From zero to hero: How to remove Google penalties and regain your rankings

Google aims to provide their users with high quality, relevant search results. If your website doesn’t meet the criteria, then it will be penalised and devalued by Google, moving it further down the rankings.

Google’s penalties often affect websites that are using unsavoury, outdated, black hat SEO techniques to try to cheat the system and trick Google into ranking them higher or users into clicking. You may also find yourself hit with a penalty if your website has been hacked, contains spam, or is poor in quality.

Penalties may affect your whole website, or they may only relate to certain keywords, sections, or pages. The harshest type of penalty is a delisting, which involves your entire website being removed from Google’s index.

Learning more about the reasons Google hands out penalties and auditing your website regularly can help you to avoid getting hit by one.

If you have a small business and want to learn more about the fundamentals of SEO, read our article on Small Business SEO.

Google penalties and SEO

Receiving a penalty from Google can play havoc with your SEO efforts, causing your website to plummet in rankings overnight.

If you’ve received a penalty, do not panic! Providing you rectify the problem; any devaluation of your website should only be temporary. Sometimes, it can be your SEO efforts that get you into the mess with Google in the first place.

One common reason that websites are penalised by Google is because they are using sneaky, outdated methods to try to rank higher on Google.

Some of those common SEO blunders that can cause you to receive a penalty from Google include:

  • Stuffing too many keywords into your website content.
  • Paying for backlinks.
  • Hiding content on your website.

In fact, any sneaky black hat SEO techniques that attempt to manipulate Google or its users could get you in trouble.

Whilst some of these tactics may have been effective years ago, and may even produce results in the short term, Google is smarter now and will eventually catch up with you. Using underhand tactics like these will end up having the opposite effect on your website’s ranking in the long term.

When undertaking SEO yourself, or seeking help from a professional digital marketing agency, it’s important to ensure that effective and ethical white hat SEO strategies are always being used to ensure long-term success.

What are the different types of Google penalty and how can they be fixed?

There are 12 types of Google penalty relating to Search and a further 12 new penalties relating to Google News and Google Discover policies.

The 12 Google penalties relating to Search are:

1. Unnatural links TO your website

Buying links or participating in link schemes violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. 

If you have lots of unnatural links pointing to your website then you will need to either get these links removed, no-followed, or disavowed.

2. Unnatural links FROM your website

Your website may contain a lot of unnatural links if you have been selling links or participating in link schemes. These links should be removed or no-followed.

3. Uses cloaking or sneaky redirects

Cloaking and sneaky redirects manipulate search engine users into visiting a webpage by displaying one type of content or link on Google, but showing different content on-page, or redirecting those who click on the link. 

All sneaky redirects should be removed and variations in content resolved.

4. Contains hidden text or keyword stuffing

This is when hidden text is placed on websites in such a way that search engines can read it, but people cannot see it. The hidden text will usually have no value to users and be stuffed with keywords to try to get the website ranking higher. 

All hidden text should be removed, and content should be rewritten so that keywords only appear naturally in the text.

5. Uses a spammy free hosting service

Websites that use ‘free hosting’ services provide bad site experiences to users due to the huge number of ads they feature and poor reliability. 

If your website is hosted by a free hosting service, then you’ll need to migrate it to a reliable hosting service. Unsure how to do that? We’ve prepared a comprehensive website migration checklist for you to prepare your own site migration.

6. User-generated spam

If users can leave comments on your website, either in response to posts or in forums, then unmoderated, spammy, user-generated content could drag your site down. 

To fix this, remove all spammy user-generated content and then change the website settings to prevent unmoderated content from appearing. 

7. Thin or poor content

Thin, low quality, auto-generated, and duplicate content can all cause problems for your website. 

Identify poor quality content and invest in turning it into unique, useful, and informative content that provides value to users.

8. Spammy structured markup

Any websites that markup content that is invisible, irrelevant, or misleading will be penalised by Google. 

The markup will need to be updated or removed to ensure that it abides by Google’s rich snippets guidelines.

9. Pure spam

This penalty is reserved for websites that are purely spam and have no value to users. This type of website may be comprised of scraped, duplicated, or automated content and employ a variety of spammy techniques. 

As a webmaster, it can be hard to justify this one, you’ll need to completely makeover your website to comply with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. 

10. Sneaky mobile redirects

It is acceptable to redirect mobile users to a different URL with the same content in a different format to provide a better user experience. What is not acceptable is sneakily sending them to a completely different page with different content. Sometimes, sneaky mobile redirects are added to websites by hackers, without the webmaster’s knowledge.

You will either need to remove any intentional sneaky mobile redirects or check your website for third-party scripts that need removing.

