Experts Roundup: The Most Annoying Google Penalties and Updates, and How to Recover from Them

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Experts Roundup: The Most Annoying Google Penalties and Updates, and How to Recover from Them
От экспертов

We've asked renowned SEO specialists about the most annoying Google penalties and updates, how they've recovered from them and which ones have become less disruptive. Let's find out what challenges SEO experts faced.


Marie Haynes

Marie Haynes

Owner of Marie Haynes Consulting

Ann Smarty

Ann Smarty

Founder of Viral Content Bee

Matt Diggity

Matt Diggity

CEO at Diggity Marketing


Adam Chronister

Adam Chronister

Director of Operations at Enleaf

Kevin Indig

Kevin Indig

Mentor for Growth at German Accelerator

Marysia Cieślak

Maria Cieślak

Head of Technical SEO at Elephate


Ross Tavendale

Ross Tavendale

Managing Director at Type A Media

Justyna Pruszyńska

Justyna Pruszyńska

SEO Executive / CM Creative Support at Bluerank

David Iwanow

David Iwanow

Global Search & Traffic Manager at Danone Early Life Nutrition and Writer at travel-network.co


Marie Haynes

Marie Haynes

Owner of Marie Haynes Consulting

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

Google is not giving out many manual actions any more. However, they dealt out some massive algorithmic changes that hurt a lot of sites. Although these aren't technically penalties, they can sure feel like one.
In my opinion, the biggest updates this year were:

  • March 9, 2018 – this was a big update that Google confirmed was about their ability to show more relevant sites to searchers.
  • August 1, 2018 – this was a massive update. The SEO community called it 'Medic' because it affected a lot of medical sites. However, many sites that are YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) were strongly affected.
  • September 27, 2018 – this was likely a tweak to 'Medic'. We strongly feel that Google incorporated aspects of trust into the algorithm. Many sites that dropped had trust issues such as having lots of negative reviews or complaints, lacking medical references, lack of transparency, etc.

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

We have been able to help quite a few sites see recovery. However, many of the sites that were hit were ones that may never rank well again. For example, if a site ranked well on the power of paid links or PBN's, it will be hard for that site to rank well again.

For the sites that did see recovery, we feel that most of that can be attributed to changes that they made that help the site look better in the eyes of Google's Quality Raters' Guidelines.

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

Google is definitely giving out fewer manual actions these days. Years ago, we would receive at least one request for penalty removal help every day. Now, we'll get a request every few months. Google is getting better at handling things algorithmically.

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

Spend the time to read Google's Quality Raters' Guidelines. They are loaded with information on what Google expects to see in a high quality site. If you're building links, only go after links on sites that people truly read and that could possibly send you real customers. Those links are hard to get, but in our opinion, these are the only ones that Google wants to count.

Make sure your site is technically sound. Also, take a good strong look at the sites that are outranking you. In many cases, you will not be able to beat them unless you can truly become a site that is MUCH more valuable to users than those that currently rank.


Ann Smarty

Ann Smarty

Founder of Viral Content Bee

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

There were a few core algorithm updates in October of 2018 which were not quite penalties but rather core algorithm updates. The annoying part is that there were many of them and Google wouldn't really conform much, so many website owners were quite lost.

I wouldn't call it a penalty but Google's 'SERPless SERPs' (also known as 'Zero Search Results' and 'Zero Blue Listings' update) update showing nothing but the quick-answer box. We've all known that's the direction Google is taking but it's still a bit disheartening. I get Google's goal to provide the best possible user experience satisfying each query but why remove organic results completely?

Experts roundup: Zero search results

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

We didn't have many clients affected, so not much first-hand experience here. I did witness one major recovery though. The tactic that was implemented was careful website consolidation and re-structuring:

  • Consolidating several pages into one 'hub page' (see this article for reference)
  • Defining the site structure clearly by using breadcrumbs

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

Most Google penalties and updates have become less noticeable. They are either integrated into the algorithm or never officially announced or both. It makes it very hard to identify one single problem and you are left guessing what may be wrong with the site. It's still doable but both the audit and the fix are more complicated these days.

