How to Recover from a Google Penalty: Steps to Restore Your Rankings

In March 2012, Google released its first algorithm update known as the Panda update. The purpose of the Panda update was to stop sites with poor quality content from working their way into Google’s top search results. Environments such as content farms were hit hard by the Panda update, so too were the sites containing copied content and those providing a poor user experience. Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “content farm,” it is used to describe a website that employs low-paid writers to generate large amounts of textual content which is usually intended for search engines rather than human beings. Content farms usually produce a large amount of content of dubious value, and this is often reflected in their standard of grammar. It is a common trait for content from a content farm to contain spelling and grammar errors. Failure to correct this will prove that the learning abilities of machines can erase the profitability of content farms.

Google is the ultimate dictator when it comes to your online business, and this is simply because over 95% of the UK population use Google as their regular search engine. It doesn’t help that Google is the master of its own trade and can almost predict what you are going to do in terms of SEO, be it white-hat or black-hat. If you want to improve your website, you need to follow Google’s webmaster guidelines; there’s no other way around it. If one were to break Google’s guidelines in an attempt to manipulate their site’s ranking, Google will take action against this in the form of a penalty.

Understanding Google Penalties

So you’ve received notification of a manual action or noticed a precipitous drop in organic search traffic. Chances are, you’re right in the middle of a Google penalty. You’re not alone. This has become an all too common scenario for many business owners, webmasters, and SEOs. At the same time, a significant number of people who haven’t incurred a penalty are curious and somewhat apprehensive about what a Google penalty entails. They want to get a better feel for the severity of the punishment and the potential consequences for low quality SEO service. This section will answer most of the common questions and provide a solid understanding of what exactly a Google penalty is, the differences between algorithmic and manual penalties, and the various types of penalties and how they may affect your website. It’s important to approach the penalty recovery process with a full understanding of what’s occurred and a realistic outlook on what to expect. This knowledge will help you form an effective plan to recover your lost traffic and rankings.

Importance of Recovering Your Rankings

Many websites rely on their Google rankings for a substantial proportion, if not all, of their income. This is particularly true of “thin affiliates” and AdSense webmasters. Losing rankings means losing visitors, and losing visitors means losing income. Time spent recovering from a penalty can often be a very stressful period for these webmasters who are reliant on search traffic to sustain their business. In the case of manual penalties, there might even be a chance that the site in question is no longer a feasible project, depending on Google’s decision to apply a partial or site-wide penalty. This is why it’s critically important to keep all lines of communication open between Google and webmasters. It is imperative to gain a clear understanding of what has caused the penalty before any serious recovery work is done.

In most, if not all cases, the primary goal of recovering from any type of penalty will be to regain any positions lost on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). The difference in traffic between a number 1 position and a number 20 position can often be several hundred percent. Higher ranking positions also tend to bring higher click-through rates.

Table of Contents: 1. Introduction 1.1. Understanding Google Penalties 1.2. Importance of Recovering Your Rankings

Identifying the Penalty

We have already discussed that recovering from a penalty is far more strenuous than being proactive and preventing them. This is mainly because penalties can be lurking anywhere. The first step to fixing a problem is to find what it is, and this is no exception when it comes to dealing with a Google penalty. There is a variety of actions to be made when trying to locate the problem. When facing ranking drops or a sudden decrease in traffic, the first thing to do is to check for an algorithm update. When trying to identify a penalty with browsers such as Chrome and Firefox, check for warnings within the search results. A notice of “This site may harm your computer” is a staple of a malware warning within the site and is a definite sign of a malware-related penalty. A warning stating “this site may have been hacked” is also another clear sign of a penalty in this category. If you’re seeing a sudden drop in search result rankings, there’s a good chance that a penalty is the cause. An algorithmic penalty definitely gives a clear indication that the penalty has occurred. Google will usually announce an update has taken place, but there is no guarantee they will reveal what the changes are. High rankings are usually lost over the course of a penalty, so witnessing ranked keywords drop to the second or third page of the search results is also a sure indicator that a penalty has taken place. These types of penalties are generally easier to deal with if it can be determined what changes coincided with the drop in rankings, whether it is site changes or recent linking activity.

Analyzing Traffic and Ranking Drops

One of the first and most telling signs that you’ve been subject to a Google penalty is a sharp drop in traffic or a steep plummet in your search engine rankings. It’s important to check if the drop in traffic correlates with an identified Google algorithm change. The Moz algorithm change history is the best resource to check back and see if your drop in traffic/rank might be a result of a known Google update. If there is a known update that happened around the time of your traffic drop, then this update could be the ’cause’ of the penalty. Identifying algorithm updates can also give you an idea of what might have caused the penalty, for example if your drop in traffic is the same date as the Panda update, the penalty is likely to be content related. If you have no idea if there’s been a penalty whatsoever, use a tool like Panguin to overlay a Google analytics traffic report with a history of known algorithm updates to see if there is any correlation with a specific update and a drop in traffic or rankings. Given that traffic drop is the most significant symptom of a penalty, you can use a simple Google search to ascertain if the penalty is related to a manual action or an algorithm change. Take note of the date when the drop in traffic occurred and perform a quick search to see if there is any chatter around that date about a potential Google update. If there are no signs of a known algorithm update, this means that the drop in traffic is likely to be a result of a manual action. It is vital to determine whether the penalty is manual or algorithmic as the processes and resolution for each are very different.

