Worried your website has been hit by a Google penalty? Use these tools to diagnose (and fix) any issues.
Picture the scene.
One minute you’re website is going from strength to strength, with organic traffic and conversions steadily growing.
Business is great. And then, BAM!
In the blink of an eye, half your traffic vanishes without any hint of danger.
There’s no warning, no alerts, but suddenly all your keywords are plummeting along with your traffic.
Image source: Glenn Gabe
Your business is in jeopardy.
What do you do? How do you find the cause of the traffic loss?
A Google penalty checker tool helps identify if you've been hurt by an algorithmic update or manual action, pinpoints the source, and provides insight into how to fix the problem.
In this post, we’ll look at several tools that can help you quickly gather these insights and get your website back on track.
But first, its important to understand what exactly a Google penalty is.
Disclaimer: This article does contain affiliate links. If you purchase a tool through one of my links I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. This is one of the ways I fund the blog. Thanks for your support.
What is a Google Penalty (Actions vs. Filters)?
A Google penalty is a sanction handed out by Google, referred to as a “manual action.”
But before we go any further, it’s important not to confuse manual actions with algorithmic filters.
Here’s the lowdown.
Google has a team of reviewers that manually check and rate websites based on Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. If your site gets reviewed, and an issue is spotted, then you might receive a manual action.
You can check in Google Search Console, under Security and Manual Actions, to see if you have manual action:
There are two types of manual actions:
- Sitewide matches, affecting an entire site.
- Partial matches, affecting an individual URL or part of a website (eg: subfolder).
The list of common manual actions includes:
Note: In 2018, Google sent more than 180 million messages to webmasters to notify them of spam issues on their site.
An algorithmic filter is part of the main Google algorithm that can cause your site to be algorithmically suppressed. For example, the Panda algorithm can act as a filter to suppress your site’s ranking and traffic.
As Google’s algorithm has evolved and added more filters to its core, there are fewer one-off filters like Penguin and Panda.
Unlike manual actions, it’s harder to know if you’ve been hit by an algorithmic update. You can check to see if you have a drop in organic traffic that coincides with a known algorithmic update. But that in itself is not 100% proof.
Note: Sometimes you may not have been hit by a penalty or suppressed by a filter, but have just lost ground to rising competition.
Next, we’ll take a look at a set of tools you can use to diagnose if your site has been hit by an algorithmic filter, and drill in to see the root cause of it.
Important: Always Identify the Penalty (or Filter) Before Making Any Changes
A lot of people panic when their site gets hit by a Google penalty. Their immediate reaction is to start making changes to their website before they truly understand what the problem is.
And when you take a stab in the dark like that, you often make the problem much worse.
Once you realize you’ve been hit by an algo filter or penalty, you need to drill into the root cause.
And almost always, the problem relates to quality in these 2 areas:
- Backlinks - If you get a manual penalty for unnatural links, it’s usually because you’ve bought links or created link schemes on a large scale.
- Content - If you get a thin content penalty, it’s usually because you’ve created loads of thin content, such as doorway pages, that are only there to try and manipulate Google search results.
So, it’s essential to accurately diagnose which penalty you’ve been hit with before making any changes. And you can do that using one of the penalty checker tools listed below.
If you check their blogs, you’ll find they analyze the algo impact across lots of different websites.
For example, here’s how Marie covered the November 2019 Google Update. You can see the analysis of a site who had disavowed a load of links a while back, recovered traffic, only to see it drop again on November 8th:
The reason: they went and bought more poor quality backlinks!
Glenn provides a similar level of analysis.
Here’s his take on the September 2019 Google Update with case studies on the volatility with health and medical sites:
The data they have access to can provide valuable insights.
Once you’ve identified that a traffic drops aligns with an algorithm update, you can use these sources to help you dig deeper into the potential causes and provide more context around the penalties.
7 Best Tools to Check If Your Site Has Been Affected by a Google Penalty or Filter
The tools in this list work in a couple of ways.
The first three tools act as a general barometer of what’s happening in Google Algo world, so you can go and check your analytics manually.
The next three tools allow you to see which Google algorithm update has hit your site by linking your Google Analytics account to the tool.
And finally, there’s the Search Console, which helps with identifying and fixing any manual actions you get hit with.
Let’s jump in...
