Understanding Google Manual Actions
Although Google is straightforward when it comes to the Manual Actions against a site, there is still plenty of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) and confusion among businesses that rely on their websites to draw more customers and conversions. As Google explains it, manual action penalties are aimed at sites that do not comply with the Google webmaster quality guidelines which are also entirely transparent. But if Google already offers compelling guides to compliance to its quality guidelines and what to do in case of manual actions, why are there still instances where sites are not compliant and fall victim of manual actions?
Because SEO is not a simple process and many mistakes and techniques employed to boost a site’s ranking results may result in manual action penalties hard to overcome. SEO is a continually changing and evolving discipline. Google’s quality guidelines vary accordingly. Black-hat link schemes worked in the late 1990s and 2000s, but with the Penguin update in 2012, Google de-ranked and deindexed many sites that didn’t comply and introduced unnatural linking from or to a site among the manual action penalties.
But first, Google took a swing at sites with poor content, mainly to curb the ascension of MFA (made-for-AdSense) sites, and rolled out the Panda update in 2011, which penalized spammy content and keyword stuffing. Even today, low-quality pages or shallow pages are a reason for Google to take manual action against a site.
Manual actions are only used for sites that misbehave so blatantly that Google has no other choice but to react. Repeat offenders are more likely to receive additional manual penalties. But, as a rule, Google will revoke the manual action penalties once the problem is solved. To see if your site is affected by manual action penalties, visit your search console, select your property, and run the report.
Before going forward, please remember that:
- Manual actions are rare and only target sites that blatantly ignore Google’s webmaster quality guidelines.
- Google revokes manual action penalties for sites that solve their problems but may hold a grudge against repeat offenders.
- Google’s quality guidelines may change, so it’s a good idea to revisit them at periodic intervals.
- Check your search console regularly to see whether there are any manual action reports for your site.
- Do not ignore the Google manual actions reports: these are serious red flags that can destroy your site’s credibility and search engine rankings.
Factors that Trigger Google Manual Actions:
Google identifies the following factors that can result in manual action penalties against a website:
- Security issues like a hacked site or lack of HTTPS
- User-generated spam
- Spammy freehosts
- Spammy structured markup
- Unnatural links to your site
- Zero-value content, like shallow pages and low-quality pages
- Cloaking and sneaky redirects
- Unnatural links from your site
- Pure spam
- Cloaked images
- Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing
Let’s consider these issues and their fixes one by one.
1. Security issues that can attract manual actions from Google
When Google marks your website as hacked, it will send a warning to your Google Search Console, but to the visitors, it will likely display a red screen and block their access.
You can get the Google hacked site warning for a variety of reasons:
- when hackers upload malicious software or another type of content on your site
- when hackers hide malicious content through cloaking
- when malware code is found on your website
- when Cross-site Scripting (XSS) or malicious code injection are added to your website
- and the list goes on
Whatever the reason, there are many ways to tell if your site has been hacked, and Google even recommends fixes to the problem. React promptly and, after you solve the problem, submit a reconsideration request to Google to have the red flag removed and to allow access to your site again.
There are several reasons why you want to fix the hacked site manual action promptly:
- To give your website visitors peace of mind and to ensure their data or devices used to access your site are not compromised.
- Because Google Chrome is the world’s most popular browser and any red flags on Chrome lead to loss of visitors, hence loss of revenue.
- Prolonged agony in the manual action penalty hell will cause drops in your search engine rankings, affecting the number of visitors to your site, revenue, and all kinds of other SEO metrics.
Besides the “hacked” issue, there is a new security red-flag, which is not yet listed in the official Manual Actions Report by Google. The search engine giant has urged websites to adopt HTTPS encryption for a couple of years now and, starting July 2018, it will officially mark all non-compliant sites as unsafe. Bear in mind that Chrome is the world’s top browser, so do the wise thing and switch to HTTPS now.
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2. User-generated spam
Sites that are affected by this type of Google manual actions penalty are usually multi-user communities, forums, and social networks, with little control over the content published by their clients. If you monitor comments and only distribute legit, verified content, this type of penalty should not affect your site.
Hospitality businesses with a blog should monitor comments looking for fake profiles, off-topic comments, too many links or irrelevant links in the comments, blatant self-promotion, signature links, keyword-stuffing, and other signals. Do not approve these types of comments or delete them as soon as you notice them.
3. Spammy freehosts
No entrepreneur will use free hosting for a business website, so this manual penalty applies to very few websites like sites made for ads and porn sites hosted on obscure, free servers. If you do use free hosting for any purpose and you do not want to be a victim of Google’s manual actions, here’s a clear guide to keep your site safe.
