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Google manual penalty recovery guide

We know you’re an A student of SEO that always attempts to do their best. But there was this one time you were tempted by that shady kid next to the SEO school cooler, to cheat your way to higher positions, using some black hat trickery.


Google was onto you, your ranks suffered, and in your Search Console you saw the notice from Google’s human team describing the violation and summoning your parents (i.e. you) to the principal’s office (you as well, observing your own actions from a critical point of view). Now the question is, how can you make it better and be on Good terms with Google so you can reclaim your organic ranks again?


Before we proceed we recommend you go over our common Google manual penalty list:

11 ways to get a manual Google penalty and hurt your rankings


Recovering from a Manual penalty vs. Algo penalty


First let’s go over a few key differences.


The main difference is in the keyword ‘manual’. Manual penalties are given by Google’s human army of guideline enforcers. This army consists of roughly 100k personnel that go over highly ranked websites to make sure everything checks out based on their webmaster quality guidelines. Manual penalties can also occur following an inspection because someone reported your website to Google as breaking some fundamental guideline, such as having spam or paid links.


An algorithm “penalty” is a natural automatic ranking demotion done by Google’s RankBrain algorithm and their spiders routinely crawling websites to examine quality. No human is involved and it’s all A.I. operated (other than occasions when the algorithm needs to be “taught”). There is also no way to report a website to RankBrain.


Next, there is also a difference in intent. A manual penalty is because of a direct intentional (naive or aware) violation such as using bought links, while an algo demotion is just because some aspect was simply not up to quality standards. For example, you may have a slow website that isn’t mobile friendly that got demoted following a Google update that was meant to focus on mobile speed. An algo demotion doesn’t mean you did anything forbidden, but because something just doesn’t cut it anymore.


There is however a possibility of being demoted in ranks following a human inspection that doesn’t break any rules but is found lacking in EAT quality ratings. This is in YMYL (“Your Money or Your Life”) websites such as in health and finance.


A manual penalty will be notified via an official report in your search console, while an organic drop will only be noticed with loss of traffic and a drop in ranks. Which is exactly why we always emphasize in our blog that you track everything correctly with all the Google’s full ranking layers in mind.


The bright side of manual penalties is they are clearer and official. There is an official channel to contact Google with a Reconsideration Request and a documented way to recover. Google will often even include tips on how to fix the issue. And if Google’s official path of penance isn’t enough, the path has also been charted by countless SEOs and case studies of using forbidden methods and successful recovery and bounce backs to the top of the charts.


Also using methods that get penalized isn’t necessarily on purpose but maybe because of simple naiveté. Maybe you stumbled upon services that promise quick success and you were tempted to use them following some ad you saw, only to discover short term gains were converted into long term damage.


Lastly, recovery time also differs between a manual penalty and an organic drop. The time it takes to recover from manual penalties after a reconsideration request has been sent, can range anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Recovery from an organic algorithm drop can take a few months and is much harder to achieve.


The list of penalties and recovery solutions


Now let’s get to the thick of it!


1. Cloaking


This is a technique which shows the users a different content once they click the search result, using sneaky redirects or by showing images, that don’t match the text the search engine user-agent sees.


If the content shown to Google’s crawlers isn’t the content the user will see once in your website, then it’s a clear violation.


How to fix: go to Fetch as Google in your Search Console and compare the content of the effected pages with the content the Googlebot sees. Change the variations and make sure the content is the same. If redirects are the problem, remove the problematic redirects.


Finally submit a reconsideration request once issues are fixed.


2. First click free violation


This basically means showing Googlebot the full content, but once the user clicks the search result they get a partial content with a subscription pay-wall as a condition to see the full content . This is a violation and considered a type of cloaking.


How to fix: Go over Google’s updated First Click Free policy since their Flexible Sampling concept is generally more lenient, and takes into account the need to let users sample content while also giving an incentive to sign up. There are specific types of structured data markups for Subscription based and paywalled content.


Once the issue is handled and everything is marked correctly, submit a reconsideration request.


3. Hacked or malicious site

This one probably isn’t your direct fault since hackers always look to exploit vulnerable websites and CMS such as WordPress to insert malicious content and links.


If your website was compromised it’s never a fun experience. Also depending on the severity of the breach it might be difficult to fix. But do not despair!


How to fix: First try and use Security Issues in Webmaster tools to diagnose the hacking.


A general good step is simply contacting your host. Because it’s so simple and the situation might be confusing and nerve-wracking for some, they might forget this option. This survey for example found that 60% of users with compromised websites that asked for help from their host, received it. If the host is well established and a known brand, they will most likely have a protocol to help webmasters, since you are unfortunately probably not the first in this predicament.


Next, until the hit is taken care of it is highly recommended by Google that you quarantine your site to prevent any further damage!


There are many security forums with experts that can guide and help you with security problems for free, but if you truly care about your hard earned ranks and content, it might be wise to contact a security expert and pay the purse to recover.


Once everything has been fixed and your website is again made safe, you will need to request a review and not a reconsideration request like in other penalties.


Here’s Google’s own guide on handling being hacked.


4. Hidden Text


Hidden text is content that the user-agent will read but a real user will not see, because it’s purposefully too small for example.


Hiding text to boost keyword density or any other reason is a no-no. In the early days of Google some made millions using this technique alone, spamming search results with blunt commercial content. Which is why Google put a stop to this.


