how to recover from a google penalty

How to Recover from a Google Penalty16 min read


The premise of Google is to deliver high-quality, useful content for its users. For this reason, they are always tweaking the algorithm that is used to crawl and rank sites according to their ability to serve users. What this does mean, is that some sites experience sudden, unexpected ranking drops. For this reason, you need to know how to recover from a Google penalty.

Imagine this: It’s February 22nd, 2011.

You’ve been SEOing your site for years, you have a strong search engine ranking, you’ve had another successful day updating and tweaking your webpages.

As you arrive the next morning, you’re met by worried faces. For some inexplicable reason, your Google ranking has plummeted, the odds of your business being found online have taken a huge hit, and you simply can’t figure out why it has happened.

This was the situation for a huge number of businesses the day the Google Panda Update was released. People logged on to their analytics pages to see something a little like this:

how to fix a google penalty

Well, obviously they woke up without the steady lower line following on from February. But, you get the idea from the huge drop in traffic that this site suffered, that the number of visitors for many businesses was massively affected.

Confusion followed for many as they rushed to work on rebuilding their SERP rankings and recovering from the penalty they’d been hit by.

Then on the 24th April 2014, just as some had made a full recovery from the Panda update, Google updated their algorithm for how they rank web pages yet again with the Google Penguin Update.

Similar scenes followed, and similar attempts to identify what exactly had happened- as well as how to approach rising back up the rankings- were initiated.

So, what happened?

In the simplest terms possible, Google had updated the way its search engine’s algorithm judged the value of webpages.

Outdated SEO tactics and ‘Black Hat’ methods had been chucked, and search engines were looking at ways to rank pages that offered the best user experience in a more accurate fashion.

black hat seo

Black Hat SEO: This is simply the act of attempting to boost a site’s search engine ranking by means other than providing a good user experience. Essentially, dishonest SEOing. It involves practices such as keyword stuffing, duplicating pages etc.

In an aim to improve the user experience however, Google also penalized many legitimate sites who suffered as a result.

Well, we’re here to help your legitimate, white hat SEO’d site recover.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the world of SEO is always changing. Google makes 500 or 600 changes to their algorithm each year, but the vast majority of them are only minor.

The Google Panda and Google Penguin updates represent two seismic shifts in the way pages were ranked on the SERPs.

These are the two updates we will focus on, as they had a serious impact on many pages, and required a number of changes to sites in order to once again rank well on Google.

google panda penalty

Google Panda

It might sound cute and cuddly, but the truth is that for a lot of SEOs and online businesses, Google Panda was a nightmare.

Why did Google use this update?

Well, we’ll begin by explaining what it did, before discussing Google’s purpose for the update, and what you can do to either recover from being hit by it or to avoid being penalized all together.

What Did Google Panda do?

Before Google Panda was introduced to the Google algorithm, users were finding that results appearing on the first page of the SERPs were often pretty poor quality.

This is because black hat SEO’s were using methods such as keyword stuffing, including numerous ads and dodgy backlinks, producing huge amounts of poor content or duplicating content from other sites. These were all worsening the user experience of a page.

matt cutts google

Enter Matt Cutts, who was head of the webspam team at Google. His team interviewed thousands of internet users, asking them questions such as, “would you trust this site with your medical details?”, “would you trust this site with your credit card details?” etc.

After gathering all these details on different sites, they started comparing the metrics of these sites, thousands of them. They wanted to see what general properties pages had, that made for a good user experience.

Once this one was done, they simply upgraded the kinds of sites people liked and downgraded the sites that were they didn’t.

Google Panda was born.

It was a heavily user-based update, any SEOs that had worked out how to achieve a good search engine ranking, but in fact had a relatively low-quality site, suffered as a result of it.

Surely one would imagine this to only have a positive outcome. But, the fact remains that there are such a vast number of sites, there would be no physical possibility to manually assess and rank each page accordingly.

As a result, many pages that in fact may have been useful were penalized when the update released.

Not only this; Panda delivered a domain level penalty. This meant that it only took one poor page on a website for every single page ranking to drop.

how can i fix a google penalty

What Kind of Pages did Panda Affect?

As we’ve mentioned, the update was very much user-orientated. Pages that were of low quality were devalued. Their characteristics included having:

  • Low quality or ‘thin’ content: Pages that had large amounts of content, with lots of relevant keywords were highly ranked before Panda came along. The problem with many of these pages is that often the quality of this content and the value it actually held for the user was absolutely minimal. Panda targeted pages that had shallow, weak content. This included pages that used poor grammar or practiced content farming.

