Q&A With Google’s Matt Cutts On What To Do If You Get A Manual Penalty

google-penalty-squareWhat to do if Google sends you a penalty notice, and you can’t figure out exactly what it’s for? Turn to Google’s webmaster help forum, says the head of Google’s Web spam team, Matt Cutts. If you’re still confused after that, you can file a reconsideration request where you might be given more details.

The issue of confusing notices came up this week after Mozilla received a “manual” penalty notice because of a single page of spam found on its site. This followed the BBC receiving an “unnatural link” warning last month because of links pointing to a single page on its site.

The good news for those publishers is that in both cases, penalties were only applied against those particular pages. But the notices didn’t make that clear, generating some visible concern. Moreover, as both sites have millions of pages of content, trying to figure out which page is the troublesome one seems very much a needle-in-the-haystack effort.

Google has talked about being more “transparent” with these types of notices, especially after last year’s mess of sending out unnatural link warnings that caused panic, then further confusion, when Google said they could maybe be ignored. Google has begun sending out example URLs, in some cases. It even said earlier this month people would get a “clear answer” about what was wrong with their sites, if they filed reconsideration requests.

Q&A On What To Do

Providing more specifics about what’s in violation at the time a notice goes out seems like it would save time all around, for publishers big-and-small, for volunteers who help in Google’s support area and for Google itself. I put that, along with some other questions, to the head of Google’s Web spam team, distinguished engineer Matt Cutts. Here’s the email interview:

Q. Why not tell people exactly what’s wrong with their site, to the degree you can do this and especially when it involves some specific URLs, when notices go out?

We’ve significantly improved our webmaster messages over time and we’ll continue to look at ways to make the messages more concrete and actionable.

Q.) If someone gets a notice, can they go back to Google via a reconsideration request and ask for more advice about what’s wrong, especially to get something specific?

If someone gets a notice about webspam that means that they have a manual webspam action. If the message is unclear and the webmaster wants more advice, we recommend asking questions in our webmaster SEO forum. After the issue is resolved, webmasters can file a reconsideration request.

After a webmaster files a reconsideration request, we do provide information about how the request was processed, e.g. if the request was granted or whether more work still needs to be done. We don’t have the resources to have a one-on-one conversation with every single webmaster, but we do reply to some reconsideration requests with more information and advice.

Q.) If people can’t expect to get specific advice, what should they do? What should someone like the BBC or Mozilla do to find that needle-in-a-haystack?

I think this is covered in [advice] about going to the webmaster forum

Manual Vs. Algorithmic Penalties

Now let me step back and take that advice above to put it in greater perspective.

First, Google has two types of penalties: manual and algorithmic. It actually prefers to call these “actions” or “adjustments,” but the end result is the same. If you’re hit with a manual or algorithmic penalty, some or perhaps all of your content won’t rank as well in Google as before the action was taken.

Google Now Reports “Practically 100%” Of Manual Actions is our article from last year that explains much more about both types, how to tell what you got and what to do if hit by an algorithmic penalty. How Google’s Disavow Links Tool Can Remove Penalties also covers dealing with an algorithmic penalty like the Penguin Update.

Figuring Out Why, Exactly, You Got A Manual Penalty

You’ll almost certainly know if you have a manual penalty because Google will tell you. It’s been doing that in virtually all cases since last fall.

With a manual penalty, you generally need to fix the problem, then inform Google of this by filing a reconsideration request. But what do you do if you can’t tell what the exact problem is, what the offending page or pages in question are?

Cutts says you should turn to the Google Webmaster Central help forum that Google maintains. There, volunteers offer advice about what they think might be wrong with sites that are submitted.

The volunteers don’t actually know what’s wrong with these sites. They’re not Google employees. They don’t have access to why exactly a site received a manual action notice. They’re effectively guessing at what might be a problem. They might make excellent, educated guesses. They might be off-the-mark.

The Forum Sounds Good, But….

In the case of the BBC, none of the volunteers could tell exactly why it got an unnatural link warning, as you can see in the discussion. Several said it was likely something the BBC didn’t need to worry about, despite the fact that Google has said on several occasions that if you get any type of notice, it is something you should worry about.

