453783889-1When you hear the name "Matt Cutts", the head of Google's webspam team, do you break out in a nervous sweat? For most, this is not the case, but for some, the mere thought of a Google penalty keeps them up at night. 

The fact of the matter is, Google is very clear about what is and is not acceptable under their guidelines of use; so if you’re one of those people who breaks out in a sweat when you even see the word algorithm, it’s time for a wake up call.

Google is constantly evolving their algorithm, and if you’re doing anything shady, it’s just a matter of time before you cross paths with one of Google’s many pets (Panda, Penguin, Pigeon, Hummingbird). Unfortunately, once you enter the Google Zoo, it’s not cotton candy, peanuts and funny monkeys.

So how do navigate this digital zoo of animals tasked with penalizing disingenuous websites?

Well, before you can recover from an algorithm update, you have to determine why you’ve been penalized. Google makes a number of regular updates that are shared with the public. Generally, these updates are geared to improve content quality for Google’s customers, but each has its own intricate focus that you should be aware of.

1) Diagnosing the Update

Often times, when an algorithm change is made, you’ll be able to find an explanation from Matt Cutts, Google’s head of web spam; but if Google is being secretive, you can usually find heated debates and conversation on popular search engine sites and forums to help determine why the update was made.

If you’ve seen a noticeable drop in traffic, or have even received a manual action, you’ll likely be able to find an account of the update in Moz’s Google Algorithm Change Timeline. From there, you may be able to make a pretty accurate diagnosis of the algorithm update.

Google's Well Known Updates


Panda updates are made in effort to reduce poor quality content results from appearing high in search engine results pages (SERPs), and to boost pages with high quality content.

What do I mean by poor quality content? It could mean a number of things, but commonly, you’ll see poor quality in content that was created solely for SEO purposes. This includes pages that were created just to increase the number of pages on a site, content that is stuffed with keywords, duplicate or scraped content, and/or content that is unrelated to your website and its purpose.

How to Recover from a Panda Algorithm Update

If you have a reputable website, it’s likely that you won’t have been penalized from a Panda update, but if you have been penalized, you’ve got some work ahead of you!

First and foremost, analyze your website’s content. Oftentimes, poor quality content will stand out like a sore thumb. Read content from an unbiased point of view - if you were a buyer or viewer, would you read the content yourself, or would you click away from it in a millisecond? Search engine robots have become super advanced; if you wouldn’t want to read the content, neither would a search engine.

Make sure that all of your content sounds natural and original. If you have 10 pages that talk about the same thing, it’s likely that you’ve duplicated content too much for Google’s taste. You’ll also want to check spelling and grammar to ensure that your content is readable. You don’t have to be Hemingway to produce quality content, but you certainly don’t want to be the Flavor Flav of the Internet either.

Still not seeing how this applies to your website? You may want to assess the back end of your site pages. This includes meta data, image alt text, URL structure or even the platform you’re using to publish your site pages. Unfortunately, if you’re using Adobe Flash, or if the majority of your content is embedded within JavaScript, an image or page slider, it’s difficult for search engines to crawl your content. This may appear as thin, low quality content to a search engine spider.

All-in-all, in order to recover from a Panda penalty, you’ll want to follow Google’s quality guidelines. Focus on creating meaningful, helpful content for your audience (essentially following inbound marketing best practices), and you’ll be on the road to recovery.


Similar to the Panda update, Penguin was created to negatively impact poor quality sites in SERPs, while benefiting high quality sites. The only difference being, Penguin is catered more towards spammy link building and other known black-hat SEO practices.

If you want to avoid a Penguin penalty, you’ll want to cease and desist from any of these practices:

  • Keyword Stuffing
  • Link Schemes
  • Unrelated Pages or Content
  • Guest Blogging Strictly for SEO
  • Using Cloaking or Hidden Text
  • Duplicated or Scraped Content
  • Comment Spam

Too late? Well, here's how to recover.