1. SEMrush Sensor
The SEMrush Sensor tool tracks the volatility of Google’s SERPs based on daily changes in rankings across 6 different countries. Using this info, SEMrush can monitor for any signs that could indicate an update to Google’s algorithm.
It measures SERP volatility on a scale of 0-10 to indicate how much change occurs each day:
- 0-2 is low
- 2-5 is normal
- 5-8 is high
- 8-10 is very high
A high or very high score (as in the image above) indicates a strong chance that your website’s rankings could significantly fluctuate due to a Google update.
Sensor also provides scores by industry (as you can see on the left-hand side above), which is super helpful. For example, after all the recent volatility in the health niche, you can see there is currently less movement (4.6) than the overall score (5.6).
SEMrush also integrates the Sensor data into its other SEO reports. For example, here’s a snapshot of the Wirecutter Traffic Trend with Sensor notes for August 2019 open in a popup:
Any fluctuation in your traffic can be x-referenced with the Google updates tracked in Sensor.
Editor's note: SEMrush is a powerful all-in-one SEO platform. If you're looking for a tool that not only aids penalty analysis, but supplements all other areas of your SEO campaign - keyword research, backlink analysis, audits, rank tracking etc - then try out their 30 day free trial.
MozCast is a “weather report” showing turbulence in the Google algorithm over the previous day (or see the 5-day history on the left). The hotter and stormier the weather, the more Google's rankings changed.
Every 24 hours, Moz tracks a hand-picked set of 1,000 keywords and records the Top 10 Google organic results. Each day, they take the current Top 10 and compare it to the previous day's Top 10 (for any given keyword), and calculate a rate of change or "delta." Then, after a calculation, they produce something that looks like a temperature (in °F), where an average day is about 70°F.
MozCast is also available as a widget to add to your site.
3. Accuranker Grump
The AccuRanker Google Grump rating highlights unrest in Google’s algorithm. The grumpier the mood, the bigger the fluctuations in rankings.
It’s based on a unique algorithm, calculating the average number of rank changes across the top 100 results per keyword. Each day it monitors 30,000 randomly selected keywords, split 50/50 between mobile and desktop, and compares them to the previous day.
The final index number for a given number is calculated by finding the sum of all differences, and dividing by the number of results (usually 100).
You can also check back in time. Today, the tiger’s chilled, but earlier in the month (Jan 5) he was grumpy:
Editor's note: AccuRanker is widely revered as the fastest (and most accurate) rank tracking solution on the market. It allows over 20,000 agencies and SEO professionals to track keyword ranking across all major search engines, including Google, YouTube, Baidu and Yandex.
[Image Source: https://npointseo.com/blog/google-penalty-checker-tools/]
The Panguin SEO Tool from Barracuda is a free tool to help you investigate whether you’ve been impacted by Google’s algorithm updates.
All you have to do is sign in with your Google Analytics account to instantly see a map of your traffic and the precise moment a Google Update went live. Each line represents a known algorithm update, so it’s easy to see whether your site is impacted.
You’ll also notice the colored icons under the graph that allow you to toggle on/off the different types of Google algo updates.
The negative and positive movement adds up to create a single SERP flux metric called "roo."
A high roo value (orange) indicates a high volatility in Google's search results. Whereas a low roo value (green) is an ordinary day.
For example, you can see today is low (1.48) compared to a few days before when the January 2020 Core Update occurred and the roo score was higher (2.18)
You can slide the scale underneath to look further back in time.
Fruition’s Google Penalty Checker Tool takes a couple of minutes to set up and is free for updates older than 3 months. The paid version lets you check 3+ websites and includes weekly updates.
The tool compares your Google Analytics data against 100,000+ websites to determine if a particular Google algorithm update (Panda, Penguin, and others) had a negative, positive, or no impact on your website.
Underneath, it has a table with all the recent Google algorithm updates, and a probability score that it will have changed traffic to your site:
Fruition works best for websites with at least 1000 monthly unique visitors rather than small blogs with low monthly traffic.
7. Google Search Console
Hopefully, it’s all clear.
But if not, you may get a site-wide warning that looks like this:
Or a or partial warning that looks like this:
[Image Source: https://www.linkresearchtools.com/google/google-manual-action-penalties/]
2 Quick Ways to Diagnose the Root Cause of a Google Penalty or Filter
A good penalty checker will not only allow you to identify the penalty or filter, but also help you pinpoint the root cause, so you can start to take corrective actions.
