Saving a sinking ship: how to identify and survive a Google penalty

google penelaties


Manual, algorithmic, Penguin, Panda…You’ve probably heard one or two of these terms used in conjunction with ‘Google’ and ‘Penalty’ in recent times. In fact, there is currently so much confusion and misinformation about penalties – especially their diagnosis and removal – I thought it was high time I got to grips with the issue in these pages in the pages of GPWA.


So you think you have a penalty? What next? Unfortunately all penalties were not created equal, and understanding how your site has been affected and why is key to rectifying the problem.


Like a sick patient, you must play doctor to your domain; diagnosing the problem before prescribing treatment and nursing your site back to full health. And perhaps more like a vet, you need to know when to put the site down.


It seems that penalties have again come to fore following Google’s Penguin 2.0 update, so it worth a quick refresh on what it entailed before taking a closer look at penalties themselves.


Key Algorithm Changes for Affiliates


  1. 1.      Penguin (bad backlinks)
  2. 2.      Panda (poor quality content)
  3. 3.      Above the Fold (too much advertising at the top of the page – often missed)
  4. 4.      Fresh (mostly important for sportsbook affiliates and simply involves Google promoting new content over old when it’s more relevant, specific football match terms are a good example)
  5. 5.      Venice (with this update finally impacting casino and poker search it won’t help affiliates due to it boosting sites with a local land-based presence).


While you can’t do a lot about Venice, you have complete control over Above the Fold (ATF) and Panda. And ATF is the easiest to deal with in terms of removing negative consequences.


Panda has done the majority of its damage and, mostly, the issues involved are usually a result of old legacy content which in most cases you’re best off just deleting than trying to reword.


The Different Warning Messages


Below are the five main types of warning message you are likely to get as an affiliate. There are variations of these, for example “unnatural links to your site” can have a variety of severities. The Pure Spam warning does realistically mean you should just start again.


  1. Pure Spam
  2. User Generated Spam
  3. Unnatural Links From Your Site
  4. Unnatural Links To Your Site
  5. Thin Content Has Little or No Added Value .


The rest of the warnings can be dealt with relatively easily. Spammy comments (user generated spam) can be deleted and unnatural links from the site are again easy to control.


The reality is that when it comes to unnatural links to your site and thin content warnings there is a bit more work to be done. Low value content is pretty self-explanatory, the difficulty really comes from unnatural links and how you should deal with these really depends on how many bad links you’ve got.


What was the Penguin 2.0 update?


It’s important to state that Penguin 2.0, and previous updates are not penalties, they are algorithm updates. Penguin 2.0 and its predecessors were simply a way of re-analysing data to improve the quality of search engine results for users. The warning messages as outlined above are however “true penalties”.


If you saw a downturn in rankings and traffic after Penguin 2.0 rolled-out at the end of May you have likely been impacted by the algorithm change, and have an algorithmic filter.


Like the original Penguin update of April 2012, the latest changes are designed at downgrading poor quality, ‘spammy’ links, but have a broader target.


In particular the update seems to have badly affected site that have high ratios of ‘money term’ anchor texts (e.g. casino bonus, poker freeroll) nothing new there then.



Is it Penguin, or something else?


We’ve outlined what an algorithmic filter is in relation to Penguin 2.0., but previous updates could also have impacted your site in the same way. As Google rolls out minor updates to major algorithmic changes on a regular basis you could be affected at any point, not just around a major update.


But if you have been negatively affected outside of a major update you may have been hit by a manual penalty. In this instance your site has been analysed by an engineer in Google’s Webspam team and they have smacked your site with a penalty for certain keywords, or a whole host of keywords. In such instances you will likely see your site pushed down rankings by a set amount – say 10 places.


If you have received a manual penalty you will likely receive a message in your Google Webmaster Tools account informing you of the fact.


At this stage it also considering a few other questions:


  • If it is an algorithmic penalty, which update were you affected byYou can’t cure something if you don’t know what it was caused by.


  • Have you been affected by multiple updates? The older the website, the greater the chance you have multiple penalties to worry about.


  • Do you have link devaluation? If your rankings suddenly fell without warning then they may have just been devalued, rather than penalty based.


  • What type of penalty do you have? Is it a site wide, anchor text, or page level penalty?


So you’ve dug around a little bit, and are starting to understand what has happened to your site. But, what’s next? How can you be certain as to what type of penalty your site has received?


Analytics are your friend


Analytics will give you an idea of whether your traffic has been impacted for specific terms. You’ll probably have good idea a what are your non-brand commercial keywords are, so take a look at those first.


Set-up a couple of keyword filters looking at exact match and phrase-based searches around these terms for new visitor traffic. Use these filters to compare traffic after the perceived change in rankings and traffic to previous periods or years.


