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June 16, 2014

Demystifying Google Penalties: Why Site Rankings Drop

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Photo Credit: meneame comunicacions, sl via flickr

While Google’s algorithms may be mysterious, the company’s mission is not: Google wants to reward high-quality, content-rich sites, and penalize those that don’t fit the bill. Penalties can literally take down a site overnight, clobbering once respectable rankings into a sea of oblivion.

If you’ve noticed your web site slipping in rankings, or you just want to take steps to prevent it from happening, it’s time you learn exactly what constitutes the majority of Google’s penalties. Consider this the best practices for websites who want to stay on Google’s good side. Go against these suggestions, and you are duly warned.

How to Tell if You’ve Been Penalized

If you’re not keeping close tabs on your rankings, that’s the first thing to focus on. Monitoring your site’s performance on a weekly basis gives you the necessary head’s up when things take a nosedive. Warning signs are more common than an overnight death drop; pay attention to your metrics, and you can plug the holes before the ship sinks.

Here are some telltale signs that Google is not happy with your site. Some are preliminary warnings, and some are downright catastrophic. All, however, require your attention if you spy them:

  • Your site doesn’t rank well for your brand / company name
  • When you see a listing on Google for your site, it references a secondary page, not your homepage
  • PageRank has slightly or significantly dropped
  • Page one positions are slipping back to page two or worse
  • Your site has been completely removed from Google’s cached results
  • Searching “site: yourdomain keyword” yields no results

When you spy any of the above, you know Google has taken aim. A non-response on your part could be fatal for your business.

Top Reasons Google Penalizes Businesses

1. Duplicate Content – It’s never a good idea to use the same content on multiple pages. Keep articles fresh, current, valuable, and tailored to your audience. Use tools like Copyscape to ensure you haven’t repeated yourself.

2. 404’s – Loads of internal errors is another surefire way to get dinged. Make sure your site functions well and doesn’t lead users into dead ends and links with missing content.

3. Purchasing Links – Because buying links is a way to manipulate the system, Google is not fond of the practice. If you’ve bought even a handful of bad links, you are very likely to get penalized.

4. Stuffed Keywords – Less is more when it comes to using your keywords throughout your content. If copy is written for a search engine, and not a human being, it’s ripe for punishment.

5. Link Swaps – If you have a slew of reciprocal links – that is, links that also point back to you – there’s a danger of a penalty. This used to be a marketing mainstay, but has fallen out of favor thanks to Google’s policies.

6. No Sitemap – Sitemaps are like food to search engines. If you don’t have one, or simply have missing content, your PageRank could definitely suffer.

7. Stolen Content – Sites that regularly scrape content from other peoples’ sites are also targeted by Google, which deems this an unsavory practice, for obvious reasons. Just produce your own content and you have nothing to worry about.

8. Excessive H1 Tags – Sites that attempt to stuff loads of keywords in H1 tags catch Google’s attention in a bad way as well. Use these to communicate your topics concisely and they are SEO gold.

9. Links from Foreign Sites – Since Google maintains that most users are after sites from a single language, links from foreign language sites can also get you in hot water.

10. Bad External Links – You simply have to stay on top of your link partners and make sure that external URLs linking out to other sites are still current, lest you be penalized for dysfunctional content.

11. Website Outages – If your site is down excessively, or continues to time out, Google can literally give up and assume you are no longer in business.

12. Hidden Content or Links – If you’re attempting to be sneaky, you’re playing with PageRank fire. Google scoffs at hidden links and/or copy, as it is normally executed to fool search engines and users.

13. Scads of Anchor Text – Penguin put the kibosh on excessive anchor text, so choose yours wisely. Be concise and clear when you are placing anchor text in your content, and Google won’t take notice.

14. Listing on Blog Networks – Don’t use these suckers; they are from an archaic practice and are severely frowned upon by Google.

15. Way too Many Affiliate Links – A handful of reputable affiliate links is fine and dandy. Go crazy with piles of affiliate links and you may very well get penalized.

16. Slow Load Times – If your site consistently takes way too long to load, Google will bump down your PageRank for sites that offer a better user experience.

17. Spam – Most sites that get dinged for spam are penalized because of excessive content spam. If you allow comments, make sure they are legitimate, not riddled with spammy bait and switch comments, or you risk a PageRank drop.

What other infractions have you noticed Google taking action against? Share your findings in the Comments section.


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Conscious online marketer, web executive, and multi-faceted writer Tina Courtney has been creating and fostering online innovations since 1996. Tina has assisted many clients in maximizing online production and marketing efforts, and is a staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney and JDate, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, influencer marketing, community management, lead generation, and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, and accomplished life coach.  Learn more on LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+.

45 Responses to “Demystifying Google Penalties: Why Site Rankings Drop

    It all seems very sound to me though I have always worked on the assumption that free expression on the Internet is a privilege as well as a right. Why though is Google concerned about ‘reciprocal links’? I aim for a Wikipedia type structure that emphasizes internal links, as good encyclopedias do.

