Google penalties strike fear into the heart of every digital marketer. We’re used to our stats and usage fluctuating, that’s part of what makes SEO so interesting. However, when your traffic suddenly plummets and your SERPs crash out, it could be a sign that Google is penalising you for something. So what ‘kind’ of SEO strategies could get you penalized? That’s the big money question.

There are two different types of Google penalties – algorithmic and manual.

The algorithmic penalties are automatically issued when your site is in breach of Google’s ToS, whereas manual penalties require an actual human to assess the situation and decide if, and what, punishments should be dealt out. You can see manual penalties in your Google Search Console and they are usually for tactics that fall under the more black hat end of SEO.

We’re not going to get into the minutiae of black hat versus white hat SEO, that’s a discussion for another time. Instead, let’s look at the mistakes SEOs might not even realise they are making. It doesn’t matter what hat you wear, these approaches could get you in hot water, so let’s delve into how best to handle them and keep your website penalty free.


If you’re cloaking content, whether that be through images or actual pages, you’ve got to be really careful. When you don’t show your users what you say you will, Google gets pretty peeved. They will penalize you if they catch you doing this. Yeah, it could be a way of getting your keywords in there, and it might hide your ads with a sleeker design, but it’s risky. So clean up your htaccess file, check out all the plugins you are using and if you are going to play this game, be really savvy about it. If you’ve got the option, you might want to consider trying your methods on websites that aren’t as valuable, before you use them on your money site. Test things out, and do your research!


How’s your markup? It sounds like a bad chat-up line, but it’s something you should definitely be asking yourself. In digital marketing, there are two higher powers to appease: the users and Google. Your users probably don’t care about your markup because they can’t see it, but Google will penalise you for things like rich snippet spam. You’ve got to be clever if you’re going to game the rich snippet – those penalties are real and they’re painful.


The game with backlinks is to make Google believe that they are natural. There are various ways to do this, and some are better than others.

Some SEOs choose to create PBNs. By creating a network of sites that are interlinked both literally and thematically, you are building up your authority. But a decent PBN can take almost as much effort as traditional outreach, and it can be risky. You would be surprised how often people leave glaringly obvious footprints throughout their PBNs. Some people even use the same domain registrar or web host for all of their sites – crazy, right? You need to be canny with your PBNs, if you’re going to make the links look natural.

If you haven’t already, you should consider investing in tools that can assess your links. You want something like Moz, Ahrefs, or Majestic, that can help you pay close attention to the DA, trust flow and citation flow of every link on your site. This will enable you to keep your house in order, and it will mean you’re less likely to wind up penalized.

No matter what tactic you go for, it’s all about making your backlinks look as natural as possible. Gradually build your link landscape, including links from images and subdomains, and keep them all as relevant as possible. Oh, and don’t butcher your anchor text for a cheap shot at your keyword, guys, that’s lame.

Remember the basics

You would be surprised how many people still fall foul of low quality content and keyword stuffing. In case you need a reminder, Panda (the update that addressed this) was way back in 2011, which is aeons in digital marketing terms. Since then, keyword discussions have morphed and evolved and now the focus is on natural language. So you might be surprised to hear that there are still some folks out there producing thin content and cramming in keywords where they don’t belong.

Don’t make the same mistakes as them. While you’re trying to up your game and keep your SEO on point, remember to make sure you populate your website with decent quality, natural content, or it will all be for naught.

Something else to consider: HTTP vs HTTPS

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you will know that the shift from HTTP to HTTPS was given a deadline this summer. This change doesn’t mean that having a non-HTTPS site will get you penalized by Google, but it does mean that Chrome will display a security warning on all HTTP websites. Although Google isn’t specifically blacklisting or penalizing these websites, by showing Chrome users this warning, they are bound to be deterred, and that’s going to have an impact on your traffic. Don’t think you can dismiss this because it only relates to one browser, either; as of this summer, Chrome had 80% market share of browser usage.

With the changeover this summer, HTTPS has become part of SEO best practice. It’s the same as having good, readable HTML5 code, and ensuring your site is optimised for mobile. Google loves all of this stuff, and HTTPS is just the latest to join the ranks. If your site is still on HTTP, you won’t get penalized but you’ll lose traffic and you’ll be ranked lower. Nobody wants that.

TL;DR – how do you avoid getting penalized?

