Exploring The Google Penalty Box

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Pick a number between 6 and 950 and you’ll likely find evidence, or at least the antecedent number, for a Google ranking penalty. Webmasters and SEOers are in general agreement Google penalizes, and have dubbed them according to their numeric reprimand: -6, -30, -60, -950, and so on. Google inadvertently in cases has acknowledged such penalties exist, but has yet to present any hard and fast rules.

Maybe it’s getting to be time they do so. The days of one reverse-deciphering the algorithm seem long gone – the best at Yahoo and MSN don’t seem to have done it in all this time – as are the days when Google could be easily gamed with mere keywords and links. At this point, what’s the harm in letting webmasters know exactly why their sites incur penalties, giving them ways to atone, and taking away their wild speculations?

Then again, what would they blog about?

Google is in an enviable position. First, they don’t have to tell webmasters squat as long as they’re clamoring and clawing each other just to get listed there. Secondly, Google only loses if searchers take off, not search engine optimizers. But it seems they could eliminate some headaches by being more forthcoming about how not to incur the rankings wrath.

Not that they don’t fire warning shots. Last fall, much like how the Boston Massacre was conducted, Google felled a few as a warning to others to abandon the hope of paid link schemes. The speculation about minus-whatever penalties suggest the gradual increase in ranking penalties are similar warnings.

The leading theory is that these penalties are enacted by humans, not algorithms. If so, Google should think about being more forthcoming about their reasoning. We know that penalties are not exclusively enforced by humans. Last December a glitch in the system caused many to see their rankings drop by six places. Google acknowledged the –6 penalty as an error.

Recently the –60 penalty has been the focus, not just because the number of webmasters reporting drops in that range, but also because Googlers sort of back-alley nodding the penalty in certain forums.

In a Google Groups thread, Swiss Googler John Mueller replies to the pining post of one who took a –60 penalty. While this penalty and others had been explained away by webmasters as having to do with bad linking practices, this one had more to do with the template used, and the hidden content/links popping up in the code.

I’m still seeing templates being distributed with them; not only that, the links are disguised in a way that the average webmaster cannot find them.

 Personally, I think having footer links are fine if they are relevant to the site or template and nofollow’ed. However, hiding them in this style is – in my opinion – not ok at all. Just this week I helped a friend with his template: it had a block of code similar to this in it. It turned out that not only was it hiding links, it was also spreading malware. It really upsets me to find code like this in a template: it shows that whoever made the template not only knew the contents were not ok, but also wanted to prevent the user from finding or editing it.

We learn a few things from that statement: 1.) Be careful with your templates; 2.) Footer links should be nofollow links; 3.) There is a bit of manual interpretation when it comes to ranking. Barry Schwartz says it also means Google admits a –60 penalty exists.

Mueller suggested the webmaster clean up the code and submit a reconsideration request. Others suggested, under their breaths, that Google stop dictating every last detail of their sites.

A –30 speculator mentioned the use of a similar footer as well as buying some links, which he doesn’t think helped. Another, who got hit with a 950 rank-busting, declares no black hat tactics while admitting non-perfection. It could be that a –950 penalty is the last warning shot before getting booted from the index altogether.

One explanation for getting the –950 penalty was the use of interlinked sites with content that was "too thin" or irrelevant. That has a simple solution, really, and an old one: provide great, valuable content and only link to sites or pages that do the same.

Until we get more clear-cut do’s and don’ts and explanations of penalties, we’ll be free to speculate. If that never happens, here’s what we know:

1.    Nofollow links that could be construed as spammy or are bought and sold
2.    Be careful with templates, and pay close attention to footers to make sure there’s nothing shady there like hidden content or links
3.    Content is still the most important thing
4.    Pay attention to the warning shots


Exploring The Google Penalty Box
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  • http://www.shapirit.biz Ricardo Goldberg

    An exellent  article!, every word = a jewel

  • http://www.rankbetterseo.com/ Bill Ross

    I think its about time they tell you what your penality is, or at least tell you what its not.  This ambiguity is frustrating, you could have done something by accident and not know it till your rankings drop.

