Top 5 Google Manual Action Penalties and How to Recover

Getting a penalty notice from Google can be annoying, but it’s there to help you perform better and reach more people. Learn how to recover from Manual Action penalties in our latest blog.

Rahul Bhadeshia

Google’s manual action penalties can have a huge impact on business with an online presence. The online visibility of a site can suddenly drop off and this can cost you millions in revenue. Even if you get the penalty removed, you may not be able to recover to the position you once were. Learn about the different SEO penalties which could cause the most impact and how to recover from them.

1. Unnatural Links

Backlinks are one of the most prevalent ranking factors in SEO today, thanks go Google’s Penguin update. Essentially, having trusted and relevant websites pointing back to your own via a link adds authority to your own domain. If your website is linked to from a source such as the BBC or a highly-respected industry-specific website, it will underpin your content and show Google that you are delivering what you promise to users.

The opposite is therefore also true – i.e., if an irrelevant or untrustworthy website is linking to you it will decrease your authority as far as Google is concerned.

Unnatural links are usually found by using link schemes to gain backlinks in order to increase page rank – this is against Google’s guidelines. Doing this could impact your site drastically, including the possibility of getting removed from Google.

It’s not just small business websites that make this mistake, international florist Interflora suffered an extremely harsh penalty in 2013, resulting in them dropping off the face of Google. They were penalised for essentially ‘buying’ links by giving influencers free bouquets in return for links whereby the exact anchor text was provided.


How to Recover from an Unnatural Links Penalty

If you have received a manual action penalty for having unnatural links pointing to your website, you need to follow these steps:

  1. Create a backlink profile so you can see all your backlinks. There are a few tools you can use to do this, including Webmaster Tools and Majestic SEO. This could be quite a job if you have a large site, so it is best to focus your energies on locating unnatural site-wide links
  2. Identify the unnatural links by working out which links could be considered manipulative, or that you would be unlikely to keep if it were a no-follow. Once you have done this, list them all in a spreadsheet so you have a clear view of all unnatural links
  3. Remove the links! If you have been penalised for unnatural links, then you must remove them. This can be particularly stressful as you may have no control over the pages linking to you. In most cases, it will be a case of removing the linked page from your website, or 404 the page so the links become disavowed. If you do have control over the linked page, then simply edit and remove the links yourself.
  4. Use the Disavow Links tool to tell Google to ignore certain links. This is a last resort to use only if you have trouble getting a number of unnatural links disavowed. If you have emailed webmasters to remove links to no avail, this can be your final port of call
  5. File a Reconsideration Request. After you have removed as many unnatural links as you can, it is time to file a request for Google to reconsider the penalty. You will need to prove to Google that you have made every effort to remove these links; provide them with a Google Doc of your efforts (including a list of links you submitted to the Disavow Links tool if necessary). You can also explain to them how you intend on reducing the chance of unnatural links in the future.
Google penalty

2. Hidden Text and/or Keyword Stuffing

If you hide text or links within your website’s content to help your search ranking, you are essentially deceiving Google and breaking the rules. For example, some black hat SEO techniques that used to be employed regularly were things like:

  • Making text the same colour was used to hide lists of keywords
  • Putting text behind an image or moving text off screen using CSS
  • Setting your font size to 0
  • Hiding links by linking with one character (like a comma or a hyphen)

Not only are the above techniques ‘cheating’ in Google’s eyes, but it also provides a negative experience to your user. Pushing a website up the search rankings using these methods will no doubt increase the visibility of irrelevant pages, meaning your user isn’t getting what they really wanted from their search.

Keyword stuffing is another element of SEO that results is significant penalties. For example, if you use keywords unnaturally or simply listing them without including them properly in the prose and without context, you will be penalised.

Are you looking to order dog food online? We are online dog food specialists who provide online dog food delivery for all your online dog food needs.

We can see in the above text that their chosen keywords have not exactly been used sparingly, thereby making an unnatural sentence that doesn’t read well for both Google and your users. Create content that is informational and engaging – you can get your keywords in their naturally, and if not, maybe research some new potential keywords.

