November 2, 2022

How to Avoid Getting a Google Penalty

By: Mary Hiers

The Google penalty known as the “Manual Action” is the search engine equivalent of a yellow or red card in soccer. It isn’t good for your reputation, and the repercussions range from “Ouch,” to “This is a catastrophe.”

Use above-board SEO and avoid underhanded SEO and you may never see a Google penalty. But you need to understand them and why they apply. And you should also know what to do if you receive one. Here is a Google penalty primer.

More Than One Type of Google Penalty

There are two main types of Google penalties: algorithmic actions and manual actions. Algorithmic actions may have consequences, but they are typically not as severe as manual actions.

Algorithmic actions are search algorithm changes that affect your position in search engine results pages (SERPs). It is what happens when the algorithm itself is what affects a site’s positioning in the SERPs. Thousands of sites may be affected at the same time.

Manual actions are sanctions imposed by Google’s Search Quality Team. It means that a human discovered what they deem to be “spammy” or dishonest practices on your website. 

How to Discover an Algorithmic Action

You may notice nothing amiss in your Google Search Console other than an unexpected drop in website traffic if you were hit by a Google Algorithmic Action. Check to see if it corresponds to a known or suspected change in Google’s search algorithm. 

You can also get on SEO forums or Twitter to discover if other website owners are experiencing the same thing. If so, the changed algorithm most likely affected your SERP position.

How to Discover a Manual Action

Your Google Search Console is what used to be called Google Webmaster Tools. It allows you to check your website’s indexing status, crawl errors, and search queries. If you don’t use Google Search Console (and you should!), you can get started here

When Google imposes a Manual Action, it notifies you on the Google Search Console. Whether or not you notice a change in traffic, you should check your Google Search Console regularly (at least weekly). That way, if you receive a Manual Action, you can act promptly.

After a manual action, a site’s search ranking may steadily decline or plummet, and in the worst-case scenario, it can be de-indexed and disappear from search altogether. 

Manual Actions and Likely Penalties

The following table lists website characteristics that are likely to trigger a Manual Action from Google. It also lists the type of penalty and consequences you can expect if you receive a Manual Action for a specific problem.

Triggering ActionPossible Google Penalty
Website of nothing but spamDisappearance from Google searches
Website with some spamStill searchable with the “site:” option
Thin content (probably monetized, not useful)Precipitous drop in ranking (whole site or individual pages)
News and Discover violation (dangerous, harassing, or misleading content)Precipitous drop in ranking of affected pages
AMP content mismatch (vastly different user experience between desktop and mobile)Drop in ranking of AMP landing pages
Cloaking and redirects (showing different content to the search engine than what users see)Extreme drop in ranking
User-generated spamGoogle removal of user-generated spam pages
Hacked content spamGoogle presents warning message to searchers
Incorrectly structured dataNo appearance in Rich Snippets
Outbound links that don’t make sense within your site’s contextSteady decline in rankings
Inbound links that don’t make sense within your site’s contextSteady decline in rankings
Free hosting spamPenalty applied to hosting service with indirect effects on your site
Hidden text and keyword stuffingSteady to Precipitous drop in ranking

Do This if You Get a Google Penalty

If you believe you were hit with an algorithmic penalty, there is no appeal process. The only thing to do is to learn as much as you can about the algorithm change and try to decipher how your site may have run afoul of it. 

If you receive notification of a Manual Action, the only way to get rid of it is to make a good-faith effort to fix the problem and request that Google reconsider its action once you have done this. You will need to provide documentation of how you addressed the issue. 

It may take several days or even weeks, but eventually, Google will accept or reject your request. In rare cases, they may “process” your request without accepting or rejecting it. This happens when your site has numerous offending issues but you have only addressed some of them. 

Will My Google Penalty Expire?

A Google Manual Action against your site will eventually expire, which sounds great! Why not just wait them out? 

The problem is, Google Manual Actions expire only when the algorithm is capable of detecting the issue that earned the Manual Action in the first place. If your site’s ranking tanked after a Manual Action, it will stay tanked after the Manual Action expires unless you fix it. 

Algorithmic Actions don’t expire. It is possible that the Google search algorithm may change in such a way that the effects of the Algorithmic Action are mitigated. But you shouldn’t count on this. Do your best to address any issues that may have resulted in negative effects from the algorithm.

Do These Things to Avoid Google Penalties

Naturally, the best course of action is to avoid earning Google penalties in the first place. If you consistently practice White Hat SEO, you should be fine. 

Here are 11 actions to take that will minimize the chances of receiving both Algorithmic and Manual Actions from Google:

  1. Never buy or trade links.
  2. Never engage in keyword stuffing.
  3. Write content that is rich and relevant.
  4. Don’t infringe on anyone’s copyrights.
  5. Don’t host ads that hinder navigation.
  6. Don’t have any hidden content (such as keywords that aren’t visible because their font is the same color as the background).
  7. Demonstrate your company’s legitimacy by having its name, address, and phone number in your website footer.
  8. Create URLs that are readable by humans.
  9. Monitor your website closely for hacking and address hacking the minute you discover it.
  10. Don’t make your site so that humans see something different than the Google algorithm sees.
  11. Have relevant outgoing links to high-quality, relevant websites.

These are all considered SEO best practices. Trying to game the system and get to the first page of the SERPs without putting in the work will gain fleeting benefits at best. Any short-term gains made through dishonest SEO will be offset by the damage to your reputation. 

FAQs on Google Penalties

How do I know if I received a Google penalty?

If you received a manual action, there will be a note to this effect in your Google Search Console. With algorithmic actions, your only indication may be a drop in traffic that corresponds to the date of a Google algorithm update.

What seemingly harmless actions can trigger a Google penalty?

An AMP mismatch – when the desktop experience is significantly different from the mobile experience – is one to watch out for. Another is so-called thin content. This is content that is usually monetized but adds little to an overall topic’s knowledge base (and is thus considered non-useful).

I think I received an algorithmic penalty. What should I do?

Don’t do anything hastily. In some cases, it can take a few days for new ranking to shake out after an algorithm update. If your traffic drops significantly and stays low, learn as much as you can about the latest algorithmic update. What was it designed to do? Use this information to determine what content of yours may be running afoul of the algorithm and consider revising it. Again, you may have to wait a few days to notice the effects of your revision.

I fixed the issue that caused a manual penalty. How will I know if it worked?

You must request reconsideration through your Google Search Console. It may take several weeks, but Google will eventually rule on whether it accepts or rejects the reconsideration. You will receive a notification of their ruling through your Google Search Console.

SEO Is a Long Game

Search engine marketing (SEM – buying search ads) can work quickly, but SEO is a long-term strategy. More often than not, your site will steadily climb to its highest point on the SERPs rather than zooming up them. 

Best Websites only creates SEO-enriched websites that work within Google’s Search Console guidelines. Our SEO practices are designed to weather search algorithm changes because they’re based on high-quality content and other principles that search algorithms prioritize. 

If you need help with your website’s SEO, or if you worry about finding yourself on the business end of a Google Manual Action, set up a call with our team. We can develop a plan to refresh your website with better SEO or create an SEM strategy that will give your business a higher profile in your industry.  


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