Types of Google Penalties Explained
The majority of SEO’s have a very healthy fear of being penalized by Google. It’s scary because we put lots of long and hard hours into our websites, and hear stories of webmasters getting penalized when they haven’t done anything against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
A quick disclaimer: not only is this list a compilation of my personal experience, but Google hasn’t officially released a specific list of the various types of penalties, other than manual vs algorithmic and a few other glimpses.
On the same note, while Google doesn’t have a page on their website that lists the types of penalties they dish out, they have confirmed a few of these types in direct and indirect ways throughout the years. I’ll do my best to note when this has happened within this post.
Below we will attempt to list the consequences of a Google penalty, not the causes of a penalty (EMD, link spam, etc) Generally the same penalty can be given out for a number of different causes. That is, a site wide or domain penalty can be given to a site that violated any number of Google’s policies. The same goes for algorithm updates, both Panda and Penguin dish out similar types of penalties.
The Granular Penalty
While this isn’t an exact type of penalty, as of 2016 the Google Penguin update is now considered “granular” and will not necessarily penalize the entire website. One example is this: a website has 1000 links all containing the anchor text keyword “SEO” linked to it. In this case, Google might only penalize the site for this keyword, and it will still rank for other keywords on the site. Another example, if there are 1000 links pointing to 1 page, only that page will get penalized.
A site wide penalty or “domain penalty” sounds exactly like what it is: it is a penalty that effects the entire site. This includes all sub-directories, pages, posts, categories, tags, images and anything higher up on the / hierarchy. This seems to be the most popular type of Google penalty. It also includes all keywords relating to the page. This penalty differs from all other Google penalties in the fact that every facet of the site is affected. The site-wide penalty can also be attributed with a minus X or “-30” or “-50” which will set the site back a given number in the search results.
The Keyword Penalty
This type of Google penalty relates to Google penalizing a site that ranks for a particular keyword, or key phrase. To the best of my knowledge, this penalty is mainly a result of anchor over-optimization.
For instance, if your site is ranking for 100 keywords relating to “cats,” in this penalty your site will be penalized for just one keyword such as “cat toys.” Again, this might come about from building too many links with the anchor text “cat toys.”
Group of Keywords Penalty
Like the keyword penalty, this penalty can relate to one or more keywords or key phrases. For instance, a site might rank for “cat pants” and “cat heels” and all other keywords just fine but “cat canes” and “cat soda” are penalized. Multiple keywords can be penalized at the same time or combinations of keywords.
A Google Keyword Penalty in Full Effect
Page Only Penalty
A page only penalty will penalize a specific page on a domain, such as an “about us” page:
We’ve seen this penalty get some serious attention within the past few years when Sprint, BBC, and most recently Mozilla received a 1 page penalty. In the majority of these “high profile” penalties, it was due to UGC (or user generated content) and most of the time spammy blog comments or forum profile links. Note: Multiple pages or combinations of pages can be penalized on the same website at any given time.
Google can also penalize a specific page within a domain
A directory penalty will penalize the contents within a directory and the directory itself. Let’s take our example domain for instance: cats-r-us-usa.com. In this example some shady activity is going on in our “category” folder so Google will penalize:
(the wildcard means any file/folder above the hierarchy. Here is another example of what it would look like in our simulated SERP checker:
Sometimes Google can penalize a directory within a website
This penalty seems to be the least popular penalty out of all of them. Still, many webmasters have reported seeing this penalty. Multiple directories can be penalized within the same site at any given time.
This penalty affects a websites PageRank or “PR.” This is the only penalty that does not necessarily (directly) result in a site being adjusted within the search engines. As you may know, PR is Google’s own quality score of a website generally based on links. In a PR penalty, the PageRank is generally reset to 0 but I have also heard of sites getting -X depending on the situation. There have been a number of these penalties happen to high profile sites that have gained national media attention.
Google can also penalize a site’s PageRank or PR
Sandbox Google Penalty
The Sandbox is a term we don’t hear a lot about lately, but it is still a phenomenon that I’ve seen personally and have heard about in the past. This penalty generally occurs within the first few months that a domain is registered and a website is hosted. The site will generally “disappear” in the rankings for a short period of time (days, weeks, months) and then come back.
This is pretty much as bad as it gets. De-indexation or de-listing is the process of physically removing your site from the search engines. We saw this penalty occur earlier this year in the Payday Loan update of 2013 when a lot of these sites were de-indexed however some of them received other penalties as well.
When you’ve totally disrespected everything about Google’s Guidelines, they will remove your site completely from the SERPs.
Generally the best way to determine if your site in fact has been de-indexed is to run the following query:
If your site appears in the results, then you are still indexed. If it does not appear in the results you have been de-indexed.
The Combo Penalty
The combination penalty is exactly what it sounds like, a combination of different types of penalties. For instance a site might be penalized for a specific keyword only on a specific page. There can also be multiple combinations of penalties on a given site.
The -X Penalty
This is a penalty that might set your site back anywhere from 10 spots to 200 spots. This penalty is probably one of the most debated penalties, in the fact that it is never an even number and some say they’ve seen only odd numbers. (which I am sure they have.) Some also say that there is only a -30, -50 and -100 but even personally I have seen -70’s and -10’s during the first round of Penguin. Whatever the case may be, Google will set your site back (or keyword, directory, page, domain, etc) a predetermined number. Typically you will see various keywords get set back different positions, for instance:
Keyword 1, 2 and 3 will be given a -30 penalty
Keywords 4,5, and 6 will be given a -50 penalty
Keywords 7,8, and 9 will be given a -20 penalty
The -950 Penalty
Also known as the “end of results” penalty. This is one penalty type that has been confirmed by Matt Cutts himself. The -950 penalty has also been confirmed by many webmasters as a penalty that moves your site back about 9.5 pages in the SERPs, or 950 positions back. Many webmasters that have used SPAM tactics will find their websites at the end of the Google SERP results pages. This penalty is what many call “the last straw” and a final warning before your site is de-indexed.
Length of Penalties
Penalties generally last until whatever is wrong has been corrected. As Matt Cutt’s stated at SMX in June of 2013:
“They can go pretty far.” For total horribleness, the penalty can stay until the domain expires. (Matt Cutts, June 2013 SMX)
As of 2016, both Google Penguin and Panda updates are now “real time” and will recover much faster than they used to.
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