Opinions expressed by Contractor contributors are their own.
Despite the long history of the strategy and the ample availability of tutorials and guides on the subject, there’s still a lot of confusion and a lot of irrational fear around search engine optimization (SEO). It’s true that your site can be penalized if you practice SEO with the wrong tactics or if you intentionally try to manipulate your rankings in an unfair or unnatural way. But could that permanently ruin your website or cripple your chances of long-term marketing success?
What is SEO?
Let’s start with the basics, in case you’re unfamiliar. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a set of strategies you can use to increase your business’s rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs). The higher you rank, the more visibility you get, and the more people will visit your website.
You can do this by taking advantage of Google’s ranking algorithm (and, incidentally, the ranking algorithms of other search engines). Google preferentially ranks websites that have high levels of authority and trustworthiness. Essentially, modern SEO is all about improving that perceived trustworthiness. You can do that by writing great content, improving the functionality of your site and building backlinks with high authority third party websites.
Penalties and deranking potential
So why the concern?
Here’s a simple rundown. There are good ways and bad ways to practice SEO. If you practice the bad ways and get caught, you could face a significant penalty.
Related: 7 Best SEO Tools to Help You Rank Higher in Google
Google is incentivized to discourage businesses from artificially manipulating their rankings. This should make sense. Google wants to rank the most trustworthy websites, not the websites that are exceptionally good at pretending to be trustworthy.
Accordingly, there are two types of so-called “penalties” that your site could face in its pursuit of higher rankings. If Google’s algorithm detects that you’re engaging in shady practices, such as hiding keywords in the background of your site, writing bad content or intentionally spamming links, you’re not going to gain ranks and you might even lose them. This tends to happen gradually and proportionally in response to your actions.
There’s also a Google manual action, which is applied by a human being who notices egregious activity on your website. If you’re trying to scam people or if you’re exceptionally aggressive in your bad SEO practices, you might face this type of penalty – but it tends to be rare.
Why your site can’t be permanently ruined
So could these penalties permanently ruin your website and your visibility potential?
The answer is no, and for several reasons:
Search engines aren’t the only way to generate traffic. First, search engines aren’t the only way to generate traffic to a website. Even if you got totally delisted from Google, you could find a way forward through other strategies.
Algorithmic penalties are often minor. When an algorithm detects a piece of low-quality content on your site or some other minor infraction, you won’t be removed from rankings entirely – in fact, you might only drop one or two rankings. These “penalties,” if you can even call them that, are often minor and are typically the result of an algorithm change.
Algorithmic penalties can be reversed. Even in cases when these penalties aren’t minor, they’re relatively easy to reverse. Removing bad links, building new, good links and polishing your onsite content can easily put you in a better position.
Manual actions are very rare. Google manual actions are exceedingly rare. You likely won’t face one unless you’re intentionally doing something very wrong. And if you are engaging in this type of behavior, the penalty is probably deserved.
Manual actions give you an opportunity to recover. Even if you do face a manual action, you’ll have the opportunity to address it. Eventually, your site can make a full recovery.
You can always start a new domain. And even if your site does totally fail somehow, you can always start over with a new domain.
Key Tips for Avoiding SEO Penalties
Avoiding penalties in SEO is realistically very simple:
Work with reputable partners. Only work with SEO partners you know and trust. There are many scammers and black hat practitioners out there – but they’re relatively easy to spot.
Focus on quality and value. All your SEO efforts need to be focused on providing quality and value to your users, from your content generation to your link building strategy.
Notice issues early and address them. If you do notice a decline in your rankings or a sudden traffic dip, investigate and take corrective action immediately.
Related: 7 Reasons You Should Stop Managing Your SEO and Hire a Pro
If you follow these rules, you shouldn’t fear even the most minor of penalties. The chances of your site being totally ruined are pretty much zero. Unfortunately, the early chaotic days of SEO have stained the reputation of the strategy, possibly permanently – but there’s no reason to worry about negative blowback if you’re focused on quality content.