How to Check if Your Site Has a Google Link Penalty

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Worried that your business may have been affected by a penalty like Penguin? Read on to discover how to diagnose the problem and set your site on the road to recovery.

For more tips and techniques, download your FREE Link Audit and Recovery white paper.

Google link penalties can be devastating. Get caught by Google's 'link police', and your rankings, traffic and revenue can plummet overnight.

How devastating? Let's go to Google itself for the answer. Here's Matt Cutts, Google's head of webspam, speaking at Search Marketing Expo 2013:

Matt Cutts >Matt Cutts. Source: Wikipedia.

"[Penalties] can go pretty far. […] For total horribleness, the penalty can stay until the domain expires.”

That's about as devastating as you can get. So needless to say, if you're worried that you may have suffered a penalty, it's important to take action as quickly as possible.


In this post, we'll explain how to find out if you've been hit with a Google penalty, and if so, when it happened. This is the first step in the road to recovery – in other words, a link audit.

But first, it's important to understand the different types of link penalties. So here's a bit of background.

Algorithmic Penalties and Manual Actions

Once you scratch beneath the surface, Google's penalty system becomes very complicated. But at the most basic (and important) level, there are only two types of penalties: Algorithmic penalties and manual actions.

Follow the guidance in this post to determine which type of penalty you might have. This is crucial, as the different kinds of penalties require different approaches in order to recover. You don't want to waste time working on a project that leads to a dead end.

Google Penguin and Panda – Algorithmic Penalties

In the last few years, Google has released a duo of animal-themed algorithms designed to tackle webspam – Penguin and Panda.

Penguins Source: Wikipedia.

Penguin is predominantly focussed on non-compliant links, whilst Panda is focussed on poor-quality, 'thin' or duplicated content.

Penguin and Panda are algorithmic penalties. They are applied automatically to sites that violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines. There is (presumably) no human input in this process; it is the algorithm that finds and penalises non-compliant sites, not a Google employee.

If you have received an algorithmic penalty because of non-compliant linking practices, it is most likely a result of Penguin.

However, despite the coverage afforded to Penguin and Panda in recent years, Google penalties have been around for quite a bit longer. So keep in mind that there are numerous penalties which could still affect your site, such as the Payday Loan Algorithm and the 'Minus 950' penalty.

You won't be notified if you have been affected by an algorithmic penalty, so you'll have to do some digging to find out if your site has been hit.

The Other Kind of Penalty – Manual Actions

Google's 'search machine' is based on mind-bogglingly complicated algorithms that work in tandem to provide the best possible search results for users.

Algorithmic penalties are part of this process. They're designed to filter out non-compliant sites that may be 'playing the system' to get favourable rankings.

Manual actions, the other kind of penalty, are comparatively simple. As the name implies, these are applied manually by a member of Google's webspam team if they determine your site is non-compliant with its Webmaster Guidelines.

Unlike with algorithmic penalties, you will be notified if a manual action has been applied to your site.

Determining the Type of Link Penalty You Have

Step One – Check for Manual Actions

Where to find manual actions

It's quite simple to check whether your site has a manual action applied, so it makes sense to start here.

You don't need any special tools to do this. You only require access to a verified Webmaster Tools account.

To find the 'Manual Actions' section, look under 'Search Traffic' in the Webmaster Tools sidebar. Any extant manual actions will be listed here.

We'll be publishing a post later to help you identify the different kinds of manual action. But if you'd like to find out now, you can download your free Link Audit and Removal white paper.

Even if you discover a manual action has been applied, you should still check for algorithmic penalties, as it's entirely possible your site has been affected by both.

Step Two – Check for Algorithmic Penalties

As we mentioned above, there are many types of algorithmic penalties that can negatively impact your site's search rankings.

Penguin, the most famous link penalty, was introduced in 2012, and can affect your whole site, a set of URLs or a single URL. A penguin penalty can result in decreased rankings, or even complete removal from Google's search results.

Remember, you won't be notified if an algorithmic penalty is applied. So the only way to check if you've been affected is to look for changes in rankings or traffic that correspond to the launch or update of a penalty algorithm.

Google doesn't always announce when penalty algorithms are launched or updated. However, the SEO community is continuously monitoring ranking fluctuations to determine when these updates happen.

There are several resources put together by SEOs which keep a record of historical algorithm updates. Perhaps the most useful is Moz's Algorithm Change History.

Now to apply this information to your site. There are three ways to do this:

Method One – Check Traffic

Using analytics software like Google Analytics, check to see if there's a drop in traffic that corresponds to the time of an algorithm update. Remember, Penguin can affect your whole site, or a portion of your site, so dig deep to find the root of the problem.

Method Two – Check Rankings

Use ranking software like Moz to check for a drop in rankings that corresponds to the time of an algorithm update.

The benefit of this method is that it gives you direct visibility into the affected metric – rankings. However, you will have to have signed up for the software well in advance, as these kinds of tools typically can't retrieve historical data.

Method Three – Check Visibility

The SearchMetrics SEO suite is the easiest Google link penalty checker tool, as it provides a graph of overall 'SEO visibility' over time. A benefit of this method is that you can retrieve historical data, so it can be used even if you don't have Google Analytics set up.

SearchMetrics SEO visibility graph showing possible effects of an algorithmic penalty. SearchMetrics SEO visibility graph showing possible effects of an algorithmic penalty.

Next Steps

Thumbs up! Source: Charles LeBlanc at Flickr.

If you discover a link penalty or manual action (or both), the next step is to complete a link audit to ensure your site is compliant with Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

Once this is completed, an algorithmic penalty with be removed automatically in due course. For manual actions, you must apply to Google directly with a 'reconsideration request' to have the penalty removed.

Download your FREE Link Audit and Removal White Paper to discover expert techniques for link penalty recovery.

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