Google penalty

Last month, I asked for advice regarding a huge drop in my Google search rankings. For around six months prior to the drop, I ranked at #1 when searching for my name, David Airey. The penalty imposed on my website dropped this position from #1 to around #70 and I also lost rankings for a host of graphic design-related terms, making me a lot more difficult to find online.

Google penalty web traffic

What you thought happened

There was a lot of differing opinion on my fall, found via:

I received advice from a number of people in the SEO profession, people like Danny, Doug and many others in the ‘ihelpyou’ forum I mentioned above.

David Hopkins, of Mutiny Web Design, kindly referred my Google penalty issue to Hamlet Batista, a seasoned search engine marketer. Hamlet wrote a great blog post about my predicament, and offered some stellar advice through our conversation in his post comments.

One of Hamlet’s remarks, in particular, involved ‘diffusing a Google-bomb’, which I’ll come to shortly.

Why I actually got penalised by Google

First, however, and according to Matt Cutts himself (head of the Google spam team), my Google penalty was imposed for two main reasons:

  1. Having paid links to bad neighbourhoods
  2. Trying to game my search engine rankings with black hat SEO

Matt Cutts

On Matt’s blog, he took some time out of his no-doubt hectic schedule, to make this comment about my situation:

“…so the paid links for business card printing and ink cartridge refills are gone and won’t be coming back? The other thing I noticed is that it looks like you silently changed the terms of your contest and didn’t mention that to anyone. I believe your original linking terms said:

“You can describe the draw any way you like, as long as you link to my homepage ( using logo/graphic design-related anchor text. A few examples of what you could link back with include: logo designer, best logos, Edinburgh graphic designer, graphic design in Scotland, great logos etc.”

What’s interesting about those two paid links that Matt mentions, is that the one for business card printing was automatically placed in my sidebar, after I signed up for Text Link Ads (TLA). When you sign up for TLA’s service, you install a plugin on your blog, and your site details are placed in the TLA marketplace. If someone wants to add a link to your blog, they pay TLA, you get 50% of the money, and the link to the customer’s site is placed on yours automatically. As far as I can remember, there’s no screening process.

Even though the TLA website has a Google Page Rank of 7/10, it doesn’t appear anywhere near the top results when conducting a Google search for “text link ads” — the company name — so there appears to be a similar penalty imposed on the TLA site.

What’s also interesting is that although I had removed the TLA plugin and stopped using the service at the beginning of September, my Google penalty was imposed around September 18th, so it’s clear that I was doing a few other things wrong.

The other paid link that was mentioned, for “ink cartridge refills,” was a private advertiser, so there’s more personal blame with this one, and I could’ve checked to see how “safe” their website neighbourhood was by using the Bad Neighborhood Link Exchange Tool. From what I’ve read, that can help to protect you if you’re unsure who you’re linking to. For instance, if you think that Google might look upon a website in a bad way, then best to use the rel=”nofollow” code in your hyperlink so search engines don’t count your link as a thumbs up.

If you have any info about the usefulness of the Bad Neighborhood tool, I’d love to know. Don Lawson at Affiliate Watcher asks some interesting questions about linking to bad neighbourhoods.

You can read more about what Matt Cutts has to say on paid links here. The blog post is a couple of years old, yet I believe it’s still relevant. For a more up-to-date point of view, Chris G recently asked, “Where do you stand on the paid links issue?” which makes for an interesting read.

The second point that Matt mentions, is the conditions I initially stated when running last month’s graphic design prize draw.

I asked entrants to link to my website using specific anchor text, in effect, I tried to ‘game’ my Google search engine ranking positions (SERPs). This is known as ‘black hat SEO’, which, according to, is “customarily defined as techniques that are used to get higher search rankings in an unethical manner.”

Ethics are very important to me, and I’ll not be conducting any similar techniques in future. A certain John Chow is well known for his continued Google penalty for black hat SEO.

Actions taken before my penalty was reversed

The first thing I did was to remove the paid links. Paid links aren’t against Google’s terms of service, but paid links without the rel=”nofollow” attribute are, and I didn’t use that tag. What’s even worse is when you accept payment for a link to a website in a ‘bad neighbourhood’.

Hamlet Batista

Next, and on the advice of Hamlet Batista, I emailed all 250 people who published blog posts linking to my graphic design prize draw, asking them to remove any links to my site. I wanted to “diffuse the Google bomb”, as Hamlet put it. Thankfully, and within two days of my email, I received many replies from the prize draw entrants, telling me they’d removed the links. If you were one of those people, thanks so much for helping out, especially those of you who didn’t win anything in my draw.

After sending the link removal request, I filed a re-inclusion request through Google’s webmaster tools. Filing this request doesn’t guarantee anything, and you might not hear anything back about your particular situation, but it’s an important part of the process. I provided as much information in the re-inclusion request as possible, mentioning that I knew I did wrong with my black hat ‘Google-bomb’ tactic, that I’d contacted all prize draw entrants asking them to remove links, and that I’d also removed any paid links from my website.

For courtesy, I left a comment on Matt Cutts’ blog, informing him of my misdoings, my bulk email to recipients, and my re-inclusion request. Very kindly, Matt responded, saying he’d have someone look into it. I can’t be sure if my request would’ve been granted had Matt not stepped in. Thanks again for your time, Matt.

How to avoid a Google penalty

If there’s anything I’ve written that’s off the mark, I’d greatly appreciate your comment.

Google visits

A huge thanks to everyone who offered thoughts and advice.

# # # #

October 5, 2007


That’s great news David,

Thanks for detailing the problem and what you did to resolve it. I don’t imagine I’ll be having the same problems, but it’s worth knowing what to avoid doing.
I’m glad you didn’t have to suffer too long.


Hi David, Great blog. There are good sides of this story – you are back on track with Google and have plenty new referrals from people writing about your problem :) “How to get more visits? Become a Google victim!!”. Just kidding. Now you can go back to your daily posting. Good luck in the future.