Staying in Google’s good books comes down to keeping your website clean and tidy, and toeing the line of SEO best practice.

  • be savvy with your markup and cloaking
  • keep your backlinks as natural as possible
  • only publish decent, original content on your site
  • optimise your keywords wisely
  • get your site migrated to HTTPS

While you’re at it, keep your site secure – make sure you have a robust firewall, choose secure passwords, and regularly update your platform and any themes or plugins.

It’s also a good idea to read through Google’s dev guides so that you’re up to date on algorithm changes. Or, you know, if you have trouble getting off to sleep at night.

The SEO metrics and KPI framework

When evaluating your SEO performance, you can basically see the different metrics as an iceberg.

Above the water you see revenue (or leads if you aren’t ecommerce) coming from organic traffic, which is maybe the most important metric for you to report on. Especially if you report upwards in the organization and need other stakeholders to chip in and understand the importance of SEO.

Below the water, you see metrics that strongly correlate with revenue or sales. These are traffic coming from organic or referral or rankings in Google.

Finally, at the bottom of the iceberg, you can measure the onsite performance of your website, the authority of it as well as the technical scores of it. These are more difficult to measure but are interesting for you, if SEO is the only thing you work with. In this layer, you build up your SEO metrics not on results but on the work that you do.

What is great about this framework is that SEO metrics at the top are dependent on what is below. Organic revenue is dependent on traffic, which is dependent on rankings, which is dependent on the onsite score, authority, and technical performance.

The Iceberg of KPIs and SEO reporting

Let us dive into where you can get the different levels of SEO metrics and KPIs:

  • Revenue: Will most likely be derived from your web analytics setup (either Google Analytics or Adobe analytics). This could, however, also be derived from your BI tool on a broader level than organic traffic, if you are not able to set up correct tracking. If you use Google Analytics but without ecommerce I strongly recommend you set up goals with values that you calculate on averages from your sales department, to at least have some numbers on sales to maneuver SEO from.
  • Organic Traffic: Organic traffic will come from your web analytics tool, whether that is Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics. A tip here to measure more precisely, is to set up filters that sort out irrelevant organic traffic going to certain landing pages. This could be visits directly to log in pages, customer service pages or even the homepage if it’s not ranking for anything other than brand.
  • Referral Traffic: This might be interesting to look at, especially if outreach and building links is a big part of your SEO strategy. Referral traffic will most likely come from Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics just like organic traffic. Also make sure that you filter out traffic from irrelevant sources like partners or other links that SEO is not accountable for.
  • Rankings: This is trickier. Here there are dozens of providers that can give you insights into rankings, visibility scores or share of voice SEO metrics. You can either choose a best of breed tool like Accuranker or a more all-in-one tool like SearchMetrics or SEranking.
  • Content Score: Scoring the quality and onsite optimization of your content can be done by various tools. It’s a bit difficult to integrate it as it requires a bit more crawling power and thus often a more expensive tool. Tools like Brightedge and Searchmetrics have tools for this but I prefer to collect data myself and put it into dashboards whenever a content score data is necessary for a client.
  • Authority: The amount of links and their strength is an important SEO metric and KPI as it fuels rankings a lot. You can measure authority in various tools like Majestic and Ahrefs
  • Technical Score: Crawling your website on a regular basis and pulling back data on those crawls is essential. It gives you a technical SEO score, which enables you to keep up the technical hygiene and focus on areas that need to be improved.

Use the SEO metrics that makes sense for you and your business

Which of the above SEO metrics and KPIs you and your business should use depends on several different factors.

First, your team and stakeholders are important. If you are an agency with clients, then you might want to show results at the top of the iceberg but have the bottom of the iceberg as internal success parameters and SEO KPIs for your team.

You can differentiate what metrics you use in your organization and what metrics and KPIs you use in your SEO team. This makes sense as the KPIs in the bottom are more operational and lead to actual tasks. If , for example, your content score is decreasing or is low, this would be an obvious place to start. If you were just measuring revenue it might be difficult to know that content optimization is the place where improvements can be made.

Build a dashboard that collects different data sources but allow for deep dives

The problem with measuring at all different levels in the above framework is that data sources are very different. You can’t get one overview of revenue, rankings, links, and onsite performance in one single tool. That means you will either have to look at data separately, building reports based on various data extractions and pulling them together in excel and presentations, or you will have to build dashboards that do it in real time.

