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Google penalties: What they are and how to recover from them

Michael Carden-Edwards

Posted by Michael Carden-Edwards

17 June 2024

Over the years Google algorithm updates have sought to clamp down on practices that contravene Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Whether these practices are deliberate (such as black hat SEO activities) or not, this can manifest in webmasters being given a penalty, which can seriously impact their search visibility. 

Both manually assigned penalties and algorithmic penalties, where a site loses visibility following major Google updates, are still very real in SEO. This was recently exhibited in the March 2024 core update, which saw many spammy, AI-generated sites lose visibility overnight.

With this in mind, what exactly are Google penalties and what different types exist in the wild? Should businesses be wary of being hit by a Google penalty today, and what should they do if they’re hit by one? Let’s take a look.

A brief history of Google penalties in relation to major algorithm updates

We will cover both algorithmic penalties and manual penalties, but when discussing Google penalties we are technically only referring to the latter: manually imposed penalties (often called manual actions) from Google’s Search Quality team. These occur when a website’s activities are deemed a serious enough breach of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to warrant a manual flagging by a human member of this team. The consequences can be devastating, insofar as businesses will either experience a major demotion in their search rankings or search visibility or, in some cases, a complete removal from Google’s index altogether.  

If they are the recipient of a manual action, webmasters will be informed with an email notification via Google Search Console. They will also see some details in Google Search Console itself, under the “Manual actions” section of the “Security & Manual Actions” nav menu. Here’s a recent example of a manual action notification following the aforementioned March spam update:

Let’s take a look at some cornerstone moments in Google and SEO history that led to the emergence of certain manual penalties.

Google Panda and low-quality content

Google’s Panda update was ushered in in February 2011 and was one of Google’s earliest attempts at tackling low-quality content in search results. A lot of what is discussed in modern-day SEO around concepts such as E-EAT, user experience and helpful content can be traced back to Panda. Webmasters who suffered the wrath of Panda via a manual action were often notified their content was of low quality or “thin” in measure. This related to a varying degree of content issues such as duplicate content, pages that had unnatural levels of keyword stuffing, or pages that were auto-generated.

Other malpractices such as spun content were also targeted. Spun content is the practice of copying existing published content and tweaking it slightly to avoid plagiarism detectors.

Outside of manual actions, a lot of sites with low-quality content also saw drops in visibility during this period and were hit by the algorithm shake-up.

Google Penguin and backlinks  

Google Penguin was first announced in April 2012, and specially targeted websites that manipulated search results by using nefarious backlink acquisition schemes. This was through methods such as link schemes, link farms or paid links on unrelated third-party publications targeting specific keywords. While certain black hat link building tactics do continue, Penguin saw the ushering in of an era where it became a lot harder to manipulate search results by simply acquiring a high number of backlinks, regardless of whether they were relevant.

Sites that were hit by the update had to “clean” their backlink profiles and submit disavow files to Google to devalue the offending links. In 2016, Reddico had a client who had been bit by a link-based penalty. Aside from clearing up the legacy link-building issues, we also took steps to create a new page for the afflicted term and flesh out the content offering.

Spam updates, including the recent March 2024 update

Google has been tackling spam in its various updates for many years now, with the most recent culmination being the March 2024 spam update we mentioned earlier.  Spam can embody a variety of guises, from what Google calls “pure spam” (scraped content, automatically generated gibberish) across a website, to sections of the website being hit by spam from third-party hacks or user-generated content. Dealing with spam penalties often entailed the removal or deindexing of the offending content.

The recent March 2024 update spam saw what was, at least in recent Google update history, an unprecedented number of manual actions being distributed on the basis of spammy, AI and programmatic content generation. 

Other penalty types

The most common manual action types are typically link or content-based. For many businesses, they may be brought on unintentionally, without knowing better, or from following the practices of third-party SEO service providers who may not be wholly legitimate in their practices. Outside of this, there are plenty of deliberate black hat SEO tactics that will often see a penalty arise. These include content cloaking, the use of hidden text or links within a page, and the use of malware on a website. Site reputational abuse will also land you in trouble (for example, if you’re a trusted government website, gambling content is ill-advised), as will misleading content on areas such as medicine or finance. 

What about algorithmic penalties?

Algorithmic penalties, while not official penalties, are the more common penalty type and may be experienced by most businesses at some point during their website’s life cycle. These occur when there are visibility and keyword drops following a Google core update. These updates may target specific areas, such as the March 2024 spam update or the September 2023 helpful content update, where Google shakes up the search results in line with what it deems most suitable, useful and authoritative in lieu of these updates. Algorithmic penalties may also be from ongoing tweaks in the algorithm over time, with the SERPs changing on a daily basis. 

Businesses may not necessarily have been doing anything wrong with their SEO ventures and approach to content, and Google by its nature is changing its algorithm and systems on a constant basis. This is where businesses will need to assess where the drops have been, whether there are any patterns in what types of pages have suffered, and what the next steps are in terms of recovery. 

(We covered this in detail in one of our previous posts detailing Google algorithm updates. Read on if you want to dig in further regarding diagnosing and taking action following Google core update hits.) 

Towards the end of April 2024, Google also updated their documentation on debugging drops in Google search traffic. This offers plenty of routes for business owners to diagnose and take action on whether their drops are related to technical issues, seasonality, industry trends or algorithmic changes. The key takeaway from Google here is to ensure that if you’ve seen a tangible drop, make sure your content is “helpful, reliable, and people-first.

