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Guide to Recovering from a Google Content Penalty

It’s a widely-accepted fact that Google controls a vast portion of the digital landscape.  This means that most webmasters know that they must do everything in their power to avoid a Google content penalty.

When you are hit by a manual content penalty by Google, the impact can be far reaching. Firstly, you will lose organic search visibility. This will lead to a loss of traffic and, consequently, revenue. Have you been hit with a penalty from Google? What are the possible ways to ensure recovery? In this guide, we will take a look at the most common types of Google penalty and how you can recover from them.

To get started, we need to draw a distinction between an algorithm change and a penalty. Some of the biggest algorithmic changes from Google, like Panda and Penguin, are erroneously regarded as penalties by most people but this isn’t true. The algorithms rely on certain sets of rules to deliver results.  The idea of these changes is to increase relevance and quality in the results delivered to people running searches on Google on a daily basis.

Apart from the algorithms, Google also employs a large number of human reviewers to manually review and rate websites that have escaped the attention of the algorithms but still fall foul of Google’s quality standards.  When you are hit by an algorithm change, the end result is generally the same, as you will lose organic traffic.

However, it is important that you understand the distinction between getting hit by a manual penalty and being hit by an algorithmic change.  This is what will determine how you proceed with your recovery.

The major difference in dealing with a penalty vs. dealing with an algorithmic change is that, with the former, you have to interact with Google directly. If your website has been penalised by Google, you will get a manual action report through the Google Search Console. If you fix the violation, you can explain the situation to Google and how you have resolved it by submitting a “Reconsideration Request”.

With an algorithmic change, however, you won’t need to submit the reconsideration request. The first part of this guide looks at how to recover from the 13 Google manual penalties and what you can do to recover.

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Cloaking and/or Sneaky Redirects

Cloaking is when you are showing a different page to users than what has been presented in the search engines.  With sneaky redirects, the users are sent to a different page from the one they clicked in Google. These two actions will land any one of these two penalties:

  • Site-wide matches which will affect your whole website
  • Partial-matches which will affect only the specific areas of your website

How to Fix

  • Go to Google Search Console > Crawl> Fetch as Google and then fetch pages from the affected parts of your website
  • Look at the content on the web page and what Google sees
  • Make sure that the two are worked on so that they end up the same
  • Have a look at all your redirects and make sure you remove all redirects that send users to an unexpected destination, conditionally redirect or are just generally sneaky
  • Send in a reconsideration request after the fixes have been done

Cloaking: First Click Free Policy Violation

This is a penalty that is levied against websites which show full content to Google but people who click through end up unable to view all or part of the content.  Google operates a First Click Free Policy which means that any content in the search pages should be free to the user. So if your content requires users to register, subscribe or log in before they can view the full content, you will be penalised in any one of the two ways:

  • Site-Wide matches which will affect your whole website
  • Partial-matches which will affect only the specific areas of your website

How to Fix

  • Make sure that all content shown to people coming to your website through Google’s services are exactly the same as what is on Google. Review your website and ensure you aren’t intentionally forcing people to take action before they can view your content
  • When you are done, send in a reconsideration request to get the issue fixed.

Cloaked Images

Some people fall into the problem of cloaking images as well, by providing:

  • Images that are obscured by another image
  • Images that are different from those served
  • Images that redirect users elsewhere

How to Fix

  • Ensure that Google is seeing the same image shown to the users of your site when they click through
  • Send in a reconsideration request when you are done fixing the issue

Hacked Site

Hackers spend a lot of time looking for weaknesses in WordPress and other content management systems which they use to inject malicious content and links. The activities are cloaked and hard to fix. When Google notices this, a notification that says “This site is hacked” is inserted into the search result for the pages affected and your website will be demoted in organic search results.

How to Fix

  • Set up a support team and get in touch with your webhost immediately
  • Make sure your site is quarantined to limit current damage
  • Go through the search console to identify the type of hacking
  • Determine if the damage is spam or malware
  • Identify the loopholes exploited by the hackers and clean them up
  • Put measures in place to avoid a repeat attack
  • Talk to Google about reconsidering the “hacked” labelling

Hidden Text/Keyword Stuffing

Google knows when you are hiding text or when you have stuffed pages with keywords and they will place a penalty once they have noticed it. This is another penalty that comes in the same two forms:

  • Site-wide matches which will affect your whole website
  • Partial-matches which will affect only the specific areas of your website

How to Fix

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  • Go to Google Search Console > Crawl> Fetch as Google to look at pages from the affected parts of your website
  • Look for text that is the same or similar in colour to the body of your web page
  • Watch for hidden text using CSS styling or positioning
  • Restyle any hidden text so that it is obvious to a human user
  • Find words that have been repeated without context and remove them
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  • Deal with all other forms of keyword stuffing
  • Submit a reconsideration request

