How to Recover Your Rankings From a Google Ranking Penalty

Google takes the lionshare of all global search engine traffic. Compared to other search engines like Bing and Yahoo, there’s simply no competition.

In Australia, Google captures over 90% of all online searches. Regardless of what industry your business is in, your customers are actively searching for your products or services. Top rankings in Google is a major source of potential traffic and capturing even a portion of it ultimately means more to your bottom line.

Given how valuable rankings are, businesses are shifting more of their budget towards SEO. But many are being penalised for violating Google’s guidelines as a result of pushing their efforts too far. If your site is suddenly nowhere to be found in the search results or you see a nosedive drop in traffic in analytics, your site has likely been hit with a ranking penalty.

Examples of practices that are against Google’s webmaster guidelines include:

  • CUsing automated programs to spam backlinks to your pages
  • Creating pages with thin or automatically generated content
  • Participating in link building schemes
  • Linking to spammy sites that provide little value
  • Using sneaky redirects or doorway pages

Some of these tactics may work in the short term. But as Google is constantly updating its algorithm, your luck will eventually run out sooner than later. The good news is that even if your site has been hit with a ranking penalty, it’s entirely possible to recover your rankings and even rank higher than before.

Types of Ranking Penalties

You need to know what you’re dealing with first. There are two types of penalties your site can get hit with—a manual action from a member of Google’s webspam team and an algorithmic penalty. Here’s a brief overview of each:

Manual Penalty
Google employs a team of human reviewers whose job it is to evaluate sites. A manual penalty means that a human reviewer has flagged your site after determining it violates Google’s webmaster guidelines. Manual penalties are rare but they can still happen.

If your traffic has taken a nosedive, the first thing you’ll want to do is login to your Search Console. Any messages you receive can be viewed from the All Messages link on the lefthand side. Alternatively, you can also click on Search Traffic and Manual Actions.

If your site hasn’t received a manual penalty, you’ll see the following message:

There are different reasons why a site incurs a manual penalty. Here are some of the most common that Google lists on its manual actions page:


Manual penalties may incur a site-wide or partial penalty. From Search Console you’ll be able to see exactly what happened and which parts of your site are affected. Once any issues are addressed you can request a reconsideration to have the manual penalty removed.

Algorithmic Penalty

If you don’t see any messages in your Search Console and your rankings have taken a hit, your site has likely been hit with an algorithmic penalty. Google’s algorithm has become increasingly sophisticated as it’s able to detect a majority of online spam.

But unlike with a manual penalty, it can be difficult to determine what exactly caused your rankings to drop. If you regularly monitor your site’s rankings, you can often pinpoint the algorithm that caused the penalty.

Two of the most common updates—Panda and Penguin—deal with a spammy link profile and low quality content. We’ll look at these algorithmic penalties in more detail and what you can do to recover your site rankings.

Google Panda

The Panda algorithm update primarily targets “thin sites” or sites that provide little value. Sites with spammy content were hit hardest with the update while more authority sites were rewarded with higher rankings in the search results. The aim of the update is to make it easier for users to find more relevant sites.

Google doesn’t reveal the actual ranking signals behind Panda. Otherwise it would be easy for anyone to game the results. Instead, Google provides a list of open ended questions for a better idea of what they are looking for in terms of quality.

The questions are vague but what Google is getting at is whether a user would trust or find the information useful. If your site has been hit with the Panda update, it’s likely because your site contains:

  • Poorly written content with grammar mistakes
  • Duplicated or automatically generated content
  • Shallow content that provides little value
  • Too many advertisements or affiliate links
  • External links to spammy sites

Even a few pages have low quality content, the entire site can be affected. That means losing rankings for potentially hundreds of keywords overnight. Addressing any of these issues absolutely needs to be a priority.

How to Recover From a Panda Penalty

Getting hit with a ranking penalty can be devastating but the sooner you take action the better. Here’s how you can recover from Panda penalty:

Remove low quality content
The first thing you’ll want to do is conduct a content audit. Use a tool such as the SEO Spider Tool from Screaming Frog to analyse on-page factors of your site such as your page titles and meta descriptions. The tool can also identify duplicate content and can even find broken links.

You’ll also want to review how your users are interacting with your articles. Head over to Google Analytics and click on Behavior from the left side. Then click on Site Content and click All Pages.

