The beginner's guide to Google penalties

Posted by Hanah Alexander on 24 May, 2022
View comments SEO
How do Google penalties work and what should you do if hit by one?

Google penalties

A Google penalty can hit your website hard. Your successful high-ranking website could disappear from the top results from one day to the next.

A single penalty can even remove your site completely from Google's search results, meaning no traffic, no leads, and no sales. And intent doesn't matter - if you violate any of Google’s policies, even unintentionally, you're still at risk of being penalized.

In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about how Google penalties work. We’ll also look at some examples and how to respond if you’re hit.

What is a Google penalty?

Google is engaged in a constant struggle against spammers and deceptive content. It wants to keep its platform safe and ensure it delivers the best results for searchers, and will penalize any attempts to manipulate rankings or breaches of its webmaster guidelines. If a site is subject to a penalty it will generally result in pages or sites being ranked lower or omitted from search results.

Google’s webspam team is there to ensure all websites follow their guidelines. They will issue a manual action against a site when a reviewer at Google has determined that pages on the site are not compliant with Google's guidelines.

However, a drop in rankings could also be a result of Google’s algorithm updates. Google says many of their updates are designed to reward good behavior - so sites that have improved could leapfrog over your site even if yours has done nothing wrong. Core updates can also be designed to implement new, or tighten existing guidelines and will affect sites which are in breach of these.  Google regularly updates its search algorithms so it’s important to keep abreast of any updates to guidelines to make sure you’re not caught out.

Google refers to these penalties as manual and algorithmic actions. Let’s have a closer look at both.

Manual vs. algorithmic actions

If you suspect your website has been given a penalty, the first thing to determine is which kind it is. This will give you the information you need to respond and fix the issue. 

A manual penalty, as its name suggests, is when your website is found to be in breach of guidelines by a human reviewer. If a page on your site contravenes Google’s webmaster quality guidelines, the reviewer will issue a manual action against your site.

Fortunately, manual actions are easily identifiable because Google Search Console will issue you a notification almost immediately. It also lets you know the reasons and effects of this action, so fixing the issue and getting your site back on track becomes pretty straightforwad.

You can also check for manual actions taken by Google against your site via a sidebar link in Search Console.

There can be many reasons for manual actions, for example, spammy free hosts, structured data issues, cloaked images, sneaky mobile redirects, thin content, etc, and they can affect your entire site or just a section/page of it.

A hit from an algorithm change, on the other hand, can be more tricky to identify. Google issues no individual warnings or notifications in this case, so you could be wondering about your website’s poor performance without realizing it’s due to an algorithm update. You should, therefore, regularly monitor your website traffic and rankings to make sure you notice any drop straight away

It's also a good idea to keep up with search news, where algorithm updates are usually reported. Reach out to the SEO community if you you think your site might be affected by an algorithm update. If your site has been hit, there’s a good chance others have been hit too and people will be talking about it. Twitter or Google’s Search Central Help Community can be a good way to find out the latest information and compare notes .

You can also compare your site’s historical data with the latest updates to see if anything on your site is now unacceptable to Google. This might be a tedious task but tools such as Barracuda’s Panguin integrate with Google Analytics and can help you carry out comparisons easily.

Google says if your site has been hit you shouldn’t just wait around for the next core update in the hope of recovering then.  Continual small tweaks are made to Google’s algorithms, so their advice is to start rectifying things straight away, and you should see some incremental improvements over time.

Recovering from a Google penalty

Once you’ve identified the nature of your penalty, the big question is how to get your site back on track.  We take a look at some common issues below, and see how some real life examples were tackled.

Cloaking or sneaky redirects

Cloaking is when your site shows different pages to users and to Google. Sneaky redirects are pretty similar, they redirect users to a different page to what Google sees. 

Here’s how to fix:

  • Log into Google Search Console and click on ‘crawl’.
  • Click on ‘Fetch as Google’ and select the penalized pages/sections of your website.
  • Identify any differences between your webpage content and the content returned by Google.
  • Resolve the differences and check all redirects.
  • Remove all the redirects that appear to be deceptive or redirect users to other destinations.
  • Submit a reconsideration request.

