SEOMatt Cutts: Google Penalties Get More Severe for Repeat Offenders

Matt Cutts: Google Penalties Get More Severe for Repeat Offenders

A website that gets caught violating Google's webmaster guidelines for the first time won't be treated as harshly as those that have been penalized multiple times. Also: how the disavow tool can bring a site with bad backlinks back from the dead.

Matt Cutts

For website owners who have been penalized by Google for violating the webmaster guidelines, it can take months to rectify issues, get back into the index, and regain rankings. However, that isn’t always the case.

Many people remember when Interflora was penalized shortly before Mothering Sunday in the UK for massive amounts of native advertising spam in various UK newspapers. They were back in the index very quickly, and that is the topic of a new webmaster help video, where Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts is asked to explain the kind of penalty that Interflora was hit with and how they managed to get back in Google’s good books in just 11 days.

Cutts began by saying he doesn’t like to talk about specific penalties or companies; rather, he prefers to speak in generalizations so everybody can learn and benefit. Generally this is true, as Google rarely calls out specific companies, but it does happen.

Perhaps the most important thing Cutts mentioned in the video wasn’t about how to rebound from the penalty, but that repeat offenders get hit with a stronger penalty than someone who has tripped the spam filter for the very first time.

“Google tends to look at buying and selling links that pass PageRank as a violation of our guidelines and if we see that happening multiple times, repeated times, then the actions that we take get more and more severe,” Cutts said. “So we’re more willing to take stronger action whenever we see repeated violations.”

So if your website has received a spam warning from Google, you need to be extra certain that you keep your SEO techniques very clean, and not skate too close to that gray line between white hat and black hat SEO. And this also means checking carefully for other things, like your backlink profile, so you can disavow immediately.

If a company were to be caught buying links, it would be interesting if, for example, you knew that it started in the middle of 2012 and ended in March 2013, if a company were to go back and disavow every single link that they had gotten in 2012, that’s a pretty monumentally epic large action.

So that the sort of thing where company is willing to say, “You know what, we might’ve had good links for a number of years and then we had really bad advice and someone did everything wrong for a few months, maybe up to year, so just to be safe let’s just disavow everything in that time frame.” That’s a pretty radical action and that’s the sort of thing where we heard back on a reconsideration request that someone had taken that kind of a strong action, then we could look and say, “OK, this is something people are taking seriously.”

There has been lots of debate over the past year or so about the best approach to take when using the disavow tool. Some people, when they think the hole is deep enough, will disavow every link except those most obviously clean, and basically start from scratch. Others take the more subtle approach and start disavowing the ones that are definitely dirty and hurting the website, and just add more to the disavow list and until the penalty is lifted.

But considering what Cutts is saying now, it seems that if you want immediate help with getting a site back into the index that has been penalized for bad quality backlinks, the fastest resolution seems to be wiping the slate clean by disavowing everything, and starting over again.

“It’s not something I would typically recommend for everybody to disavow every link you’ve gotten for a period of years, but certainly when people start over with completely new websites they’ve bought, we’ve seen a few cases where people will disavow every single link because they truly want to get a fresh start,” Cutts said. “It’s a nice looking domain, but the previous owners have burnt to a crisp in terms of the amount of web spam that they’ve done.”

This also gives hope to people who have had websites that have been crippled by spam, or are looking at purchasing a website that might have good content, or even just a really awesome domain name, that there is a way to bring that site back from the dead, by disavowing everything linking into it. It might not work in all cases, depending on the type of spam, but it is a possibility, which appears to be working for those wanting to resurrect a site killed by spam.

“Typically what we see from a reconsideration request is people starting out and just trying to prune a few links,” Cutts said. “A good reconsideration request is often using the domain query (domain:), and taking out large amounts of domains that have bad links. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going the route of everything for last year or everything for the last year and a half, but that’s the sort of large-scale action, if taken, can have an impact whenever we’re assessing a domain within a reconsideration request.”

So if you’re looking to recover from a bad backlink penalty in Google, the fastest way to resolve it will be to simply disavow all the links obtained during the “suspicious” period of time when you purchased links. At the very least, you should disavow everything that could possibly be a problematic link. You’ll be able to get back into the index quicker, which seems to be the solution that Interflora must have taken, since they were back in Google’s search results 11 days later.


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