We’re no stranger to the word “penalty.”
From slide tackling a football player to accidentally kicking a tennis ball in play, it seems like sport is the only activity that could hand you a punishment based on bad practices, right?
The SEO game, which can be just as difficult as becoming a world sporting champion, can also come with penalties.
Except that our penalties are much more severe, and have the potential of bringing down a multi-million dollar company.
I know… It’s scary.
What’s also scary is that you could become a victim without even realizing. The SEO practices you’ve had in play for years could soon become the root cause of a punishment, and you’re left stranded with no second chances.
Where do you go from there?
Reviewing your strategy, and analyzing the most important document for your website’s SEO: your backlink profile.
AKA the only document that could help you to survive one of these curses.
What Are Google Penalties?
Similar to English football games where players get punished (in the form of a real-life penalty) for fouling another player, Google hands out punishments to websites practicing black hat SEO.
These penalties range in size, shape and name, but have one thing in common: their devastating effect on a penalized site’s appearance in the SERPs.
You can go from Page One to Page 20, all from one dodgy SEO strategy.
Just take Expedia.com, for example. Having been hit with a penalty for building unnatural links to their site in 2014, their search visibility tanked by 25%.
As a result, shares in the company dropped 4.5%, which had a huge impact on their revenue—especially considering that their company trades solely online!
Google hands out penalties both automatically and manually, depending on the fishy reasons behind your spammy SEO practice.
A member of the prestigious Web Spam team could place a red flag on your site, or you could be hit with an algorithmic penalty.
Whichever you end up suffering from, you’ll need to get rid of it.
Common Google Penalties
The type of penalties being dished out by Google tend to fall into two categories: Panda and Penguin.
(Can we just take a minute to appreciate the juxtaposed names for these horrid things, here?)
The first type, Panda, was rolled out when Google changed their ranking algorithm back in February 2012.
Google wanted the first pages of their SERPs to be valuable to searchers. After all, you want to make sure that your audience is happy with what they’re being served, right?
To include this in their existing algorithm, the Panda update penalized any sites that didn’t do this.
Armed with a mission to banish low-quality, “thin” sites from the coveted spots of Page One, Panda penalties are given to sites that may have:
- Published thin content
- Written low-quality content
- Become a content farm
You could also be handed a Google red card if you’re over-optimizing your site, in the form of a Penguin penalty.
Also tied to an algorithm update that was released back in April 2012, Penguin understands the details behind your SEO strategy—particularly off the page.
Sites that try too hard to optimize their site are most at-risk of this penalty.
Unnatural SEO activity, such as those listed below, could be the foul play which results in a loss of rankings:
- Excessive keyword-rich anchor text in backlinks
- Too many backlinks from spammy websites
- Keyword stuffing
Has My Site Been Penalized?
Failing to see your site listed in Google searches, where you’d normally sit comfortably in the first spots?
Unlucky… You may be victim to a Google penalty.
However, dropping a few search positions doesn’t automatically mean you’ve been penalized.
In fact, drops in your search rankings could also be due to other things like seasonal changes, a change in customer demand or even an update in Google’s algorithm. That makes it possible to drop search rankings, without actually being under a penalty.
Isn’t the world of SEO just wonderfully crazy (read: confusing)?
To find out if you’ve got a Google penalty, log into your Google Search Console dashboard. You could receive an error or warning message here, depending on the foul play you’ve done.
Then, log in to your ranking tracker software to check where you’re positioning for each keyword. Significant changes here could be a bad sign.
Try Googling your brand name, too. A lack of (or barely any) results could be another punishment for your spammy SEO practice.
Finally, conduct a full site search by entering “site:URL.com” into Google. This should display every indexed page on your site.
If you’re not listed, there’s a high chance you’re under a penalty (and a pretty serious one, at that!).
But don’t despair—there is a way to recover.
How to Use Backlinks for a Faster Google Penalty Recovery
Backlinks are the virtual currency that Google uses. They use backlinks to follow sites around the internet, and determine which sites are worthy of the top spots.
That’s because backlinks pass reputation from site to site, giving search engines a good idea of who you’re hanging out with online—and whether that’s a good thing.
Backlinks affect key SEO metrics like the Domain Authority, Page Authority, Spam Score and PageRank of your site.
Gaining a bunch of bad links could be seen as bad SEO practice—especially when considering that the reputation-passing aspect of them could cause you to become penalized through association.
Black hat approaches to backlinks, such as unnatural link building and paying for links, could land you in the middle of a pretty serious penalty.
Luckily for you, you can help to lift the red card from your site by starting here with your backlinks—even if it’s where the penalty originated from.
How to Remove a Google Penalty Using Backlinks
1. Export Your Backlink Profile
The first step to banishing your bad links and cleaning up your online reputation is to start with the tool that’s used by Google: your backlink profile.
