12/04/2013 10:06 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2014

Your Guide to Common SEO Penalties and How to Recover From Them

What if you build it, and no one comes?

A great website, that is.

Many times, a lack of website traffic is due to common mistakes that cause the search engines to penalize you. These mistakes can be attributed to a number of different causes, but one thing is certain - if you have a penalty, you need to take steps to remove it or the effectiveness of your SEO campaign will grind to a halt.

Here are the most common types of mistakes that could be resulting in a penalty, and how to address each one.

Link penalties

Before Google launched its Penguin algorithm update, it was common to focus on getting links in quantity, without regard for quality. The more links, the better the search rankings. Automated tools sprouted up everywhere that would acquire thousands of links a day by spamming forums and blogs with nonsense, and cheap, useless articles were published on notorious content farms to acquire links with exact-match anchor text.

But those days are over. Now, since the release of Google Penguin, manipulative link building can trigger one of the biggest penalties there are. Links that exhibit certain manipulative characteristics, such as their anchor text distribution, are easily identified by Google and will be either individually penalized, or cause a website to be penalized as whole.

There are two ways to find out if you have a link-related penalty. First, check your Google Webmaster Tools account to see if you have any messages from Google about unnatural links. If not, check the "manual actions" section to see if there are any manual actions listed.

If neither of the methods provide any clues, check your Google Analytics traffic and look for a sharp drop in organic search traffic on any specific day between now and April 2012. If you see a marked drop that corresponds to one of the known Penguin algorithm refresh dates, you likely have a link-related penalty.

To resolve this, you'll need to audit all the inbound links to your website to find the ones that could be considered spammy or manipulative by Google. Most people will need help with this step; professional link audit services are available if you need help.

Once you identify these links, you'll need to do your best to get them removed. This often involves finding the contact information for each webmaster and emailing them, requesting that the link be removed. Then, disavow the remaining links (the ones you weren't able to get removed) using Google's disavow tool.

Content penalties

You've heard people shouting "Content is king!" for years now, but if that content adds no value, then it's more like a joker.

Google's Panda algorithm update was designed to combat thin, low-quality content. Panda penalizes sites and pages that don't provide value to visitors.

If you've been affected by Google Panda, Google advises you ask yourself these questions:

• Is the information trustworthy?
• Is the content written by an expert or is it shallow in nature?
• Is the content duplicated, overlapping or redundant on the site (is it the same thing over and over again with just some words changed around)?
• Are there spelling and grammar mistakes?
• Is the content short, unsubstantial or otherwise lacking in specifics?

The Panda update did something that was unique; unlike the past where only the offending pages would be affected, Panda penalized the entire site if low quality content was found even on some parts of it.

So, how do you figure out if you've been hit by Google Panda? Similar to the steps to follow if you've been hit by Penguin, you'll need to assess your Google Webmaster Tools account for any clues, as well as your Google Analytics account. See if you can correlate substantial drops in organic search traffic with days that correspond to known Panda updates.

In addition, like your link profile audit, you should perform a content audit of your site. Make sure that all content adds value; anything that doesn't should be removed.

Layout penalties

For the search engines to reward you with better rankings, they have to be able to find your content and they have to feel confident that your content is presented to your viewers in a user-friendly, intuitive, unobtrusive manner.

This is particularly important with content that exists "above the fold" (ie, content that's visible without scrolling down the page).

The top portion of every page should not contain a bunch of ads. In fact, too many ads anywhere on the page will result in a penalty.

It's definitely ironic that a company that makes its money from advertising (while placing ads all over its pages) penalizes other websites for too much advertising, but it's an unfortunate fact that websites just have to deal with. This isn't to say you can't have any ads on your pages; they just need to be kept modest, especially if they are above the fold.

Over-optimization penalties

Google actually penalizes sites that have been "overly optimized." Sometimes, webmasters take it to the extreme when applying on-page SEO best practices, and they'll over-apply them. An example of this would be a dog food company wanting to rank for the keyword "dog food," so they include that phrase 50 times within a single blog post. According to Matt Cutts, the over optimization penalty was implemented to "level the playing field."

This penalty can be tricky to understand though. When Google speaks of over optimization they are talking about "black hat webspam" or using loopholes and shortcuts to obtain better rankings.

On their blog, Google specifically states that if you're optimizing your site in ways that benefit the user, you won't suffer any penalties. Google gives examples that include:

• Making the site more crawlable
• Making the site easier to navigate
• Speeding up page load times
• Making content easier to read

Basically, anything that helps you rank better without improving the user experience could be considered over optimization.

While over-zealous site owners are often guilty of over optimization, less than reputable SEO companies often make their money by promising quick results. Site owners who fall for this pitch often find out later that their SEO agency was using tactics that caused them to get penalized down the road. If you work with an SEO firm, make sure that they are reputable and not using shady tactics that could get you in trouble with Google.


To avoid these sorts of penalties, review your SEO strategy periodically to ensure that it complies with the quality guidelines of the search engines.

If there's ever a question that what you're doing might result in a penalty, consult a professional. The penalty landscape has become convoluted with all the new rules and algorithms, so confusion is understandable.

But regardless of what you do, remember this: Recovering from a penalty is usually more expensive, time consuming, and difficult than implementing a proper strategy which won't get you penalized. If you're looking for help changing direction with your SEO strategy, or think you've been penalized, see my article, "How to Evaluate and Overhaul Your SEO Strategy."