When it comes to Google’s penalties it is almost inevitable to be assailed by doubts, concerns or real fears, since the reasons that lead to sanctions can sometimes seem mysterious. In fact, the problem is that there is often a lack of awareness about what is happening to the site, and one interprets the possible drop in traffic as a consequence of a penalty, when in fact it could be the result of other problems. In any case, to clear the field from any uncertainty it is good to know the list of wrong behaviors that can cause manual action by Google, the type of sanction that affects sites and pages that are not in compliance with quality standards for webmasters.

Understanding the difference between penalty and algorithmic drop

The most common error is to mistake a traffic drop determined by an algorithmic update for a penalty, and if we fail to understand the difference we risk to undertake a wrong recovery strategy.

As we know, the algorithms are based on a set of rules and calculations to automatically and quickly provide the desired result from the user who entered a query; the aim of Google is to ensure that the answers are useful and relevant, so as to satisfy the search intent and offer a positive user experience.

For example, in the case of the famous algorithmic updates Panda and Penguin, the ultimate purpose of Google was to demote in search results websites that did not meet its quality standards, as defined by the Webmaster Guidelines.

There are different penalties and, in particular, manual actions: to examine and report the sites, in fact, Google also employs an “army” of human reviewers – and despite their great effort, there are still many websites that go through the algorithms even if they do not meet Google’s quality standards, but you can imagine that the continued development of systems like RankBrain and BERT will make the algorithm even “smarter”reducing the need for these human reviewers.

Investingate the causes of traffic drop

To negatively suffer the effects of an algorithmic change can seem initially like a penalty, because the net result can be the same – a huge and sometimes devastating loss of organic traffic – but in reality there are different causes and path to solving the problem.

In the case of the algorithm, the site has not “wrong” something, but its content is no longer considered useful and relevant by Google as previously (due to mutating and inadequately satisfied search intent, emergence of better competitors, worsening of page loading times and so on). The recovery from a Google update is slow and sometimes complicated, because it can call into question a lot of different factors.

A website penalized by Google has instead made itself responsible – more or less consciously – for an explicit violation of the guidelines of the search engine, which is reported with a message in the Google Search Console Manual Actions Report.

In this case, the strategy to clean up the site must follow a well-defined path, which also provides the need and opportunity to interact directly with Google – which is not the case with algorithmic declines – through the “reconsideration process” that we can activate after resolving the detected violation, with which we are invited to explain the origins of the problem and the interventions applied to the resolution.

Which are the manual actions and how to intervene on recovery

The wrong behaviors are often the old tactics of Black Hat SEO; in Google’s view, most manual actions try to “curb attempts to manipulate the search index“.

Usually, the effect of such a penalty is a worsening of the ranking of the pages or the entire site in the search results or the omission from the results, without any visual indication to the user.

Thanks also to the summary of Chuck Price on Search Engine Journal, here is then the full list of known causes of manual action and the main steps to solve the problem.

  1. Cloaking or sneaky redirects

Cloaking is the action to show users pages other than those shown to Google, as mentioned in recent days by presenting the most famous banned black hat techniques; redirection commands not allowed, instead, they direct users to a page different from the one shown to Google.

Both of these techniques violate the Instructions for Google webmasters, and may affect only parts of the site (partial correspondence) or the entire domain (site-level correspondence).

Often, this type of redirect is created by CMS plug-ins and can be found in the . htaccess file or be written in Javascript.

How to correct issues with cloaking or sneaky redirects

The correction path recommended by the author is divided into 5 steps:

  • From the Search Console select the display as Google (fetch as Google) and analyze the pages of the parts of the website affected by the problem.
  • Compare the content of the web page viewed by a user with the content recovered by Google.
  • Solve any variations between the two, so that they end up being equal.
  • Check all redirects and remove redirects that:
  • ISend users to an unexpected destination.
  • Are conditional (eg: redirection only of users from a certain source).
  • Are “devious” in other ways.
  • Send a reconsideration request after solving these problems.

