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What Is a Google Penalty in SEO?

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Editor’s note: “Ask an SEO” is a weekly column by technical SEO experts Jenny Halasz and Kristine Schachinger. Come up with your hardest SEO question and fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!


This week for “Ask An SEO”, we have a question from Quora:

“What is a Google Penalty in SEO?”

The term “penalty” is often used very loosely in SEO circles.

When a site experiences a downturn in traffic and visibility the SEO will often say that downturn was the result of a “penalty” whether that downturn was manually applied or algorithmically.

This use of the term, however, is not accurate.

The term “penalty” with regards to SEO, has a distinct and definitive meaning.

What Is a Penalty?

The only true penalty (officially) is a “manual action” from Google.

A manual action is when a Google human reviewer has looked at your website and dampened your visibility in the search engine result pages (SERPs) for violating the Webmaster Quality Guidelines in some manner.

Webmaster Quality Guidelines - Manual Action

You can be penalized for reasons that aren’t listed here, but most manual actions come from this list.

A penalty is not when your site has a downturn because Google has rolled out a general algorithmic update affecting many sites either positively or negatively.

There is no official name for this process. But when your site loses rankings it is often called an “algorithmic devaluation.”

It’s not a term that exactly rolls off the tongue, so likely why the term “penalty” is so often bandied about. However, penalties are site-specific.

So How Does a Penalty (Manual Action) Differ from an Algorithmic Devaluation?

If you have been in SEO for more than a month or so, you are sure to have heard of the dreaded manual action.

Manual actions are as named – manual actions applied to your site by Google, or more specifically a human at Google, rather than an algorithm.

This happens when Google notices you have violated their Webmaster Guidelines and they give you a “slap on the wrist” (or sometimes a full slap down), for what you have done “wrong” – in other words, a penalty.

The impact of these manually applied penalties on sites differ from site to site depending on the severity of the issue and the Webmaster Guideline that has been violated, but they can range from small downturn in the rankings on a few query terms to full site removal from the search results.

How Will You Know If You Have a Manual Action?

Because Google has applied the penalty directly to your site, they will inform you when it happens via Google Search Console.

This is one of the reasons why it is so important to have search console set up for your site. (I suggest using the URL Prefix not Domain Properties.)

“Google issues a manual action against a site when a human reviewer at Google has determined that pages on the site are not compliant with Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. Most manual actions address attempts to manipulate our search index. Most issues reported here will result in pages or sites being ranked lower or omitted from search results without any visual indication to the user.

If your site is affected by a manual action, we will notify you in the Manual Actions report and in the Search Console message center.”  – Google Search Console Help

The main difference between manual actions and algorithmic issues is that manual actions are all known and can be reviewed on Google’s support page for understanding and fixes.

With algorithmic changes, Google’s response is often – well there is nothing to fix. (Almost never true, by the way, but that is for another article.)

Here are the manual actions that can be applied by Google:

  • User-generated spam
  • Spammy free host
  • Structured data issue
  • Unnatural links to your site
  • Unnatural links from your site
  • Thin content with little or no added value
  • Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects
  • Pure spam
  • Cloaked images
  • Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing
  • AMP content mismatch
  • Sneaky mobile redirects

When you go to the site to review these items, Google has drop downs for each one that will tell you how to fix them.

These fixes, however, can be complicated.

Once you have identified your penalty and fixed it you can submit the site for a reconsideration request. This is how you ask Google to remove the manually applied action or penalty.

The ability to submit a reconsideration request also helps distinguish a manual action as a penalty.

While a manual action can be removed with a proper reconsideration request, an algorithmic devaluation cannot. For algorithm issues, you have to wait for the algorithm update to run again.

This was one of the core contentions with old Penguin (before it became “real time”). There was as long as two years between updates and in between sites could not regain their rankings.

With manual actions, all you have to do is fix and request removal.

If Google believes you have done what you should to fix the site and that you won’t violate the guidelines again, they will remove the penalty.

Why Are Algorithmic Devaluations Not Penalties?

This is pretty simple.

Algorithms can devalue sites and limit their visibility and traffic for not meeting the best practices of the Webmaster Guidelines and the Google ranking factor(s) the algorithm is supposed to target – but it can also up value the site and give it much broader visibility and traffic.

Because algorithms can make your site go up or down in terms of visibility and/or traffic, a devaluation cannot be classified as a penalty because, had your site been affected in the reverse, the term could not apply.

One final note: SEO professionals will probably never stop using the colloquial version of the term “penalty.”

It is much easier to tell a client they had a loss in visibility and traffic because of a penalty than it is to try to explain “algorithmic devaluations,” even if that is what they are actually.

