9 Critical SEO Changes You Need To Make To Avoid a Google Penalty

Have you ever seen the demolition of strong, tall and beautiful buildings?

This is precisely what happens when your online business is hit by a Google penalty – it comes crashing down.

For example, here’s what happened to EzineArticles, a popular online article directory, when Google’s Panda update went live.

Thousands of other high traffic websites were affected by Google’s Panda update, including major brands like JC Penny, Washington Post and BMW.

Some of them made the changes recommended by Google, and recovered their rankings. Others were not so fortunate.

Once your site is penalized, it’s hard to fully recover from it and get your rankings back. So it’s better to avoid a penalty in the first place.

Let me explain how.


Understand Why and How Google Penalizes Websites

To avoid a Google penalty, you first need to understand why Google penalizes websites.

Search is one of Google’s primary products. Almost every internet user trusts Google to find the most relevant, up to date and high quality content against his search queries.

Google values this trust, and makes sure that only the best websites with the best user experience make it to the top of its search results.

Any website that becomes a hurdle in this objective is penalized by Google and loses its rankings.

Google has a complete set of guidelines for websites who wish to legitimately make it to the top of its search results.

Any site that goes against these guidelines is only inviting trouble.

There are two main types of Google penalties.

Manual Penalty – This happens when someone from the Google team individually reviews your site and penalizes it. Manual penalties are rare, but they do happen.

If it ever happens to you, you’ll get a notification in your Google Webmaster Tools account.

Algorithmic Penalty – This is Google’s weapon of mass destruction. It happens when Google makes changes to its search algorithms that impact everyone across the board. With a single algorithm change, Google can penalize or reward hundreds of thousands of websites.

Moz has documented every Google algorithm change and its effects since the beginning. You can study it in detail here.

How To Avoid a Google Penalty

Google is not a monster, and there’s no need to be overly cautious about its penalties. All the websites that are penalized are usually involved in one or more dubious activities that go against Google’s recommendations.

The best way to avoid a penalty is to stay away from the grey area, play within the rules and ensure that you’re aligned with Google’s main objective – that is to provide the best user experience to its searchers.

With that in mind, here are a few things you need to do in order stay away from any trouble with Google algorithms.


1. Make Sure Your Website is Up All the Time

Your website might have the most relevant content for your target audience, but if your web servers regularly go down and your website is inaccessible, Google will be quick to hunt you down and demote your rankings.

In fact, if your site is regularly unavailable Google might completely de-index your pages instead of repeatedly sending its users to a dead website.

So you need to make sure that you’re using a reputable and secure web hosting service that guarantees more than 95% website uptime. You can use Pingdom to track your website server uptimes.

Using a secure web hosting is also necessary because Google doesn’t like websites with poor security either. So if your website can be easily hacked or accessed by unauthorized users, Google will come down hard on it.

2. Switch to Mobile Friendly Website Design

Did you know that more than 50% of all Google searches now originate from mobile devices? The number of smartphone users is on a steep rise and, according to Statista, mobile is expected account for nearly 35% of all the web traffic by the end of 2015.

Earlier this year, Google released its first mobile friendly algorithm update, popularly known as Mobilegeddon, after which websites that did not support mobile visitors were demoted in search results.

Just because your site is accessible from mobile doesn’t mean it is mobile friendly as well. A mobile friendly site uses responsive design, which adjusts dimensions according to the user’s device.

To see if your site is mobile friendly, you can run Google’s Mobile Friendly Test.

You can easily make your website responsive by installing a responsive WordPress website theme, or by hiring a professional web designer from design specific freelance portals like 99Designs.


3. Optimize Your Website Speed and Performance

Website speed and performance has a major impact on user experience. That is why Google has made page speed a key search ranking factor. If your website loads slowly, it will be demoted in search results.

Research shows that an average internet user leaves a website within 3 seconds if it does not load quickly. This has a direct impact on your website bounce rate and shows Google that your website is not giving its users what they’re looking for. As a result, your rankings drop.

You can use Google’s Page Speed Test to see exactly where you stand.

Along with a score, this tool also gives you a list of suggestions and recommendations that you can use to improve your page speed for both mobile and desktop versions of your site.

In general, here a few things you can do to boost your page speed.