Checking Google Search Console for Manual Actions

It will also inform you that your site has never been penalized by a manual action. This is a good sign because manual actions can be difficult to recover from. In the scenario that your site has been penalized, GSC will inform you of which penalty has been issued. This is usually of two forms giving examples that my site has been penalized for “Unnatural Links” and “Thin Content”. By selecting the drop down arrow in the message tab, it will give you examples or specific pages that have been affected by the penalty built against them. This is crucial information that will need to be noted down and is essential in helping you to recover from the penalty. By knowing exactly what Google has punished you for, it will be much easier to fix any existing issues and avert any onward plans that contributed to the penalty. The final part of the manual actions tab will allow you to request a review of the penalties after they have been addressed. This is the final step in recovering from the penalty, and when executed successfully your site should begin to see an immediate recovery in traffic and rankings.

Conducting a Backlink Audit

Data collection: Download backlink data from as many sources as possible. Data deduplication: No one source of backlink data is comprehensive, so it’s important to combine and deduplicate the backlink data from multiple sources. Data aggregation: Consolidate the deduplicated backlink data into one file for analysis. Testing and validation: Develop an in-depth and personalized understanding of the meaning of a link and its strategy for removal. Link removal and disavow: After identifying which links are ‘bad’, aim to remove as many as possible and disavow those which can’t be removed.

To conduct a full backlink audit and identify and remove as many of the ‘bad’ links as we can, we need to download all the backlink data we have and follow a comprehensive and methodical process. This can be a time-consuming task, and for larger sites, it can be run over a period of time (e.g., 1-2 hours per day) so as not to overwhelm the web server or exceed Google’s daily limit of backlink data. The process flow of a backlink audit is as follows:

Addressing On-Page Issues

Step two is to tackle any issue relating to content or structural components of the affected pages. This is often where the problem of keyword stuffing or on-page spam normally can normally be resolved.

Step one of controlling the damage caused by the on-page element of the penalty is to influence whether or not it was due to algorithmic or manual detection. One way to undertake this can be to look out ranking reports previous and taking after the penalty. With each keyword on each of the site’s pages, a pattern recognition methodology can be enforced by making a line graph for every keyword and checking for a significant amendment among the decline of rankings.

The best program results can only be achieved if you address a way similar to distinctive of the penalty then implementing extreme SEO practices that are considered high risk. Although this tends to run into the danger space, I would advocate doing this for a dummy website rather than the client’s main website. This way, should any more mistakes be created, there’s but not rather more to lose.

Multifaceted things could lead to the Google penalty. While purchasing links is one of the most claimed causes, different issues fit hiding keywords in your website. These off and on-page elements can cause frequent issues for the matter of your site’s rankings. As a result of on-page keyword pain, it’s typical to determine merely a precise page rather than a full website being dropped to a “supplemental index.”

Optimizing Website Content and Structure

The hardest penalty to recover from is likely the Penguin update, due to its extended refresh times. With this penalty, you’ll first need to remove any outgoing links that are harming your site. Then, obtain a list of your site’s backlinks and use the disavow tool to devalue any harming links that you were unable to remove. After your link profile is cleaned up, the waiting game begins. Since the Penguin update primarily deals with link factors, you won’t see much if any restoration of rankings until the algorithm is refreshed. In the meantime, it’s best to focus on the brand signals and content strategies previously mentioned.

In order to regain what was lost, you will need to build new links. It’s important to remain conservative with your link building throughout this process. You shouldn’t jump right back into heavy SEO. Instead, take it one step at a time. Start by internally linking your most powerful pages. Then, focus on content marketing with the goal of attracting natural links. After your new links have had time to recalculate your site’s authority, you can begin to slowly rebuild.

Recovering from an unnatural links penalty is fairly straightforward. After removing any violating links that you can, you should be left with a majority of links that were devalued but did not actually harm your site. At this point, you should focus on regaining lost PageRank. Since these devalued links essentially act as nofollowed links, it’s likely that your site has lost a lot of authority.

Next, build some brand signals. If you were previously link building or focusing on heavy SEO, it’s likely you now have a very unbalanced backlink profile. Adding brand signals can help stabilize your link profile. Simply start with some branded social media profiles and try to rack up some likes and followers. You can also optimize for your brand name in hopes of ranking for it and filling the search results with branded properties. Guest posting using only your brand name as anchor text is a safe way to link these properties to your site.

So, how do you start to get back on Google’s good side? First and foremost, make sure your site no longer violates Google Quality Guidelines. In order to recover your rankings, you must remove or nofollow the content that was violating their guidelines. If you don’t remove it, you won’t recover. This process may take time, especially if your site has many violations or is especially large. And in many cases, you will need to request a review from Google after you believe your site is cleaned up. You can submit a reconsideration request after you’ve removed or nofollowed the content in question.

