Everything You Need to Know About Google Penalties & How to Eliminate Them
Google isn’t the only search engine, but it’s so important that it might as well be.
Your law firm appearing in the first-page search results is the single biggest factor affecting your ability to pull in new legal clients in the post-Yellow Pages economy.
That’s why law firms spend years investing in a high-quality, content-rich website — and then continue to add new content over time. Google’s search ranks change constantly (literally constantly), so a business cannot rest on its laurels lest it drift to Page 2, better known as “no man’s land.”
But what happens if your website was ranking pretty well for a long while and then suddenly took a nosedive?
It’s entirely possible your site has been hit by a Google penalty. Businesses get sideswiped by sudden Google penalties all the time, and there’s no equivocating here: it’s a major blow.
Fighting your way back from a Google penalty isn’t easy, but in most cases, it is possible. The trick is to find out why the penalty happened in the first place and then to execute the appropriate strategy for reversing it.
There’s a lot to know about Google SEO penalty removal — what a penalty is, how it works, why it happens (and so suddenly), how to know if you’ve been hit, how to fix it, and how to prevent it from happening again in the future.
We explore all these inquiries below.
What Is a Google Penalty? How Does It Work?
Google’s search results are determined by algorithms designed to distinguish relevant, helpful, and high-quality webpages from less worthwhile content.
To that end, Google is constantly crawling the whole web — virtually every word of it — consuming all its content, judging the quality of that content, and associating the content with the various terms and phrases that users search for.
With only a limited number of first-page slots available, the algorithms must choose ten or so of the best, so the competition is on. As a law firm, it is your job to make sure your website appeals to those algorithms’ tastes. (Or, if you’ve hired a marketing agency, it’s their job).
But what do these algorithms value? How do they determine quality?
Each website is assigned a quality score, calculated by a proprietary algorithm so secretive and complex that no one knows exactly what’s in it, but those of us who’ve devoted a career to studying Google’s search results have gotten a pretty good idea.
Some website attributes earn you brownie points… things like:
- Great writing
- Long-form, informative content
- Visual content to complement your written content
- A smooth, stable user experience
- Backlinks from credible domains
- A history of users spending a lot of time reading the content on your website*
- Fast-loading, mobile-friendly webpages
- Clean sitemaps and metadata
- And much more
*Yes, Google tracks that… another reason to make sure your content is plenteous and worthwhile.
But other attributes can earn your website a penalty… things like:
- Poorly written, keyword-stuffed web copy
- Malware or malicious content
- Spammy ads
- Intrusive pop-ups or interstitials
- Broken links
- Poor website coding
- Sluggish, slow-loading webpages
- Backlinks from low-quality domains
- Violating Google’s terms of service
- Black Hat SEO tactics (more on this in a section below)
…to list only a few examples.
Anytime a penalty is assigned to your site, Google’s algorithms lower your search rank immediately.
Some penalties carry relatively little weight. Others will bury you fast. The fewer and less-serious penalties you have, the better. Ideally, you should have none at all. In fact, if you want your law firm’s website to remain competitive in a crowded legal market, remaining penalty free is critical to your success.
Collateral Damage: When Legitimate Law Firm Websites Get Caught in the Dragnet
Some of Google’s biggest penalties have resulted in a devastating 90%+ decrease in traffic on select keywords for offending websites. Even worse: these penalties are not always limited to low-quality sites.
While unintended, Google’s updates always come with some peripheral damage to innocent bystanders. If a law firm gets swept up in the changing tide, it might be as collateral damage. After all, attorneys generally aren’t trying to scam people online, and their websites tend to be “on the up and up.”
Nevertheless, your site isn’t necessarily safe simply because you’ve taken the high road in your marketing efforts — and flashing your bar card won’t get the Google gods to grant an immediate pardon.
You’ll have to fix whatever’s causing the penalty.
Why Do Google Penalties Happen Suddenly?
Google is constantly tweaking its algorithms — sometimes even unrolling totally new versions — and those changes can yield significantly different search engine ranks.
When the algorithms change, the whole web feels it. As a matter of fact, in our industry, the discussion forums and online communities light up the morning after a change. It’s the digital equivalent of an earthquake, and those of us in the web marketing business have developed our own Richter scales.
As with any earthquake, having a stable structure and a solid foundation can spare you from damage. Websites that are full of content with high quality scores generally are not rocked too substantially — and they can quickly make changes to adapt to the new playing field.
But what if Google decides to start penalizing a once-acceptable practice as “bad behavior”? That’s not uncommon.
Here’s a pertinent example from the legal services field: pop-up chat boxes.