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

As much as cliche it sounds, content and authority building is still the best way to prevent the penalty. I am not saying it's easy to make sure you'll never be penalized. With Google's retrospective penalties in the past, we've learned the lesson: whatever you are doing might get you in trouble later on – whereas not doing anything means watching your competitors outrank you in search. I say, work on-site more than outside of it (meaning investing time and resources in content) is your best bet these days.


Matt Diggity

Matt Diggity

CEO at Diggity Marketing

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

The August 1st updates definitely caused the most frustration in the SEO industry because so many people were affected and because the theories about it were so conflicting and confusing. Some are calling it the 'Medic Update' and are addressing E-A-T concerns, but there's plenty of cases of non-medical (or non-your money your life) sites getting hit where high E-A-T wouldn't be required.

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

We've had a few slow recoveries for new clients we brought on at The Search Initiative. I won't take credit for the cases where the algorithm just simply rolled back.

Honestly, the strategy we've been using to approach the algorithm updates of the past 2 years is to 'Do All the Things'.

These updates are so complex and convoluted, and involve many different parts to the ranking equation. So it becomes a fallacy to just focus on one aspect (like backlink cleanup) to hopefully spur recovery. Instead, we're doing full technical audits, onsite optimization tweaks, search intent exploration, content overhauls, backlink investigation… all of it. Probably 90% of it is overkill, but the 10% makes all the differences.

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

Penguin. The algorithms have gotten much better at detecting spam and many low quality links are simply ignored now. You don't see nearly as many Penguin penalties springing up, nor negative SEO working… Thank goodness.

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

Do all the things.


Adam Chronister

Adam Chronister

Director of Operations at Enleaf

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

We usually do things pretty above the board so it's rare that we have long-standing clients that get affected by major Google penalties. If anything we usually inherit clients who come to us from other agencies after getting hit. We end up cleaning up a lot of messes.

I would say the biggest 'penalty' we saw this year was ranking drops related to the Google Medic update that rolled out last August, but according to Google, drops related to this update we're not penalties. Sure felt like one!

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

Not all of our clients were affected by the Medic update, but the few that were saw some pretty big drop in rankings. Most of those did eventually recover.

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

Because we don't experience a lot of penalties it's hard to say, but the biggest thing we have noticed as of late is a pick up in day to day ranking volatility. This seems to be true across multiple clients and business verticals.

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

  1. Knowing how Google evaluates search is an important way to understand what tactics have a greater risk of penalty. For this, we suggest looking at their Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.
  2. Understanding how the previous Google algorithm changes affect search is important. We have an outline of this on our blog.
  3. Keeping track of your Google Search Console notifications is also an important way to know if there are things you need to correct before they become more serious issues.

Kevin Indig

Kevin Indig

Mentor for Growth at German Accelerator

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

I wouldn't say 'penalties', but Google's NLU updates (Natural Language Understanding) had a huge impact on lots of sites. The problem here is manifold: some sites got hit hard, others not. Some sites lost rankings for crucial keywords, others not. Some sites lost rankings across the board, other just for certain query types. The issue with NLU is that it's hard to recognize because it doesn't follow a simple pattern. It's improved language understanding, which can show in lots of ways!

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

I was able to help most sites I worked with. In many cases, adjusting content to the intent it's targeting was key. Every query targets an intent that reflects a chain of steps. The question is not how well you target a keyword anymore but how well you can help users in each of the steps.

Say, you want to buy insurance. There's a huge load of information you need before you make a choice. Trying to rank in that topical space with a single article is foolish. You need a whole library of content to cover each sub-topic.

Working on such a library has shown to be most effective to counter negative impact from mentioned NLU updates. In some cases, it's really just rewriting of content. In others, there's not much that can be done because ranking for a query wasn't relevant in the first place.

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

I'm seeing fewer link penalties, even though I'm sure they still exist. However, Google doesn't seem to notify webmaster as often anymore, either because they're able to punish sites algorithmically or they've simply stopped notifying them. However, my experience is that link penalties – algorithmically or manually – are still alive and well.