Ultimately, an actual Google employee had to step in, say that it was about links pointing to a single article, reassured that it wasn’t impacting the site overall and still never seemed to explain exactly what page was involved.

In the case of Mozilla, volunteers gave plenty of examples of potential spam on the site to the Mozilla rep who sought help, as you can see from the discussion. But none of them spotted the actual single page that was in question. It took a Google rep to step in and give a stronger hint about where to look, then Cutts himself ultimately stepped in to isolate the particular page in question.

The concern here is that publishers — large or small — potentially enter the forums for advice about a penalty Google has sent, then get sent on a wild goose chase to fix things that might not be the actual problem.

Maybe fixing those other things highlighted is a good idea, but that’s not what the violation was about — and unless the violation itself gets fixed, it’s not going to be lifted.

If Penalties Were Traffic Tickets

To use a metaphor, it’s as if you get pulled over by a police officer and are given a ticket for something that’s wrong with your car. The ticket simply says that there’s something unsafe on the car, but it doesn’t indicate what exactly is wrong.

You’ve got to get the problem solved, so you go to a group of mechanics. Maybe they spot a broken taillight, and that gets fixed. Maybe they spot that you have low tire pressure, so that gets repaired. And if either of these are the problem, then when you go to court to show you’re fixed the problem, you’re fine.

But maybe the problem is a chipped windshield that no one spots. If that’s not fixed, then you’re still going to be in trouble.

Filing The Request

Given all this, you’d think that if Google is going to be issuing more tickets — something it has ramped up over the past year or so — it might want to get more detailed about what those tickets are for. If they’re involving a single page, just listing that page when the message goes out doesn’t seem that hard to do. After all, some human being at Google has already reviewed the site and decided for that specific reason to send out a notice.

But that’s the way it is now. You’ll get a notice, and that might not include the specific page or pages at fault. After this happens, you have two choices:

  • Fix what you think is wrong, and file a reconsideration request
  • Turn to the forums for advice on what’s wrong, if you’re uncertain, then fix what seems reasonable to correct and file a reconsideration request

Cutts didn’t clarify what he meant by things being “resolved” in the forums, especially when some questions might not get answered or may lack a “best answer” that’s been designated. My best advice would be to ask, see what you get and use your best judgment. If after a few days you’ve gotten nothing, file the reconsideration request with a note that you need more help.

Ultimately, Google should respond to a reconsideration request, and if it can see a good faith effort to try and correct things, then either the penalty should be lifted or you should get better clarification of what remains to be done.

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Lyndon NA

    Great piece!

    :Sigh:
    I’m tempted to say I cannot believe Matt Cutts is shirking and dumping the responsibility/workload on the Forum Volunteers … but I’d be lying!
    Seriously, G needs to buck it’s ideas up.
    It’s spent years passing the buck to volunteers – it’s about time they did some of the work themselves.

  • Nandita B

    Matt Cutts should also think about webmasters who have been hit by “Algorithmic Penalty.” There are lots of webmasters who don’t know which algorithm (Panda, Penguin, EMD etc.) has hit their sites.

    There should be some kind of “form” inline of “reconsideration request” to know the exact reason of penalty (adjustments).

  • Mark R

    Some of Matt’s responses make it sound like he was getting a little annoyed with your questions.

  • http://twitter.com/Primod Jason Snape

    Ha, this is pure gold:

    “we recommend asking questions in our webmaster SEO forum.”

    Well, as someone who has spent a little time in that forum, I can say that it is the most unhelpful place on the entire internet full of ‘helpers’ 0- many of these folks don’t run businesses, don’t have websites but that essentially act as Google’s hounds and chide webmasters about all of their nasty, evil spamming.

    If only it were this easy. If only most people understood that the companies they hired to promote their sites were not doing things exactly the right way. And heaven forbid you should ask for help in the webmaster SEO forum and actually expect some help. You may get some abuse, but help, not in my experience.

