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So your website’s organic traffic dropped, your rankings have all but gone away, and you’re wondering what happened. Was your website penalized or devalued by Google? You thought you were doing the correct things for SEO, and your SEO agency said they were doing white hat SEO tactics that were focused on building your brand within the search results. So what happened?
Let’s start by clarifying that being devalued and being penalized may feel the same, and have the same outcome on rankings and traffic, but most of the time they’re technically different. Being devalued usually means there is a quality concern with your website, being penalized usually means you have gone against Google Quality Guidelines.
There are two types of penalties included in this list; manual and algorithmic.
- A Manual Google Penalty – means your website was reviewed manually, and an issue was noticed by a quality rater at Google.
- An Algorithmic Google Penalty – means your website was caught by one or more of Google’s algorithm spam checks or a recent Google update caught up with you.
Sometimes good things go bad, and Google makes mistakes when identifying manipulative practices, but usually they get it correct. When you try and manipulate Google (because you, or your agency thinks they are “smarter” than Google), it can at best, force you to switch from proactive brand building and growth strategies, to reactive brand fixing and reputation management; and at worst, destroy your business. – Bill Ross, CEO Linchpin SEO
Here’s A List of Reasons Your Website May Have Been Penalized or Devalued By Google
Below you will find a checklist of reasons why your website may have been penalized or devalued by Google. It’s worth noting that all these tactics do not have the same weight towards the level of penalty, and in most cases a website that gets penalized will be dabbling in multiple Google manipulations.
- Scraped Content. Sometimes content strategists and creator pull content from other sites in order to supplement or add value to their own content sets. Often, this is done with good intentions, but when done in excess, Google sees it as manipulative.
- Buying Links. If you or your seo agency has been buying links to try and inflate your rankings, your actions could have caught up with you.
- Excessive Reciprocal Links. If you’ve been exchanging lots of links with clients, it could be seen as an attempt to inflate your Google rankings.
- Using Blog Networks. As far as Google is concerned, if a website uses any kind of content network to inflate pagerank, it is a sign of manipulation.
- Affiliate Links. Google isn’t necessarily opposed to affiliate websites, but a high number of affiliate links is a red flag that the content may not be up to scratch – don’t try masking them either, Google can see them.
- Duplicate Content. To avoid this issue, make sure your content is unique, valuable, and well-written.
- Poor Design. Yes, website design and experience matters. if you think of Google’s search results as their product, why would any business want to have a sub-par product full of bad experiences. Remember, website design includes so much more than just making it pretty.
- Overusing H1 Tags. Correctly structuring website content helps with user experience, content consumption, and SEO. Excessive H1 tags could be seen as an attempt to manipulate Google into ranking your webpage higher.
- Internal 404s. If your website has an excessive amount of pages that return a 404 error, your websites user experience suffers and thus your Google rankings may as well.
- Links From Foreign Language Sites. This one is hard for some people to understand, but Google’s reasoning is that users prefer visiting websites written in the language they speak, so getting links from sites in another language isn’t useful, or in many cases natural.
- Low Engagement / High Bounce Rate. If your site has a high bounce rate (some say more than 50%) and/or low time on site (less than 30 seconds), then Google may view your website as not valuable or engaging for users and lower its rankings.
- Links From Irrelevant Sources. If Google notices too many links pointing at your site from sources that aren’t relevant to the topic of your site they could view this as a sign of manipulative link building practices.
- Copying Content. If you see a great piece of content, be inspired by it, and use it to create your own content with your own slant on the subject.
- Too Many Ads. Google has an algorithmic check for this type of poor user experience. Make sure the ads you place on your website don’t take away from your content experience.
- Content Farm Quality Content. If your content is poorly researched or thin on value, it will most likely get devalued – and you just wasted time and money creating something that will not help increase traffic or sales.
- Rented Links. Some SEO experts still believe rented links are a valid SEO strategy, but this strategy is manipulative and not a tactic that is recommended.
- Site-wide Links. Site-wide links; such as those in the header, sidebar, or footer are viewed as navigational links, and should not be used for SEO purposes.
- XML Sitemap Issues. Google uses the XML sitemap to better understand your website’s structure. If your sitemap is missing or has errors, get them fixed and resubmitted to Google through Google Search Console.
- Forum Linking. Sometimes forums can be valuable for specific industries (buy due to spam, this is rarely the case). If you want to participate in forums, use natural linking techniques and consider using nofollow tags on links that you receive from engaging in the forum community.