3. Structured Data Markup Penalty

Schema mark-up (structured data) is a way to provide Google with more information to better understand the content on your site. The structured data which is shown in the search results can impact the click through rate to your site. Improper use of structured data can cause a “spammy structured markup” penalty, which will result in less information being provided to users in the search results.

How to Recover from a Structured Data Penalty

  1. Check the structured data tab in search console. See if any of your mark-up has got an error. You can click on the error to find out where it is located and what is causing the issue
  2. Check if any of the mark-up errors are conflicting with Google’s guidelines and If you spot an error, ask a developer to fix the issue using the guidelines and
  3. Test the structured data mark-up – use the structured data testing tool provided by Google to see if it has been implemented correctly
  4. Reconsideration request. Submit a reconsideration request to Google so the penalty can be removed. This request should include the penalty you received, how you investigated the problem, what was done to address the issue and a request to Google to review your site for this penalty

4. Thin Content with No Value

If your content is no good, Google will let you know. Content that offers no value to the user is often penalised by Google because it is not giving them what they want. The actual value of content has moved up Google’s list of ranking factors since their Panda update. The new algorithm applies a more human understanding of content. Complaints about ‘content farms’ were coming in thick and fast, which Panda aimed to combat by penalising websites whose content is irrelevant and poorly written.

The types of content that Google considers low-quality include:

  • Automatically generated content
  • Affiliate pages with thin content
  • Content from other sources – such as low-quality guest blogs
  • Doorway pages


How to Recover from a Thin Content Penalty

If you have received a manual action penalty because your content is not up to scratch, you can take the following steps to recover:

  1. Look for duplicate content on your website. Analyse the content on your website to see if duplicates content elsewhere
  2. Check for thin content on pages you link to. Affiliate pages could be harming your website’s ranking, so check you are linking to websites that provide their own users with the right content
  3. Look at removing or repurposing any doorway page or auto-generated content on your website
  4. Request reconsideration of your website. Remember, only do this once you are sure you have changed your website to be in line with Google’s guidelines.
Megaphone saying blah blah

5. Cloaking

Cloaking occurs when you are displaying the user with information that differs from the information you provide to Google. Here some examples of cloaking provided by Google:

  • Serving a page of HTML text to search engines, while showing a page of images or Flash to users
  • Inserting text or keywords into a page only when the user-agent requesting the page is a search engine, not a human visitor

If this is the case, Google will give you a manual action penalty which can have drastic effects on portions or the whole site.

How to Recover from a Cloaking Manual Action

After reviewing Google’s webmaster guidelines on cloaking, you should follow these steps to recovery:

  1. Use the Fetch as Google tool in Search Console to see which areas of the site have been affected and is causing the error
  2. Compare the content fetched by Google to the content seen by a human user (you!) when visiting the site
  3. If the content differs, identify and remove the part of your site that’s serving different content to Google and users. This will require looking through your site’s code on the server
  4. Check for URLs on your site that redirect users to somewhere other than where they expected to go
  5. Check for URLs on your site that redirect conditionally, for example by only redirecting users coming from Google search, or only users coming from a particular range of IP addresses
  6. If your site redirects users in any of these ways, identify and remove the part of your site that generates these redirects. This will require looking through your site’s code on the server
  7. Tip: These types of redirects are often written in JavaScript, or in your .htaccess file. You might also check your content management system and any plugins
  8. When you’re sure that your site is no longer in violation of Google’s guidelines, request reconsideration of your site. After you’ve submitted a reconsideration request, be patient and watch for a message in your Search Console account — Google will let you know when they’ve reviewed your site. If we determine your site is no longer in violation, they’ll revoke the manual action

Yes, getting a manual action penalty is a stressful part of running a website. It may be tempting to rush through the checks and submit a Reconsideration Request as soon as possible to avoid any dips in your ranking, but this is not advisable as you’ll quickly be found out.

Google keeps its cards close to its chest and what once was a frequently-used technique can quickly become ‘black hat’. This, of course, is a good thing as anything that encourages your website to rank for relevance, originality and quality will attract users for the right reasons.