    This may seem unfair and there are a lot of folks there that do want to help but a few, high profile members seem to enjoy chasing people out of dodge that ask any questions and even chasing away people trying to help.

    The members there seem to assume that every business owner has an in depth knowledge of search and the guidelines that Google has laid down. They assume that if someone has purchased a dodgy SEO package in the past that they are 100% responsible and personally, I don’t think that is right.

    I have worked with many small companies this last year or so who have been buying ‘SEO’ or at least something that worked with regards to their rankings and when the various P bombs dropped this last couple of years they got hurt.

    Okay, fair is fair, whilst they profited, others trying to do things by the book floundered so they are not innocents here but small business owners should be able to go to those forums and ask questions and educate themselves without being abused and chased of the board which is what seemingly happens in many cases.

    There are a lot of hard done by folks that have knowingly spammed who go to these forums for help and maybe they deserve such a response but in the midst of those are small business owners, mom and dad businesses that are having a hard enough time, bought something that worked and get their asses kicked just for asking for help.

    Not cool Google. Not cool Matt Cutts. Not cool Google product forum volunteers – you know who you are.

  • Jamie Press

    Here’s a cool Chrome extension which looks at your Google Analytics chart to overlay Google algorithm updates including Panda and Penguin: https://secure.chartelligence.com/ https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/chartelligence/njhdcfdiifemfnfddhfjmfbkajajceag?hl=en

  • TmWe

    This is absolutely true. And never mind the abuse, a lot of what they say is totally wrong. You see it on all forums though when you give people badges, those with low self-esteem and personality issues think it gives them some sort of importance in life.

  • http://profiles.google.com/gladstein Bob Gladstein

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call it FUD, but I can see why Google would choose not to be completely transparent about this (no matter what they may publicly say). If you find out you’ve been penalized for something you did, but you’re not told exactly what you did, you need to think about the risks you’ve taken. There are probably a few different things that may have caused the penalty. If the reconsideration request calls for a mea culpa, then you’re going to have to fix all of those things and admit to having done them. That may help Google improve their algorithmic methods of detecting those practices that they didn’t happen to catch you for.

    It also gives them clues about what you might typically do. If Agency X did this, this and this on Site A, maybe they did the same kind of things on sites B, C, and D.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jan.willers Jan Willers

    I believe Sometimes Google sents out manual penalties even without they have found something. Why do they do so? To learn how SEO’s react who actually did something compared to the others who did not. Even Google has to learn the old fashioned way.

  • http://twitter.com/durant_imboden Durant Imboden

    Well, his job is to stop spam, not to help spammers who have seen the light and repented. :-)

  • Daria Mack

    Wow Danny, this is a new level of being useless. The best site for Search Engines is parroting from Google that we need to post on a useless and abusive forum and then do a reconsideration request. Such breaking news!!

    Why don’t you just give up the pretense? Google has gone pay to play on all commercial SERPs and all they care is ads and ad clicks. Even the ever phony Matt Cutts couldn’t help but show his annoyance with your questions. (He’s done with Google too, he just has to wait for the current batch of stock options to kick in.)

  • Daria Mack

    How do you know what his real job is?

  • http://twitter.com/durant_imboden Durant Imboden

    I don’t think it’s any secret that, to use his own description, Matt Cutts is “currently the head of Google’s Webspam team.”

  • http://www.infoeducations.com/ chaudhary amir

    wonderful great article Danny

  • http://twitter.com/durant_imboden Durant Imboden

    Maybe the solution would be to have openness and transparency on both sides. Site owners or SEOs could submit a list of their guideline violations, and Google would tell them which items on the list were responsible for the manual penalty.

  • Lyndon NA

    @twitter-16691476:disqus
    Not being funny – but I actually spent a fair bit of time in the Google Webmaster Forums, providing help and support to hundreds/thousands of people/sites/businesses.

    It’s not always “spam” as in Spammers.
    Sometimes it’s “spam” out of naivety.
    Sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding.
    Other times it’s due to what someone else has done.
    Other times it’s an intentional quality issue.
    Other times it’s an accidental quality issue.
    There are times when there is no rhyme/reason (they get hit, competitor with same setup doesn’t).

