07th Oct 2016
It’s a nightmarish thought isn’t it? With Google dominating over 80% of the UK search market, the consequences of being banned by Big G can be catastrophic on your business.
On the whole, Google’s pretty fair when it comes to dishing out punishments, with the capital punishment of banning being quite rare unless you commit the most heinous of blackhat crimes. If your website is discovered doing something less than holy, the most likely reaction by Google will be to slap you with a penalty and exile you to the outer regions of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs), where very few visitors ever venture. Whether you’ve got yourself into this position by misadventure, accident, being the victim of hacking, or even worse; your SEO agency has got you here, the first step to getting listed again is identifying the punishment.
Have you really been banned or penalised?
There is a big difference between a drop in rankings, banning and penalties. You have to remember there are lots of external factors to ranking, outside of your control. Aside from Google algorithmic changes, you have the constant moving background of competitor SEO and changing link profiles. Let’s have a look at the possible scenarios.
Total index removal
The easiest way to check if you’re banned is to check if you are present in Google’s index. The simplest way is just to perform a search on your URL:
It is also possible to dig a little deeper and see how any of your website’s pages are in the Google index. You can do this by using the “site:” operand with your URL:
Now, hopefully you’ll get some results listed. If you are getting 0 results listed, you have no pages present in the Google index. If you haven’t been (knowingly at least) doing anything wrong, you’re going to have to be pretty unlikely to find yourself in this position, but not all hope is lost. Your first step will be to identify what you have done wrong (or Google thinks you have done wrong) before you can proceed with your reconsideration request, which we’ll cover later.
Site not ranking
It is much more likely to be the case Google has hit you with a ranking penalty, rather than removal. Your first indication of this would obviously be a loss in search traffic, which can be seen by your site’s analytics. This should be your first stop: Load up your analytics package and make sure that the loss in traffic isn’t just for 1 or 2 keywords. Searching can be seasonal, news led and sometimes it is possible to have single pages or a couple of key phrases drop. If this is the case, it’s normally best to ride it out for at least a week to see where you stand before you start bothering Google with reconsideration requests, they sometimes have a hiccup too.
The easiest way to check if you’ve got a ranking penalty is to search for your domain name without the (www) or TLD (.com. .net etc.). Your search would simply look like this:
Unless you have older competitors with more authority, you should always be ranking 1st (or at least top 3) for your own exact domain name search. If this isn’t the case, then it is very likely you’ve been penalised.
Notes for new sites and domains
If your website is particularly young, your search positions are going to be a lot more vulnerable than an older more established website. When sites are newly launched, gaining lots of incoming links too quickly, for instance, can lead to your site being “sandboxed”, which is having a temporary ranking penalty applied which will artificially suppress your rankings.
If your site is younger than a few months and you are absolutely sure that you have done nothing wrong, there is a strong possibility that you will be under a temporary penalty which is related to the lack of trust / age that is associated with your domain.
Finding out what happened
If you’ve established that you have been banned, or you believe you are indeed suffering some kind of search penalty, the next step is to do some detective work and find out what happened. The best resource is the horse’s mouth so you need to commit the Google Webmaster Guidelines to memory.
The Google guidelines are notoriously vague when it comes to specifics. You need to really get your head around the ethics, rather than the “what’s in black & white” mindset. Google specifically state:
“It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it”
The specific things Google list are:
• Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
• Don’t use cloaking or sneaky redirects.
• Don’t send automated queries to Google.
• Don’t load pages with irrelevant keywords.
• Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
• Don’t create pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware.
• Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
• If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first.
If your website was designed by an external contractor or agency, or if your SEO agency has made changes to it, you may need to contact them.From a non-technical perspective, you can ask yourself:
“Would this part of my website exist / work like this, if there were no search engines?”
Although it is a SEOs job to make a website as search engine friendly as possible, you should not be sacrificing the user experience for search engines. This could include all sorts of things such as keyword stuffing, or trying to hide text on the page just for search engines to find. The mark of a professional search agency is being able to make these changes to help search engines find and index content, without affecting (or hopefully improving!) the user experience. If you’ve found a section of your website that you think is only there for search engines, you may be onto something that requires further investigation. Google have also provided a guide on how to create a Google friendly site.
Following the links provided in the Google Webmaster Guidelines you can get full details if you are not sure of the techniques they frown upon. Check your website over the last couple of months for recent changes and see if any of these conflict with the guidelines.
Recently, Google has been coming down hard on websites which participate in the buying or selling of links. This is mentioned in the Google Webmaster Guidelines:
“Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.”
Google has recently added a “Report Paid Links” function to their Webmaster Console, in an effort to recruit webmasters to ratting out their competition for suspected link buying and selling, asking you to identify both parties.
As a general rule, Google gives the harshest punishment to those guilty of selling links, rather than buying them. The reason for this, is that to sell links at a decent price you need a decent site with a good PageRank, which can take months to achieve. Those buying links can quickly raise their rankings by doing so and if caught, simply set another site up. For this reason, Google has focussed on shutting down link sellers, which have more to lose.
Check with your SEO firm, marketing and web teams that you have not been selling links (even as part of content) to other websites. Google does allow the selling of links, but they must use the “rel=’nofollow’” attribute, to devalue any link equity passed by them. Without this nofollow attribute, it is likely Google will suspect you of selling links based on link equity, in an effort to game their PageRank algorithm.
