6 Google Penalties Your SEO Should Have Warned You About

6 Google Penalties Your SEO Should Have Warned You About

Reading Time: 5 minutes

If you have been doing SEO for a while, you should be aware of the dangers of Google’s laundry list of penalties. Being hit by a Google penalty can range from mildly annoying to business destroying.

We go into some of the most common Google penalties we have come across.

google penalties

1) Google Penguin Penalty

We’ll start off with the big one.

Prior to 2012, the practise of search engine optimisation looked very different. If you wanted to rank your website, you needed links and you didn’t care how or where you got those from.

Quantity trumped quality.

When it arrived, Google’s Penguin Penalty changed everything.

The Penguin Penalty was a machine-learning link spam algorithm that operates a filter on top of the regular search algorithm that finds and devalues links that it finds to be low quality or spammy. Additionally, the website that those links were pointing to were penalised, decreasing all of its search rankings.

Almost overnight, it made the search results much less spammy. Black hat SEO tactics become much less effective and mass link building become more risky.

However, there were also many false positives – many websites that were not engaged in spammy link building were also caught in the filter.

As much good as it did for search results, it also started the negative SEO cottage industry, which led to many websites having their search rankings held hostage. Negative SEO is the practice of creating or pointing bad and spammy links to a competitor’s website in the hope of triggering a penalty, thus causing your competitor’s links to drop.

Up until October 2016, it has been updated four times. I contributed an in-depth article about the Penguin update in general, focusing on Penguin 1.0 up to Penguin 2.1 here.

Penguin 4.0 was the latest and most significant update. For one thing, it no longer penalises websites but simply devalues bad links.

It has also been incorporated into Google’s core Hummingbird algorithm and runs in real time now.

And that’s great news.

Recovering from a Penguin penalty was especially annoying when it ran periodically. That’s because you wouldn’t know if you did enough to recover from Penguin until the next time the filter ran. The interval between two updates could be years. Since it’s now part of the core algorithm, the road to recovery is much faster.


2) Google Panda Penalty

Google’s Panda penalty was released even earlier on 24 February 2011. It’s a filter that penalises websites that has ‘thin’ or low quality content.

It does a little bit more than that, and if you’re interested in going in-depth, you can check out one of our earlier articles here.

It’s easy to get confused between the Panda and Penguin penalties. Stated simply, the Panda penalty focuses on content while the Penguin penalty focuses on links.


3) Google Pirate Penalty

In 2012, Google released what is now known as the Google ‘Pirate’ penalty. This is also a search filter that runs on top of Google’s core algorithm that considers the number of valid copyright removal notices a website has and factors that in to its search rankings.

This means that a particular website will see its rankings reduced if it has Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices against it.

Previously, Google would only remove URLs that had valid complaints against it, but would not punish the domain. Some of your website pages would rank well even if your website had hundreds of URLs removed due to copyright infringement.

The Pirate penalty is a site-wide penalty, meaning that it will affect all of the URLs / pages on your website if Google deems that the site has had a significant number of URLs removed.

Google updated the Pirate penalty in October 2014 to make it more effective.

It does have an in-built safety to ensure that legitimate sites heavy with user-generated content will not be penalised regardless of the number of notices against it. These includes YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and so on.

Google maintains a database of domains and companies that have issued and been hit with copyright notices here if you’re interested.


4) Top Heavy Penalty

The section above-the-fold of a website is important real estate. Above-the-fold refers to what you see without having to scroll down when you load a web page.

In early 2012, Google released a filter called Top Heavy that penalises websites for having too many ads showing up above-the-fold.

Up to February 2014, the Top Heavy filter has been updated thrice. The first update affected 1% of English searches, the second impacted 0.7% and we’re not sure how many sites the third update affected.

The Top Heavy penalty is site-wide, meaning that the rankings of your entire site will be affected and not just the specific pages.


5) Mobilegeddon

If you’re a digital marketer, there’s no way you can avoid the mobile revolution. 2016 was the year that mobile searches outstripped desktop searches and there’s no stopping this trend.

Google understood this very well, and started including mobile-friendliness into its ranking algorithm. Websites that were not mobile-friendly will not rank as highly as those that were.

It was a significant change that got everyone so worked up that they started calling it mobilegeddon or mobilepocalype. In fact, such was the reaction that the number of mobile-friendly websites increased by 4.7% in the two months following the announcement.

Google is serious about getting ready for the mobile web. In the last few years they have also introduced site speed as a ranking factor and Google AMP to ensure faster browsing on mobile devices.


6) Interstitial Ads Penalty

In Janurary 2017, Google released a penalty for intrusive interstitial or pop up ads on mobile websites. Interstitial ads are full screen ads that cover the entire interface of their host application.

These are the ads that pop up and block the entire or a large portion of the page when you’re on a mobile website. Personally, I find those ads to be very annoying and am on Google’s side when they say that “provide a poorer experience to users than other pages where content is immediately accessible”.

Google explicitly warns against the following practices:

  • A pop up that covers the entire page, either when you immediate enter the page or while you are browsing through it.
  • Showing an interstitial ad that the visitor has to close before they can access the website content
  • Using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been inlined underneath the fold.

intrusive mobile ads

(Image Source)

There are a few cases where such interstitial ads are acceptable.

  • When it’s part of a legal obligation, such as for age verification.
  • Login dialogs that block users from a certain site, for example a paywall.
  • Mobile ads that take up a reasonable amount of screen space. Google points to ads by Chrome or Safari as good examples.

intrusive pop up intersitital ads

(Image Source)


Google Penalties will remain a large part of the digital marketer’s life for a long time to come. As long as you’re interested in getting traffic from SEO, you’re going to want to stay on top of these changes.

Have you been hit by a Google penalty? How has it worked out for you? Let us know in the comments below!