SEO for beginners: Google penalties

Web admins dread Google penalties and have various processes they follow to avoid them, making sure Google sees your website as a source of high quality, trustworthy and up to date helpful information.

This article elaborates on what you need to know about Google’s manual actions and algorithmic actions if you’re stepping into the exciting world of global SEO solutions as a novice.

What is a Google penalty?

Simply put, a penalty is when Google’s webspam team imposes ‘punishment’ on a website when the site violates Google’s quality guidelines. Such a penalty will lead to a measurable drop in organic traffic and a drop in website rankings. It is worth mentioning that you must never mistake the negative effect of algorithm updates by Google as penalties imposed on a site. 

That said, if you notice a sudden drop in traffic and rankings even though the site has no downtime or technical SEO issues, one of two things might have taken place:

  1. A recent Google update caused an algorithmic demotion of the site
  2. A human reviewed the site and imposed a manual action 

How can I identify penalties?

If a site gets a manual action, you will find a message in Google Search Console under ‘Security and Manual actions’. The message will give you a detailed description of the issue, making it quick to resolve. Unfortunately, such manual actions lead to an immediate loss in rankings or de-indexing the page altogether.

Resolving ranking issues caused by algorithmic updates is a challenge, as you do not get any warning or message about it. The best way to counter such a decline is to stay informed of any Google updates and monitor your organic traffic whenever it takes place. Suppose a significant drop coincides with an algorithmic update. In that case, it’s a good idea to watch Google Search Central Help Community compare your issues with what other webmasters are doing to resolve them.

Also, keep in mind that Google’s core algorithm updates promote good quality sites as much as it demotes ones not measuring up to its guidelines. If a competitor site suddenly outperforms you on the SERPs, it could be that they are just doing something slightly better than you, and it’s not always a clear indication that you were penalised. It is one of the multiple reasons why keeping a close eye on a website’s competitors is a core element in SEO.

How do penalties help Google fight spam?

You must never forget Google’s ultimate mission to serve its users with the best results for their searches. You will find their expectations from sites well documented in their quality guidelines. Any type of effort to abuse these guidelines or manipulate its ranking factors is classified as spam. Google finds an average of 40bn spammy pages daily.

Many pages don’t even get indexed because Google crawlers can already detect spam in the crawling stage. If spammy content bypassed the crawlers, it might get recognised once all indexed pages are double-checked for spam. Google confirmed that its AI-supported systems have a 99% success rate for identifying spam. The Google fleet of manual checkers takes care of the remaining 1%. These webspam teams are not to be confused with Google’s quality checkers. 

How do manual actions affect a website?

“Manual actions can be anything from quite broad to quite specific and very fluid in between. The goal is always to neutralise the issue, and sometimes that’s easy to isolate & do – other times it’s much harder, so we end up taking broader action.”—John Mueller.

The two main types of actions you will find are:

  1. Manual actions affecting only a section or specific URL
  2. Manual actions affecting an entire domain

If Google takes a manual action, they will also give you the ‘Reason’ and ‘Effects’ data needed to identify, address, and prevent such actions. The list of manual actions will be one of the following messages:

  • User-generated spam
  • Site abused with third-party spam
  • Pure spam
  • Structured data issue
  • Spammy free host
  • Thin content with no added value
  • Unnatural links from your site
  • Unnatural links to your site
  • Cloaked images
  • Cloaking or sneaky redirects
  • Sneaky mobile redirects
  • AMP content mismatch
  • Hidden text or keyword stuffing
  • Google News and discover policy violations (although they are entirely different products)

Final things to keep in mind

It would be best to remember that a spam update and a core update target different issues. Spam updates typically target the same issues, while a core update targets the quality of relevance of content. Manual actions are taken against each individual Google product separately and do not affect your overall ranking on other pages.