4. Spammy structured markup
Like with everything else in the Manual Actions report, Google has explicit rules for businesses using structured data, and if you see this type of message in your search console, you are probably violating the Rich snippets guidelines recommended by Google. Some of the most common violation that can result in manual penalties include:
- Marking up content that is invisible to users
- Marking up content that promotes pedophilia, bestiality, sexual violence, violent or cruel acts, targeted hatred, or dangerous activities
- Marking up irrelevant or misleading content, like fake reviews and fake ratings
- Marking up non-events as events: for example, do not mark up non-event services like "Trip package: San Diego/LA, 7 nights" as events.
Besides these violations, Google offers a list of common errors that can get your site penalized, as well as full details on how to fix them. Alternatively, you can visit Schema.org, the site that documents thoroughly the core vocabulary used for marking up content. Specifically, hotels can see this page: http://schema.org/Hotel
Rich snippets are not easy to implement, and but they are essential elements of technical SEO. You will need a skilled website developer to add structured data to your website correctly.
If your site does get penalized for incorrect use of structured markup, fix the issues as soon as possible, and submit a reconsideration request. Google will revoke the manual action.
5. Unnatural links to your site
Participating in link schemes for the sole purpose of boosting your PageRank and your website’s position in Google search engine results may result in a very hard to fix manual action. Link schemes can be anything from link exchanges and link farms, to keyword-based links in your signature in a blog comment or forum. Whatever strategy you use to gain a lot of links for better Google rankings can get your site penalized. As Google puts it:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”
- Guest posting or article marketing for links: a bad idea. Case in point, in 2014, Google penalized a guest blogging network called MyGuestBlog. It had a community of over 70000 bloggers who Google can easily spot the intent of this type of unnatural links even when you only guest post on niche sites and blogs. You can guest post to boost your digital footprint if you are an author, and to signal Google that your intent was not to create unnatural links to your site, either don’t add links to your posts or use rel=”nofollow” when you point at your site. All other editorial links, leading to third-party resources, are exempt from the rule.
- Link to me and I’ll link to you: the link exchange debacle. Just don’t do it because it is easy to spot. If you must exchange links with some of your business partners on your site, create a page just for them, introduce them correctly with their formal business name and not a list of keyword-stuffed links, and again, use rel=”nofollow”.
- Buying links: whether you just pay to have one link included in an article, or you “sponsor” a post, this is one of the linking strategies that can have your site penalized and de-ranked instantly.
If you see the “unnatural links to your site” message on the Manual Actions page in your search console, it means that Google has detected a pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to your site and you must address the issue at once.
First, download the list of links from the search console and check the ones that violate Google’s guidelines on linking. Before you use the Disavow links tool in the search console, contact the webmasters of the sites linking to you and ask them to remove the link pointing to your website or to prevent it from passing PageRank using the rel=”nofollow” attribute. You can only submit a reconsideration request for your site to Google after you fixed these issues.
In some cases, you could be dealing with hundreds of links. So, the process will be cumbersome and time-consuming. Google wants you to submit “documentation about the links you’ve had removed, and an explanation of any links you were unable to remove” to help process your request.
Assuming you’ve done it all right and you’ve submitted your reconsideration request, you’ll need to wait and see. When Google finally reviews your site, if you are no longer in violation of the linking guidelines, the manual action will be revoked. This can take weeks, if not months. Better do not engage in any shady linking practices to start with.
6. Thin content with little or no added value
What Google appreciates more than anything is content its users love. Serious webmasters already know that high-quality content is an SEO must, especially after the Panda algorithm update of 2011, which de-ranked thousands of websites with thin content.
Panda penalized sites with low-quality text automatically, but in 2014 Google introduced the “Thin content” manual spam action penalty too, targeting pages flaunting content with little or no added value. These are the types of content targeted by this penalty, just like Google lists them:
- Automatically generated content
- Thin affiliate pages
- Content from other sources (usually scraped content, copied content, or content that duplicates pages found anywhere else on the Internet)
- Low-quality guest blog posts
- Doorway pages
The only way to fix a site affected by this manual spam penalty is to delete the poor content and to populate it with high-quality texts your readers will enjoy. Good content is not focused on keywords, but on delivering relevant information to people reading the site. It is also rich without being redundant and appropriately illustrated with images, charts, infographics, video, and other media relevant to the topic.
Good content is hard to produce – ideally you hire a skilled writer, someone you can trust to deliver plagiarism-free texts. Images and video should be original too, and there are enough tools that allow you to create high-quality visual content without breaking the bank: for example, your own smartphone for HD images and live video.
