Search Engine Optimization:
Google Penalty

(Updated 17 Sept. 2012) This is a very common scenario: You spend time and effort to improve your rankings - perhaps you hire an SEO consultant. You see good results, more traffic, more sales. But suddenly, your rankings drop precipitously along with traffic and sales. You're no longer in the search engines' index and have zero rank for all your important keyword sets. You have the dreaded Google penalty.


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Why would a Google penalty be imposed on my entire site?
     Remember that the motive of search engines is to deliver honest, relevant content, so they are always on the lookout for attempts to scam the system. The automated indexing robots reduce fraud by reading the actual content, links, and structure of each site to assess ranking hierarchy. But there are many techniques that can trick these robots into thinking a site is more relevant than it is. Cloaking, hidden links, hidden content, and sneaky redirects can still fool most robots. And sometimes, an honest attempt to push rank inadvertantly results in a site that the robots misinterpret as spam, resulting in a Google penalty. Whatever the trigger, the consequences of a Google penalty can be devastating, and recovery from it is not instantaneous. More on Google penalties

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Has Your Website Experienced A Google Penalty?

Bob Sakayama, SEO, has successfully unwound the Google penalty for his clients. Clean your site of unsanctioned seo strategies, and build legitimate structural strength for your site's search goals. Then get back in there and reclaim your ranks.

What Exactly Triggers A Google Penalty?

If you're trying to avoid a Google penalty, read this is from Google's site guidelines:

  • Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
  • Don't employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.
  • Don't send automated queries to Google.
  • Don't load pages with irrelevant words.
  • Don't create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
  • Avoid "doorway" pages created just for search engines, or other "cookie cutter" approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.

There are other ways to achieve a Google penalty, like buying and inter-linking too many domains, listing your keywords repeatedly, linking to a bad neighborhood, accidentally exposing (through links) parts of your site that should not be live, etc.

In general, anything hidden from the human visitor but visible to the robots is asking for a Google penalty. So don't put colored text or links on backgrounds of the same color - Google penalty. Same for teeny tiny font sizes, especially if they carry links - Google penalty. And offpage content that only a robot sees - Google penalty.

If you're creating content for humans, it is very unlikely that you will trigger a Google penalty. But if you're making an effort to fool the robots, you're messing with the potential for a Google penalty, big time. Read more about researching the causes of getting penalized in Google.

Can Too Much SEO Trigger A Google Penalty?

With the recent advent of recent updates like Panda and Penguin the answer to this question is now "Yes" - and the term over-optimization has taken on new meaning with the very recent (2012) crackdown on 'unnatural links,' primarily focused on links posted using automation, but certainly not limited to them.

By definition, SEO is an optimization process, and as such should not trigger a Google penalty. But be warned that some practitioners of SEO use unsanctioned techniques that could actually harm the ranks of their sites, and make them vulnerable to a severe (and deserved) Google penalty. I advise clients to implement only "white hat" techniques that are both transparent and compliant with Google's published guidelines.

Google's use of automation has not yet evolved to the point where it can recognize many forms of spam. The Googlebot does not recognize most instances of cloaking, redirects, and cannot identify misapplied CSS. If a nonsanctioned technique is delivering high ranks through deceptive practices, those ranks are clearly subject to a Google penalty of exclusion. Yet the desire for high ranks often trumps good sense, and site owners are willing to risk a Google penalty because they know that they could not possibly achieve those high ranks using sanctioned methods. But taking these kinds of risk is not part of genuine SEO. Techniques that "trick" the Googlebot will only last until technology catches up. And when it does - Google penalty.

There are times that overzealous SEOs can do things that may trigger a Google penalty inadvertantly. Making multiple lists of keyword sets, links, or creating content with outrageous keyword densities are some ways to incur a Google penalty while intending to play within the rules. But if you create a site intended for human visitors, with pages/links/content that you would have no problem showing your competitors, and that reads like normal English, you're very unlikely to trigger a Google penalty. Ethical SEO involves guiding site owners to high ranks through structural strength, relevant navigation and real content, not spamming or trickery.