  • http://www.seowebdesignfirm.com SEO Firm Albany

    I think that there is definitly a penalty of some sort, as well there should be for sites that are spamming, but what I dont agree with is the hush hush nature of what that penalty is.  Most businesses dont have the knowledge to know they are doing wrong (yet there are some that do, and choose to spam) and theirfor dont know how to fix it.  But then from googles view if you tell people what they are doing wrong they might continue to do other things wrong till they zone in on the right things to do so they can optimize better.

  • http://www.crbuses.com used buses

    I have often wondered if nofollow might also be used as a data capture – a way to know whether webmasters are seo savvy or not.

    All the same, footer links went out about 3 years ago, and most websites still using those sffer from pagerank drops and various indexing issues.

    I believe the -950 is all about trust uncertainty, and would agree, its Google’s way of giving a website a ‘last chance’ to get things right.

  • http://www.vmoptions.com/directory-list.php Directory Listings

    Great post Jason.  I could not agree more with footer links being easy to identify (or be confused as) "paid links."  But this extends to sidebar links as well, especially if it contains large link clusters of unrelated sites.

  • http://www.delonix-consulting.com SEO Australia

    Well fortunately I have never used templates bought off the net, and I often check the SEO Quake toolbar for outbound links on my pages, particularly after they have had a programmer work on them.

    I am curious about footer links though – whilst I’ve never sold site wide links, what about your typical "website built by" links?

  • http://www.dailytechnologytips.com Sunil

    Nice post. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.tukarinfobispak.com bispak

    Useful article, at least for me. I’m not quite understand with what you said "4. Pay attention to the warning shots". Where i can see warn shot?

  • http://www.seoproinfo.com Seop Roinfo

    Is it just your main keyphreases you are ‘paying attention to’ in order to make sure you see any warning from google? Or are you monitoring all keyphrases to see if you can see a significan’t drop.


  • Stephane

    Nice post Jason,


    We got hit by what looks like a -60 penalty recently. The penalty stayed there for about 6 weeks and was then removed automatically…

    We’ve made a few changes on the site, removed a few paid links and it did the job without any reconsideration request.

    This is of course only speculation on my part… We might have been dropped for an unkown reason, and it took 6 weeks before the error was repaired in google’s database.


    Who really knows!

  • http://www.w7b.org Webmaster

    Hello Jason,

    Many thanks for the article. I was really clueless why my site dropped heavily at SERPS. Now I know.

    Its now time to remove all the footer links.

  • http://www.roomsinscotland.com/Highlands-Accommodation/Fort_William.asp Fort William

    The -60 penalty definatley does exist, i got penalised for over use of anchor text, even although the anchor text was my site name!  The links were mostly one way and were not paid so it seems kinda harsh.

  • http://www.siomka.tv Alex Sysov

    I have been through the filter after months with one of my sites – luckily, the other sites were not filtered since I managed to identify the issue

  • http://tamasong.net/google-penalty/ Google penalty

    Be careful about the way you buiding links for your site, it’s the cause of google penalty, if you get too many bad backlinks.

  • theshadow

    Google became a little evil by nature, with globalisation in his mind. They penalize the people who acquired links, but boost sites with google ads (more money for google), which by the way are also advertisement links for money, but aquired from google by advertisers. Google sales, but does not allow you.

    I think, if we really would understand their ‘human’ penalties, and financial plan for the future, we will not be so happy about Google.

    "Don’t you feel that someone in the night behind you wants to kill you?"

  • http://www.m4s73r.com/ Internet Marketing Indonesia

    thanks for your article. Very help me. I will more like visit to webpronews site. :) Fantastic

  • http://www.grablove.com Love relationships

    I do not think Google penalizes for putting links in the footer in fact I have seen very good results in having good optimized links in my websites. Although with any area of optimizing for Google you have to be careful and you cannot put too many links in the footer.

  • http://www.seovisions.com SEO Company

    By far, the best place to find a very definitive discussion about the mega nav and footer impacts on SEO is over at Webmasterworld.com, in fact this is an online thread over at that forum amongst some of the world’s best SEO’s and SEMs.

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