    On the odd occasion it’s actually a problem with Google.

    So not exactly as clear cut as you paint it.
    (You try spending a few hours a day, every day, helping out people and then pass judgement. The vast majority don’t read the FAQs, don’t have a clue what they are doing … and start doing some seriously dumb things out of panic.)

    Sure – don’t help the spammers – I think that’s fine (Something many will agree with!).

    That still leaves plenty of others that are deserving of support and some help.

    G have the capacity to identify a level of trust and a degree of transgression.
    But they don’t bother.
    Instead, we see the bigger sites get some feedback, whilst the huge number of normal sites are left to fend for themselves, or get help from volunteers doing Googles job.

  • Lyndon NA

    I’ll counter that.
    I know that some of the TCs and Regulars there happen to run their own businesses, and run their own sites, and some happen to do the same for their clients/family/friends etc.
    (Please get your facts right)

    As for the grief … yes, it can/does happen.
    Usually to those that don’t bother reading the FAQs, Searching for similar topics, looking at existing/current topics and often don’t provide even the basic details (such as a URL, the date they saw things go wrong etc.).

    When you are faced with lazy people that are wilfully ignorant … and you are left with the same question you have handled 3 times that day, 20 times that week, 180 times that month… you tend to get a bit peevish.

    Throw in the fact that a fair % of those posting are actually crummy SEOs looking for free education … often charging their clients then posting to get free help for something they cannot do…
    … or are people that have intentionally spammed G, got caught and now looking for a way out…
    … and the level of peevishness goes up.

    Maybe YOU should try giving a few hours a day, every day, and see what it’s like?
    Maybe after you’ve dealt with 50-100 people posting about the same 6 topics, failing to provide any commonsense details and are generally overly defensive … you’ll have a slightly more mature and informed view?

    No, that doesn’t excuse some of the behaviour.
    No, that doesn’t legitimise some of the language.
    But it does portray “the other view” that so many fail to mention.

    As for the answers … all in all, most of the answers are accurate/correct.
    People may not like them, they may steer away from common SEO scummy tactics … but they do tend to provide safe, solid information.

  • http://ftc.gov/ MonopolizedSearch

    Jason is right. Google earns so much money but gives so little back to the community. Google’s webmaster help forum is simply an unmoderated place for webmasters to get trashed by others in a public setting. Talk about a very poor user experience! Hey Google, practice what you preach and clean up that cesspool of a forum that is supposed to “help” webmasters.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    “The concern here is that publishers — large or small — potentially enter
    the forums for advice about a penalty Google has sent, then get sent on
    a wild goose chase to fix things that might not be the actual problem.”

    No one can ever get a complete look under the hood of your website, so the real issue might be completely overlooked or misdiagnosed by people in the forums. It’s not to say that you can’t learn something or walk away with some tips, but it’s still just an educated shot in the dark.

  • http://www.v2interactive.net/ Josh

    So what we learned from this was… Nothing.

  • http://www.v2interactive.net/ Josh

    Annoyed? I picked up apathetic. But regardless, useless.

  • TmWe

    I see. So, it is not the forum ‘volunteers’ who make the forum such a hostile, challenging, confrontational, discouraging and downright worthless place to ask questions. But it is the people who are asking the questions who are the root cause. Interesting angle.

  • Lyndon NA

    No.

    It’s a matter of Both.

    There are some efforts that could be made from the Regulars/TRs … but not having to face hugely repeated questions, not having to drag the obviously required information out of posters etc. would go a long, Long, LONG way to reducing irritation.

    Seriously – go and try it. See how you feel after answering “how long till indexed” for the 20th time in a week …. then compare it to your feelings at the end of a month and answering it 100+ times.

    I also notice you blithely ignored your previous inaccuracies being pointed out :D

  • Lyndon NA

    I cannot believe this … but I’m going to step up on behalf of G here…

    :yuk:

    Google do a lot of good … there’s various donations, endevours and support efforts they do each and every year.
    It’s not like they simply take money and don’t give anything back.

