A Comprehensive Guide to Google penalties, Manual Actions, and Notifications

A Comprehensive Guide to Google penalties, Manual Actions, and Notifications - MediaOne Marketing Singapore

Let’s dive into the murky depths of Google penalties, Manual Actions, and Notifications. Are you ready to learn everything there is to know about them? Then grab your scuba gear, and let’s get started.

Google penalties are like the sharks of SEO — they can be scary, difficult to detect, and significantly impact your website’s performance in the SERPs.

SEOs refer to them as penalties, whereas Google calls them Manual Actions. A Manual Action is a message sent to web admins telling them their website violates their Search Essentials (previously known as Webmaster Guidelines).

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The specific reasons for manual actions are many and varied and can include keyword stuffing, cloaking or sneaky redirects, unnatural links to or from your site, and user-generated spam.

And the actual penalties can range from barely noticeable to partial or site-wide deindexing.

What’s Google Penalty?

Google hardly uses the term penalty. They use Manual Action instead. 

So, to define, a Google penalty is the negative effect taken on a website for violating Google Search Essentials. It may also mean the website has done something unethical SEO-wise, like keyword stuffing or link spamming. 

The penalty can vary from a mild warning to a complete deindexing of the website and can result in a website getting heavily demoted in the SERPs or removed altogether. 

In short, a Google Penalty must be avoided at all costs. The best way to do this is to follow the Search Essentials carefully and watch for any Google notification you may receive.

Why is It Important to Understand Google Penalties?

Since 2012, Google has been scaling up its communication efforts via Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) to update web owners on any visibility issues affecting their websites.

You’ll be notified about anything that could negatively impact your website’s ranking or visibility in the SERPs.

In this guide, we try to provide an overview of what these notifications mean and how to best deal with them.

Google euphemistically calls them “warnings,” but they are serious notifications to web admins that their website may have violated their guidelines.

Why Does Google Send Out Manual Actions?

Google sends out manual actions to alert web admins that their website has violated one of the guidelines. 

And they’re solely notifications about violating Google’s webmaster guidelines. 

The warning may also be about failing to secure your website, placing it in a compromising situation where it can be hacked or infected with malicious software. 

It may also be about you not implementing structured data correctly or failing to comply with their guidelines when applying for rich snippets on the SERPs.

In other words, every notification contains a piece of information that, if interpreted right, can help you put the pieces together and fix your website. 

The bottom line is you should always act promptly when you receive any kind of notification from Google.

On-page Guideline Notifications and Related Notifications

On-page guideline notifications refer to the notifications that apply to the problems identified on your site. These notifications can be about things like keyword stuffing, cloaking, sneaky redirects, and user-generated spam.

Major Spam Problems

When Google sends you a manual action notification highlighting major spam problems, it’s because they have identified the webpage as spammy with little to no value to the user. 

When this happens, the most severe consequence would have already taken effect, and, in most cases, the website would have been completely deindexed from the SERPs. 

In some cases, the removal would have only affected a subset of your site’s pages.

Google may even highlight the gravity of the violation, referring to the site as pure spam. It happens when your website is stuffed with keywords or uses aggressive spam techniques such as link cloaking, sneaky redirects, content scraping, and user-generated spam. 

  • Link Cloaking: Link cloaking is a black hat SEO technique used to redirect visitors from one page to another without them noticing. 

It is generally done by hiding the true destination of a link in a web page and redirecting the visitor to an alternate page.

  • Content Scraping: Content scraping is a process of copying content from one website to another without the owner’s permission.  

It’s usually done with an automated script or program that searches through web pages and copies whatever content it finds.

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These tricks worked for quite some time until Google stepped up its detection game and started penalizing websites that use them.

Spam Problems

A notification highlighting a spam problem is a toned-down version of the major spam problem. 

It simply refers to a page on your website that Google believes offers little to no value and may have been created with the sole purpose of getting an SEO benefit.

It’s not as serious as a major spam problem, but you might still be dealing with a penalty. 

