Webmasters have learned to fear the power that Google wields. Being the undisputed reigning king of the search engine world, Google is a traffic gatekeeper, and getting blacklisted by the universal tech juggernaut is a surefire way to ensure that your website is never seen again. To make matters worse, historically, Google has taken to making sudden, major changes to its algorithm with no advance notice and minimal opportunities to recover.
Rather than optimizing for user experience or trying to improve the overall quality of their sites, many webmasters have reacted to this unpredictable give and take, focusing solely on avoiding unexpected penalties and flinching whenever there’s a shakeup in Google’s ranks. Without question, Google penalties have been both controversial and understandably feared, but we’re starting to enter a new era of SEO—and it’s one where Google penalties are a far less significant concern.
First, it’s important to address a misconception in the search community, and it has to do with the real definition of a Google penalty. When most people describe a Google penalty, they’re referring to a sudden drop in domain authority or search ranks, usually both, and usually in response to a recent Google algorithm update or data refresh. These aren’t technically “Google penalties.” They’re simply the result of new evaluation criteria from Google or new evaluation factors from your site that re-determine your site to rank lower than it did previously. It’s all automated, and it happens to all of us regularly. Only with major updates are these seen in high frequency among webmasters.
“Real” Google penalties are the result of a serious infraction to Google’s terms of service, or some other destructive quality that Google deems significant enough to penalize. If this is the case, your domain can actually be blacklisted—but don’t worry. This is extremely rare, and only happens to webmasters engaging in nefarious or egregious activities. Even in those cases, Google will give you a written explanation for the penalty and will give you an opportunity to redeem yourself.
If you’re confused about whether you’ve been actually penalized by Google or if you’ve just seen some volatility due to miscellaneous updates, check your inbox in Google Webmaster Tools—if Google hasn’t personally notified you about the change, you haven’t actually been penalized.
Even so, search fluctuations can be scary and have been a major concern of webmasters for over a decade. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using the colloquial term “penalty” to refer to any such drop in search rank.
The most significant change in the world of SEO in the past few years has been the way Google rolls out its updates. Because its updates have been the motivating force behind most search ranking drops, these update tweaks are having a substantial impact on how penalties are taken by webmasters.
An Established Foundation
When Panda, arguably the most significant Google algorithm update in history, rolled onto the scene, Google’s search algorithm wasn’t great. It relied on keyword-based inputs and couldn’t factor in content quality as a reliable search metric. Today, with semantic search capabilities, Panda and Penguin quality control updates, and the local Pigeon algorithm in full swing, Google has a reliable and stable foundation for its search functionality. Quality standards for websites have been clearly established, and now, smaller-scale tweaks are all that’s needed to maintain and improve the quality of this process. In short, Google doesn’t need major updates anymore. For the most part, it’s only implementing smaller changes or building on the foundation it already has.
Warnings and Transparency
While most of Google’s trade secrets remain in confidential lockdown, Google is getting better about revealing its intentions and warning webmasters about changes to come. For example, with the so-called “Mobilegeddon” update, Google let webmasters know almost two months in advance that the update was coming, and exactly what they could expect from the rollout. In fact, the rollout was even tamer than they suggested it would be. It’s reasonable to expect this level of advisory in the future, especially for bigger updates.
Over the last several years, Google has begun incorporating more third-party information into evaluating the domain authority of different brands. For example, the appearance of your company information in local directories and your quality scores on local review sites can have a massive impact on how your site ranks, regardless of how you optimize onsite. Because of this, more SEO factors than ever are out of your control—as long as you do good business, you’ll end up ranking.
It’s also important to realize that Google is implementing its updates in a new way. Rather than releasing a new algorithm all at once, Google is chunking its updates and rolling them out gradually over the course of several days. Because of this, search rankings have become far less volatile, and most of Google’s algorithm updates have sneaked by unnoticed by the majority of webmasters. The days of jarring, sudden ranking drops are virtually over.
As a result of Google’s new updating processes and a more evolved world of online marketing, the days of sudden, harsh drops in search ranks are practically over. Unless you commit an egregious act and earn yourself a “real,” manual Google penalty, you have no more reason to be concerned about getting blindsided and losing your virtual territory. All of Google’s updates are more transparent, less significant in scope, and more gradual, so even if an update manages to shake your rank, you’ll have ample time to recognize it and take preemptive action.