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

Obviously, know the Google guidelines really well and operate within them. Also, we need more differentiation between a hard 'manual penalty' and 'algorithmic penalty'. I've seen the word 'penalty' been thrown around way too quickly without differentiating. I think that's dangerous.


Marysia Cieślak

Maria Cieślak

Head of Technical SEO at Elephate

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

To be honest, I'm not that focused on matching a rankings decrease with a particular update. So I don't have my 'favorite' one. However, if I were to point out the trickiest and most difficult path to recovery, I'd mention the updates related to the users' intent. In most cases, it's quite easy to find empty or duplicate content, broken links, and so on, but understanding why a given page doesn't serve the intent is more complicated.

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

Yes, we helped them, but it required additional steps like identifying segments of the users and understanding their needs. We also had to make a hard decision on cutting out many pages. As a result, the whole structure was reorganized.

There are no quick fixes so you should be ready to bring in many people to the improvement process – not only a good SEO, but also content writers, developers, and web designers. A huge challenge is explaining to the website owners that superficial cosmetic services are not enough for recovery. In many cases, they need surgery and sometimes they must remove 3/4 of their subpages.

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

I think the least noticeable are the ones where sudden issues are caused by unnatural backlinks.

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

If you want to lower the risk, you should:

  1. Review your website section-by-section in terms of the users' needs
  2. Create regular crawls and analyze the data to see if your website is in good shape

If you have issues with thin or duplicate pages and you have problems with filling them with meaningful content, maybe it's time to remove/rebuild/merge them.


Ross Tavendale

Ross Tavendale

Managing Director at Type A Media

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

Realistically, nothing was particularly harmful. Just don’t employ tactics that could result in a penalty. If anything, link based penalties are annoying in a way because it makes the task of seeking out links and gaining links more particular owing to the need for a more pragmatic approach, but it keeps us honest.

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

Recovery isn’t the right word, the question is more how did we adapt? It sounds a bit cliché but employing tactics that align to creating genuinely useful or entertaining content that deserves to have links. This just means that old tactics, such as contributing content to online publications, need to be developed. Instead of asking for a guest post, let’s create content that’s perfect for that publications audience but requires the knowledge that comes from your own or your client’s expertise. This way it’s impossible to separate you from the content. The big dogs have been doing it for years, embrace your inner BBC or Guardian and generate the news.

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

Not to sound like a broken record but link based penalties have become less noticeable. With Penguin 4.0’s ability to devalue spammy, harmful links, the need to disavow has become somewhat redundant (hooray!). Unless you’ve got issues with people hacking your site (it’s happened to us), then realistically you’re in the clear… assuming you’re being honest.

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

Adapt or die. Look at old link building techniques, guest posting, directory links, link exchanges and see how you can bring them into 2019. How do you do this? Really understand the algorithms and what it’s looking for. Don’t take Google at its word, listen to your audience and your client’s expertise. Link building isn’t exclusive to SEO, see how your other media channels can help to bolster your profile and have people knocking at your door to get a taste of your action.

Finally, don’t scramble to get links. We often promise clients X,Y and Z and when we can’t deliver we resort to old methods that will either result in a penalty or just be a complete waste of time.


Justyna Pruszyńska

Justyna Pruszyńska

SEO Executive / CM Creative Support at Bluerank

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

I have never received Google penalty for my client's website. We can say that I was fortunate because I worked with clients that have never received them.

For me and most of my colleagues the most harmful 'Google penalty' or just 'Google interference' was Google Update (YMYL or Medic) that happened on 1st of August. A lot of our clients were affected by this update. Some because they had on-site thin content, duplicated content or little content in general. But also some of our clients took a great advantage of it, because their website, often underestimated by Google, after 1st of August was gaining a lot of SEO visibility. Here's the example of one of my client's website:

Experts roundup: Example of website after Google update
My client had a lot of content on his website, but since 2017 he was slowly losing the SEO visibility every month because of other issues. After YMYL update all the content on his site was appreciated by Google. We also worked very hard on new content to keep that trend.