  • Use a high quality content delivery network (CDN)
  • Optimize all the images on your site
  • Use a fast and secure web hosting service
  • Get rid of unnecessary WordPress plugins and files


4. Create Relevant Backlinks Only

The more backlinks your site has the better, right?


It’s not just about the number of backlinks you have. Google also closely monitors the relevancy of your backlinks.

It doesn’t matter if a backlink is coming from a very high authority site. If it’s not relevant to your niche or the content of the site, you will be penalized.

This is precisely what happened in Google’s Penguin Update. Sites with a lot of irrelevant backlinks were penalized. This is clearly visible in the study below as well.

Source: Microsite Master Blog

As you can see, sites with 100% relevant backlinks were not penalized at all.

Building links is very important for your rankings. But you need to make sure that you build natural and relevant links only.

For example if your site is about pet training, too many backlinks from a personal finance blog, or a tech news blog will be considered as unnatural.


5. Use Natural Anchor Phrases Instead of Anchor Words

If you’re using keyword rich anchor text for back linking, you’re flirting with danger. Google’s Penguin update came down hard on websites with too many links with keyword based anchors, because Google considers them unnatural.

To avoid getting penalized, you need to switch to natural anchor phrases instead of keyword rich anchor text.

Here’s an example of unnatural and keyword rich anchor texts

  • Keyword rich anchor text –“Some of the best productivity apps address the key fitness problems faced by aging consumers”

To work around this, you need to link to your content in a more natural way. Instead of using just your target keyword as anchor text, use a longer phrase that includes your keyword. Also, don’t use the same phrase or keyword every time. Instead, use different synonyms of your main keyword in anchor phrases.


6. Avoid Low Quality, Duplicate and Thin Content Like Plague

If you think you can rank well in Google search by using low quality, thin or duplicate content, you’re still living in 2007. SEO has evolved tremendously and Google bots can easily detect duplicate and spun content.

Google wants to give its users fresh and comprehensive content. If you want to rank well, create such content.

This study by SerpIQ shows that some the majority of the top search results are now featuring long form content only. So no more 300-500 word posts.

Here are a few other things you need to do.

Google loves fresh, well-researched and high quality content. So there’s nothing better than high quality content for your rankings and SEO health.


7. Use Targeted and Relevant Guest Blogging Only

Guest blogging came under fire last year when Matt Cutts, Google’s former head of web spam team, announced that guest blogging has “risks associated with it”.

Guest blogging is a great way to build your brand image and expose your business to a much larger audience. But you should be careful in using it solely for link building.

If you do build links with guest blogging, make them look natural and relevant to the content of your host blog. Just remember the point I mentioned about the effect of irrelevant backlinks.


8. Create Strong Brand Signals To Earn Google’s Trust

If you truly understand SEO and the emphasis Google puts on user experience, you’d understand the having a strong brand immediately gives you a major advantage over your competitors.

Brands are synonymous with credibility and trust. If your site has strong brand assets and brand signals, Google will not only give you preference in search results, but also think twice before penalizing your site.

Here’s what you can do to build strong brand signals

  • Create a professional website, with a phone number and a physical address on Google Maps. This shows Google that you’re a real business.
  • Maintain social media profiles for your brand on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and other major social networks. Use your company branding and colors on all your profiles and update them regularly.
  • Build more backlinks to your site using your brand name as the anchor text. This does not come under unnatural anchors because people link to brands regularly. Use your brand name or your naked URL for linking (eg, BuildFire, buildfire.com)


9. Get Rid of Harmful Backlinks To Avoid a Penalty

When a website with dubious content (porn, penalized site, hacking forums, blackhat seo etc.) links to your site, Google starts looking at you suspiciously.

So it’s always better to keep an eye on the backlinks you’re getting and get rid of any potentially harmful links.

For this, Google has a disavow tool using which you can tell Google which links you think are irrelevant to your site. But you need to use this tool with caution.

Here’s a detailed guide on using the disavow tool to get rid of spammy and unwanted backlinks.


Wrapping Up

The key to avoiding any type of Google penalty is to understand the emphasis Google puts on user experience. While devising your SEO strategy, make sure you have your end user in mind. Create content for people, not Google. Build natural backlinks and make every effort to provide a smooth user experience to your visitors.

Google doesn’t like penalizing websites, and there’s no reason it should penalize you if you stay within its search guidelines. Follow these tips if you want high rankings that lead to increased profits.