5 Common Reasons Google Could Penalize Your Website

Trying to increase your website’s ranking on Google? Heard horror stories of Google’s updates completely wiping sites off the search rankings? It happens, but not at random. Let’s have a look at what exactly a Google penalty is – and the reasons Google may drop your site in its rankings.

Reasons Google could penalize your website

What is a Google Penalty?

Let’s start with Google’s goal: to eliminate poor-quality content to refine the quality of search results.

To do this, Google released their Penguin update in 2012, which wiped some sites out of search rankings altogether. This update downgrades site rankings based on many factors (which we will chat about shortly), forcing companies to change the way they look at SEO and prioritize the quality of their content.

Subsequent updates continue to sharpen the search engine’s ability to judge the quality of a site.

Why Does Google Penalize Websites?

1. Your Website is Outdated

The design of a website plays a large factor in its site ranking. Two main design concerns are whether the site is mobile-friendly or if it is new or up-to-date. According to Forbes, “you could lose anywhere from 5-30% of leads based on this factor alone”.

When you’re building your website design, make sure you also keep meta titles and meta descriptions in mind. They help Google understand what keywords your website wants to rank for; without them, Google may not recognize your site as relevant and penalize you.

2. Poor Link Structure

What makes up link structure? Let’s break it down:

  • External links – these connect your content to other sites. You want to link to other high-ranking websites so that Google will associate your content with other high-quality sources. Additionally, these sites should be relevant – for example, if your website is fashion-themed and only links to sites about food or electronics, Google views this as a problem. Linking to low-quality or irrelevant content sites will put you straight on Google’s radar to drop down in ranking.
  • Internal links – these connect your content to other pages within your website. It gives Google an idea of how your website is mapped out and what your overall site content is like. That being said, it’s important to interlink to relevant If you’re linking your blog post about saving money to your pricey gift shop, for example, you may get penalized.
  • Backlinks – these are links from other sites that direct back to yours. The goal with backlinks is to get high-ranking websites to link back to you. It would be fantastic to have backlinks from CNN or New York Times. This is high-level, but the idea is you want to avoid fake or illegitimate websites to maintain a higher ranking.

When it comes to links, remember – quality over quantity.

3. Buying Links

Yes, some companies still buy links to their website to increase in ranking.

Google sees this as an attempt to deceive PageRank, which calculates where your site should appear in search engine results based on what content Google views as relevant and high-quality.

When you try to manipulate Google, they can catch this – and the bad links you have been buying. Buying links can even drop you off the rankings completely.

4. Your Content Has Little Value

This can be anything from not enough content, shallow content that your readers have already found on many other sites, or content obviously trying to rank for keywords. These are all the wrong way for your content to help rank your website.

Your site must offer significant content to readers. Google judges how users interact with your website. If people visit your site and immediately leave, Google will catch on that users don’t value your content and will penalize your site and it’s ranking.

5. Slow Speeds

How frustrated do you get when a page is taking 10 seconds to load? Do you abandon the page and move on?

A lot of people do – and Google notices. Neil Patel recommends using a caching plugin or a CDN right away to avoid this issue.

If you’re not sure how fast your existing site is, check out Google’s PageSpeed to see if you have room to improve on your desktop or mobile site load time.

Stay Prepared

In the end, you must always put the user experience at top-of-mind.

They’re the ones visiting your websites and, in turn, buying your products or services. The goal is to give them the most seamless experience, so they have no reason to exit your page.

Doing this will help avoid penalties, increase the quality of your traffic and number of conversions, and create a happy relationship between your website and Google.

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Understanding Bounce Rate, Long Clicks and Pogo-Sticking

How users interact with your website can have a significant impact on its search engine ranking. Factors like how long a user spends on a landing page, or whether the user clicks through to another page on the site, help Google’s search engine algorithm determine your site’s quality and relevance to search terms.

One of the ways we measure site engagement is by looking at data collected by Google Analytics: metrics like bounce rate, visit duration, and pages per visit. These numbers give insight into whether the page resonates with your audience and how to better optimize it.

However, the engagement data you can access with Google Analytics isn’t what Google uses to determine search engine ranking. The search engine algorithm uses different engagement metrics, and unfortunately, these numbers are a bit harder to pin down than bounce rate.

Below, we’ll discuss the meaning of three important terms that illustrate how users interact with your site: bounce rate, long clicks, and pogo-sticking.

