Google’s Webmaster Guidelines can fester a sense of dread, unease and pessimism among brands who are looking to boost their search engine optimisation (SEO) performance. The strategy that was working like clockwork just the other month has all of a sudden fallen off a cliff, seeing the results page suffer dramatically and visitors turning away in droves.
What the hell happened?
Well there could be any number of factors at play. From the content strategy to keyword performance in the niche to increased competition – all of it can be a stumbling block. These are generally the challenges that will arise over the course of a company’s lifespan, yet there could very well be other problems that are taking place without you even realising.
As the headline search engine on the market, Google hold an incredible amount of power and sway over how the online marketplace operates and performs. Rather than acting as kingmakers to make decisions ad hoc, they are simply reflecting the collective behaviours of society as communities begin to embrace the switch to mobile and the drive towards social media.
Right now the environment is in a constant state of flux, so there is no need to feel a state of disillusionment. If your brand is being negatively affected by a penalty, then you can be assured there are millions of others who are desperately seeking answers.
Seeing anywhere between 500-600 algorithm updates that are being factored into the Google equation annually, it is vital for business operators to be informed about the penalties they can suffer and understand the solutions that are available to them.
Google has been attempting to crack down on spam activity almost from their inception as a brand. The search engine was geared towards a user-friendly model that ensured people from all corner of the market could enjoy a stress-free experience without being hampered by spam.
There were a series of updates that tackled this issue head-on:
- Florida update of 2003
- Jagger update of 2005
- Big Daddy update of 2005
- Payday Loan update of 2013
‘Spam’ in a broad sense is a large tent that covers a number of issues, from generic pop-ups to backlinks, cloaking, structured markups and anything else that is intended to deceive the user or flood their screen with unwanted content.
Google will hand down either a site-wide match penalty or a partial match depending on the severity of the spam violation.
The solution to your spam penalty is dependent on which two punishments are imposed. If it is only a partial match, then it is best to give Google a Reconsideration Request to plead your case and outline that have taken proactive action to address the matter.
Should you experience the site-wide penalty, then there is no option but to opt out and reboot your entire campaign. That will include new login details and a new name.
Consider that move a clean slate and a lesson learned.
Penalty: Thin content
The Panda update on February 23, 2011 was one of the first salvos that Google sent out in the war to combat sites that were purely designed for search engines. These tricks included tactics like exact match domains (EMDs) where the objective was never to satisfy the user but ensure the crawlers were picking up on the applicable metrics.
Thin content would be exemplified by cheap blog posts that regurgitated and spun other sites for their own purposes. Many of these operators utilised software that crafted this through auto-generation – once more, proving that they needed a robot to convince the Google bots that they were genuine.
Once more, Google have handed down and will continue to hand down either site-wide matches for entire domains or partial matches to hamper particular pages.
Online marketers need to be careful when it comes to repetition. A content strategy can make use of old posts that gained a lot of traction from the consumer base, but duplicates and campaigns that are mostly copy-and-paste efforts are viewed in poor light by the search engine.
A program like Easy Duplicate Finder can undertake the heavy lifting to ensure visitors are not experiencing Groundhog Day on your site.
Likewise, thin landing pages should be resolved by one of two steps:
- Delete it permanently
- Make it rich with content to offer more text, multimedia or something of worth to the user that is not designed purely for the sake of SEO
Penalty: Sneaky redirects
To try and get around the need to follow the prompts on optimisation, some Black-hat operators will use a URL to send a user to a site that was not as advertised. This is a violation of the guidelines because it deceives visitors and it deceives the crawlers who require this data for indexing purposes.
The redirect can arrive through a handful of different forms. The most common is simply publishing a hyperlink that is intended to send to the source related to the text, yet ends up somewhere that bares no relevance. Others will see a differentiation between desktop links and mobile links, attempting to cash in on the smartphone market.
This one is fairly straightforward – don’t install URLs that act as redirects. Should the mistake be an innocent one whereby an honest error was occurring during the implementation process, then engage in some software programs to tackle this issue.
A site like Monitor Backlinks will provide an analysis as to where your backlinks will ultimately send your visitors. In the event that they do not compute, it will be up to the user to formulate a landing page that ties into the text or vice versa.
Following on from a similar theme to sneaky redirects is the technique of cloaking. What this Black-hat practice “achieves” is to present a URL that will be viewed differently from the perspective of the search engine to the user. Cloaking easily fits the category of deception and by this metric, it is something that penalises the ranking of a website.
Hackers absolutely thrive off the cloaking method because their tracks can be almost impossible to source and it can take many days or weeks before an enterprise even realises a hack has taken place.
Keywords can be inserted that are only designed for Google within the HTML text, crafting two very distinct modules for the purposes of the search engine.
Penalty: Not mobile-friendly
As Australia surges to 20 million smartphones by the year 2019 , it is clear that operations like Google have to take notice and act accordingly. Desktops are still a consideration for the search engine giant, yet the power balance has suddenly shifted in favour of the hand-held devices.
This has seen a rise in the phenomenon known as Local SEO – events whereby users are engaging with their Apple or Android to search for and tap into brand information within their current proximity. What this has caused is an inherent pressure on domains to be savvy and prepared for mobile traffic, punishing those that cannot cater to the smartphone market.
From slow loading speeds to content out of proportion or unwanted pop-up advertisements, there are a number of issues that can arise between a website on desktop compared to its mobile compatriot.
There is no hidden agenda from Google on this standpoint other than to drop sites who fail to adhere to a friendly mobile operating system. The browser experience has to be simple to navigate otherwise the indexing will demote the URL accordingly.
The Mobile-Friendly Test from Google is the central go-to hub for all things regarding smartphone analysis. The following report will be able to identify what elements of the site should be improved and can source areas that are slowing down the speed.
In the event that constant issues arise in relation to mobile compatibility, then a brand new host who caters to this market might be the best avenue. WordPress is an ideal start-up choice to integrate all of your content through, delivering a simple dashboard that incorporates articles, video, images and an interface that can be navigated on mobile and desktop equally well.
In 2018, there is no real excuse not to have a website that meets the demands of the mobile generation. Isolate what is hampering smartphone performance and take action today.
When we summarise how this Google machine works, there is no method in which the end user will manage to get the upper hand. No matter what nefarious tactic is implemented, it will hurt the domain in the long-term because the guidelines are used to enforce the rules.
Should your brand seek to become an established presence on the web where organic traffic is flowing freely and impressions are being made by the hour, then adhere to the law. Keep note of the updates and changes that take place, understanding that the companies who keep their finger on the pulse are the ones who ultimately benefit.
Google have issued a series of basic principles as per their guidelines. This is the best method to ensure that you are playing by the rules and that your domain is insured for prosperity:
- Offer value, engaging and unique content to your visitors
- Ignore cheap tricks that attempt to score an artificial boosting
- Avoid deception of the consumer base at all costs
- Cater the online experience for users first and Google second
If you fall foul of any of these, whether by accident or design, re-examine your approach, run an audit and send through a Reconsideration Request.
Kieran is the Social Media Manager and SEO Expert at SEO Shark. He is an expert in Social Media, link building, PPC and of course SEO. In his time off work Kieran enjoys reading and playing rugby, as well as following all kinds of sports! You can read some more of his articles here.