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.


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