    Hi Keith,

    Reciprocal links raise red flags in Google’s world as they can indicate links for link sake, and not relevant links that are valuable to the users. If you have reciprocal links to sites that are related and add value to yours, no worries. If you’re linking to your buddy’s blog for a link-back, those can result in penalties.
    Good luck to you!

    avatar Angry Birds Epic says:

    This is really nice news and information, I have faced the drop in ranking of many of my websites.

    In other words, do no link building at all. Just create a fantastic website and wait for the hordes of visitors to come. Despite Google’s attempt to punish black hat SEO practices, the results have not really improved at all. Some of my sites have been tanked and replaced with ones with very few inbound links. Just because a site has a few questionable inbound link doesn’t mean that it does not contain legitimate ones. In fact, if you do a lot of SEO and thought you were doing white hat SEO, how would you have know that your practices won’t get you penalized on a future Google update?

    Rants, I can’t argue that a fantastic website is fool proof to future updates – that’s certainly the soundest strategy 🙂

    avatar Pramod says:

    What about If I create free goodies offering websites like, free templates , or icons and get backlink to my main website, will it work?

    Pramod, I can’t say whether or not it would work, but what you describe is not at all a practice that will get you penalized. It’s a great strategy, and I wish you luck!

    Thanks for sharing this piece. The site owners or upcoming bloggers will understand that Google tracks their each activity and results in penalty. Hence they should be careful.

    avatar Kojo says:

    Thanks for this. New to blogging and now I know what not to do.

    avatar F Hodgson says:

    Most helpful article. Thank you

    avatar Jason says:

    I don’t agree or fully understand all of Google’s reasons for being penalized on many fronts. One example is, if you have an API integrated affiliate website that displays duplicate content. Example: An Amazon or ebay reseller store. I can only fathom that this content is on millions of other websites. Would your site get a duplicate content or stolen content penalty for displaying the content from these companies? Hmmmm?

    Hi Jason,
    No, not likely at all; duplicate content that resides on your site in multiple places is a culprit, not content that other sites have on display as well. So no worries at all 🙂

    avatar AzMandius says:

    All i hear in the IT news area recently is Google, Google, Google… it stinks already.

    avatar Chris says:

    I have noticed that my main site page has slipped but a sub page is higher up the rankings?
    I use wordpress and have indicated a page to be my main site page, but this has slipped.
    Can you offer any advice to put it right? The article is really helpful but if there is a way of looking at what is responsible for the switch that would be useful, any starting point would be great 🙂
    Regards

    Hi Chris,
    There could be a lot of reasons for a subpage ranking higher; and it all depends on the search keywords as well. Examine the value of each of your pages; does the subpage have more content that is relevant to searches? Regardless, if your subpage is out performing your homepage, make it work to your advantage. Make sure your most important calls-to-action are present there, so you can funnel the traffic exactly to your benefit. Then employ the best SEO practices to your homepage to give it a boost as well, and you’ll have two high ranking pages 🙂

    Hello to all of you!

    In my opinion, if you want a piece of Google´s cake without paying for it, there is actually nothing you can do about getting penalized. Google don´t want anybody making money, except themselves. Pay for ads and you will be found! That´s it!

    Best Regards!

    avatar Steve says:

    You are right brother it’s all about the money.

    avatar Marcel White says:

    Be careful. Your post is not “original content” and perhaps a penalty is on the way. But I strongly agree with you.
    Best regards.

    avatar Ferry says:

    We must completely eliminate the things that have been mentioned above, because it can also cause penalty from google.
    Thank you for sharing a lot of knowledge on this subject

    avatar RCS Optics says:

    Good Stuff. It reminds us that our energies should always be for the customers benefit. Thanks Tina

    avatar Ron says:

    Curious about #8 above, excessive H1 tags. If many many pages have one H1 line consisting of about 60 characters of text which simply describe the page content, and which is also identical to the page title, wouldn’t that be construed as good?

    Hi Ron,
    Put it this way; what you describe would not be considered “bad” – and likely would be beneficial, if the keywords are relevant. Excessive H1s are repetitive and not relevant to keyword searches or the content itself; so it sounds like you’re on the right track!

    avatar Tarik says:

    Affiliate links definitely affect rankings. I had a page with a normal affiliate link that ranked on page 1.

    Once I switched to cloaked links, the page disappeared for a day then came back to page 1. I think Google HATES affiliate sites but ranks them if the domain has lots of authority.

    avatar Harald says:

    Although that all sounds quite good, some points are complete nonsense. When will you all so-called SEO-experts begin to admit that you are simply repeating what Google is telling us without reflecting it.
    Take for example your points 2. 404’s and 6. No Sitemap. For more than 10 years now I’ve been holding a website of several thousands of article pages in three languages. As items change from time to time there is certain movement in pages. New things coming, old ones removed. To make it easy for Google I added a sitemap that I regularly update when pages change. With only a little bit of common sense you’d expect Google to take the sitemap as a reference to see which pages are intentionally there and so to help update their index. Way out! Google seems to totally ignore my sitemap and in webmaster tools continuously informs me about dozens if not hundreds of 404 errors. Those gods over there in their clouds certainly know better which pages have to be in their index and which others have been omitted by error of webmasters.

