Every marketer has a story about getting penalised by Google. Evidence suggests that though many websites have been penalised (not just by the big updates, but also by one of the thousands of tiny little manual Google updates), the average marketer or webmaster hasn’t noticed. According to Kissmetrics, only 5% of penalised websites are submitting a reconsideration request every month to recover their rankings.

Since we are all reliant on search engines for traffic, we have to stay in the know about the latest updates — and make changes if we’re affected. Not only is it good common sense to keep abreast of the updates, but it can give you the competitive advantage if you can recover faster than others. Double win!

Thankfully, there are plenty of free tools out there to help even the busiest marketer watch out for these dreaded silent traffic killers. Keep on reading to learn what you need to do to ensure your SEO stays agile and ahead-of-the-game at all times.

Step 1: Familiarise yourself with the kinds of updates that were rolled out.

Below is a quick list of the most significant updates and an overview of what they included. For an extensive list, check out this infographic that breaks down the history of algorithm updates.

Panda: Born in 2011

There were updates before Panda, but this was the first massive pain in the [you guessed it] for websites. Its purpose: to crack down on websites containing poor content, excessive ads, and possibly better design. This was rolled out in stages, and it continues to this day.

Venice: Born in 2012

This was the one that increased the number of local results for broad queries.

Penguin: Born in 2012

Penguin is designed to combat actual spammy sites rather than sites that are legit, but poorly made. Google cracked down on keyword stuffing, cloaking, link building … basically, any method you’ve heard of referred to as “black hat.”

Pirate: Born in 2012

This update was targeted at websites that violated copyright on multiple occasions. Stolen content or copied content would have been hit here.

Secure Update: Born in 2014

Preference is given to websites with SSL security. As website hacking becomes more sophisticated and people are more aware of the risks, it is important to assuage those doubts by offering security (particularly if you require personal and financial details from your web visitors).

Mobilegeddon: Born in 2015

Preference is given to websites that are responsive. Unsurprisingly, having a website that is readable and navigable on a handheld device as well as desktop is preferred by visitors.

These updates are not one-offs; they are repeated to keep up with changes in black-hat techniques and to keep ensuring that searchers are satisfied with their results.

To summarise, before you go further, make sure your website:

  • is not full of ads
  • is not keyword-stuffed
  • has long-form and/or quality content
  • is localised where localisation matters
  • does not engage in any spammy link building practices
  • has a legitimate security certificate
  • does not steal or copy content from other websites
  • looks good and functions well on mobile

Step 2: Find out if you have a ranking problem.

First of all, diagnosing the issue is key. Without knowing what you have been penalised for, you can’t tackle it. For example, back in October 2014, most people thought they were dealing with a Penguin update, but it was in fact an extended Panda update. Here are a few tips to help you properly diagnose what happened.

a) Use a penalty indicator tool to find out what has happened to your website in the past, and if you have yet to recover from it.

A fast and simple tool to drop this knowledge bomb on you is this succinctly titled Website Penalty Indicator.


This handy tool from FEInternational can show you which of the major Google penalties hit you and at what point they hit. (Of course, to be cheeky, I tried out “www.google.com” to see what would happen.)

However, you’ll notice that this tool focuses on the Big Bad algorithm changes and not all of the little manual ones in between. To find out those, you’ll need to follow the next step.

b) Use tools like SEMrush to find out if you’ve been penalised by one of Google’s updates.

By using tools like SEMrush, you can do a complete site audit and check how your position has changed in SERPs, check your backlinks, and analyze your content.


Step 3: Learn how to recover.

This section was contributed by Elena Terenteva, Content Strategist at SEMrush

The best thing you can do for your website is to avoid penalties in the first place. Website owners who break SEO rules risk manual penalties or being seriously harmed by algorithm updates. When a website is hit with a penalty, it’s more than likely because of one of the follow reasons:

  • A lack of knowledge on behalf of the SEO specialist
  • A purposeful violation of basic SEO principles
  • The use of black-hat techniques

But if you have been hit by a penalty, how you’ll figure out the root cause will depend on what kind of penalty it is:

  1. If a website gets a manual penalty, the owner will be notified through Google Webmaster Tools and receive a letter explaining the reasons for its failure. This means the website owner will at least have an idea of how to recover and can begin working on the suggested changes.
  2. If your website is hit by an algorithm change, the situation becomes slightly more difficult. You need to find a correlation between Google’s last actions and your website’s losses. Don’t forget that website position and traffic losses can be caused by general problems and may have nothing to do with algorithmic changes. If you do find that you were harmed by a specific algorithm change, get all the information you can about that update so you can start to resolve the issue.

Of course, all of us want to avoid being hit by a penalty in the first place. So if you want to be prepared, I recommend consistently running SEO audits. Here are a few things you should do:

  • Remove or disavow unnatural or spammy links manually
  • Be sure that your anchor text is diversified
  • Get rid of all duplicate content
  • Create non-keyword-stuffed, quality content
  • Keep an eye on UX

You can also see some of these tips for avoiding a penalty visualised in this infographic.

Remember that the best strategy is to avoid penalties and realise that SEO is not just about trying something new. It’s also about constantly monitoring the success of your previous efforts.

Although avoiding penalties may seem like building a house of cards that may collapse at any minute … well, that’s kinda the way it is! That’s why it’s important to ensure that your website is up-to-date, helpful, and trustworthy.

Watch us do a live analysis of three real websites on Sept 3rd at 15:00 BST / 10:00 EST. We’ll evaluate the SEO, content, social, and design of three real businesses, and give tips on how they could improve. Register here to watch 

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