The same applies of course to buying links. It is possible to be penalised if your website has been caught trying to rank by buying links. It is worthwhile checking with the people responsible for your link building to check if any link purchasing has taken place. You can also check the majority of your linkback profile using Yahoo! Site Explorer/
Searching for your domain name and clicking the below “Inlinks” link will give you a list of sites that link to you. Using this list, you can look for websites which (at least) appear to have links purchased on them to your website. Link buying is a hot topic at the moment, so it is always worth checking unless you are absolutely sure you (or anyone else for that matter) has bought links to your website.
Algorithmic versus manual penalties
While it is possible for Google to hand out penalties or banning on an algorithmic basis, this always give rise to the possibility of false positives, which could lead to sites being banned incorrectly. It is reported that Google has a team of over 5,000 people manually reviewing websites via a system that delivers them sites that need looking at. It is very likely that they rely heavily on their algorithm to flag and prioritise sites that are suspected of breaking guidelines and need a manual review. Assuming each person can review 30 sites per day, Google would have the capacity to manually review 150,000 websites per day. Take into account that only websites that are ranking within the first 20 results will be on any consequence to their search quality, they have an incredible amount of human review power.
The Google guidelines for reviewing and classifying spam sites were leaked onto the web a few months ago and are available here [link]. Reading through these guidelines will give you an invaluable insight into what Google are looking for in websites, which factors they use to link a search term to a site as “vital”, “important” or “spam” at the other end. This document really brings to light how important other factors, such as the quality and uniqueness of content on your website are.
Outside the realms of on-page cloaking, hidden content and dodgy link profiles. It should become apparent from the Google Spam Document, that if your website is of low quality (no unique content, very little useful content) you are running a gamble that you could find yourself suffering a penalty in Google.
Getting back in Google
Google does have a reconsideration system, which is your best chance and having any penalties removed. To begin with a reconsideration request, you should have a Google Webmaster Tools account setup, with a verified site.
Once you are logged in, you can select to file a reconsideration request from the menu on the right.
The reconsideration request is simply a blank field, so it is up to you to provide all of the relevant information and facts to Google. So, what should you include? Matt Cutts, Chief Anti-Spammer at Google says:
“Fundamentally, Google wants to know two things:
1) That any spam on the site is gone or fixed, and
2) That it’s not going to happen again.”
If it was your SEO firm who got you into this position, it may well be best to file a reconsideration request without them. If an SEO firm has been unprofessional enough to get you into this situation, it is likely they will try to spin things to protect their reputation. The best course of action is to come clean, tell the whole truth and provide all the relevant facts to Google.
Top 10 Commandments for Reconsideration Requests
1) Make sure the violations are fixed before you file for reconsideration. This is the big one. Don’t submit reconsideration requests to Google asking them what you need to fix, it won’t get you anywhere. Read the guidelines, research it yourself and work out what you have done wrong and fix it before you go anywhere near the reconsideration form.
2) Be totally truthful when filing your reconsideration request. The people that will look at it, do this for a living and probably know a lot more about your website than you’d think. If you’re caught trying to pull the wool over their eyes, you run the risk of never bring reconsidered – demonstrate some good faith!
3) Explain why it happened. It is not enough just to highlight you error and send a prompt “It’s been changed, please remove my penalty”. You need to convince Google it’s not going to happen, so give them the background of how it came about. If it’s due to your own fault – then put your hands up and make with the sorry.
4) Provide evidence. Wherever possible backup your claims with code examples, e-mail correspondence, names, addresses, plans. I’m sure there are lots of people making up stories, so if you were honestly duped or misled, give Google the information they need to scrutinize the real culprits.
5) Do not submit multiple reconsideration requests. This should be obvious, but you’re not going to speed things up in the slightest by submitting your site for reconsideration multiple times. What you will achieve is annoying the people who decide whether you get to rank or not. Be patient.
6) Being listed in Google is a privilege, not a right. Google are under no obligation to include you in their index.
7) You are responsible for the integrity of your website. Remember, you are not in a position to demand anything, so be polite and patient when dealing with Googlers.
8) If you used an SEO company, tell Google. Google even specifically request this as it helps them with their search quality war. If an SEO company has got you into this position, it’s time to name and shame.
9) Don’t bother mentioning if you are an Adwords customer or Adsense publisher. The person who will look at your reconsideration request doesn’t care if you have an existing business relationship with Google.
10) Submit reconsideration requests for one domain at a time. It looks bad if you had 20+ sites all thrown out at once, and you send a reconsideration request for 20 domains in one email.
I’m still banned? What can I do?
If you have identified the problem with your site, fixed it, submitted a reconsideration request to Google, waited a few months and still nothing is happened, you’re going to have to start again. If this is the case, lets make sure you do it right.
Get a new domain
Your first step will be buying a new domain name. If you’re lucky you might have another domain which was the same, with a different TLD (.co.uk, .net etc) which can be used. Otherwise, you’ll have to try and hunt down a similar domain name.
Transfer your website over
Depending on how you were banned, it might be worth moving the site to a different IP address. If you have a dedicated server, this is easy enough – or in some instances you may have to move server completely to be sure you are not connected to the old site.
Redirecting your old website
Generally, the best type of redirects for SEO are 301 Permanent redirects. However, if your website has been banned, I would not recommend using a 301 redirect to the new domain. Although it is unlikely, you could risk passing the penalty over to your new website. It’s best to start fresh.
Remove the content from your old website
Remove all the files from your old website, but keep the term you lost your ranking for on the redirect page.
As you start SEO on your new website, keep an eye on how the old domain ranks. It is possible that the penalty may be removed in the future. If you’re lucky enough to see the old domain start ranking again, you can then use a 301 redirect to combine the link profiles of both websites and strengthen your rankings overall.
If you do have to start from scratch again, I wish you the best of luck. Otherwise, best of luck with your reconsideration requests!
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