How to recover from a manual action or Google penalty

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From time to time, Google will roll out algorithm updates that detect issues with certain sites and subsequently issue them with penalties. These can lead to sudden drops in traffic, spelling disaster for your business. 

What’s more, manual actions can be filed against your site if human reviewers decide that you are in violation of Google’s policies. 

The good news is that there are ways to figure out whether you’ve been hit by a penalty and preventative steps to take so you can ensure you’re less likely to be affected in the future.  

We have created processes to recover from both types of Google penalty as quickly and effectively as possible. 

What penalties can you get? 

There are two types of penalty – those which are detected by the algorithms, and those which are spotted by human reviewers. 

Algorithmic penalties 

Google doesn’t tend to give much away about how its algorithms work. However, two core parts of it are: 

  • Panda update – addressed poor quality content. 
  • Penguin update – addressed black hat link building. 

Therefore, some of the reasons your site could be given an algorithmic penalty include: 

  • Thin content – the copy on the page is only slightly valuable, or it offers no helpful information for readers.  
  • Duplicate content – content which is identical, or very similar, across multiple URLs is marked as duplicate 
  • Poor quality content – the page is not useful for readers and doesn’t follow EEAT guidelines 
  • Spam – deceptive techniques such as keyword stuffing, content scraping, cloaking and hidden text. Google has a page outlining its spam policies. 
  • Mobile unfriendliness – the site or page has not been optimized for mobile and users will have difficulty using it 
  • Ad-heavy content – a form of spam where pages have lots of ads taking up the page, or the copy includes a lot of affiliate or advertising links 
  • Over-optimization of meta text – using keyword stuffing, irrelevant keywords or writing unnatural sentences to try and manipulate rankings 
  • Lack of relevant keywords in the content – inserting high-volume keywords in unrelated copy in an effort to deceptively boost search traffic 
  • Poor quality links – link building efforts designed purely to boost rankings 

Manual penalties 

These will be given out by human reviewers when they conclude that a website is in violation of Google Search Essentials. Reasons for these penalties include: 

  • Unnatural links to your site – Using link schemes or buying links in order to build your backlink profile at scale 
  • Unnatural links from your website – Accepting payment for outbound links or participating in deceptive link exchange schemes  
  • User-generated spam – Having spam content such as comments or profile names with advertisements, unrelated links or gibberish text on your pages 
  • Thin content with little or no added value – Publishing content which does not provide a clear benefit for users 
  • Keyword stuffing – Placing large volumes of keywords into your main content or meta copy to try and improve your search rankings 
  • Hidden text – Adding copy which cannot be easily viewed by users, such as white text on a white background or placing text behind an image 
  • Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects – Displaying different pages to users when compared with what is shown to Google when crawlers access the site 
  • Google News and Discover policy violations – Producing content which isn’t appropriate for Google News and/or Discover, such as pages which are not sufficiently transparent or content which has been artificially freshened 
  • Incorrect structured data markup – Using techniques which do not comply with Google’s structured data guidelines, such as adding structured data which does not match the content 
  • Pure spam – aggressive spam which is in violation of Google’s spam policies 

How to find out if you have a Google penalty 

It’s important to regularly log into Google Analytics and Search Console so that you can keep on top of any traffic changes or other consequences of algorithm updates, as well as updates indicating that your site has issues which need to be addressed. 

On top of your regular routine, take the below measures when necessary: 

Algorithmic penalty 

The first step you can take is to log into your Google Analytics dashboard and compare your traffic changes to any algorithm updates which have recently been rolled out.  

Navigate to the report showing your organic traffic, and compare any significant drops to the dates of known algorithm changes. If you notice sudden drops coinciding with update roll outs, then chances are your site has been subject to an algorithmic penalty. 

Manual penalty 

These are easier to find. Log into Google Search Console and go to Search Traffic, then Manual Actions. Any penalties will be listed here. 

How to recover from a Google penalty 

Recovery from a penalty is possible, but the steps to take depends on the type you’ve received. 