Editor's note: We’ll be using SEMrush for this diagnosis since it provides a full suite of tools to help diagnose the most common causes of penalties and filter suppressions - backlinks and poor quality content.
1. Diagnosing Backlink-Related Issues
Did the penalty checker alert that aligned with your content drop also align with a link-based algo update, such as Penguin?
You can dig deeper into the Notes list, and click-through to external sources to get more information on the underlying target of the update:
Follow these steps to see what action you should take:
- What date did the traffic drop?
- Does that date align with an alert or high volatility in SEMrush?
- If so, click into the Notes section to learn more about the algo update. For instance, is it a core update targeting thin content, like Panda, or is it a link-based update, such as Penguin?
- If it looks like a content-related issue, then jump to the section below. But if signs lean towards a link-based update, then drill into the Backlink Audit tool.
Assess toxic links with SEMrush
Start by selecting ‘Backlink Audit’ from the sidebar menu, and then choosing one of your projects to see the latest audit results:
You can immediately see the Domains by Toxic Score showing colored segments of toxic (red), potentially toxic (orange), and non-toxic (green).
What’s really useful is the option to connect the backlink audit tool to your Google Search Console and Google Analytics accounts:
The Search Console integration allows you to access extra backlinks for your analysis, check the latest data on the disavowed backlinks, and update your disavow file. While the Google Analytics connection gives you the most recent Toxic Score for the affected backlinks.
In the Audit report, you can examine the toxicity level of each referring domain, and choose from 3 possible actions:
- Add the toxic link to your disavow list.
- Email the domain owner asking them to remove the link.
- Add the link to your list of safe domains.
The Backlink Audit tool automatically re-crawls your website every two weeks, plus you can launch a crawl every week, so you stay ahead of any further penalties.
If SEMrush notices any toxicity in your link profile, it will send an automated email like the one below so you can take proactive action:
2. Diagnosing Content-Related Issues
If you’re faced with content-related issues, you can use the Site Audit tool to find thin content, duplicate content, and orphaned pages.
First, go to your project that you’ve set up in Site Audit, and click the ‘Re-run campaign’ button at the top-right corner to refresh the data:
Note: If you don’t have a project set up, create a new one, run Site Audit, and wait until your website crawl finishes.
Find thin content
If your site has a manual action labeled as "Thin content with little or no added value," then you can use Site Audit to identify the pages with a low word count – i.e. less than 200 words.
Go to the ‘Issues’ tab and click on the ‘Warnings’ section to see whether you have any thin content issues:
Click on the link to see which pages have a low word count. Then hover over the ‘Why and how to fix it’ to get guidance on how to fix the problem:
Check out what Matt Cutts has to say about fixing thin content.
In short, you want to create in-depth pages that add value with original content, original research, and original insight.
Find duplicate content issues
Pages are classified as duplicates if they have 85% identical content. If you have duplicate content, Google usually displays only one of the pages and filters out the remainder from its index and search results.
The trouble is, they may have filtered out the incorrect page as far as you’re concerned:
Go to the ‘Issues’ tab and click on the ‘Errors’ section to see whether you have any duplicate content issues:
Click on the link to check which particular pages have duplicate content. Then hover over the ‘Why and how to fix it’ to get guidance on how to fix the problem:
Follow Google’s guidelines for consolidating duplicate content.
Find orphaned pages
Orphan pages have zero incoming internal links, so they can’t be reached by crawlers or users while navigating your website.
Go to the ‘Issues’ tab and click on the ‘Notices’ section to see whether any Orphaned Pages have been found:
You’ll see pages that are in your Sitemap.xml files, but don't have any incoming internal links. Hover over the ‘Why and how to fix it’ to get guidance on how to fix the problem:
Note: While there are many other causes, these two are the most common. I recommend you also check out the Google Search Quality Guidelines.
Keep an Eye on the SERPs
It’s vital to be proactive and monitor on-going SERP updates so that you can stay on top of Google’s algorithm changes.
Use a tool like the SEMrush Sensor to monitor SERP volatility across different industries, and make sure you understand the penalty before taking any corrective action:
If you’re unlucky to get a manual action, follow Google’s guidelines to remedy the problem and then ask for a reassessment.
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