11. Cloaked images

This penalty is applied when a website displays one image for Google and another for users by cloaking images. This could be done by placing one image over another or redirecting users.

Remove cloaked images and ensure that both Google and users are being displayed the same image.

12. AMP content mismatch

The content on both your canonical pages and AMP pages must match topically.

Check that all the correct AMP pages are associated with all the correct canonical pages and edit if necessary.

If your website has dropped in ranking after a Google’s algorithm update it may feel like you’ve been hit by a penalty, but this is different.

Google uses these algorithms to improve the quality of the search results that it provides and is constantly updating them to improve its service. If a new algorithm causes your website to drop in ranking, you will need to make changes to your website so that it meets Google’s new standards.

In comparison, a penalty is a temporary restriction that has been manually issued to your website by the team at Google.

Example of traffic drop after a Google penalty

How do you detect a Google penalty?

The signs that you have been hit by a penalty from Google can include a drop in ranking and a decrease in the number of website visitors you’re receiving. 

However, this can also be indicative that something has gone wrong with your website, or you’ve been hit by one of Google’s algorithm updates. Each of these problems requires a different technical fix, so it’s important to first work out for sure if it’s a Google penalty that’s causing your website problems.

Luckily, if you know where to look, it’s easy to find out if you’ve received a penalty from Google.

When Google issues your website with a penalty you will receive a ‘manual action’ (penalty) report in the Google Search Console. The message will describe what the problem is and examples of URLs where the manual action has been applied.

If you haven’t received a notification about a penalty, then you’ll need to investigate further to find out what is causing the dip in traffic to your website.

Example of manual penalty warning from Google Search Console

Our guide to Google penalty removal

Once you’ve confirmed that it is indeed a manual penalty from Google that is causing your website problems, it’s time to take action to have the penalty removed.

Here are three simple steps for a successful Google penalty removal:

1. Learn more about why you received the penalty

The first thing you need to do is make sure you’re absolutely clear about what you did wrong and what you should have done instead. The message Google sends you in the Search Console to notify you of the penalty will tell you the type of penalty you have received and how much of your website it has been applied to.

Now you will need to do a little research to find out how to rectify the problem with your website or seek help from an SEO agency or qualified professional.

2. Fix the issues

Now that you know where you’ve gone wrong, it’s time to get to work fixing your website. This job could take anything from a few hours to several months depending on the extent of the problem. If you’re not confident in fixing the problems yourself, then employ the help of a technical SEO agency to ensure the job is done properly. You want to make sure that everything is right with your website before moving onto step 3.

Do you want to know how to execute a technical audit of your site? Check our article on how to perform a technical SEO audit.

3. Send Google a reconsideration request

Once you’re confident that all is well with your website again and that it now meets Google’s quality standards, it’s time to ask Google to take another look.

This communication is called a reconsideration request and should be made within the Google Search Console. When submitting the request, you need to provide Google with information about how you have fixed the problem and how you will prevent it from happening again.

Once you’ve submitted your request the team at Google will review your website again. If they are satisfied with the changes you have made, the penalty will then be removed, and your website’s ranking restored

How to avoid receiving a penalty from Google?

Of course, the simplest course of action is to avoid getting a penalty from Google in the first place by staying in their good books.

To achieve this, you must always abide by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and keep up with your website maintenance.

Here are our top tips to help you avoid being issued a penalty by Google:

Read and understand Google’s Webmaster Guidelines

The easiest way to make sure that you don’t get issued with a penalty from Google is to know Google’s Webmaster Guidelines inside out and make sure that you’re following them.

Don’t try to cut corners

There’s no shortcut to success when it comes to SEO. Don’t use unscrupulous methods or techniques to try to improve your website’s position on Google, even if it works in the short-term, you will pay later down the line when Google catch up with you.

This includes:

A) Buying links

Every link that points to your website must be earned. Google is very clear about that and even introduced an update of their algorithm to tackle unnatural backlinking (the infamous “Panda”). Instead of paying for links or participating in link schemes, use Digital PR to obtain quality and natural backlinks from reputable sources.

B) Stuffing keywords into your content

Putting a ton of keywords in the same article may increase your rankings in the short term, but won’t last for long until your website gets penalised. Remember, create quality content for your readers, not for the bots.

Audit your website regularly

By auditing your website regularly, you should be able to pick up any issues with it before Google’s team does. Key tasks include monitoring links pointing to your website, checking for duplicate content, and moderating user-generated content.

Check the Google Search Console regularly

If your website gets hacked, you could end up with a Google penalty for spam. You will usually receive a message on the Search Console alerting you if your site is hacked, so checking for new messages regularly can save you a lot of hassle later down the line.

For help or advice with Google penalty removal, get in touch with our technical SEO team here at topflight and we will put your website back where it should be.

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