Google usually serves this notice upon noticing thin content or internal doorway pages. 

This manual action isn’t severe as it indicates that your website isn’t entirely bad for the users, but it’s not good enough to be ranked on the SERPs.

  • Thin Content: Thin content refers to webpages offering little to no value. 

They are often created with an SEO benefit in mind rather than providing useful information for the user. 

Google may penalize sites with too thin content, especially if they are overstuffed with keywords. 

  • Internal Doorway Pages: Internal doorway pages are web pages created to target specific keyword phrases and funnel traffic to other pages on the website. 

They may look legitimate but lack core information that makes them useful. 

Google frowns upon this practice, and if you are guilty of creating such pages, you might receive a manual action notification.

Websites that receive this kind of notification usually don’t get deindexed, but they might experience a rank drop. 

Querying the site: search operator will confirm that Google still indexes the site, but you may still be looking at a penalty of some sort.

That’s often the case if the site is isolatable and the violation is less severe. 

The exact scope of the penalty may not be revealed, and you may have to rely on other methods, such as Analytics data, to determine the extent of the penalty.

How to Remove the Penalty

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Removing the penalty may require a thorough site review, starting with your website’s content quality, navigation structure, and internal linking. 

If your website is large, you may be required to conduct an all-out audit to identify which content has drastically dropped in rankings and why.

Once you have identified the content affected by the penalty, you can start making appropriate changes to fix it.

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For thin content, you may have to decide if (and how) it can be improved or if it should be removed altogether. 

You may also utilize the no-index tag to prevent Google from indexing the pages.

That could improve your crawl budget and keep the pages out of the SERP results.

You also want to assess the landing page. And just to be clear, it’s not about the content length or the number of words but how helpful and engaging it is to the user. 

If the user finds it difficult to navigate the page or comprehend what it is saying, you’ll have a problem.

And before submitting a reconsideration request, you want to remove all the doorway pages. You also want to revamp your content strategy (with a special focus on content that’s more useful and robust to the user). 

Once you have done all this, you can submit your reconsideration request and wait for Google to take another look.

What You Shouldn’t Do

Regardless of what penalty you receive from Google, under no circumstance are you allowed to submit an empty placeholder or page with a bare “Hello World” text for reconsideration. 

Google makes it clear that such pages/sites do not qualify for reconsideration and will automatically be declined for putting insufficient effort into responding to their manual action notification.

A successful reconsideration on the first attempt requires thoroughness, patience, and effort. 

So, make sure you have gone through the checklist and made all the necessary changes before submitting a reconsideration request. 

Also, remember that it may take a few weeks or even months for Google to review the request and respond with their decision.

So be patient and don’t rush the process.

Thin Content

Thin Content

Google thin content penalty is quite common and can happen when your website substantially lacks added value.

It’s far from what people think: thin content isn’t about having too little content or a few landing pages on your website. 

Rather, it’s about having content that is not useful or engaging to users.

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It’s also worth noting that your website may contain large amounts of content readily available across many other websites, but if it doesn’t provide any meaningful value to your users, it’s still considered thin content.

Thin content manual action is heavily applied to monetized affiliate sites with outright commercial intent or the so-called MFA’s (Made for AdSense). 

Don’t get it wrong: Google has no issue with commercial or affiliate sites. But as Google states, it has an issue with templated websites that do not represent any authentic brand. Nor do they provide any tangible information about their authors or about the content itself.

Consequently, Google will drop these sites’ rankings a few notches and continue dropping them until they’re at the bottom of the search results. 

So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, you want to fix the thin content by either improving or removing it and then “request review.”

News and Discover Violations

Google introduced a few rules to combat false information and maintain high-quality standards for its News and Discover services. 

In case of violations, Google’s algorithm will notice it, and your website could be flagged with a manual action notice or removed from the service entirely.

Online news sites and publishers have been at the centre of online scrutiny for quite some time now, as any violation could lead to a manual action or possibly an outright ban from Google News and Discover. 

