A Guide to Google penalties and messages

When it comes to SEO and Adwords, it pays to be on the right side of Google and play by their rules.

But what happens if you somehow land on the wrong side?

Google can apply manual spam actions (also known as penalties) to errant websites that violate its Webmaster Guidelines.

The real impact of these penalties may range from barely perceptible to downright catastrophic for any website’s presence in organic Google’s search results.

This guide will help you demystify Google’s penalty messages and describes how you should go about successfully getting them removed.

On-page guideline violations & related notifications

These are the types of violations and notifications that have been identified on a site and are directly under a site owner’s control.

Major and pure spam problems

When site owners receive this notification, it means that Google has identified the site content as mostly spam. This means the material brings zero value to users.

When you have received this message, it usually means that the entire website has already been removed from organic Google Search. Except in some instances, where only a subset of site pages are removed.

In rare cases, there can also be a variation of this penalty message that highlights the gravity of the violation in a stronger wording by referring to the website as pure spam.

This ‘pure spam’ penalty seems to be most frequently associated with user-agent (or similar) cloaking. But cloaking practices has become rare as Google has improved their detection methods, making this penalty a rare occurrence.

In general, when you are hit with either major or pure spam penalty notifications, it means that the affected site has failed to live up to Google users’ expectations at a fundamental level, with nothing but scraped and/or gibberish content.

Spam problems

This is a toned-down version of the abovementioned major spam penalty.

The phrasing is similar but less bleak. Google usually apply this penalty to websites with more general spam issues.

Do note that this means that while the website isn’t totally bad, but bits and pieces are of poor standard.

This usually refers to thin content (which Google generally considers as spammy), or the use of several placeholder pages — which, by definition is low quality, as their sole purpose is to redirect users to another URL and has barely any content.

A spam problem penalty usually won’t get you removed Google Search.

Google may try to enforce the penalty surgically by delisting only the offending pages and folders but leaving everything else intact.

This is the most likely course of action if the violation is isolatable, but the exact scope of the penalty is usually not shared with the site owner, and it can be quite challenging to determine the impact that the penalty has on web traffic.

How to remove the penalty

Removing this manual penalty will need an intensive site review, especially regarding the content quality.

For large site owners, they can benefit more by simply carrying out a comprehensive audit to identify which are the indexed content.

Once you the unindexed and thin content is identified, web administrators will choose how to improve the content quality to meet standards, or just use the ‘noindex’ tag to avoid getting low-quality content indexed by Google.

Managing what to index or not can also improve the website’s crawl budget distribution in the long run.

When carrying out the audit, every page including the landing pages must be considered.

Make sure to look at the content and ensure it is not driven by the word count. The length of the content is not as important as the relevance, and the engagement level of the landing page’s contents are its users.

Before any reconsideration requests can be sent to Google, your content strategy will need a major revamp (such as shifting toward more content that is more relevant and engaging).

All these measures have to be documented and included inside your reconsideration request to put your website’s best foot forward.

You should never an empty or placeholder page for reconsideration, even under any circumstances.

Google’s stance is that web pages like these will be rejected for reconsideration because of the insufficient efforts made to rectify the issue.

Any blank or placeholder pages is not an acceptable substitute and will be seen as an inadequate effort, which will likely get a rejection.

Having said that, a successful reconsideration upon the first submission is a totally achievable goal, and you can get back on your feet quite quickly.

In fact, there have been cases of sites actually performing better on organic Google Search after losing their thin content and focusing on higher quality pages.

That’s because unlike sites hit with major spam or pure spam penalties, spam problems sites are not in direct conflict with Google Webmaster Guidelines. That means a fresh start and readjustment is all that is required to restart your traffic.

User-generated spam

User-generated spam is usually a problem for large, user-driven sites.

If this penalty is applied to your site, that means that your site is being exploited by spammers or even abusive users. Google wants you to get their own house in order and set things straight, or else it will start delisting you.

The message usually includes an example of the user-generated spam and the URL of the spam that has been detected.

Usually, the removal from search results is limited to just the URL mentioned. This may not seem like a big deal until you see the big picture.

Websites affected by user-generated spam tend to get a lot of user-generated spam messages, even on pages not identified by Google.

If the vulnerability loophole isn’t quickly plugged up, you will soon see thousands of potentially malicious, user-generated pages which Google will remove from their index to protect its users.

Google’s Webmaster Central Blog is a great source of useful and actionable guidance on protecting your site against user-generated spam.

The fact that you’ve received a message means that Google sees your site as a useful but neglected source of content.

Solving user-generated spam is mostly a technical challenge and rather simple when compared with the previously discussed penalties applied for spam content.

Here are some security measures to help you manage your user spam issues:

  • Check that your forum or discussion software is up to date, with all security patches applied
  • Enforce moderation on things such as the use of spam terms (like drugs and pharma), or even limit new users’ ability to post links until they are deemed trustworthy.
  • Disable external linking completely. If you allow links, use ‘nofollow’ tags on them to remove any backlinking incentives.
  • Close comments or discussion on threads after a reasonable period, as they’ll often collect spam after real users have ceased to engage on them.

Other than getting you back in Google’s good grace, these measures are good practices for your user-generated content site, as they’ll help protect your brand’s integrity and your relationship with your audience.

Hacked content spam

The hacked content spam penalty is similar to user-generated spam except this is a penalty for hacked websites abused by spammers to run malicious content without permission.

And just like user-generated spam penalty, Google’s message will include a sample URL, which provides a clue to where to start looking for the problem, and what type of content to look at as you clean up your site.

There are 2 critical differences between hacked content spam and user-generated spam.

First, the hacked content spam penalty can also apply to sites that don’t use user-driven content.

Second, having slapped with this penalty is places a “hacked” SERP label on your site. In short, this is a much more severe situation and can create a long-term loss of user traffic from organic Google Search.