    avatar nick sharpe says:

    SEO.
    Part art. Part science. All voodoo.
    For every rule there seems to be an exception.
    My experience with links is- if you have great “on-page”seo, i.e. info architecture, then links are almost secondary. I say this because my website and my clients’ websites are ranking (or have ranked) at the top of organic SERP for our keywords without a million backlinks, thousands of FB likes, old domain names or hundreds of pages of content. As matter of fact, my sites have ranked above those that do, and by all accepted SEO metrics, shouldn’t be ranking at all (and believe me I have to analyze my own work because it seems even successful techniques are NOT always repeatable).
    I can say this- Top organic SERP can take time, even 6-8 months, but once you are there, can be there for years (I have proof). A cautionary tale- I got a little antsy with a very enthusiastic client (who thought I was a Google god because of all my website designs he saw at the top of SERP) so after 4 months of no SERP, I bought a hundred bucks worth of backlinks. Sure enough that site zoomed to the top, then disappeared into Google obscurity (still ranks tops in Bing/yahoo but that doesn’t get no where near the business like google does).
    I am personally scared of backlinks unless they come from a respected blog like this one.
    Be careful. That website is still nowhere to be found on Google and its been 2 years (even after being totally rebuilt).
    Moral of story – make sure your “on-page” seo house is in order if you want to play it safe. Then you don’t have to worry about dodgey backlink strategies or algorithm changes. Quality always wins. Study up or feel free to contact me for more info.
    This is really important stuff. Thx for the post!

    This is very informative. Thanks for the quick heads-up with the good laundry list of reasons for rank downgrades. I don’t mind people duplicating content on my site, just as long as they give credit.

    avatar poojary says:

    is getting hight rank site back links are help to us ???

    Great Tips for Every Blogger, Thanks for Sharing with us, Keep up it.

    avatar gregorysmith says:

    Hi,

    This is one awesome piece of content here. It’s nice to see a list of reasons why Google would penalize a site — all in one place..

    Greg Smith

    avatar Hamizan says:

    Many things can cause the ranking of a blog into a drop and it has been described melalaui points above clearly also

    avatar Willow says:

    Thanks for a great article.

    I have suffered exactly what you have outlined and had many arguments with our seo guy who insists we have no penalty simply because there is no manual penalty.

    I now have something to substantiate my opinion.

    Maybe it is time to find a new seo guy.

    avatar nick sharpe says:

    make sure all your “on page” factors are in place before hiring any “SEO” guy. It has been my experience that websites can rank top in SERP with on-page factors alone (depending on your competition). all the rest is voodoo. Check out Google’s SEO
    Starter Guide

    avatar Ram Rajput says:

    Hi,

    Its Most helpful article for improve your website ranking, traffic and sale as well.

    Thank you

    Yes the days of spamming are over for rankings. These days it is all about quality content. I keep and all of you should in the webmaster tools. They have a manual tab/section. This will show and notify you if any webspam has taken effect on your website. All you to do is verify your website. I highly suggest it for those who have not. This way you can monitor and check things out.

    avatar Audra says:

    Why do you list duplicate content above bad backlinks?

    I see a lot of sites crushed by bad backlinks – but in the ecommerce world where product descriptions are cut and pasted prolifically I don’t see the same level of penalties – but what do you find ?

    avatar Tino Berita says:

    Avoid using negative ways in order to increase the popularity of blogs as bisexual: a case this can be done will result in a penalty from Google itself

    avatar Sarah says:

    Love these great tips. Content is king. If you’re going to have a farm, you want the vegetables to be fresh and watered. AT the end of the day, no matter what you try, you want someone to be taking care of the content of your site.

    avatar guest says:

    the problem is in the details … look at local search now after all these algo penalties and it looks worse than 7 years ago before the cleaned it up the first time .. all those national directories came back and the local ma and pa good guy websites have vanished … it stinks now in local search, Places does not fill the gap either, there are more ads and most the time you are lucky to get 2 organics above the fold … that is not improvement in quality that is monetizing the results to the max you can get away with and still pretend you are a organic “best results” search engine. It’s a scam.

    avatar Willow says:

    You know…. no matter how hard you try to do the right thing with content, keywords, backlinks etc etc there is always some animal that is hiding behind the veil ready to try and destroy you.

    Take for example this animal that has somehow completely copied and duplicated my entire site simply to cause me problems with google. There can be no other reason.

    The animal in question hides behind domain id protection and runs my stolen site from raffshopen.pw

    avatar Dan says:

    Stick with being relevant to the searcher ie your customer!
    On page structure and proper relevant links does the job in most niches.

    avatar farid jepara says:

    thank’s in info

    Thanks for the info so that I can apply in my business

    avatar Dave Lucas says:

    Talk about schemes!
    Too bad Google doesn’t practice what Google preaches!

    avatar Nick Sharpe says:

    Google is a fickle mistress.
    Even if you give her everything she says she wants, you can still only hope to gain her favour.

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