OK David, that all makes sense and raises some flags for one of my blogs: I ran a badge competition (I know you aren’t a fan of those) a couple of months ago. I asked people to design the badge and after a winner was chosen I hoped that people would use it on their sites.

I have the badge and the html code in my sidebar so that it is easily excessible. Does this count as black hat SEO??

Glad you got it sorted out David.

I didn’t realize asking for a specific anchor text would be known as “black hat.” I’ll be sure if I ever run a similar contest to not ask that be done of the entrants.


Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I guess many of us will learn something from you! I am not sure exactly what black hat SEO is all about, but I believe any non-nature way to ask for link back is bad move.

Great post! Love it!

Hey David. Wanted to give a thumbs up for this classy way of handling problems. You could have complained about it or wrote a “Why Everyone Should Hate Google” post or any number of things.

Instead you did something effective about it, talked to the people in the industry who could help you and generally took responsibility. That’s pretty slick. It’s nice to see someone with ethics who’s first inclination isn’t to point the finger elsewhere.

And thanks for the great advice! I’ll be using the rel=”nofollow” a lot more than I was (never).

Glad you got things back to normal David. Its annoying that the way google and search engines work is shrouded in so much mystery as the only way we learn about these things is usually the hard way – through making mistakes and being punished. I’ve had a google-slap before for doing something that a) I didnt know was wrong, and b) I didnt even know I was doing! I was just naive.

Oh well, we all live and learn. :)

David you may claim not to know about seo, but you sure know about marketing. Kudos for turning this episode into a compelling narrative.

What I found interesting is how many different opinions there are out there.

I find it a bit naff you would have been penalised over your contest. Is that definitive, it must have been a hand job as the contest would have had to be eyeballed. Google claims that links on their own cannot harm a site. Hmmmm, not sure about that.

Glad to have helped you out, although it seemed that you were getting a number of people helping you.

If you have any info about the usefulness of the Bad Neighborhood tool, I’d love to know.

David, I think I might actually be able to help you there. :)

I am really glad that you enjoyed the use of the tool. I would like to mention that I as I stated both on the page itself, and in this post about it.

This tool is intended as a guide, and not as a replacement for the decision making process. The reason that I included the blog spam detection functionality is because I found that, especially with Yahoo, sometimes you would find sites that were gaining rankings through use of massive comment spam. While the nofollow attribute usually used on links in comments would make this meaningless link building for Google, it can still work on Yahoo. My thinking was that if they were engaged in comment spamming, then they were also more likely to be engaged in other practices that could make Google hate them as well.

The check I do to measure this is pretty straightforward… it checks for characteristics in the links that indicate that they are on pages that also have blog comments. This metric is only meaningful for sites that don’t naturally attract very large number of blog posts, such as shopping carts or mortgage sites. Many times it is natural for sites to gain links from people blogging about them, such as is the case with the tool itself.

Make sense? :)

The “Bad neighborhood” thing is pretty interesting. I checked a couple of my pages, and I found that it marked a lot of links as questionable due to the words in that link. All the items were relevant and decent links, but when they include words like “se*y” “p*rn” “gam*ling” “ls*” “pok*r” “a*s” etc. (I don’t want to dirty up your page), they show up as questionable. So I’m thinking that from an SEO standpoint, it’s better to use family safe words in your titles and URLs.

Ryan, Ian J, thanks very much guys.

Paul, you know, I’m not sure I’ll return to the daily posting. I might actually prefer to keep blog posts ‘front and centre’ for longer than a day, to give people more time to read/comment. The pros and cons would make an interesting discussion.

Nic, as far as I know, you’re not actually ‘selling’ the badge use. Whereas with my prize draw, I was offering the possibility of prizes for people to link to me.

Deron, it’s been a learning experience for me, too. No doubt.

Hamlet, again, thanks for all your help, and I look forward to reading more of your articles from now on.

Terence, glad to publish something of interest, and natural links are the way to go. Let your content speak for itself.

Charlie, thanks for the kind words. Very glad you learnt something here, like the use of rel=”nofollow”.

Sha, Jamie, good of you to comment, and you’re right Jamie, this penalty has taught me more than I would’ve learned otherwise. Like you say, always a positive.

Adam, even though my rankings are back, I’d greatly appreciate you removing those ‘prize draw’ links from your site. Thanks for asking.

Aaron, did you get past your Google slap? I wasn’t aware. No joy.

Lyndon, glad you found it compelling! That’s a compliment. The vast array of opinion on why I was penalised was interesting, and just goes to show, as you previously said, that you need to choose who you listen to carefully.

Michael, great of you to explain your ‘bad neighborhood’ guide. Thanks for visiting, and yep, makes sense about the sites linking to your neighbourhood tool.

Brian, that makes sense, although Michael would have the best opinion on that. I agree that it’s an interesting way to look at your sites.

Everyone, thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

thank you for sharing the information I have written few other blogs too. Their sites has PR has been penalized. Hopefully I can avoid it by gaining more traffic to my site and same to you too

Congrats again David. You lucked out nicely there :) Not to burst the bubble or anything, but don’t get your hopes up too high just yet. We’ve returned twice from a penalty only to have it reversed a couple of days later (second time longer than the first, a total of 7 days that time). In both cases there was actually nothing done in the lead up to the reversal or the subsequent downturns.

But seeing as MC personally looked into yours, I assume you might be in better standing!

Might want to look at Problogger’s current contest to get an idea on how to run contests in the future without getting in trouble with Google. They don’t require you to link back to them to join, and sometimes all that’s needed is to just make a comment. They don’t provide any suggestions on how to link back though if you want to, so there’s little chance of participants all using the same anchor text/duplicate content and unwittingly causing a Google bomb. Smart.

BTW, I’m running a contest myself if anyone’s interested. :-D

Wow, this was very informative. I’m glad you got things back in order. I’m going to have to do a lot more reading on these topics, because I have very little SEO knowledge. Thanks for the info.

As usual, I am late to the party…but I am glad things turned out for you with Google. And, I admire anyone who can take a situation like this and make something positive out of it. Thanks!

