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This article provides detailed SEO advice to help determine the likely cause of a Google penalty with practical recovery tips for webmasters.
A comprehensive and up-to-date penalty checklist is provided, allowing you to check your website for non-compliances against Google Webmaster Guidelines and other problems known to trigger penalties and algorithmic filters.
Important: Not all websites which suffer a drop in ranking will be under Google penalty. In order to improve the quality of the search results, search engines like Google make around 500 changes to their ranking algorithm each year - so our checklist will also help to determine whether a loss of ranking is simply due to one of these changes, or an actual 'penalty'.
If your site is in violation of Google's terms and conditions then we suggest watching the Google reconsideration tips video to help recover your ranking.
For personalised assistance with Google penalties see our Penalty consultancy service.
Note the dates of any algorithm updates to see if they coincide with traffic and ranking drops on your website. Then investigate the nature of these updates to understand the likely causes of the reduction in ranking.
Google may notify you via the Webmaster Console if they have identified non-compliances to their webmaster guidelines. Around 700,000 such notifications were sent out in 2012, warning of "unnatural links detected". It therefore makes sense to check webmaster tools for Google notifications, should a sudden drop in ranking be experienced.
Not all issues trigger a Webmaster Console message. Where notification of a violation of webmaster guidelines is received, the webmaster should correct the problem/s and then submit a Re-consideration Request in Webmaster Tools.
Familiarise yourself with Google Webmaster Guidelines and consider your compliance. Also take a look at the Google Ratings Guidelines used by Google staff to assess the quality of a website when under manual review.
A drop in website traffic can be caused by a reduction in the number of search engine indexed pages. Check Google indexation by using the site:yourdomainname.com command in a Google search window.
If your entire site or certain pages have been dropped from the Google index and they were previously indexed, check your Robots.txt file for syntax errors (if you have one) and also check for any recent hosting web server outages. Googlebot may remove content from the search results if it gets a "404" server response when trying to crawl your site. Webmaster Tools will show Googlebot alerts, so be sure to check for these.
Also check your Meta "Robots" tags on each page are set to 'index' and 'follow' rather than 'noindex' and 'nofollow'. If you are using Wordpress, check your SEO plug-in settings as well as your generic site settings are both set to include your site's pages in search engines.
Over-optimised inbound links are the single most common cause of a Google penalty. Black-hat SEO techniques such as link building with the same or similar keywords in link anchor text can often trigger a penalty, particularly now that Google Penguin has been rolled out.
A high link accrual rate of suspicious links can cause problems and this can be made worse if few links to the site appear to be authentic and from trusted sources. Site-wide links such as those offered in a Blogroll should also be avoided, particularly if keyword optimised.
Use a backlink anchor text analyser like Ahrefs or Majestic SEO to check inbound links for over-optimisation. Following Google Penguin, it is sensible to have no more than 10% of your inbound links with keyword optimised anchor text. A more natural link profile (which Google now rewards) has more links with the page URL and official company brand name in the anchor text, rather than target keywords. Remember also that Google Penguin now has the ability to check deep links (links to internal pages of your site as well as the homepage).
Google has over optimisation filters built into their Penguin algorithm. These seem to have the affect of applying a keyword penalty to one or more pages which have been over optimised for a certain keyword. The site's trust and authority can suffer too, resulting in an overall drop in ranking.
The Google Link Disavow Tool allows webmasters to limit the effect of bad links to their site/s. It does not replace the need to attempt to remove bad links; indeed Google expects to see that some effort has been made to clean up a bad link profile for successful reconsideration. The Disavow Tool should be used with considerable caution as removing links which pass some value will result in further ranking losses. More information on the Google Disavow Tool.
In extreme cases, a Google penalty may even affect your site's ability to rank for your own brand. Try searching for your exact company name and domain name. If you no longer rank for these terms, where previously you ranked well for your own brand name, a penalty is likely. The exception to this rule is a new website with few backlinks, which may not be Google indexed or lack enough trust to rank well.
Run a test on all outbound links from your site to see if you are linking to any sites which have Google penalties or bans. Banned sites typically have no cached pages in the Google index, so check this with the site:www.domain command.
Conversely, if your site gets a significant number of inbound links from banned sites or manipulative Black Hat link networks, then your website ranking may drop as a result. Check and clean up your inbound link profile using a link profiling tool like Link Detox.
Check you are not linking out to any "bad neighbourhoods", "link farms" or "doorway pages". Bad neighbourhoods will include spam sites with scraped content and often have little value to the reader, whilst link farms are sites predominantly built for SEO and link building.
Bad neighbourhoods will not rank well in Google. A crude but effective way of checking your outbound link quality is to try a Google search for the keyword/s targeted by the homepage title tag of sites that you link to. If these sites don't rank in the top 20 of the SERP for any homepage targeted keyword, then they are almost certainly domains with little trust and authority and linking to them should be avoided.
Note: Adding a nofollow tag to your outbound links may help protect you from the negative effects of linking to bad neighbourhoods.
Search engines like Google apply link devaluation to links which appear to be from known manipulative sources such as low quality directories, reciprocal links, link networks and paid links.
In addition, Google now has content placement analysis, so is able to identify links which are placed in suspicious positions on a page - such as in the footer or in boxes with other paid links.
When new link devaluation methods are applied, or the algorithm which determines link trust is adjusted, large numbers of websites may suffer a drop in Google ranking. This is not caused by a Google penalty per-se, but by a fundamental shift in the ranking algorithm.
