Avoiding Google Penalties and Manual Actions

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    A manual action from Google means that your website violated a term or condition for your website to be listed on their search engine. Therefore, your site is either removed entirely or is buried so far down in the results, you will never be found.

    Manual Action vs Algorithmic Decline

    Google’s algorithm is constantly changing. Often there are many small changes that go unnoticed every day. Sometimes large updates occur that affect a large percentage of Google’s entire index. 

    Being on the losing side of an algorithm update might make you feel as though your site is being penalized. The truth is that the other sites around you were rewarded. The good news is that you can often fix the offending issues and automatically recover within a decent amount of time.

    On the other hand, a manual action is when your site is specifically flagged for violating Google’s rules. To recover, you must fix the issues, and then manually apply for reconsideration.

    To help you avoid a manual action against your law firm’s site, Google’s Webmaster Guidelines outlines the practices to avoid. Here are the most common causes for manual actions to be taken against a website.

    Spammy Duplicate Content

    A violation that is often misinterpreted, spammy duplicate content does not mean that you should not have parts of your site that repeat or even duplicate pages.

    The missing keyword is “spammy.”

    If you create hundreds of duplicate pages and swap out the city location, this is a prime example of having spammy duplicate content. Having a call to action that repeats, or the same testimonials on each page, is perfectly fine.

    You can avoid being penalized for spammy duplicate content by making sure that the content on your site is unique and not “spun.” Avoid software or plugins that automatically generate pages of content for you.

    Taking articles, mixing up the words or sentences, and swapping a few items out is referred to as “spun” content.

    Thin Content (Panda)

    Thin content refers to having very little value to a user. First released in early 2011, Panda was the name of the algorithm update that targeted sites with low-quality or thin content.

    More often than not, thin content comes in the way of either having very few words on the page, or the content is low quality affiliate text.

    There are pages that are expected to have a lower amount of content. One example is a website’s contact page. A thin content penalty is not applied just because you have a few pages with little text. The intent of the penalty is to target automatically generated content, low-value affiliate pages, content scraped from other websites, ect.

    For a law firm’s website to be penalized for thin content, it would most likely have automated software that is generating poor content that is pulled from other websites.

    You really would have to have an overwhelming amount of poor-quality pages.

    Link Manipulation

    Also referred to as “link schemes” by Google, link manipulation means that you are using either outgoing or incoming links to manipulate Google’s search results.

    The most common link manipulations are buying links and selling links, excessively exchanging links, guest blogging in bulk using keywords as the link text, using automated link building software, link injections, or using a terms of service to force links on other sites.

    In the legal industry, link injections or using a terms of service to force linking is not likely to occur. This often is seen with free website hosting and WordPress plugins.

    With both link exchanges and guest posting, the risk of penalty is highest when the practices are taken to the extreme. 

    If two friends link to each other as recommended partners, a vendor mentions that you use their service and links to your site, or you write content for a website and they give you proper attribution in the form or a link are all normal acts on the Internet. These are normal linking methods.

    Now, getting together with hundreds of websites and everyone adds their link to each other is not natural and can get your site penalized.


    If you show one version of your website to live users but a separate version of your site to Google, you are cloaking and risk a manual action being taken against your website.

    There is a limited number of scenarios where a law firm would be cloaking its website without it being purposeful. 

    The only situation that I’m aware of where cloaking could inadvertently occur is if you were to block certain countries from accessing your website in an attempt to limit spam. It’s a highly unlikely scenario that I’m doubtful that your law firm would receive a manual penalty for this but there is a slim chance.

    The bottom line is that it is better to just stay away from any manipulative practice where you risk only showing certain aspects of your site, or redirect to different content, to Google. Cloaking is a particularly deceptive practice and can quickly get your law firm’s website into trouble.

    Matthew Post

    Matthew Post has dedicated over two decades to building and optimizing websites. He has worked in-house for nationwide e-commerce companies and large local firms to increase customer engagement through conversion rate optimization and search engine optimization. His expertise covers both the development and growth of digital properties.
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