Fili Wiese, an ex-Google engineer and founder of Search Brothers, breaks down the various manual penalties given out by Google, how to tackle them if you’re hit by one, and why you should never say that algorithmic penalties exist!
Why Does Google Penalise a Website?
He explains that if Google sees spam that affects a positive user experience, they’re likely to penalise as it could cost Google revenue from the loss of users. Google serves their users, not you – use that knowledge to your advantage. He also debunks a long-standing myth in the community: Adwords has an impact on organic search and can save you from a penalty. This is false, there is no correlation between the two whatsoever.
Furthermore, he elaborates on how spam is detected, of which there are two main ways – through algorithms, such as Panda and Rankbrain, and through manual analysis from the Google Spam Team.
If you’re hit by an algorithm such as Panda, for example, you might think it’s an algorithmic penalty and that there’s no hope. This is not the case – algorithmic penalties do not exist, according to Fili. These are simply updates to their algorithmic behaviours – how they assess the quality of websites or their specific point of analysis – and are, in response, applying higher or lower organic rankings to a website or page. This means that as you improve your website, visibility can increase naturally, in accordance with your efforts.
In comparison, manual penalties need to be actively reviewed, revoked or must expire in order to allow a site to recover – until it’s resolved, you won’t see any progress in the SERPs for the affected pages. The Google Spam Team work to reduce the amount of spam online that ranks within SERPs, and that’s why you can’t get around it if you’ve been penalised.
There are a number of penalties that can be applied, and they’re applied with absolute precision. They can target very specific sets of pages, or folders, for example, and will have a lasting impact on your visibility until the penalty is reconsidered by the Google team (or expires). All penalties revolve around the Google Webmaster Guidlines. Penalties can range from content-related penalties around automation, duplication or thin content pages, to link-related penalties around spammy generation or unnatural profiles. Fili then goes into detail on what to do if you’re unlucky enough to be hit by a manual penalty from Google’s team.
He advises to keep requests succinct, as the engineers are incredibly busy and don’t have the time to read an essay. Additionally, simply saying you’re sorry can show that you’ve actively taken on board the suggestions, have made the necessary changes and learned from this experience what not to do in the future. Most of all, make sure the issue is actually fixed! Fili explains how often requests come in when a user has not properly addressed the issue that caused the manual penalty and, surprise surprise, the reconsideration request is promptly rejected.
Sometimes, you might get the message ‘Reconsideration request processed’, which means that an engineer has seen and checked the penalty, that the problem has either been partly fixed or that a new issue has arisen. Take this into consideration, action the fixes for either the rest of the current problem or the new problem that’s been highlighted, and then file for reconsideration again.
Even if a manual penalty is revoked, don’t expect your visibility to shoot right back to before it hit. The visibility you enjoyed previously was likely falsely gained, due to the tactics that violated guidelines in the first place, and as such you will still be less visible than you were previously. Regardless, your site now has the chance to actually begin growing again organically.
How do we avoid a penalty all together? Fili states that you need to either have or build a brand – have a USP – and set yourself apart from competitors. If you can set yourself apart in the SERPs, you’ll be less likely to be penalised. Engage in partnerships, optimise your website, amd work to create positive user signals.
Additionally, he advises to avoid conflicting technical signals and focus on the important issues. Clean up your backlink profiles, even if you’ve never actively built links – disavow those links that could harm you, and keep your profile healthy. Finally, he states that, as a tangent, Google are not against linkbuilding, and that it’s the foundation of the web. It’s the artificial procurement of links for page rank that Google does not like.
Algorithmic updates can work for you, audit your website in great depth to ensure your site is continually optimised. Above all else, search continues to evolve, and your website should too if it’s going to remain relevant to users.
Fili also stresses that all penalties can be resolve – there is no end of the line or game over. Keep working to fix the problems and you’ll be able to compete in the SERPs again, although you’ll likely have to start from a lower position than you were previously.
We then went on to the questions and answers section of the presentation, and the audience was able to ask Fili some interesting questions about all things search.
One person asks ‘Can you say something about “Negative SEO”? Is that still a thing? And if so, how big of a problem is it?’ Fili explains that negative SEO definitely can happen, but notes that it is rare and that it must be actioned on a large scale in order to have any genuine impact. Do not worry about any small-scale incidents of poor-quality links being generated, even if it might seem deliberate. Disavow, move on.
Another asks ‘We got hit by the march 7-9th “quality update” and wondering if you have any insight into that update?’ He says that it’s exactly what it says – a quality update. Follow best practices, optimise your crawl budget, and work to bring your site back into relevancy in SERPs.
A third question is ‘Do we still need to disavow in the era of Pnguin 4.0?’ Fili says yes, although it’s not quite as necessary as it was before. It’s highly dependant on your link liabilities and any volatility that might exist in there. Still, it’s worth actioning every quarter to ensure that your link profile remains as healthy as possible.