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How Can I Tell If My Website
is Banned or Penalized

One of the most common questions I see on Google Webmaster Help Forum is "My site has been banned and I don't know why!" Of course, 99% of the time, the person's site hasn't been banned. It's just not ranking well, or at least not as well as it did the last time the site owner tried to find it in Google. But the questions of how to tell if your site has been banned or penalized - AND WHY - are very difficult for most webmasters.

How To Tell If A Site Is Banned in Google

First, let's start with some basic definitions. When a site is banned, it is completely removed from the search engine's index of webpages. In terms of that search engine, it no longer exists. When a site is penalized, it is still included in the index and may appear for some unusual search terms, but it will generally not rank well for any of its targeted search terms or "keywords".

It can be difficult to detect penalties since those sorts of things just go into the mix of how search engine ranking methods operate. And, a site that ranks poorly may be penalized at all. It may simply not rank well for other reasons. Given how often Google updates and experiments with its ranking methods, it is not unusual for a site's rankings to fluctuate even if the webmaster has made no significant changes for quite some time.

But an absolute ban is easy to detect:

  • Check the "site:" command and see if Google says it has no information on a site
  • Check the "link:" command and see if Google shows no links
  • Search on the domain name in Google.

If the site: and link: operator searches show no results, then it's almost certain that you site has been banned. If your site doesn't appear at all or ranks poorly in the search for its domain name, but the site: operator shows some pages in the index, that's good evidence that the site has been penalized. If the site: operator still shows some pages and it ranks in the top 1 or 2 for its own domain name, but ranks poorly for keyword searches, then it's neither banned nor penalized, and you simply have an ordinary ranking problem due to the search engines' algorithm changes. See my article on Why Did My Rankings Drop? for a more detailed explaination.

That said, it is not unusual for new sites that are less than 3-6 months old with only a couple of quality links pointing to it, to fall out of Google's index for a short period. If your site falls into this category, don't simply wait for Google to rediscover it. Go through your site for possible violations of Google's Webmaster Guidelines and make any changes that you feel are appropriate. Then get to work building more links from other well-ranked websites whose main topic is related to yours. Links are a vital component of how your site performs in the search engines. A steadily growing foundation of quality links will see you through most difficulties and, when done within the Guidelines, will always contribute to your site's rankings in all of the search engines.

You can do some searches on Google for other people's opinions on this topic, and easily come up with some additional advice, but this is my general approach. Absolute bans seem to be pretty rare, but it's never happened to me because I take a pretty conservative approach to search engine optimization.

Reasons Why A Site Is Banned

The basic formula for removing a ban or penalty is very simple to describe in theory, but it can be difficult to do in practice because the Guidelines are very broad. Still, it's not a hopeless task, although it can require some technical skills - especially a working knowledge of HTML, the language of webpages. If you don't know HTML - for example, if you rely on a program like Adobe's Dreamweaver or website software like Wordpress to create your webpages, then you may need the help of a web designer or search engine optimization specialist to help you. But if you do know HTML, you should have no trouble repairing any problems once you've found them.

Most bans or penalties fall into a relatively narrow list of reasons. For Google, it means you have violated their Quality Guidelines. The following practices, in particular, will get your site penalized or banned.

  1. Hidden Text or Links
  2. Hidden text is usually pretty simple to detect. It was a common trick of early search engine optimization to hide blocks of keyword-stuffed text from users by displaying them in the same color as the background. When done using simple HTML, the search engines have no difficulty in detecting this trick. The use of Cascading Stylesheets (ie. CSS) made hidden text more difficult for the search engines to detect with their automated processes, but they can now detect signs of it well enough to get a site flagged for a manual review by a search engine technician. You can check your webpages for accidental hidden text by loading the page in your browser and choosing the "Select All " option from the "Edit" menu. If you see text appear after using "Select All" that wasn't visible before, that's something you need to correct immediately.

    Another way that text can be hidden is by using CSS to move the text off-screen or use the setting "display:hidden; ". This is another case where the search engines' automated systems may not find a violation immediately, but may get flagged for a manual review. The key factors in determining whether or not this is a violation are (a) is the text intended to be seen by users, and (b) is there an obvious way that users can select to see this text - a button, link, or icon they can click or mouse-over to make it visible. If the answer to both questions is "Yes", then it is not a violation and you won't be penalized. If either answer is "No", then you need to correct it.

  3. Cloaking: Serving Different Content to Search Engines & Users
  4. Cloaking is a more sophisticated way of trying to fool the search engines. It means that your site shows different content to the search engines than it does to users. That is, the search engine robot will see a highly-optimized page filled with little more than keyword-rich text, while users will see a more attractive or highly promotional page. Some webmasters try things along this line with less deceptive intentions, such as attempting to customize their content to the user's geographic location, but it is still technically cloaking. Since this requires overt action by the webmaster to implement, there's little mysterious about it. The bottom line is, don't do it. You will be found. The search engines have robots that don't use the same User-Agent identification as their primary crawlers, and they are difficult to detect. If they see discrepencies in what their regular crawler sees and their cloaking detection crawler sees, you'll soon be banned.

