Posted in SEO by Ben Acheson | 3 comments

What is a Google Penalty?

Google uses links to measure the topic and value of pages on the web and it was perhaps inevitable that some people would build links to pages they wanted to do well in search results, in an attempt to manipulate those results.

Google’s algorithm has been capable of automatically detecting and penalising websites with unnatural-looking links pointing at them at least since its first “Penguin” update in 2012.

Google also has a team of people whose job it is to identify unnatural links and penalise the websites they point to with a manual spam action. There is even a handy form where your nasty competitors can report you to Google (possibly after building hundreds of spammy links to your website over a long period of time just to make sure).

Google penalty Manual-Spam-Action-Unnatural-Links

A Google penalty is typically diagnosed after receiving a notification from Google Webmaster Tools like the one above. If Google Webmaster Tools is not being properly monitored, a penalty is usually identified after observing a sharp decline in traffic, either for particular keywords or pages (indicating a “Partial” match penalty), or across the board (suggesting a “Site-wide” match). Further investigation reveals that the drop in traffic is restricted to Google traffic and there you have it: Your site has a Google penalty. (Bing sometimes issues penalties too but it is not nearly as aggressive as Google in its approach).

A Google manual spam action or penalty on a business website can have a severe impact on that business. It may also be bad for your health: if you are a business owner or search marketing professional then discovering a Google penalty really could be one of the most stressful and disturbing experiences of your life. That’s really not nice Google. Seriously.

Here are 3 important reasons why Google needs to stop imposing penalties for unnatural links:

1. Google Penalties Are Unfair

Most Google penalties are imposed for “unnatural links” pointing at your website – but you have little or no control over who builds links to your website so getting a penalty can seem very unfair.

Businesses with websites hit by Google penalties are often forced to spend a lot of money with Google via Adwords in order to compensate for lost organic search traffic and sales. More money for Google – but a lot of frustration for the business owner.

Perhaps Google thinks that it can also force website owners to install Google Adsense ads – by creating the worsening sense of fear about linking to other websites in the normal way.

I remember a time when websites freely linked to each other, without fear of persecution. Does anybody else remember that links are the entire point of the web?  Links are literally the structure and fabric of the web. They are its highways and and represent a big chunk of its whole purpose and value. They are also a huge part of the web’s organic beauty. Can we have our web back please Google? We liked it better the way it was before everybody got so scared of Google.

If your website has a penalty then it is increasingly likely that a third party, such as an SEO agency – or even a hostile competitor – has built harmful links to your website. You may have had no idea what was happening, so it’s quite harsh for Google to cripple your business - but that won’t stop them from doing it. They do it all the time. Google keeps changing its guidelines too, so it’s possible that your bad links were perfectly legitimate when they were built. It’s pretty confusing… in fact, it’s downright stupid!

2. Google Penalties are Stupid!

As long as people can sell products by being found in search engines, SEO will never die. SEO can be beautiful, can be creative, can be perfectly clean. It can help businesses to thrive and it can improve the experience for customers. SEO can be a really good thing.

But it’s pretty obvious that Google is trying hard to kill SEO as an industry – perhaps in the hope of diverting marketing budgets to Google Adwords where they make most of their money. But they will fail.

You see, Google is making a big mistake. Because no matter how hard they try, in crushing one element of SEO they merely shift the priorities of SEO campaigns elsewhere. SEO won’t go away. It will simply shift focus – to content marketing, to link removal, to the next big thing, which may well eat up even more budget than the last big thing. Marketing budgets will follow the trends, they always do. I’m sorry Google, but you can’t stop people investing in stuff that doesn’t make you money. It’s impossible. Even you don’t have that much power.

The growing demand for link removal and penalty recovery services is such that Google has created yet another huge industry within SEO. It is an an industry motivated by one of our most powerful and primal instincts: fear!

Did you notice me promoting my latest SEO service right there? I’m just following the market that Google is creating. You see, as an SEO agency, most of our new clients that come on board now are seeking help to recover from a Google penalty! Just think about that for a moment… How ridiculous is that? It’s crazy. It demonstrates that Google’s futile attempts to kill SEO simply shift the priorities of the industry and increase businesses’ reliance on agencies who have the expertise and experience to deal with the latest thing Google throws at them.

