A Google penalty is a general term that refers to a negative impact on a website’s search ranking, based either on an algorithmic or a manual action by Google’s Search Quality Team. Typically a penalty would mean that either your whole site or parts of your site may lose rankings for a period of time, most commonly until you rectify the situation that got you into the penalty in the first place.
There are many penalties a site can face. There are actually two key categories: manual penalties and algorithmic penalties.
A manual penalty is applied when a site is flagged for review by the algorithm and as a result a member of the Search Quality Team at Google would then apply a penalty to it. The Search Quality Team is the name of those responsible for the ranking of Google search results, and maintaining the integrity of these results.
It may be worth noting that the penalty may be a “partial” one, where the search engine has only acted on a set of results from your site, rather than choosing to target the whole site. Remember, you can now be penalised for links going out of your site as well as user-generated spam, so it’s not just your external SEO that would generate a manual penalty.
In addition, penalties may expire given enough time, depending on the severity of the cause. The manual action tool in Webmaster Tools usually gives an indication as to the cause, and once you feel you have fixed the situation, you can submit a reconsideration request. And if you did everything that was expected, or at least a majority of it, the penalty may be revoked.
As a result, manual penalties are often more transparent and recovery is much more visible, but not always great, especially if inbound links were a cause.
Below are some key triggers of manual penalties – partial or full – provided verbatim from Google:
Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects
Site appears to be cloaking (displaying different content to human users than is shown to search engines) or redirecting users to a different page than Google saw.
Some pages on this site may have been hacked by a third party to display spammy content or links. Website owners should take immediate action to clean their sites and fix any security vulnerabilities.
Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing
Some of the pages may contain hidden text and/or keyword stuffing.
Parked domains are placeholder sites with little unique content, so Google doesn’t typically include them in search results.
Site appears to use aggressive spam techniques such as automatically generated gibberish, cloaking, scraping content from other websites and/or repeated or egregious violations of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Spammy free hosts and dynamic DNS providers
Site is hosted by a free hosting service or dynamic DNS provider that has a significant fraction of spammy content.
Thin content with little or no added value
Site appears to consist of low-quality or shallow pages which do not provide users with much added value (such as thin affiliate pages, doorway pages, cookie-cutter sites, automatically generated content or copied content).
Unnatural links from a site
Google detected a pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive or manipulative outbound links on this site. This may be the result of selling links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
Unnatural links to a site
Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive or manipulative links pointing to the site. These may be the result of buying links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
Site appears to contain spammy user-generated content. The problematic content may appear on forum pages, guestbook pages or user profiles.
Algorithmic penalties are a much harder to identify, especially since there are no clear notifications when a site has been hit by one. They also have the double effect of acting as penalties, as well as “filtrations” like, for example, duplicate content (duplicate content penalty is a misnomer, they aren’t really penalties, rather a filtration effect by search engines).
These can be fairly extreme and more likely than not hit you when Google runs the specific algorithm refresh. It is often unclear as to which algorithm specifically hurt you as the dates of roll outs could be quite close, though overlaying dates in losses with the specific roll out dates has been a decent indicator. Also, it is neither clear how to get out of the penalty nor are fixes very obvious. In these cases digging into your data and creating a very specific analysis on the site’s ranking behaviour may be the only option.
A useful resource is the Google Algorithm Change History guide put together by SEOMoz. (http://moz.com/google-algorithm-change). Using this tool, it may be possible to cross reference analytics to try and figure out if any changes in traffic to a site correspond with any changes in the
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Checking for manual penalties:
“You can check if your site has a manual penalty by logging into Webmaster Tools, clicking on the “Search Traffic” drop down and then on the “Manual Actions” link.”