I hate to be the guy who asks this, but I’d like to know how ‘playing by the rules’ has affected your revenue for your website? I suppose that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In reading what may have caused your issues, I’ll definitely be more careful – but that’s a heck of a penalty for ignorance.

In looking at Google’s results (every day!!!) I see spam engines and sites built specifically to game the system. Why would they pick on someone with fantastic content who made a couple bucks?

Sounds to me like they went after the easy find instead of going after the real villains.

David, I’m really happy to see that you’re forgiven by Google and your ranking is back to normal.
As you can see, Google people are, after all, fair to those who recognize and correct their mistakes. You’ve admitted your wrong behaviour and did everything to correct it, thus cleared your name for Google (unlike certain other bloggers, who boast about their Google penalty and blame Google for wrong doing).

Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I’ve learned a lot myself, by reading about it.

Sorry, I didn’t get around to removing those links yet (forgetful/busy). Do you still want them removed now that you’ve been reincluded or not!
Glad that you’re back in the game!

David, I’m glad you got your penalty removed and are now seeing your search traffic return to more normalized numbers and results.

Right after your post about being dropped from keyword phrases you were once popular for because of paid links I immediately went and added a nofollow tag to my TLA to make sure I didn’t run into the same issues you had.

Since I’ve done that I have seen my site move up quite a bit on some of the keywords I keep an eye on for my site. So, although being bad for you, your experience helped me to avoid the same problems. Thanks.

that was one of the most informative posts i have read in a long long time..
so very glad this well help me avoid the same mistakes in future… and also solved the mystery of a certain john chow never landing up on the first page for his name on google :)

I didn’t realise you had demanded a specific anchor text. Tut! Tut!

Do you think the competition was the main reason your site was penalized, even though the links may have been slightly dodgy?

Wow it seems google can be ruthless. Do you happen to know if they penalize people who use “do follow” for their comments?

Glad you got your rank back and thanks for pointing out your errors etc. for us all to learn from. that is the best thing that can be made for a mistake and I will be evaluating my sites accordingly as well!

Also glad you are concerned about ethics. cool.

Firstly, glad your penalisation was reversed. I do think you make a good point though with regards to SEO. If you dont know alot about it or are just starting out, you can get penalised quite easily. I think its worth using the “bad neigbourhood tool” every so often just to check you arent linking out to any bad site.

Great story with a good ending…

I am going to remove TLA ads too. The links are untargeted for my eco friendly shopping blog anyway..

I signed up to the TLA program where links are added dynamically to keywords in actual posts. They have no “no follow” and there is no way to change it as well. I find no way to go back to regular text links on TLA once you sign up to that new dynamically added links program too…

David, I must say that you never disappoint people by writing a boring post! This one was very-very informative one, no doubt about it. I’m a part of this blogosphere (only) since last three months.And I have learnt so many things about the web in such a short span. And it won’t be an exaggeration if i say i learnt most of them from your blog!
Every post that you come up with is sort of a wise advise from a big bro. Thanks a lot for writing such enlightening posts.
One term that i didn’t understood is ‘bad neighbourhood’ . What’s exactly meant by that? could you please elaborate it further.

Great to hear things are back to normal.
I’ve certainly learned a whole lot about SEO from your “mistake”. The trouble is, SEO seems like even more of a minefield than I had previously thought.

Thanks for sharing this. Let’s hope you get even more visitors now!

Interesting experience about power and punishment. It seems that the new gods of Cyberspace can give and take their blessings at their will, because they own infrastructure and can make sure to be followed.

Maybe this should be added to the Google’s terms of service:

“I am the Google thy god, which have brought thee out of the land of MS, out of the house of windows-bondage.
“Thou shalt have no other search machines before me.
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any paid link, or any likeness of any thing that is in cyberspace above, or that is in the servers beneath, or that is in the harddisks under the servers;
“Thou shalt not contract thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Google thy god am a jealous god, visiting the iniquity of the paid links upon the bad neighborhood unto the third and fourth links of them that hate me;
“And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

Matt, good luck reversing your own penalties.

Sam, here’s hoping I don’t have the bubble burst again, and thanks for that insight.

Lincoln, I’ve been paying close attention to how Darren is running the Problogger contests. No doubt he’s more clued in than me where SEO is concerned. I hope your contest goes well.

Doug, thankfully my revenue hasn’t been affected by the penalty. It’s true that most of my new business enquiries come through my website, but I’m so busy that I can’t take on any extra work. Not for a few weeks anyway. Time for expansion, or more of a focus. One of the two. Glad you like my content.

Matthew, I appreciate you saying.

Vivien, thanks for the support. I just searched for my name, but you weren’t on the 1st page. I guess you were referring to your naked truth about David Airey post?

Kris, if you could remove those links that’d be great. Thanks.

Dustin, that’s great that you’ve been prompted into action from what happened. Adding ‘nofollow’ to your text link ads is important.

Armen, yeah, caught with my hand in the cookie jar. I can’t say for sure, but I reckon the competition was more of an issue than the dodgey links. Just goes to show, however, that I was doing more than one thing wrong.

Zabs, it’s a good question about ‘dofollow’ on comments. I suppose if the same person, who hosted a website in a ‘bad neighbourhood’, kept leaving followed comments on your site then it could be an issue. I’m no expert, but it’s possible.

Boris, I’ve since found out that it’s against TLA’s terms of service to add ‘nofollow’ to their links, which is probably why they’re penalised by Google.

grafic7, your words are very kind. That’s great of you, also, to link to me through your own blog.

John, cheers mate. I’m glad you learnt a thing or two.

maxialart, I’m sure there are many businesses who rely entirely upon what Google do for them, which is a scary thought when penalties come without warning*. The moral of the story is to keep your options open, and market yourself through a variety of avenues.

*Not actually without warning, as the information is out there to be found, if you look.

Ok, have edited that post.

