Search Engine Optimization:
Penalized In Google:
Doing The Research

(Updated 17 Sept 2012) Practicing "white hat" SEO - that is, paying attention to the search engine best practices guidelines - is the only ethical way forward for pros. But many site owners thought they were doing just that, yet still were penalized in Google, MSN, or Yahoo, because of factors completely beyond their control.


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Can I be penalized in Google even if I play by their rules? Do Yahoo and MSN unfairly penalize sites?
     What gets a site penalized in Google may push rank in Yahoo. What works with one search engine can be very ineffective in another. SEO professionals used to be able to rank sites high with techniques that would now get them penalized or even banished. Since no search engine publishes the techniques that work best, the only way to discover what works and what gets penalized in Google is to do the research. By that I mean experimenting with live sites, not reading the forums. More on Google penalties.

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Researching The Triggers Of Google Penalities

From my experience, one of the best ways to learn about what gets a site penalized in Google, or any other search engine, is first hand knowledge. Because the search engines do not really want you to learn exactly how to rank sites, SEOs have had to learn from experience what works and what doesn't. Research in this field involves treating the search engines as black boxes affecting an outcome - controlling the input, observing the output. The experiments carried out in the name of SEO involve trial and error - trying out many strategies - using control agents, repetition, and confirmation to choose strategies that consistently achieve positive outcomes. This experience also gains an understanding of what doesn't work. And if you do enough research, and take enough risks, some of these failed experiments will also lead to an even more revealing result - the triggers of a Google penalty.

What You Learn By Getting Penalized In Google

Every SEO professional has experienced firsthand the outcomes of successful techniques that result in better ranks. And most have read the forums and the guidelines that point siteowners to the sanctioned techniques for pushing rank. And every ethical SEO knows there are consequences for ignoring those guidelines. But in spite of the great efforts made to avoid them, it's the triggering of real Google penalties that are the most instructive, especially when they're the consequence of rank boosting efforts. Clearly, the most in depth knowledge will be held by those few SEOs who have actual experience with sites getting penalized in Google, especially if they not only understand the reasons, but also strategize the unwinding. It's one thing to read about penalties in the forums, and a completely different thing to cause them, and then have to deal with them. Being penalized in Google is something that happens, and not infrequently.

For more insights into Google penalties, consider these suggestions from their 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.

This is basically a list of "don'ts" whose existence proves their success. You'll get penalized in Google if caught doing any of these things. But how do you think this list originated? Every single item on this list comes from a strategy that at one time could successfully push rank. My research proves that these techniques still can be used to achieve high ranks, it's just that if you get caught doing it you get penalized in Google.

Is There Ever An Appropriate Use Of Black Hat SEO?

Because I work for clients who rely on natural search to drive their businesses, ethical considerations rule out taking risks that could get their sites penalized in Google. But the question is worthy of discussion, given the source of the standards, and our lack of influence in the arbitration and penalty process.

In the course of my work, I am constantly made aware of sites that successfully use unsanctioned rank boosting techniques, flaunting Google's guidelines and still achieving stunning search results. While it is clearly in Google's interest to be able to identify these sites, the truth is that the Googlebot is behind the curve in the techniques that can automatically detect sophisticated guideline abuse.

The more sites that rank successfully, while defying the standard of behavior set by Google, the more we need to consider the philosophy of search ethics. Think about this: black hat SEO is not against the law, it's just counter to some rules made by some search engine. If your competition is outranking you, and he's doing it with technical tricks that can't be held to account, do you have the right to use the same (not illegal) techniques, even if you know Google would penalize you if they discover them? We all want Google to be fair. But the real world message, not heard by all those who worship Google, is that Google is not able to be fair. The techniques that trick the robots are no longer simple tricks like hiding text on a background of the same color (a trick that still can work, by the way). The tricks now involve higher level code, sites that dynamically serve static pages to targeted spiders, identify the Googlebot and directly manipulate it, hide huge numbers of text and links with CSS, and post virtually undetectable doorway pages and redirects. The task of regulating the behavior of technologically robust black hat SEOs is not small. The fact that I see sites that risk being penalized in Google, but are ranking with great success, suggests a problem that might not be going away.

How Efforts To Identify Spam Can Hurt Innocents

So we know that there are unsanctioned techniques being used on sites, and we know that Google is trying hard to identify them. But when you make the rules as well as enforce them, real justice can sometimes become invisible. If a site is penalized in Google, and the reason turns out to be technical and not an intentionally deceptive act, does Google have any responsibility to inform the site owner? I've seen sites lose rank because the Googlebot spidered the pages in a development area not intended for visitors. I once bought four related domain names, created sites and interlinked them extensively. They had unique content, but that didn't matter. Until the interlinking was removed, these sites were penalized in Yahoo and suppressed in Google. Any brand new site receiving high level SEO will disappear into the Google sandbox until 6-8 months. In spite of the mythology spread on the forums, the sandbox is a real Google penalty, and I can site examples from my own sites.

The sandbox is one Google penalty that uniquely affects brand new sites. Google is terrified that a brilliant SEO is going to take a new site to the top of the SERPs and Google will be made complicit in the resulting scam. Just by requiring a trial period on the web, the chances of such a fraud being successful is decreased. And Google only sandboxes sites that garner lots of SEO - a site that shows no rank pushing effort will not receive this beginner's Google penalty.

Some rather innocent sounding web strategies can trigger a Google penalty. Buying links, for example. This was a legitimate rank pushing technique not long ago that can now hurt your site. You can still find ads touting this strategy and link farms still exist. Owning lots of domains, each addressing a particular keyword set was once considered a brilliant move. I have clients who used this strategy successfully for a while. But when all those domains were identified to be part of one main enterprise, all those domains ceased being indexed. And the company's main website suffered a manually imposed suppression across all their keyword sets, a kind of lesser Google penalty.

I've seen pages disappear from the Google index for no apparent reason. I believe that mistakes occur in their effort to filter spam out of the index. If your innocent site gets caught in such a filter and loses all rank, do you think justice will find you? It might if you make enough of the right kind of noise. But be warned: Google does not provide guidance when something like this occurs. A message through their form results in an automated message which claims the automated process fixes itself. Google claims to not make manual adjustments. Yet I know this statement is false. I have several examples of interventions by Google on both sides of the problem: manually penalizing, and manually releasing that penalty.

If You Think You've Been Penalized In Google

Sometimes sites disappear without being penalized in Google, and then come back at a later spidering. But if several big crawls have occured and your site is still out of the index, you must become proactive. More information is here.

If the reason you were penalized stems from unsanctioned SEO and intentionally deceptive techniques, you may not be able to regain the level of rank you once experienced without extensive work beyond the unwinding. But after cleaning up your site, you can still regain inclusion in the index, and can begin a program to build real relevance and structure that can support your ranks legitimately. Consider being penalized in Google as a wake up call.

The most frustrating cases involve sites penalized by Google for no apparent reason. An innocent site removed from the index by mistake, or for reasons beyond the understanding of the owner is a real victim of the search monopoly. If you feel this has happened to your site, don't take it quietly, and don't give up. A class action lawsuit may be in the best interest of everyone if it can hold Google more accountable for its errors. But for this to happen, you need to join with others similarly harmed. Tell us your story.

If you want experienced guidance, contact me with "Google Penalty" on the subject line. I answer every email, and will help you both identify the problem and strategize the restoration of your ranks.

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)