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The Complete List of Google Penalties and How to Recover

image of blog Andrew Raso
15min read
The Complete List of Google Penalties and How to Recover - OMG Blog (1)

Getting to page one of Google isn’t easy. 

With Google’s frequent algorithm changes, more and more marketers find themselves having to push the limits of SEO to rank higher. As a result, many websites are getting penalised for violating Google’s guidelines, or end up losing their ranking thanks to a new core update.

Being the subject of a Google penalty can feel like a death sentence for your website. One day, you’re on top of search engine results. The next, your organic traffic dips dramatically and you end up wondering how long it will take to recover — if ever.

Here’s the good news: it IS possible. While fixing each penalty Google assigns you is tough, it can be done. But first, you need to know which Google penalty you’ve been hit by and how to address it. That’s what we’re going to cover here.

In this post, we take a look at what Google penalties are, the complete list of penalties a site can receive, and how to get back on top with a rock-solid recovery strategy. 

 

What is a Google penalty and how concerned do you need to be?  

A Google penalty means that your website has either dropped significantly in search engine rankings or, worse yet, been removed altogether. This is a HUGE deal because Google is responsible for 94% of all organic search engine traffic to a website. If your website can’t be found by the millions of people conducting searches every minute of every day, you’re losing out on massive opportunities to get discovered by your target audience. And without that traffic, you’ll quickly see a dip in revenue.

But why does Google penalise websites? Long story short, Google issues penalties when a website has been found violating its webmaster guidelines. These are rules designed to weed out any black hat SEO strategies and ensure that the search engine presents the best and most relevant results possible for its users.

According to Google’s page on how search engine algorithms work:

Google ranking systems are designed to...sort through hundreds of billions of webpages in our Search index to find the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second, and present them in a way that helps you find what you’re looking for.

If Google shows websites that don’t add value to users, they’ll stop using Google as often or even go to a competing search engine like Bing. That’s why Google encourages websites to create high-quality content for users — and penalises those who flout the rules.

Again, in Google’s own words:

google penalty definition

The bottom line is, getting hit with a penalty is a big problem and one that you should take seriously. This can set your SEO efforts back by months or years and lead to significant drops in traffic and revenue. The good news is, however, that it’s completely possible to recover and bounce back. By responding quickly and with the right steps, you can minimise the damage to your site (and your business).

 

How have you been penalised?

Knowing the type of penalty Google hit you with and why you’ve been penalised are the first steps to recovery. Once you understand the reasons that triggered the penalty, you can begin working on a plan to get back into Google’s good graces — and reclaim your rankings sooner rather than later.

Google penalises websites for all types of reasons, but these all fall into one of two categories: manual action and algorithmic filters.

Manual actions 

Despite all of Google’s algorithms, manual actions make up a big chunk of Google’s penalties. In fact, according to Matt Cutts, Google initiates over 400,000 manual actions every single month. 

Manual penalties occur when a site has been reviewed by a human reviewer and found to have issues that aren’t compliant with Google’s webmaster quality guidelines or have been using black hat SEO techniques. There are two types of penalties: partial matches that apply to specific sections or pages, and site-wide matches that affect your whole website.

Luckily, there’s no guesswork involved to figure out whether you’ve been hit with a manual action. Google will notify you in the Search Console message centre, and you’ll also be notified in the Manual Actions Report.

If you have a manual action, you’ll get a message that’s similar to this:

manual action

You’ll also be able to see which pages have been affected and learn more about the steps you need to take to fix the issue. Once it’s resolved, you can submit a reconsideration request to reevaluate and review the action against your website.

Algorithmic filters (AKA algorithmic penalty)

On top of manual actions, Google also regularly updates its algorithm to improve the quality of search engine results. These can range from core updates, which happen a few times every year, to massive changes like Google Panda and Google Penguin.

While being on the wrong side of an algorithm update like Panda can feel like a "Panda penalty", these aren’t nearly as bad as manual actions. In fact, despite being called an algorithmic penalty, these filters aren’t ACTUALLY penalties — they simply shift how Google determines the best results for any given search. Think of Google algorithm updates like an update to the rules of a sports game. If you try to score points by playing with the old rules, you’ll lose out. 