- Links to Suspicious Sites. Never associate yourself with a website that is doing something ethically or legally wrong. It is not good for SEO or for your brand.
- Hidden Links. Any links that are hidden or that users can’t access, are considered suspicious and against Google Guidelines.
- Broken External Links. If you don’t keep links up-to-date, Google will assume you don’t care about the user experience, and thus may devalue your web pages.
- Keyword Stuffing Content. There are many theories about keyword density – some claim keyword density exists in the Google Algorithm, others think it’s just garbage.Whether keyword density matters or not, if Google detects an unnaturally high number of a specific keyword in a page, it may penalize you.
- Hidden Content. I can’t believe this still happens, but it actually does. This issue includes disguising text on a page by making it the same color as the background, or using CSS to place it off the page. This is done to add content and keywords to a page that the user can’t access or see, in hopes Google will rank the page for keywords in the hidden content.
- Anchor Text Overuse. Since the 2012 Penguin update, the over-use of exact match anchor text linking is strongly discouraged.
- Missing Hreflang Tag. If you’re not using one when you publish multi-language content, it could be causing issues with duplicate content.
- Website Timed Out Or Down. If Google can’t access your website, it would rather keep sending visitors to it. One thing to note, is that if it goes down for an hour or two, Google understand that and usually won’t take action, but when it’s down for days it will cause a negative rankings impact – as well as take time to get re-indexed.
- Keyword Domains. If you do use an exact match domain, make sure it has plenty of great content, otherwise, Google will assume you’re trying to fool people into clicking.
- Hacked Content. If your site has been hacked or has security issues, Google will quickly remove it from the search results for the safety and security of its users.
- Overusing Meta Keywords. Google has said multiple times that his piece of metadata does not influence rankings in the organic search results of its search engine. But if you need/want to use them, make sure you use no more than five per page and make sure they represent the page content.
- Slow Website. Websites that load slowly frustrate users and are a poor user experience. So because Google does not like frustrating its users, your website may be filtered if the load time is more than 1sec.
- Spun Content. Spinning is content was once a practice that SEO spammers used to create multiple articles (for article directory submission), each containing links back to their website for the purpose of inflating page rank. This is a tactic that will not only cause major SEO issues, but will impact brand value – so don’t do it.
- Comment Spam. Anyone that has a website knows that comment spam is a very real problem. Keep a close eye on the comments you’re getting, removed spam comments, or turn comments off completely.
- Link Building Velocity. Lots of similar links pointing to the same place is a sign of link automation and is not natural.
- Spam Reports. Your site might have been submitted as a potential source of spam, genuinely or maliciously. Google is pretty good about knowing when theses submissions are just not valid, but don’t give them a reason to find something that could fall in the grey area of SEO tactics.
- Doorway Pages. Businesses sometimes try to use multiple landing pages, or lots of one-page websites optimized for a single keyword, to rank in the search results. Google defines there as “doorway pages”, and says this goes against Google Quality Guidelines.
- Over-optimization. An over-optimization penalty usually means you’ve gone too far to try and beat your competition within the search results, and your tactics are starting to have a negative impact on your rankings and website performance in the search results.
- Advertorials. An advertorial is a page of content that was purchased, and is usually full of paid links used to manipulate the search results.
- Redirection of a Penalty. If you’ve received a penalty on your site, starting a new website may be the only option. One thing to note, is that using a 301 redirect to send traffic from the old website to the new website could transfer the Google penalty to your new website. As hard as it may be to stomach, you may need to start from scratch.
- Duplicate Metadata. Some CMS platforms create duplicate content due to how they handle page creation, and other make it all too easy to create duplicate metadata by accident. Make sure you are spidering your website to identify and fix pages that have duplicate metadata.
- Targeted Spammy Keywords. Google is waging war against keywords most frequently appearing on spam sites. If you operate in an industry that’s full of spam, unfortunately you may be caught in the crossfire, even if you are doing things correctly.
- Hidden Script Links. Don’t try to manipulate the search results by embedding or hiding links in script – Google can see these and will penalize you.
- Poor Mobile Design. With Google’s mobile-first indexing it makes it even more important to have a great mobile website experience. If you don’t have one, your website traffic and rankings could be suffering.
- Domain Was Previously Used For Spamming. You may have innocently purchased a domain with a bad history, and that could cause you problems.
There are no quick fixes when your website gets penalized or devalued, which is why when this happens it is such a big concern. If you’re planning on embarking on an SEO campaign, remember, the only way to earn rankings that will stand the test of time within Google is consistently doing the correct things, and putting in the time to build your brand.