Manual penalties 

If you have been issued a manual action by Google, then the process is fairly straightforward. In essence, you need to find the problem, fix it and then tell Google you’ve solved it.  

For example, if you have user-generated spam on your site, you will need to remove it. If your content is in violation of Google News policies due to artificial freshening techniques, you will need to come up with a better process to freshen content, implement it and communicate it with your team so the issue doesn’t happen again.  

Read the details 

Search Console will give you all the information you need – you can read a short description of the issue first, then click on ‘Learn more’ to find more details. 

Be thorough 

Find all of the affected pages and don’t be tempted to cut corners. The fix may be monotonous or take a lot of time to implement, but it’s better than having an active manual action against your site. 

Check robots.txt and noindex 

Before you tell Google you have resolved the issue, you need to check that Google can reach your pages and crawl them effectively. For example, they should not be blocked by robots.txt or a noindex directive.   

Follow the instructions 

Search Console provides step by step instructions to fix the problem, so ensure you remedy the issue thoroughly.

Compile Request Review report 

Once you are confident that the fix has been rolled out, it’s time to create a reconsideration request. These reports should be divided into three parts: 

  • Explains the issue which was highlighted by Search Console 
  • Outlines the steps which have been taken to resolve the issue, ideally with ‘before and after’ examples 
  • Summarises the outcome of the fix and how it resolves the issue 

Await a response 

Google will send you an email once they have made a decision. It’s important to be patient as reviewing requests can take time.

Carry out preventative checks 

Ensure you have processes in place to ensure the issue doesn’t happen again. Act preventatively by incorporating regular content and technical audits. We’ll describe these in more detail below.  

Algorithmic penalties 

You will already have done some research to determine whether an algorithm update is potentially responsible for a penalty being applied to your site. The next steps involve auditing your site to ensure relevant issues are resolved, as well as other problems which could affect you further down the line. 

Identify the update 

You can use the Google Search Status Dashboard to find a list of updates which have been rolled out in the last few years. Each update can be clicked on so that you can read all of the details and connect the dots to figure out why your site may have been penalised. 

Gather problem pages 

Once you know what the issue is, you may have a mental idea of the pages which are likely to be responsible. In this case, you can gather them – for example, list the URLs on a spreadsheet – then work through them to fix the problem. 

If you don’t know which pages are affected, skip straight to the next step. 

Run a technical SEO audit 

Even if your issue isn’t strictly technical, it is good practice to run a technical audit so that any other issues can be flushed out. Make sure you analyse key points such as: 

  • Ensure all pages define a canonical URL 
  • Make sure hreflag is used correctly if applicable 
  • Redirect broken pages or add internal links to orphaned pages 
  • Test structured data markup implementation 
  • Ensure correct implementation of breadcrumbs schema 
  • Check for sitemap errors in Search Console 
  • Improve the loading speed 
  • Implement lazy loading for images and videos 
  • Optimise your robots.txt file 

Run a content SEO audit 

Now is a good time to audit your existing site content and ensure that you won’t be subject to penalties further down the line. Check the following: 

  • Improve or retire thin or no content pages  
  • Work on your content quality so it adheres to EEAT principles 
  • Remove excessive keywords in the main content 
  • Refresh pages which are experiencing content decay 
  • Optimise topic clusters and build them out where applicable 

Need help with Google penalties? 

If your site has been hit by a penalty and you don’t know how to fix it, or don’t have the resource to remedy the situation at pace, book in for a Free Acquisitions Workshop, where you can receive expert advice about your site, including brand penetration, backlink profile health and technical roadblocks.


Imogen Groome

Content Lead

Imogen is the SEO Content Lead at Skittle Digital. Imogen has worked in SEO since 2016. She helped to define SEO strategy at Metro.co.uk before guiding the newsroom at The Sun Online as SEO Editor. She has more than 5 years’ experience in scaling content strategies that drive revenue for brands through organic search channels. In her spare time, Imogen writes books, watches poor-quality reality TV and hangs out with her cats.

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