The influence of Google on business is unquestionable.
The tech giant generated 62 percent of all ecommerce traffic between July 2016 and June 2017—and 63 percent of all online business revenue, according to the Wolfgang Digital 2017 ecommerce study of 143 million website sessions. Only 18 percent of online business results from direct traffic, where users type in a URL and are directed straight to a website.
If a business isn’t ranking well in Google’s search results, it’s losing potential profits.
Though most webmasters and site owners are aware of Google penalties, and know to avoid them, they might not fully understand what causes these dreaded consequences.
While only true corporate insiders know every part of the constantly-evolving algorithm, this compilation should set you on the right track. Here is a breakdown of each type of penalty—and advice on how to submit a reconsideration request after you’ve fixed the issues:
1. Cloaking and sneaky redirects
Cloaking is an SEO tactic allowing users to see different content from what search engine spiders or web crawlers see.
How is that even possible? The content delivered varies based on the IP address of the user requesting the page. If the user is identified as a search-engine spider, a different version of the web page is presented, and often contains content that doesn’t appear on the visible page.
Google applies its cloaking penalty when a website displays its full content to Google but restricts what users can access. For example, if a website requires users to subscribe, register or log in to see all content on the page, the site is in violation of the First Click Free policy. If a strategy is described as “sneaky,” it’s probably going to result in a penalty.
If you receive one of these penalties but are unsure where the issue lies, use the Fetch as Google tool in your search console. You’ll be able to compare the content visible on your page to the content fetched by Google.
2. Hacked sites
Hacked sites featuring spam, malware and phishing attempts endanger users’ security and experience, so Google wants webmasters to take corrective action as soon as possible.
If a hacker exploits and compromises your website, often resulting in the culprit cloaking your content, Google will issue a penalty. Instead of merely de-ranking your page, Google inserts a notification (“this site is hacked”) into the search page results. Users see this and avoid the page, leading to far less organic traffic.
While webmasters aren’t directly responsible for hacks, they can take measures to protect their websites. Be sure to have a recent, clean backup of your site, and install security features to protect it.
3. Keyword stuffing
Google penalties arise when it’s determined a site is overusing particular keywords and phrases to trick search bots into assigning a higher ranking.
Though keyword stuffing is taboo, keyword use can still be a popular strategy when used in moderation. It’s fine to focus on some keywords and phrases, but web designers should be sure to use them naturally within quality content.
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It’s difficult to receive a “pure spam” penalty without intentionally engaging in one or more manipulative promotional tactics. If the Google team determines a website offers no value to users, it can issue the pure spam penalty. This may result in the site—or certain pages—being completely de-listed from SERPs.
A site might receive spam-related penalties by including links to external “spammy” websites, overly promotional blog posts and even user comments containing promotional content, gibberish and off-topic links. Webmasters can help prevent lesser spam penalties by installing anti-spam software that detects and filters out such content. The use of CAPTCHA can also help prevent users—particularly bots—from adding spam to a website.
5. Low-quality content
Content may be king, but it can also get you into trouble if Google determines it offers little value.
Google strives to deliver user experiences of the highest-possible quality. It accomplishes this by ensuring pages ranking in search results offer users the kind of content they hope to find—useful, original information that answers their questions. If a website offers what Google considers low-quality or “thin” content, it is likely to be penalized. Republishing content from another site falls into the “thin” category, but that’s not all.
Ecommerce sites that copy a manufacturer’s product description—even with permission—are also featuring content Google considers thin. Even duplicating your content can result Google penalties. If a webmaster hosts identical or similar pages, they may receive a penalty. For example, hosting 10 pages targeted at different geographic areas and duplicating the content except for location references can cause Google to de-rank the entire site.
The best way to avoid such penalties is to ensure all content is original to your site and each page within the site. Use programs such as Copyscape to scan any submitted content and update content descriptions to add more substance from what the manufacturer provided.
Also, avoid using auto-generated content or automatic translations. Even if you are featuring affiliate links, be sure to update content appearing on your page, so it offers a unique perspective or added value.
6. Unnatural links
While inbound links from authoritative websites can boost Google rank, the opposite occurs if they are not organic.
Amateur webmasters might be unsure how to control external links directing to their pages, so Google offers a tool to help them manage. By conducting a backlink audit from within the search console, you can get a report listing all links to your site. It’s tedious to sort through them all, but a URL profiler can help analyze your backlinks. Search Engine Land offers a detailed description of the process.
If you find links from questionable websites, contact the webmasters and ask them to remove your links or denote as “no-follow.” You can send a reconsideration request to Google for sites that don’t respond or won’t comply.
7. Low engagement and high bounce rates
A bounce occurs when a site visitor returns to search results without viewing more than one page on a domain. If a website’s bounce rate is more than 50 percent—or if viewers spend less than 30 seconds viewing content—your site could receive a penalty.
To avoid these penalties, webmasters should provide quality content for visitors and disperse that content over multiple pages within a domain. If you only have one page, and even if every viewer spends at least 10 minutes viewing it, their next step will be to go back to the search results, leading to a bounce.
8. Site and page performance
Google knows users don’t want to waste time waiting for pages to load. Therefore, pages that lag or have an overall slow hosting speed will receive penalties.
If Google determines a page has too many ads or the ads negatively impact readability, the will penalize the site. While Google offers no guidelines on ad layout, it’s best to leave plenty of space between elements. You should dedicate more space to content than to advertising.
What to do after receiving a penalty
A manual Google penalty doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your website. After you address and fix the issue, you can request that Google reconsider your rank by sending a reconsideration request from the Google search console.
To make the best case possible, offer as many details as possible. Explain to Google what you changed and be sure to explain relevant actions such as a list of links removed, spam comments deleted or details of a malware cleanup.
If Google still isn’t satisfied, you’ll receive notification that you’re still in violation of its Webmaster Guidelines, and you can take further action and try again.
Samantha Lile is a successful web-content creator with a journalism and mass media degree from Missouri State University. A version of this article originally appeared on the Spin Sucks blog.