Google Penalties Explained & Common Reasons Websites Receive Them (A Complete Guide)

google penalties explained

Google Penalties Explained & Common Reasons Websites Receive Them (A Complete Guide)

Have you noticed a sudden drop in your website’s position in search results? Or perhaps your website has disappeared from Google altogether?

For a small business owners a sudden change in search engine positions can be very worrying and have a significant impact on business.

Most small businesses that we speak to aren’t aware of the reasons why Google issues penalties to websites, or how indeed to check if they have received one.

This guide will help you to understand what Google penalties are, how to find out if you have one, what causes Google to issue a penalty, and how to recover after receiving one.

Why does Google hand out penalties?

Google are constantly looking for ways to improve their search results. Their mission is to provide users with the most relevant, useful and accurate information on the web. In order to achieve this they regularly make improvements to the way that they rank websites.

For users this is fantastic news, it means that it is much quicker and easier to find the information that you need.

For website owners it can make it a little more challenging to rank highly. In years gone by it was possible to ‘cheat’ your way to the top of Google if you knew how, but current Google guidelines mean that these kinds of techniques can now have a negative impact on your website’s ranking rather than a positive one. Instead, genuine time and effort invested into the quality and usefulness of the content on your website, high quality external links and excellent brand exposure is what will score you brownie points with Google.

In an effort to ensure the quality of its search results Google penalises websites that it believes to be of low quality or that do not follow its guidelines. If your website has been issued with a penalty from Google you may suddenly notice a drop in its visibility and position in search results.

Types of penalty

There are two different types of Google penalty – Manual and Algorithmic.

Manual Penalty

A manual penalty is issued by Google when they identify something on your site that breaches the Webmaster Guidelines. In the majority of cases, if you are issued with a manual penalty you will receive a direct notification from Google highlighting the reason for the penalty.

Algorithmic Penalty

You will not however, be notified if your website is hit by an algorithmic penalty. An algorithmic penalty may occur shortly after Google makes changes to the algorithm that it uses to rank websites. A couple of Google’s biggest algorithms have been dubbed with names, the Panda update and the Penguin update are the two most significant ones.

Signs that your website has a penalty

Google penalty as seen from within Analytics
So how do you know if your website has been hit with a penalty? Here are a few signs to look out for.

  • You get a notification from Google (this is a sure-fire way to know you’ve been hit with a manual penalty)
  • Your website stops ranking well for your brand name
  • You website’s Page Rank suddenly drops to zero
  • You notice your high positions on search engines dropping away when you’ve not made changes
  • You can’t find your website anywhere in search results


Top reasons Google penalises websites

Panda Update

Google Panda updates

Google’s Panda update first made an appearance in early 2011. The update was one of Google’s most significant changes aimed at improving the quality of its search results. The purpose of the update was to crack down on low quality websites and reward websites containing high quality content with better positions.

  • Panda Update 1, AKA Panda 1.0, Feb. 24, 2011 (11.8% of queries; announced; English in US only)
  • Panda Update 2, AKA Panda 2.0, April 11, 2011 (2% of queries; announced; rolled out in English internationally)
  • Panda Update 8 AKA Panda 3.0, Oct. 19, 2011 (about 2% of queries; belatedly confirmed)
  • Panda Update 27 AKA Panda 4.0, May 20, 2014 (7.5% of English queries were affected; confirmed, announced)
  • Panda Update 28 AKA Panda 4.1, Sept. 25, 2014 (3–5% of queries were affected; confirmed, announced)
  • Panda Update 30 AKA Panda 4.2, July 18, 2015 (2–3% of queries were affected; confirmed, announced)

View full panda update list here

You may receive a penalty at the hands of the Panda update if your website:

Has duplicate content

Your website should not contain large amounts of text that are duplicated elsewhere on the internet. If Google locates two pieces of content that are the same it is forced to choose which one to display by deciding which is the best, the other page may not even be indexed. Google views duplicate content as less useful than original content.

Ensure that all content published on your website is original. You can check that your content is not being used elsewhere on the internet using a tool like Copyscape.

Contains poor quality or thin content

If you haven’t spent much time perfecting or updating the text on your website then Google will be able to tell. Web pages that contain very little content often provide little value to visitors.

Make sure that each of the pages on your website contains at least 250-300 words of unique and valuable content. Keep the text on your website regularly updated and highly relevant, eliminating unnecessary or badly performing pages wherever appropriate.

If you need help with the content on your website get in touch with our copywriting team.

Penguin Update

The next Google update to rock the internet was the Penguin update in early 2012. This update to their algorithm aimed to crack down on websites using spammy link building techniques to boost their website’s rankings.

  • Penguin update 1 AKA Penguin 1.0 on April 24, 2012 (impacting ~3.1% of queries)
  • Penguin update 2 AKA Penguin 1.1 on May 26, 2012 (impacting less than 0.1%)
  • Penguin update 3 AKA Penguin 1.2 on October 5, 2012 (impacting ~0.3% of queries)
  • Penguin update 4 AKA Penguin 2.0 on May 22, 2013 (impacting 2.3% of queries)
  • Penguin update 5 AKA Penguin 2.1 on Oct. 4, 2013 (impacting around 1% of queries)
  • Penguin update 6 AKA Penguin 3.0 on October 17, 2014 (impacting around 1% of queries)

You may receive a penalty at the hands of the Panda update if your website:

Contains reciprocal links

Before Google got ‘smart’ and began to distinguish high quality websites from low quality ones they would look at the number of links leading to a website to decide its ‘authority’. During this time many websites were teaming up to provide each other with reciprocal links to gain higher rankings. After the Penguin update the worst offenders found they were hit by a Google penalty for unnatural reciprocal links.