SEO expert Marie Haynes sums it up perfectly:

algorithmic filter

Unfortunately, knowing whether you’ve been affected by a Google algorithm update isn’t quite as straightforward as it is with manual actions. Google doesn’t notify websites when they’ve been impacted by a core update or algorithmic penalties. However, if you’ve seen a sudden dip in traffic in Google Analytics right around the time that Google changes its algorithm, chances are that this is the culprit.  

google penguin

Image source: Neil Patel

If you’re the subject of an algorithmic ‘penalty’, you won’t be able to hit a reconsideration request like you would for manual actions. Instead, you’ll have to understand what the Google algorithm changes are and work backward to address any areas of your website that aren’t up to scratch.

 

14 common manual actions (and how to fix them)

There are a plethora of reasons why your website might have triggered a manual action. Google might have detected that you’re using spammy link building techniques that detract value from the user experience, or it may have found an issue with thin or duplicate content. 

Below, we look at 14 of the most common known Google penalties, as well as how to fix them for a full Google penalty recovery. 

#1. Unnatural links to your site

Backlinks are one of the most common factors that Google uses to decide whether your website is an authoritative source of information. However, these have been abused time and time again by webmasters looking to get more link juice to their site — leading to a ton of spammy websites and spammy links pointing to a site to unnaturally inflate its domain authority. 

Thankfully, a number of Google algorithmic penalties have been designed to lower the ranking of these websites over the years. However, while domain authority is far more having high quality links than a high quantity of links, Google still finds websites today that buy or sell links and participate in link schemes to boost organic search traffic. These are a direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and will result in your website getting slapped with a manual action.

Tips to recover from these types of Google penalties: 

Download your site’s links report from Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster tools), and look through these links for any dodgy or low-quality links that may be in violation of Google’s guidelines.

Once you’ve got a list of links together, reach out to those website owners to either remove the links altogether or add a rel=”nofollow” attribute to links that can't be removed. If this still doesn’t work, you’ll need to create a list of back links to disavow and upload the list directly to Google Search Console.

#2. Unnatural links from your website

If you’ve been selling links from your website, have been paid to feature a guest post with backlinks or participated in a “link to me and I’ll link to you” exchange, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a manual action. This penalty can either result in a partial match that affects pages or sections or your website or, in really serious cases, a site-wide match that affects your entire website’s rankings.

Tips for Google Penalty recovery:

Luckily, you have more control over unnatural links from your website than you do for unnatural links to your website. First, take a look at Google’s extensive list to see what the search engine giant defines as non-compliant links. Remove as many of these links as possible from your website, or add the rel=”nofollow” attribute. After these links are gone, submit a reconsideration request to Google via Google Search Console.

#3. Pure Spam 

Nobody gets this manual action without being aware of it or complicit in it in some way, shape, or form. Pure spam is reserved for websites that use a whole combination of dodgy black-hat techniques, including auto-generated content or cloaking. If these techniques are going on with your website, you need to get your act together — or risk getting de-indexed from Google altogether.

Tips for Google penalty recovery:

Without sugar coating it, stop using spammy techniques. Clean up your website, run over it with a fine-tooth comb, and make sure everything is 100% compliant with Google Webmaster Guidelines. On top of this, if you’re working with an agency it’s time to re-evaluate their work as they may be using black hat tactics without you knowing it.

If it's the second time you get hit with this penalty, it may be time to consult an SEO expert and look at starting up a new website altogether. Unlike other Google penalties, this one’s nearly impossible to bounce back from after multiple violations.

#4. User-generated Spam 

Ever seen a comment like this on your blog post?

UGC spam

Image source: Cloudflare

If so, you’ve been the victim of user-generated spam. This questionable SEO technique can be found everywhere, from blogs to website forums and user profiles. Although you’re not the one actively posting the spam, Google still sees this as a violation of its guidelines and will penalise your website for allowing the spam to occur.

Tips for manual penalty recovery:

Take a look at any page where users can leave comments on your website, and look out for any spammy or low-quality comments. These might be ads masquerading as comments, comments for users with dodgy usernames, comments that have nothing to do with your business or your content, or comments that include links back to another website. Remove these comments, then request your reconsideration request via Google Search Console (Google Webmaster Tools).

On top of removing low-quality comments, you can also safeguard your site against a similar Google penalty in the future by turning on moderation for all of your comments. This will give you more control over the type of content that appears on your site and prevent any unwanted bots from cluttering up your comments section.