Obviously, building a dashboard for your SEO metrics and KPIs makes the most sense. The challenge here is to manage data sources, APIs and connecting data point so that they can be used together.

KPI reporting dashboard

My colleague Tobias Hyldeborg wrote a blogpost about this for UnGagged

Choosing the right SEO tools for measurement and KPI tracking

When you are choosing SEO tool stacks you should think about several things, as cost can quickly run up.

First, what SEO metrics and KPIs would you like to track and report on? Often Google Analytics is not enough for you even though you track everything at the top of the iceberg.

Second, do you need to migrate to another SEO tool stack from your current set-up? Migrations often result in building up a completely new dataset, as different tools aren’t compliant.

For top level data such as traffic and revenue, you should obviously use Google Analytics. This will provide you with the proper foundation of data when measuring your SEO.

Suggested tool: Google Analytics

In addition, my minimum recommendation for you as an SEO specialist would be to also track rankings on a regular basis (and daily, preferably). You will need to find a rank tracking software that can help you pull out rankings easily and put it into your dashboard.

Suggested tool: AccuRanker

From here you can decide how you want to measure the bottom of the iceberg (404s, load time, crawls, links etc). You can either do it on an adhoc basis or do it weekly, monthly, or quarterly via tools.

Suggested tool: Deepcrawl, Botify, Screaming Frog, Sitebulb, Ahrefs

My SEO tool stack recommendations are Google Analytics, Ahrefs, Accuranker, Deepcrawl, and Screaming Frog SEO Spider. Google Analytics is a must for managing revenue and traffic. Ahrefs is great for links and authority as they, in my experience, provide the most extensive dataset on this. Accuranker is important for daily tracking, and the price is the most competitive on the market. I would recommend Deepcrawl to report and make deep dive onsite audits, and Screaming Frog SEO Spider to perform ad hoc onsite audits and on demand crawls of URL lists.

It all depends on the client, market, and needs. So you will have to consider everything above and decide on how you want to measure your SEO KPIs.

Should you go for enterprise SEO tools or best of breed?

Several SEO tools provide several areas of expertise and promise you that you can do everything with their SEO tool. To some extent, that is true. Choosing an SEO Enterprise tool makes great sense. If you go with tools like Brightedge or SearchMetrics you can build dashboards and track across the whole iceberg from revenue to links.

In my opinion, however, Brightedge and SearchMetrics are more jack of all trades tools, rather than best of breed. That means that the data quality and depth of the data is quite average compared to collecting data via other tools. If you choose standalone tools to measure SEO, these can provide you with flexibility and depth within your data, allowing for more complex setups. So the choice is up to you, whether you want one tool to cover it all or want best of breed tools. I prefer the latter and then collect all data points in SEO dashboards.

Set the right SEO KPI reporting rhythm

When measuring SEO and keeping track of SEO KPIs the right rhythm is important. You shouldn’t be looking too much or too little at the KPIs. What is important here is to collect all stakeholders and make sure they are motivated and informed about what’s going on.

A weekly meeting will often be too much if you only look at results and don’t look at actions and project plans. I prefer having monthly reporting meetings where all SEO KPIs can be run through together with the project plan and roadmap. By forcing monthly or biweekly meetings you also force progress in your SEO strategy.

Another good rhythm is to make one of the monthly meetings into a quarterly meeting and one of the quarterly meetings into a yearly meeting where you expand it and take a step back and look at the strategy. No matter what, these meetings should be based on your SEO data and KPIs.

I hope this blogpost will help you move on in your SEO measurement strategy.

Good luck!

About the author

Nikolaj Mogensen, Head of Quisma Denmark

Since 2008 I have been working with SEO and since then one my biggest passions has always been to collect and visualize data from SERPs for clients. The above framework has been one of my cornerstones for a very long time which I use for some of the biggest SEO clients in Scandinavia.

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We changed the world last week and no-one noticed.

Disclaimer: while this article touches on political topics, I’m not going to bring any personal viewpoints into it and I won’t be discussing the merits of ideological arguments – this is purely about SEO.

With all the confusion surrounding American politics, it’s easy to overlook important details. Let’s face it, in amongst the new legislation, staff turn-over and twitter commentary, it’s almost impossible to keep up with everything. But something significant happened in the last couple of weeks that will change the SEO landscape for everyone.

