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Page-Level Algorithmic Penalties On The Rise From Google

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Hello, I'm here today to talk about Google penalties.
There's much talk and confusion in the SEO industry about penalties. We're always seeing in Q&A questions like:

  • Do I have a penalty?
  • Why do I have a penalty?
  • How can I get rid of my penalty?

Unfortunately, they're elusive to tie down. Since you get penalties (generally) for doing something wrong in Google's eyes, they're not very forthcoming about what they do to you when they catch you. If they had their way, I'm sure they'd like to just say BAD STUFF in their guidelines. As it is, however, penalties typically fall into a couple of distinct categories and Rand has a flowchart for determining whether you have a penalty or not. This flowchart has historically worked very well and covers the vast majority of penalties (thanks Rand!):

penalty flow chart

Recently, however, we've seen more and more examples of algorithmic, keyphrase-specific, page level penalties. Let me explain each of those one by one:

Page Level

Whereas previous penalties were commonly site-wide, harming all pages of your site, we're now seeing page-level penalties being applied more and more. Often these page-level penalties are to the homepage of a site. I'm not sure if this is because most paid links are commonly directed at the homepage or perhaps they're just easier to detect for the homepage of a site. I'm not sure, but we see them commonly on the homepage.

A page-level penalty only affects the page in question and doesn't affect the overall site (though I suspect that it will harm your trust rank somewhat!).

Keyphrase Specific

For me, the most interesting aspect to thesepenalties is that we are seeing them ONLY applying to a specific keyphrase. This typically happens when there are obvious and easy to detect paid links pointing to a page and they all have exact anchor text for a particular keyphrase. This can make the penalty particularly difficult to detect since the page can continue to get search traffic for long-tail phrases but not from the particular keyphrase you're going after!


This is more of a consequence than a specific requirement of a penalty, but in my opinion these penalties are being generated algorithmically. We've seen anecdotal evidence of a penalty taking effect, then not taking effect as the page selling links get crawled and re-crawled. Sometimes Google finds the paid links and sometimes they don't. This would make sense as well because if you're going to hand out algorithmic penalties, you want to make sure that you don't screw things up too badly when you get it wrong (and they will get it wrong from time to time). By limiting the penalty to a specific page and a specific keyphrase, they ensure that if they needed to they could apply a penalty algorithmically to a page on the BBC without penalising the whole site. Equally, the solution is often straightforward - remove the offending links and wait for a re-crawl from Google.

google penaltyThese new penalties (which I don't think are new at all, but we're seeing much more of them now) mean that the above flowchart doesn't work so well. Algorithmic penalties are much harder to detect - after all, people are always saying they 'deserve' to rank for a particular phrase when in truth they just don't have the right number or quality of links. So how CAN you detect a page-level penalty? I've not got a fancy flow-chart as this process is still being formulated, but here are a few things that might tip you off to an algorithmic page level keyphrase-specific penalty.

How To Detect Algorithmic, Page Level, Keyphrase-Specific Penalties

  • You have paid links which are from a link network and would be easy for Google to detect algorithmically
  • The paid links all the use the same anchor text and point to the same page
  • The page being linked to doesn't rank well for the target keyphrase. Watch out for a -30 style penalty; if you're ranking top of the 4th page consistently no matter what you do, you might have a -30 penalty. These can come in other forms too; I think -5, -10, -999, etc. have all been seen.
  • The page in question DOES rank ok for closely related keyphrases, which shouldn't alter the search results much. For example, if the keyphrase you don't rank for is "dog grooming" but you DO rank for "dog grooming www" and "dog grooming .com," then this might be evidence of a keyphrase level penalty. Watch out for keyphrases like "dog grooming services" though, as you might rank better for related keyphrases due to a higher number of anchor text links. So make sure you test across a couple of keyphrases.

Please note that I'm only extrapolating on what I've seen - there's no guarantee that I'm right and it's very difficult to analyse these penalties accurately. If anyone has any experience with these types of penalties, please share your wisdom in the comments!

PS - In other news, Google Streetview has come to London! And there's an interview with the Distilled SEO team, which I think would be interesting to readers.

published @ March 19, 2009

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