Sites that sell links for Page Rank may suffer a Page Rank penalty; which reduces their Toolbar PR value. You can check Page Rank with a PR checker, or download and install the Google Toolbar and enable Toolbar PR under advanced features. Please note that this has privacy implications.
Important: There is no longer a direct correlation between Page Rank and actual ranking, nor does a reduction in visible toolbar PR imply a penalty. The Page Rank algorithm is changed periodically and links can be gained or lost, which can affect PR values.
If you own several websites and a Google penalty hits all your sites at the same time, check the interlinking (cross linking) between the sites. Extensive use of site-wide keyword optimised links between these sites, can be viewed as a "link scheme", breaking Google's terms of service.
SEO companies frequently own domains which they use for client link building. These are often hosted on the same web server with the same C-Class IP address, or managed from the same Google Analytics account/s. Even the cleverer attempts may be interlinked in such a way that Google can identify them as a "manipulative link network" by using its extensive data pool.
Google will de-index link networks when it finds them - Build My Rank was one recent example. Links from such link schemes are considered harmful and should be removed if possible rather than disavowed.
Site-wide links, such as those offered in a Blogroll should also be avoided, particularly if keyword optimised.
Duplicate content is often filtered from the Google search results, in order to avoid the display of multiple pages which all contain the same information. Consequently, it is always best to avoid 'content scraping' (amalgamating non-original content from multiple sources) or content from product brochures to describe products, as this content will have been used elsewhere.
Duplicate content will lead to poor page performance and may trigger a Google Panda filter.
To assess the extent of any duplicate content problems, try taking a unique paragraph of text from a popular page on the site and search for it in Google inside quotes. If the page doesn't come back as #1 and it is still showing as cached using cache:www.mydomain.com/page.htm, then a penalty may have been placed on the domain. If, at the same time, the Google search results for the query show other site/s are using the same text, then duplicate or plagiarised content may be to blame. Copyscape can help detect and tackle plagiarism.
Many companies fail to realise the negative effect of having multiple sites on the web serving up the same content. This causes massive problems for search engines - which endeavour to decide which page/s to index.
Having duplicate content domains also dilutes your link equity as there is a tendency for people to link to different domains and pages, spreading link equity across multiple domains. Alias domains must be removed (retaining the domain with the most search engine visibility) and each duplicate content domain should then be 301 redirected to the domain being kept. If multiple domains are being used to target different geographic regions then the content of each needs to be unique.
It is important to remove any hidden text or keywords in your content. This text may be hidden from view using CSS or alternatively, it may have been coded as a similar colour to the page background rendering it invisible. Alternatively hidden content may have been moved off the screen using CSS. Matt Cutts also stated that hidden links designed to manipulate rankings break Google's webmaster guidelines.
Remove excessive keyword stuffing in your website content (unnatural repetitions of the same phrase in body text). Always use natural, well written SEO copywriting techniques. It may also help to check your keyword density excluding Meta tags, although keyword density is no longer used by Google as a ranking factor.
It is worthwhile carrying out a check to see if Google has blacklisted your site as unsafe for browsing. This can happen if it is hacked and the attacker gains access to the web server or CMS. To assess whether your site has been infected by Malware visit
replacing 'mydomain.co.uk' with your domain.
Check for any paid links in your inbound link profile (I.E. text links from known link suppliers or text link brokers). Link buying is against Google webmaster guidelines and can trigger a penalty if done excessively. Google also targets sites which sell text links. In the past they have applied a Page Rank penalty to known link sellers and many low quality directories who "sell Page Rank".
Sites which have excessive numbers of reciprocal links may suffer a Google penalty, particularly where the same or very similar link anchor text has been used and where links are between unrelated theme sites.
We recommend that reciprocal linking be restricted to companies you have some business relationship with, rather than for SEO benefit. Optimised anchor text should be avoided. For example two companies who work together may legitimately need to link to one another.
Some leading online web directories offer paid links on multiple directory pages. These can be keyword optimised anchor text and search engine accessible (I.E. with no "nofollow" tag).
Adding hundreds of links from paid directories all with the same or similar anchor text can cause serious problems. Post Google Penguin, it is sensible to remove paid links from low quality web directories and make sure that links you intend to keep from better quality directories use the official company brand name when linking back.
It's a well known fact that Google dislikes affiliate sites with thin content and the same applies to "made to Adsense" sites. Always make sure affiliate sites have quality original content if you don't want to get them filtered out of the search results.
Google recently prepared a Google reconsideration video tutorial on how to create a good reconsideration request, including tips on what they look for when assessing the re-inclusion of any website. The video tutorial is presented by actual members of their reconsideration team and is very helpful to any webmaster looking to successfully prepare a reconsideration request.
UNAUTHORISED DUPLICATION AND RE-USE OF THIS CHECKLIST BREACHES COPYRIGHT. WE TAKE LEGAL ACTION TO COMBAT PLAGIARISM.
If you'd like more help with your specific Google penalty, filter or indexing problem, contact KSL Consulting for professional SEO advice. Penalty consultations are normally held over the telephone or by Skype at a pre-arranged time/date. The cost is £250 + VAT which includes a 2 hour SEO audit and an hour's conference call to discuss the findings. These sessions are paid in advance by Paypal or Google Checkout. Terms and conditions apply.
This helpful guide is written and maintained by Steve Larkins.