Do you think they do give penalties without warning? From what you’ve been saying it seems to me that there may be terms of service (buried away that no one reads) that would explain these kinds of things. I appreciate maxialart’s humour there, but I can’t help think – they still provide a lot of services to the general public for free… this wasn’t a good thing to happen, but I guess it’s good for people making an effort to create good sites to know that people can’t just throw money at ads to increase their ranking (because their paid links have nofollow).

That’s true, Kris, there is warning for such things, it’s just that you have to look for it. Anyone who places their faith in what Google does for their business should definitely look at the beginning, or certainly in the present if they haven’t done so already.

I’ve read that Google are doing some ‘house-cleaning’ before the next page rank update, which is why a few penalties are being given some exposure of late.

Wonderful news David! I’m really glad you are again on top of search engines… and thanks for sharing your experiences with us…positive as well as negative.. and thats what makes your blog an enjoyable read…

So I’m thinking that from an SEO standpoint, it’s better to use family safe words in your titles and URLs.

@Brian – no, it’s not about the words you use. What that check is for is to try and find sites that are linking out to industries that are known to have higher incidences of spamming, such as the adult and pharma based industries. There are many cases where you will get false positives with that check. However, it is much easier to go check 10-15 false flags than it is to do a manual check on every website being linked out to downstream to see if anything fishy is going on.

Again, it is just to help highlight areas to look at, the tool is not meant to dictate who you can or cannot link out to.

That’s a great news! It’s a great experience that I should learn carefully and never indulge into the BHSEO play. Thanks for sharing this great information. :)
Congratulation to have Google re-include your blog in their database!

I’m sorry, but Matt’s words to you absolutely infuriate me.




Sorry for yelling, but this goes so far beyond appropriate or ethical, I can hardly see straight. Frankly, I think you should find a great internet lawyer and sue the shit out of them.

(I’ll throw a bone and say that I can understand why they didn’t like the contest. But to deny you income and traffic because they have laid their own fanatical values upon your relevant ad links to me seems to have class-action lawsuit written all over it).

Just my $.02. Sorry to vent on your blog, friend, but I think you’ve been wronged!

Sorry you’re infuriated Wendy, but Matt didn’t say you can’t sell links full-stop. Links to relevant places should be okay, of course. I think what Matt said was you shouldn’t have paid links without nofollow because then people are effectively buying their page ranks. Then Google becomes a bought system rather than a recommendation/reputation system.

p.s. love how you wrote 2 cents :P

I’m with Wendy on this one.

Google shouldn’t be controlling PR through webmaster’s sites. They should be doing it from their end.

People should be allowed to link to whoever they want to. All that the ludicrous penalty-for-paid links situation creates is paranoia among webmasters and an improper use of a non standard link tag.

Nofollow was created to combat spam, not paid/endorsed links.

I’ve been penalized for my PR5 and now it’s down to PR0 and this article might help. I need to reverse my google ranking penalty because my indexing’s having difficulty. Amazing how I found a blog that niches on graphic design, as well as topics like these as well.

Good to see you are back. I also wonder what they think about the use of the linklove plugin? Personally, I think any genuinely engaging comments with non-spammy link text deserve to have no follow removed because they are contributing to the discussion. With the link love plugin it is quite easy for someone to just post lots of comments without reading the articles to get some links. I have noticed a lot of people doing this, particularly when the blog has a top commenters bar. They probably aren’t very happy once they get refreshed though :P

On the Bad Neighbourhood tool. This is a very temperamental tool, which only has access to a limited amount of data and makes judgements based on its own assumptions rather than what we don’t know about search engines. It is able to throw up questionable linking partners, but it also wrongly identifies spam. For example, is flagged as spam.

As Lyndon touches on links from bad neighbourhoods won’t make much difference to your site. For a computer to decide what is spam and what is not spam is not an easy task. A search engine could easily program some bad neighbourhood algorithm that would penalise sites that aren’t doing anything wrong. Something like this would also very easy for someone who has a lot of spare time on their hands would be able to post a competitor’s site all around spammy sites, porn forms etc etc.

You cannot control all the links going into your site and thus search engines will only take action against sites in extreme cases, such as 1,000s of links for link farms being the only links into the site. However, since you can control the content of your site, the search engines can take action if you are linking to loads of spammy sites. Matt has covered this on his blog. However, this could also be abused if you have an interactive site, such as a blog where people could mask spammy links with CSS. So it is a good idea to use a regular expression to strip all style attributes from blog comments.

I certainly learnt a lot from this saga.

Wow, this just never occurred to me. Great post. I shared it on my blog. Would like to spread the word that even though TLA is a big company. They are not above this penalization either.

“I asked entrants to link to my website using specific anchor text, in effect, I tried to ‘game’ my Google search engine ranking positions (SERPs). This is known as ‘black hat SEO’, which, according to, is “customarily defined as techniques that are used to get higher search rankings in an unethical manner.””

Funny how aiming to build relevant, targeted anchor text just got classified as “black hat SEO” in this post.

Excuse me while I pick my jaw back up off the floor.

First, building relevant, keyword rich anchor text is the job of every responsible web site marketer on the planet.

Second, why in the WORLD should Google get to tell you when it’s ok to have people link to your site and when it’s not? Especially when you are giving them something (or a shot at something) in return?

They want to devalue the links because they picked up a sudden slew of new links all using the same text and pointing to the same page? Great, go for it Google.

But to actually PENALIZE your site for a bona fide marketing tactic and then convince you (and your readers) that THAT qualifies as black hat SEO?

Excuse me while I go perform a *headdesk*

Enjoy the Gool-aid folks. It’s apparently the new drink of choice for online marketers…

That’s great that you were able to be reinstated.

My main website received a drop in ranking. I figured that was going to happen although I don’t sell text link ads I do have one advertiser on my website. I picked it up myself. It’s a great service, and my readers, along with me, actually use it.

I don’t do too many paid reviews on my website. It was interesting to see that people that regularly scrape some of my websites along with hosts of other bloggers websites did not receive a chance in their PR.

