For an online business, there’s nothing as devastating as getting smacked with a Google penalty. From lost rankings and revenue to a tarnished reputation, penalties are a problem your business simply cannot afford.
That’s why you might be shocked to learn that the people you’re trusting with your SEO might be the same people digging you into a hole that’s very difficult to climb out of!
The sad truth is that there are many unscrupulous SEO agencies that put on a positive front and make attractive promises while ultimately doing things that hurt your business and your website more than they help.
This quick guide will help you not only understand and assess whether or not you’ve got a penalty, but equip you with the questions you need to ask and the red flags you need to watch out for to avoid ever getting a penalty in the first place.
What Are Search Engine Penalties?
Search engines try to serve up the most relevant content on any given search query. They use sophisticated algorithms to calculate a huge number of factors and determine which sites belong where in an effort to help searchers find the best sites.
To protect this process from manipulation, search engines have rules of engagement they expect webmasters to follow, and they share these publically in their Webmaster Guidelines.
Doing SEO is not a bad thing; in fact, Google wants website owners to know how to get their great content found. But there are certain things that break the rules.
Just a few of Google’s specific no-no’s include:
- Automatically generated content
- Participating in link schemes (spam, buying links, manipulating anchor text, etc.)
- Creating pages with little or no original content
- Hidden text or links
- Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
(If you want a clear, plain-English explanation of some of these problems and several others, Moz has a great chapter in their Beginner’s Guide to SEO on search engine spam and potential SEO issues.)
Break the rules, and search engines reserve the right to knock your website out of the index (making you completely unfindable) or substantially decrease your rankings.
Penalties come in two forms:
Algorithmic penalties are penalties in which the algorithm detects a pattern or behavior against the rules and automatically takes measures to either de-index your site or move you way down in the rankings.
There are two big algorithmic penalties you need to be aware of:
- Penguin deals with low-quality, spammy links pointing to your website, as well as over-optimized anchor text. It’s against Google’s rules to spam the Web for links or try to manipulate what those links say to improve your search ranking.
- Panda targets websites with a lot of duplicate, thin, or low-quality content — for example, sites that scrape content from other places on the Web or that create “doorway pages” with little to no helpful information in an attempt to rank well.
Manual penalties (or manual actions) are penalties given to your website by a search quality team when they see something they don’t like.
Not Knowing Is Not an Excuse!
Google doesn’t care who built your links or created your thin content — they’re only interested in whether or not you’re onside with their rules.
That means not knowing what your agency is up to is not an option.
No matter how much you plead your innocence to Google, the only thing they care about is seeing the problem fixed before they’ll remove the penalty.
And while manual and algorithmic penalties can be reversed, it’s a lengthy, sometimes costly process. Getting rid of a penalty can take months of hard work, including removing any spammy links, updating your content, fixing onsite issues, filing reconsideration requests, and disavowing sites that won’t cooperate.
Even after all that work, there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll return to your previous performance levels. It can feel like starting from scratch.
You owe it to yourself — and your business — to be in the know on penalties and understand how to detect and prevent them.
How Do I Know if I’ve Been Hit With a Penalty?
There are several tell-tale signs you can watch out for, even if you’re not very technical. While not all of these are immediate indicators of a penalty (some can be chalked up to crawling errors, site changes, and broken software), if any of the below rings true, you need to have a chat with your SEO provider.
- You get an email or notification telling you that you’ve been penalized.
Nothing quite as clear as a message from Google telling you that you’ve been hit with a manual penalty. As a business owner, it is absolutely critical that you be given access to Google Webmaster Tools, and that your email is listed on the account.If you get an email or notification like this, speak with your SEO agency IMMEDIATELY. Do not try to take corrective action on your own.Also note that just because you don’t have a notification doesn’t mean you haven’t been hit. Algorithmic penalities like Penguin or Panda won’t trigger notifications like these.
- Your website doesn’t show up when you Google your brand name.
Unless your brand name is something very generic (like “Arizona Plumbers” or “The Flower Shop”), your website should show up when you make a search for your brand name in Google.If it doesn’t, either your website hasn’t been crawled yet, or you’ve somehow been deindexed — a clear indication something’s gone wrong.
- Your traffic decreases quickly and sharply.
You don’t need to be a statistics major or tech-head to understand many of the key numbers you can learn from Google Analytics. Just like Google Webmaster Tools, you as the business owner or marketing manager MUST be given access to your own analytics, and you should make a point to check in periodically to see where the trends are headed.A drop in traffic can be caused by many things: broken analytics, a change in the algorithm, and even seasonality. Still, if the drop-off is sudden and drastic, get on the phone and start asking questions.
- Your rankings suddenly and drastically drop.
It’s perfectly natural for your rankings to fluctuate from day to day, but if you go from ranking near the top to all but disappearing over the course of a few days, this can be an indication that an algorithmic or manual Google penalty has been levied against your site.If you’re not sure, ask. Your agency should be ready to either explain the drop or investigate the cause.
- You see a drastic increase in backlinks.