Google offers some assistance to webmasters unfamiliar to dealing with a disaster like this.

But ultimately, a simple clean-up of malicious content alone is unlikely to fix the problem unless the underlying vulnerability is patched permanently.

As always, submitting a compelling reconsideration request is the first step towards solving the problem and getting rid of the “hacked” SERP label.

Incorrect structured data

Getting the highly-covet rich snippet position in Google search is great because you appear above everybody else in the search results, which can help boost your click-through rate.

That’s why any attempts to game the system with inflated or deceptive structured data will be penalised by Google.

If spotted, a notification will show, and your rich snippets will stop appearing in search results.

The steps to recovering from this penalty are the same – Proper house cleaning, along with meticulous implementation and documentation.

Gaming structured data is a risky business as Google’s confidence in your accurate structured data is lost. It will also be likely to affect your site’s SERP indefinitely.

Unnatural outbound links

Selling your links to boost another website’s page rank is yet another severe Google Webmaster Guidelines.

While the penalty does not necessitate a considerable loss of site visibility in organic Google Search, it shouldn’t be taken too lightly.

Since you should have total control over your own website, identifying the problem and fixing it, such as applying ‘nofollow’ tags questionable links, should be quick and requires little resource.

Off-page guideline violations & related notifications

In theory, a site owner may be unable to control what websites are linking back to his site.

But Google is concerned with site owners who try to game the system by buying links or other off page black-hat methods.

Unnatural inbound links

This is arguably one of the most common penalties by far.

The penalised site is being deemed as engaging in linking schemes (using fake links to manipulate Google rankings) and is a significant violation according to Google.

The result of this penalty can range anywhere from a barely noticeable loss of traffic, to a sharp decline over time.

Even if you have a strong branding presence, your site can still be affected as even large, reputable websites were affected by this penalty in the past.

You will seldom see Google providing a list of sample URLs to the site owner that gives a good indication of what went wrong.

Whether examples are provided or not, you need to carry out a full backlink audit. Based on the number of backlinks that you have, this process can take up to several weeks.

Make a note on all questionable backlinks, then use them as part of your reconsideration submission.

Once you’ve created a list containing all the questionable or spammy backlinks, you need to request from all these sites to get your links removed from the web.

This may require reaching out to webmasters and requesting them to remove links to your site or have them marked as “nofollow.”

Only after you have removed all the backlinks, then you can submit for reconsideration. You should also upload a copy of the disavow file first (and receive confirmation of the change) detailing all the steps you’ve taken to resolve the issues.

Understanding Reconsideration Requests & Notifications

If you’ve received a penalty, but have shown good faith and effort to fix the issues, you are allowed to file a request for Google to review your site and have penalty lifted.

This is called submitting a reconsideration request.

Your penalty notification should include an outline of the steps to rectify the issue. Once you’ve met all of Google’s requirements, the final stage should contain a “Reconsideration Request” button that will initiate the process once clicked.

As part of the reconsideration process, you may need to show the Google team documentations that show the steps you have taken to bring the site into compliance.

With this documentation, it will help build your case and increase your chances of getting approval.

Once you’ve fixed all your website issues and submitted a reconsideration request, you may receive one of the following notifications in your Google Search Console:

Disavow file updated notification

When you are solving any issues related to unnatural backlinks, you need to also submit a disavow file.

A disavow file contains all the spam backlinks to your site that you were not able to remove.

When you have submitted a disavow file, this notification will show up confirming that it has been uploaded.

Please note that when you are submitting an update of an existing disavow file, the previously submitted URLs will all be overwritten, unless you’ve already included them into your new file.

Reconsideration request (submission confirmed)

Once your reconsideration request is sent, Google will send this notification to confirm your submission.

Google doesn’t promise a specific turnaround time for reconsideration requests. Expect to wait for the process to complete within a few hours (rare) to a few days (more common), sometimes even several weeks (for worst-case scenarios).

Reconsideration request rejected

If Google has deemed your rectifying efforts lacking, you will receive a reconsideration request rejected notification. This merely states that the status of the penalty is still in effect.

Sometimes, the message that follows the notification will offer some guidance regarding the persistent violation.

Any issues highlighted in the samples URLs must be fixed, or you can expect a second rejection.

Also, at this stage, it is highly recommended that you do a complete backlink audit if you have not done so.

You can also choose to attempt another reconsideration request since there is no hard cap on the number of resubmissions.

But every new request must reflect an increased effort to fix the issue, or you won’t be successful.

Reconsideration request processed

Sometimes in rare exceptions, there are a small number of cases where a clear-cut decision to approve or reject a reconsideration is impossible. These cases will have a Reconsideration request processed notification.

While a worthwhile effort has been recognised by Google, there’s more than just one type of violation.

This means more investigative work is required to correctly identify the issue for your site to regain its visibility on Google search results.

The good news is most reconsideration requests are handled by a human. They are usually sympathetic and will include a note to help you out.

Reconsideration request approved

This is the best possible outcome from a reconsideration request.

There’s no further action to be taken once this message is received, other than to focus on growing your organic traffic again and take care not to fall from Google’s good grace again.

In conclusion

These are the terms you will encounter when you have been penalised by Google.

Remember, prevention is always better than cure. Don’t take any SEO shortcuts that you’ll regret next time.

If you have somehow ended up getting penalised, keep calm and fix the issues as best as you can. With some effort, you will be able to turn the tides and get back on the saddle.

If you need help lifting your Google penalty, or you need to conduct a full website audit, feel free to contact me with this contact form.

About Murray Dare

Murray Dare is a Marketing Consultant, Strategist and Director at Dare Media. Murray helps UK businesses find better ways to connect with their audiences through targeted content marketing strategies.