I lost faith in what Google said a long time ago mainly because it appears at times they don’t follow their own rules, or they change them to suit their needs.
It does make me wonder if advertisers that requested specific links for their paid posts campaigns received a hit also.

I agree with Wendy people should be allowed to link to whomever they want. I do a lot of that on my own website. I’m not being paid to do it if I come across a service that I truly believe my readers will like I’ll try it out and write a review about it. The majority of the reviews I do on all my websites aren’t paid. I also link to a lot of bloggers I come across. I feel that if I like them perhaps some of my readers will also. In many cases I’ve been correct with that assumption. :-)

I make most of my money from direct sales (I’m a business owner) and affiliate marketing. My business website was not affected at all and the site that dropped in PR traffic does not seem to be affected it keeps increasing. I honestly don[‘t pay too much attention to my PR. I had no idea mine had dropped until one of my blog buddies mentioned his had.

I don’t think what you were doing was ‘black hat’, more like grey hat. Black hat SEO is when you spam links. Grey hat is when you do things that Google might find objectionable, but which don’t harm anyone else.

White hat is when you do just as Google wants, but drop down the SERPs anyway [grin].

Wendy, I also thought my paid links were relevant to my audience. Quite a few people have published articles on their blogs, saying I was penalised for showing unrelevant paid links, which is false. It seems that Google not only want your links to be relevant, but you also have to be careful about the practices of those people you link to.

No need to apologise for your comment, which I totally appreciate. Thankfully I don’t base my business around the revenue gained from online advertising (which was minimal, yet welcomed). It’s a lesson, that you can’t place too much value on what one company does to help.

DesignPinas, what did you do to have your page rank penalised by 5 points? Sorry to read that. I hope you sort things out.

David, you make an interesting point about followed comment links, and whilst I don’t want to spread any unecessary paranoia about that, it’s something that should be considered. Glad to read you’ve learnt a lot from what went on.

Mack, thanks for sharing the story on your blog. One thing to remember about TLA (as a company) is that it’s against their policy to add rel=”nofollow” to their links, so anyone using them is liable to receive a penalty from Google. Kind of a blanket coverage there!

Jennifer, I appreciate you stopping by, thanks. I was reluctant to email my prize draw entrants, particularly as just a small portion won anything from me. Still, those links they gave weren’t doing any good with Google when I had a penalty imposed, so their loss didn’t affect me in any way, except to help have the penalty lifted. It certainly opened my eyes to what Google allow and don’t allow.

Opal, your paid reviews sound much like Andy Beards i.e., written because you believe your readers will benefit from your research and insight. I made sure to go back through my three or four ReviewMe reviews, adding the ‘nofollow’ tag to the sites who paid for the design critiques – just in case. That’s great to read that your business website wasn’t affected by the PR drop, and that it won’t cause a loss of earnings.

One thing you did not mention in the article – when you join as a publisher to Text Link Ads, you do have the option to screen the ads before they are placed on the site. Perhaps if some more relevant links were placed on your site, this may not have occured….

How did you figure out what penalty Google was imposing? I’m pretty sure my subdomains have an imposed penalty, but, cannot figure out what, or why, that is.

Ryan, how were my links not relevant? If you look, you’ll notice I have a category for ‘business cards’, and ink cartridges are used by every graphic designer I know.

AgentSully, I can’t be sure about ‘dofollow’, but it’s an interesting question.

Donna, I mention in my blog post how I found out. Matt Cutts, Google’s spam team head, told me via his blog comments.

I think you got lucky when Matt Cutts actually responded to you on an individual level but I imagine Matt wouldn’t review each and every post he gets so has does the average site owner figure this out for himself? Any ideas?

Oh I know, I got very lucky. To get an idea of what was wrong I had to ask a number of people involved in SEO. I read blogs, commented, asked questions, posted messages on forums etc. I generally found that people were very helpful, which was fantastic.

Thanks for the info, David. But what if…

I have a healthcare blog, and I screen my text-link ads to be only relevant healthcare “sponsors”. As far as I know there is no way to add “no follow” to text-link ads.

The irony is that my blog was losing steam, despite the fact that for 3 years I’ve contributed original health realted content to the blog world. So by adding text-link ads, I have a motivation to keep posting. So google might penalize me for including relevant links to related advertisers without whom I might have discontinued blogging to due a-motivation?

Doesn’t seem like google’s style to stomp on the little guy!

Suzanne, you’re right, you can’t add ‘nofollow’ to the TLA service. For me, my money comes from the promotion of my services, so I’ve not lost out very much at all by removing text link ads. I know, however, that’s not the case for many many others.

I’m very late in getting to this post, but I just wanted to say I’m glad your ranking went back up! And thank you for writing this followup, I’m sure it will help a lot of people to avoid these mistakes. I’m sorry you had to go through them for us to learn! But all is well now :)

You’re very lucky. Thanks for this post, It’s a lesson. I found out what happened with my site with this post. I hope to have the same happy ending. It’s sad when all your work is wasted for a mistake.

Gee, I wish I could figure out our issue. We’ve consulted with many SEO experts and even oposted to Matt Cutts (our post was deleted). We ‘ve been advised about a few issues (dupplicate content and lack of nofollow tags) which have all been repaired. We even submitted a reinclusion request to no avail. I’m happy for you, David, that you were able to get resolution but I’m stumped.

Thanks for your words David. I’m happy for you. I’m sure that my site will come back to its position soon.It’s sad, but I’m optimistic. ;)

Hello David

Thank you very much for giving us a great information about google penalty. It is very helpful for me.

Because my website also has been penalized for nearly 11 months now, and still wondering how to fix it.

Do you know anyone who can help me?


Can you clarify does this mean that on-line contests where you ask people to post a link on their blog or website back to your blog or website in exchange for prizes, etc. could cause Google to drop your site in its rankings?

Glad to read that you go everything worked out.

