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How to avoid a Google penalty

4 minute read

car window with parking penalty notices

If your business relies on traffic from search engines as a major source of revenue, the chances are that you’re already putting effort into search engine optimisation (SEO). If that’s the case, one thing you might be concerned about is the possibility of a Google penalty causing a drop in your search engine rankings, and therefore traffic and income. But what activities could land you in trouble with search engines?

Top things you could be penalised for

Search engine algorithms are phenomenally complex, with hundreds of factors used to decide the order in which websites should appear for each search query. Let’s look at some of the most significant things that could get your business demoted.

Buying lots of links

Links from other sites to yours are a major ranking factor in search engine algorithms, because they view them as an endorsement: if other sites are linking to yours, it’s probably because your site is deemed useful or interesting enough to warrant sending people your way. However, this fact has fuelled the practice of buying links as a way of artificially boosting a website up the search results. It led to the emergence of ‘link networks’ that websites could pay to be included in – poor-quality sites that existed purely for the purposes of links.

Google clamped down on this with its so-called Penguin update in 2012, which demoted sites that appeared to have been using this tactic. Of course, you’d have to be pretty naive to think that Google wouldn’t spot a sudden influx of poor-quality links flooding towards your site and put two and two together, but it’s just worth noting that however tempting it may seem to buy links – particularly when your site is brand new and not ranking anywhere in search engines – it will cause your site far more harm than good.

Stuffing your site with keywords

In the early days of search engines, when algorithms weren’t very sophisticated, cramming as many keywords into your website copy as possible would help your site to appear higher up for relevant search terms. This resulted in poorly written copy intended to appeal to search engines but not readers. Google soon cottoned onto this practice and tried to put a stop to it by demoting websites found to be ‘keyword stuffing’, emphasising that content needs to be written for readers, not search engines. That oft-repeated phrase ‘content is king’ still stands.

Duplicating lots of content

If you have lots of very similar products, you might be tempted to think you can simply use the same content over and over again on each product page. However, your site may well end up being penalised for duplicate content, which can signal to search engines that your site is offering a poor-quality user experience. Each page should be unique, with its own copy and images.

Thin or poor quality content

Again on the subject of providing a good user experience, search engine algorithms are likely to penalise your site if there are very few words on each page. This is because algorithms consider that a page with few words on it isn’t likely to provide much value to users. Google tackled poor-quality content in its so-called Panda update, since when it’s been advisable to try to aim for at least 300 words per page where possible.

Annoying pop-ups on mobile pages

Finally, it’s not just dodgy SEO practices or low-quality content that can land you in trouble with Google. We all know how annoying it is when you’re browsing the internet on your phone and click on a site only to find the whole page is taken up by a pop-up that you have to dismiss before you can view the content. Google tackled this practice with its so-called Intrusive Interstitial Penalty, which the search engine summarised as follows: “pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.” Read more about how to avoid this penalty here.

How to recognise if you’ve been hit by a Google penalty

The tell-tale sign that you’ve been hit by a Google penalty is a sudden drop in organic search traffic, which you’ll notice if you routinely monitor traffic to your site using Google Analytics (and if you don’t, you should – more here). However, there are other possible causes of this, so it might not necessarily be an algorithm penalty; you’ll need to do some detective work to find out what’s wrong. If you’ve ruled out any issues with your site (these are often flagged up in Google Search Console, such as whether or not search engines are able to index your site), then you may have suffered a penalty.

SEO best practice

The overall message to take away from the various Google penalties is that you can’t outsmart search engine algorithms, and your focus should be on giving users the best possible experience of using your site. Trying to trick your way to a higher place in the search results won’t work – or if it does, your new-found position won’t last long before Google finds a way to clamp down on whatever tactic you may have found to get a higher ranking.

We’ll end with some quick-fire SEO best practice tips:

  • Create quality content – make your site the go-to place for your niche with lots of helpful content that shares your expertise
  • Avoid thin content by aiming for a minimum of around 300 words per page
  • Each page should be unique – don’t duplicate pages
  • Don’t keyword stuff – write website copy with an awareness of what people search for, dropping in the odd keyword if it reads naturally, but don’t attempt to cram keywords in for the sake of it
  • Build a natural backlink profile by following our introduction to link-building

As ever, you’ll find plenty more advice on all aspects of SEO here.

Rachel Ingram is a freelance copywriter with a background in digital marketing. She's written copy for clients ranging from the United Nations World Food Programme to The North Face, and particularly enjoys working with lifestyle and travel brands. In her spare time, she volunteers for Guide Dogs and flies light aircraft and helicopters.

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