What should brands do if they’ve been hit by a manual Google penalty?

Unlike hits following algorithm updates, which can by and large be hypothesised and taken under control, manual actions can be more perilous given that you are reliant on the manual discretion of the Google web spam team to have them lifted. While there is plenty of official documentation (as well as advice across the SEO industry) on how to get manual actions removed, there can be some uncertainty in whether your remedial actions following the penalty are adequate in the eyes of Google. This is also notwithstanding the length at which it might take Google to manually assess your reconsideration review following this. 

Following September 2023’s Helpful Content Update, many webmasters have been voicing their frustrations at attempting to rectify their content offering after being hit by this algorithm update, only to see further declines following the March Core Update seven months later. 

That said, there are still plenty of aspects of manual penalty removal that you can control and take ownership of in good time. We’ve detailed a lot of the penalty types out there in the wild, and in the previous link Google has provided a good array of details on manual action types, what causes them, and what to do next. Our penalty recovery project for Direct Line is a good example of what brands can do if they’re hit by a link-based penalty beyond a straightforward disavow submission.

This article from Search Engine Land also provides some helpful steps on what to do if you are hit by certain manual action types.

In light of the March 2024 spam update, let’s take a look at what you might want to consider if you’ve been given a spam-related manual action. 

The March 2024 spam update

Following a significant rise in the use of programmatic and AI-generated content in recent times, Google took action in March of this year to clamp down on the poor quality or spammy content that had emerged. This led to a lot of disruption across various industries, with entire sites being deindexed in many cases. While much of it was clearly a justified attempt at tackling spammy content, there were some complaints that sites with some degree of genuine, human-crafted content were hit unfairly.

If you’re a business that may have been a victim of this update, or other spam-related manual actions (rightly or wrongly), then let’s take a look at what can be done.

Fixing unnatural content

Are there any areas of your site that have pages where the content is essentially the same, albeit with a few keyword tweaks? Were these pages built either programmatically, with the help of AI or via a straightforward copy-and-paste or templated approach? This can be a common problem with e-commerce sites that offer a number of products that may be similar in nature, and a quick solution is to spin up individual product pages that are near duplicates of each other. Another common trope is location pages, where pages offering the same product or services are quickly generated with a simple “in [location]” append with a view to capturing local SEO traffic.

If this is the case, conduct a review of any potentially offending pages and get your content team to enhance these pages so they offer something more for the user. Are there any key product USPs or important items to focus on with regard to page A that sets it aside from its near-similar page B? There are plenty of AI content detector tools on the market which can help you identify these potential fixes at scale.

Removing the affected pages

This will need to be approached with great care, particularly if the pages that landed your site with a manual spam action were big traffic generators and should likely be improved and not removed. That being said, if there are swathes of legacy pages across your site that may be deemed spammy or low quality, one approach could be the removal of these altogether. This may be prudent for large websites with thousands of such pages that were generated a long time ago for a particular purpose and have been simply left by the wayside since. Content removal may not always be advised as part of an SEO strategy, but if you have lots of legacy pages that aren’t contributing much and have been deemed “unhelpful” by Google, then removing or consolidating content as part of a refreshed content strategy may be an option.  

Creating original content

SEO is very much evolving into the field of what some have called “search engine experience”, with the “experience” replacing the “optimisation” part. A lot of the recent signs that Google have been giving have been veering towards SEO being used to provide a useful and authoritative experience for the user. This goes beyond the traditional approach of crafting content based on a selection of target keywords (which of course remains important), and aligns more with the approach of offering something unique to the user that answers a specific question or pain point.  

With this in mind, look at ways you can use your content to highlight the USPs of your offering in a way that connects with your user base. Offer a unique take or insight on a particular topic in your industry. Use your data from your customers (as well as your keyword research) to inform the wider world (and Google) about what makes you stand out. Not only will this establish your unique offering, but it may also give you the edge within certain search rankings where a particular type of search intent is met. 

Once you’ve covered these key areas and are confident you’ve revised your content and website to address such spam issues, you can consider submitting a reconsideration request via Google Search Console to lift the penalty.

Thinking about best practices for the future

While several years ago manual actions around link spam or unnatural backlinks were the most common penalty type, Google has evolved to focus more on rewarding (or punishing) sites around their content offering. This largely aligns with what Google has been signalling in recent years around concepts such as E-EAT and helpful content. 

Black hat techniques such as cloaking and parasite SEO will still land you in trouble, though they’re becoming less common in the mainstream owing to Google getting smarter at detecting such malpractices.

The AI boom has seen some incredible progress in capabilities that can speed up various workflows in SEO, though has inevitably been abused to the extent that Google felt it had to take action in the form of the March 2024 Spam Update. Google has some pretty clear guidance on the use of AI-generated content, with the upshot being that AI content is acceptable as long as it remains helpful and unique, and doesn’t violate Google’s spam policies around scaled content. 

With all this in mind, it remains as important as ever to ensure that you’re doing all you can to make your content offering as authoritative, unique and useful for the user as possible.

About the author

Michael Carden-Edwards is SEO Strategy Lead at Reddico. A seasoned SEO and digital marketing expert with 13+ years of experience, Michael has directed SEO strategies for major brands like British Airways and O2 as well as conducting countless public and internal SEO training sessions. Based in Sevilla, he joined Reddico in 2021, enjoying the flexible working and unique culture from a sunnier climate.

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