In my attempts to try to find a way out of my seo nightmare, I stumbled on your blog. My website was hacked and a bunch of links and spammy html files were dropped into a folder. The same people propagated reciprocal links back to my website, dropping spammy html files (replete with garbage language and x rated content) on other websites referring back to mine. So Google identified links back to my website from all sorts of other sites. During the height of this “heist”, there were reciprocal links back tracking from some African government websites and even sites such as the NY Post (odd?). I’m not sure what the point of their activity was, its clearly an complex SEO thing, but haven’t found a way to get out of the Google Spam penalty, this despite me deleting all the dropped files, changing passwords and submitting a reinclusion request.

Tomita, is your site still penalised?

David, yes, I think you’re right to say that offering prizes for links to your blog will result in a Google penality.

Dean, that doesn’t sound good. Shame, very odd. Good luck with it.


How did you exactly know you where being filtered by google? My website, The Ticket Lodge is indexed and appears on some searches but it is burried for unique terms like “” and “the ticket lodge”. Were you informed by google that you had been filtered? If you are still indexed does that mean you aren’t being filtered?

Google has become absolutely ridiculous. Are they trying to force people to put nothing but Adsense on their sites? So it would seem. You can’t link to a PRINTER CARTRIDGE company? Oh no!!!! That’s SO evil!! What about Amazon? Are they a “bad neighborhood” too? What about Yahoo–loads of links on totally unrelated topics!!!! And so on? It’s absolutely asinine–and totally fascistic. I hope people are getting really SICK of Google and moving onto something else. Get rid of the Adsense and stop using Adwords. Let’s penalize Google.

Google has SUCH a problem with the little guy making a buck, but they don’t penalize the big boys whose only purpose is to make money.

What I like about John Chow is he doesn’t kiss Google arse. He’s plowed ahead and is making even MORE money without them. Now THAT’S a good business model.

Oh, and buy the way – how the hell do they determine whether or not it’s a “paid link,” and what g-d business is it of theirs anyway? According to Google, then, you can’t sell advertising space on your OWN damn website! While they, of course, CAN sell whatever they feel like on THEIR website. WTF? So, no banners–they have links in them–oh my, how incredibly evil!!! No advertising other than Adsense? Is this what it’s all about?

I’m disgusted. Google sucks- always beating up on the little guy. I HATE Google. “Do no evil,” my ARSE.

Hi Gary, I wasn’t informed by Google of the penality, and found out about it through the drop in my incoming traffic.

My pages were still indexed, but the penalty meant that they showed up only after aroudn page 6 or 7 of the search results (rather than on the first page).

Sorry to learn of your own penalty.

This story scared the bagezers out of me!

How do we know if we are linking to a bad neighbourhood?

I was looking into paid links, but this has just put me off, but I bet I won’t get any penalties from Google if I use Adsense?

Some variation in page rank (PR) can happen when Google recalculates PR across the entire internet, which it does every couple of months. I had a site with a home page with PR5 for a while, which dropped to PR4. I think it simply means that it had ‘only just’ been PR5 and the recalculation put it back into the lower band. No big deal, I think, seeing that the content is just as good, and getting better and the search result rankings are still good.

However, the problem with Google, or rather its employees, is the high-handed, impenetrable and unpredictable way they make their decisions, usually without any appeal. Let me just say that anyone who has any AdSense income from their site should move it regularly to their bank account and not let it build up. If you leave it with Google and one day they take a dislike to anything you have done, you will not be able to access your account and not be able to withdraw the money you have earned. Yes, they not only slap you, but keep your earnings too!

Thanks for sharing your experience, David.

Hi Gaz, there’s a ‘bad neighbourhood’ tool that checks your chosen URI. I’m not sure of the address but a Google search should bring it up. Be aware that it’s only to be used as a guide, as there are probably a few borderline results on most websites.

Steve, my experience of Google’s employees has been good so far, thanks mainly to Matt Cutts and the advice he has given me.

I’ve noticed the recent AdSense changes, and that if you don’t verify your home address / telephone number within a given timeframe, they’ll disable your account and return all money to the advertisers. I have a tiny bit of money with them, but moved home recently so have to wait before I can get a new PIN number sent out. One more thing to remember, but I don’t run AdSense anymore so it’s no big deal for me.

I mean Matt Cutts. Just goes to show the importance of dialogue when dealing with organisations, and blogs are an excellent tool for just that.

Agreed, I got lucky with this story.

David, Thank you very much for your reply.
Yes, unfortunately, my website is sitll penalized.

Actually, it got back for only 2 months and disappeared again.
Any advise would be appreciated.

Thank you very much

THANK YOU!!! SooooOOOOO much! Im an SEO rookie and have been having some similar issues along the lines of having my SERP’s drop a substantial amount. Although I’m not certain that I am breaking any of googles webmaster guidelines. But hey hopefully following your steps will enable me to once again reach organic SERP’s enlightenment :)

Thanks for sharing from your own personal experience. I was not even aware of anything called a bad neighborhood, but now I do and will be more careful exchanging links. Ditto for black hat SEO. Anyways as they say forewarned is forearmed so I will be careful about who I link to henceforth. Thanks a lot for sharing and letting us be careful too.

Am I the only one who thinks f*** Google and their corrupt business practices. Excuuuuuuuuuuuse me, but HP are doing the SAME thing with Logoworks that this entrepreneurial guy is doing, what the hell is spammy or black hat ( who invented that term?) about linking with relevant terms to HIS OWN site. Grreeedy Google has become too bent. Is it because you don’t spend a ton of cash on Adwords? I wish someone or some company would deliver a knockout blow to Google, as it needs knocking down a peg or two imo.

Best of luck.

Hey david, I am too having the similar problems which you had mate. I am really stressed out due to this. I don’t know whether my site is penalized or not. You mentioned about TLA ads. I wanted to know if adbrite ads cause any trouble. What do you think the reasons for my penalizing will be. Thanks in advance. Will be grateful if you can help me out.


I’m not familiar with adbrite, but if it involves text links without the ‘nofollow’ tag, it’s certainly possible a penalty has been applied.

is also paided link? because i use it. does it dangerous for my seo? how to put a nofollow tags inside text-link-ads html code?