Natural and relevant links to your website are great. But links from large ‘link farms’ will be considered unnatural and could results in a penalty.

Excessive use of keywords in anchor text

Link anchor text is the text that you make clickable when creating a link. If you often use the keywords that you wish to rank highly on Google for as your link anchor text Google may identify this as being ‘spammy’.

To avoid receiving a penalty for this don’t force keywords into your link anchor text, try to vary your link anchor text and use hyperlinks naturally throughout your text.

Manual penalties

Manual penalties are issued by Google if they deem your website to be breaching any of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

If you receive a manual penalty from Google they will notify you in Google Webmaster Tools. The notification will inform you of why you’ve received a penalty and what effect it may have on your website. Some penalties will have more impact than others.

There are two types of manual penalty; partial match and site-wide penalties.

Partial match penalties usually only apply to particular pages or links on your website, whereas site-wide penalties can be far more serious as they affect the ranking of your entire website.

You may receive a manual penalty from Google if your website:

Contains unnatural links

Manual penalties are most commonly received because Google suspects that you are creating or obtaining unnatural links to your website in an attempt to boost your rankings.

Unnatural links could be links on your site to other websites (eg. Reciprocal links) or links on other websites to yours. If you receive a penalty for unnatural links check if it has the phrase ‘impact links’ after it when Google notify you. An ‘impact link’ penalty is less serious as it means Google has taken action to devalue the individual link rather than your entire website.

To avoid receiving a penalty for unnatural links you should first try to get the links removed. If you cannot get them removed, for example, if they’re on a website that you do not own and you cannot contact the owner or they will not remove them, then you can try to disavow them using Google’s disavow tool.

Hacked site

In the unfortunate event that your website gets hacked by a third party Google will apply a manual penalty to avoid the hacked pages from being indexed and to highlight the problem to you.

Keyword stuffing

Another common tactic websites used to use to rank higher on Google was to insert the keywords and phrases that they wanted to rank highly for as frequently as they possibly could in their website’s text content. As you can imagine this rarely resulted in content that was either a pleasure to read, or particularly useful. Google is now advanced enough to recognise when keywords are being used too frequently to be natural and will penalise websites for doing so.

Instead of focussing too much on keywords, focus on creating content that is highly relevant and useful to visitors. The better the quality of your content the higher your web pages should naturally rank.

Design not mobile-friendly

Google’s recent update, dubbed ‘Mobilegeddon’ means that websites that are not mobile-friendly/responsive will now be at a disadvantage and appear lower in mobile search results. With mobile search now overtaking desktop search and more people making purchases online using mobile devices, it’s become essential to have a responsive website design. Use Google’s mobile-friendly test tool to find out whether or not your website is mobile-friendly.


Not familiar with Google’s ‘Mobilegeddon’ update? Find out more about it in our blog: Google’s new mobile update could affect your website’s ranking, is your business prepared?

If your existing website isn’t mobile-friendly, get in contact to discuss updating it for a small one-off cost. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a new, professional and fully responsive website, take a look at our affordable website packages.

Poor website or bad SEO

If you own an old website that hasn’t been updated regularly then it is likely to have fallen behind with Google’s best practices and could receive a penalty because of this.

Some of the most common reasons outdated websites receive penalties include:

Overusing H1 tags

Your H1 tag is a piece of code containing your web page’s header. They are very important not only for user-experience, but also for telling Google what your page is about. Inserting keywords into your H1 tags, where natural to do so, can be beneficial to your ranking. However if you overdo it Google may flag it as looking ‘spammy’ and hit you with a penalty.


All websites should have a robots.txt file. The file is used to instruct search engine robots how to crawl and index the website’s pages. It can also be used to block search engines from reading specific pages on the site. If you are using your robots.txt file to block access to too many pages Google may become suspicious and issue you with a penalty.

Over optimisation

Avoid going over the top with your SEO efforts. Google now rewards high quality content, if you’re regularly updating your site with high quality, relevant content then it should naturally improve your rankings. Too much forced or unnatural optimisation can result in receiving a penalty from Google. It’s important to strike a fine balance between over and under optimisation!
Example of over optimised text

Do you have a manual penalty?

To find out if your website has been issued with a Manual Penalty from Google login to your Google account as normal and then navigate to Google Webmaster Tools.

Now click on the URL of the website that you wish to check.


On the next page select ‘Manual Actions’ in the ‘Search Traffic’ section. If your website has been issued with any Manual Actions they will now be displayed.


How to deal with a penalty

If you receive a penalty notification from Google or suspect you may have received an automatic penalty, don’t panic!

The effect of a penalty will depend on the type of penalty that you have received. Some penalties will have minimal impact, you may not even notice any difference to your positions; others can have more serious effects.

Remember, even very large and experienced websites get hit with penalties every once in a while. As long as you deal with the issue efficiently and learn from it, then you should be able to rectify any effects of the penalty.

The type of action that you take will depend on the type of penalty that you’ve received:

Bad links

For bad links, first try to get the link completely removed, failing this use Google’s Disavow Tool.

Other penalties

If you receive a notification for a manual penalty or suspect you’ve been hit by an algorithmic penalty first do you research about what the penalty means; then make the relevant changes on your website.

Don’t expect instant results after making changes. You will need to wait until the next time Google crawls your website to see results.


If you need any help recovering from a Google penalty then we offer an SEO Recovery Service. Our technical SEO team have a 100% success rate at helping websites that have been penalised by Google to get back on track and recover their search engine positions.

If you’re looking for a new website we also offer low cost, professional websites that are fully compliant with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Find out more about our Essential Websites.