Google Penalty Recovery



If you've recently suffered from a traffic loss due to a Google penalty, you will find the information required to recover here. Recoveries can happen as quickly as 72 hours while other penalties can take months to resolve. Regardless of the situation you are in, there is hope and all sites can be rescued.

Factors: 
  • The type of penalty (Panda, Penguin, Manual Action, Malware)
  • Severity of the problem (Minor Ranking Drop, Not Ranking At All, De-Indexed)
  • How quickly you can identify the issue(s) with your site
  • How fast you can resolve the issues surrounding your site.
  • Duration of the reconsideration request (Conditional. Not required in all cases)

What are the most common Google Penalties?

The most common Google penalties are Google Panda and Google Penguin which are completely different but can both have similarly devastating effects on your site's traffic. The first step to recovering from any penalty is to correctly identify the type of penalty affecting your website.

This is accomplished by examining the symptoms (site-wide traffic drops, keyword specific drop), the dates correlating with Google updates and any notices you may have received in your Webmaster Tools.

Action Step: Use the following section to properly identify the type of penalty that is affecting your website. If you find that your site corresponds to different types of penalties, then you may attempt to correlate traffic drops with known Google updates.

How To Identify Panda, Penguin and Other Penalties?

Google Panda

The most common penalty, affecting nearly every site is the Panda penalty. Google has stopped called it a penalty and instead prefer to refer to it as a "Quality Algorithm" which evaluates the quality of your entire website.

If the algorithm determines that your website is providing low quality content, then Google will assign your entire website a lower quality score which will make it increasingly difficult for you to rank in the search engine. The rank modifier can severely impact rankings and can lead to massive traffic losses.

This is why Google Panda is a site-wide penalty that affects the rankings for all your organic keywords. If you are penalized by Panda, you'll notice that:
  • You are experiencing a sharp, yet gradual traffic decline that eventually stabilizes.
  • Your pages have difficulty ranking no matter how many back links you have.
  • You can still rank for certain keywords, albeit not as well as before. Your site might be found on page 2 or 3 for many terms.
  • Historically, after certain Google updates, your rankings drop further. (Google is constantly increasing it's quality standards which means that if their algorithm dislikes your site, it is likely to become worse over time)
  • Google Panda will NOT show up under manual actions in the webmaster tools.

The latest roll-out is Panda 4.1 released in September 2014 and it affects 3.5% of search queries. Source: Pierre Far's G+ Account

Panda Examples: 

Panda Traffic Drop Example
Panda Related Decline in Traffic

Panda Traffic Drop Example 2
Panda Traffic Decline Stabilizes
 
The main element to remember for Panda is it is a site-wide quality algorithm which affects all keywords and all of your traffic. This means that if all your keywords have dropped by a certain percentage (verify this by looking at your Google Analytic traffic), then you might be affected by the Panda algorithm.

Currently, the most effective recovery method is Panda Breakthrough which takes the same information and presents it in a different way to both the users and the search engines so that they deem it to be of higher value. When the information is presented in an optimal way, search engines assign higher quality scores to the pages which ultimately leads to recovery. The higher quality score is partly due to the improved user experience which entails better user metrics by the visitors. This can lead to longer dwell times on the site which returns favorable search metrics.

Other reasons for site-wide traffic losses include link removal, link devaluation, algorithm updates and more. 

Google Penguin

The second most common penalty is the Google Penguin algorithm which primarily affects website owners that have engaged in aggressive link building campaigns. Introduced in April 2012, the algorithm looks for aggressive and unnatural link patterns to punish websites that are attempting to manipulate search engine rankings by building artificial links. 

Google's stance on link building is that every external link to your site should be natural and given due to the quality of your content. Therefore, any link created with the purpose of increasing your rank is considered to be a violation of Google webmaster guidelines. This includes paid links, asking for a link, negotiating link exchanges, automating link creation via SEO tools and mass syndication with the purpose of manipulating search rankings. 

When Google's penguin algorithm detects that you are attempting to manipulate the rankings via unnatural link building, it penalizes your site for the keyword and/or group of keywords that you are targeting. 

If you're penalized by Penguin, you'll notice that: 
  • A specific keyword, or group of keywords has suffered a sharp drop in rankings. (Example: Your page goes from position #2 to position #364 in the rankings.)
  • The page containing the keyword might be de-indexed while the rest of the site is indexed.
  • You may or may not have a message concerning unnatural linking inside your Webmaster Tools, under "Search Queries" and "Manual Actions"
  • In some cases, pages on your site that are not supposed to be ranking are now showing up for the penalized terms. (ie: Your contact page now ranks instead of your homepage when you search for your main keyword.)

Penguin Examples:

Penguin Penalty Example 1
Sharp drop to near 0 traffic for a specific keyword indicates a potential Penguin penalty

Google Penguin Penalty Example 2
Keyword specific drop within the span of 48 hours indicates a potential Penguin penalty

One important distinction about the Penguin penalty is that it is page specific (Often affecting the homepage, but can also affect sub-pages) meaning that one page can lose it's rankings while another one on the same site performs well. 

