Search Engine Optimization:
Google Penalties

(Updated 17 Sept 2012) They're referred to in the forums and blogs by names like the "sandbox," and the "30-50 penalty," or the "total exclusion" - more recently by "Penguin" & "Panda." Google penalties include "trademark suppression" and "PR suppression." Regardless of what you call them, these penalties are a reality that every web enterprise wants to avoid like the plague. Because in the online world, Google penalties ARE the plague.


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Why should we be aware of Google penalties?
     The Google penalties we've identified range from total exclusion from the index to rank loss for specific terms. It is possible for your site to have a penalty on some terms and be strong on others. The most common Google penalties are triggered by webmasters who inadvertently step outside the guidelines, or when the Googlebot finally finds a legacy issue caused by an algorithm change. Simply not paying attention can lead to mulitple Google penalties if the enterprise acquires websites, or permits employees to post without oversight. Third parties can also do damage, accidentally or intentionally.

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Google Penalties : Not Necessarily Fair Or Just

We consider Google penalties to include all forms of rank suppression triggered by an apparent guideline breach. "Apparent" is key, because many sites get penalized by the actions of others, and some by algorithm failures. The ranks our large high ranking sites are vulnerable to 3rd party attacks through proxy hacks using very sophisticated cloaking techniques. In this case your site is victimized twice - once by the 3rd party, and once by Google who is tricked into giving the proxy hacker your rank, and penalizing your site for a perceived domain level redundancy, or duplicate content. So, by definition, Google penalties are not necessarily fair or just, because they can result from intentional deception, accidents (by you or Google), or the actions of third parties.

Some Specific Google Penalties

There is some difficulty in attempting to catalog the numerous Google penalties we've come across. That's because the relationship between the offense and the punishment is not transparent and our experience reveals some significantly uneven handling of justice. There is not just one penalty. Google tries to use penalties commensurate with the perceived offense.

Of all the Google penalties, the total exclusion is the worst in that your site is unfindable, and is applied when serious deception is suspected. But in many respects, it is the lesser Google penalties that are more interesting, because they reveal a sense of how certain guideline breaches are viewed. Here is a list of Google penalties we have identified through intentional triggering or as advocates for clients, but there are probably many others yet unidentified. The problem with working in a knowledge vacuum is that all our knowledge is empirical, so lots of questions always remain.

  • domain level redundancy
    This is most often caused by webmasters who 'clone' sites - point the DNS from many different domains into the same directory causing each domain to display the exact same site.
  • content redundancy
    Happens when you duplicate the same content across multiple pages, sites, or if someone copies your site/content.
  • multi-domain
    Once a valid strategy involving the purchase of many domains each addressing a separate keyword target, now a penalizable offense.
  • link seller
    If you get flagged as a seller, your link juice goes away. When your links no longer pass PR, your links are worthless, even when used on your own site.
  • young site
    Referred to as the 'sandbox,' this is one of those Google penalties that is questioned in the forums. That's because you don't see this penalty unless you attempt to seo the site. Any effort to push hard on a site less than 6 months old will discover the disadvantages of youth. It's a real penalty.
  • intermittent ranks
    An issue created when large data sites fluxuate in and out of the index. Usually caused by structural and masking issues.
  • bad neighborhood
    If you appear to be supporting sites selling porn, gambling, Viagra...
  • spam
    Do we even need to comment?
  • homeland security
    Some sites' businesses make them targets of our new security infrastructure - like the sellers of fake ids, chemicals, etc. You may not rank well if finding your service or product is perceived to create a threat to the government/security.
  • canonical glitch
    If your site does not resolve to the www subdomain, it is vulnerable to a problem whereby your own content can be seen as redundant with itself. This is Google's fault and they have it more under control now, but it's still showing up in our client base, especially with large sites.
  • proxy hack
    When a 3rd party is able to hijack your Google ranks by using a proxy and some cloaking expertise, you end up being penalized by Google. Another one that is Google's fault for not being robust enough.
  • other third party penalties
    This includes both innocent and intentionally harmful tactics. You can be harmed when someone steals your content, or when one of your affiliates uses content off your site, or when a competitor intentionally places links to you from identified bad neighborhoods.
  • Google algorithm
    Their algorithm is far from perfect and is in fact quite broken. So when it fails it's the equivalent of a penalty if you're on the receiving end.
  • masking issues
    When dynamic sites use mod rewrites to make pages appear static, many create ranking issues in the process.
  • Panda updates
    Panda is a content filter, suppressing the ranks of sites with thin or copied content. While claimed to be very successful, these updates have both harmed innocents sites, and permitted copying of content continue with impunity in many cases. Content from this site has been copied many times and we had to file a DMCA complaint to get a site doing that copying removed from the search. Panda failed in this instance.
  • Penguin updates
    Penguin is an enforcement update, aimed at harming the ranks of sites that used automation or other spammy link techniques to generate their backlinks. Aimed at links from thin blog/forum comments, repetitive posts, paid links, other problems related to a poor link profile.

What Do Ethics Have To Do With Google Penalties?

Google penalties represent an enforcement prerogative - they are enforcing their guidelines and punishing the violators. Ethical issues go hand in hand with enforcement because people and businesses are harmed by Google penalties. This is somewhat of a legal timebomb, because Google is actively looking for sites that attempt to cheat the system, yet Google penalties are often exacted on innocents. Most are triggered by mistakes. The large majority of the Google penalties we handle involve a website that is a victim of ignorance and neglect.

While we as website owners have ethical responsibilities to our community, never conclude that Google penalties result from unethical behavior on the part of site owners. This is a world populated mostly by mistakes. The guidelines that determine the triggers of Google penalties are a secret. Yes, we do have the webmaster guidelines published by Google, but they are vague recommendations that never reveal the actual triggers. And there is no evaluation process to help everyone comply.

In many ways, Google penalties create an ethical swamp for Google, because they can harm you for breaking the rules they define. And it's compounded by the fact that the published rules to the game are incomplete. The actual rules are secret. Yet those rules (the algorithm) can change during the game, and no one receives notification until a flag is thrown. No warnings are issued before Google penalties are imposed. And many, many Google penalties have been imposed on innocent sites that never intended to deceive or perpetrate malfeasance.

For help in unwinding Google penalties, email me with "Google penalties" on the subject line. Most Google penalties can be unwound.

Bob Sakayama, SEO

Is your site penalized? If you believe a Google penalty has been imposed on your site, click here. Read the article on this page to learn more about the research used to study the causes of getting penalized in Google.


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Bob Sakayama:
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Search Engine Optimization (SEO)