 

  1. Sneaky redirects from mobile devices

When some or all pages of a site redirect mobile device users to content not visible to Google crawlers we find ourselves in a direct violation of the Instructions for Google webmasters, and to be precise in what we call “Redirection commands not allowed on mobile devices”.

If discovered, this violation typically produces a manual action, which may result in the removal of Urls from the search index.

Legitimate and illicit use of redirects for mobile users

Not all redirects of mobile users represent a violation and there are cases where Google allows the mobile version of a site to display content in a slightly different way from the desktop version. The most immediate example is that of images, which often need to be modified to fit a smaller screen, but there are also cases where you need to redirect mobile users from one URL to another for a better user experience.

A requirement must be met: as long as the redirection sends the user to a page that is essentially the same, this is a perfectly legitimate use of a redirect.

Conversely, if mobile users are secretly redirected to different content, a bad user experience occurs and you face a penalty.

Esempi di redirect leciti e illeciti

Examples of sneaky redirects

Sneaky redirects from mobile devices are often unintentional and can occur without the direct knowledge of the webmaster. This commonly happens when:

  • Added code that creates redirection rules for mobile users.
  • A script or item is added to view ads and monetize by redirecting mobile device users.
  • Hackers add a script or element that redirects mobile users to a malicious site.

Exactly because frequently “involuntary”, it is good to check the presence of any devious redirects and then proactively monitor the mobile versions of the pages of the site that contain code or script elements that redirect users in the URL control tool, so as to escape the penalty.

Correction of redirect commands not allowed on mobile devices

To correct sneaky redirects that are unintentional, we must first check the Security Issues report of the Search Console to see if the website has been hacked, and then review all the scripts and third-party elements present in the pages.

After verifying that the site has not been breached, the next step is to investigate whether any scripts or third-party elements are causing the problem, following these steps:

  • Remove individually, one by one, scripts or third-party items on which we have no control.
  • Visit the site from mobile device or emulator to see if the redirection has been interrupted.
  • Once you have identified a particular script or item that we hold responsible for devious redirection, remove it from the site. If that script is important, we work on debugging the problem, then reinstall it and verify its correct functioning.

If instead we are intentionally engaged in devious redirects, the correction process obviously begins by making the necessary changes to comply with Google’s guidelines, and in particular:

  • Confirm compliance by checking the site from a mobile device or emulator.
  • After making the necessary changes and completing the check, request a review describing the problem sincerely, explaining how the error occurred and what specific actions have been taken to prevent it from recurring.
  • Check the Search Console account, where Google will send a note to report that a review of the site has been performed. Assuming that the site no longer violates the guidelines, the manual action will be revoked.

 

  1. Compromised images

There is also a cloaking of images, which always consists in showing users content other than those shown to Google. An example of this is the publication of images which:

  • Are obscured by another image.
  • Are different from the image served.
  • Redirect users away from the image.

Sometimes, this problem may also result from a malfunction of one of the installed CMS plugins.

How to correct the cloaking of images

To correct a situation of compromised images, simply check to show the same image to both Google and users of the site. If we have received a notification, then we must proceed with the reconsideration request after resolving the problem.

  1. Content mismatch in AMP pages

It occurs when the content of the AMP version is different from that of its canonical web page.

AMP pages and canonical pages must be “substantially” the same: this does not mean that the text must be identical, but that there must be correspondence of topics and user actions (which must be able to perform the same operations in both versions).

Any AMP page affected by a manual action will be deleted from the Google Search and the canonical version will be shown instead. To avoid this sanction, it is good to be proactive and always check in advance that the AMP version and the canonical version of a page are corresponding, using the GSC URL Inspection Tool.

