search marketing

How to Avoid Being Penalized by Google

Written by Kurt Steinbrueck

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Penalty FlagIn the past couple of years Google has released major updates lowering the rankings of websites for poor quality and spammy link building.  They have tightened the screws on people buying/selling links.  They’ve even cracked down on people who buy domain names which exactly match their primary keyword.  And once you get penalized by Google, getting rid of the penalty is a bit like trying to dig your way to China with a spoon.

What is a Google Penalty?
The first thing we need to do is establish what a Google penalty is.  It’s quite common when people see their site’s rankings go down that they think they’ve been penalized, but usually that isn’t actually the case.  The reality is that Google penalizes relatively few sites.  By Google’s definition, a penalty is when they take manual action to either lower your search rankings or remove your site completely from their search engine.  If your rankings are knocked down by one of Google’s algorithms, that isn’t technically a penalty, though it may feel like one.

So What’s the Difference?
Whether you have your rankings torpedoed manually or by an algorithm, does it really matter?  Actually, it does.  If an algorithm is to blame, then regaining your rankings is just a matter of fixing what the algorithm didn’t like.  This is what happened to a lot of websites when Google released their Panda algorithm a couple years ago.  Simply put, the Panda algorithm was designed to determine whether the content on a page was of high or low quality and then increase the rankings of the high quality pages and decrease the rankings of the low quality pages.  If your site saw it’s rankings drop, all you really needed to do is get your site within Google’s Quality Guidelines.  The next time the Panda algorithm was applied, your site’s rankings would usually improve.  It’s really no different than if your site doesn’t rank well because of other algorithmic factors, like not having many good inbound links or not being well optimized.

/disapproveOn the other hand, if your site was manually penalized, you not only have to fix the violations, but you have to submit your site for Google to review the site and verify that you are within their guidelines.  Even then, they may decide to wait a while to release the penalty to make sure you are keeping your site within their guidelines.  Google isn’t the easiest company to communicate with, so this process can take months or longer.  So, how do you avoid being penalized by Google in the first place?

Four Common Practices That Can Send You to the Penalty Box:

  • Buying links that pass pagerank – Pagerank is the term that Google uses to describe the ranking benefit your website gets when another website links to it.  Google has made it clear that buying links in order to get pagerank is a violation of their terms of service.  They are likely to penalize you for buying the links and the site which is selling the links.  That said, buying links which don’t pass pagerank because they have the “rel=”nofollow”” attribute is not a violation.  So, either avoid buying links or, if you do buy links, make sure they have the rel=”nofollow” attribute.
  • Stuffing keywords – This is when you add a whole bunch of your keywords onto your pages or repeat a single keyword a ridiculous number of times trying to improve rankings.  Here’s Google’s definition. It’s okay to optimize for specific keywords, just don’t overdo it and make sure your content is good and natural for your human visitors.
  • Linking schemes – This is a pretty broad concept, but let’s just say that this is when you build links using spammy methods targeting your keywords.  This could be spammy blog commenting, link rings, private blog networks, low quality directory submissions, etc.  The best option is to just create good content that people would want to link to.  Google has a few more link schemes listed here.
  • Balloon-girl of The Forest Swabbed In Tearless OrificesHidden content – This is when you add content to a page that is hidden to human visitors, but visible to the search engines.  Some common ways people do this is by hiding text behind images, making text the same color as the background, using a script or css to prevent the text from being displayed, or making text really small.  You can find more examples from Google here.  The better option is to just create your pages for your visitors and make sure they are well optimized.

These are just some of the more common things for which websites get penalized.  Google has a list of several other practices that can get you in trouble with them in their guidelines.  I encourage you to take a few minutes and read through the Google guidelines, so you know what is safe and what isn’t.

Is it worth the risk?
Google penalties are not something worth risking.  For most websites Google provides the lion’s share of the traffic the website gets.  Are you willing to risk that for a short-term gain?  Trust me, that gain is almost always short-lived.  Google has thousands of really smart employees who’s entire job is to find sites that are violating their guidelines and bust them.  Despite the claims that are out there, especially from shady link builders, there is no spammy system that the folks at Google won’t be able to figure out.

Share Your Thoughts:

  • Have you been penalized by Google?  If so, share your story.
  • Do you think it’s worth the risk to violate Google’s guidelines for a boost in the search rankings?

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    About the author

    Kurt Steinbrueck

    Kurt Steinbrueck is the Director of Marketing Services with OurChurch.Com. He also serves on the leadership of Family of Christ Lutheran Church in Tampa, FL. You can find him on Google+ as .


    • I had an exact match domain that went from 15,000 page views monthly, to under 3,000.

      Been working at it since January to try and change that. Reviewing all the content, adding new content, backing down keyword density – still haven't done enough . . 🙂

      • I'm sorry to hear that. It can be long process and it doesn't help that Google rarely ever tells you what the issue is. They just say there's an issue…if they say anything at all. What I've found with sites the dropped from things like the Exact Match Domain update, is that many of the sites aren't loosing rankings because they are doing something wrong (like a penalty or something), it's just that Google is no longer giving them the boost they were getting from the Exact Match Domain. Of course every situation is unique.

        In those cases, the solution isn't fixing anything. You just have to building links, citations, and social shares to build up the authority of the site to make up for the boost Google took away.