A content farm is a website that creates a huge amount and an enormous range of content but of poor quality. Often paying lots of writers a small amount to cover a wide range of topics, they focus on appearing in search engine results rather than offering the user real value.

what to do if i have a google penalty
  • Duplicate content: Any pages that had their content copied on another page on the internet took a hit to their rankings. This was to prevent black hat SEOs from simply plagiarising content from other sites and ranking above them. It also negatively affected sites that had pages within their website that were virtually identical. For example, sites offering different products that only varied a small amount may have had almost identical pages and would be penalized.
  • Slow Loading Times: These pages clearly worsened the user experience and suffered a penalty as a result.
  • Too many ads: Many sites were looking to boost their income and ranking with far too many ads on each page. They were deemed untrustworthy by many users and experienced a drop in the SERPs. 
  • Broken or irrelevant links: Links that either took the user to an error page or weren’t relevant to their title or anchor text (i.e. the user was clicking on a link and being led to a completely unrelated page) were rife before the Panda update. Of course, they weren’t exactly conducive to a smooth, enjoyable experience for the user, so any pages with these received a knock in their rankings.
what to do if i have a google penalty

What if I’ve been penalized?

We’re going to get into that now. The chances are, if you noticed a huge drop in your rankings,  or if Google Analytics is showing you that your traffic has dropped off suddenly, it may be that you’re falling foul of a few of these issues.

However, it is always worth checking other factors that may have caused to lose traffic or drop down the SERPs.

For example, check out how your competitors are doing, a sudden lift in the rankings for them could indicate that you have simply fallen behind them in your SEO efforts, and are losing traffic as a result.

It’s not impossible that you run a seasonal business; perhaps your beach hut rental company has experienced a sudden drop in traffic come November time…

If your sudden drop in traffic does correspond to a dated Panda update, then you’ve probably been caught out.

But we’re a legitimate, white hat business!

We know, so here’s how to recover from Google Panda.

How to recover from Google Panda penalties.

what to do if i have a google penalty

It’s clearly pretty detrimental to your business to have no traffic reaching your site as a result of your pages being downgraded.

But how do you approach getting back to your previous, SEO’d self?

Well, you’ve seen what merits a penalty, so your job is to address each of these issues once you have identified them.

Recovering from Google Panda is all about being an authority in your niche.

Firstly, scour all the pages on your site for low-quality, low-value content. If you find pages like this, address the issue by either updating the content with useful, in-depth information or if the page really isn’t offering anything, simply remove it.

Any content that looks unnatural, or like it’s rammed with keywords, needs to be addressed and improved. Google will also take into account bounce rates, low conversion rates and low average times on your site.

Of course, these metrics are likely to be low if your titles and links are misleading. Ensure everything on your page is relevant to what the user is searching for!

Dredge up all of your links. Yep, sorry, all of them. Assess which ones are leading to untrustworthy or low-quality sites and remove them. Check your inbound links, do they come from reliable sources?

Make use of ‘nofollow’ tags in order to stop Google assigning value to bad links on your site.

Nofollow links basically just have a tag that says rel=nofollow, and it tells Google to ignore any value it might have attached to a link into your page.

Look throughout your site for duplicate content, try and keep everything original. Protect yourself from content scraping(the act of plagiarising content from your page). This isn’t always easy and is a bit of a process, so we don’t have time to go into this topic in this blog.

However, one top tip to help prevent the scrapers is to internally link the hell out of your blog posts.

what to do if i have a google penalty

The fact is, if you are producing good quality, original content, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about with this update.

If you have been affected, however, and are struggling to recover, then follow these steps and see the beginning of your return to the SEO world.

Google Penguin

Google Penguin was the second major update of the algorithm that Google used to determine where pages should be ranked in the SERPs.

In comparison to the Panda update, which covered a range of factors affecting the user experience, Matt Cutts’ Penguin was far more single-minded in its approach to bringing the users of the internet a singularly superb search engine experience.

google penguin penalty

What did Google Penguin do?

This update was almost solely implemented in order to reduce any advantages of having dodgy link schemes or reams of keyword stuffed pages in order to boost rankings.

Before Penguin came along, black hat SEOs were boosting their rankings by various methods. These were: spamming comment sections on forums, inserting irrelevant links on Wikipedia pages and over-optimizing their own content with an increasing number of useless, valueless links.

