Avoiding an SEO Penalty

The world of SEO is always changing, fact there are typically 10-15 major updates a year and hundreds or thousands of minor updates a year. Most updates will only target certain types of sites or content. However, with each update there is the chance that a tactic that people were using will hurt their site instead of help it.

google peanlty

In this post we will give you some advice about how you can future proof your SEO strategies and stay ahead of these penalties so you can rank for years to come.

What is an SEO Penalty?

There are a few different opinions on what as SEO penalty is, for the purposes of this article we will define it as a website that was ranking highly but rapidly lost rankings. For example a website is ranking #3 on the first page of Google for their main keyword yesterday, now today they rank on the 6th page or have disappeared from Google completely.

There are a few different reasons this could be happening:

  1. SEO penalty. This is primarily what this article is about. Typically this is a result of using an SEO strategy that is frowned upon by Google.
  2. Spyware/Malware. If a website is hacked and the hacker adds spyware or malware to the site Google will sometimes catch this and remove the site from the rankings, at least until the website owner have fixed the issue. This is to protect Google’s users from getting spyware or malware installed on their computer.
  3. Site Down. There are a few different issues that can come in to play on this one, but generally speaking the website is not working properly. Google does not want to show a website to their users that doesn’t work. This can happen because the server goes down, an error in the code that breaks the website, and in rare circumstance it is a DDoS attack that cause the website to become unresponsive.

When a website is penalized because of #1 it can take anywhere from a week to years to recover depending on the cause of the penalty. For websites that have been penalized because of #2 or #3 they will typically recover within a couple days of fixing the issue. However, the longer the site was down the longer after the fix it may take to recover.

Why Do Penalties Exist?

Depending on how you look at it they may not actually be penalties. Instead they could just be “corrections in rankings”, meaning a website’s ranking was artificially inflated and now that has been corrected.

However most people look at them as penalties so let’s stick with that definition.

The primary reason they happen is that Google has realized something you were doing is not what they want you to do.

As a general note Google is not the government and their recommendations are not laws. With that being said if you choose to ignore their recommendations they don’t have to show your website. So, yes you can spam all you want however there will be consequences in the long run.

A scenario may look something like this:

Widget Blu has decided they want to rank higher in the search engines, so they find a company to buy backlinks from instead of earning them naturally (like we recommend). In the beginning their newly acquired backlinks are telling the search engines that their site is a trusted authority and their rankings increase. But over time as they acquire more backlinks the Google algorithm begins to detect something isn’t right.

As time goes on and Google sees more and more signs that something is fishy they begin to notice patterns about their site that are unnatural compared to a normal website that is following their rules. Eventually Widget Blu tips the scales enough that it is obvious they are exploiting the search algorithm.

Google slaps them with a penalty and their ranking drops, typically lower than before they began implementing their questionable tactics.

Typically at this point a company like Widget Blu begins to see the error in their ways, unfortunately the damage is already done and the road to recovery is not a very short trip. They will need to undo majority of what they did and then leverage white hat methodologies to recover.

Depending on their level of expertise the recovery could take a long, long time.

In our opinion when Google sees websites attempting to manipulate their rankings they are disappointed which is why they penalize sites. In our experience sites that have been penalized struggle more to rank than ones that haven’t been penalized.

This is why we recommend sticking with only tactics that are within Google’s webmaster guidelines.

Avoid These Like the Plague

Buying Backlinks

This is one of the quickest ways to get your site penalized. In the past this was also one of the easiest ways to manipulate your search rankings, which is why Google watches for this tactic like a hawk.

If someone is offering to sell you a backlink from their website you need to run in the other direction. It can be pretty easy for the search engines to see who is doing this and the risk is simply too high for a (possible) short term gain.

Using Automated Tools to Build Backlinks

This is a close second to buying backlinks. The algorithms have become so complex that they can typically detect when a website is doing this quickly. Any tool that says it can get you hundreds or thousands of backlinks quickly is far more likely to hurt than help your rankings.

The only way you should be acquiring backlinks is by producing great content and sharing it on social media. You wouldn’t cut corners in your business so why do it here.

Auto Generated Content or Duplicate Content

This was a practice that people would use in the past, either copy someone’s content verbatim and paste it on your website or copy the content and use software to re-write (see: terribly unreadable crap) the content and then paste on your site.

These are two more practices the search engines hate. Imagine if you bought a book and read the first page, you think it’s good. Then you read the second page and it’s exactly the same content. Then page 3, 4, 5, all the same, you’d get pretty bored pretty quick right?

So do the search engines, there are too many good websites out there for them to pay any attention to a site that is just a copy of another site. Make sure you are using original content.

Discount SEO Services

This category is a bit broader. If someone is offering to do “SEO” for you and they charge less than $50 chances are good that it could hurt your site. Most of the tools or automated tools have a low cost to entry, making them a great way for someone to purchase the tool then charge you just a little but still make a profit.

Most any respectable SEO practitioner is not going to be able to do much of anything for that cheap. If they are most likely they are cutting corners in some way.

The only exceptions might be someone doing a site audit or consulting, but neither of those are doing something for you, they are just providing data.

What You Should Focus On

We’ve put together a whole guide on how to do SEO but if you are in a hurry here are the highlights.

Business Citations

Get your business listed on popular directories like Yelp, Yellow Pages, City Search, etc. these sites are loved by Google and you should never risk a penalty by having a link on these sites. Please note we aren’t saying spammy directories just the large, popular directories.

Next are industry or locality specific sites. For example having your business on the BBB and Chamber of Commerce sites are safe. Also if your industry has an association that link should also help your rankings.

Social Media

These are the next safe set of links. Having a fan page for your business on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and YouTube are all safe links to have. When your business is active and providing great content these links can also improve your rankings.

Great Content

This one should be obvious if you’ve read any of our other content. The more value you can add to people’s lives through your website the more people will naturally share your content. This is exactly what the search engines love and reward.

By having a larger website with lots of great information you become a hub of knowledge for visitors, search engines are designed to reward this.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of different ideas and tactics out there to increase your rankings but the risk of a penalty is always there. If something sounds too good to be true it probably is. Just stick to the basics and keep your website safe.

Ranking for your primary keyword for a few weeks is not worth your site disappearing for 9 months. Don’t take unnecessary risks with such a valuable business asset.

Orange Fox is a BBB Accredited Marketing Consultant in Minneapolis, MN

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