How to check if your website was hit by a Google penalty?
Losing organic traffic is never pleasant news. You might have established a rock-solid Search Engine Optimization (SEO) foundation and used audience insights to inform your content strategies. You might have generally done everything right – and yet see sudden, unexplainable drops. After ruling out seasonal drops, emerging competitors, and natural market fluctuations, there’s still another crucial step to take to identify the issue; check if your website was hit by a Google penalty. Here at Digital Dot, this unfortunate occurrence is far from uncommon among our clients. Thus, let us share some insights on the matter you may find of use.
What are Google penalties?
First and foremost, what are Google penalties? As the name suggests, they’re penalties applied to your website that affect your SEO score and search rankings. The first crucial distinction to make is that Google penalties come in 2 main forms:
- Manual penalties. These are penalties that a Google employee has manually applied to your website. Fortunately, these are much easier to identify and resolve.
- Algorithm penalties. In contrast, algorithm penalties occur when a Google algorithm changes and impacts your SEO strategies. These are much harder to identify and resolve, as you receive no direct alert for them.
There are, of course, further classifications of Google penalties. For instance, WordStream identifies 4 main types of Google penalties, based on their focus:
- Keyword-level penalties
- URL or directory-level penalties
- Domain-wide penalties
- Delisting or de-indexing
However, we won’t delve deeper into those for the sake of text economy. After all, they all share similar detection and correction methods – which we’ll explore just below.
Why should you care for Google penalties?
But first, let us briefly stress the importance of checking if your website was hit by a Google penalty. Both types of penalties can seriously impact your SEO score, and in turn, hamper your organic traffic. But short-term revenue losses aside, both types require swift intervention to avoid long-term losses:
- Notifications regarding manual penalties expire. If you haven’t addressed the issues by then, your website will remain penalized – with no appeal option available. ReliableSoft notes that, left to expire by themselves, penalties may last for 6 months to 2 years.
- Algorithm penalties are considerably hard to tackle. Citing the aforelinked article again, you will often need to wait for the next algorithm update to ensure successful interventions. Should you leave issues unresolved, they may only accumulate across updates and have your SEO score plummet irreparably.
In both cases, then, you should undoubtedly take swift action. Thankfully, if you do, “Google’s algorithms don’t hold a grudge”, according to Google’s John Mueller:
How to check if your website was hit by a Google penalty
Now, having addressed what penalties are and what significance they carry, where can you begin your search? Each type calls for a different approach, so let’s begin with the easier one.
#1 Manual penalties
Manual penalties typically occur when your pages don’t adhere to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Thankfully, for this reason, you’ll receive a notification in your Google Search Console when you get one. So, the process of identifying these penalties is simple:
- Navigate to your Google Search Console dashboard
- There, navigate to Security & Manual Actions
- Finally, click on Manual actions
There, you will find detailed information on the exact issue, which pages it affects, and how you may resolve it. Then, you may take appropriate actions, and request a review through the Request Review option. Google explains that a good review request covers three key points:
- Explains the exact quality issue on your site.
- Describes the steps you’ve taken to fix the issue.
- Documents the outcome of your efforts.
For more information on this subject, you may also refer to the following Google Search Central video:
#2 Algorithmic penalties
In contrast, as mentioned before, algorithm penalties are much harder to identify and remedy. They may occur due to ill-advised digital marketing trends behind your SEO choices, perceived black hat tactics, and more.
So, how can you check if your website was hit by a Google penalty of this variety? There are a few ways to do so.
1. Investigate your traffic analytics
Initially, you should thoroughly investigate your traffic analytics. Use Google Analytics and any third-party tools available to you to rule out such issues as:
- Market traffic drops; is your market experiencing a traffic loss?
- Seasonal traffic drops; are you typically losing traffic at specific times?
- Outdated keywords; are your audiences simply losing interest in your chosen keywords?
Should any of these apply to you, your issue doesn’t necessarily concern penalties – so your course of action should differ.
2. Check for Google algorithm updates
If you’ve ruled out the above, you may then begin investigating the possibility of an algorithm penalty. Broadly speaking, you have 3 options here:
- Use algorithm change detection tools. Such tools as Barry Scwhartz’s Was There a Google Update can help identify changes.
- Check algorithm change logs. Refer to such logs as Moz’s Google Algorithm Update History and compare it to your traffic losses.
- Follow digital marketers. Finally, you may follow such marketers as Neil Patel, Brian Dean, and others like the above for algorithm change insights.
3. Audit your website for black hat SEO failures
Having checked if your website was hit by a Google penalty through these means, you may now begin your audit. First, fake reviews may deserve your consideration, as we’ve covered before. Then, to cite WordStream again, you may audit your website for such failures as the following:
- User-generated spam
- Thin content
- Keyword stuffing
- Hidden text
- Unnatural links to your site
- Hacked website
- Structured data abuse
Should you be struggling with all-too-common user-generated spam specifically, you may also refer to the following Google Search Central video:
For a deeper rundown on black hat SEO techniques, you may also refer to this Forbes article.
4. Audit your backlinks
Then, you may audit your backlinks. Unsurprisingly, link-building does entail such dangers as ranking penalties. In fact, Neil Patel asserts that “[o]ver 95% of all Google penalties are related to your website’s backlink profile”.
Here, you may initially examine the following:
- Irrelevant websites; are you getting backlinks from sites irrelevant to your niche?
- Disreputable websites; are untrustworthy sites linking to you?
- Follow/NoFollow ratio; does your backlink profile balance Follow/NoFollow backlinks well enough to not appear unnatural?
Then, you may fix such backlink issues in two main ways:
- Contact webmasters and request backlink removals. Polite requests will typically suffice, especially in cases of unregulated spam links.
- Disavow backlinks. If reaching out fails, you may disavow backlinks through Google’s Disavow Links Tool.
5. Use penalty checker tools
Finally, the market thankfully offers many tools to check if your website was hit by a Google penalty. What’s more, many of them come with other functions as well, such as keyword research, competitor analysis, and more. So, if you’ve followed the steps above and still can’t identify the issue, you may consider such tools as:
- SEMrush Sensor
In conclusion, there are many ways to check if your website was hit by a Google penalty. Unfortunately, algorithm penalties are much harder to identify than manual penalties are, and require much more effort to rectify. So, for manual penalties you may trust your Google Search Console. For algorithm penalties you will need to dig into your analytics, audit your website, and apply focused, incremental changes. Hopefully, the list above helps you do just that.