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What is a Google Penalty?
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When you can’t find your website at all in the Google index or if you don’t have top rankings for your domain name, you most likely have a penalty. Google penalties are the result of violations against the Google Webmaster Guidelines. Violations against the Google guidelines are either detected algorithmically or are detected manually. Some violations are considered worse than others. A penalty can expire in a few weeks, a few years, or may be slapped on permanently.
For example, hidden text is considered a relatively minor infraction. Hidden text can be detected by the Google Algorithm and a penalty will usually be automatically lifted in a few weeks once the hidden text is removed.
A little higher on the list, another type of algorithmic penalty can occur when you have content detected that looks like gibberish, links on a page using anchor text that point to what has been deemed a bad neighborhood, or too much anchor text manipulation without a nofollow that point to duplicate or pages of low-quality content. Depending on the severity, penalties can last quite some time, on the level of several months, even after being corrected.
Other penalties, such as a manual penalty for participation in a link farm or link exchange program, can last several years if a reinclusion request is not filed. Even then, your request to get re-included in the Google index may be ignored. Google will not confirm or always lift a penalty to avoid tipping off spammers.
What is not a Google Penalty?
Many webmasters occasionally report seeing a sudden drop in the rankings by 30 or so spots. Sometimes called -30, -60, or -950 penalties, these are the result of filters the search engines have used to dampen your search rankings. The filters are based on the quality scoring algorithmic signals for your website pages much like the quality scoring guidelines for Adwords. If your site is run through the filters, Google may adjust your web page ranking by lowering it for a particular keyphrase from which you will have to fight your way back to the top via better relevant content, traffic, and incoming links. Not a penalty or ban, but a way for Google to put you in your place so to speak.
Lowered page rank is not a sign of an incurred penalty as long as your site is still present somewhere in the search rankings. An update to your Google toolbar PageRank can be affected for a myriad of reasons. Most commonly, backlinks have likely been discounted as reverberations occur throughout the entire web as PageRank and Domain Authority for other linking websites are updated.
What to do in case of a Google Penalty?
In the case of an algorithmic penalty manual penalty, keep in mind that you are guilty until proven innocent. Clean the site of infractions and file a re-inclusion request in Webmaster Tools. Be honest, clear, and detailed. Also, pray that it is your lucky day. Given the workload that Google has to deal with these requests, one can only wonder how much attention your site will receive for re-inclusion. There is a better chance that your site will have the penalty expire automatically and leave it at that. After the bans have hopefully lifted given a length of time, you will get your PageRank back. In the same regard, be very wary of purchasing old domains. Some curses live on and never die.