Thursday, September 22, 2005

Does Google Penalize Innocent Websites?

Whether you like it or not, Google is the place to be ranked well. Yahoo! and MSN can offer their share of traffïc, but nothing serves up traffïc like a top ranking in Google. Unfortunately, no search engine is quicker to hand out a penalty either.

As the clear leader in the search engine market, it is hard to blame Google for being quick to hand out a penalty on a website. There are hundreds of 'black-hat' SEO techniques and tricks that all aim to 'crack' Google and give a website owner a top ranking without them doing as much work to achieve that ranking. If one person discovers a hole in Google, it takes very little time for an entire drove of website owners to start changing their sites to take advantage of this hole.
But is Google too quick to hand out a penalty? They have claimed in the past that it would be unlikely that a legitïmate site would receive a penalty. However, with all the confusion on the Internet about what good SEO really is, is it possible that a legitïmate site owner accidentally employs a technique that is shared by spammers? The site owner may have no intention of defrauding Google, but they may receive the penalty all the same.

Google Plans to Alert Site Owners of Potential Problems
There is some great news for website owners who fear they may have been penalized by Google. Matt Cutts, the owner of this quickly growing blog and employee of Google, confirmed on his website that Google is piloting a new program which will proactively alert website owners of potential problems on their website.

This is definitely exciting for website owners who do not know if they have been penalized, but it should not be taken for something that it is not. Keep in mind the following points:

1. This is a pilot program. It is not a full fledged program that guarantees everyone will be contacted who has been negatively effected. Chances are, you will not be contacted at all.

2. It is an automated program. Google will not have any one person sending out these emails, but a bot that will have to 'discover' your email address. If it can't find one, it will try to guess an email address. If you are good at protecting yourself from sp@m, you may not get a message from Google even if they want to contact you.

There may be a day in the not-so-far future where Google is able to contact legitïmate website owners who made an honest (or maybe not so honest) mistake. That day is not hëre yet, so the responsibility is still that of the individual website owner to make sure they have a legitïmate website in the eyes of Google.

The Many Ways to Get Penalized by Google
There are many ways to get accidentally penalized by Google. Preventing your site from being penalized takes a lot of attention to detail. Even if you have hired on a professional SEO firm, you should be mindful of the problems that can arise from a simple mistake. Below are several things to look out for on your site.

Duplicate Pages
This is a common problem, and a problem that can be difficult to avoid, especially if you have a large website. Duplicate pages are pages that have essentially the same content; it is an old trick employed by search engine spammers. Search engine spammers would use the same page over and over again, but change keywords at the bottom of the page to create some variance and to focus in on different niches.

Accidentally recreating this sp@m technique can be very easy to do. Below are a few ways in which you could have duplicate pages without even knowing about it:

* If you use different landing pages in your advertising campaigns to measure ad effectiveness, you are essentially building duplicate pages. If Google discovers these different landing pages, they may think that you are using duplicate content.

* Sites that offer the ability to print pages often create two pages that have essentially the same content. Using mod_rewrite to create search engine friendly URL's can create duplicate pages.

* When you use mod_rewrite the server will serve up the same page regardless of whether you use the search engine friendly url or the regular url.

These are just a few examples of how duplicate pages can creep into your website. You should look for more ways that duplicate pages could have creeped into your website.

If you find that you do have duplicate pages within your website, you should use the robots.txt file to exclude the duplicate pages. We published an article last week about the robots.txt file which should be helpful: How to Prevent Duplicate Content with Robots.txt and Meta Tags

Redirecting Users
Another favorite technique of search engine spammers is to use redirects to create doorway pages (otherwise known as cloaking). The idea hëre is to present one page to a search engine spider that is optimized for the search engine and present an entirely different page to the user.

Search engine spammers use all different types of redirects, from complicated javascrïpt redirects to simple http-refresh commands.

There are many valid reasons to redirect users on your website to a different page. Whether you are changing the name of your website or changing the structure, your website pages may not always be in the same place and you nevër want to löse a visitor to an ugly 404 page (even

Google does not like 404 pages).

Google does recognize that you may need to throw in a redirection from time to time. If you need to do so, you should use a 301 redirect. There are several ways to employ a 301 permanent redirect. Below are two examples:

Example 1 - Using mod_rewrite
Options +FollowSymLinksRewriteEngine onRewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^yourdomain\.comRewriteRule ^(.*)$$1 [R=permanent,L]

Save this in a file called .htaccess and upload it to your server.

Example 2 - Using an Apache Redirect
Redirect 301 /

Save this in a file called .htaccess and upload it to your server.

Keyword Stuffing
Keyword stuffing is the oldest search engine spamming technique known. All this entails is using your targeted keywords over and over and over again on your website. Keyword stuffing can happen throughout the content of your website, in hidden text, in the alt property of your images, in the meta tags of your website, in HTML comments, or a variety of other ways. To see an example of keyword stuffing, take a look at this thread over in our SEO Tips and Tricks portion of our forums.

The example above is an exaggerated example of keyword stuffing, but it happens a lot with website owners. The desire to rank high in the search engines often leads a person to put their keywords in their site much more often than they would do so normally. As a general rule, if the text on your page appears unnatural to you, it will appear unnatural to the search engines.

Be Vigilant and Be Natural
So far Google has done a decent job of keeping sp@m out of their index. It still finds its way into their results, especially for less competitive keywords, but when Google does find sp@m they tend to develop new methods to detect that sp@m and remove it from their index. Unfortunately they will inevitably affect website owners who really do not know that they are doing something wrong.

Google has taken a very positive step in starting their pilot program aimed at notifying website owners who may be innocently doing something wrong, but the responsibility ultimately will always reside with the website owner. If you are having troubles ranking well for your targeted keywords, take the time today to review your website. Ask yourself if you have duplicate pages, if you have any hidden text or are possibly stuffing keywords on your page. Do you have any redirects which could be misinterpreted? Take the time to re-read Google's webmaster info and familiarize yourself with it.

Getting to the top of Google is hard work, but it is well worth it when you reach the top.

About The Author
Does Google Penalize Innocent Websites was written by Mark Daoust, the owner of