If you have a website that you are tying to rank with the search engines, you have every reason to be concerned about getting penalized by Google. Between the Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird updates, many thousands of sites, if not millions, have suffered losses of traffic and revenue due to being penalized by the search engine giant.

There are several steps to take if you want to prevent this from happening to you. First of all, you should be aware of what causes Google to penalize a site. Then you can take certain actions to find out if this has already happened to you or if it’s likely to happen. Finally, you can take steps to ensure that your site is Google-friendly in the future.

What Causes Google to Penalize Sites?

There are several main reasons why Google may lower your ranking or de-index your site. These include:

  • Low Quality Content -This is a catch-all term that is open to interpretation, but it includes sites that have little or no original content, consist mostly of advertising or, worse yet, contain unintelligible content. An example of the latter would be a site that uses poorly written PLR or publishes articles that have been run through spinning software.
  • Hacking, Malware or Spam -This may not be your fault, but if your site has been hacked or contains malware, it will be deemed unsafe for visitors. Similarly, if spammers target your site it can create the appearance of a low quality site. Some spam is common, but if, for example, you have a post that has hundreds of spam replies, this can be a red flag.
  • Unnatural Links -This has become increasingly important over the last few Google updates. From Google’s perspective, any links that appear unnatural -that is, created for SEO purposes rather than the benefit of readers- are suspect and may cause your site to be penalized. Your links should also be well distributed across your site. For example, if all or most of your links are directed at your home page, this will not look natural.
  • Keyword Stuffing -If your keywords are used excessively, this is another sign to Google that you are trying to game the system. When you publish content, keywords should be included but used in a natural manner. On a similar note, anchor text that is repeated too often is viewed as unnatural. You should vary your anchor text using different keywords.

Finding Out if Your Site Has Been Penalized

It’s important to know if your site has been penalized by Google. If you suspect this might be the case, there are a few indications you might look for.

A Sudden or Steady Drop in Rank -This is the most obvious sign. In fact, without a drop in ranking you’d have no reason to worry. Keep in mind that you may be penalized for one keyword phrase and not others. Or certain pages on your site can be penalized. That’s why it’s essential to track your site’s rankings on a regular basis.

Check Webmaster Tools -You can check for a manual penalty by logging into Google Webmaster Tools, where such actions are listed. If you click on Search Traffic and Manual Actions, you can find out if you were penalized. For example, if Google detects unnatural links on your site, you will get a message explaining the issue.

Stay Current Regarding Google Updates -There are services that provide information on Google’s algorithms. Algoroo, for example, tracks changes by tracking the rankings of many different keywords across the web. This is something worth checking if you notice that your ranking has dropped recently.

What to Do if Your Site is Penalized

If you’ve discovered that your site has been penalized, there are a few actions you can take. First of all, you should go over your site carefully and try to identify the reason for the problem. Then you can at least not make the same mistake in the future. This, however, may not by itself reverse the penalty. It can take a long time to get back in Google’s good graces. Sometimes, however, there are shortcuts.

Remove Duplicate Pages and Low Quality Content -If some of your pages or posts are duplicate content, they should be removed. Just to clarify, this means duplicated on your own site. Having content published from other sites is not going to get you penalized, as this is a common practice on many authority sites. Pages or posts that are very short or containing no helpful information should be upgraded or removed as well.

Take Security Measures -Since malware, viruses, and spam can give your site a low-quality rating with the search engines, you should regularly check your site for such problems. If you use WordPress, there are many good plugins that can help keep your site secure.

Disavow Links Tool -This is a tool created by Google that allows you to disavow any problematic links on your site. You should use this resource with care, as you don’t want to remove helpful links. In fact, if you don’t use it properly, the Disavow Links Tool can actually harm your ranking.

Before disavowing any links, you should perform what is known as a link audit. This can be done through Google Webmaster Tools, where you can get a list of links to your site. You will then download these to a file or to Google Docs and then get a backlink profile. For the latter, you will have to use a service such as SEOMoz or Majestic SEO which will analyze your links.

Low quality links include sites that are not indexed by Google. Similarly, links associated with spammy sites such as porn sites, online casinos, online pharmacies and the like should be removed. A link audit will also reveal other problematic links, such as from sites containing viruses or malware. Once you’ve identified the links you want to remove, you can contact the sites in question and ask them to remove the links. This will not always be effective, but some sites will comply. Any remaining links you want to remove can be submitted to the Disavow Links Tool.

Send a Reconsideration Request – If you are confident that you have taken care of any problems on your website that were responsible for the penalty, you can send a Reconsideration Request. You can reach this through Google Webmaster Tools.

Keep Your Site Ranking Well

If you want to achieve or maintaining a good ranking with the search engines, you should consistently monitor your site. This includes all of your pages and your main keyword phrases. If you detect any possible problem, you should take a close look at your site and see if you can identify the culprit. Keep in mind that there are natural changes in rankings and not every drop indicates that you’ve been penalized. In some cases, it just means you’ve fallen behind your competitors for certain search queries. If you have done something that’s caused Google to penalize you, all you can do is take steps to remedy it. Make the necessary changes and resolve to not make the same mistake in the future.