The president of the United States, arguably the most important man in the western world, posted this on twitter:

Instead of just ranking news articles, SEO became a major story, in and of itself. Although the mainstream media isn’t yet using the language we take for granted, they’re suddenly talking about us and about what we do. More significantly, they’re starting to realise how critical SEO has become. It’s a short jump to realise that news articles, opinion pieces and discussion points are worthless if nobody sees them. SEO has gone from the dedicated but unseen lighting technician, to the brand new star in the spotlight.

It seems that everyone is finally catching onto the idea that, as a discipline, SEO has a huge amount of power. People talk about what they see. If something isn’t visible, it’s not part of the debate. That visibility, or lack thereof, is a weapon that devastates the political landscape when it’s deployed effectively.

But watching the news coverage of the issue was… painful. For example, here’s CNN covering the story while trying to explain to their viewers how news and information is ranked on a search engine.

They’re discussing how most of the information in the world is propagated. It’s incredibly important. But the video above is fairly typical of the coverage on the subject so far. It’s basic and overly simplified.

Even intelligent mainstream coverage of the President’s tweets doesn’t really feel like it’s showcasing informed, intelligent people discussing technical concepts. It’s more like hearing your Grandparents explain to you how they got an email from a very nice man who told them their PC is broken and offered to fix it remotely for a reasonable price.

The President of the United States has now entered the debate and, with a broader and less technical audience asking questions, complex concepts are being dumbed down. This 72 year old grandfather is trying to wrap his head around concepts that determine how much authority a site has and how that’s determined by seemingly arbitrary measurements like backlinks from other authoritative sites, frequency and amount of content, etc, etc.

This is part of a much wider debate. Regardless of your politics, think about what this means. The president of the United States – someone who deals with military and financial issues on a global scale – is going to have one of his advisors sit down and explain to him how things like backlinks, unique content, domain authority and so on, help a site rank.

Think of that conversation and how that might go. It’s not a pretty picture, is it?

SEO is about to blow up and go mainstream – are you ready?

We control what people see. In the US, 83% of adults are online, of those, 89% go online daily and 31% are online almost constantly. Plus, two thirds of US adults get their news from social media. So we, as SEOs and digital marketers, are in the driving seat when it comes to the information that people consume on a daily basis. But for the first time ever, not only do we help shape the news and information that people see, we’re also making the news.

This year, the news has featured Google, Cambridge Analytica, Mark Zuckerberg speaking before Congress, Russian involvement in the US election – huge topics, but ones that people not involved on a day-to-day basis don’t truly understand.

For example, ask a non-tech outside the SEO industry, how the Russians got involved in the US election. Go on, give it a go now – I’ll wait.

Chances are they just said something like “didn’t they hack emails or something”, or “I think they hacked Facebook and got a load of people’s details to sell to”, right?

Most people aren’t aware that what’s happening now is SEO in some of its various forms. No hacking, just a mix of black and white hat SEO. But now, thanks to Trump and his recent tweets, it’s becoming part of the conversation.

Right now, SEO is a hidden science. But very soon, as people start learning the words and the attributes that help you get ranked, it’s going to be a big deal. Bet you never thought the US President would be an instrumental part of that happening?

It’s got to the point where the mainstream media is turning to our guys for more information. Here’s a CBS video where they’ve approached past UnGagged speaker, Bill Hertzer, for a brief overview of what it’s about:

This clip is a prime example of how things are changing. The wider world might have limited understanding right now, but awareness is growing and people are becoming more and more interested.

What does that mean for the SEO industry?

It doesn’t matter if you’re black hat or white hat. Gaming the system is what we’ve always done. Regardless of what colour hat we wear, we’re all working towards the same goal, we’re just using different methods. That’s always been the case, but now, everyone else is starting to pay attention. Which means that scrutiny over what you do is going to grow. We should take the opportunity to show everyone that what we do is in response to an algorithm. It’s not about attacking people, it’s about fighting for visibility.

The White House is now looking at investigating the tech giants – Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon have all found themselves in the cross-hairs. So it seems that this was not an isolated incident, and the furore isn’t going to die down anytime soon.

Black hat, white hat, or somewhere in between, it doesn’t matter; you have the power and the responsibility to control what people see. Now that everyone else is starting to understand that, it’s more important than ever that we use that power wisely.

