How to Know if You Have Been Penalized by Google

Online marketers and Google have been engaged in a treacherous dance for over a decade. The moment Google comes out with a new algorithm, online marketers try to beat it. Google adapts. Online marketers follow, and the cycle repeats.


In the early days, all you had to do to get ranked highly was get a lot of links pointing to you. That was the very basis of PageRank, the system that used the number of links you had as a determinant of page quality. Marketers learned to game the system. So Google adapted, and started using meta tags to determine page relevance. Marketers figured out that to rank, all you had to do was stuff your pages and your meta-keyword tags with the right keywords. Then, Google adapted again.

Since the early days, Google has come a long way. Google no longer relies on just one or two ranking factors. Instead, Google uses over 200 different factors to determine the quality of your website. Everything from your social media presence, the concentration of ads and your website’s loading speed now plays a role in your search engine rankings.

Yet, in the last few years, Google has really taken things to a new level. They’ve released three game changing updates – Panda, Penguin and Humming Bird – that have seriously changed the game for website owners.

Have you been penalized by one of these updates? That’s what this article will explore. But before we get into that, let’s take a quick look at each of these updates.

The Panda, The Penguin, The Humming Bird

So, what were each of these updates? And what’s the difference between all of them?

Google Panda. The Google Panda update was all about getting rid of low quality websites. A lot of low quality websites were ranking highly in Google, thanks to blackhat ranking techniques. Also, many Google ranking factors – like the “exact keyword in the domain” factor – helped low quality sites get ranked. The Google Panda update penalized and lowered the rankings of these low quality websites.

Google Penguin. While the Panda update targeted low quality websites, the Penguin update targets low quality backlinks. This was known as the anti-spam update. Google actively penalized websites that over-optimized. They also targeted websites that violated the Webmaster Guidelines, as well as websites that used blackhat SEO techniques.

Google Humming Bird. This was the biggest update of all. Instead of changing the old algorithm, which started from the beginning of the Google days, this was a complete overhaul of the algorithm. In other words, Google essentially rewrote its search algorithm from scratch. Instead of being keyword-based, the new algorithm is designed to intelligently understand what a searcher is looking for. It understands sentence structure and conversational questions. This was an especially important update for mobile searches, which are often dictated in the form of a question via voice command.

Those were the three major updates. Each of these updates targeted a very different aspect of SEO. In each of these updates, some websites improved in rankings, while others suffered. How do you know if you’ve been penalized through one of these updates? And what can you do about it?

How to Know if You Were Penalized by Google Panda

A Google Panda slap can take a couple different forms:

1. You notice your traffic spikes and drops erratically. One day you might have normal traffic, then the next it drops back to zero, then the next it bounces back. This means that Google is indexing and deindexing your site repeatedly. This often means there are duplicate content issues, HTML parsing issues or other structural issues with the site. This is less common.

2. The more common way this occurs is a sharp drop directly after a Panda update. To see if your website was caused by a Panda update, check to see if your traffic dropped sharply within a few days of a Panda update. Here’s a complete list of all the Panda update dates.

If you’re getting penalized by Google Panda, the best approach is to work on your content quality. Remove duplicate topic content, even if they’re unique in words. In other words, before the Panda update, “How to Fix a Motor” and “How to Repair a Motor” would be considered unique articles. After Panda, they’re considered duplicate.

Work on creating content that’s quality and gets people to stay on the site longer. Reduce your bounce rate, increase your average pages per visitor. Reduce the number of ads per page. In other words, right now Google considers your website low quality. Work on increasing the quality, rather than on link building techniques. Here’s a video by Matt Cutts that talks about the steps to be taken when hit by a Google Panda update:

How to Know if You Were Hit by Penguin

The Penguin update penalties often take a little longer to take effect. Instead of one sharp drop, you might instead see a slow and steady drop in your site’s rankings over a few days or weeks.

There are two ways to see if you were hit by Penguin. First, see if a decrease in traffic and rankings occurred within a couple weeks of a Penguin update. The Penguin updates were rolled out on these dates:

  • April 24th 2012
  • May 25th 2012
  • October 5th 2012
  • May 22nd 2013
  • October 4, 2013

Alternatively, you can check Google Webmaster Tools for your website. If you get an “unnatural links” warning, it’s a good bet that you were hit by Penguin.

What can you do about it? For starters, disavow any links that show up as unnatural in Google Webmaster Tools. It’s also a good idea to disavow any links that are low quality. Use tools like Majestic SEO and Open Site Explorer to find low quality links and disavow them. Stop using linkbuilding techniques like linkwheels, article directories or paid links.

How to Know if You Were Hit by Humming Bird

The Google Hummingbird algorithm was announced on August 20, 2013. However, Google said they had already been implementing the new algorithm over the course of the previous month. Therefore, if you notice any sharp drops in traffic starting around July of 2013, it’s a good bet that it was a Humming Bird penalty.

It’s important to realize that Humming Bird’s goal was never to penalize spam websites or links. Instead, it was a “from the ground up” rebuild of the entire search algorithm. The algorithm now uses 200+ ranking factors, plus artificial intelligence, to determine the purpose of the search and the quality of the site.

If you lost rankings after the update, there are a few reasons this could happen. First, you might be over-optimized on your keywords. Google no longer lends weight to keyword rankings; instead it looks for the intention behind searches. If you rank well only for a specific keyword that you over-optimized for but not for longtail or conversational keywords, your traffic will suffer.

It’s also possible that your content is too diffused. With Humming Bird, Google’s goal is to interpret the meaning of a search term to be the same thing as what they think your page is about. If your page is about 3 different things, Google is less likely to think the search term and your site is a match.

What can you do to recover from a Humming Bird penalty? For one, stop over-optimizing. For example, stop putting your main keyword(s) in all your anchor text backlinks. Focus your pages, so each page is a solution to a common problem or search. Finally, work on the overall quality of your content and design. The new Google pays a lot more attention to design and content.

Preventing Future Penalties

We’ve covered the three “Big Updates” from Google. The bottom line is, Google is getting better and better at sorting out bad links and bad websites. While it’s still possible to game Google, it’s becoming more difficult and less profitable. At the end of the day, the easiest and safest way to consistently increase your search traffic is to just give Google what it wants. And that’s high quality content. In a simplistic way, that’s really the solution to all three of these updates.

Of course, you should still apply the solutions suggested above. But in the long run, the only way to penalty-proof yourself, and to be one of the websites that actually benefits from future updates, is to focus on the quality of the content and user experience of your website.

Related Post:

Dont’ Panic When Google Comes Out With an Update

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One Response to “How to Know if You Have Been Penalized by Google”

  1. Harrison Arnoldi on September 29th, 2014 8:38 am

    Yes i agree with you, solution of all these update is good content. Content is really playing an important role nowadays. Today link building & content marketing both are important.

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