Google Updates and Penalties
Let’s face it, Google is where the majority of us turn for web information. Google has become a verb in today’s lexicon, and for good reason. Google processes nearly 40,000 search queries PER SECOND! So let’s talk about how your relationship with Google can make or break you.
A Google penalty negatively affects a site’s rankings. It can be the cause of a new update (we’ll talk about those in a minute), or it can be the result of black-hat SEO techniques. Manual penalties are given by Google after your site has been reviewed and been found to violate one of Google’s quality guidelines.
- Unnatural links or Link Schemes - if Google finds that a large portion of the links on your site are paid links or part of a link scheme in any way, this penalty can be applied to you. These are types of link schemes Google may penalize you for:
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank, including any money exchanged for links - even posts that contain links; providing goods or services for links; or offering free products in exchange for links.
- Partner pages that are used exclusively for cross-linking or an excessive amount of link exchanges
- Utilizing automated programs to create links
- Using guest-post campaigns or large scale article marketing that use keyword-rich anchor text links
Unnatural links that Google may detect can include:
- Text advertisements that may pass PageRank
- Advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank
- Articles or press releases on other sites that contain links with optimized anchor text
- Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
- Low-quality, hidden, or keyword-rich links that are embedded in widgets and then distributed on various sites
- Links that are distributed widely in the footers or templates of sites
- Optimized links in a post or signature line on forum comments
There are three types of action Google may take.
- “Unnatural links to your site - impacts links” means that Google found unnatural links, but it doesn’t appear that they were created by you. These links won’t factor into your rankings any longer. This isn’t actually a penalty, so there isn’t any action you need to take, but your traffic could take a small dip.
- “Unnatural links to your site” - this means your site has been penalized because Google has discovered these links and believes you are responsible for them. Google can choose to penalize just certain pages of the site, or the entire site.
- “Unnatural links from your site” - this penalty is applied when Google finds you linking to specific sites with an exact anchor text each time, or if you have too many links pointing away from your site.
Spam - Google doesn’t like spam, so they’ll look for sites that are filled with filler text, scraped content or other noticeable signs of spam.
- “Pure spam” refers to a site that is very clearly just spam content, or is full of backlinks that are spam.
- “User-generated spam” - If you have a site that allows users to create content, you could be hit with this penalty if a user creates any spam, either in content or links. This includes spam comments and posts.
- “Spammy freehosts” - If your hosting site also hosts for a lot of spam sites, you could just get unlucky enough to have your site lumped in with theirs. It’s a good rule of thumb to avoid very low priced or free hosting sites.
- Thin content - content is king, so your content must be deemed valuable and relevant to users. A site thin on content, scraped content, or automatically generated content is looked at the same as spam.
- Keyword stuffing - You want your content to flow naturally and be as readable as possible, so that means avoiding throwing keywords in unnecessarily. Using your keywords too much is considered “stuffing” and it can penalize your site. Your keywords should be used in a way that they actually make sense on the page, not just randomly throw in.
- Hidden text - don’t think you can hide text in order to manipulate your Google rankings. This is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and if found in violation, your site will be penalized.
- Cloaking is an attempt to deliberately show a search engine a different version of your website than what a visitor would see. If you use redirects to show different pages to users than to Google, you can be penalized. This can also apply to images.
Google Algorithm Updates
One way Google keeps SEO experts on their toes is by constantly introducing new algorithms in an effort to always provide users with the best search results possible.
Google regularly releases broad core algorithm updates that impact many websites and their rankings across its index. Google does not announce these updates beforehand but usually confirms them after it happens. Here are some of these updates and their associated names that have been given to them by the SEO community:
- Panda was first introduced in 2011, and has continued to run over the years. Its purpose was to prevent sites with low-quality content from appearing in search results. SEO experts believe Panda affected websites that were poorly written, had thin content, and/or were mostly comprised of duplicate content.
- Penguin was introduced in 2012, and looks mostly at links to identify unnatural link patterns. If a site has gotten its links naturally, there will be a mix of both high and low quality links. But, if the site obtained links using black hat techniques, there could be a ton of links, but they’ll all be low quality links. Likewise, a natural link building profile will see a steady increase over time. But if your site gets a lot of links in a very short period of time, and then it stops, Google will take notice. And finally, if your links all come from the site sources, it can be a red flag, as are links with the same anchor text.
- Hummingbird: This update, first released in 2013, aimed to improve the way Google understood the meaning behind queries, with the goal of providing more relevant search results. It was designed to better handle long-tail queries and queries that relied on natural language.
- Mobilegeddon or Mobilepocalypse refers to Google’s 2015 announcement that it would look to mobile friendly sites to return results for mobile users. Google Webmaster Tools console allows you to search for errors on your mobile site. This update was intended to boost rankings for mobile friendly sites, so if your pages aren’t, you may not see a huge drop in your traffic, but your pages may fall below mobile friendly ones in searches
- Top Heavy penalties can affect sites where the content is pushed below the fold. Users want to be able to find the content they are looking for, and that they searched for, quickly. If your site is overloaded with ads that make the content hard to find, this penalty could apply to you.
- Mobile first indexing was announced in March 2018. Google announced that after testing, they were beginning to migrate sites that followed their best practices for mobile first indexing. Before, Google’s crawling bots typically used the desktop version of a site, but Google realized this might be an issue for users if the desktop version and mobile versions were very different. And since more users are turning to mobile search, Google realized they need to start using mobile first indexing - going to the mobile site first.
- RankBrain: This update, first released in 2015, is a machine learning algorithm that helps Google better understand the intent behind search queries.
- Fred: This update, first released in 2017, targeted low-quality, thin or affiliate-heavy content and sites that violated Google's webmaster guidelines.
- BERT: This update, first released in 2019, is a neural network-based technique for natural language processing that aims to better understand the context and intent behind search queries.