Google Penalty Myths

One of the issues I discuss regularly with clients are elusive Google “penalties”. More often than not, good-willed webmasters and small business owners undertake SEO techniques that are not only frowned upon by Google, but easily detectable and and even easier to counteract. However, these techniques do not usually bring about “penalties”.

Penalty: a punishment levied by a search engine, normally in response to techniques which violate the ToS, which leaves the punished site ranking below the point at which it would rank were those techniques simply countered and ignored.

Is your site suffering a penalty?
It is far too easy to attribute your site’s poor rankings to a penalty when, more often than not, another more straight-forward answer is available.

  • First, penalties normally impact webmasters who undertake egregious steps to optimize their site: comment spam, forum spam, guestbooks, poor cloaking, etc. Even then, most of the time these links are simply devalued.
  • Secondly, penalties are normally only diagnosable when all other ranking factors appear in order. Is your site as old, have as many links, or as quality content as your competitors?
  • Finally, penalties normally impact sites in obvious ways. Did your site drop from the index altogether (ban)? Did all of your rankings drop in a uniform manner (# penalties)? Or were several keywords impacted and drops greater than 500+?

Unless some mix of the above list are true, chances you are not suffering a penalty. A couple of issues are more likely at play – resulting in an inability to rank or even lost rankings.

  • New algorithm updates or increased spidering of your site and its backlinks may have tripped a “filter” that more closely analyzed and APPROPRIATELY valued your links. Many webmasters are shocked to learn that the techniques they have used for years to artificially inflate their rankings are no longer effective. When Google fixes these exploits causing your rankings to drop, you are not suffering a penalty, you are simply no longer receiving credit for links that Google now believes to be unworthy.
  • Your site may have lost a handful of high-quality links. Websites disappear (especially older ones which may have been providing you a lot of PageRank pass-thru), other sites begin to implement No-Follow, blogs, comments and press-releases get auto-pruned. Because the quality of the link matters so much, you could track your back links and believe your site to be growing in Link Popularity, but actually be losing your most important links.

So what does this mean? How does this affect my next steps after seeing my site drop precipitously in the search engines?

  • Don’t submit a re-inclusion request, yet.
  • Do clean up your own site. No-follow or remove old link-trading schemes. Remove hidden content.
  • Do try to remove yourself from any easily discernible link-network.
  • Do a little viral / social media marketing to start building links.
  • Do solicit the help of a professional if your site rankings do not begin to recover.
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  1. Bob Misita
    Sep 16, 2008

    Fantastic writeup – best search engine penalty myth busting I’ve read.

  2. Google penalty
    Nov 1, 2008

    Just do whitehat SEO you will never get google penalty:)

  3. Gold Coast SEO
    Nov 3, 2008

    Some very important points that a lot of people dont think of, like a link is forever. You need to regularly check, update and reproduce links to keep at the top of your nich.

  4. Din
    Jan 23, 2009

    “Just do whitehat SEO you will never get google penalty:)”

    Whitehat SEO, what’s that then?

    Show me a top ranking site who do not engage in link building.

  5. Dan Smith
    Mar 3, 2009

    I gotta agree with Din. Every technique for SEO designed to increase inlinks, page rank, etc. is not done for the benefit of the visitor. Therefore, by definition it’s not purely white hat.

    Editor’s Note: You have made an incorrect assumption. You are assuming that the search engine’s algorithm (without link building) will result in the best possible outcome for Users/Visitors. I doubt even Google will admit that, even in an ideal world, their algorithm will not always result in the best experience for the users. Thus, I would argue, if you believe your site is the most relevant and valuable to a user search for a particular keyword, then it is very much white hat to use link building or other strategies that put your resource in front of those users who would benefit from finding your site. Advocating for yourself or your site is not wrong, unless you are trying to make your site rank higher than what it would rank in an ideal User’s world.


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