David, I just came across this article that was advised by a friend of mine to take a look at because of my Page Rank going from 4-0 this past month. He had wanted me to read what had happened to you, and how you fixed it. So even though it’s been a year our post ‘s can still be relevant today. Thanks so much.

This is a classic case of “never leave anything to chance in SEO”. Nothing happens by accident. However, I’m really glad, David, that you got back your page rank. Thanks for the wonderful post and website.

Wish I had read this about a month ago – I had exactly the same thing happen to me and have only just managed to get back on track – it’s a relatively new site so I haven’t done as much damage but I have learnt the hard way.

By the looks of it my site has been penalized. I am actually now in a panicked as I have no idea what I have done. My website has always been on the first page of google in a lot of keywords pertaining to my products but now I can’t find it even in the 5th or 8th page. Yesterday it was still on the first page. I don’t even know if I can get back on track or I would be needing to change my domain name. Help!

Just new in this kind of business and my traffic is just starting to pick up and then this happens. I am actually editing my website content blindly as I do not actually know what has really caused it. I reckon the pictures of my new designs so I have deleted all the alt tags. As google might think it can be keyword stuffing. Other than that I am not really sure where to look. Is the press release a duplicate content?

I wouldn’t start messing with stuff unless it is recent changes you have made?

It could just be a glitch with Google and be something temporary.

First I would familarise yourself with the google guidelines to make sure you aren’t breaking any rules (this is important):

To start with I always look at:
W3C validation – this isn’t essential but sometimes it does mess up the googlebots and it’s common sense to have clean code.

You have a lot of errors there.


which seems to be fine and don’t have any hidden text etc.

Then I view the site via a lynxviewer (this is what the google bots see)

(here you should check that it still looks legible and there isn’t keyword stuffing or massive amounts of links).

Next ask yourself:

– Is there anything that has changed on you site in the last week that breaks the google guidelines?

– Am I linking the site to other dodgy sites or have affliate site linking with out nofollows?

– Do any other websites or pages in my site contain duplicate information?

– How many indexed pages do I have and how many are supplimentary (omitted) pages which have been penalised?

This isn’t really the right place to discuss this – I recommend your next step would be to sign up for a google webmaster account (you get free Analytics, Webmaster tools and then I would suggest you post a help request on the Google webmaster group – the experts there are great and will get back to you quickly).

Hope this helps – good luck.


No probs David – I understand how frustrating it is for people especially when Google doesn’t really give you any clues as to what you have done wrong and even worse for people who are just starting out with little knowledge.

Hi David and Simon,

Just like to thank both of you for the assistance and for giving me some guidelines on how I can get my website back on track. Just sent reconsideration request to google last night and the next day my website was back up on track. Many thanks to both you!


i just would like to ask if i put the ‘nofollow’ tag on paid links, will the sponsors be able to detect that?

thank you so much!

Hi stern,

I thought to lend a helping hand as I have been helped too. The purpose of the sponsors is mainly to have their advertisements show on your website so that your follower and you visitor can see it which would eventually lead to a click and a visit to their website. This is not to pass on votes that affects ranking.

Without rel no follow would mean that you are passing on a vote and thus, affects ranking. Now it would actually defend if your sponsor keeps on looking at your codes which I’m pretty much sure their not. Or if they have stipulated that you keep their codes. If that was not specified then you have every right to add rel no follow as long as their advertisements are not affected. If you are not sure about this and would prefer to keep their codes without the rel no follow then, block the page or files from being indexed by google using the robots.txt . So you would not need to worry about changing codes.

I believe the blog from matt cutts will give you some more info too. Here is the link.

Nice article, even we are considered as we have seen sudden drop in our rankings.We were having pretty good ranking before but suddenly qoogle has stopped crawling our site, may be trying the formulas you shown works for us.


Showing paid links without the ‘nofollow’ code can lead to a Google penalty. I advise staying well clear of any sponsors who specifically request that you don’t use ‘nofollow’.


Thanks for offering your help in return. I appreciate that you took time to stop by again.

Hi David.

I noticed when browsing your site with a text browers you seem to have a hidden tag above your navigation bar. On this page for example there is a tag ” Logo design, logo designer | How I reversed my Google ranking penalty ” and yet the exact phrase “logo design, logo designer” doesn’t appear on the page.

Perhaps i have mis-interpreted your code, but if not have you discussed this with google or any of the SEO experts you talked with.
Google obviously doesn’t tolerate hidden text for ” deceptive intent ” though the words hidden are relative to your content and not in excess. Do you have any confirmation that this is acceptable ?

Hi Andrew,

You bring up a good point, and one I’d not even thought about when adding that code. I can’t remember exactly when I placed the h1 tag into my header.php file, but I do remember having a look at my code and realising I didn’t have h1 text anywhere on my site (it was perhaps six months ago).

I’ve changed it now so it reads my actual website title (plus the blog post heading). Or, do you think I’d be better to do away with my site title, and leave only the post heading?

Hi again David,

I’ve searched high and low for a rock solid answer on this and still come up short.

Ive spoken with various highly ranked google message board members (non-staff) and the closest i’ve gotten to an answer is reading some information from Matt Cutts from google who states ” I don’t recommend that people use CSS to hide text “. The various google members can only tell me the same thing.

Matt goes on to say ” If you’re straight-out using CSS to hide text, don’t be surprised if that is called spam … If you show your company’s name and it’s Expo Markers instead of an Expo Markers logo, you should be fine. If the text you decide to show is ‘Expo Markers cheap online discount buy online Expo Markers sale …’ then I would be more cautious, because that can look bad.”

Again, very vague. I know Google etc. have over the years implemented algorithms to programatically find text that’s hidden by CSS, which is presumably upgraded regularly to counter new black-hat SEO techniques.
At the time of reading, in I think 2007 or so, Matt stated that currently they had not algorithmically removed any sites for hiding text. The algorithm was only checking for blatant deception such as white text/links on a white background.