Understanding Bounce Rate: Hits, Sessions and Bounces

Before we talk about bounce rate, it helps to get a refresher on how Google Analytics collects data.

The moment a user lands on a website, Google Analytics begins to record a ‘session’ for that user. A session is a single continuous visit to a site, which can include viewing multiple pages on the site and interacting with the site in different ways. Google Analytics tracks everything the user does on the site during that session, including how long the user spends on a specific page (Time on Page) and the total duration of the session.

A session ends in one of three ways: the user leaves the site, is inactive for a period (30 minutes by default) or the clock strikes midnight (in which case Analytics starts tracking a new session for that user beginning at 12:00 AM).

In addition to tracking sessions, Google Analytics also tracks every ‘hit’ that occurs during a session. A hit is any user interaction with the website that triggers data to be sent to Analytics, such as:

  • Clicking a link to another page on the site
  • Leaving a comment on the page
  • Playing a video
  • Purchasing an item
  • Clicking a button to Share the page on social media

A bounce is a session that ends without a hit. It means the user viewed a single page on the site before exiting, without interacting with the page (at least not in a way that triggers a hit to Google Analytics).

Bounce rate is the number of bounces divided by the number of sessions or the percentage of users who landed on a page and left without interacting or viewing other pages on the site.

Is High Bounce Rate Always a Bad Thing?

A high bounce rate equals a low retention rate. If visitors are leaving a site after viewing a single page, it means that page has not enticed them to engage with or go deeper into the site.

Whether this is a bad thing depends on your objective.

Some pages are built purely to inform. If a visitor lands on a Store Hours page, for example, it is likely they’re already planning a trip to the store and need a bit more information. One would expect that page to have a high bounce rate because once it has done its job, the user should be good to go.

It’s for this same reason that blog posts and news articles tend to have a high bounce rate. People usually visit those pages to obtain a specific piece of information. If the page delivers, the user can leave.

However, a high bounce rate can also indicate problems with your site. It could be that people bounce because the page is of low quality, or it didn’t meet their expectations.

In other cases, a high bounce rate reveals a flaw in your marketing strategy. A flawless page will nonetheless generate a high bounce rate if you’re sending the wrong kind of traffic there.

Finally, bounce rate can yield clues to some of the important factors that impact on your search engine ranking.

Does Bounce Rate Affect SEO?

Bounce rate can tell you a lot about whether people find a page useful and relevant. Usefulness and relevance is information that Google’s search engine ranking algorithm wants to know, too. So, does bounce rate affect SEO?

The short answer is, no. Google confirms that bounce rate is not a ranking factor. Not every website uses Google Analytics, so Google has no way of obtaining widespread data on bounce rate. Plus, as we noted above, a page can be exactly what users were looking for and still have a high bounce rate.

But bounce rate is fundamental in uncovering other numbers that do impact SEO: long clicks and short clicks.

What Are Short and Long Clicks?

The search engine algorithm does not consider a page’s bounce rate when it comes to determining its ranking in the results. However, it does notice how Google’s users interact with pages that appear in the search engine results.

When a user clicks through to a site from the search engine results page (SERP), Google tracks how long the user spends on that site before returning to the SERP. A long click occurs when a user clicks through to a result and does not return to the SERP or remains on the site for a long time before returning.

Short clicks, on the other hand, occur when a user clicks through and then quickly backtracks.

Another important term here is dwell time, or the time a user spends on a site before returning to the SERP.

Difference Between Short Clicks, Long Clicks and Bounce Rate

Unlike bounce rate, short and long clicks do affect a site’s search engine ranking. And it’s unfortunate that Google Analytics doesn’t track them because this data provides even more insight into a user’s activity than bounce rate.

Bounce rate only shows how many users bounced; it doesn’t tell you why. They may have closed the browser, returned to the SERP, or gone for a lunch break.

Short clicks, on the other hand, reveal that the user went right back to the SERP after clicking. Some call this pogo-sticking: you can visualize the user hopping from the SERP to the site and then back to the SERP in quick bounces. Pogo-sticking is a clear signal that the page didn’t fulfil the purpose of the search query.

Although Google Analytics doesn’t track short clicks, long clicks or pogo-sticking, it is possible to uncover some insight on these numbers using bounce rate. Bounce rate and pogo-sticking are directly proportional; if a page is getting a lot of short clicks, it will have a correspondingly high bounce rate, while a higher proportion of long clicks will lead to a lower bounce rate.

