How to Recover from a Search Engine Penalty

Say that you’ve decided that you have indeed been banned or penalized by Google. Reversing a ban may be very difficult, though not impossible; you did something very naughty. A penalty under which you are still indexed, and possibly even crawled by Googlebot, is likely to be less of a problem.

You need to figure out what you did to make Google mad. Note that it could be accidental — you did something that Google doesn’t like, but you did it innocently.

For instance, you may have a medical website that contains sufficient density of sex-related terms to trigger a Google obscenity filter. Or maybe you have been using cloaking or hidden text for perfectly good reasons, yet Google has interpreted it as a trick.

Or perhaps you hired a web-development team that implemented various tricks without your knowledge, or maybe your employer gave you a site to look after long after the tricks were used. Or you might have purchased a domain name that was penalized because of dirty tricks in the past. (Just changing owners isn’t enough to automatically lift the penalty.)

You should review various materials and write a list of possible items that Google objects to. Here are a couple of places to check:

  • Google’s Webmaster Guidelines: You can ignore much of what’s here; you’re interested only in things that will be interpreted as mal-intent (such as “sneaky redirects”), not things that simply hurt your search engine ranking (such as poor <TITLE> tags).

  • The Google Spam Team Quality Rater Guidelines: Search for this to see if you can find a copy. Read, in particular “Part 4: Webspam Guidelines,” to see the sort of things the spam team is looking for. (Unfortunately, this guide is a few years old now.)

Here are the sorts of things mentioned in the Spam Team guidelines:

  • PPC Pages: Pages created purely for the sake of placing Google AdSense PPC ads on them, with little or no useful content

  • Parked Domains: A website that has no real value beyond being a placeholder for sponsored links

  • Thin Affiliates: A page that has no purpose but to deliver a visitor to another Web site

  • Hidden Text and Hidden Links: Text and links placed on a site so that they are visible to search engines, but not to visitors

  • JavaScript Redirects: JavaScript used to automatically redirect someone to another site so that the search engine sees the page content but the visitor doesn’t

  • Keyword stuffing: A page overstuffed with keywords, often repeated many times

  • 100% frame: A trick in which the main frame, seen by the search engine, contains one set of content, while another frame, that covers the first one, shows different content to the visitor

  • Sneaky redirects: Another redirect trick, in which a page redirects through multiple websites, often ending up at a merchant site such as eBay or Amazon

You might also check for outgoing links, in particular these three forms:

  • Injected links: Sometimes hackers break into a site and insert hidden links to “bad neighborhood” sites such as link farms.

  • Sold links: Did you sign up with a firm that pays you to place links on your site to other sites? You might get penalized for that.

  • Links to bad neighborhoods: Have you joined some kind of massive link-exchange program in which you link to a service that automatically creates links to thousands of sites? That could be a problem. (You might want to try this bad-neighborhood link checker to find clues.)

You might also go into the SEO forums and ask for help. But be warned: Many of the responses you get will be just plain wrong! (In particular, forum members seem to see spam on just about every page they look at.) So sometimes working with the forums can lead you in the wrong direction, and at the least can raise your frustration level during a difficult time.

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