Part of the confusion over Google penalty policy is not knowing what will cause a penalty. Another area of concern is what exactly Google’s various punishments involve and how they are applied. Knowing how to avoid penalties entirely by only using above board optimization techniques is the best policy for every legitimate website owner to utilize.
Avoiding the many known penalty triggers will provide peace of mind and far better results in the search engine results pages (SERPs). Severe abuses of the Google search engine policies and terms of service can lead to outright banning of your website from the search engine giant. Because of that potentially devastating loss of revenue to your online business, it pays to use only the best search engine practices.
The question then, is what is considered a penalty, and how can you avoid being handed one.
Penalties vary in length. More minor penalties may last from one to three months, while the most severe banning from the Google index penalty may even be permanent.
A Google penalty may be minor, if any punishment can ever be considered as such. A loss of a point of Google PageRank (the measure of the importance of a web page on the Internet) is one of the less severe penalties. Of course, that too is relative.
Loss of PageRank
A loss of one PageRank point may not hurt as badly, if it moves a page (remember, PageRank is for a page and not a site) down from PR3 to PR2. It can really sting a website owner if the PageRank drop is from PR6 to PR5. It is much harder to move up from PR5 to PR6, than it is to recover from PR2 to PR3. That is because the Google PageRank scale is not linear, but exponential like the earthquake Richter Scale. It takes many times more and stronger incoming links to move up to the next PageRank level, with every succeeding step.
A more severe punishment would be the loss of all PageRank entirely. Regardless of what your website’s current PageRank, to be moved down to a PR0 is a bitter pill to swallow. It is quite likely that Google PageRank will be harder to achieve in the future as well, although that is debatable. No one is certain if PageRank dampers continue for penalized sites into the future. As always, Google isn’t talking.
As we move up the punishment scale, using PageRank drops as the punishment, the grayed out bar is the most severe. When Google grays out a site’s PageRank, that site is marked off as a major problem. Linking to that site can even result in a penalty for the linking site. The gray bar site is a Google pariah.
Other punishments involve the search engine results placements (SERPs). A penalized site may find themselves dropped either slightly, or perhaps even very dramatically, in the search results for their most important targeted keywords.
Since achieving top rankings for those keyword terms is the ultimate goal of terms of service violators, the resulting loss of revenue really hurts them. A loss of top positioning in Google costs the website owner money, as searchers seldom go beyond the first three pages of results; if they even go that deeply.
The ultimate penalty, of course, is complete banning of a website from the Google search engine index entirely. The length of a website ban may vary, but often if such extreme measures are taken by Google, the ban is permanent. In less stringent cases following correction of the violations, the ban may be lifted, and the site restored to the index. There is probably a probation period involved for re-indexed sites as well.
A penalty can be invoked by Google for violations of its search engine Terms of Service http://www.google.com/terms_of_service.html. As a service and a guide to webmasters in the proper development of websites, Google provides a Google Information For Webmasters page http://www.google.com/webmasters/guidelines.html. The guidelines set out by Google provide web developers with many explicit rules that are meant to be followed.
Within Google’s webmaster guidelines are some very specific don’ts.
The overall theme of Google’s webmaster guidelines is to not attempt to trick the search engines. With that in mind, they provide a list of strong suggestions.
One major reason for being assessed a Google penalty is engaging in schemes to increase your site’s position in the search engine results and for raising your PageRank. The avoidance of what Google calls “link spammers” and “bad neighborhoods”.
The main culprits of this problem are the so-called “link farms”. A link farm exists solely to increase PageRank by requiring the exchange of links between themselves and otherwise entirely unrelated websites. Should one of them, unknown to you, link to your site, Google won’t penalize you for that. They believe you have no real control who links to your site.
On the other hand, Google feels you have complete control as to where you point your own links. Should you link your site to a link farm, clearly with the goal of increasing your PageRank and link popularity, Google will most likely respond negatively to your action. Google uses the “does it help your visitors, and if search engines didn’t exist, would you still do it” test. That seems a reasonable test to ask yourself for any activity you use for your own website.
Google specifically tells you not to use “hidden text” or “hidden links”. It also disapproves of “cloaking” and “sneaky redirects”. Hidden text is usually in the form of keywords, written very small, usually in the same color as the web page, or both. The idea is to have the text read by the search engine spider, but not by the site visitor. Hidden links are sent out to other sites, but not seen by the visitor. They are often used as a trick in link exchanges, to prevent visitors leaving the site, once there. Sneaky redirects send a web surfer to a different web site entirely from the one intended. These are often used in affiliate programs.
Other Don’ts from Google
Google disapproves of unauthorized computerized and automated programs for page and site submissions and for checking search rankings. The guidelines specifically mention the avoidance of the popular web tool Web Position Gold (TM). Because these programs utilize a large amount of computing time and space, they are a violation of the terms of service. For that reason, automated queries are banned.
Heavy use of keywords, that clearly do not belong in the context of the web page, are strongly discouraged as well. They are clearly an attempt to rank well for search terms that have nothing to do with the website, except to steer traffic to the site from irrelevant search results. For example, filling web pages with the most popular search terms, when none of them have anything to do with your site content, would fall under that category.
Duplicate content, whether pages or entire websites is specifically against the prescribed guidelines. Identical pages are used to add more pages of content and perhaps to have more results appear for searches. The Google algorithm attempts to avoid indexing identical pages and duplicate sites by indexing only one.
The so-called “doorway” pages, that are packed with every imaginable keyword to attract the search query, and then steer that traffic via a “sneaky redirect” to another site are expressly forbidden. Often used by affiliate programs, to avoid providing additional useful content, these techniques often lead to penalties from Google.
There are many more techniques that search engine spammers employ, that Google is attempting to stop in their tracks. While the methods are not specifically named, Google reserves the right to change its algorithm to combat them as they arise. The goal of the search engine is to provide the best and most relevant results possible. The inclusion of spam type websites prevents good webmasters from getting their honest sites as high in the results as they deserve.
Google offers a spam report page where suspected illegal and unethical practices can be reported. The page requests the name and URL of the site and the specific violations that are suspected. In the report page information, Google claims to investigate each reported case. While that may not always be possible in practical terms, the information provided can assist Google in reworking its algorithm to prevent the abuses in the future. Changes in the ways that Google returns results, that specifically target and filter out spam laden pages, are good for everyone.
Good search engine practices benefit everyone, whether you are a webmaster or conducting a search for information or products. By penalizing and even removing the deceptive and spam-filled websites, from the Google index, ensures that everyone plays by the same set of search engine rules.
By developing a good quality website that observes the Google best practices guidelines, you will never have to worry about being handed a penalty. On the other hand, it’s good news that Google intends to reprimand website owners who engage in unethical search engine practices.
Removing the bad apples helps everyone in the end.