7. Cloaking or sneaky redirects
Cloaking is a dangerous practice. It is defined by Google as the “practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines.” Google doesn’t like it because it basically shows users a completely different page than the page read by the search engine bots. So, when the users access that URL from a search engine, they will not find what they expect.
Sneaky redirects take the users from one domain to another domain usually to a spam site, or to deceive the search engines by showing them different content than what’s available for users. For example, if you are redirecting users from an old site to a new website with the same theme and brand, this is not a “sneaky” technique. However, if you redirect users from an old site unrelated to the new one, this is “sneaky.”
For example, if you redirect users searching for affordable accommodation to a page selling watches, you cannot expect them to buy, as that’s not what they expected when they first found you in search. This type of redirects will attract Google manual webspam actions. The sooner you fix these issues, the faster Google will revoke the penalties against your site.
8. Unnatural links from your site
Just about how Google doesn’t like natural links pointing at your site, it certainly hates to see that your site is involved in shady linking strategies. So, don’t participate in any liking schemes, and do not sell links on your site. The issue is detailed above, and Google also offers a full list of violations that can get your site in hot water. Request reconsideration for your website only after you fix all your issues: ideally, delete any links that violate the terms. Alternatively, use the rel=”nofollow” attribute to signal Google that you don’t intend to violate its terms.
9. Pure spam
This may sound a little bit redundant, considering that Google already warns about having thin content, user-generated spam, and other spammy features. But, despite Google’s warnings, there are still sites that employ techniques like “automatically generated gibberish, cloaking, scraping content from other websites, and/or other repeated or egregious violations of Google’s quality guidelines.”
Even if you fix the issues, blatant spam can keep you in trouble even after the manual action against your site has been revoked as your site will be red flagged and any future violations, regardless how small, will be reproved.
10. Cloaked images
URL cloaking is not the only strategy that can have manual penalty repercussions against your site. Cloaking images is a big “NO” too. Whether they read text or view images, users should always find on your site what they expect. Type of images that can attract manual webspam actions include
- Thumbnails that are different in search results from the image served on your website
- Serving bots an image obscured by another image or a block of text
- Thumbnails that redirect the user to another image or to a spammy page (like sneaky redirects)
Obviously, if you failed to stay away from cloaking images, the fix here is to show search engine bots the same picture as users access on your site. Sometimes, the issue can be caused by a faulty plugin, but there are also sites that use cloaked images on purpose to drive for traffic and hits. Stay away from the practice if you don’t want a taste of the Google manual penalty hell. Alternatively, you can prevent Google from showing your images in search results by using special disallow commands in your robots.txt file.
11. Hidden text or keyword stuffing
Finally, although Google has released several algorithm updates aimed at sites deceiving the bots with hidden text and keyword stuffing, these things keep on happening. Hidden text is usually text that cannot be seen by the visitors of a website because it has the same color as the background.
Keyword stuffing it happens when a site features phrases or words repeating out of context. Because these instances are today sporadic, the issue doesn’t deserve an in-depth description. However, if you find such a message in your search console, you can always consult your manual actions report from Google to fix the issue – usually by deleting the faulty content.
Dealing with Google Manual Actions
Although Google does offer straightforward guidelines regarding its Manual Actions and warns sites in the search console when penalties occur, dealing with such situations remains a challenging task for website owners who lack SEO skills. Addressing the issue is not a DIY undertaking. When your website is hit with a manual action penalty, you are usually dealing with a pressing task. Remember that for unnatural links Google demands documentation to reconsider your site? Here are a few takeaways to help you with this intricate exercise:
- Regularly check your search console for manual webspam actions notifications.
- When/if you see a notification address it promptly. Delays will cause more damage to your site.
- DIYs, unless you are an SEO mogul, are out of the question. Hire a professional.
- Document your work – although Google only demands documentation for unnatural links, it’s good to keep track of your progress for any other instance when your site was hit with a manual action penalty.
- Only file a reconsideration request when you are convinced that you solved the issue that attracted the manual action penalty in the first place.
- Do not resubmit reconsideration requests over and over. Be patient, and Google will eventually get to you. Every application is manually reviewed too, and they get thousands of claims every week. Annoying Google employees is never a good idea.
Instead of a conclusion, I leave you with this: if you managed to get your site penalized, whatever you were doing was wrong. Hire a professional SEO company to help you out from now on. Also remember that after Google revokes the manual action penalty against your site, it will still take time for you to recover search engine rankings and traffic. Respect the Google Structured Data General Guidelines, the Google Webmaster Guidelines, and the linking guidelines and you will likely never get in trouble.