Making Sense of Google's 11 Manual Action Penalty Messages

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So you've received a 'manual action' message in Webmaster Tools. What next? Read on to get the low-down on manual actions, and find out what you have to do to make amends and get your rankings back.

This post is adapted from our white paper Link Audit and Removal: Everything You Need to Know About Google Penalties – and How to Recover Lost Rankings. Download your copy for FREE.

A manual action is a penalty applied manually by a member of Google's webspam team to a site that is in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines. This is in contrast to algorithmic penalties, which are detected and applied automatically by algorithms like Panda and Penguin.

As a result of a manual action, your site could suffer ranking drops in search results, making it harder for users to find your content. This is because Google has determined that your site uses spammy techniques, and thus is less valuable to users than sites that gain ranks through natural means.

In extreme cases, your entire site may be removed from Google's search results entirely.

Needless to say, manual actions are serious business. Lost rankings mean lost traffic. And lost traffic means lost revenue. It's up to you to sort things out as quickly as possible, or you risk jeopardising your business.

Graph showing catastrophic loss. Source: Wikipedia.

To recover from a manual action penalty, you need to send a 'reconsideration request' to Google through Webmaster Tools. This takes the form of a message to Google outlining what you have done to make your site compliant with Google's Webmaster Guidlines.

To help you make sense of the manual action penalty you've received, we've detailed the 11 manual action messages below, with explanations of what they mean. Armed with this information, you can start taking steps to put things right.

Remember to document everything you do. Your reconsideration request should be accompanied by extensive documentation detailing exactly what changes you have carried out.

Site-wide matches and partial matches

Before we get started, we should point out that many manual actions come in two 'flavours' – site-wide matches and partial matches.

Where appropriate, you will be told whether the manual action is a site-wide match or partial match.

A site-wide match means the penalty has been applied to your site as a whole – all URLs on your domain will be penalised.

A partial match means the penalty will only be applied to a certain set of URLs. This is usually because Google has determined that spammy techniques have only been used on a portion of your site.

1. Unnatural links to your site

2. Unnatural links to your site – impacts links

The two manual actions above are, broadly speaking, quite similar. You'll see one of these messages if Google has detected a “pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to your site.”

In other words, links that pass PageRank that have been acquired through link schemes, or by purchasing links.

In practice, however, these manual actions can have quite different effects.

The first, 'Unnatural links to your site' is applied when Google determines that participation in 'unnatural' link building practices is widespread enough to warrant a site-wide penalty. If you can see this manual action in Webmaster Tools, its likely that your entire site has suffered ranking drops, or may even have disappeared from the search results altogether.

The second, 'Unnatural links to your site – impacts links', means that the penalty has only been applied to a particular set of inbound links. In turn, this usually means that only a certain set of URLs on your site will be affected.

This manual action is applied when Google has detected some 'unnatural' link building, but feels it isn't widespread enough to warrant a site-wide penalty. You may see this if you have, for instance, been link building to a small number of key product or service pages.

Here's Matt Cutts, Google's head of webspam, talking about the second of these penalties:

For more information on link penalties and how to recover, download your free white paper on link auditing and removal.

3. Unnatural links from your site

This manual action is applied if Google detects “unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links” pointing from your site to other sites, and these links pass PageRank. As a result, your site has been penalised.

To paraphrase Matt Cutts, this is almost always because you've accepted payment or other incentives in return for links. But it could also be applied if you let a forum fill up with spam, for example.

The important thing is that these links have to be deemed 'non-editorial' choices. It's absolutely fine to link to something because you like it, and think it's worth linking to – but not for reasons of personal gain.

Matt Cutts says: “You can ask yourself, 'would I make this link if search engines didn't exist?'”

This manual action can result in a site-wide penalty, or a partial penalty. You will be notified as to which it is.

4. Hacked site

Google's number one goal is to provide quality search results and a great search experience for its users. Sites that have been hacked can pose a security risk to users, so it's in Google's best interest to penalise these sites.

This penalty can come in the form of a message to users, labelling your site as hacked in search results. Or your rankings could be penalised. Or you may have both penalties applied.

The following video explains what to do if your site is hacked:

5. Thin content with little or no added value

This manual action is Google's catch-all definition for poor-quality content. Google mentions 'automatically generated [spun] content', 'content from other sources' (duplicate content), 'thin affiliate pages' and 'doorway pages' as being examples of 'thin content with little or no added value'.

As Google puts it: “These techniques don’t provide users with substantially unique or valuable content, and are in violation of our Webmaster Guidelines.”

If you receive this message, you should improve the quality of your content and then post a reconsideration request.

6. Pure spam

'Pure spam' is something of a vague term, and it's arguably vague for a reason.

Google applies this manual action to sites that use “aggressive spam techniques [that constitute] repeated and/or egregious violations of our Webmaster Guidelines.”

'Scraped content', 'automatically generated gibberish' and 'cloaking' are given as examples. But in essence, Google can apply this manual action to any site that uses any number of 'black hat' techniques to manipulate search results.

In other words, 'Pure spam' means 'you've been really naughty'.

In Matt Cutt's words:

'Pure spam' is the label we typically use for something that any sufficiently tech-savvy person would recognise as spam. So, for example, what you would traditionally call 'black hat'.”

This can be applied as a site-wide match, or a partial match.

7. User-generated spam

This manual action is applied to a site that has spam generated by users. For example, if users have embedded links that pass PageRank or spammy content in forum posts, user profiles, blog comments or guestbooks.

This can be a site-wide penalty, or a partial penalty. However, Google says it tries to avoid applying site-wide penalties wherever possible, as it usually a portion of a site – such as a forum – that is affected.

8. Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects

For our purposes, 'cloaking' and 'sneaky redirects' are one and the same. It basically means that you have some kind of technique in place to show users a certain URL in Google search results, but send them to a different URL when they click through.

The 'benefit' of this, from a spammer's point of view, is that Google's search spiders may 'see' a different page to the one displayed to users. This allows spammers to manipulate search rankings, but provide any content to users they see fit.

This can be applied as a site-wide or partial penalty.

9. Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing

'Hidden text' and 'keyword stuffing' are fairly self-explanatory. They are both techniques used to manipulate search results by including an unnatural number of keywords on the page. Neither are useful to users, and as such are prohibited in Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

This manual action can result in a site-wide or partial penalty.

10. Spammy freehosts

The vast majority of manual action messages are applied to sites because the webmaster has been complicit in using spammy techniques in some way. Even 'User-generated spam' implies some complicity, as the webmaster has presumably lacked vigilance in tackling spam generated by users.

However, if you're really unlucky, you can receive a 'Spammy freehosts' manual action without being aware that you were doing anything wrong.

If Google determines that a freehost (a service that allows webmasters to host sites free of charge) hosts a “significant fraction” of spammy sites, it may decide to take action against all the sites on this hosting service. Therefore, it's possible that you could be penalised based on the reputation of your hosting service, instead of particular issues with your site.

11. Spammy structured markup

This is Google's latest manual action message. It is applied to sites that misuse structured markup like 'rich snippets' – for example, by marking up content that users cannot see.

For more information on what constitutes 'spammy' structured markup, read Google's Rich snippets guidelines.

This can result in a site-wide or partial penalty.

Manual Actions – Next Steps

Download your free link auditing and removal white paper to learn more about manual actions, and expert techniques to recover lost rankings.

You may also enjoy: How to Check if Your Site Has a Google Link Penalty

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