How Can I Tell If I've Incurred A Google Penalty?

Just because you lose rank does not mean you have a Google penalty. Your ranking for keyword sets depends on many factors, including how many others are competing for the same keyword sets, how much content exists for that keyword set, and off site links. Also, the search engines are constantly updating the algorithms that determine rank, and as these change, ranks do as well. I've observed sites, and pages from sites that temporarily disappear from the index, but return later for no obvious reason, so don't be too quick to blame a Google penalty when your ranks are swirling.

But you can definitely tell if your site is still in Google's index. Simply search for the url (""). If there is no information returned, the url is not indexed. You can also see all pages that have been indexed by searching for "" If you were ranking before, but show nothing for this search, you have a Google penalty. If you have many pages on your site, but you only see the homepage in the result, something's very wrong, and you may have incurred a Google penalty.

Google has recently become a bit more transparent regarding penalties, and in some cases even signals you in advance. Check you Webmasters Tools account for a message/warning indicating that unnatural links were detected pointing to your site, or warning that doorway pages exist. If you received one of these warnings, you're lucky because you actually know something valuable that you can immediately address.

It is also possible for Google to impose a manual suppression of your site that is impossible to detect, a kind of lower level Google penalty. I recently unwound such a penalty for a client who had been told by Google that there was no penalty imposed, that his poor ranks were a result of his lack of content. The tipoff to the suppression was that all the other search engines showed high positions for the same keywords, and the company's trade name was not in the #1 rank, but on page 4.

My Site Has A Google Penalty. What Can I Do?

The very first thing you need to do is determine the exact cause of the Google penalty. This is often not obvious. But if you know you have violated one of Google's published guidelines, that is where you should start. Unwinding a Google penalty means removing the offensive content, links, or strategy, and then informing Google that your site has achieved compliance with their guidelines. A Google penalty will not go away by itself, and a strongly proactive approach is required to both uncover the offensive material, and be certain it is completely addressed before approaching Google.

I strongly recommend NOT contacting Google immediately upon discovery of a Google penalty. You really want to be certain that after expending time and energy arguing your case, that the Google penalty will not be reimposed later because of an oversight on your part. Make sure your site is completely Google compliant before contacting them. A demonstration that you understand why the Google penalty was imposed is instrumental to unwinding it.

Here's where to go when you're ready: (Update 9 November 2007: This is now handled from the Webmaster Tools area. You need to sign up for an account and then have your site verified to use the tool. The problem is that in order to make the reconsideration request, you have to admit fault and acknowledge the site was non compliant with Google's guidelines. If you want to contest an innocent site erroneously penalized, you can try the contact form at the old link, but there is no real forum for reporting victomization.)

If you are uncertain as to the cause, you should seek help. I do not recommend that you contact Google until you can approach them with knowledge. Their contact form will generate an automated reply (if any), and they do not provide a service to diagnose the cause of a Google penalty. Unwinding a Google penalty usually requires an acknowledgement of the problem by the site owner, a clean site, and a statement of compliance with Google's guidelines. More than one attempt will probably be required to undo a sitewide Google penalty. Even in cases where the Google penalty involves only a limited number of pages from a site, be prepared to commit significant time and energy to setting things straight.

For help in unwinding a Google penalty, email me with "Google penalty" on the subject line. or

Is There Any Recourse Once A Google Penalty Is Imposed?

The consequences of rank loss can be enormous for a web enterprise. If you want to be indexed by Google, you have to play by their rules. They are in some sense all powerful because we rely on their service to drive visitors to our sites, yet we have no say in how their judgments are carried out. There are countless legal issues awaiting precedent, and many businesses have been hurt in ways that suggest legal action is appropriate. But for now, your recourse as a victim of the Google penalty is probably determined more by factors beyond this discussion. If you feel a Google penalty was wrongfully imposed on your site, and created great harm, you join a large number of site owners, many innocent victims. Please write me about your story - I answer all emails that have "Google penalty" on the subject line.

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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