#5. Thin content with little or no added value

Thin content refers to low-quality pages with shallow or duplicate content. These include, but aren’t limited to auto-generated content, affiliate pages with very little information, doorway pages that are created to rank highly for specific searches, or content that’s been copied and pasted from another website.

Here’s an example of what thin content looks like in action:

thin content

With thin content, Google has already rolled out countless algorithm updates to weed out this problem. However, it will still issue a manual action from time to time if a website is found to be excessively using thin or scraped content to manipulate search results or generate spammy back links to your site.

According to SEO veteran Marie Haynes:

I would say that almost all Google penalties now are given because the site owner was trying too hard to manipulate Google. Five or six years ago I did see a lot of penalties that came as a result of good, honest business owners hiring poor SEO companies who built unnatural links. But, now, most of that type of link is just ignored by Penguin. As such, if you get a link penalty, you usually know that you deserved it.

Tips for Google manual penalty recovery:

The road to recovery depends on the type of thin content Google thinks you have on your website. 

With affiliate pages or doorway pages, the best step is to remove them altogether. If you can’t remove the content (like if you have a product page with the manufacturer’s description), focus on beefing up the content and modifying it significantly from its source. The same approach applies for content with low word counts: the simplest fix is to pad out the page with well-researched content that’s relevant to your target keyword and your business.

Lastly, use a duplicate content checker like Copyscape to pinpoint any plagiarised content and either remove or replace it with original copy.

#6. Hacked website

A hacked website is every business owner’s worst nightmare. While you might do everything in your power to keep your site and your visitors secure, hackers are relentless — and every now and then, they might manage to hijack your website, just like they have with almost every other major website in the world. Hacked websites put your visitors and their computers at risk with phishing attacks or attempts to install malicious software. These are often accompanied with a warning label in organic search results pages, or by a warning page like so:

hacked site warning

Image source: Google Developers

Tips for Google Penalty recovery:

Unlike other manual actions, you’ll get a hacked website notification in Google Search Console’s Security Issues report. The first step to recovery is understanding exactly what the issue is and how your website has been compromised. Simply navigate to the issue, expand on the issue description, and follow the “Learn more” link to read up on how to fix the problem. After you’ve fixed all of the issues listed, you can request a review from Google.

#7. Keyword stuffing 

Keyword stuffing is a black hat technique that was born out of the early days of SEO. This tactic involves plugging in excessive keywords into every part of a website or web page, from the meta description to the heading and body copy, in order to manipulate its ranking in search results. 

Today, Google looks at the keyword density of a page and its semantically related keywords as much as the keyword itself. But this doesn’t stop them from issuing manual actions to websites that are stuffed to the brim with keywords like this:

keyword stuffing

Image source: Google

Tips for Google manual penalty recovery:

Audit your website for any instances of repeated keywords, and delete them or replace them with semantically related phrases instead. It’s also worth flagging this with your team and/or your SEO agency to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future.

#8. Hidden text

As the name suggests, hidden text refers to text that’s visible to computers and search engines but not to humans browsing the site. This could be:

  • White text on a white background

  • Placing text behind an image

  • Positioning text off-screen using CSS

  • Setting the font size to 0 so it doesn’t appear

  • Disguising links using a small character like a fullstop or hyphen

Here’s an example of what hidden text might look like on a webpage:

hidden text seo

Image source: SEOquake

Tips for Google Penalty recovery:

Log on to Google Search Console and click Crawl > Fetch as Google. This allows you to fetch any pages that have been affected by the manual action. After you’ve done this, look for any occurrences of hidden text or dodgy anchor text and update them so they’re visible to humans as well as computers.

#9. Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects

Cloaking involves presenting one type of content to search engines and another type of content to users. Meanwhile, sneaky redirects automatically take users to a web page other than the one that they landed on. Both of these tactics are a massive violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and will leave your pages (or your site) at risk of getting manual actions.

Tips for Google Penalty recovery:

For cloaking, you’ll need to head to Google Search Console > Crawl  > Fetch as Google and fetch all of the affected pages on your website. Compare the version of your website that you see with the content fetched by Google to see if there’s a difference, then fix up any differences between the two. 

You can audit redirects on your website using a tool like Ahrefs' or SEMRush’s Site Audit. Fix any that might be construed as sneaky, such as a redirect that takes users to an unexpected page or a redirect that only applies to users coming from a certain source (i.e. presenting desktop users with a normal page and redirecting mobile users to a spam domain).