The challenge is uncovering the reasons why users bounce.

Are Short Clicks Always a Bad Thing?

Like bounce rate, there are some cases where pogo-sticking is normal.

Take health-related search queries, for example. Users who are researching symptoms will likely want a second opinion, so they’ll bounce back to the results page more than once during their query. It is likely that Google’s algorithm recognizes this and takes it into account.

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3 Key Differences Between Voice Search and Text Search (and What It Means For Your Business)

The numbers speak for themselves. One in five searches on the Google Android App are voice searches. Over 60 million people in North America use digital voice assistants on a regular basis.

All signs point to 2018 being the breakout year for voice search.

It’s more than a novelty. Voice search is an evolution in the way we use search engines, and search engine giants like Google and Bing are already changing their search engine algorithms to adapt.

So, what does this mean for your business? To understand how voice search will impact your search engine optimization strategy, let’s look at the core differences between voice search and text search.

How Does Voice Search Work?

Voice search lets you use a search engine app by speaking to a device rather than typing the query on a keyboard or touchpad. The app uses voice recognition software to transcribe the spoken words into written text. Then the search engine algorithm strives to deliver the best possible results.

Voice search has been around in various forms since at least 2002 when Google launched the first incarnation of its voice-enabled search function. Believe it or not, there was a time when users dialled a phone number and received Google search results via text message! It was a far cry from the instant answers voice search delivers today.

Differences Between Voice Search and Text Search

Just as with a text-based search, the search engine algorithm aims to deliver results are as useful and relevant to the voice searcher’s query as possible. But the differences between voice search and text search can have a big impact on what those results look like — and how the algorithm goes about finding them.

1. Device (and Search Engine) of Choice

According to Google, more than 60% of all searches now come from mobile devices. A sizable 20% of those mobile searches are of the spoken variety. But not all voice searches are made on-the-go; more and more voice searches come from voice-enabled smart speakers.

The year 2017 saw an explosion in the number of smart speakers in homes across North America. Amazon, the frontrunner in the market, sold millions of Alexa-enabled devices on Black Friday alone.

Why does this matter? Not only does the device of choice impact how people search, but which search engine they use.

Although Google remains the search engine of choice for most people, Amazon’s Alexa uses Bing by default. So does Microsoft’s Cortana. Together, Alexa and Cortana represent over half of all smart assistant use, meaning the majority of voice searches from smart speakers actually use Bing, not Google.

If smart speakers continue to proliferate, and Amazon stays on top, Bing will become increasingly important to businesses who want to rank among voice searchers.

2. What People Search For

Voice search is more accurate and functional than ever. The more we use it, the better the voice recognition software behind the app becomes. However, Google’s own research shows people still avoid using voice search for certain subjects.

People are most willing to raise their voices on quick queries in the moment. They use voice search to find the nearest restaurant, ask how late it’s open, and check its star-rating on Yelp. That’s why local SEO is huge when it comes to voice search.

But when it comes to so-called ‘sensitive’ subjects, like healthcare, people prefer to search the old-fashioned way. Not surprisingly, the same goes for anything you could classify as ‘adults-only’. What is surprising is that social media is still largely taboo for voice search as well. Perhaps that’s because 63% of Internet users worry about voice-enabled technology spying on them.

Though this gap could decrease over time, not all types of content will necessarily benefit from optimizing for voice search today.

3. How People Search

The biggest difference between voice search and text search? Tone, phrasing, and word choice. To optimize their site for voice search, businesses will have to turn an ear to how their customers talk.

When people use a voice search app, they’re more likely to phrase the query as a question. They use natural language, choosing words that reflect a conversational tone. They expect quick answers to specific questions.

Ranking for voice search queries will require businesses to focus not only on long-tail keywords that come up in these queries, but on direct answers to users’ most common questions.

Search engine algorithms are increasingly able to precisely detect user intent. If your site can deliver, you can leverage voice search to climb the rankings and reach customers who know exactly what they’re looking for.

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What to Look for In Google Analytics

Google Analytics offers a wealth of data. You need to know what to prioritize, or else you will spend hours trying to understand what all the numbers mean for your website traffic.

