Does your website have a Google penalty?
Unfortunately, you can’t just phone up Google directly to ask.
You have to do some homework.
But don’t worry—there’s no calculus involved.
Work your way through each step of this guide, and you’ll get the answers you need.
Along the way, you’ll find out if you actually do have a Google SEO penalty and what you can do to recover.
Do I Have a Google Penalty? How to Know, Avoid and Recover
Part 1: How to Tell If You Have a Google Penalty
You can’t just assume you’ve been hit by a Google penalty. There can always be another explanation for your situation.
Ask yourself these questions to determine if you’ve been penalized, and if so, what type of penalty you have.
1. Have your keyword rankings dropped?
The first thing to look at is your keyword rankings. A penalty will cause a decline in your rankings, or you might even disappear from the SERPs altogether.
I recommend using Monitor Backlinks to check and track your keyword rankings over time.
Sign up for a free trial now—it’ll come in handy in the next steps, too!
The Overview page gives you a bird’s-eye view of your keyword rankings over time, and how they correlate to your organic traffic and backlinks.
The purple line indicates your Average Keyword Position. If you see that line dropping off into a steep decline, that would suggest that you’re losing rankings and may have suffered a Google penalty.
You can also check individual keyword rankings from Monitor Backlinks’ Rank Tracker page.
Scroll down to find a list of the keywords you’re tracking, and look for any big ranking drops.
2. Has your organic traffic declined?
The other major sign of a Google penalty is a drop in organic traffic to your website.
If you’re using Monitor Backlinks, the graph on the Overview page shows you your site’s organic traffic with the blue line:
Or you can look closer at your organic traffic data with Google Analytics.
Just click on “Acquisition” on the left-hand menu, then “All Traffic” and “Channels.” Here you’ll see a similar organic traffic graph:
If you’re seeing a significant drop in search traffic, your website could be in trouble.
But first, you want to eliminate any non-Google penalty explanations, such as:
- Seasonal traffic patterns. If your website has been online for long enough, I recommend looking at a 12-month view.
That’s the best way to make sure you’re not being led astray by seasonal patterns (e.g. an e-commerce store might see a major decline in traffic every January after December holiday shopping).
- Technical problems. If your organic traffic has fallen to zero overnight, there may be a technical explanation.
Check your robots.txt file to make sure it’s not telling Google to stay away. Check that your website has a correct sitemap with the Sitemap Test tool, and verify that it has up-to-date SSL protection with the SSL Checker tool.
- Change in marketing strategy. If you’ve moved budget and focus from SEO to other marketing strategies like PPC or social media, then your organic traffic is likely to decline.
Remember that nothing stands still in SEO, and competing websites are constantly seeking to attract new website visitors. If you’re not focusing on SEO, your competitors have probably stolen your traffic.
If you can rule these out, then you might have a Google penalty.
3. Is your backlink profile up to scratch?
Google pays a lot of attention to your backlink profile, and they’re quick to penalize websites that don’t meet their Webmaster Guidelines.
If your backlink profile is littered with spammy and low-quality links, then you can be pretty sure that you have (or are soon to get) a Google penalty.
Use Monitor Backlinks to track your links and easily flag higher-risk links.
From the Your Links page, you can view all your backlinks. Notice how some of them are automatically flagged by Monitor Backlinks as a potential spam or low-quality link:
Apply the “Warnings” filter to display all the backlinks that have been flagged with a warning symbol:
Keep in mind that not every link with a warning is necessarily a bad link.
You should investigate them further individually, especially those with a high Spam Score.
It’s also worth remembering that a natural backlink profile will have a variety of backlinks, both good and bad. So there’s no need to panic right away, just because you’re seeing a few low-quality links.
If you think you have a Google penalty, you should evaluate your backlink profile for a few other things as well:
- An unbalanced mix of follow and no-follow backlinks. If you only have follow links, that looks unnatural to Google and may trigger a penalty. While you want the majority of your backlinks to be follow links, you should have some healthy no-follow backlinks in the mix as well.
- Anchor text over-optimization. If all your backlinks are using perfectly keyword-optimized anchor texts to point back to your site, that starts to look suspicious. In your link building efforts, you’ll want to see a variety of natural anchor texts related to your brand name, product names and other generic phrases.