How to fix: This one is very straightforward but might require some attention.


Go to Fetch as Google in your Search Console and fetch the afflicted pages.


Go over the HTML and CSS markup of the pages and try to locate text that isn’t sufficiently visible because the font is too small, is of a similar color to the background, positioned out of the visible frame, etc.


Once you re-style the text to be visible to the human eye, and remove unneeded hidden text, file a reconsideration request.


5. Spam straight out of the can


All the violations listed in this article can fall under the umbrella of “spam”. Spam is anything that adds pure commercial noise to content. Spam that insults all common senses, such as using scraped content, keyword stuffing, a ton of ads and pop ups, auto-generated gibberish and the like. We all know it when we see it.


How to fix: Stop it and clean your act and content. Make it readable and up to all the webmaster quality guidelines. Once fixed, file a reconsideration request.


Note that Google will only tolerate this violation once. After you fix it, be sure not to repeat it again. Some users never recovered following a repeat of this violation.


6. Keyword Stuffing


Using too many targeted keywords that make the text unreadable or plain silly. This technique used to work like a charm in the past, but today will most likely only lead to a penalty. No serious SEO expert or content writer will dare use this nonsense approach anymore. Plus, don’t forget anyone can simply report your website if they see an aggravating keyword stuffed content!


How to fix: This fix only requires common sense – if something isn’t readable as a regular sentence because it features an unreasonable volume of targeted keywords, then edit the text so that it becomes readable. Especially clean the <titles> and <h> tags.


Once done, send a reconsideration request.


7. Misleading or incorrect rich structured markup


Rich snippets steal the show in the SERP, which is why it may be very tempting to cheat your way to the top using them. However, anything that breaks the rich snippets guidelines will lead to a penalty. For example, marking instructions on how to get a loan as a recipe, or marking non-events as events.


How to fix: Change the markup so the content fits the markups and double check to make sure everything falls in line with the rich snippets guidelines.


Once done, send a reconsideration request.


Also read our Schema markup guide that breaks down the common markup types for rich snippets.


8. Thin, poor quality, and scraped content


Content that pretends to be legit, but like a fake supplement will only lead to a bad experience. Unoriginal copied content, “original” content with little to no value, badly written ridiculous affiliate pages, and blatant doorway pages with no added information other than marketing dribble are all considered low quality content.


In YMYL (“Your money or your life”) type websites such as health and law, this rule is even more strict. Well written but unprofessional content will be considered low quality.


Read more about YMYL websites in our full EAT quality article.


How to fix: If the content is thin or has too little text, add value and enrich it. Find duplicate content and either remove it or make sure to rephrase everything to lower resemblance.


If your affiliate gig and doorway pages had been marked as too thin and spammy, you might want to consider removing them.


Rewrite pages if you have to. Better still, if writing isn’t your strong suite, hire a good professional content writer if you can.


After all is fixed, file a reconsideration request.


9. Unnatural links to and from your website


Since backlinks are still a ranking influencer, buying links is possibly the most common violation. Some claim they can make it work for certain niches, and the phenomenon is still widespread despite the crackdowns by Google. Also, it’s easy to be tempted because link selling services can reel you in with promises of fast riches.


Naturally participating in selling links is also a big no-no and Google tends to be much more severe on users selling links than those buying them.


Either way this is a poor long-term strategy and short term gains might result in long term damage. A solid rise in rankings because of high quality content, proper markups and legit link building, will be much harder to dethrone anyway and will also be more resistant to impending algorithm updates.


How to fix: Go over the links pointing to your website using Google’s Link Report and start auditing the problematic links. If the suspected links are outgoing you might need to add a rel=”nofollow” so Google doesn’t count them. If the troublesome links are incoming links (backlinks), than you can ask the source to remove them, and if that doesn’t work, you might want to disavow them like the problematic cousin that they are.


Make sure you do this step correctly since disavowing legit links can harm your organic ranks.


You might even want to do a full site SEO Audit using our tool, while you’re at it!


Finally, after clearing the bad links, submit a reconsideration request.


10. User generated spam


Basically, irrelevant marketing comments by users that are plugging some kind of service or product and posting links to spammy or illicit malware ridden sites.


Many times, it’s bots, paid “marketers” from third world countries, or simply poor gullible souls that got trapped in a MLM scheme, and now spend their free time spamming comments for the profit of some basement-dwelling scammer.


How to fix: Go over your comment sections and forums and remove the problematic comments. In the first place, you should probably be moderating your comment sections and forums if it came to a penalty because of spamming users. A simple anti-user spam solution is to make sure a rel=nofollow will be added to links in the comment section.


After clearing the bad comments and banning those users if possible, submit a reconsideration request. If the links the users posted made your site be flagged as a security risk you will need to take the review request route.




Don’t abuse the webmaster guidelines and try your best not to fall for any link selling schemes as tempting as they can be. It will save you the headache of clearing the mess if you are caught, the time it takes to recover after the reconsideration has been sent, and this is not even considering the time and efforts you will need to spend fixing said issues.


Short term gains are not worth it if they come at the cost of high risk and potential long term damage. Not to mention some repeated violations might not be even recoverable, making you start from scratch!


Finally, if you liked this post, check out our article about recovering from organic algorithm ranking drops. It’s harder and less direct but doable:

Google algorithm recovery tips and lore 


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