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Coping with Search Engine Penalties

Marcela De Vivo
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Search engine penalties are present and pervasive, and are a primary method used by search engines to control webmasters. Unless webmasters understand what they are and what to do about them, their websites could easily trigger a penalty, losing traffic and revenue.

A longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members goes into extensive detail about more than a dozen penalties applied to Google. The longer article also offers specific recommendations for avoiding penalties, or correcting them should your site incur them. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Do you remember the old days of brick and mortar stores? Imagine the amount of work required to set up a store—locating a space, fixing it up and arranging the location, purchasing inventory, promoting the store, waiting for customers to walk in.

For e-tailers, this seems an antiquated method and one that has been surpassed by the ability to engage in global businesses through the internet. However, the search engines are trying to rein-in e-tailers and align our way of doing business closer with the brick and mortar approach.

To do this, search engines wait a few months before giving new websites visibility and good ranking in search results, which translates into profits for a web site. They want online merchants to only have a few stores that we can dedicate time and attention to. If we have too many stores and don't pay enough attention to each, all of them could flop.

In this two-part article, I'll discuss penalties I've observed and discussed with other search engine optimizers. I'll also show how to tell the difference between perceived and actual penalties, and most importantly, how to keep your site out of the penalty box in the first place.

Perceived search engine penalties

Many people assume that their site has been penalized if the site experiences a loss in search engine rankings. However, many of these perceived penalties are in fact a reflection of other changes or issues that may be taking place with the search engines or even within a webmaster's own site.

For example, many people recently posted messages in the Search Engine Watch Forums stating that their sites had been penalized, as they were no longer ranking well. After further research, the search marketer discovered that the problem was that his host had banned Google from crawling all of his clients' sites. Since the pages weren't accessible to the search engines, the search engines dropped the pages from the database. This is an example of what many thought was a penalty, but which was in fact the fault of the web host.

Other perceived penalties include:

  • Server is down or having problems during crawl, so pages aren't indexed
  • Robots.txt could be badly written
  • Problems with crawlers
  • Virtual crawling problems
  • Domain name problems
  • Lost links causes ranking to drop
  • Rankings drop because other sites are better or have more links
  • Rankings drop due to a search engine algorithm shift

Before assuming your site has been penalized, do some thorough research to understand what is really going on. Research your logs to determine if there is any unusual activity. Call your host to determine if they are aware of any problems. Check your robots.txt file to make sure it's not disallowing search engine crawlers.

Also, spend some time analyzing your search engine result pages (SERPs). How are your competitors doing? Do they appear to have recently been actively promoting their sites? Have they acquired more links? Compare their site with yours and make sure your site still follows the guidelines necessary to rank at the top for your preferred search terms. If not, basic search engine optimization should your first step, rather than imagining your site has been penalized.

Actual search engine penalties

While some penalties are imaginary, search engines do appear to give actual penalties. Some seem fair, such as when a site "pushes the limits," of what's considered acceptable. Other penalties may not seem fair at all—especially if your site is the one that's been penalized. Your concern is to determine whether or not your site has a penalty, and if it does, what to do about it.

The difficulty with search engine penalties is that it's impossible to determine with certainty whether or not your site does have a penalty, and what the penalty is. Why? The search engines don't publicly acknowledge the existence of penalties, and won't generally respond directly if asked whether a site has been penalized. Therefore it's impossible to offer a hard-and-fast rule that can help you look for penalties. Likewise, there are no all-encompassing methods to remove the penalties from your site.

Also, remember that search engines use many criteria to determine ranking, and these factors change constantly. For example, in a recent Google patent, other ranking factors mentioned include user and history data. In general, longer-established sites are favored over newer sites. Popularity, as measured by the number of people have bookmarked your site or how many people click on your link when it appears in the SERP's are also important. If any of the history or user-generated data is not favorable to your site, you may not have a penalty but just may not rank well.

Google offers specific recommendations in its guidelines for webmasters:

  • Avoid hidden text or hidden links
  • Don't employ cloaking or sneaky redirects
  • Don't send automated queries to Google
  • Don't load pages with irrelevant words
  • Don't create multiple pages, sub domains, or domains with substantially duplicate content
  • Avoid "doorway" pages created just for search engines or other "cookie cutter" approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content

These quality guidelines cover the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behavior, but Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here (e.g. tricking users by registering misspellings of well-known websites). It's not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn't included on this page, Google approves of it. Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles listed above will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.

Most of Google's penalties are automatic, and once you remove the offending factors, the penalties will be automatically lifted. You may have to wait at least a month, but at least the penalties will be removed. To speed up the process, you can also search for high quality, trusted sites to link to your site. This will give your site TrustRank points and help your site recover quicker and more effectively.

Once you've identified and fixed the problem, you should write to Google and ask them to help you fix the problem. Use the web form set up for this purpose at http://www.google.com/support/bin/request.py.

Tomorrow I'll take a look at the search engine penalties applied by Yahoo and MSN.

Marcela De Vivo is a search engine optimization consultant and the owner of SEOmind.com.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Let's talk about search engine's penalties discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

A longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members goes into extensive detail about more than a dozen penalties applied to Google. The longer article also offers specific recommendations for avoiding penalties, or correcting them should your site incur them. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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