More Resources:


Image Credits

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita
Screenshot taken by author, September 2019



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Want to speak at SMX West? Here’s how

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Want to showcase your knowledge of search marketing to our SMX West attendees? We’d love to hear from you, and if you wow us with your proposal we’ll invite you to speak at the conference. To increase the odds of being selected, be sure to read the agenda. Understand what the sessions are about. Ensure that your pitch is on target to the show’s audience and the session. Please also be very specific about what you intend to cover. Also, if you do not see a particular session listed, this is because there are no openings for that session. Use this form to submit your request.

PLEASE NOTE: We have changed the pitch process. We’ve put together session titles that we plan to run at the show, and we’re looking for you to tell us what key learning objectives and takeaways you’ll offer to attendees. Detailed instructions are on the pitch form.

As you might guess, interest is high in speaking at SMX conferences. We literally sift through hundreds of submissions to select speakers for the show. Here are some tips that will increase your chances of being selected.

Pitch early: Submitting your pitch early gives you a better chance of being selected. Coordinators accept speakers as soon as they identify a pitch that they think best fits the session, just like colleges that use a rolling admissions policy. So pitching early increases the likelihood you’ll be chosen.

Use the form: The speaker pitch form (http://marketinglandevents.com/speaker-form/) is the way to ask to speak. There’s helpful information there about how your pitch should be written and what it should contain.

Write it yourself and be specific: Lots of pitches come in that are not specific to the session. This is the most effective ways to ensure that your pitch is ignored. And this year, we’re no longer accepting pitches written by anyone other than a proposed speaker. If you’re a thought leader, write the pitch yourself… and make certain that it is 100% focused on the session topic.

“Throw your best pitch:” We’re limiting the number of pitches to three per person, so please pitch for the session(s) where you really feel you’ll offer SMX attendees your best.

NEW: SMX Insights Sessions. What are they? 8-10 minute solo sessions that pack a punch and wow attendees with content they can’t and won’t see anywhere else. Tactical. Specific. Actionable. Speakers are challenged to deliver the goods in a limited amount of time: one must-try tactic, one nugget of sage advice, or one takeaway that makes you more productive. Have a gem to share with your colleagues? Pitch your idea and you may make it to the SMX stage!

You’ll be notified: Everyone who pitches to speak will be notified by email whether you are accepted or not.

And don’t delay—the pitch forms for each session will close as sessions are filled, with everything closing Friday, November 29.


About The Author



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Video: Danny Sullivan, Google Public Liaison of Search, on his transition from Search Engine Land to Google

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We have a special video interview for you all at Search Engine Land. We interviewed Danny Sullivan, the founder of Search Engine Land and the search community, in a two-part series.

In part one, we asked Danny about his early days in the industry to him ultimately deciding to retire from his role at Search Engine Land / Third Door Media. Then accepting a job a few months later to work with the Google Search team as the Google Public Liaison of Search.

Part two is more about what it is like to work at Google and how he sees things differently as a Googler than when he was working on search from outside of Google.

Here is part one:

I started this vlog series recently, and if you want to sign up to be interviewed, you can fill out this form on Search Engine Roundtable. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel by clicking here.


About The Author

Barry Schwartz is Search Engine Land’s News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on SEM topics.



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Google Ads Editor update includes support for Discovery campaigns

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Yes, the editing pane is still awkwardly placed to take up a giant chunk of the right side of the screen, but Google Ads Editor’s latest version does offer some handy updates.

Edit pane. Speaking of that edit pane, now you can at least condense some fields to hide them so there’s a bit less scrolling. (That doesn’t mean irrelevant sections no longer show, however. You’re still going to have to scroll past a grayed-out “Shopping settings” when you’re in a Search campaign, for example.)

Shared negative keyword lists. If you’ve built out broadly applicable negative keyword lists, you can now share those across accounts in the Shared Library in Editor. (Shared Library is located under “Account-level” in the left navigation pane.)

Search for errors. You can search for similar errors across your campaigns or accounts. In the search bar, type “rule” or “violation” and you’ll see a list of options. Similarly, when you find an error or warning, you can click on the “Show violations” link at the bottom of the screen to see them all.

New campaign support. If you are running App campaigns for engagement or have access to Discovery campaigns in beta, you can now create and edit them in Editor.

Why we should care. These changes are relatively minor, but may save you some campaign management time, particularly if you’re using the newly supported campaign types. It’s also a pretty good sign that the Discovery campaigns beta is coming along. At the very least, it’s a good reminder to check how and if you’ve applied your negative keyword lists.


About The Author

Ginny Marvin is Third Door Media’s Editor-in-Chief, running the day to day editorial operations across all publications and overseeing paid media coverage. Ginny Marvin writes about paid digital advertising and analytics news and trends for Search Engine Land, Marketing Land and MarTech Today. With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Ginny has held both in-house and agency management positions. She can be found on Twitter as @ginnymarvin.



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