A Guide to Google’s SEO Penalties and Messages

Notebook with magnifying glass and notebook with SEO text.
by Dustin // August 16 // 0 Comments

A Guide to Google’s SEO Penalties and Messages


Google is still a very important source of traffic for most online businesses, but achieving high rankings in Google is not as easy as it used to be. This has led to many marketers and SEO campaigns pushing the link-building process to the limit. As a result, some websites are being penalized for violating Google’s guidelines.

Websites found to violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines may incur manual spam actions, also referred to as ‘penalties’. Depending on the circumstances and scope of a manual penalty, the actual impact may range from ‘barely noticeable’ to ‘disastrous’ for a website’s organic Google search ranking.

So, how can you avoid Google penalties and protect your website’s SEO visibility? This guide will give you the knowledge you need to get your website ranking again, whether your penalty is algorithmic or manual. Learn more below.

What Is a Google Penalty?

Google has been updating its search engine algorithm almost since its introduction. When a site is searched for keywords or phrases, the search engine uses numerous algorithms to determine where it ranks.

The first documented algorithm update was made in 2002, and the first named-update came in 2003. In the early stages, these monthly updates were to improve search results for users. In its first month, Google rolled out some basic system updates to address issues like hidden text, hidden links, and keyword stuffing.

The process is a bit more refined now, and Google actively communicates with webmasters when penalties are incurred on their sites, instead of leaving them in the dark about their ranking in search results. Currently, Google hands out website penalties in two ways:

Algorithmic Penalties: The penalties are automatically applied, and occur as a result of one (or more) of the algorithm updates. Algorithm updates can cause minor penalties—with recovery only taking a few days or weeks—or major penalties, which require the site to jump through a lot of hurdles to make its way back up the rankings.

Manual Penalties: Penalties are applied manually to your website by a member of the Google team. In most cases, manual penalties are far more severe, and you will often find that your website is de-indexed or removed from Google’s search results if you violate their Webmaster Guidelines or your website is deemed harmful or spammy.

3 Basic Steps for Avoiding Google Penalties

There are steps you can take to minimize the factors that contribute to SEO penalties. The top 3 guidelines to avoid a penalty are:

  1. Don’t buy links. Links passing SEO value to your site should appear natural. Avoid link schemes and add a “no-follow” attribute to any paid links (such as ads).
  2. Don’t overuse keywords. Content that contains exact repetitions of a key phrase can harm your search engine rankings. Keywords are important, but they should be used in a natural-sounding way.
  3. Make original, quality content. To rank well, you must have unique, high-quality web pages that are updated regularly. Blog content is a great way to add a new page and text to your website regularly!

Wooden cube blocks spelling out PENALTY.

How To Identify a Penalty

Finding out what type of penalty you have incurred and what specific action or actions triggered it is an important step in recovering your search engine rankings. Without knowing what you did wrong, it is impossible to rectify the damage from a penalty! Otherwise, you would just be sprinkling content on your site and building links, hoping something would stick.

The best way to figure out what kind of penalty your site has received is to check Google Webmaster Tools for messages from Google. If you’re not sure what to look for, a web development company or team of SEO experts who know how to read and understand these messages can help.

Checking for Manual Actions

Go to Webmaster Tools and click “Search Traffic,” then “Manual Actions.” A Google notice will appear if a manual action has been taken against your site due to spam, unnatural links, or even hacking.

Although Google’s manual action notices are short, they often provide helpful details about the location of the problem. A notification about malicious content, for example, usually contains a link to the problem page or even the line in the code where the problem is occurring.

If you see a notice on this page, make note of what it tells you. The following is a list of Google’s manual actions and penalties:

  • Hacked website
  • Unnatural links from your website
  • Unnatural links to your website
  • Thin content
  • Cloaking
  • Pure spam

In the absence of any penalties or warnings, there is still hope! This means you’ve been penalized by a Google update, so it is just a matter of identifying which one and how your behavior led to this kind of penalty.

Identifying Algorithmic Penalties

If you do not have a message in Webmaster Tools, it can be a little tricky to figure out why your Google ranking has gone down. Fortunately, thanks to reports on Google’s algorithm changes and updates, you can usually identify which update has affected your website.

Start by loading Google Analytics and checking your traffic data from the last 30 days or so. If there has been a noticeable change in traffic that has occurred over a very short period, it is a sign of an algorithm update affecting your website.

When you identify the dates your traffic has changed, and Google has reported an update targeting low-quality websites, or that penalties have been increased on sites with unnatural link profiles, you can get a much better understanding of why your rankings have fallen.

Do you think you’ve been hit with Google Penalties?

Penalties range from slight, temporary ranking hits, all the way to expulsion from the search engine’s index. You need to figure out if you have been hit by a Panda penalty, Penguin penalty, Intrusive Interstitial penalty, or even a Payday Loan penalty.

Badger Mountain Digital can help.

We are committed to helping businesses with an online presence achieve their SEO goals to increase their website traffic—that includes helping you understand when you’ve been hit with a penalty and how to fix it. Contact us today to talk about our Search Engine Optimization services and how we can enhance your digital marketing strategy.

Owner and founder of Badger Mountain Digital.