How to correct AMP content mismatch

The correction work if we undergo a manual action for a content mismatch of AMP pages is divided into five points:

  • First, we verify that the AMP page is associated with the correct canonical page.
  • Then, we check that the contents of the AMP and canonical pages are generally the same, modifying the discrepancies as needed.
  • Using the URL Inspection tool, we confirm that the page view by Google is identical to the user view. Sometimes, in fact, the mismatch can be caused by a robots.txt file that blocks resources on one page or the other.
  • After having harmonized the AMP and canonical pages, we request the revision through Search Console.
  • We monitor the Search Console account, because this is where Google will inform us that the review of the site has been carried out and, if everything has been well executed and we no longer violate the guidelines, the manual action will be revoked.

 

  1. Hidden text and keyword stuffing

It is a problem of simple description: some or all pages of the site have hidden text or keyword stuffing, two techniques not allowed by the Google webmasters guidelines.

How to correct hidden text and keyword stuffing issues

The correction path also depends on the amount of site affected by the problem – that is, whether it concerns a limited number of pages or the entire domain. However:

  • We check the pages from interested parties of the site, those that present content visible to the Google crawler, but not to users who visit the site.
  • We look for text of the same or similar color to the background of the page.
  • We look for hidden text using CSS style or placement.
  • We remove or modify the style of hidden text so that it is detectable even for the human user.
  • We correct or remove any paragraph of words repeated without context.
  • We correct <title> tags and alternate text that contain string of repeated words.
  • We remove any other excess keyword instance.
  • After solving the problem on all pages, we send a request for reconsideration.

 

  1. Pure spam

Unlike many other sanctions, in the case of pure spam you cannot call for unawareness: this manual action is imposed on sites that engage aggressively in a combination of spam techniques, including automated use of meaningless words, content copied from other sites, cloaking and other glaring violations of the Instructions for webmasters. Such spam techniques can be found at domain or individual page level.

How to correct the sanction for pure spam

Google is very clear about such situations: to correct the problem, we have to clean up the entire site and comply with the instructions for webmasters.

If the penalty received is the first, we can still “save” the domain by removing all illegal practices and requesting a reconsideration examination, reporting to Google examples of bad quality content that we have removed and good quality content that we have added. If Google determines that the pages no longer violate the instructions, it will revoke the manual action.

But if this is the second time that we have been sanctioned, according to Price it is “highly unlikely that Google will give us another chance after having broken his trust again”, and therefore it would be even better to “turn off and start again” from scratch.

  1. Free host with spam

There is no such thing as an actual free hosting and, often, what we save in advance on the rates for the host is likely to be nullified in terms of performance, with a reliability not up to the needs and spam ads that we can not control.

Google will address this issue harshly and, in the event of “a significant portion of the pages of a given web hosting service containing spam” reserves the right to take manual action on the entire service.

Correction of spam issues on the free host

To Google, the correction of this manual action takes place by analyzing the illicit uses of the service, removing any existing accounts containing spam from the service and contacting the technical support team of the hosting service to inform them of the manual action.

More direct advice from Chuck Price, who invites you to directly migrate to a different hosting and request reconsideration once the process is completed.

  1. Problems with structured data

We risk a penalty even if we do not follow Google’s guidelines for structured data, such as content markups that are not visible to users, markup of irrelevant or misleading content or other manipulative behavior.

How to correct issues with structured data

If we want to take advantage of structured data opportunities to activate the enhanced features in Google search results, we must comply with the specific instructions and verify the operation of markups. In particular, it is necessary to:

  • Update existing markups and remove any markup that violates Google guidelines.
  • After making these changes, send a request for reconsideration.

 

  1. Thin content with little or no added value

As we know, the presence on the site of thin content – which give little or no added value to users – is a problem that can negatively affect the ranking; it is worth remembering that Google considers such, among others:

  • Content generated automatically.
  • Affiliate pages with no added value.
  • Content from other sources.
  • Doorway pages.

Again, the penalty may affect partially (only a certain number of pages affected by the problem) or the entire domain.

How to correct thin content

To solve this problem we must, first of all, identify the type of violation present on our pages, and then take action to correct. Our goal must always be to invest time and resources in creating unique and useful content, as requested by Google.