Backlink profiles detail every backlink that points to your site. It’s like your internet history, but for backlinks, and it’s the only document that will help you with a Google penalty recovery.
Find your backlink profile by signing in to the Monitor Backlinks dashboard, and heading to the Backlinks tab.
(If you don’t already have access to the Monitor Backlinks software, I suggest signing up immediately. There’s a free 30-day trial for you to get used to the features, and you can view your full backlink profile from there within a matter of minutes.)
The page that you’re taken to is your backlink profile.
Depending on your preferences for organizing data, you can work directly from this webpage and organize the columns accordingly.
Or, you can export your backlink profile to a CSV and assess each entry in an Excel spreadsheet.
Whatever floats your boat.
2. Locate Bad Backlinks
Once this neat document is in your hands, you might spot that you’ve got thousands of entries. That could be the case if you’ve had a primary focus on link building, or if your site is ginormous and attracts them naturally.
However, one thing stands… No matter how small or large your backlink profile is, you need to review every entry.
After all, this document tells you the details of every backlink you have.
Each backlink is passing reputation, and you’re unlikely to lift a penalty if you’re not able to find—and remove—those which are causing an issue!
To do that, take a close look at the following metrics:
Created by Moz, Spam Score gives an indication of how likely a site is to be at risk of a Google penalty.
So, you wouldn’t want a backlink from one with a high Spam Score, right?
You can find these pesky problems by organizing the Spam Score column from Highest to Lowest. Then, be greeted with the highest (or spammiest) ones in just a matter of seconds.
We can see that in this example, betterboat.com has a backlink from a site with a Spam Score of 16.
Considering that the maximum scoring a site could get is 17, I’d strongly recommend getting rid of this one.
PageRank (PR) was created by Google and is another SEO metric that site owners track when measuring the results of their strategy. It scores the likelihood of a site performing well in the SERPs, scored out of 10.
You’ll want to make sure that the PR of your own site is good, in order to lift a penalty.
But remember how we said that backlinks pass reputation? That means the only way to boost your PR is to link up with other high scorers—and disassociate yourself with those on the lower end.
Find the PR of your backlinks by using a tool such as PRChecker.
Aim for the majority of your backlinks to be coming from a site with a score above six.
Another Moz-created tool, Domain Authority (DA) gives a rough estimate as to how well a site will perform in the SERPs.
It’s extremely similar to PageRank, except that the 100 points on offer can help you to dive deeper into your chance of success.
Back in your Monitor Backlinks backlink profile now, sort the DA column from smallest to largest.
You’ll want to get rid of any that are on the lower end of the spectrum, and keep those that are 30+.
Why? Because just like any other factor that backlinks influence, you can help to lift a Google penalty by ensuring that your backlinks are from high-DA, reputable sites.
Not those that focus on black hat SEO practices and are at risk of being penalized themselves!
Analyzing Suspicious Links
Once you’ve dived into your backlink profile and noted any entries that could be causing you an issue, it’s time to analyze each link separately.
Now, this comes with a warning: It takes time.
At least several hours, or even a couple of days.
Granted, it can take a huge chunk out of your working week. But if it could help your Google penalty recovery, it’s worth it, right?
So make yourself a cup of coffee and start by breaking down the suspicious entries into sections.
When analyzing the links that you flagged as not fitting the metrics we listed above, look further into them.
Click through to the site. Do the links look natural on the page? Are they easy to find, and relevant for anyone landing on the page?
If your backlink is hidden behind white text, not useful for the reader or simply not found at all, add it to the disavow list.
Remember, an unnatural backlink is a bad backlink!
If your suspicious entry does look natural, is easy to find and valuable for the reader, look into the metric that landed it on the warning list.
If the only reason it’s there is due to a low PR or DA, look at the age of the site. Newer websites could have a low score while they’re waiting to be indexed, but older websites could have a low scoring because they’re simply not useful in Google’s eyes.
Dig out your common sense. If you suspect something fishy, add it to the disavow pile.
It’s better to be safe than sorry!
3. Disavow Bad Backlinks
Great job! You survived the backlink profile analysis and you’re halfway to lifting your Google penalty.
But we can’t stop yet.
You should now be left with the backlinks that don’t fit the mold of a “good link,” and it’s time to get rid of them.
Disavowing a link tells search engines that you don’t want to be associated with the site you gained a link from, and that you’re not online friends.
It’s the only way to disassociate yourself with another website that could be at risk of a penalty, and prevent yourself from experiencing the same.
Going back to your backlink profile in Monitor Backlinks, simply select the links that you want to disavow. Then, hit the “With selected” button and press Disavow.
You’ll get a list of options, depending on what you’re looking to disavow. If it’s:
- An unnatural link but a good site, disavow the URL.
- An unnatural link from a bad site, disavow the Domain.
After doing this for each of your bad links, hit the Filters button and press “Disavowed.” This will allow you to see each of the links ready to be banished.