Anything misleading, offensive, antisocial, and explicit is considered a violation. Moreover, Google expects websites to publish original content and avoid duplicated or scraped content. 

The consequences of News and Discover manual action are always a significant drop in rankings and can even lead to a complete removal of your site from the service.

The Recovery Process

Google never serves this manual action for minor offenses. If you receive one, the chances are good you were violating Google’s policies at scale. 

Therefore, the only option you have is to take corrective action and make all necessary changes to bring your website into compliance with Google’s guidelines. 

Once the changes are made, submit a request for review and wait for Google to take another look. 

What Not to Do

Removing the problematic pages without supplementing your website with new, high-quality content is not a solution. 

It could make the problem even worse. 

Google can detect when pages have been removed, and you risk another manual action if they don’t find anything of value on your site.

AMP Content Mismatch

In line with Google’s commitment to providing mobile-friendly content, the company launched AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) to make web pages load faster on mobile devices.

They have been pushing AMP as one of the viable solutions to combat slow loading and poor mobile experience. 

Their AMP policies spill over into their Google Search Essentials too.

Google has established strict guidelines for AMP implementation, and if your website does not adhere to them, it can easily get a manual action notice.

First, Google wants to ensure the user experience is as consistent as ever. 

That means the content on your AMP pages should match the content on your desktop versions. That way, users won’t feel tricked into clicking on a link and ending up with a completely different page than expected.

The first step to recover from an AMP violation is to review all mismatching content and ensure it matches the desktop version.

Note that: The content on your AMP landing pages doesn’t necessarily have to match the content on your website, not 100%. But the gist should be the same. 

Serving two different contents with two different content messages makes the AMP page a doorway page. And that’s a big no-no. 

What’re the Consequences of an AMP Violation?

Google takes an entirely different approach when dealing with AMP violations. Instead of dropping the entire site ranking, they only drop the ranking of the AMP page and leave everything else unscathed. 

That is good news for website owners, as this manual action does not affect the rankings of other pages on your site.

How to Fix AMP Violations?

Google recommends using its URL inspection tool to test your AMP and canonical landing pages for discrepancies. 

If the tool finds any mismatching content, you should fix them immediately before submitting a reconsideration request.

Cloaking and Redirects

Google doesn’t rank pages. They rank the ultimate experience of the user. 

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They want to rank their final destination. But what if what they think is the destination isn’t? Instead, it’s subterfuge, a page created solely to trick search engines and users into thinking it is something else. 

That’s cloaking, and Google can spot it from a mile away.

Cloaking redirects are one way to trick users into thinking they landed on the page they were expecting when in reality, the page has been replaced by a different one.

Google doesn’t like this, and your website could be hit with a Manual Action as soon as they spot it. 

The Recovery Process

Lifting a penalty attributed to cloaking is painful, but it can be done. 

You have to thoroughly clean it up and document the entire process from start to finish. 

You need to figure out what was set up and why. You must identify all pages and redirects configured and then delete them.

Once you’re confident that all the cloaking issues on your site have been removed, it helps to conduct a crawling test before submitting a reconsideration request.

User-generated Spam

User-generated spam is a common issue for big, user-driven websites. 

For example, someone will likely post low-quality comments if your website has a comment section. These can be anything from keyword stuffing to links placed by automated scripts. 

The same applies to forums, guest posts, and other forms of user-generated content.

When Google sends you this manual action, they’re simply asking you to get your house in order. 

The Recovery Process

Solving user-generated spam is more of a technical challenge than a creative one. 

  • First, identify the source of the spam and then put measures in place to prevent it from happening again. 
  • Consider using a tool that automatically detects and removes low-quality comments if you have comments on your pages. If that’s not an option, look into moderation tools that can help you identify and remove spammy content. 
  • You also want to limit users’ ability to post links.
  • Lastly, you want to close comments on your old posts to prevent comments from getting out of hand. 

Once done, test your changes before submitting a reconsideration request.