How to Recover from a Penguin Algorithm Update

A good portion of Penguin penalties are earned from poor link building practices and over-optimized anchor text. If you’ve been hit with a Penguin penalty, you’ll want to clean up your link profile.

Take a look at your inbound links using a tool such as Google Webmasters or Moz; do a majority of your links use the same anchor text phrasing? You may have hired a B2B link building agency or consultant who purchased links from other domains, over-optimized internal link structure and/or employed trade-for-trade link building schemes.

To clean up your link profile, you’ll want to first remove or alter over-optimized anchor text on your own site - this is the easy part, so brace yourself!

If all of the bad links point to one page on your site, you may consider removing this page. Though this won’t completely solve the problem, it helps to detract from some of the traffic, and may encourage linking sites to remove your link from their site.

Next, you’ll want to reach out to websites that have poor links back to your site and ask them to remove the link. Because this is all manual, it will be time consuming, and may make you want to pull your hair out, but unfortunately, it’s the most effective way to do it.

Still can’t get those links removed? It’s time to start disavowing the remainders. When you disavow a link, you’re making a request to Google that it ignore these links when it crawls your site. The reason that you’ll still want to take efforts to manually remove links is that is option only works for Google. It does not impact traffic from Yahoo!, Bing, and other search engine traffic.

Once you’re comfortable with your efforts, it’s time to send a reconsideration request to Google. You’re essentially asking Google for a second chance after a bad breakup, so don’t be overconfident; Google is the jilted lover - they make the final decision as to whether you’re forgiven or not. Many sites hit by penalties have to ask for third and fourth chances before they’re finally forgiven, so the moral of this saga is to never give up!


Creatively named by Search Engine Land, the Pigeon update uses distance and location ranking parameters to deliver improved local search results. Increases and decreases in rankings from Pigeon updates are much less severe than Penguin and Panda updates, but it’s still important to keep in mind for your website.

How to Recover from a Pigeon Algorithm Update

Because Pigeon focuses on localized results, the best way to recover from a drop in traffic is to make sure that your site is properly optimized for local search.

Some things to check for:

  • Is your business address and industry prominent on your site? A great place for this is in the site’s footer.
  • Do you use location-specific keyword terminology?
  • Have you verified accounts with local directories, (Google Places, Yelp, Yahoo!, Facebook, Yellow Pages, etc.)
  • Are each of these accounts optimized with your business address and industry and relevant descriptions?
  • Have you received reviews, comments, pictures, etc. Especially including Google Plus reviews can really help to boost rankings.
  • Can you use rich snippets?

All together, you want to modify your site’s optimization efforts. Depending on your business, some solutions may work better than others, so it may be a trial and error process.

Payday Loan

The Payday Loan Algorithm was created to combat overly spammy search queries, (much like the term, “pay day loan”).

How to Recover from a Payday Loan Algorithm Update

If you’ve been hit with a Payday Loan penalty, it’s likely that your site is overrun with spam. Take a look at the terminology on your site. If it includes anything highly spammy sounding or unrelated to your business, (think along the lines of something that would be found in your e-mail spam folder or on pop-up windows from the 90s), it’s time to eliminate this from your site.

Once you’ve cleaned up your spaminology, follow the reconsideration steps shown in the Penguin section above.

Avoid All Penalties

Unsure of why your traffic has dropped? Looking to avoid a penalty altogether? If you follow Google’s guidelines, you should not have a problem. Here’s a general list of practices you should just, 100% avoid:

  • Pure spam
  • Hidden text and/or Keyword stuffing
  • User-generated spam
  • Parked domains
  • Thin content with little or no added value
  • Unnatural links to a site
  • Spammy free hosts and dynamic DNS providers
  • Cloaking and/or Sneaky redirects
  • Hacked site
  • Unnatural links from a site

Have you recovered from a Google algorithm update? Share your story in a comment below!

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Originally published Sep 5, 2014 10:00:00 AM, updated May 05 2023