Doesn’t sound like a fun place to be, does it?

The fact is, these tactics, along with keyword stuffing (i.e. repetition of the same keywords in an attempt to seem more relevant to search engines) were getting results.

what is keyword stuffing

It was worth your time to put self-promoting links on everyone’s comment sections, to create content with a link in every other word of the text.

It was worth repeating the same phrases over and over in order to try and show search engines that pages were ‘relevant’ to a user’s search term.

That’s until Matt Cutts and co. stepped back in, and pages that were deemed guilty of shady link-building schemes or blatant keyword stuffing practices were penalized.

Once again, Google was finding a way to save users from SEO tactics that weren’t conducive with our old friend, the user experience.

How to Recover from A Google Penguin Penalty.

Well, once again, you need to identify that you have indeed been affected by the Penguin update, and you would do this in the same way you checked for Panda.

If you have experienced a drop in the SERP rankings on the date Penguin was implanted (24th April 2014), then guess what? You’ve probably fallen foul to some dishonest link building tactics.

We’d offer a disapproving shake of the head, but the fact is that before the update these methods worked. So, it’d be a little naïve, or just very earnest, of you not to make use of them.

Also, there may be sites out there linking to your pages that are an absolute waste of space.

You don’t have any control over the backlinks to your page, but to Google, a link from an untrustworthy source indicates an untrustworthy page.

Links to your site from pages that are irrelevant, duplicated, banned form, Google, poor quality or from spammy comment forums will negatively affect your ranking.

You need to assess who is linking to you, and ‘disavow’ any of these links that are hurting your beloved site.

This is going to involve a lot of digging…

Step One: Find your backlinks

To do this, you need to open up the Google Search Console. Click on the ‘Links’ option.

Then, go to the ‘Top Linked Sites’ section, click on ‘More’ and before your very eyes you’ll see every one of your backlinks.

Step Two:

Next, you need to download the backlinks to an SEO tool so that you can gather more information about your links. With this information, you’ll be able to assess which links you need to get rid of.

There are a number of tools available to you: SE ranking, Ahrefs, SEMRUSH. But our favorite (and what we believe is the easiest to use) is, Monitor Backlinks, so that’s the tool we’ll continue talking about today.

Step Three:

You need to identify the follow links to your site, as these are the ones that Google considers when determining the value attached to a particular link. To do this, click the thumbs up symbol at the top right of the screen.

Step Four:

Now, you need to manually verify all the backlinks to your site. Check each one and if the link comes from a spammy comments section, a completely irrelevant source, a content farm or some other deplorable black hat source, it’s time to see if you can get rid of it.

what to do if i have a google penalty

Step Five:

First, you can try actually emailing the owner of the site linking to you and requesting the link to be removed manually.

Try and find their company email and, using your own company’s email, drop them a message to see if they’ll consider removing it.

There’s nothing to lose with this approach, one of three things could happen:

  • They could ignore the email completely.
  • They could remove the link for you.
  • They could attempt to charge you for the removal of the link.

WARNING: Do not pay any site owner to remove a link to your site for you. In this case, as in the first of the above list, we are going to simply ‘disavow’ the domain.


This step is actually pretty simple (phew). Just add a tag called, for example, ‘disavow’ to all the links you couldn’t delete through the kindness of a fellow webmaster’s heart, and then proceed to filter your links by the tag ‘disavow’.

Then, create your disavow report. Click on ‘With All’ at the top of the screen, then select ‘Export (Disavow Format)’.

Open up Google’s Disavow Links Tool, and simply upload the file to it. In a couple of weeks, the report will have processed and you should see your ranking recover (provided it was actually the Penguin update that hit you).

how to disavow links

Closing Words

So, there you have it: Two major Google updates and the processes to undertake in order to avoid being penalized by them.

If you’ve experienced being hit by one of these penalties, or if a new update in the future gives your SEO rankings a knock, our very first piece of advice would be: do not panic.

Google updates their algorithms numerous times every day, and their very own Gary Ilyes has said that at least 95% of those updates aren’t actionable. Search traffic naturally fluctuates as all these updates are applied, so don’t be overly worried about a small drop in your traffic.

Collect data, ensure you’re providing a quality user experience and keep on top of the ways in which you’re linking, and –provided you’re a trusted, authoritative source– you’ll find yourself generating a healthy amount of traffic via search engines.

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