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

After YMYL update we worked harder with our clients on on-site content - we identified and removed duplicated content, we encouraged our clients to focus on writing useful, informative articles etc. But for the most part of the 'recovery' we were just doing 'our usual thing' as we strongly believed that our white hat SEO and a good care of the website will do wonders. Many of our client's websites were good enough before the update, so we believe that it was the main reason that after a while they gained a lot of their visibility back.

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

The same Google Update that caused all this trouble in 2018 became less noticeable after some time. Most of our sites that were affected by this update (and didn't have lots of thin content, duplicated content etc. to begin with) gained all of their visibility back:

Experts roundup: Website after Google update
And in many cases clients that GAINED visibility after that update – kept it, and they are still growing!

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

My only advice is to keep the good work. If you are doing white hat SEO and really taking a good care of your client's site – you don't have to worry. Google will not punish you!


David Iwanow

David Iwanow

Global Search & Traffic Manager at Danone Early Life Nutrition

1. Which Google penalties were the most annoying and harmful this year?

The ones that annoyed me the most were the E-A-T and Medic updates as you had a whole bunch of SEOs sharing random pieces of conflicting advice about the impacts/solutions without a decent dataset to base their claims on.

2. What can you underline as the biggest challenges in recovering from penalties?

We saw barely any impact on the sites I look after related to any of these updates, most impacts could be tracked to technical issues, marketing spend and cannibilisation due to overspending on retartgeting tools like Criteo.

3. What penalties have become less noticeable?

On the types of sites I look after the content quality (Panda) style updates as the user generated content is transient so hard to baseline or control.

4. Do you have any relevant advice to share with our readers on how to prevent the penalties?

The one site that experienced a manual penalty for suspicious links got caught doing crappy 'content marketing' which when digging into it was nothing more than poorly executed link building. It was lucky it was one of the first things I flagged well before the penalty was applied that had to be stopped, so it wasn't due to current activities but doing dumb stuff in the past may catch up with you.

Bonus:

Here is a bonus for those who have read till the end ;) Lada Kalashnickova has shared with us her opinion about 2019 challenges in SEO.

Lada Kalashnikova

Lada Kalashnikova

Head of Global SEO at Acronis

It looks like we will face in 2019 the following challenges:

Mobile-first indexing, which means that Google uses mobile version of your website for indexing and ranking. Keep in mind that the Google index remains to be a mixture of mobile and desktop pages. For the desktop sites, Google keeps desktop version in its index and uses it for rankings.

Action Item: Go mobile. What to choose, mobile or responsive version, is up to you.

Page load speed as a ranking factor. Although in some cases page load speed does not correlate much with rankings, for example, in Chrome extension site could be scored as slow, often rankings stay the same. However, strongly recommended to improve your page load speed.

Action Item: Page Load Speed: you could check out handy instapage's guide.

Voice search is on the rise. According to Google, every fifth search query on mobile devices is now made via voice input.

Action Item: Focus more on long tail keywords when optimizing content. In addition, it can be helpful to anticipate possible user questions that your content will answer.
Tools:

  • answerthepublic.com
  • Google Trends
  • Google Suggest
  • ubersuggest.io

Google is now answering more queries directly on the results pages and the number of voice-activated search queries is increasing.
E-A-T stands for 'Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness.'

  • 'expertise' – You need to be an expert in your field.
  • 'authoritativeness' – You need to show that you are an authority or the authoritativeness of the field.
  • 'trustworthiness' – You need to show users they can trust the creator or company and the website. Trustworthiness is especially important for Ecommerce websites that ask users for their credit card information.

Action Item: Try to do your best in earning maximum E-A-T.

GDPR. If you have European customers or plan to:
Review all the sources collecting user data on your site.

  • Make sure you do not accidentally send some private data to Google Analytics;
  • Update your Privacy policy file by GDPR requirements;
  • Revise your cookie consent form. It should have the following content: what information you collect, why you do it, where you store it, affirm the info is protected;

If you use Google Tag Manager, activate IP anonymization. Do not worry, you will still have a general idea where your traffic comes from. It just will be a bit less precise.

Structured Data is on the rise – we should provide search engines with well-structured, logically organized information.

Useful Links:


And what penalties and updates were the most harmful for you? Share it in the comments below ;)