  • Remove any automatically generated or spinned content.
  • Check the presence of affiliate pages that do not provide added value in addition to the offers of the manufacturer/ retailer, and consider whether to enrich or delete those pages.
  • Verify the presence of duplicate content already posted elsewhere on the Web and evaluate whether to remove and / or replace that content.
  • Identify low-value content and improve it to make it useful and informative.
  • Check for doorway pages and remove them.
  • Send a reconsideration request after solving these problems.

 

  1. Unnatural links starting from our site

Google does not like (euphemism) to find sites selling links, and when it identifies “an artificial, unnatural, deceptive or fraudulent outbound link pattern” With the intention of manipulating the Pagerank can proceed with a penalty at page level or affecting the entire domain.

How to correct issues with unnatural links from the site

The process to solve the problem begins by checking all the links that depart from the site and identifying those that are paid or apparently violate Google’s instructions (and, for example, there are excessive link exchanges). The correction then proceeds as follows:

  • Remove non-natural links or add a rel = “nofollow” attribute or a more specific one to non-compliant links.
  • Send a reconsideration request after cleaning the backlink profile.

 

  1. Unnatural links pointing toward our site

Over the years, Google has relied more and more on the algorithm and less on manual actions in the management of spam links; however, when a manual action is performed, the main cause is “always the same: purchase of links and/or participation in link schemes to manipulate the PageRank and increase ranking”, a clear violation of the Instructions for Google webmasters.

How to solve the issue of unnatural links toward the site

If we undergo a manual action for such a violation – or if we realize that the backlink profile does not appear natural – we can intervene for a correction:

  • Download all links toward the site from Google Search Console.
  • Check the links to identify those that may violate Google guidelines.
  • Ask the webmaster to remove the non-compliant links or add a rel = “nofollow” attribute.
  • Reject with the Disavow link tool all the links that we can not remove or put in no-follow.
  • Send a reconsideration request after cleaning up the backlink profile.

 

  1. Spam generated by users

In general, user-generated spam is found in forum pages, guestbook pages or user profiles, or in those pages that are sent by visitors to the site.

Again, it is worth being proactive and researching these situations on the site before they degenerate into a manual action. The page cleaning process is articulated in these steps:

  • Identify pages where users can leave comments.
  • Search for spam, such as:
    • ds that present themselves as comments.
    • Comments that include irrelevant links.
    • Usernames containing spam such as “Discounted Insurance” that do not sound like real people’s names and refer to unrelated sites.
    • Comments that are automatically generated, generic or off-topic.
  • Search the site for unexpected or spam content using the Google Search site: operator and adding commercial or adult keywords that are not related to the topic of the site.
  • Remove all spam and inappropriate content.
  • Prevent the display of un-moderated content on the website.
  • When the site is clean and is no longer in breach, request a review from Google.

 

News and Discover’s norm violations

To this list of “known” issues, in February 2021 another dozen of possible violations specific to the guidelines of Google News and Google Discover has been added. It should be made clear that a manual action for Google News or Google Discover does not affect our performance in Google Search, but only produces an impact on the performance of the site in these news sections.

For the correction of the manual action resulting from any of the following problems, the path is always the same:

  • Find and remove any content that, even remotely, may violate Discover’s policy regarding the prohibited topic.
  • When we have completed the review and made the necessary changes, send a request for reconsideration in Search Console, lengthening us in providing sincere explanations on the issue and in particular, “evidence of a change in the editorial practices, including new editorial guidelines and a timeline of improved editorial board practices”.

 

  1. Content with adult themes

Google explicitly forbids the display of adult themed content in Discover; this means a ban on nudity, sexual exploitation materials and even sexually allusive content, and the only exception concerns scientific or medical terms related to human or sexual education.

  1. Dangerous content

Google prohibits the publication of any content that may lead directly to serious and immediate harm to people or animals, even if it is not very specific in this regard. According to Chuck Price, the analogous definition of YouTube is much more detailed, so it can be taken as a plausible reference to understand what types of topics to avoid.