    The problem is, most site owners don’t realise … they are Not G’s clients/customers.
    They are Googles food … and there is no shortage of it.

    So what if you site tanks, there’s 100+ others out there to take your place.

    Why should G expend even more money on supporting people?
    They paid for the forum format etc.

    I
    know, I think it sucks too – it took years of some of us screaming at
    them to get improvements (Some of which I only saw a few years after I
    left the forums).

    But G really has little interest in handling the basic stuff of the multitude.
    And, not being funny – but translate it to a “real world” scenario. Websites are assets, like a company car.
    How many people try to fix their own company car? How many try to tweak it to race? How many expect their car to win?
    Yet
    there are thousands out there that fiddle without much of a clue, that
    haven’t read the manuals, that don’t have the right tools etc. :(

    Personally I’d like to see much better support … but I wouldn’t hold your breath if I were you.
    Personally, I’d love to see G provide real support (Rather than using and abusing volunteers)

  • TmWe

    “I also notice you blithely ignored your previous inaccuracies ….” Not me, looks like you need to review this comment thread!

  • Lyndon NA

    My apologies, I merged your comments with the OPs.
    You are correct, it wasn’t you.

  • http://kercommunications.com/ Nick Ker

    Just want to throw in another thing the Google Forum TCs face, as I have had it happen to me when attempting to help there or just about anywhere else.

    Imagine taking some time to offer some knowledge, or even digging in and doing some analysis for someone who needs help. Then that person gets angry with you for pointing out problems with their site, their incoming links or whatever the issue is. So yeah, if you are going to act like a jerk, someone is going to call you a jerk sooner or later.

    It seems a great many of the people who seek help in the forums aren’t really looking for help. They are looking for someone to tell them it’s all Google’s fault, or they are looking for a get out of jail free card. Some will even flat out lie about their situation – “I don’t have any spam links” when there are thousands, “I have all original content” except for 80% of the blog which is copied from elsewhere, or “this is the first time this has happened” then you find where they asked the same question 3 months ago.

    I can totally understand why the TCs get frustrated, but there are a few who start out a little abusive, rather than being pushed toward it.

    All that being said, there are plenty of site owners who really haven’t done anything particularly bad who have a tough time getting a straight answer when Google does screw up. Google Places/Local comes to mind as a problem area with few official answers and they are often incorrect.

  • http://twitter.com/ceilascorner Charlotte Klein

    People seem to be confused and upset, looking for the right answers. Maybe if we could all connect and be friends it could lead the way for a better understanding of the rules and practices we need to implement for ourselves and others in the Google world.

  • Lyndon NA

    Not a problem Nick … and good call.

    I’ll admit – I used to start off answer about 60% of posts with a bit of aggression/frustration … but that’s roughly the % of posts that were duplicated, lacking the requested information, the poster had blatantly lied about reading the FAQs/Searching etc.
    If that isn’t enough to put someone in an irritated mood, what is?

    One of the things I used to get was “then don’t answer”.
    The problem there is that results in a larger % of posts getting no answer. Further, it encourages that sort of behaviour – it teaches peopel that they don’t need to comply with polite requests that save time/effort/resources – instead they can waste other peoples time.

    No, being harsh to people is not a wonderful thing to do … but nor is taking up other peoples time unnecessarily.

    Both sides need to fix their issues :D

  • http://twitter.com/GooglePenalty Gary Lee

    “Turn to Google’s webmaster help forum”? Matt Cutts you are an idiot! Yep pass the workload to the Volunteers! You should be ashamed of yourself. You are letting your search customers down and the whole internet. With every second you delay on helping clean up spam by not having a GOOGLE EMPLOYEE on the actual forum to help you are making the issue worse.

    You are a disgrace and so is Google. You have been caught giving wrong information to webmaster here http://www.reconsiderationrequests.net/google-hangouts/26-April-2013.php#Q5

    The webspam team is so slow to react to webspam reports that it encourages spam! It has for years and years.

    Sort it out!!!!!! OR quit your job!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mücahit-Güner/100003339168229 Mücahit Güner

    great article.Thank you for this information Seo

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