Thin, low quality content

A penalty for this issue means Google considered your content to be low quality, and not adding any value. Some examples can include automatically generated content, thin affiliate pages, scraped content or low quality guest blog posts. Here’s how to combat it:

  • Identify substandard content on your website.  Metrics such as bounce rate and time on site are useful for highlighting thin content.
  • Edit or rewrite the affected pages to improve the content, or consider deleting them altogether if they’re unnecessary.
  • Submit a reconsideration request to Google.

Robin Young, CEO of Fitness Savvy, was hit with what she believes to be an algorithmic penalty for thin content. She had countless thin pages featuring short product descriptions and saw her traffic take a nosedive.

“To fix it, I no-indexed nearly every page on the site and removed them from Google's index using their removals feature. I did some keyword research and prioritized which products to write reviews for first, and gradually started re-indexing them and adding them back to the website. Within just a few months, rankings started to improve.”

Source: Robin Young, Fitness Savvy

Filip Silobod of Honest Marketing found one of his clients hit with a penalty for duplicate content.

“I found a lot of pages on the sitemap (not on the site's navigation) for each location the company delivered to. That was 100 location pages with different titles. What's funny is that most competitors did this too, but a bit less than us so I thought it was OK since they didn't get penalized. I resorted to deleting most of them, even though some brought revenue. After 6 or 7 months a new core update happened, and the rankings went back up!”

Source: Filip Silobod, Honest Marketing

He raises a good point - just because your competitors are doing it doesn’t mean it’s okay. Someone will eventually get dinged, and it might be you.

Link scheming

Link building is an important part of SEO, but using unnatural backlinks to improve rankings can get you in trouble with Google. But what should you do if you get penalized for being on the receiving end, with unnatural links to your site?

“I reviewed all the links that showed up in Google Search Console, but also used the tools available to me in SEMRush and Ahrefs. After carefully reviewing all the links, I put together a list of the obvious pay-for-link scheme websites and blog posts. I reached out to each of those companies to try to get the links removed.

In this same list (spreadsheet), I added the date I reached out to each company/website. I also added another column on if they responded/removed our link. Lastly, I used the Google Disavow Tool to also disavow all those links.”

Source: Jeff Moriarty, JMoriarty Marketing

After this was all completed, he reached back out for a reconsideration request through Google Search Console.

Structured data issues

Google has specific guidelines for structured data which are mandatory. If they find your page contains spammy structured data or content, they will apply a manual action to the page. Examples include marking up content that is invisible to users, marking up irrelevant or misleading content, or other manipulative behavior.

The fix for this penalty is quite straighforward:

  • Review your markups to identify any that either violate Google’s guidelines and remove or update them.
  • Request a reconsideration.


For a full list of manual penalties and how to fix them see Google’s Manual Actions page.

How to prevent a Google penalty

Of course, it would be much better never to get a Google Penalty in the first place.

According to David Zimmerman of Reliable Acorn Internet Marketing, the best way to protect yourself from a Google penalty is to set a goal for your SEO campaign.

“If you consider ‘ranking’ your plan, you'll drive yourself crazy and obsess over the details. Instead, think about what you want your visitors to accomplish on your website. How do you make money from your website? Do you want visitors to make a purchase? Contact you? Click on an affiliate link? Once you establish this, start measuring it.”

From there, he says you can use your SEO efforts to see how you can get more. So how does this prevent penalties?

“If you only look at rank under pressure to achieve that goal, you will bend (or break) Google's rules so you can finally appear at number one - even if that position doesn't help you accomplish the thing that makes you money.”

Source: David Zimmerman, Reliable Acorn Internet Marketing


Hopefully, you're following the guildelines to make sure your site doesn't violate them, so you won't be getting a penalty any time soon.

Getting a Google penalty is stressful, but if you do get one there’s no need to panic. If you systematically identify and work through the issues to resolve matters you’ll be able to restore your site’s performance.

Keep up to date with Google’s guidelines and make sure your site aligns with any changes to minimise the chances of your site being hit.

Recent articles

New Merchant Center integrated reports in Google Search Console
Posted by Edith MacLeod on 14 September 2023
Google adds links to webpages in SGE’s AI-powered answers
Posted by Edith MacLeod on 31 August 2023
Google publishes Guide to Responsive Search Ads
Posted by Edith MacLeod on 29 August 2023
Google rolls out August 2023 broad core update
Posted by Edith MacLeod on 22 August 2023
Why email warmup is essential before a cold outreach campaign
Posted by Andre Oentoro on 25 August 2023