And then, are considered dangerous contents such as, among others:

  • Extremely dangerous challenges (involving the risk of physical injury).
  • Dangerous or threatening pranks (that cause victims to fear serious imminent physical harm or create severe emotional distress in minors).
  • Instructions to kill or harm (which show viewers how to perform activities whose goal is to kill or maim others, such as instructions on how to build a bomb to hurt or kill other people).
  • Use or production of hard drugs (which show the abuse of hard drugs or which provide instructions on how to produce such drugs)
  • Eating disorders (contents that praise and promote anorexia or other eating disorders, or encourage viewers to imitate typical behaviors).
  • Violent events (promoting or extolling violent tragedies, such as school shootings).
  • Instructions for theft or scams (which show viewers how to steal material goods or promote dishonest behavior).
  • Hacking (which shows how to use computers or computer science with the intent of stealing credentials, compromising personal data or causing serious harm to others).
  • Circumvention of payment of digital content or services (which show viewers how to use apps, websites or other computer resources to access audio or audiovisual materials, complete video games, software or streaming services that are normally paid for free and without permission).
  • Promotion of dangerous cures or remedies (in which it is claimed that therapies or harmful substances have beneficial effects on health).

 

  1. Harassing content

Google considers harassing content that is related to harassment, bullying or threatening content, “including, but is not limited to, content that may target individuals for the purpose of mistreatment, threatening serious injury, sexually characterising them in an unwanted manner or exposing private information that could be used to threaten them, denigrate or discredit victims of violence or tragedy, deny an atrocity or harass in other ways”.

  1. Content that incites hate

Google does not allow the publication of content that promotes or legitimises violence, or that has as its main purpose to foment contempt towards an individual or a group for reasons related to – by way of example – origin or ethnic group, religion, disability, age, nationality, war veteran status, sexual or gender orientation or identity or other characteristics associated with discrimination or systemic marginalisation.

  1. Manipulated multimedia content

Google does not allow the publication of audio, video or image content that has been manipulated to deceive, defraud or mislead by creating a representation of actions or events that, in a verifiable manner, have not taken place and cause reasonable persons to form a substantially different idea or impression, to the point of causing significant damage to groups or individuals or of significantly compromising participation or confidence in electoral or civic processes.

This “is probably the biggest threat facing social media and perhaps society as a whole,” Price says.

  1. Medical content

In line with its policy on YMYL issues, Google does not accept any content that is contrary to or contradicts medical or scientific evidence or best practices; in particular, it may sanction content that appears to be in breach of our medical content rules because its main purpose is to provide advice, diagnosis or medical treatment for commercial purposes, nor does it accept content from sites that contradict or conflict with scientific or medical consensus and best evidence-based practices.

  1. Misleading content

There is a fine line between clickbait and penalties for misleading content: inducing users to click on the page promising a topic or story, but delivering something else, overcomes that line and is considered deceptive, because “misleads users to interact with the site itself with the promise of a topic or news not present in the content“.

  1. Sexually explicit content

Google prohibits content that seems to violate the rules relating to sexually explicit content “because it presents sexually explicit images or videos whose main purpose is to cause sexual arousal”.

  1. Content of a terroristic nature

Google prohibits content of a terrorist nature, which promotes terrorism or extremist acts, including recruitment, incitement to violence or the celebration of terrorist attacks.

  1. Trasparency

The sanction affects content that seems to violate Google’s transparency rules that, in particular, require all news sources to disclose basic information about the content that is being distributed to ensure that it is a reliable source, including information about who wrote the articles. For this reason, the articles in News clearly indicate dates and names of the authors, and also include information about the authors, the magazine, the publisher, the company or the related network and contact information.

  1. Violence and heinous content

Google does not allow the publication of content that violates the rules relating to violence and heinous content because they incite violence or glorify it; moreover, extremely explicit or violent materials whose purpose is to disgust other people and which are sensationalistic, with no reason or shocking are not allowed.

  1. Vulgar and blasphemous language

Google prohibits the use of prohibited vulgar and blasphemous language, such as free profanity or obscenities.

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