Next, you’ll want to export this list by heading to the Disavow page.
Here, you’ll be able to see all of the links—and the type of action—that you’re about to disavow.
Use this as your last chance to double-check that the ones listed are ones you want to get rid of!
Once you’ve exported your list, a CSV file will be saved to your Downloads.
Now, upload the file on the opposite side of the screen. This will keep your disavow files safe in the software, allowing you to revert to previous files, if needed.
Finally, upload the file to Google.
After all, they are the masters of the internet (and the one handing out these penalties!).
Let them know that you have done the work to remove your penalty by heading over to Google’s Disavow Tool. Select the URL of your site and upload your file.
Click “Submit” when you’re done, and Google will take care of the rest.
Your work here is done, my friend!
4. Wait for Upcoming Algorithms
Once your disavow file has been received by Google, it’s time to put your patience to the test.
The team (and algorithm) who are working behind the scenes of the world’s biggest search engine are understandably busy, so it may take some time for the bad backlinks you disavowed to actually get banished from your profile.
A Google penalty recovery can take up to one year, and you may need to wait for another algorithm update to lift the punishment on your site.
Keep an eye on your keyword rankings, and do a site search regularly. That’s the best way to spot if your penalty has been lifted, and your disavow mission a success.
The authors of these publications often have direct access to Google, and could be the first to release information about an update that will lift your penalty.
Remember, patience is a virtue. You can’t put a time limit on excellent search rankings!
Going Forwards: Natural Link Building Practices
Now that your hard work to lift a Google penalty has been completed, you’ll want to make sure that you avoid the practices that got you in the tricky spot to begin with.
It would be a total waste of time to analyze and disavow bad backlinks only for you to be greeted with another penalty six months later!
Avoid Blog Networks
Private Blog Networks, abbreviated to PBNs, are groups of blogs that are owned by the same publisher. Their sole purpose is to build links, and the content published on each is pretty awful.
Although PBNs are despised by SEOs, link builders can fall into the trap of gaining bad backlinks from these sites when they begin guest posting.
Let’s use a fictional example.
I run a site that talks about floristry, and the only content being published here is low-quality guest articles from people paying $5.
I also run a business news site with the same quality.
And a news site.
And a stationery review site.
All four sites are totally unrelated, but they’re run by me. I add backlinks to and from each of the sites, which increases the Domain Authority and search engine ranking position of each page.
What’s the problem here, I hear you ask?
The problem is that if one of my four sites gets penalized, the other three do.
Anyone that I’ve linked to from my four sites has that same risk, too.
So, if you’re contacting a site that’s part of a PBN to submit a guest post, avoid it.
Research the site and see if you can spot any links to sites which could be involved with the one you’re looking into. Ask previous guest posters if they’ve been offered a guest post on another site from the owner.
Either of these signs could signal that the site is part of a network, and at risk of being penalized.
Avoid, avoid, avoid!
Contribute Valuable (Not Paid) Guest Posts
Ah, the beauty of guest posts. They’re like the dinosaur version of attracting backlinks, but there has been an endless debate about the value and strategy of them.
To put it simply, Google doesn’t like paid links. They’re the ones that are only added if you pay the site owner a fee.
Google sees these paid sites as unnatural. Why would they want to show these sites in the SERPs if they’re using black hat techniques to get there?
J.C. Penney, a huge website that dominates many U.S.-based searches, was hit with a Google penalty for buying links back in 2011. Their keyword ranking positions dropped dramatically, and they suffered for three months with limited search visibility.
Unnatural link penalties are common for sites that pay for links. These are the hardest to remove because there’s no way to prove that you haven’t paid for the other links listed in your backlink profile as well.
Vary Anchor Text Usage
If you cast your mind back to the type of Google penalties that we discussed, you’ll remember that Penguin penalties are handed to sites that over-optimize.
One of the simplest (and easily forgotten) ways to avoid over-optimizing your site is to diversify the anchor text of your backlinks.
Anchor text refers to the words used to link one site to another. In the link above, the words “diversify the anchor text of your backlinks” would be classed as the anchor text.
This is important because it tells Google spiders what the linked-to page is discussing. If it’s not relevant, over-optimized or spammy, it’s bound to land you in Google’s bad books.
To avoid this being the root cause of another penalty, use a variety of keywords in the anchor text of your backlinks. Switch between brand names, exact match, broad match and phrases for the best results, and to avoid over-optimizing your site.
We already know that backlinks are essential for a great SEO strategy.
However, now that we understand the dangers, punishments and risks of putting together a dodgy one, take time to analyze every backlink before you create it.
Does it add value to your site? Is the linked-from site reputable? Will this be beneficial in Google’s eyes?
Only allow backlinks that scream “yes” to each of these questions.
It’s the primary way to avoid and remove a Google penalty that could curse the future of your online visibility.