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Picture this scenario:

You update your site regularly with new content. Your marketing campaigns are put in place to build awareness. The traffic to your site has been moving along steadily.

More visitors are finding your site through the search engines. And revenue is increasing as expected. But then you notice a sharp decrease in traffic. Your site is nowhere to be found for any key terms.

What happened?

The dreaded search engine algorithm update.

Google continually updates its ranking algorithms to deliver better results and weed out anything deemed as spam. Any attempts to manipulate rankings could result in the exact scenario described above.

In a recent blog post, Google stated the following:

“In order to protect the quality of our search results, we take automated and manual actions against sites that violate our Webmaster Guidelines.”

The message is clear: Illicit practices can lead to ranking penalties or worse a complete removal from the Google index. If your business relies on search, the results can be devastating. The best approach then is to implement a solid SEO strategy that adheres to all guidelines.

Here we look at what to avoid to protect your site from a Google ranking penalty.

1. Link Building Schemes
Google relies on complex algorithms to determine rankings based on hundreds of factors. But the quality and quantity of links to site is easily one of the most important. Once webmasters caught on, link farms proliferated in huge numbers.

This created a major problem.

Suddenly spam was ranking at the top of the search results. To curb this Google released the Penguin update to target and reduce rankings for sites engaged in such link building schemes.

Examples include:

  • Buying or selling links
  • Excessive link exchanges
  • Article distribution on a large scale
  • Keyword rich anchor text
  • Automated links

Such practices may deliver short term results. But it also leaves your site extremely vulnerable. Your site could vanish from the search results if the algorithms suspect you are deliberately manipulating your rankings. Or future algorithm updates could completely devalue certain link types (e.g. directory links, bookmarks, blog comments, etc.)

Anchor text is yet another factor that frequently attracts spam.

It looks rather suspicious if the anchor text of all your links are the exact keywords your site happens to be targeting. It’s an indication of link spam that Google pays close attention to.

So what’s the solution?

Start by conducting a link audit of your site to assess your risk. First enter in your site URL to the Ahrefs Site Explorer tool (note that you will need to sign up for an account which is free with limitations):

Ahrefs Site Explorer

Here you get a much better overview of which sites are linking to you as well as the anchor text ratio. You can also see more of your back links through Google Webmaster Tools under Search Traffic and Links to Your Site:

Google Webmaster Tools

Use this information moving forward in your SEO marketing campaigns to:

  • Build links naturally (e.g. content marketing, social media campaigns, etc.)
  • Vary anchor text (e.g. a mixture of brand, unique, and generic keywords)
  • Prune bad links (e.g. using Google’s Disavow tool)

2. Keyword Stuffing
Just as webmasters would buy links to improve rankings, many also resorted to keyword stuffing. This practice involves optimizing a page for a specific keyword (e.g. best SEO companies). The only difference is the target keyword would be used repeatedly to the point of providing little value for the user.

Here is an example directly from Google:

Keyword Stuffing Example from Google

As you might expect, this goes directly against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Filling content with keywords as illustrated in the example above results can lead to a ranking penalty. Content like this is not only difficult to read but often provides little value to the user. It’s not surprising that many high ranking pages are those that provide the most value.

Keep the following in mind to create content that ranks:

  • Create original and unique content for your target audience
  • Focus first on your end users, then optimize the content to be search engine friendly
  • Use multimedia (e.g. images, videos, etc.) to increase engagement
  • Provide content that delivers value and not just rehashed
  • Deliver insightful analysis and unique information

It sounds easier than done.

But taking the time to focus on information-rich content will put you leagues ahead of your online competition. And protect against future algorithm updates as you can expect Google to continue to penalize sites that resort to manipulative tactics.

3. Duplicate Content
Google diversifies its results so it typically won’t display the same pages for a search query.

Duplicate content refers to identical content found across a domain. Examples include using the same content on a site for different pages (e.g. for multiple locations) or pulling content from other sources. Both practices provide little value for the end user and could lead to ranking penalties.

Here is Google’s official stance on duplicate content:

“Duplicate content on a site is not grounds for action on that site unless it appears that the intent of the duplicate content is to be deceptive and manipulate search engine results.”

‘Deceptive’ is the keyword to pay attention to here.

As with keyword stuffing and link schemes, avoid any deceptive practices with the intention of manipulating rankings. This includes using duplicate content across your site or scraping content from other sources and publishing them as your own.

Here is what to do instead:

  • Set your preferred domain: Go to Search Console in your Google Webmaster Tools account to specify a preferred domain (e.g. http://www.yoursite.com or http://yoursite.com).
  • Syndicate with a link: Syndication is a great way to increase your reach online. But be sure to include a link back to the article so Google knows which one is the original source.
  • Remove duplicate content: If your site has pages with duplicate content, you have several options. Consolidate the content into one page or create multiple pages with unique content.

Conduct a thorough SEO audit of your site to identify any instances of duplicate content. Then take steps to address those issues. If your business targets multiple locations, make sure the content for each page is unique to improve local SEO.

Google launches major algorithm updates to deliver better and more relevant results.

Deceptive practices that involve link schemes and keyword stuffing could lead to a ranking penalty. Or even result in a complete removal of your site in the Google index. Both of which can be devastating for your business.

Take proactive steps now to protect your site against ranking penalties. Avoid manipulative practices as described above and focus on delivering value to your target audience. Consider working with an SEO agency to conduct an audit of your site and develop a marketing strategy for your business.

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