Ask the SMXpert: Google manual penalties explained

Have you ever gotten a manual penalty from Google? It’s no fun. Contributor and SMXpert Kaspar Szymanski shares answers and insights on how to avoid getting another ‘love note’ in the future.

The Ask the SMXpert series continues with the question and answer (Q&A) segment of sessions held at Search Marketing Expo (SMX) West 2018.

Today’s Q&A is from the All Google Manual Penalties Explained session with speaker Kaspar Szymanski, with an introduction by moderator Chris Sherman.

Moderator Chris Sherman: For those of you who don’t know Kaspar, he is a veteran of the Google Search Quality team, where he was the driving force behind global web spam tackling initiatives and the public face spearheading Google webmaster outreach and communication efforts.

He speaks not only as an insider but also someone who has spent years helping clients get out of trouble and back into Google’s good graces. His advice is solid and well worth heeding!

Ask the SMXpert: Google manual penalties explained

Question:  What happens when you get an unnatural outbound links penalty but never sold links? The website used proper FTC disclosure and all outbound links in articles were no-follow. However, the site did have a lot of affiliate links that were dofollow. After “no-following” those links and doing a reconsideration request, the site was approved. Is it common for sites to get penalties because they used “dofollow” affiliate links?

Kaspar: In short, yes.

Regardless of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) disclosure which has no bearing on search engine optimization (SEO) or how Google perceives links, outgoing affiliate links are almost always commercial, and so are the anchor texts. That fact alone is sufficient grounds to always use nofollow attributes on the links in order to avoid violating Google Webmaster Guidelines and thereby risking a penalty.

Question: Is it true manual penalties aren’t removed manually? That a bot reads through the reconsideration requests instead of humans?

Answer: No, that is not correct; a human reviewer reads through the reconsideration request. From Google:

Reconsideration requests are handled by real people, so good documentation helps the reviewer better understand the steps taken to address the manual action.

Question: To avoid a penalty, do you still suggest disavowing links in light of the Google update when they said that they would ignore low-quality links?

Answer: Disavowing undesirable links is always a good approach.

While Google may strive to identify low-quality links, their algorithms do not always get it right. Hence, there is no point in risking that Google may or may not discount low-quality links on their end.

Question:  I’ve heard that being too generous in disavowing can do more harm than good (until you get a penalty). What’s the right balance?

Answer: It is not about finding a balance but about disavowing links that are likely to harm a website’s position in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) or pose a risk from a penalization point of view.

Question: With the billions of websites on the internet, how does Google select a website to undergo a manual penalty? Do they look at traffic or rankings?

Answer: Popular, high-traffic sites are likely to attract scrutiny, but there are also other obvious lead sources, such as competitor spam reports.

Google will also look at seasonal or trending query investigations as well. “Black Friday,” “Valentines Day” [and] “Super Bowl finals” are all examples of seasonal queries which may be of interest because they are likely to be relevant to a lot of Google users at a certain point in time.

Google Trends provides a glimpse of which queries are trending at a given moment.

Ask the SMXpert: Google manual penalties explained

There’s nothing malicious about a site being reviewed. It is fair to say any popular, successful site has likely been looked into by the Google team at some point. The vast majority of sites investigated are not under suspicion and consequently, there’s no penalty applied to them.

Question: Does Google evaluate spam/backlinks differently for adult sites? If yes, how? What do they look for that’s different?

Answer: No, there are no double standards for different verticals.

Question: Is hidden content ground[s] for violation? Even if the content is relevant to the page and we hide it just for the look of the page (like an H1, for example)?

Answer: It depends on how egregious and what the intent of the hidden content is.

Hidden content can increase the risk of penalization. Google does understand content collapsed for user experience reasons, which are usually harmless. But! Keyword stuffed SEO content, which does not serve users, does merit a penalty.

Question: How do I know which links to remove? What is a bad link?

Answer: Every link has to be reviewed in the context of an individual backlink profile.

Anchor text and its distribution are important factors because they clearly separate merit-based link growth which is diverse (natural) from intentional PageRank passing link building which is optimized and heavy on commercially viable terms.

Where optimized links point to is equally important, hence landing page distribution is equally a factor. On page content and site quality, as well as whether they link to other clear-cut spam sites, [is] relevant.

Question: Is there a blacklist in which Google collects data about penalties sites, and does this affect their ranking?

Answer: While penalties negatively affect site rankings, Google does not maintain a blacklist of sites. Every site that has been in violation of Google Guidelines can recover and do very well in Google’s search results.

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[Article on Search Engine Land.]

About The Author

Debra Mastaler is Features Editor at Search Engine Land. She is an internationally recognized authority on link building and is an OMCP Certified Link Building Trainer. Based in Washington DC, Debra is also a columnist for Search Engine Land, has written for or been featured in numerous tech publications and is active on the search marketing conference circuit as a speaker and trainer. Debra serves as a judge for the Landy Awards and is the President of Connect with Debra on Twitter and LinkedIn to stay in touch.

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