Google penalties: how to recognise and avoid them

The prospect of having your website penalised or banned by Google is a serious threat for any New Zealand business – it can mean losing the majority of your website traffic overnight.

The prospect of having your website penalised or banned by Google is a serious threat for any New Zealand business – it can mean losing the majority of your website traffic overnight.

Some businesses are so dependent on Google that they literally couldn't operate profitably without a regular stream of search engine traffic.

While it may seem unfair at times, Google more or less makes the rules when it comes to search engine marketing – and anyone who doesn't learn to play by those rules will struggle to maximise their website's potential as a lead generation and sales tool.

Staying on Google's good side

The first key to avoiding penalisation is understanding exactly what Google is trying to achieve in the long term: artificial intelligence search.

Google makes its money from advertising. Advertisers are willing to pay Google because so many people use it to search for information and products. Those people only use Google because it's usually accurate and makes sifting through the information overload we face every day so much easier.

As a result, Google's entire business model depends on search quality. They have a team of genius mathematicians constantly working to improve their algorithms in order to make sure only the best and most relevant search results are returned at the top.

When you begin to lay out your SEO strategy with this in mind, the futility of trying to 'cheat Google' (what we refer to as 'black hat SEO') becomes immediately apparent. Even if you or your SEO company manage to successfully outsmart the algorithm and get some good results, your success will only be short lived. You're competing with a team of genius-level search engineers to stay ahead of the game, which is a losing strategy every time.

Many business owners found this out the hard way in late April 2012, when Google rolled out an 'over-optimisation penalty' dubbed Google Penguin. The Penguin cut search engine traffic to many websites that were using black hat strategies by 70 percent or more overnight, effectively killing many businesses.

It's just not worth the risk. Here's how to make sure it doesn't happen to you.

On-page SEO best practices

* Use your target keyword(s) only once in your META Title tags and Description tags. Doubling up on a key phrases in these areas looks spammy and can lead to penalties.

Don't overdo it on keywords in your body content. Five percent keyword density is a common recommendation – in reality that may be too much these days. In a typical article, one to three instances of your keyword should be sufficient as long as it appears in your META tags and headlines.

Write your META tags, headlines and content according to good copywriting principles first and SEO principles second. Remember: at the end of the day, search engines don't buy from you. People do.

Off-page SEO best practices

Focus on quality of inbound links rather than quantity. Most sites get the majority of their 'ranking value' from only 5-10 percent of their highest-quality inbound links.

* Authority is key. Put the time and effort into cultivating links from high authority websites – as a general rule, the easier links are to get, the less they are usually worth in Google's eyes. Lots of low-quality, easy-to-get links looks spammy. They may not get you penalised, but they won't help your rankings either.

* Be careful with link text. You want links that include your keywords, but if you have too many links with the exact same text, this looks very unnatural and can trigger a penalty. In a natural link profile, the majority of links will use the company brand name or domain name as the link text.

Recognising black hat tactics

If you're using an SEO company, chances are you're doing so because you don't have the time or inclination to do SEO yourself. But it's worth taking the time to protect your investment by learning to recognise when your SEO company is using black hat tactics that may get your website penalised down the track. Otherwise, your traffic could disappear overnight in the next Google algorithm change and you won't have any idea why – or how to fix it.

Check your website code and content

If you want to check the META tags of your website, simply visit your site and bring up the source code. Just right click within the web page and click the 'View source' or 'View page source' option (this is similar for almost every web browser).

At the top of the code, look for the <title> and <meta name="description”>. Check the content of these tags and make sure they aren't over-stuffed with repetitions of the same keyword phrases.

You can check the content, of course, by simply reading the site itself. Make sure you're not doubling up in unnatural ways on keywords, but also make sure the most important search terms appear in headlines and throughout the content.

Check your inbound links

You can check inbound links to any website using a free software called SEO Spyglass. In particular you want to check the text of the links – if you see a large proportion of spammy, unnatural looking link texts, your SEO company may be using black hat tactics. Also, use the Link Value measure to determine where your best links are coming from and whether you have many links from real, high authority sites or a lot of low quality 'bad neighbourhoods'.

By following these practical tips, you'll be able to ensure your own SEO efforts stay on Google's good side or catch out an SEO company using black hat methods that may harm your business.

Tom McSherry is the director of Premium SEO NZ, a search engine marketing and sales optimisation service designed to drive high traffic and boost conversion rates. Find them on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn