BrightHaus Digital Marketing Agency

Distinguishing Between a Penalty & a No Longer Effective SEO Strategy

July 2, 2013

Over the past couple years, the term “penalty” has been used in the SEO industry quite frequently, and rightfully so. Google has clearly stated that there are certain penalties for unethical practices within the SEO industry.

More Penalty Information;

Not all of Google’s updates have penalized websites for unethical practices. Some updates simply changed various factors so that what used to work or what got your website to rank in the top positions before just doesn’t  have that effect anymore.

It’s not always a penalty..

“Google doesn’t confirm or deny whether a company has been removed from our index.”
-Matt Cutts

Many clients think that because their rankings dropped that they got penalized. There’s actually a 60% chance that that is true. But there’s also a chance that those links or website optimization strategies you used to integrate into your SEO just doesn’t make a difference in your rankings any longer.

Example Scenarios & Reasons for Penalties

Manual Penalty – Someone tattle-taled on your websites or reported it as spam. So a Google employee came to your website, confirmed it, and nicked it, resulting in ALL your keywords falling beyond the top 100 positions.

Manual Penalty – Your site has spam pages using multiple languages, sneaky javascripts, doorway pages, hidden content or flat-out goes against the Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Manual Penalty– You’ve been buying links for SEO purposes and Google found out.

Manual Penalty – You do a search in Google and your website isn’t indexed at all. This is obviously a penalty, usually caused by several of the above strategies. But this is super rare and is probably the hardest one to recover from.

Manual Penalty – Your website isn’t ranking for anything, not even your site name. This is most likely due to spammy or manipulative links. This is similar to the one above, but you can still find your website indexed in Google.

PenaltyYou received a warning letter from Google saying that you have unnatural links. This was originally an algorithm penalty that Google sent out in ’07 and recently again while creating their disavow tool. But now, it can be manual too.


Algorithm Penalty – You dropped off the face of the SERP’s  for a particular term, but still have rankings for some other terms. Chances are you have a high percent of links (internal or external) with that term as the anchor text.

Algorithm Penalty – Your inner pages are ranking on the SERP’s or rank higher than your homepage when doing a search on Google, most likely because you have waaaay too many anchor text (from okay or relevant sites) pointing to your homepage, or you have too many spammy links to homepage. (Similar to the above, but page-based instead of keyword-based)

Algorithm Penalty – The infamous “over-optimization” penalty from having keywords too often in title tags, within the content, in sitewide internal links, within anchor texts, image alts, etc. It’s not that all of these are bad for your website, just when done too much (or ‘overly’ done). Algorithm looks for extreme numbers and ratios to trigger this penalty.

Algorithm Penalty – Homepage isn’t ranking for anything, not even the for your brand name. But maybe a couple pages within your website is still ranking or bringing in traffic because those pages actually have some legit links or is social proofed (to offset full penalty or to trigger manual evaluation).

Situations Typically Labeled as Penalties, That are Not Penalties

Loss in SEO Effect – You dropped from the top of page 1 to the bottom of page 1 or page 2 or 3 for a terms you aggressively targeted for years via anchor text. If you were penalized, you would have fell much harder.

Loss in SEO Effect – You are gradually slipping in rankings because every update increases the percent of links that you have that just don’t hold value anymore. These links could be decent links but they aren’t from high trafficked sites or from ultra relevant sites, but still aren’t consider spammy sites or that you haven’t abused the anchor texting in. (Good examples would be a high PR directories or relevant social bookmarks)

Loss in SEO Effect – Maybe you have 20 internal links pointing to a certain page of your website saying a target keyword, or a sitewide link. This used to help websites rank well. But Google caught on to this. Not enough to penalize you, but enough to not take those actors into consideration when ranking your website.

Loss in SEO Effect – You did a lot of press releasing through free PR sites or posted content to low traffic blog networks. This may have helped your website rank for years. But then Google decided that they don’t think those links should affect your rankings or to only give those link timed value.

Loss in SEO Effect – You were populating your site with content from other sources or creating various city pages only changing the city name in each page (you know who you are). This used to be an effective strategy that I’ve done myself over the years. But Google is no longer a fan of “thin content”. This just results in the pages not ranking for that content any longer. Google ranks ultra-unique content these days.

SEO Transparency

As you can see, there are many scenarios where your website could have been penalized and/or just lost rankings because of weak or black hat strategies. For some sites, it’s a combination of a few of the above. For some, it’s just one of those things and you know exactly why. For most business owners and webmasters, they don’t have a clue. They’ve worked with several SEO’s over the years, or worked with ones that weren’t transparent about their strategies. Usually if the SEO service provider isn’t transparent about the services they offer, it because they are doing something that will result in getting you penalized or loose value (if had any value in the 1st place).

Unfortunately, “you are responsible for the actions of any companies you hire” says Google, Inc.

This is why it’s important to not only work with an SEO company that knows effective and future-proof SEO, but one that isn’t afraid or ashamed to tell you what they’ve been doing to improve your rankings.

If you aren’t sure if your site has been penalized, read this post by Matt Cutts; Confirming a Penalty.