Backlinks are something that should build naturally over time. And while there are a few natural reasons, you see a large amount of new links added in a short time period (like a piece of content going viral), a huge spike out of nowhere is at very least a reason to ask your SEO agency what’s up, as it may indicate a bunch of spammy links being added at once. You can do a quick checkup using the Ahrefs tool. Just punch in your website’s URL and you’ll be given a quick look at trends over the previous year.
- Your referring traffic gets weird.
If your agency has been building shady links on spam sites, one way to catch them is to check where your referring traffic is from. You can easily review this in Google Analytics. Look for sites with names that sound strange or are obviously spam.Again, there are many reasons you might get traffic from a less than ideal website — your SEO company certainly doesn’t control every link out there. But if you see an ongoing pattern of strange websites referring you traffic, it’s worth looking into.
How Do I Talk About This With My SEO Agency?
If you’re assessing a potential partner, some key questions to ask before signing on include:
- How do you build links?
- What’s your process for creating content?
- Have you ever worked with a client who was penalized?
- Have you ever undertaken a penalty removal effort? What was involved?
All of these will give you a general sense of how that agency thinks about penalties and some of the key factors that cause them.
If you think you’ve already been hit by a penalty, it does no good to angrily call up your agency and give them an earful.
First of all, they may not be to blame. If you hired another SEO agency prior to bringing on the new one, it’s possible that the spammy work of the old agency is fueling the problem at hand.
Second of all, because for the moment, the agency you’ve hired is still on your team. You’re going to want their help in diagnosing the issue and getting to the bottom of what’s going on.
The best approach is to call them and ask, “We’ve noticed [X problem], can you explain what’s going on?”
Give them the opportunity to investigate and uncover the underlying causes. If it is in fact a penalty — and if they did cause it — it’s time to find a new agency.
What Red Flags Should I Watch for That Might Warn of a Bad Agency or Looming Penalty?
Your number one defense against penalties is open, honest communication with your SEO agency.
The more you make it your business to know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, the less chance you’ll have of being surprised when you get slapped by a penalty.
As outlined by Neil Patel of KISSMetrics, some of the hallmarks of a shady agency include:
- They have nothing to show for their work. As a client, it’s your right to receive deliverables that outline not only what the agency is up to, but how they’re actually doing the work.The agency should be able to show you proof that they’re actually doing something with your money, whether that comes in the form of a website audit, a backlink analysis report, newly optimized website content, or new offsite links they’ve built.Never be satisfied to be told what’s going on — always ask to be shown.
- They won’t share their tactics. SEO is not a secret sauce or obscure technical voodoo. Your agency should be able to answer the question “What are you guys actually doing?” on the spot.If they can’t or insist their methods are “confidential,” you’ve got a problem on your hands. If they are incredibly vague (“We’re optimizing your site doing a variety of things!”), demand further detail. They owe you an answer.
- They never have any recommendations. A legitimate SEO agency will always have recommendations for improvement or ideas for opportunities you haven’t capitalized on yet. The work of an SEO is never done, as there’s always some new niche to capitalize on or audience to reach.If they’re not recommending anything, it’s because they’re off doing work that doesn’t involve you — and that should scare the living daylights out of you because it means you’re in the dark.A good agency will want to talk with you and be excited to discuss what the next steps are to getting even better results.
- They don’t focus on strategy first. If you’ve never had a strategy meeting with your SEO provider, that’s not a good sign. And if they’ve never asked you about your business objectives or target audience, that’s a REALLY bad sign.The agencies that won’t run your reputation into the ground are those that can clearly articulate what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it will tie back to your business objectives instead of rattling off a bunch of tactics to “increase your rankings.”
Is There Anything Else I Can Do?
It’s important to note that if you’ve been obeying the rules and giving Google reasons to trust your site for a long time, it’s unlikely that just one small action could trigger a serious penalty.
As Brian Dean from Backlinko points out, penalties happen when Google no longer trusts your website. If you want to help your website avoid ever being penalized, Brian points out several ways you can work with your SEO agency to make sure your site is trustworthy:
- Linking out to other trustworthy, authoritative websites. Don’t shy away from linking to other sites that are legitimate resources. This is a natural, trustworthy behavior, so long as you do it naturally.
- Keeping an eye on your bounce rate. Your on-page interaction matters, and if people are leaving your site in droves, you’d be wise to start digging into the reasons why and improving your user experience.
- Building brand signals. Are you being linked to using links that contain your brand name? Does your domain name use your brand name, or is it something generic? You can also make sure you’re acting like a brand by having a robust “About Us” section and linking up your (active) social profiles.
- Build trustworthy links. You are the company you keep online. If other legitimate sites are willing to link to you, this is a big sign to Google that you’re trustworthy, too.
Avoiding a Google Penalty Really Isn’t All That Hard
It involves making a smart choice of SEO provider, then being vigilant and remaining involved in the process.
While I hope you never have to deal with a google penalty or a penalty removal, it never hurts to know how to assess a penalty or diagnose an issue on your own.
As long as you play by the rules, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
Not Sure If You’ve Received A Penalty?
If you suspect you might be suffering from a penalty, or you just want to make sure your current SEO strategies won’t land you in hot water with Google, Digital Current’s SEO strategists can help! Contact us today to reserve your 1-on-1 consultation with an SEO strategist.