Today’s savvy marketer understands that social media is a crucial part of any digital strategy. These platforms can reinforce brand awareness and facilitate engagement with key demographics in ways we could only imagine a decade earlier. But the social media world is a complex ecosystem where everyone is vying for a few seconds of user attention; just throwing money at your social posts won’t always cut through the noise.

Before you start allocating more resources at audience building or influencer targeting, there’s a lot of social optimization you can do you to push engagement. Here are five simple things to consider when building a social media strategy.

The power of recommendations

There is nothing more powerful than word of mouth. Think about it – if you need a mechanic to look at your car, you ask friends and family for recommendations, right? Social Media has the power to not only fuel those recommendations, but it can potentially create actual brand advocates from your client base.

Research from Hootsuite suggests that more than 50% of social media users turn to these channels for customer service, and since consumers who experience positive customer care are more likely to recommend a brand, this interaction needs to be on point. Beyond that, look for ways of adding some value-adds to your interaction that’ll have users boasting about you.

Use that engagement to tailor easily sharable content and foster bragging rights, if you give your followers the tools to show off a ‘win’, that brand loyalty becomes much more palpable.

Post at the right times

It’s not just about “what” to post, but “when” to post it – If you want to reach the biggest potential audience, you need to factor in optimal posting times. Here’s a hint, it may not be 9 to 5 during week days.

Raise your hand if you start and finish the day with a scroll through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? The stats prove it, too: 60% of Instagram users visit the platform every day and 38% say they use it more than once a day. Luckily you don’t need to spam your audience at all hours. Use your available reporting/listening tools to determine the times of day that people are much more engaged (is it commutes, mid-afternoon slumps, or late night retail therapy?) and catalog the times that seem to encourage different types of activity (likes vs views vs shares etc).

A solid social media marketing strategy is about much more than just posting regularly, it’s about engaging with your audience at times when it’s likely to generate the best results. Check out your stats!

Video is killing it

We already know that visual content sells. But rather than just adding an image to your social content, you should be working some eye-catching video into your social media marketing communications.

There are over 8 billion video views every day on Facebook alone, and while quality video content can be expensive and time consuming to produce, throwing your own video content on Social doesn’t have to cost a fortune with the help of tools like Vimeo. You can create a decent Instagram Story in a matter of minutes with nothing more than a GIF or a boomerang. Even if budget isn’t an issue, regularly updating your Stories will keep your followers hooked in between the meatier videos.

So if you are in a position to spend a little more energy on your video content to grab that extra attention (and keep users from scrolling past), you’ll reach a bigger proportion of your audience.

Get Savvy about the right platforms

More and more businesses are focusing on LinkedIn, and with good reason. There’s a dedicated audience of over 500 million professionals looking to network and share their work successes. It’s like Facebook for the career-minded, right? Well while 40% of LinkedIn users visit the site daily, in 2017 the average user only spent 17 minutes on the platform every month. I don’t have to tell you that is remarkably low! And while your target audience might be lurking there, are they likely to engage with you in ways that justify the marketing resources? Would finding a similar audience on Twitter be more conducive to pulling them into a purchase funnel?

When planning your social strategy, it’s important to focus on those channels most appropriate for your business. Get to know the platforms and their demographics. Just dumping time and money on Social Media Marketing that doesn’t convert won’t help your bottom line. Take the time to test the audience, and refine your message. What works on Twitter or Facebook won’t necessarily convert as well on LinkedIn if you don’t adapt your strategy.

Don’t dismiss Pinterest

Finally, let’s throw a little love at Pinterest. When it comes to conversion, Pinterest might be a useful weapon to keep in your arsenal. Before you scoff and question how an online mood board can help you make sales, here’s a stat for you: more than 90% of Pinners use the platform to plan purchases. That’s right, and 93% of 200 million monthly users is not an insignificant number.

Not only that, the platform reaches audiences during every stage of their buyer’s journey. From awareness to consideration, through to decision making, Pinterest allows people to find products and buy them. So if your business ties into any of Pinterest’s most popular topics, you might want to up your game and get it into your strategy.

There’s no foolproof or one-size-fits-all approach for creating airtight social media marketing strategies, but if you factor in these points, you’ll definitely be onto a winner.

For more actionable SMM advice, you’re going to want to be at UnGagged Las Vegas, this November.

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