The severity of the penguin penalty can range from dropping a few positions to be being completely de-indexed with a manual action associated with it. 

The recovery process for Penguin is explained and simplified inside the Panda Breakthrough program but here are the basics. The webmaster must extract the link list associated with his website through the webmaster tools "latest links" and remove the links that fall into an unnatural pattern. Removing the links, followed by a reconsideration request and a new link building campaign will lead to a traffic recovery.

De-Indexed Pages & Sites

Other penalties without official names exist and can result in de-indexed pages and/or sites. These are fairly easy to identify and revolve around spammy links, spammy low-quality content and/or other black hat techniques. 

To identify if your site has been de-indexed, type: "www.yoursitename.com" in Google and see if anything shows up in the search results. 

For pages, you can also attempt searching for a specific snippet of text (7 words) using quotation marks. For example: "This is a the first line of text in my first paragraph" should return your site. 

You may also use the command "site:www.yoursitename.com keyword" (without quotes) to determine if the sub-pages are properly indexed.

De-Indexed Website Example


Last, you may also use the Google Webmaster Tools to further identify indexation issues. 

Any site can recover, even if it has been de-indexed and is currently not being listed in the Google search results. Google still crawls de-indexed sites and pages, it just chooses not to list them in the search engine until you resolve the issues associated with them. 

De-indexed pages CAN be a result of Penguin and Panda penalty but having a de-indexed page does not automatically mean you have a Panda or Penguin penalty.

Manual Action 

Manual actions against your site can also be taken resulting in various penalties (Often severe drops in rankings or being completely de-index) If you have received a message in the Webmaster tools under "Search Queries" and "Manual Actions", then you have a manual penalty associated with your site. 

Manual penalties can be for any webmaster guideline violation but are commonly seen in response to: 
  • Selling links, purchasing links
  • Using doorway pages
  • Cloaking (Serving different content to Google and users)
  • Unnatural links (If you see this, refer to the Penguin section as this indicates a Penguin penalty)
  • Thin content (If you see this, this is one of the rare instances that Google is notifying you of a Panda penalty. If you see this, it is because you have a severe quality issue.)

Manual Penalty Example:

Manual Penalty

Every manual penalty is assigned a specific duration but you should act quickly to resolve it and file a reconsideration request. Manual action is known to range from 3 months to the expiration of the domain name.

Being penalized by Penguin and having a manual action (Unnatural Links) against your site is currently the most common type of penalty. 

Gradual Traffic Declines

If you have noticed that your traffic is declining over longer periods of time, it is often the result of the Panda algorithm and minor updates that Google is constantly making to their search engine to increase search quality.  

Google looks at over 200 signals and unless you're keeping up with them at all times, it might be difficult to pin-point the exact cause for the traffic drop. These algorithmic changes can result in devastating effects over time. An algorithm change can be as small as placing slightly more importance on sub-headlines (and less importance on the main headline) or as massive as changing how Google evaluate links. 

Examples of gradual traffic drops:
  • Your website was averaging 900 unique visitors a day in 2012 which dropped to 650 visitors a day in 2013... and down to 430 visitors a day in 2014. 
  • No messages in webmaster tools

Gradual Traffic Decline Example:

Grudual Traffic Decline
Slow decline in traffic over time
If you have experience a gradual decline, applying the concepts to resolve a Panda penalty will often result in major traffic increases. The best solution is often to find a reliable source of SEO information about Google and apply them to gain a competitive advantage.

Troubleshooting

If you are still unsure of the type of penalty associated with your site, then you may attempt to correlate traffic decline dates with Google update dates. Google periodically announces when they release a major algorithmic update. 

Sources for the updates include the official Google Webmaster blog and Matt Cutt's Twitter page.

If you notice a traffic fluctuation on the same date as an algorithm update, you have likely been affected by that update. Unfortunately Google sometimes releases multiple updates (ie: Panda, Penguin and E.M.D. [Exact Match Domain Update]) within the span of 48 hours, making it quite difficult to pin-point the exact penalty. 

Here are the most famous penalty dates but there are dozens of minor updates that have occurred between them:
  • February 14th 2011 Panda
  • April 24th 2012 Penguin
  • September 30th 2012 Panda, Penguin 2.0, E.M.D.
  • September 2013 Hummingbird
  • January 2014 Panda Refresh
  • May 20th 2014 Panda 4.0
  • June 12th 2014 Competitive Terms Update
  • Sep 25th 2014 Panda 4.1
  • Oct 19th 2014 Penguin 3.0

Penalty Recovery Procedures

Once you have correctly identified the type of penalty associated with your site, you may begin resolving the issue. Here is an overview of the steps involved in recovering from each penalty.