  5. Keyword Stuffing
  6. The major search engines no longer have a magic "keyword density" that will make your pages soar to the top of the rankings. So don't try to endlessly repeat your targeted keywords in every nook and cranny of your HTML mark-up. The search engines prefer a natural level of occurance of your keywords and if they see so much repetition that it looks like you're trying to manipulate your rankings, they will penalize you. If you use techniques that seem overtly deceptive, you can even be banned for keyword stuffing.

  7. Deceptive Link Schemes & Excessive Link Exchanges
  8. Defining exactly what constitutes a Linking Scheme is almost impossible, but you can define some obvious cases. If you're involved with a plan that requires you to link to several websites in exchange for getting links from a different set of websites, that's a deceptive linking scheme. If you're paying for links, that's a deceptive linking scheme. If you have an automated link exchange system on your website that allows links from virtually any site that agrees to trade links with you, then that's an excessive link exchange scheme and it's also a violation.

    Google has always tolerated a certain level of link exchanges, so it can be hard for a new webmaster to decide where to draw the line. The basic principle I use is to make sure that the link partner site is a quality site that I would honestly recommend to my users, with a heavy bias toward sites that contain information that's relevant to my own site. It doesn't have to be a direct competitor, but it does need to have at least a plausible topical relationship. And keep the number of such link exchanges to a modest level. Just enough to get your site started, and no more than 20-30.

  9. Duplicate Content - Repackaged Content
  10. With all of the ways for a webmaster to copy the content of other websites, it's not surprising that so many sites consist solely of repackaged content that originated elsewhere. If you simply repackage or re-arrange content that is available elsewhere, you will soon find your site has been penalized or even banned completely. A prime example are sites that extract content from blogs, news sites, product manufacturers or online retailers and simply regurgitate it within their own site's template. You need to create original, high quality content in order to succeed in the search engines over the long term. Even if your site seems to be doing well at first, this is the sort of violation that the search engines work hard to keep out of the search results and you will soon find your site penalized.

  11. Paid Links: Buying and Selling Links
  12. All of the major search engines prohibit buying and selling links. Most of the time, Google focuses on sites that sell links and penalize them by blocking their ability to pass PageRank or link value. This not only blocks the flow of PageRank to other sites, it also blocks it within the offending site itself, which means the internal pages of that site will not perform well in the search results. If your site sells advertising other than through Google's AdSense or DoubleClick advertising system, you need to make sure that the links in those ads are incapable of passing PageRank. You can do this by either adding the rel="nofollow" attribute to the <a>nchor tag in your HTML mark-up, or by routing the link through a redirection script that is blocked in your robots.txt file.

    If Google believes that you have been buying links for your site, you can also be penalized for that practice. Obviously, the only solution here is to stop buying links. Normally, only the most blatant link buyers get penalized and the rest are given the benefit of the doubt. So, if you've been caught buying links, don't compound the issue by trying even more deceptive methods of doing it. The search engines spend a good deal of their data processing systems in analyzing links and they can detect most artificial links. If you've already lost their trust once, you are unlikely to be given any second chances.

  13. Thin Affiliate Site
  14. A "thin affiliate" site is one that exists primarily to generate affiliate advertising links with little or no original content. The most common method is to create a site that repackages a data feed of some kind ( and eBay auction listings, for example) and embeds affiliate advertising links within that data. People often create a thin affiliate site and do well enough in the first few weeks that they're amazed when Google or one of the other search engines detect their violation and drop their rankings. Do not be fooled by early success. This is the sort of thing where that "honeymoon" effect can make it seem like you've found a path to easy money. But eventually, the search engines amass enough information about your site that they decide your site is in violation and the penalties begin. When you create a site that will have to survive on the income from affiliate advertising, you must have original content that's compelling and useful enough that other websites will want to link to you. In other words, you always have to start with the goal of making the best website you possibly can and then add advertising to that content.

When To File A Reconsideration Request

Once you've cleaned up all of the violations you've found on your site, you should file a Reconsideration Request through the Google Webmaster Tools console. Be sure to include details of the changes you've made as well as promising not to violate the Guidelines again in the future. Reconsideration requests will only help if your site has been banned. It can take a few weeks for a Reconsideration Request to be processed, so be patient.

Penalties that are invoked automatically by Google's algorithms begin to expire once Google has detected that you are no longer in violation. The time it takes for a penalty to expire depends on the degree of the violation. Once you've filed the Reconsideration Request, you'll just have to wait for things to improve. So in the meantime, you need to keep adding fresh, original content to your site and keep building quality links from other well-ranked sites.

This SEO Tip by Rainbo Design was last updated on April 25, 2016

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