From here you’ll be able to see key metrics such as average time on page, bounce rates, and exit rates. These metrics tell you how your readers interact with your content. If you notice that a page has a really high bounce rate, then visitors likely aren’t finding it valuable.

Export the data into a spreadsheet and sort by bounce rate. Then go through each page of your site and give it an honest evaluation.

Remember, Google wants only quality content to rank. If any of your pages don’t meet their criteria then it’s best to either remove it or completely rewrite it. Even a few pages that contain low quality content can affect your entire site.

Fix crawl errors
Even just removing low quality content may not be enough to recover your rankings. Login to your Search Console account, then click on Crawl and Crawl Errors:

Here you’ll see any crawling errors that the Googlebots have run into while crawling your site. Examples include connectivity issues with your server or problems fetching your robots.txt file. Clicking on an individual error will provide additional details of the problem.

Here’s an example:

Once you fix the issues, you can mark the error as “fixed” and have it removed from the list. How long does it take to recover from a Panda penalty?

It depends. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months depending on how widespread the issue is. Your priority in the meantime is to optimise and improve your site’s content quality. Your site rankings should start to recover once you address any major issues.

Penguin Update

Unlike the Panda update which focuses mainly on content quality, the Penguin update penalises sites that rely on questionable backlinking methods to boost their ranking. The update looks at the following backlink factors of your link profile:

  • Velocity: Gaining too many links at once raises a red flag as it’s an indication of using automated programs to spam your pages with links.
  • Relevance: A link from a relevant site in your industry will carry far more weight than a link from a spammy source. Having a link profile with a high proportion of low quality links will likely result in a penalty.
  • Diversity: If all of your links come from blog comments or directories, it also raises a red flag. Ideally your link profile should consist of links from different sources.
  • Anchor text: Anchor text refers to the clickable text in a hyperlink. If all your links contain the same anchor text, it’s an indication of spam. Links to your site should include not only your main keyword but also a healthy mix of other keywords as well.

One important distinction is that Penguin is a page-specific penalty. If you notice a sudden drop in traffic but some of your pages are still ranking, your site has likely been hit by this update.

Previously, the Penguin update would roll out a few times a year and penalise sites engaged in manipulative link building practices. Even if those sites fixed their link profile, they would remain penalised until the next time the update ran which could take months or longer.

Google now says that the update runs in real-time as part of the core algorithm:

“With this change, Penguin’s data is refreshed in real time, so changes will be visible much faster, typically taking effect shortly after we recrawl and reindex a page.”

If your site has been affected by this update, fixing any issues means being able to recover rankings much faster.

How to Recover From a Penguin Penalty

Addressing a Penguin penalty can be incredibly tedious as it means going through your link profile and removing the offending links. But just like with the Panda update, it needs to be done or your site won’t rank well. Here is how to recover your rankings from a Penguin penalty:

Download links
The first step is to find any unnatural links. In Search Console, you can download links to your site under Search Traffic:

Note that Google only displays a portion of links to your site. If you want to view more links to your site, you’ll need to use a paid service such as Ahrefs where you can get more details about your link profile including the actual links to your site, the anchor text used, and where they came from.

Identify low quality links

With a list of links to your site, the next step is to identify low quality links that could be negatively affecting your rankings. The problem is that your list may contain hundreds or even thousands of links. It’s simply not practical to go through each one.

One solution is to use a service like Linkquidator to flag any unnatural links. You can either upload a list of your links or have the tool analyse your link profile.

Request removal
When using a tool to analyse your links, you’ll want to do a random check through some of them to check that they really are low quality links. The next step is to get them removed. One approach is to do it manually by sending an email to the webmaster to request removal.

Another option is to use the Disavow tool which basically tells Google to completely disregard certain links when assessing your site. Before going through with this option, try to manually remove as many low quality links yourself as possible.

Note that it can take some time to process your request. But once you do it can take a few weeks to recover your rankings.

Conclusion

There is perhaps nothing worse than checking your analytics only to find that your traffic has taken a complete nosedive. The good news is that recovering from a Google ranking penalty is entirely possible whether it was a manual or algorithmic penalty. Follow the steps as outlined here to start ranking again at the top of Google for your target keywords.