Like other elements of SEO, link removal and recovery is complex and technical. It can be difficult. It can be dangerous. It is important and it needs to be done properly. So by imposing more and more penalties Google is ensuring the growth of SEO and the survival of SEO agencies. You hear that, Google? You’re not killing us, you’re helping us! You’re creating more demand for us and reliance upon us than ever before and for really stupid reasons.

Google, if you want to deal with unnatural links, why not just ignore them automatically? You sure can detect them. Hurting and scaring businesses and making those links a serious problem for them reveals a really nasty, unfriendly side to Google. It also reveals that Google doesn’t merely want to resolve the problem of unnatural links – it wants us to be scared of Google. I find that quite disturbing.

What’s more, Google is also promoting the growth of nasty link building, as I will now discuss:

3. Hostile SEO: The Growing Threat

Google’s campaign of fear obviously increases awareness of the damage that can be done by unnatural links and the kind of tactics that cause the most damage – that’s the whole point and it’s very effective, especially when big brands are hit because that’s naturally newsworthy. But the folks at Google simply have not thought this through to its logical conclusion.

What Google is doing is in fact very dangerous. In addition to a continued shift towards content marketing for SEO, which is fine, we are sure to see dramatic growth in hostile SEO campaigns over the next few years -because bad links are being proven to be effective in a very public and publicised way. What’s more, hostile campaigns are likely to become more sophisticated and dangerous as penalties get their post mortems and, inevitably, get reverse-engineered. (There is a growing pool of sites where you can easily get a link and be fairly sure that link will look suspicious to Google without much effort). So we may see a new Google-fuelled industry emerging and it will be a particularly nasty one. It’s not difficult to create a network of sites with the ability to cause penalties, if used in the right way (which is pretty simple now).

It’s pretty easy to weaponise and sell that facility. Google, are you listening? Do you care that you are turning the web into a battleground? I really hope so.

And guess what Google! You’re creating yet another industry that you won’t like too.

Increased risk + increased awareness = yet another suite of services within SEO, including:

Come on Google… you really didn’t see this coming? When Google acts, everybody else reacts. It’s a fact of life. So Google really needs to be more considered and responsible in its actions.

Recovering from a Google penalty with minimum damage is difficult and takes a huge amount of valuable man hours to do properly. (That’s why a lot of SEO agencies will be very grateful to Google, yet again). It is becoming increasingly important to monitor and manage your website’s link profile pro-actively and prospectively, before anything goes wrong and to make sure that nothing does go wrong in the future. The algorithm will just keep on changing and that helps keep the whole SEO industry in business too.

Whether or not you have had a Google penalty in the past, as a business you really do need to manage the risk of a Google penalty now. Because a penalty could be catastrophic for your business and indeed it effectively be indefinite and potentially terminal for a business.

Prevention is so much better than cure because it can take many months and several attempts to recover – and in such a desperate situation the tendency is to sacrifice a lot of links that may have some value, in order to increase the odds of a recovery.

And guess what? Somebody is going to have to do something to replace those lost links, be it through content marketing or other SEO tactics. So thanks again Google for continuing to support the SEO industry, including its darker and more ridiculous elements, with your ill-conceived campaign of fear.

Recovering From a Google Penalty

So Google penalties are insane, but they’re a reality and we have to deal with them.

The process of recovering from a penalty for unnatural links typically looks something like this:

  1. Diagnosis of the type and scale of the Google penalty
  2. Link audit
  3. Risk assessment
  4. Prioritising harmful links
  5. White-listing and grey-listing good or neutral links
  6. Recovery plan
  7. Link removal campaign
  8. Disavow links
  9. Reconsideration request
  10. Ongoing monitoring and risk management

Here is an infographic with much more detail about how to recover from a Google penalty.

It is absolutely vital that the link removal and recovery process is managed properly – otherwise the recovery process is sure to be either too hard or too soft:

Too hard

A hard penalty recovery process means that healthy and valuable links will be removed or disavowed.

