How to Recover from a Search Engine Penalty


When SEOs speak of search engine penalty, they are primarily talking about getting a sharp rap on the knuckles by Google for bad behavior. By that we mean getting caught doing any of the SEO practices that are considered by the search engine as manipulative and deviating from the rules indicated in the Webmaster Guidelines. More penalties were handed out when Google rolled out the Panda and Penguin updates. Recall that the purposes of these two are mainly:

  1. To police the quality of website content (Panda update).
  2. To ensure that genuinely high-quality websites have higher spots than in the search engine results pages (Penguin update).

These may sound innocuous, but the actions implemented by Google in order to achieve these goals have made even the most reputable SEO companies —and webmasters in general—worry and tread the SEO game more carefully. Within days of each update, thousands of websites suffered sudden dips in their rankings.  Over optimization is the most common cause of a penalty these days. In fact Google had started sending unnatural link warnings to webmasters of sites that are suspected of guidelines violations and rank manipulation.

google manual penalty email

A copy of Google’s unnatural link warning letter

Please Define “Over Optimization!”

 One of the frustrations of many webmasters is this: How can you define the line between just enough SEO to over optimization? Matt Cutts said the following in his video blog back in 2009 regarding over optimization:

 “There’s nothing in Google that we have an over optimization penalty for; but a lot of the times, ‘over optimization’ is kind of a euphemism for a little bit spammy. Certainly, you can go overboard and have too many keywords or keyword stuffing, or hidden keywords, that sort of stuff. “

In the next years though, over optimization became a serious concern for Cutts and Google’s anti-spam team—hence the introduction of the famous Penguin update. Cutts basically says the same thing, that excessive SEO and paying too little attention on content quality is a cause for penalty. Now when the axe falls, webmasters need to act ASAP.

Steps for Recovery

Find out what you’re penalized for.

A penalized website is like a poisoned body. It is important to find out what type of poison is wreaking havoc with its ranking so that you can treat it accordingly.

One way to diagnose the problem in your site is to check the traffic records and see if the graph shows a drastic drop around the time Panda or Penguin was first rolled out (which is February 23, 2011 for Panda and April 24, 2012 for Penguin).  There have been subsequent updates of each in the succeeding months of course, so if the fluctuations in your traffic occurred in other dates it may be due to any of those version updates. You can find an excellent timeline of every algorithm update at and use it for your diagnosis.

Once you have identified which algorithm has possibly affected your site, you will have, at the very least, an inkling of what offense you have supposedly committed that merited a penalty. It will give you a general idea where to make changes or whether or not you have to remove things.

Identify the offending components and weed them out.

Finding out what’s wrong with your website and knowing the general location of the “poison” should facilitate the excision of the debilitating elements.

Fix Panda

Theoretically it is easier to remedy a Panda penalty because you know that it has something to do with your content. What you have to do is do a quality check on your website’s articles. Any content that’s scraped, copied, or utterly mediocre in grammar and spelling must be taken down and replaced with articles that are actually worthy of being read. Remember that Google places high regard for content that’s interesting, valuable, and full of information that searchers are looking for. So if you want to recover from Panda, you basically need to do a website cleanup and quality check on each page in your site. It will be time-consuming, but the outcome will definitely be worth it.

Fix Penguin

When it is a Penguin penalty, it can be more difficult because you’ll mostly be dealing with low-quality links. We’re talking about an intensive link removal campaign, if your site’s link profile is truly that bad.

Websites filled to the brim with these kinds of links send a clear signal to Google that they are trying to manipulate their page rank, provoking the major search engine to mete out penalties.

Get a complete record of your inbound links via tools like Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO. Analyze which links must be removed (from low-quality sites) and which can be adjusted to your favor (tips on keyword usage next).

Improve your link profile.

It ‘s now a cardinal rule to make sure a website’s link profile is as pristine and high-valued as it can get. In a nutshell that means:

  • Avoid over optimizing your site and stuffing it with the same keywords.
  • Seek inbound links from authority sites, not from spammy, low-ranking ones.
  • Altogether avoid practices that are considered by Google as black hat SEO practices, because that will inevitably reflect on your link profile.

Expert SEOs recommend that out of all your inbound links, only 2% should contain anchor texts for your primary keywords and 20% should be exact-match keyword anchors.

This means if you have too many exact-match keywords embedded in your content, play with words and use varied versions related to the keywords you want to rank in and incorporate varied anchor texts. You can use your findings in your keyword research for this.

Rethink your SEO strategy and link building campaign.

There are some websites whose link profiles have been built on very spammy and low-quality links. Sometimes webmasters have to decide if a website is worth reviving or not. If you’ve come to that decision, you need to rethink your SEO and link building strategy.

Identifying what techniques are webspam and what are not can be confusing though because although Google has identified what it considers webspam, it seems that doing the right thing can still get you in trouble. There were websites who have done nothing but abide by the rules but were still hit by the algorithm updates.

If you have been doing webspam—whether consciously or unconsciously—stop now.  Search engines, not just Google, are truly becoming more intelligent by the year. What can still pass under the radar today may cause a problem for you in the future.

Reality Check

Recovering from a penalty won’t be quick or easy. In fact many SEO bloggers even point out that it may take months before a penalized site can bounce back to its original ranking. Following these tips will be able to improve your website’s overall quality, but it could take Google a long time to acknowledge that.

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Emma, aka the "Foxy Lady", writes and promotes Pitstop Media's articles about search engine optimization and social media. She is a fun loving person and likes to help others with good advice. She is also a caring mother of a beautiful daughter.