Time Based Penalties in Google

With the very public outing and penalizations of some large high profile sites in the last few months, the issue of time based penalties was given prominent exposure. These penalties lasted 30 days and 60 days.

I wanted to share a recent experience that I had with a temporal penalty – I have a mountain bike site that I used to run as a personal project that received a penalty in March. This penalty:

  • Decimated all of my rankings
  • Floored all of my organic traffic
The only real traffic left after the penalty was inflicted was due to referral traffic.

At this point I wrote off my site as completely lost and didn’t put in any real effort to fix it as the site wasn’t being monetized in any way. Even though I wasn’t monetizing the site, it was really disheartening to see something that I put a lot of effort into crash and burn (which spurred my abandonment).

The other day, I noticed that the traffic to this site had returned (though not quite to the previous level).

I counted out how long this penalty lasted and it was 100 days. For the record, I wasn’t trying to do anything manipulative.

Official Support for Time Based Penalties

When people noticed the high profile penalties that lasted for very “nice” periods of time, they started to talk about the concept of penalties being time based, which was confirmed by Matt Cutts in this Valentine’s Day Webmaster help video.

Important quotes (paraphrased):

  • On the manual side, as far as I can think of, the vast majority of the time, what we try to do is essentially try to have a time out. If you have hidden text you might have a penalty for having hidden text, and after 30 days that penalty will expire.
  • If you are doing some cloaking or some really malicious stuff, that will last for a longer period of time, but eventually that will also expire
  • You can do a reconsideration request, and if you have been effected by a manual penalty, then we’ll investigate. If we think your site is within the guidelines, we can then revoke that and your site will be resolved
  • If something is only affected by our algorithms, and not by any sort of manual actions, you normally can’t apply against that penalty; you would need to change your site so that the algorithms would no longer detect it as spam
  • Yes, Google will apply manual penalties in the form of time based penalties
  • A reconsideration request will only (normally) work if you have a manual penalty
  • If it’s an algorithmic penalty, you will probably need to make significant changes to your site
What Does This Mean for You as an SEO?

Frequently non-SEO’s (such as managers or clients) don’t have a good grasp on the effects (traffic and monetary) that a penalty can have on a site. This means you need to make sure that stakeholders understand why they should be playing within Google’s guidelines and the significance of not doing so. Use this as motivation to get your projects through the pipeline, especially if there are critical items that could warrant a penalty.

If it is too late and you already have a penalty, you already have the data that you need to convince your managers/clients to get your projects worked on, you just need to explain how penalties work and that your efforts will solve the problem.

The bottom line

You know the risk of acting outside of Google’s guidelines and penalties really suck. If you run a business, you could lose a lot of money while diagnosing and fixing issues, then waiting for the algorithms to pick up the changes or your reconsideration request to receive attention.


Geoff Kenyon

Geoff Kenyon

Geoff Kenyon is a senior consultant at Distilled where he leads the strategy and execution of online marketing strategies to drive traffic and revenue for his clients.  Geoffh264 // Geoff joined Distilled in 2010 after working in-house and...   read more

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  1. Kittie Walker

    I'm not sure if you want to answer this but the answers might be interesting and useful to others:

    Did you find it easy to spot your faux pas i.e. was it completely obvious which particular rule you had fallen foul of?

    If you are able to share which rule was it?

    I'm not sure which of these two scenarios you fall into. I think it might be the latter. You seem to be saying that you did nothing to rectify the situation and that it was a manual fixed penalty which elapsed after the 100 days. Does that mean that the site in question still has the same issues? If so it really makes Google's penalty policy even more of a joke. As plenty of people would quite happily take a reasonably short penalty if they are going to make a massive gain in the long run (which is not your intention). On the other hand if it was an unintentional breach that you tried to fix (even half-heartedly) and it took that long for the algo to pick up the changes, then that is an even sadder state of affairs.

    I'm not sure how Google should address this in a more appropriate manner but it seems to me that they haven't quite got it right yet.

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  2. Jon

    How do you diagnose a penalty? Just if traffic drops? What if you foot have enough traffic to notice?


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  3. I'm amazed that there are time based penalties at all. It indicates to me that they are shooting first and shooting more often at smaller TOS violations.

    Very odd - and yeah it would be great if you could share some ideas of why they penalised you.

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  4. That's the first time I heard about this in the SEO world. We don't have someone who spoke about this in France. I had one of my site that get the same problem, it was removed after 60 days. I think they use it in a way that webmasters would remove the problem, but it'll be the same if we don't touch anything.

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  5. Hi there, very interesting article. While not a penalty as such, I recently rebranded my site and 301 redirected the old domain to the new. Initially the site forwarded as it should have the new domain showed up with the correct pages per search. Then, 5 days later, the site dropped out the rankings altogether. Exactly 30 days later the site started returning again. I think that there was some sort of "penalty" for 301ing the old site and that it definitely seemed time based too or a very strong coincidence.

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  6. peppe

    also my site had a manual penalty, revoked, i think for links to banned sites from google. 100 days also for me.
    sorry for my english

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    • JamesT

      @peppe did you remove inbound links coming to site from those banned sites? Also did you file reconsideration request to Google and what response did you get. Thanks

  7. Skyle

    I had a survey site to which I had directed traffic from AdWords. I don't know what was wrong with the site but I got "lifetime" suspended for some unknown violation. I informed Google that I was switching to Microsoft AdCenter, which actually gave me about the same results for the same advertizing dollar. Today I noticed my "lifetime" suspension from Google AdWords seems to have disappeared. Are they suddenly noticing their competition?

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  8. Thanks for the enlightenment. I discovered my temporal penalty the day before it ended. I guest the best thing is to consider it a wake up call and clean-up my site a bit.
    It would help though if I had any idea what caused it.

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