Too soft

A soft penalty recovery process means no recovery. The process can drag on for months and huge amounts of sales revenue can be lost as a result.

Clearly this is a ridiculous situation and I wish Google would wake up to their mistake.

So here goes:

Dear Google

In your attempt to deal with unnatural links by imposing penalties you are hurting businesses - and they are your customers too.

You are also harming people - frightening business owners and managers and causing a lot of distress and sleepless nights for them. Is that really what Google is about?

Links are way beyond anybody’s control. Anybody can build links all over the virtually infinite web and there are a range of reasons why they might do so. It really isn’t fair to cause so much distress to people associated with those sites. They probably had no idea.

Furthermore, Google, by doing all of this you are making the link abuse problem worse – and over the next couple of years it will surely become a whole industry, just like selling links became an industryOrganised, cruel and insidious, the hostile link building and link selling industries will be far more horrible than buying or selling links ever could be.

You are letting your search engine be turned into a weapon – one that causes real emotional and financial harm to real people who as individuals are often completely innocent. (Their families are innocent too and you’re hurting them by hurting people who they care about).

It’s surely only a matter of time before some poor struggling business owner or employee takes their own life over a Google penalty - assuming that has not already happened.

The solution, Google, is simple: Stop penalising websites for links.

Instead, why not just ignore those links with the algorithm? I believe your smart engineers are very capable of achieving that.

Process our disavow files willingly and we will help you to manage the problem more effectively too. We want to help, we really do.

But please Google, stop this vindictive penalty madness now – before any more harm is done.

I want to get back to doing more real work – helping businesses to improve their visibility and create happy customers.

Yours sincerely,

Ben Acheson

PS: I’m an SEO. And I’m proud of it.

About Ben Acheson

Head of SEO and Social Media

View all posts by Ben Acheson

Comments (3)

  1. Andrew Stubbs -

    Hi Ben,

    Thank you for your comments on my most recent article with TFMA Insights – http://tfmainsights.com/negative-seo-googles-war-websites/. I very much liked your article as well, you can sense the emotion and frustration which illustrates a great passion.

    IntelliGiants has been set up much in the same way as your business, designed to help people understand the risks around SEO and prevent them from occurring. Should a company be unfortunate enough to be hit by the wrath of this young leviathan (Google) all is not lost and hope can be shared.

    SEO – It’s a challenging job…. But someone’s got to do it.

    We have another article coming out very soon discussing the architecture of a negative SEO campaign. Hopefully you and many others will also find it a good read as well.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you on your company blog. I will be keeping my eyes peeled :-)

    Andrew.

  2. Andrew Stubbs -

    Hi Ben,

    As promised here’s the most recent article from IntelliGiants detailing the architecture of a negative SEO campaign – http://tfmainsights.com/architecture-negative-seo-campaign/

    Thought it was worth sharing with you.

    Andrew

  3. Andrew Wood -

    You have just summed up every conclusion that I came to about this Google bully tactics.

    Google have become a total paradoxical nightmare. On one hand they are saying, natural unoptimised sites is what we want, yet you have to optimise your site and links to hell in order to comply.

    In my opinion, as you suggest, google have really stuffed up here.

    Who cares if widget.com has a gazillion spammy backlinks, if I am searching for widgets, and widget.com sells them, then that’s the site I’m searching for. If google hides this site, then they are providing poor and low quality search results.

    It’s also against basic human rights to be sentenced without trial.

    Unfortunately the general public are unaware of this situation and like me it is unlikely that they ever will be until their website gets zeroed out like mine has been for the last month. I have not done anything knowingly wrong, and even the few links that were put in by me with a view to increasing rankings are a handful.

    I have spend the last month running around trying to sort out my google ranking rather than concentrating on my business. I am a one man company and I can’t afford to waste this time.

    Google, you are not just there to make money, you got yourself into the position you are in now by trust and have gained with it a duty of care, you are losing that trust rapidly and with it you will loose your revenues.

    Don’t be a tw*t google.

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