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.