Fixing Keyword Stuffing or Duplicate Content

You may still have keyword stuffing issues, even if you did not receive a message about it. You will know if Google suspects your site of keyword stuffing by checking Google Webmaster Tools under Search Traffic -> Search Queries and see a steady drop in clicks for specific keywords quickly. This drop in traffic is likely because the affected keywords have lost their rankings in the search results. Another method you can use to check for keyword stuffing issues is by performing a search in Google. If you notice that your internal pages that previously ranked well have been replaced by your homepage, this may indicate that keyword stuffing on the internal pages has caused them to lose their visibility in the search results. If a page is over-optimized for a specific keyword or group of keywords, the affected keywords will lose ranking and traffic from those affected internal pages will often become traffic to the homepage as it is the next most relevant result.

Improving User Experience and Page Speed

Slow page load time can often result from excessive use of images and ads, or simply bloated code. Using Google Webmaster Tools labs site performance feature, webmasters can get an overview of how quickly their pages are loading and which specific elements are taking a long time to load. Additional tools such as YSlow and Page Speed can give further insight or tips on how to improve page load times. Often times it is simply a matter of implementing better on page practices from here on.

If your site is centered around serving ads or affiliate links, it is imperative that these do not detract or distract from the main content of the page. If doing heat map tracking analysis of visitor mouse movement, they should be looking at the content and not zigzagging between ads. This often provides additional income at the expense of user experience and is not recommended for a long term strategy in building a loyal visitor base.

Improving user experience and page load time is crucial in both being positive signals to Google and keeping visitors engaged. In terms of user experience, to encourage users longer visit duration, multiple page views and return visits, the site must offer relevant information presented in a pleasing manner. This should be done by writing quality content on the site, and maintaining an uncluttered look. A website that is not very engaging will generally have high visit/exit rates in analytics, while getting to know and tracking visitor habits through tools such as Google Analytics often provides useful insight.

Resolving Off-Page Problems

Removing Toxic or Spammy Backlinks

A toxic backlink is a backlink that creates a negative impact on the targeted URL’s search engine ranking. A number of backlinks that are toxic can be a result of link schemes, which are a form of manipulation for the purpose of increasing your page’s rank for Google, other search engines, and earning more traffic. These links can be obtained through various ways. Unsolicited links, which can be an outcome of scraping and automated programs, have been sent to website admins regarding the placement of a link. This is an attempt to take the quickest and easiest route for link building but is a clear violation of goal 2 from Google’s guidelines. Other links can be purchased in an attempt to manipulate page rank. This is done by finding link brokers or “blackhat” SEO companies. This can also be a form of hacking where hackers will go into a website and insert links into the content. This type of “hack and insert” tactic is often seen with pharma hacks where links are inserted into pages with pharmaceutical-based content. Also, much like hacking, the insertion can take place in the comment section or forum of a website. This can take place over time and in the case where the quality of the link was not initially toxic, the later content of the post can change that. An example of this is when a website received a manual penalty for “unnatural outbound links” and the penalized site had to take action and remove the links. In the case where the link is to a site that has since then become irrelevant or low quality, then it is considered toxic as it has a negative effect on the latter site’s page quality and, by default, the backlink from the previous site.

Disavowing Harmful Links

A disavow file is submitted to Google Webmaster Tools to inform the Google Penguin algorithm that you want to disassociate with a particular link or type of link to avoid any problems that might incur Google penalties. Remember that a disavow is a last resort and should only be used if unable to remove spammy or harmful backlinks manually. It is not recommended to use a disavow file on an existing penalty without doing everything else first and subsequently waiting for the next refresh. Before disavowing links, it is imperative to attempt to get those links removed. This can be achieved by contacting the webmaster and requesting removal of the link, and in cases of particularly harmful inbound links that present a risk of Google Penguin or other algorithmic penalties, a request may be made for Google to completely de-index the page. Any link which has not been removed should then be documented in a spreadsheet before undergoing investigation to see if similar links can be found on the same domain. If a pattern is found, the disavowal would be applied to the entire domain.

Building High-Quality and Relevant Backlinks

Now that you have successfully identified and dealt with the negative and irrelevant backlinks, it is time to start focusing on building brand authority and creating a natural and healthy backlink profile. This can seem like a daunting task, as getting natural backlinks often takes time and patience. Think of it this way – a penalty from Google is an opportunity to increase the overall SEO health of your website and make long-term improvements. Don’t waste it by doing the same things that got you in trouble in the first place. You should emerge from a penalty with a stronger website and a more in-depth knowledge of SEO, not a burning desire to get back to the first page ranking for your key terms. Look at any big brand in your industry and use them as inspiration – what are they doing to get those high authority backlinks and how can you do something similar on a smaller scale? It’s likely that they are not buying links or engaging in any other form of black hat tactics. Study the content on their website and the way that they are promoting it. Find out who is doing articles on them and try to reach out to those publishers. The end goal is to make connections with people in your industry and have them link to your site because they genuinely think it is a good resource and it is relevant to their audience. Once you have identified who it is that you want linking to you and why, you can start creating specific link building strategies to target those people, but that is a blog for another day.

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