Pop-up chats are great for law firms. We advise most of our clients to utilize them. They bring in business. But Google has grown skeptical of those over time. Not long ago, they announced they’d start penalizing websites with the “wrong kind” of pop-up chat… that is, anything that registered as an “intrusive interstitial.”
The penalty was light at first, but we believe it may be growing in severity over time. This is, after all, how Google ensures that its search results don’t get stuck in the past — as technology and user preferences change, the algorithms will enforce that change by way of penalties.
So if your website features an attribute (or engages in a practice) that becomes outdated, unfashionable, or simply falls out of favor with the Silicon Valley powers that be, you could incur a sudden penalty without notice.
As lawyers, failure to receive notice probably rubs you the wrong way. It does us too. But that’s the reality… Google is protective enough of its algorithm updates that we’re usually left to figure them out for ourselves.
But never fear: we’re going to explain.
How Do I Know if I’ve Been Penalized?
This might be the easiest question to answer. Actually, if you’ve found this webpage, you probably already know whether you’ve been penalized… or at least you have a hunch.
But if you aren’t sure, the key indicator of a Google SEO penalty is a sudden drop in traffic or search rank — especially if the drop does not correlate with a recent, major change to your website.
In other words, if you pull up your unpaid traffic results for primary keywords and they look something like this…
…you’ve almost certainly been penalized. And a Google algorithm update is probably the culprit.
Why Did Google Penalize My Law Firm’s Website? How Can I Remove the Penalty?
The potential penalties are endless, but for law firm websites, the most likely reasons are:
- Black Hat SEO practices
- Panda penalties
- Penguin penalties
If this looks like a foreign lexicon, don’t worry: the concepts are actually fairly straightforward — and the fixes can be too. Let’s look at each in turn.
Black Hat SEO: The First Secret to a Google Penalty Removal
What Does “Black Hat” Mean?
“Black Hat SEO” refers to manipulative SEO tactics designed to acquire higher Search Engine Results Page (SERP) rankings for low-quality websites. Examples include:
- Keyword stuffing
- Link farming
- Unrelated keywords
- Bait-and-switch tactics (e.g. doorway pages, page swapping, etc.)
- Hidden links or other hidden text
- Manipulating header or footer text
- Certain cookie practices (though certainly not all; cookies can play a healthy role)
- Plagiarized content
- And much more
For years now, Google has been systematically tweaking its algorithms to weed out pretenders and make unwanted tactics obsolete.
Some practices now considered “black hat” were once en vogue. But as the times change, websites must too. If your site was optimized using black hat SEO techniques, it may be suffering from Google penalties.
Tips for Fixing Black Hat SEO Practices
If your website was developed as long as ten years ago — or if it was developed more recently using a questionable or inexperienced web marketing firm — there’s a decent chance you’re experiencing at least some degree of black hat penalty.
Likewise, if you’ve recently hired a copywriter who does not understand how to implement keywords using latent semantic indexing (LSI) and optimal keyword density pursuant to Google’s best practices recommendations, you could have incurred black hat penalties more recently.
Another common problem with law firms who use non-attorney copywriters with little experience in writing for lawyers: content that is largely lifted from other legal websites. This can earn you a penalty too. Many copywriters who excel in other fields struggle to write capably about legal issues and therefore succumb to the temptation to borrow from others’ work.
➢ The best way to vet your site for any black hat issues that might be causing penalties is to hire a reputable web marketing agency to perform a website SEO audit. Using analytics tools, an audit can crawl your site in much the same way that an algorithm would (though the precise algorithms are proprietary to Google) and produce a detailed report as to what’s working within your site and what isn’t.
➢ While we strongly recommend an audit, if you want to try to self-treat, refer to our bullet-point list of black hat practices above. Scrutinize your site and look for any offending patterns.
➢ Alternatively, if you’ve previously been involved in excessive affiliate networking or using black hat SEO practices extensively, you might need to use Google’s Disavow Tool. However, we strongly caution against using this on your own. The Disavow tool should only be used as a last resort by an expert who understands when and how to use it. In fact, we advise you to leave the determination itself (“is it truly time to employ last-resort measures?”) to an expert.
On Panda Penalties, Law Firm Websites, and Google Penalty Removal
What Is Google Panda?
On February 23, 2011, Google launched the Panda Algorithm Update, sending the first major round of algorithm-related shockwaves through the online business and SEO communities.
Primarily targeting content farm sites with thin or duplicate content, Panda rendered common SEO distribution sites like Ezinearticles.com, Hubpages.com, and other low-quality, user-generated-content aggregators entirely obsolete.
Estimates during the week following this update showed the worst-hit sites with an unimaginable 94% loss in traffic!
Google followed up the initial Panda Update with twenty-four additional tweaks over the next two years.
