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Google penalties and messages explained — Search Engine Land’s ultimate guide

Google reserves the right to apply manual spam actions, better known as penalties, to websites it finds in violation of its Webmaster Guidelines. The specific reasons and scope of manual penalties can be manifold, and the actual impact may range from barely noticeable to utterly disastrous for a website’s presence in organic Google Search results.

This regularly updated guide — written by a former senior Google Search Quality team member and SEO consultant — describes what types of penalties currently exist, demystifies Google’s messaging and explains how to go about successfully getting a Google manual penalty removed.

About manual penalties and this guide

Since 2012, Google has scaled up their efforts to communicate with webmasters via Google Search Console, previously known as Google Webmaster Tools, about website issues which are likely to negatively impact upon how visible a site ends up being in organic Google Search for relevant user queries.

This guide focuses on how you should interpret and respond to these notifications, which Google euphemistically calls “warnings,” many of which are related to Google Webmaster Guidelines violations — black-hat techniques spotted by the Google Search Quality team that were deemed egregious enough to trigger sanctions.

But notifications aren’t solely about the employment of black-hat techniques. We’ll also explore some warnings about issues that could be considered sins of omission, in that the site owner has failed to secure the site — allowed it to host spam or be hacked — or has failed to implement structured data markup correctly.

Google has also begun bringing webmasters’ attention to technical issues it identifies. While these may equally impact a site’s visibility in organic Google Search, they are not related to any Google Guideline violations and will be omitted here. That having been said, any piece of information highlighted in Google Search Console should be considered important and be taken seriously.

All sample messages discussed in this guide have been spotted “in the wild” within the last 24 months as of this writing. Older messages, not received in years, are not included in the manual penalty overview. All sample screen shots have been adapted to highlight the most relevant pieces of information that provide guidance on how to resolve the existing issue.

On-page guideline violations & related notifications

This set of violations and notifications apply to problems that have been identified on a site, which are directly under a site owner’s control.

Off-page guideline violations & related notifications

While a site owner may theoretically be unable to control what other places link to the site, black-hat practices like buying links or spamming other sites have led Google to be concerned with off-page issues as well.

Reconsideration requests & related notifications

If you’ve received a manual penalty and have made a good faith effort to fix the issues that triggered it, you can request for Google to review your site so that you can have the penalty lifted. This is what is known as a filing a reconsideration request.

Any time you receive a manual action notification, it should outline all the steps you should take to rectify the problem; these steps will vary depending on the specific penalty that has been issued. Once you’ve satisfied all of the requirements outlined by Google, the final step should contain a “Reconsideration Request” button that will initiate the process once clicked.

As part of the reconsideration request process, you may need to provide the Google team with documentation outlining the steps you have taken to bring the site into compliance with Google Webmaster Guidelines. This will help build a case for why the manual action should be lifted.

Once you’ve fixed all your website issues and submitted a reconsideration request, you may receive one of the following notifications in Google Search Console:

Any questions around Google’s manual penalties not addressed sufficiently in this article are welcome and appreciated. All reader input received will be considered to keep this ultimate guide covering manual penalties up to date.