Imagine firing up your laptop and discovering that your website has disappeared completely from the search rankings.
Despite all of the hard work you poured into boosting your organic rankings and building your brand, your website is simply nowhere to be found.
You’re back to square one.
That’s exactly what could happen if Google issues a manual action against you.
Luckily, these ‘website red cards’ aren’t issued often or without careful consideration. Nor do they always have such a devastating impact.
But given the strict penalties, it’s vital to understand what Google’s manual actions are, why they are issues and importantly, what you can do if the worst should happen.
Here’s our short guide.
What is a manual action?
Manual actions are penalties that are given out by the humans at Google.
They’re given to websites that are using unethical practices to boost their website rankings and disregarding the Google Webmaster Quality Guidelines.
These penalties can affect individual pages or even entire websites, and can cause them to drop significantly in rankings or even disappear completely. This happens quickly – often overnight.
They’re a serious problem that can have a profound effect on your business.
How do websites get a manual action?
Provided you have created a high quality website and you aren’t using those underhand, spammy SEO practices that aim to cheat the system (often called black hat SEO), you shouldn’t ever be issued with a manual action.
“Experience shows that manual penalties are infrequently issued and only for serious offences,” agree industry experts, Search Engine Land.
Having said that, sometimes Google can issue a manual action as a result of other people’s behaviour such as dodgy links that point towards your website, blog or forum spam comments or even a hacked shared server. This is why it always pays to be aware of potential problems and monitor your website consistently.
With this in mind, here are some of the reasons why these manual actions are issued:
- User-generated spam: This can come from spammy, self-promoting blog comments, forum posts, or other user-created content.
- Using a free host: If infected with spam, shared servers can cause Google to issue a manual action, even if your website itself isn’t infected.
- Unnatural links to your site: Unusual links that appear to be manipulating page rankings will be penalised.
- Unnatural links from your site: Likewise, unusual outbound links could also be creating spam or point to disallowed practices.
- Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects: Giving users a hidden page or image instead of the one submitted to google or redirecting users to a page they didn’t click on.
- Pure spam: blatant use of spam.
- Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing: Over repeating keywords or hiding them on the page.
- Sneaky mobile redirects: When mobile users are directed to a different URL than clicked on.
It’s important to quickly note that you won’t be issued with a manual action when a user manually reports a website for spam.
According to Gary Illyes’ post on the Google Webmaster blog last Friday, “…we use spam reports only to improve our spam detection algorithms,” adding that although spam reports play a helpful role, there’s an inefficient way of detecting spam.
How do you know if you’ve got a manual action on your website?
If you have a manual action on your website, you’ll immediately receive a message from Google via Google Search Console. This will tell you what the problem is, which page or pages have been affected, and what steps you can take to resolve the problem.
If you haven’t received a message or haven’t noticed one, you can also check whether your website has a manual action against it by looking at your Google Search Console.
What should you do if you have a manual action?
If you discover that you have a manual action, don’t panic! Although it’s certainly not great news for your website rankings, you can fix the problem and then appeal to Google to reconsider.
Here are the steps you should take if this is the case:
1. Read Google’s message carefully
Before you do anything else, take your time to read the notification message carefully so you understand why your website has been penalised. Often, you’ll see how you can solve the issue.
2. Understand the problem
If the reason for the problem isn’t immediately clear, you will need to gather and evaluate key data so you can identify the cause. Depending on the size of your website and the issue in question, this can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks.
At this stage, it’s also a good idea to review Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to help guide your investigations.
3. Fix the problem
The data you’ve gathered in the previous step should have identified what is flagging Google’s system and causing you problems. Now you need to resolve the issue by following one or several of the following steps.
Check your website for malicious content then delete it. Ensure all comments and content submitted to your site are moderated.
Using a free host
Contact the hosting company to inform them of the problem and consider moving to a secure host instead.
Unnatural links to your site
Disavow any links that appear suspicious.
Unnatural links from your site
Remove excessive links or low-quality links and use tags to identify where there are affiliate links.
Cloaking and/or sneaky redirects
Fix any pages that contain code, content or sneaky redirects that are hiding content.
Check Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and remove spam.
Ensure that both Google and your users can see the same images.
Hidden text and/or keyword stuffing
Remove excessive use of keywords and hidden text including in the html and CSS of your site.
Sneaky mobile redirects
Remove any redirects and check for malware or hacking.
4. Ensure full company compliance
If the manual action was issued because of a team member’s mistake, take steps to prevent the same happening again in the future.
Call a meeting and ensure that everyone understands why it happened and its severity then issue clear guidelines to safeguard your business.
5. Request a reconsideration
Finally, once you’ve fixed the problem you should request a reconsideration, including detailed information on how you fixed the problem and whether your website was hacked. Don’t request one before you’ve fixed your website as you’ll only be wasting Google’s time and your own.
At this stage you’ll need to be patient because it can take them anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to process your request and make updates if relevant.
Once Google has come to a decision, they’ll let you know whether your request was accepted.
When will my website recover?
For obvious reasons, a manual action affecting just one page on your website will be easier to recover from than problems with your entire site.
Generally speaking, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to recover from a manual action. You’ll need to provide useful, valuable content to your users and rebuild trust so you can move up the rankings again.
To round up, Google manual actions can cause huge problems for your website rankings and even cause them to disappear completely.
The good news is that they aren’t routinely issued and are never the result of a spam report issued by a user. By adhering to the guidelines and fixing any issues, most businesses can avoid ever receiving one.