Hacked Spam Content

Hacks are a nightmare and can cause serious damage to your site. 

If your website has been hacked, chances are the hacker will use it to inject content and links. This type of spam is often referred to as “hacked spam.” 

Google will detect this immediately and issue you a manual action or notification.  

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It has a lot of similarities to user spam, but it’s far more dangerous. 

The Consequences

The consequences of a hack can be catastrophic. Not only is your website at risk, but so are the users interacting with your site.

Worse, this manual action is a prominent label in the SERPs, warning users that your website is hacked.

The Recovery Process

Google may provide some assistance, but it’s up to you to keep your site secure and clean up the mess. 

A simple scan and clean-up won’t do the trick. You have to identify the source of the hack, investigate if any information was stolen, and repair any vulnerable areas that could have been exploited. 

Once you’re confident your site is secure, you can submit a reconsideration request. Be sure to provide as many details as possible and be honest about what happened.

In other words, you have to assure Google that your site is safe and that it’s okay for them to remove the “hacked” label in the SERPs.

Incorrect Structured Data

Google relies heavily on structured data to understand the context and content of your website. 

It’s also used to determine how your website is displayed in the SERPs. 

If implemented correctly, structured data can give you a significant boost in search visibility. 

For example, rich snippets can help your website stand out in the SERPs and get more clicks.

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The prospect of obtaining a featured snippet is as enticing as they come.

But if your structured data implementation is incorrect, Google won’t be so happy.

It could mean you’re trying to game the system or do not understand the protocol.

In either case, it could result in a manual action or notification from Google.  

The Recovery Process

The good news is that, in most cases, the recovery process is relatively straightforward. 

First, you want to audit your structured data and ensure everything is implemented correctly. 

You can use Google’s Rich Snippet Testing Tool to identify issues and ensure everything is as it should be.

Spammy Free Hosts

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When free web hosts receive a GSC Manual Action or Notification, it’s usually because they host many spammy websites. 

That is a common problem for shared hosting providers, and Google has been aggressively clamping down on them.

The Consequences of Spammy-Free Hosts

The most immediate consequence is that your website may temporarily lose its SERP visibility. 

The problem is that the penalty isn’t granular. It affects your entire website, not just the spammy parts. 

Furthermore, it can have a significant impact on your traffic and reputation.

The Recovery Process

If you’re hosted on a free hosting provider, you want to start by moving away from them as soon as possible. 

You should also audit your website and look for any content that could be considered spammy by Google. 

Remove any such content and ensure you have the right policies in place to ensure no new spammy content is created in the future. 

Once you’re confident your website is clean, submit a review request to Google and explain why your website should be removed from any manual actions or notifications.

Google will then audit your site and decide if it can be trusted again.

Off-page Guideline Violations and Related Notifications

Google is increasingly focusing on off-page events to determine the trustworthiness of a website. 

That means if your website engages in shady link-building tactics or practices, then there’s a high likelihood that you could be slapped with a manual action or notification.

Examples of off-page guideline violations notifications you could receive:

Unnatural Inbound Links

 If Google suspects your site is involved in some sort of link schemes or buying links, then you could receive this notification.

To resolve it, you need to audit your website and identify any links that don’t pass a manual review. 

Once you’ve identified any suspicious links, you might want to contact those site’s admins and ask them to remove them. 

If they don’t respond, you can use Google’s Disavow Tool to tell Google that these specific links should be ignored.

About the Author

Tom Koh

Tom is the CEO and Principal Consultant of MediaOne, a leading digital marketing agency. He has consulted for MNCs like Canon, Maybank, Capitaland, SingTel, ST Engineering, WWF, Cambridge University, as well as Government organisations like Enterprise Singapore, Ministry of Law, National Galleries, NTUC, e2i, SingHealth. His articles are published and referenced in CNA, Straits Times, MoneyFM, Financial Times, Yahoo! Finance, Hubspot, Zendesk, CIO Advisor.

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