Pure Spam

It is easy to feign ignorance with all other penalties but, if you get this penalty, in many cases, you fully deserve it. It is only meant for websites that aggressively engage in use of spam. Scraped content, cloaking, automated content that is barely readable to humans, and other forms of violations in this mould will put you in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines. Again, the penalties come in two forms:

  • Site-wide matches which will affect your whole website
  • Partial-matches which will affect only the specific areas of your website

How to Fix

  • If you haven’t been penalised on this in the past, clean up your mess and start complying to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. If you have been penalised before, it is harder to get any response, if you ever will
  • If you are a first-time offender ready to do the right thing, you can submit a reconsideration request

Spammy Free Hosts

Regardless of what the marketing gimmicks you come across daily say, “free hosting” simply doesn’t exist.  Whatever they don’t charge in terms of fees will be recouped in one way or another and, in many cases, it could lead to you spending more money to remedy the situation you might find yourself in. Apart from shoddy services, free hosting often translates to spammy and irrelevant ads getting thrown around indiscriminately on your pages without any input from you. This is why Google can go to the extent of closing down every single site on a free hosting service.

How to Fix

  • Even if your website is young and not bringing in revenue yet, it is still possible to find affordable shared hosting packages to start with
  • When you have moved to a new host, you can submit a reconsideration request

Spammy Structured Mark-Up

You will be penalised if you aren’t following rich snippets guidelines or have your mark-up content invisible or misleading. Again the penalty can be either:

  • Site-wide matches which will affect your whole website
  • Partial-matches which will affect only the specific areas of your website

How to Fix

  • Update the existing mark-up and remove any that are not in line with Google’s guidelines as it concerns rich snippets
  • Send in your reconsideration request when you have made these changes

Thin Content without Enough Value

There are various low-quality or shallow pages that can lead to this type of penalty. They include the following:

  • Doorway pages
  • Low-quality blog posts or guest posts
  • Scraped content from other websites
  • Thin affiliate pages without an in-depth look at the products or pages with the same regurgitated features of a product seen across other affiliates
  • Spun or auto- generated content

This penalty can also affect part or all of your website.

How to fix

  • Remove your doorway pages
  • Find content on your pages that is too short and increase the word count with useful information that will add value
  • Use duplicate content checkers to find content on your website that can be found elsewhere on the web and remove it
  • Identify affiliate pages that don’t have any added value apart from what the manufacturer or retailer said and delete them
  • Remove all auto-generated or spun content
  • Spend time and resources on getting quality content that adds value to your website
  • Send in your reconsideration request

Unnatural Backlinks to Your Site

Today, this is the most common penalty amongst webmasters. The main cause is buying links or being a part of link schemes targeted at boosting organic SERPs. This is firmly against Google’s webmaster guidelines.

How to Fix

  • Go to Google Search Console to view the links to your site
  • Audit the links to find  those that are in violation of the linking guidelines
  • Remove links that are at fault or make them rel=”nofollow”
  • Any links that you can’t remove, or no-follow, should be disavowed
  • When the link profile has been sorted, you can submit a reconsideration request

Unnatural Links Originating from Your Site

Google generally pays special attention to webmasters guilty of selling links. In fact, if you publish links with the mindset of manipulating search rankings, you will most certainly trigger a manual penalty. As is the case with others like it, this penalty can affect all or part of your website.

How to Fix

  • Make the links no-follow to ensure they aren’t passing PageRank. You have to be thorough in your checks because even a single one forgotten can keep you in a perpetual loop of back and forth with Google
  • Submit a reconsideration request when you have removed all non-compliant links

User-Generated Spam

This refers to the spammy behaviour seen in forums, comments, user profiles etc. They are usually used by black hat SEOs to game the Google system. However, this almost always leads to a penalty. It can lead to partial matches that affect portions of your site or site-wide matches.

How to Fix

  • Have a fixed location for users to leave comments
  • Check for spam in your comments sections
  • Ensure there are no adverts masked as comments
  • Watch out for comments that feature irrelevant links
  • Delete comments from usernames that are clear adverts for products
  • Delete generic or automated comments
  • Don’t allow unmoderated comments to be visible
  • Remove all forms of inappropriate content.
  • Get a review once the site is clear of any violations

Expired Jobs

Job postings generally appear in Google when they are posted using structured data. With such structure, the search engines take the data, aggregate it and then display it at the top of the search results page.  You can get this result in a couple of ways: the first one is to use job posting structured data on your own, or to use a third-party job site that uses structured data mark-up.

When you choose to post on your own site directly, there is the danger of exposing yourself to a potential penalty if you do not remove expired job postings. So, you must keep things current to avoid a penalty.

How to Fix

If you have already been hit with the penalty, some of things you can do include:

  • Removing the page completely so it only returns a 404 or 410 status
  • Remove the structured data mark-up for the job posting from the page
  • Include a no-index meta tag to the page
  • Make sure you have filled in everything thoroughly to ensure it is in the past

Now that we have looked at how to deal with Google manual penalties, the next part of this guide looks at how you can recover from Google algorithm penalties.