This analysis will help you understand which keywords are affected and whether it is also phrases that stem from these keywords that have been impacted.


Ask Google


If you have not received a message highlighting that a manual spam action has been taken against you, and are uncertain what type of penalty you have, it’s time to ask the only person who really knows, Google.


Submit a reconsideration request via your Google Webmaster Tools account for the site that has been impacted, simply asking if a manual spam action has been taken on the site, and wait for the reply.


When it does finally ping (it could take a few weeks) through you’ll have your answer and now know whether you have a manual or algorithmic penalty.


Time to get busy


The vast majority of penalties seen agency side are link-related, most people with Panda problems have already had and dealt with them, so it is now time to roll your sleeves up and embark on a process of link removal.


All the low-quality, spammy links that are weighing your domain down and causing the penalty now need to be removed, with more time effort and energy involved in this process than was likely used to build them in the first place.


Generally speaking an individual can properly review 150 links per day in the checking stage and then it takes on average an hour to remove a link. This should give you an idea on the amount of time you will need to spend. Now you know this you can make a decision as to whether you should just move and start again.


In terms of a manual action you should be expecting to remove 60-80% of bad backlinks (the removable kind as in the ones you paid for individually, automated spam is a bit different).


It’s a five-step process that has no real shortcuts:

·         Data collectionGather data on all your backlinks using a third party analysis tool (Google Webmaster Tools only presents a selection of links).

·         Data sortingCheck over the data for discrepancies and merge if it has come from multiple sources.

·         Data analysisManually analyse every linking domain to decide whether the link should be kept, removed or repurposed.

·         Webmaster outreach: Compile contact details for all domains with links you would like to be removed that repurposed and get in touch. Start with Rmoov (a link removal management tool, a single site is free, this does all he hard work for you by sending the emails and checking the links are gone). This will do about 50% of the job for you, then it’s time to get on with it manually.

–          Link disavow: This is a last ditch effort to disentangle your site from poor quality, but immovable links, and not recommended as a first option.


If a manual spam action has been taken against you then the final step in the process is the submission of a reconsideration request as previously mentioned. You may well have to do this several times to secure the response you want, and in all likelihood you will have to remove over 90 per cent of your sites poor quality backlinks to secure a successful reconsideration.


Don’t Get Too Smug


Firstly, even if you manage to recover don’t expect your rankings to come back just because Google says it isn’t a problem, clean up should only be done if there’s something worth cleaning up for.


Clean-up is only worth doing on:


a) High value domains

b) Sites with good links that you can’t repoint

c) Sites that have a strong brand.


If your site has not been impacted by a penalty to date, then don’t think you’ve escaped. Google will continue to tighten its grip on webspam and those developments seen over the last two years are likely to be the thin end of the wedge.


The key is not to hide away from any problem. If your site has had SEO work carried out on it in the past then chances are it will be hiding a few nasty problems.


The only way to be sure is by taking a closer look at your site’s backlink profile. Again I’d recommend aggregating data from a number of different tools, and paying particular attention to the anchor text mix – as if misaligned this is a key spam signal.


No more penalty = no more problems?


Sadly this is really not the case. After cleaning up your backlink profile and overturning your penalty it is time to start again. Even a castle built on sand has something to support it; you have now removed all the sand and will have to rebuild the foundations (i.e. backlinks) of your site if you’re to regain strong ranking positions.


So what kind of link building strategy should you embark on? Google makes it pretty clear what isn’t acceptable in its Quality guidelines:


·         Automatically generated content

·         Participating in link schemes

·         Cloaking

·         Sneaky redirects

·         Hidden text or links

·         Doorway pages

·         Scraped content

·         Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value

·         Loading pages with irrelevant keywords

·         Creating pages with malicious behaviour, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other malware

·         Abusing rich snippets markup

·         Sending automated queries to Google


The reality is that all SEO activity should be as natural as possible. Obviously manipulative strategies will be found out, so you have to be far more careful and considered than ever before. That’s not saying you should never pay for links, after all we have to be realistic –  just buy smart.


Going Forward: Google Hates Affiliates!

This is unfortunately the case now, Google is going to continue to slam affiliates, particularly in the English markets. In lower competition markets you may have some more time.

Many affiliates don’t add any real value to the user. And that doesn’t mean having longer and more detailed reviews it means caring for a community, adding demos etc. Failing to cater to these basic user requirements will drag you down in the long term.

So if you’re left wondering why certain sites with nastier link profiles have been unpunished it is because in many cases have an active community, or strong user metrics propping them up.

That doesn’t mean everyone should go and slap a forum and slots demos onto their sites and expect it to rank, it means looking for ways to get users to engage with your sites, which is much different and can be a lot more difficult.



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