What 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.
- Google Penalized One Article On BBC’s Web Site
- Google Hits Mozilla With Spam Penalty Over User Generated Content
- Google Updates Link Warnings To (Sort Of) Clarify They Can Be Ignored (Maybe)
- Google Now Reports “Practically 100%” Of Manual Actions
- How Google’s Disavow Links Tool Can Remove Penalties
- Google Charts “Manual Actions” Against Spam In Search For First Time