Nobody wants to end up in the Google jail cell, but even the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. So, in the interest of putting all the cards on the table, lets take a closer look at the two primary forms of penalties that can effect a site as well as a few SEO tactics that are considered to be in direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Tools Guidelines.

1. Algorithmic Penalty: These penalties are a result of an update to Google’s algorithm and not one Google itself handed out. i.e. Google did not single out a website for violation of Webmaster Guidelines.  Think Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird.

2. Manual Penalty: Is placed by somebody from inside Google after physically checking on the site and confirming it has infringed on one or more of their rules. Google takes Manual Action (first providing notice of violations on your Search Console), giving you time to correct those mistakes before applying a penalty. Google sends out approximately 400,000 of these every month.

Now that we are clear on the types of penalties and their distinctions, lets take a closer look at the ‘usual suspects’ and how they can be avoided. While we will focus here on the most common violations, know that Google changes its algorithm 500-600 times a year, most minor but many significant that may expand practices that they consider punishable. (Note: for you webmasters out there, see Google’s Webmaster Central Blog for guidance on building high-quality sites).

Over Optimized Anchor Text Links

April 24, 2012 was the day Google rolled out its Penguin update in order to target and weed out spammy SEO tactics. Excessive Anchor Text in backlinks was one area were sites were hit hard. Anchor text is the hyerlinked portion of content that typically indicates the reader can learn more about a subject, company, service etc. These links point to either internal pages intended to move a user deeper through the sales funnel OR they will bring the user to a different site altogether. For example you could read this blog post if you wanted to learn more about Anchor Text links OR you could read the same post via Moz.  Both links point to the same URL but one is optimized for ‘Moz’ where the other is more intuitive. A few things to keep in mind when creating Anchor Text links:

  • Avoid only using keywords. This is rarely what makes most sense to a reader and will attribute to a link appearing unnatural.
  • Make sure the link is pointing to a useful resource, otherwise the user will bounce and that can signal to Google that the link is not authentic.

Link Schemas

A link schema is the presence of external or internal links that can manipulate a site’s rankings in an unnatural way. Some forms of link schemas include:

  • Purchasing large amounts of low quality links
  • Acquiring a large amount of low quality links in a short amount of time.
  • Excessive guest blogging,
  • Over submission to directory sites or social bookmarking,
  • Link stuffing your footers.

This is in clear violation of Google’s Webmaster Tools Guidelines and could result in a Manual Link penalty that could de-rank your site from the SERP’s.

Keyword Over-Optimization

For those SEO’s fighting against conformity, this could seem like breaking the cardinal rule. Unfortunately those resisting change could find themselves in hot water with Google. Over optimization is now seen as a potential black hat tactic and SEO’s must be cognizant of this fine line. The key is striking a ‘just enough’ balance.

As a general rule of thumb, avoid the following:

  • Stuffing content with exact-match Anchor Text
  • Obvious Link Exchange practices. This is already a signal of span to Google. Stick with in-content link exchanges. For more information on link exchanges click here.
  • Acquiring a high volume of links, especially irrelevant links in a short amount of time.

“It’s widely believed that keyword stuffing and link exchanges are already spam signals in Google’s algorithm, so either Google intends to ratchet up the amount of penalty or dampening that those spam signals merit algorithmically or they have new over-optimization signals in mind as well,” – Matt Cutts (Google)

Duplicate Content

According to Google’s Webmaster Tools Guidelines, duplicate content “Generally refers to substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar.” Although this is clearly against best practices there are instances where this is unintentional. These could include:

  • Discussion forums that generate both regular and stripped-down pages
  • Store items shown or linked via multiple distinct URLs
  • Printer-only versions of web pages.

For further explanation of how Google deals with duplicate content and how it chooses which to show in the SERPS watch this video from Matt Cutts.

High Bounce Rate

Bounce rates can sometimes be a subjective quality measure depending on the page. Some pages experience higher bounce rates as the user lands and quickly finds what they are looking for like an address or phone number. On the other hand, a high bounce rate can be attributed to a site acquiring the wrong kind of traffic. If you are suffering from the latter, it’s important to do what you can to increase the time a user is spending on a page. A few tips include:

  • Optimize for Mobile. Its no surprise that more and more content is being consumed via mobile devises. As such responsive themes are going to become more important in order to accommodate those visits.
  • Stay Relevant. Unless you are in an industry that never changes, more than likely the content on your site could use a refresh from time-to-time. The quickest way to lose a visit is if the site is curated with outdated content.
  • Segment Content- Be sure you are separating content into top, middle and bottom of the funnel. Move users through the funnel by creating valuable content and intuitive calls to action.


Google’s change to a mobile-first indexing of sites has a huge effect on site owners who have not built a good mobile site. For more information on how Google is shifting to a mobile-first assessment of sites, see our recent article, Google’s Mobile-First Indexing Will be Put in Place This Year: What You Need to Know. Having a poor or low-content mobile site will drastically drop your rankings come summer 2018.