Exploring The Google Penalty Box

    May 5, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

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