#10. Spammy freehosts

This happens if you’ve been hosting your website on a ‘free’ platform. Although these services technically don’t charge you any fees, you’ll end up with a less-than-reliable host or spammy ads displayed all across your website. 

On top of getting a manual action for your site, Google has threatened manual actions against ENTIRE platforms. If your host ends up being one of them, you risk losing your rankings or worse, your website. 

Tips for Google manual penalty recovery:

Migrate your site to a trusted domain hosting provider or hire a developer to help do it for you. Paying upfront costs are far better than having to pay for additional SEO and development work to recover from a manual action.

#11. Google News and Discover Policy Violations 

In February 2021, Google published an entirely new list of manual actions related to Google News and Discover. These are specifically for websites that have breached the content policies for these two platforms, and include violations such as:

  • Adult-themed content 

  • Dangerous content that could facilitate harm to people or animals

  • Content that contains harassment, bullying, or threats

  • Hateful content that condones violence or hatred towards an individual or group

  • Manipulated media that’s been modified to deceive or mislead users

  • Medical content that contradicts scientific consensus, medical consensus, or evidence-based practices

  • Misleading content that promises one thing and delivers another

  • Content that’s sexually explicit, promotes terrorism, or features excessive violence and gore

  • A lack of transparency on news content

  • Content that contains vulgar language and profanity

 

Tips for Google Penalty recovery:

If you’re a site publisher, getting pulled off Discover or Google News can send organic traffic plummeting so it’s important to address these manual actions ASAP. As soon as you get a manual action, review your content and remove anything that’s a breach of Google News policies or Discover policies. It’s also worth taking the time to review these policies to prevent this penalty from happening again in the future.

#12. Incorrect structured data markup 

Structured data is a great way to increase your website’s chances of appearing on page 1 of Google’s organic search results. However, if there are issues with your structured data, you’ll quickly find yourself on the receiving end of a manual action.

Structured data manual actions could be due to one of three reasons:

  • Your site didn’t follow the Rich Snippets Guidelines

  • Your site used markup content that was invisible to users

  • Your site marked up content that was either misleading or irrelevant

Tips for Google manual penalty recovery:

Familiarise yourself with Google’s Rich Snippet Guidelines and either change or remove any structured data that isn’t up to scratch. Once this is done, submit a reconsideration request to Google.

#13. AMP content mismatch

Google first introduced Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) in 2015 to help publishers create pages that load quickly without the code bloat. The content on this page and the canonical version (i.e. the non-AMP version) needs to be the same or similar enough in topic. Your users should be able to glean the same information on the canonical version as they can on the AMP version and vice versa. Similarly, anything that a user can do on the canonical version should also be available on the AMP version of your page. 

If your AMP content differs drastically from your canonical version, Google will issue a manual action that drops your AMP page from search results and replaces it with the canonical version of the page.

Tips for Google Penalty recovery:

First, make sure that your AMP page is associated with the right canonical page and that you’re not accidentally associating it with another piece of content on your site. If they both link up, review the two versions and edit them until they are as similar as possible. 

It’s also important to verify that Google is seeing the page in the same way as your users. Mismatches can often occur because a robots.txt file may be blocking resources from one version of the page. You can do this using the URL Inspection tool on Google Search Console.

#14. Creating pages with malicious intent

Google does everything in its power to protect its users from accessing websites with malicious intent. If your website contains security threats or violations, these put Google’s users and their computers at risk.

Some of the most common triggers for this manual action include phishing attacks or malware, like viruses, trojan horses, spyware, and other programs. 

Tips for Google Penalty recovery:

Identify any pages with security threats using the Security Issues report, and get these removed as quickly as possible. 

 

Turn a Google penalty into an opportunity.

Getting hit with a Google penalty can be rough, but it absolutely is possible to recover. The important thing to remember is to act as quickly as possible to resolve the issue and minimise any impact on your website visibility, traffic, and sales. The worst thing you can do is to put off fixing the penalty or ignore it altogether.

Once you’ve fixed any Google penalties, it’s time to step up your digital marketing game, regain your position in Google's search engine results, and prevent any penalties from happening in the future. Learn how to get on top of search and stay on top with our comprehensive A-Z SEO Guide.

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