- Low-quality link sources. If a lot of your backlinks come from brand new websites with low Domain Authority or high Spam Scores, that looks bad. Such a backlink profile suggests that your website is only generating attention from low-quality websites, and you could be penalized as a result.
4. What type of Google penalty do you have?
By this point, you should have a pretty good idea of whether or not you have a Google penalty.
The next step is to find out what type of penalty you’ve been hit by: manual or algorithmic.
In some cases, human reviewers at Google will manually apply a penalty to a specific website. This can feel scary, especially if you’ve lost the majority of your traffic as a result of it.
However, there’s a major upside to this type of Google penalty:
You can read the explanation from Google, respond to it, and you have a good chance of removing the penalty just by following their instructions.
To check for manual penalties, log in to your Google Search Console account. Look at the “Manual actions” page, under “Security & Manual Actions.”
A message will appear here if you’ve been manually penalized by Google. Here’s an example of a manual action message for major spam problems from Search Engine Land:
If you have no manual penalties in place, your page will look like this:
If you checked Google Search Console and saw no manual penalty, your website might’ve been hit by a Google algorithm penalty.
Unfortunately, Google’s algorithm constantly changes, and they rarely confirm or explain the changes.
If your website has been penalized as a result of an algorithm update, you need to do everything you can to bring your website back in line with Google’s expectations—but you won’t get much help from Google.
Here are a few things you can check if you suspect an algorithmic penalty:
- SEO news websites. It’s tough to keep up with Google’s algorithm changes on your own. Follow SEO news site like Search Engine Journal and the Google Webmaster Central Blog—if there’s a major change, it’ll be reported there.
- Content quality. Google doesn’t favor low-quality content. That includes “thin” content with little depth, pages designed to trick users into clicking on links, and pages that don’t show an adequate level of expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness.
Check out Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines for more examples of low-quality content. If you have any of these on your site, you could’ve attracted an algorithmic content penalty.
- Backlink profile. If your backlink profile is too “perfect,” you’re more likely to trigger a Google link penalty. Too perfect means your anchor texts constantly use the same keywords and you have a lot of the same kinds of backlinks (e.g. only backlinks from blog posts).
- Page speed. Faster loading websites perform better in Google because they provide a better user experience. After the 2018 Page Speed Update, mobile sites that load slowly can now be penalized.
To check your site speed and find areas for improvement, use Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool.
- Your SEO strategy. If your search traffic is down or you’re losing keyword rankings, your SEO strategy might be the root cause of the penalty. Check your practices against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to make sure you’re not using black hat or gray hat tactics that earn Google’s wrath.
Part 2: How to Recover from and Avoid Future Google Penalties
So you’ve got a Google penalty?
Don’t worry—there’s a way out.
Essentially, you need to step up your SEO efforts to make sure your website meets Google’s quality expectations. Once you’ve done that, the rankings and traffic will come back!
Follow these steps to fix your website, recover your rankings and avoid more Google penalties down the track.
1. Address any issues raised by a manual Google penalty
If you have a manual penalty, count yourself lucky. Compared to algorithmic penalties, they’re much easier to resolve.
There will be steps laid out to fix the problem in your manual action report. While you might not agree with Google’s perspective, in most cases, it’s faster and cheaper to simply implement their suggestions.
In some situations, you might find Google’s comments difficult to understand. In that case, I recommend following the advice in the next few steps—they’re solid best practices to improve your site overall and boost your results over time.
2. Identify spammy backlinks and disavow them
The presence of spammy and low-quality backlinks will hurt your rankings and search traffic.
While bad links are unavoidable, as a rule of thumb, I suggest trying to keep your bad backlinks to about 20% of your total backlink profile. You can manage this easily with Monitor Backlinks.
Go to your backlink profile and use the “Warnings” filter to find potentially spammy links.
In this example, I’ve filtered for backlinks with “High Moz Spam Score.” Monitor Backlinks has returned about 300 of these backlinks that could be considered spam:
Once you’ve gone through these backlinks and are confident of the spammy ones, use the built-in disavow feature to clean up your links.