Overview of a Panda Recovery

Panda is a site-wide quality algorithm that looks for low quality content. However, in recent years it has evolved from solely looking for low quality content... to searching for high quality content to rank. Therefore, it is now essential that you have high quality content that answers the searcher's query in order to rank.

In the how to recover from panda section, you'll discover how Google evaluates your content and how you can modify your existing content to satisfy Google's algorithm.

Here is a broad overview of the Panda process:
  1. Identify the most common quality issues with the site starting with a single page and asking: "Is this the best page on the internet for this topic?"

    Google is trying to return the best pages on the internet... and the Panda algorithm is designed to evaluate this content. If the bulk of your site contains high quality content, Panda will consider it to be a high quality site. Contrastingly, if only one or two pages on your site are high quality while the rest are considered low quality, then Google will determine that your site is low quality.

    The quality factors are discussed, in detail, in the how to recover from panda section.

  2. Once you have determined your main quality issues, begin correcting them site-wide. Issues vary from content length (thin content), to copied content, to missing critical site-wide information such as a contact page. Note that not only single element is responsible for a Panda penalty... but instead it is the combination of all the elements that will dictate your quality score, and ultimately, your penalty.

    In many instances, Panda will require drastic changes to the header, footer, navigation and content of your site. Some webmasters will be required to update hundreds of pages, others only a few. Discover exactly what you have to update (and what you can leave alone) to speed up your recovery.

  3. After fixing up your site, allow the Googlebot sufficient time to re-crawl your site and re-evaluate your quality score. Within 48 hours of receiving a new score, you will see your traffic increase if you have successfully removed a Panda penalty from your site.

Example of a Panda Recovery

Panda Recovery
Rapid traffic increase after a Panda recovery

Overview of a Penguin Recovery

Penguin is a page specific, keyword specific penalty that looks at attempts to manipulate search engine rankings. Penguin works primarily by detecting unnatural links pointing to your site which means that recovery involves the removal of the links harming your page.

In the section how to recover from penguin, you'll learn about what Google considers a bad link, methods for finding the infringing links and what do to once you've located the links.

Here is a broad overview of the Penguin process:

  1. Locate the page and keyword that is currently being penalized. This is important because you'll be looking for links using that anchor text and pointing to those page.

  2. Download your entire link list and identify the links that Google considers to be bad.

  3. Remove & disavow the links responsible for the penalty.

  4. Wait until Googlebot re-crawls the changes. This can take anywhere between 3 hours and 3 months depending on the crawl frequency and how many links you had to remove.

  5. (Conditional) In some cases, a reconsideration request is required if you also have a manual action attached to your site. 

Example of a Penguin Recovery

Penguin Recovery Example
Major Traffic Increase For The Site's Main Keyword

Overview Of a Manual Action Recovery

The Google team can issue manual penalties to sites and pages it deems to be violating the Google webmaster guidelines. The penalties vary but they are usually relatively easy to identify because manual penalties always have an associated message located inside the Webmaster Tools. 

It is not uncommon for webmasters to submit 7+ reconsideration requests over the course of a year before finally succeeding. Fortunately, it is possible to get it right the first time and have a manual action lifted within a few days.  

To locate your manual penalty:

  1. Log into your webmaster tools
  2. Click on "Search Queries"
  3. Click on "Manual Actions"

Although there are specific procedures to accelerate the recovery of a manual penalty, here is a broad overview of the process:

  1. Identify the penalty associated with your site.

  2. Aggressively correct the issue, going further than you would normally would to resolve the violation of the webmaster guideline.

  3. Submit a successful reconsideration request that satisfies the elements that the manual reviewers must see in order to lift a penalty.

  4. Wait for a response (Typically 3 days - 3 weeks)

  5. (Conditional) Repeat if the issue is not resolved or the reconsideration request was denied.

Tip: Top 6 Tools Used To Recover From Panda and Penguin

Tools and Resources

  • Xenu Link Sleuth - This tool allows users to crawl a website to locate problems such a broken links, broken pages and various other issues that can cause traffic drops. If used properly, it can also help uncover duplicate content and thin content issues that plague Panda users.
     
  • Google Webmaster Tools - The website dashboard provided by Google shows all the vital information associated with your site, including notices of penalties, site query drops, crawl stats, errors and incoming links. This should be a starting point for resolving any penalty.

  • Ahrefs - An alternate link crawler provides full link lists for your website along with additional information about your anchor text, link density, link velocity and much more. It can be a useful tool for anyone dealing with a Google Penguin penalty.

  • MajesticSEO - Another alternate link crawler that provides a full list of links pointing to your website. It is extremely useful when dealing with Penguin issues.

  • Panda Breakthrough - A simple step by step video course on everything you need to know about recovering from Panda and Penguin issues. Including all the elements that Panda looks for in high quality websites and how to quickly recover from Penguin penalties. It also covers manual penalties, ranking higher and provides constant SEO updates to help webmasters to increase their traffic.