1000 relevant links to your website, or undertake some other type of “Blackhat” strategy.
Just don't do it.
Stick to your guns by reviewing your content and building a proper content marketing strategy for the future. Look at how you can engage through social media to drive traffic to your website, encourage sharing and encourage natural link building.
Submit your site to places that are appropriate in order to build links and traffic. Build off-site content, such as guest blog posting, to build links and traffic. But do it in a structured and relevant manner.
Getting a Google penalty is just the final stage in a journey that started with somebody making poor decisions, so make sure that your business makes good ones.