Simply select the backlinks you want to disavow with the checkbox on the left, and then click the “Disavow” button at the top.
This will add the selected backlinks to your disavow list, which you can find from Monitor Backlinks’ Disavow Tool page.
You then have two actions to take:
Click “Export Disavow Rules” to download the list to your computer.
Then, click “Send to Google” to be taken to Google’s Disavow Links tool, where you can upload the list. That will tell Google not to associate your site with those spammy backlinks.
3. Strengthen your backlink profile
With the worst backlinks disavowed, you then need to work on making your backlink profile stronger with higher-quality backlinks.
Here’s the easiest way to do that:
A. Identify which pages attract the most backlinks
Your most successful pages are the ones you should be promoting for more backlinks because they’ve already proven to resonate with your audience.
They can also give you valuable insights into what types of content perform well. For example, do your high-linked pages feature interviews with experts, or maybe lots of high-quality product images?
Use those insights to inform future content you create.
You can easily find these high-performing pages with the “Top Linked” report in Monitor Backlinks. Just open the Link Analysis page to see the report:
This tells you the URLs on your site that have generated the most backlinks.
To narrow it down further to the URLs that have generated the most valuable backlinks, I suggest looking at the ratio of follow and no-follow backlinks per URL. Ideally, you’ll want to focus on URLs where 50% or more of the backlinks are follow links.
The “Top Linked” report shows you that ratio for each URL: Follow backlinks are green and no-follow backlinks are yellow.
Hover over any of the URLs to see the numbers in more detail:
You can also click the “Export as CSV” button to download the full report as a CSV file and view it in more detail in Excel:
Decide on two or three popular pages that already have a decent number of backlinks.
Going with our example spreadsheet above, I’d suggest focusing on the two top-performing blog posts:
B. Outreach to request more backlinks
Then, use outreach to earn more backlinks to those pages.
You can put the odds in your favor by focusing on websites that have already linked to you in the past. A good strategy is to look for sites that have linked to one of your top-performing pages, but not the other.
Let me show you how to find these potential link sources with Monitor Backlinks.
From the Your Links page, enter the URL of the first page in the “Link To” filter:
Make a note of these links. I suggest adding tags for easy reference.
Then, do the same for the URL of the second page:
Look for high-quality websites that have linked to one of these pages, then reach out to them to request another backlink to the other page.
Then, send a friendly message thanking them for the backlink they’ve already provided. Mention that you have another great resource that they might find valuable, and provide a link to your other page so they can check it out.
Repeat this process to earn more backlinks!
4. Publish more high-quality content
Google loves it, people love it.
You should be publishing new, high-quality content regularly on your website to show Google your value. I recommend pursuing a long-term content strategy where you commit to publishing new content at least once per week.
Plus, the more great content you have on your site, the more great backlinks you’ll earn!
Try these tips if you’re struggling to come up with good content ideas:
- Review the high-performing content on your website. What themes could you revisit or expand on? Is there a new perspective or new data you can bring into the picture?
As well as looking at your top linked pages in Monitor Backlinks, you can also check Google Analytics to see which pages get the most pageviews.
- Find out what your customers want to know. What are their common questions and pain points? Write content to address them specifically.
Google’s People Also Ask box is a great place to find the questions your customers are frequently asking. Read this guide for more.
- Study your competitors’ high-performing content. Find out what’s working well for them, and do the same with your own content.
You can track your main competitors with Monitor Backlinks, and identify the content on their site that’s earning them the most backlinks.
- Keep an eye on trending topics. Step out of your industry from time to time to find content ideas.
Look at social media hashtags or the New York Times‘ Trending page to get a sense of what topics and headlines are resonating with the public. Can you bring your own spin?
Read this HubSpot guide to learn more about how to relate your product to trending news stories with the art of newsjacking.
Nobody looks forward to a Google penalty.
But if you suspect that you have one, use these techniques to find out, regain your rankings and stay out of Google’s bad books!
Bruce Harpham provides growth marketing services to B2B SaaS companies. He is also the author of “Project Managers At Work.” His work has appeared on CIO.com, InfoWorld and Profit Guide. Read his B2B SaaS marketing case studies covering Close.io, ClickFunnels and Woodpecker on his website.