The main point of Google Analytics is to figure out how your website is performing, and what that means in relation to your marketing efforts. Let’s walk through this process.

Starting Point – Acquisition > Channels

Every time you log into Google Analytics, you want to look at the Acquisition Channels. It’s the best way a quick snapshot of what is happening with your website. You will quickly be able to identify any success or issues occurring on your site.

The default timeline in this section is one week, but that is a small sample size for most websites. Switch your timeline to a 30-day period for more reliable results. Compare this to the previous period, and you will have a great starting point to identify the performance of the website.

Further, you can break down the traffic into specific channels to get a more detailed grasp of the performance.  If something is off, it usually jumps out here.

What to Look for In Google Analytics

What to Do if Traffic is Up

This is a great thing! But just because traffic is up this month does not mean your job is done.  Ideally, you’d like to see an increase in traffic month over month, so try to figure out what caused the increase and replicate it for the future.

Tip: Compare each channel’s engagement or conversion data to see which might be underperforming.

What to Do if Traffic is Down

Obviously, this isn’t ideal, but don’t worry. A change in traffic could be based on a factor outside of your control.

The most common reason for changes in traffic is seasonality. Keep in mind how your industry ebbs and flows, and standardize your results to get a better sense of how you are doing relatively.

The first step in accounting for seasonality is to analyze the year over year data. While this is not a perfect comparison, it can still be a good litmus test to see if the changes are normal. If your year over year data is also down, then you probably have a bigger issue on your hands, where further investigation is required.

The next step to determining reasons for a decline in traffic is to compare month over month data from the previous year. Look at the changes in traffic from past years, and compare that to the current data to get a gauge of your results. If your current decrease in traffic is less than previous years, you can consider your results successful.

For clarity, here is an example. In a previous year, your drop in traffic in October was -40%, but this year your drop in traffic is -20%. Although your overall traffic is still down, when you factor in seasonality, your YoY traffic is up 20%!

If your traffic is still down after accounting for seasonality, then you will need to conduct a deep dive into your analytics to figure out why. Carefully check out the performance of each individual channel to find out which avenue could have a problem.

Tip: Take a close look at your top three channels, as they are the largest contributors to your traffic.

Here are some factors to consider for each channel when traffic is down:

  • Organic traffic – Check your keyword rankings.
  • Social – Check into what content you’re posting.
  • Paid – Check your total spend amount and cost per click.
  • Referral – Check to see if you have lost any backlinks.
  • Direct – There is no simple solution to why direct traffic is down. Any traffic that comes to a website that is not specifically classified will be logged in direct traffic, meaning it is difficult to pinpoint the problem. Fluctuation in traffic can often be attributed to spam.

Finally, if you still can’t seem to figure out why your traffic is down, look at individual page views and content types on your website. Certain types of content and landing pages my not be as relevant as you expected, causing a drop in traffic. For example, if you sell air conditioners, but it has been a cool summer, then you would not have as much traffic to those pages as usual.

If a single page has a dramatic decrease in views, this might be an SEO issue. If a page is no longer ranking properly, it might explain why traffic is down.

Engagement Metrics

Engagement metrics are another important data set to analyze. Key metrics include bounce rate, average session duration and pages per session. These metrics are large indicators of conversion likelihood, so continually monitoring and trying to improve engagement can lead to an increase of success on your website.

What to Do if Engagement is Down

Different types of traffic have different engagement metrics, so analyze where your traffic is coming from before panicking. Social and Paid traffic generally have poorer engagement metrics based on the nature of their medium, so if you had a massive influx of traffic to these channels, don’t be concerned when engagement is down.

Check out individual page engagement metrics to identify specific underperforming pages. Often, landing pages leave users with “nowhere to go”, causing high bounce rate and low session duration. Simply, when users finish with the content, there are no prompts to send them elsewhere on the website. A blog with related posts of links to a related product/service will have better engagement than a post that does not.  Fixing underperforming pages is a great way to improve the overall metrics.

Finally, check behaviour flow and see which landing pages have high drop off rates. If you can identify which pages are not giving users the information they need, causing them to leave the site, then you can improve the overall engagement rate.

Checking these metrics should give you a good sense if there is an issue or it’s just normal fluctuation.

Google Analytics can give you a ton of information about your website. Once you know how to interpret the data, you will have new ideas on how to improve traffic and engagement, leading to a more successful website!


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