Did you know you could get a “google penalty” just for writing about or linking to certain sites? Even if you “nofollow” the links? I had a google penalty for one year, and I didn’t even know why until just now…”

I’ve been very surprised lately at the number of bloggers that don’t check their search engine results pages or “SERP’s” for their sites. If you’re going to be a blogger, webmaster, or affiliate marketer for the long haul you have to know where you stand at all times, and knowing how you rank in search results has a direct impact not only on your activities – but how much traffic you actually get.

Google has been very aggressive about “quality content” over the last year, and they even have “webmaster guidelines they expect you to follow. It’s google’s basic belief that if someone performs a search (in google) they should be able to provide good results at all times. While the “google algorithm” is not perfect, it’s always been pretty good at giving relatively accurate search results quickly. But they have to be a moving target, because as soon as someone figures out how to “game” (or beat) the search algorithm to get the top spots, search results start to get “polluted” again with spammy pages.

It’s for this reason that google (unofficially) invented the “google penalty”. Google won’t talk about it officially, and there is no documentation of it – but we all know that google penalties of different magnitudes exist. All you have to do is start perusing the posts of Google Webmaster Help, digital point forums, or webmaster world to figure this out. Usually the penalties talked about refer to a number of days, like the “google 50 penalty”, or the 90, 120, 180, or even 360. Or (revised) there’s the “google 50” penalty which refers to being struck down 50 slots in SERP’s (search engine results pages). There’s also that duplicate content penalty (that some say is a myth), and probably some others I’m forgetting.

Normally a “google penalty” is given for something they feel you did wrong on your web site. You sold links, you did paid reviews, you had non-relevant links for your content, you were members of a network they have penalized (TNX or TLA), you were scraping or stealing content, and on and on and on… The number of the penalty is a “number of days” that you will be penalized, or the “number of rankings” you will be knocked down. For instance, in a “google 50” penalty, if your site normally ranked in the top few pages of google (where nearly all searches stop) – it will be “knocked down” to results #50 or later. This is basically to ensure that most people won’t find you in search results. I myself have received a “google 90” penalty where essentially my site was in the index, but wouldn’t come up for any results at all for 90 days. After the 3 month wait – it “came out of penalty” and everything was fine.

When I first started hearing about google penalties it seemed they were mostly for sites doing very spammy type things, like the old-school “link farms” (basically things with no value). But just today I read a forum post that surprised me where they were talking about google penalty for the top commenters plugin and sidebar block. That’s right – since that block appear on every page of your site (encouraging people to comment), it’s possible that google may not like it.

The reason I wrote this article today was because of a situation I had on another of my web sites, in fact the first one I ever built for myself: reinclusion request 3 times over 3 months with no response. The links at the bottom of the page for my “Smorgasbord Network” are in a javascript js file – and the search crawler doesn’t follow javascript so they’re ok. All my affiliate links are “nofollowed”. I even removed my blogroll for many months. I removed every sidebar ad I had except for one, but all the links in that block were “nofollowed” too. After about 6 months I just quit worry about it, since there seemed to be nothing I could do.

The block that contained the ads were placed on my site by a company called “Bizrate”. They run a shopping site (shopzilla) that has price comparisons. They paid me to place that ad block there for 6 months, and renewed the contract once for an additional 6 months (1 year in all). These were indeed “paid links” – BUT they were all nofollowed. This shouldn’t have concerned google one bit. I used the “nofollow” attribute on my links to tell the search crawler to ignore them and “do not follow”. However, google must have thought that I was “guilty by association” because my contract with bizrate expired last week so removed the block of links from my sidebar. Last Sunday night I checked the site and now I’ve gone from PR0 to PR 4 and I’m back in the google main index again! Nothing I did over the last year seemed to make a difference, but that one change and in less than a week I have full pagerank back and I’m in the index again, and all for “nofollowed” links!

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of something this crazy. It wasn’t too long ago that every blogger who had anything to do with Pay Per post was penalized and reduced to PR 0. In fact – one blogger (who I can’t find at the moment) had posted about getting a google penalty just for blogging about the recent pay per post problems – he didn’t have an account or any paid reviews at all! In other words – he got a google penalty for being “guilty by association” – just like I appeared to be with my BizRate incident.

How to you know if you have a google penalty?

Whenever I’m looking at a site for someone or doing some consulting work – the first thing I do is do some very basic google searches on their domain.

www.site.com: First – just google your domain name and see what you get. You should always come in on the first page of results for your own domain name (hopefully the #1 spot).

site:www.site.com: Next google your domain name pre-pended with “site:” to see how many pages of your web site or blog are indexed. If you have indexed pages, but in the first check googling only your domain name you didn’t show up – you have some type of penalty.

duplicate content penalty: If you’re checking your search results and ever get the this message:

In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 18 already displayed.
If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.

…you probably have a “duplicate content” google penalty. Normally duplicate content is the text on a page, like the body content of an article. If you re-use your content in more than one place you’ll probably see a “main index” result in google, and the rest relegated to the “omitted results” section (the “supplemental index”). Duplicate content is supposed to solve the problems of content thieves or “scrapers”. This is where a spam, splog, or “scraper” site aggregates your RSS feed and publishes the content on their blog as if it was their own. Google is supposed to figure out that since your site had the content online first, the scraper site gets sent to the “supplemental index” and your results stays in the main SERP’s index.

But the duplicate content penalty can also occur if you have duplicate titles and / or descriptions on pages. I saw a blog just the other day that had search results where in SERP’s out of 144 indexed pages every single one had the same title and same description. This was a problem with their blog setup of course, but in the SERP’s only the home page was in the main index, and all 143 other pages went to the “supplemental index”. That’s why sometimes it’s called “supplemental index hell”. Just remember to always be on the lookout for any “omitted results” for your site – and always look at them to determine whether or not you’ve accidentally caused some of your pages to go into the supplemental index.

keyword density penalty: basically this is a penalty for using the same keywords to many times on a page in relation to the amount of content – otherwise known as “keyword spamming” or “keyword stuffing”. Hopefully I don’t get one for this page for using the words “google penalty” too many times! Without enough “original content” you can get sent to the “supplemental index” very easily!

the google sandbox: this is a strange penalty, and it’s just for new sites. Google is often accused of placing brand new sites into the “google sandbox” to keep them out of the main index until they are sure they aren’t “spammy”. This is also called the google sandbox affect. I can attest to this being true, because last year I started a new American Idol fan site a week before idol began for the season, and the site didn’t show up in the index until 3 months later.

How to erase or come out of a google penalty

Basically quit doing anything that would incur the wrath of google for thinking that you’re doing something to either rank better by doing the wrong things or avoiding actually having quality original content. Here’s a Recipe to get your pagerank back Robin Good put together with some of the basic steps. If you think you’ve been doing all the right things, then post in a forum like digital point, and ask questions of fellow bloggers and webmasters. Google Webmaster Help Groups are also a great place for questions.

Looking forward, you should probably subscribe to and read Matt Cutts’ blog if you haven’t already. Check your search results pages regularly, and keep doing the right things. Hopefully you won’t incur a “1 year google penalty” like I did and your traffic will continue to flow. Have you ever had a google penalty? Do you have a question about a google penalty? Please – comment now below!