Previously i had a setup similar to your own. My website title held the words “logo, web & graphic design” and hidden i had “logo designer, web designer, graphic designer”. To any human eye both our actions this would seem perfectly legitimate, there is a sensible ammout of totally relevant words.

For the moment I’ve removed the tags of my own site for fear of some automatic reprisal from google. I’ve only been running my site for 3 months or so now and am not as well established as you, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for me to regain what modest foothold i currently have if google penalized me after some change to their automatic moderation system.

I’m still searching for the answer and will let you know if i find anything concrete.

Er, sorry for the wall of text but i just had an epiphany, ha.

The best thing i can think of so far is classing the alt=” ” text of your header image as . Alt text is obviously a 100% legitimate practice and you’re not hiding anything additional, which is seemingly their focus.

Tricks such as display:none and using the z-index to hide things are obviously a no-no, classing alt=” ” tag is the most legitimate thing i can think of. Now to spend another day researching if google frowns on that i geuss…

No worries at all about the length of your answer, Andrew. Thanks for getting back to me, and I’m glad I’m providing some inspiration for your own website. Good luck with it.

Please do let me know if you find any further info, and if anyone else who’s reading can enlighten us any, I’d be very grateful.

For what it’s worth David, I think your use of a hidden H1 does look pretty dubious.

Maybe you should change your logo to an H1 tag, then position the logo as a background image and use text-indent:-9999px; to move the text off the screen. That’s a pretty standard image replacement technique for using images in headings, and I don’t think anyone would accuse you of foul play if you did it like that.

Thanks, Aaron.

I’ve removed the hidden h1 tag altogether. I think I once had my logo as a background image, but then wasn’t sure how to make the entire top banner clickable, taking users to the homepage (as it is now).

I’ve been reading that the blog title should be in h1 tags for the main / home page, with individual post pages having the post titles in h1. Not sure how to get that cracked, but I’ll give it a shot.

Good of you to chime in, mate.

H1 tags for your posts is easy as pie.

In your wordpress adin panel go to appearance / editor and select “Single Post (single.php)”.

There should be a line:
<div class=”post” id=”post-“>

It will only be 5-6 lines down, just add the H1 tags to surround the title lookup like so:

<div class=”post” id=”post-“>

That’s for wordpress 2.7.1 but i don’t imagine it’s different on older versions if your running one.

Bah, all the code is being truncated when it posts the comment. Not sure if it will display on your end as the admin, if not let me know and I could email you it David.


Ah yes, cheers Andrew.

My single.php already had the post permalink wrapped in h2 tags, so I’ll just replace those with h1 for now. Seems like a quick and easy temporary fix. There won’t be any h2, but at least there’ll be h1.

I am just learning the art of SEO and this topic really jumped at me. I do know the difference between black and white hat SEO and all of the negative effects of black hat SEO. I didn’t know that you could have penalties removed by Google. This is great to know, not that I would get any penalties. As my website evolves and I add more elements to it, I should be aware of things that could hurt my SEO if I’m not paying attention.

Thanks again for a great blog

Hi David,
This is a great post, everybody who’s taking SEO serious should read this, they”ll learn a lot from it!
I had a similar issue like this, but this came from a very different corner, one of the websites i developed was, after 2 years of nice ranking on the first page for ‘verlichting’ (sorry i’m from belgium), it dissapeared and was not found on the first 50 pages! After a bit of research on this i found out that the website, who was hosted by a well-known firm, shared an IP with about 100 other sites, which is quite common on shared hosting, fact was, some of the sites on this IP were spamming and using black hat SEO on the go, and the IP was simply banned from google, all of them (i checked), moving this domain to my, then new, server with an uniquie IP and having send a mail to the link in google webmaster tools , ( probably the same as you did) this was solved.

Hello david,

First we think its a great article and important for people to understand why seo has to made by someone who know what no to do….

second is a question for all of you thay maybe know if there is any panalty checker that can say if a site got it ? and if it did, what is the panalty and what should site owner do.

I think it’s about time that google tells everyone who is getting a penalty, why the site gets this penalty and what the solution is.

My search engine rankings for a website I’m working on has dropped terribly over the last week. I made some modifications to the homepage and I’m trying to decide if the changes I made to the website were the problem or is it the link neighborhood my website is in. I changed the homepage back to the way it was before but do you think I should try to contact someone from Google regarding it or wait to see if there is a change?


Hi Andrew, it’s possible your drop could be a temporary thing that corrects itself the next time Google crawls your site. Patience is a hard-practiced virtue in these cases.

This is a great article.

I do wish thought that google, yahoo, bing etc would provide profile tools we could use to scan our sites. When a hit occurs in our ranking, it really is stabbing in the dark sometimes as to why it has happened.

Thank you for sharing you experience. I have also had problems with Google, my rank dropped from 3 to 0 because of badneighbourhoods. I had to remove all the paid links that caused it.

Thanks for the story. Google just reduced my dental insurance site — from #2 to #42 basically putting me out of the individual dental business. I have a seasoned site since 2000 and paid the domain thru 2018. I have not made any changes and the web site sells exactly what it says. Anybody with some helpful tips?
Dr. Blunt

My only guess is that you’re linking to too many “bad neighbourhoods” (I notice you have a lot of outbound links on the homepage) and by association, Google deems your site in the same bracket. But I’m no expert, so it could well be something else.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I guess many of us will learn something from you! I am not sure exactly what black hat SEO is all about, but I believe any non-natural way to ask for link back is bad move.

Great post! Love it!

I purchased my site from an online auction and I am trying to help it rank higher. It’s been a bit of a challenge. Not sure what type of penalty is has if any. Thanks for the information, I’m still not entirely sure how to bring my site up but it’s a good start for me.

Great article. I just got one of these smackdowns for a sitwide link that I forgot to make no follow. I think Google is being a little harsh. Can you check out my consumer reviews website and see if there is anything else wrong that Google wouldn’t like?

I would appreciate any help as the folks at Google blog seem to be really condescending and mean.

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