In the end, the updates penalized sites with the following features:
- Extensive or obtrusive advertising blocks
- Low-quality User-Generated Content (common among pre-2013 marketing content, including many webpages and blogs written for law firms in those days)
- Content cluttered with ads or affiliate links
Because these new “Panda values” have been around for a while now, it is entirely possible that your site has been bogged down with penalties for years. You may not have even noticed them at the time. Or perhaps you’ve added new content that’s now running afoul of Panda. Either way, if your webpages are struggling to rank well, a Panda penalty might be the explanation.
The good news is this: for any problem, there is always a solution. If you’ve been hit with a Panda penalty, we can help you recover your traffic.
Tips for Fixing Google Panda Penalties
While it takes an experienced eye to plan a full recovery, you can get started right now with these simple Panda Update solutions:
- Drop any and all duplicate content! Each webpage should be original and unique.
- Produce high-quality content for your law firm’s website. Google is on a mission to bring its users the best and most relevant information available, so fill your website with great content that people will love.
- Maximize the placement of original content above the fold.
- Enhance website design – remove empty pages and pages used solely for navigation.
- Lower your site’s ad and affiliate link ratios.
From Panda to Penguin… How to Remove Google Penguin Penalties
What Is Google Penguin?
On April 24, 2012, Google released yet another major update to its algorithm, this one entitled “Penguin.”
The primary goal of Penguin, as stated by Google, was to further penalize keyword stuffers, irrelevant links, and content not intended for human consumption.
As with Panda, Penguin did result in peripheral damage. Your site may currently be under penalty for spam practices you aren’t even aware of.
Here’s a quick list of the primary site features targeted in Google’s Penguin Update:
- Spam-based affiliate networks
- Websites receiving primarily “spammy” backlink patterns
- Websites employing primarily “spammy” outbound links
- Keyword “stuffed” articles, headlines, and other conten
As with Panda, there are some quick fixes for penalized sites, and Google regularly updates the Penguin Update software, allowing for formerly penalized sites to regain traffic after “cleaning up their act.”
Tips for Fixing Google Penguin Penalties
You already know what we’re going to tell you. It takes an experienced eye to fully rectify these penalties without sabotaging your site’s positive content. And that’s entirely true. But you can get a start with these pointers:
- Diversify your anchor text for both domain links and external backlinks.
- Eliminate any outbound links to websites that might seem questionable or of low quality.
- Eliminate excessive affiliate links.
- Filter out any stuffed keywords.
What About Post-Penguin Updates?
Not every Google update gets a name. Earlier, we compared them to earthquakes. You might also think of them like tropical weather — the storms only earn a name if the wind is strong enough to do some damage.
As of this page’s publication, Penguin is the most recent major algorithm update with an official name, but the landscape has hardly remained unchanged since 2012. There were new versions of Panda well into 2014, “phantom” updates after that, a machine-learning algorithm update called RankBrain, a slew of unnamed updates, a 2017 tweak that nerds like us took to calling “Fred,” and nonspecific “broad-core algorithm updates” as recently as 2018.
As future readers find this page, there are undoubtedly new changes underway as well.
You can see why staying on top of SEO is a full-time job for whole teams of experts like ours.
If you feel strongly that your website is free of black hat practices and is in full compliance with Panda and Penguin, reach out and give our office a call. We’ll do our best to help you get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Quality Always Wins in the Long Run.
Above all else, this is the golden rule you need to know. Google’s algorithms award quality… and they punish anything that might impair their users’ experience on the web.
So the best way to overcome and avoid Google penalties is simply to stay above board and commit to producing high-quality, long-form content for your law firm website.
Quality wins out every time.
Contact Black Fin for Google Penalty Removal (and to Get Better Results for Your Law Firm Website Overall)
If your website is suffering from a Google penalty, you’re literally losing business right now. Google users run a search query over 6 billion times each day. These searches are the lifeblood of your online business. And in today’s economy, where the majority of prospective clients look for lawyers on Google, every law firm is an online business.
If you’re losing traffic, take urgent action to eliminate the Google penalty and start getting bigger cases from better clients today.
There is a lot we can do for you at Black Fin — beyond removing a Google SEO penalty. We’re an expert digital marketing agency that specializes entirely in law firm marketing. From SEO to content marketing to social media, we know how to help law firms make more money using the web.
We’ve moved the overwhelming majority of our clients toward the top of the Page 1 Google Results (and in many cases, the #1 spot). Let us do the same for you.
The time to act is now. If you’re tired of messing around with Band-Aid fixes and cheap contractors – if you’re ready to finally take your firm to the next level – fill out our Black Fin contact form today.