What Causes Filters or Penalties to Get Applied by Search Engines?

In the world of search engine optimization (SEO), there are 2 definitions for the sanctions that can be placed on your site by a search engine. The first is a penalty, and the second is a filter. Each one has different causes and remedies, but if you’ve dropped out of the first few pages of results then there are SEO issues that need to be addressed.


What is a penalty?

Generally speaking, a penalty is one of the worst sanctions you can get from a search engine. It can involve losing all of your page rank and essentially having your site “de-listed” from the search results. Penalties are caused by violations of search engine guidelines including cloaking, keyword stuffing, spamming, and using prohibited or “black hat” optimization methods. A penalty is more difficult to fix than simple filtering.


What is a filter?

A filter is considered any factor applied by the search engine that moves your actual ranking below the position it should occupy. For instance, if you normally had a #1 ranking but a search engine wanted to penalize you for over optimization, you could end up in the #30, #95, or #950 position on the search engine. Normally when the filtering factor is changed or removed, your search engine ranking will go back to its proper position within a few weeks.

When a site or page is filtered, you are still getting indexed and cached by the search engine.


What Causes Filters to Get Applied by Search Engines?


  • Duplicate Content – Pages on your site, another site owned by you, or a competitor’s site have substantially similar or identical content. Even if your site had the original content, a search engine may consider it to be duplicated if it was found on another website first.


  • Over Optimization – Obvious optimization tactics can trip up a search engine filter, sometimes even unintentionally. If you have too many keywords, too many links pointing to a page with the same anchor text, too many instances where site content elements (Title tag, Header text, and regular text) match up with anchor text, or keyword stuffed internal site linking, then you can be tripping up an over optimization filter.


  • New Site – Also known as a “sandbox” filter, new sites are generally filtered by search engines. This filter has been put in place to keep people from spamming search engines with multiple new URLs containing questionable content. Essentially, your site will need to earn the trust of the search engine, and time is a factor in trust. In some cases a new site can avoid this type of filtering, but usually the factors involved are beyond even advanced optimization.

What kinds of filters can get applied to my site?

There are 3 Major Filter Types:


  • Keyword filters – If you find yourself filtered for only a few key phrases, and especially the ones for which you are using heavy anchor text linking practices, then a keyword filter may be to blame.


  • Site wide filters – If you’re whole site has been impacted, than there is a factor that is causing your whole site to lose rankings. If your site is new, it is likely filtered.


  • Link filtering – Links to your site may have lost popularity. Search engines continually reevaluate all sites on the internet, and link popularity involves hundreds of factors. If a powerful site linking to yours lost its trust for any reason, the link to your site would lose its value and you would see a rankings drop. Therefore, it is always best to diversify your inbound link popularity.


What are the different levels of filtering?

Some of the observed filter types include a “minus 30” filter that moves your ranking back by 3 pages, or 30 places, and a “minus 950” filter (also called the “950 penalty) which places you back 950 spots, or on the 95th page of search results. There also appear to be “custom” filters which may be based on a variety of factors but will cause your rankings to go below where you would expect them.


Where should I expect to see my ranking if I am not filtered?

For a well optimized site, the test in Google would be to type in allinanchor: with your top search phrase. Therefore, if your phrase was “cat food” and you typed “allinanchor: cat food” into Google, you should find your site ranked based on link popularity for that term. If your normal rankings for “cat food” fall significantly below that spot, you are either filtered or your on-page optimization is not acceptable.


How do I check for a penalty?

To check for a penalty, search for your URL, or do a site: command for the site. If you can’t find your site, and it was there before, you may be getting penalized. Make sure to check for other non-penalty factors such as robots exclusions or crawl failures.


  • Is the site removed completely from the index?


  • Does the site rank for its own URL?


How do I check for a filter?

Do an allinanchor search. Using Google type allinanchor followed by your preferred keyword phrase. If you are looking for multiple phrases, the search has to be repeated for each phrase. If you site shows up in a substantially higher place for allinanchor: then it may be filtered.


How to fix a penalty:


  • Using Google webmaster tools, check to see if you have any notices from Google indicating spamming, bad links, hidden text passing viruses, etc.


  • Remove any hidden text, hidden content, cloaking, duplicate content, viruses, or spyware from your site.



  • File a re-inclusion request. This can be done through Google Webmaster tools. Alternatively, you can wait up to a year for the penalty to be lifted.

How to Fix a Filter:-

  • Identify the cause of the filtering.
  • Make the necessary changes using SEO best practices.
  • Wait for the search engine to re-cache the site and any site from which a bad link was pointing to yours.
  • Wait for re–indexing. There is a delay between re-caching (where a search engine spiders a site and reads all the content) and re-indexing (where the cached data is applied to your rankings).

Some of the newer information to come out of search engine circles indicates that there may be a permanent probation for sites that get re-included into the Google index. This would make sense, given that a site that is likely to have broken spamming or quality rules may do the same thing in the future. Depending on the severity of your site’s infractions, whether you committed them yourself or whether you got them from a website you purchased, it may make more sense to start from scratch. Whenever you are buying an existing website, checking for penalties and filters should be part of the due diligence in the purchasing process. Even though search engines may reset some of their ranking factors when sites change hands, a penalized site may have other factors that are impossible to re-mediate.

Which web page elements are considered spam by Google?

Google considers quite a few things as spam. The most popular ones are automatically generated doorway pages, cloaking and false redirects, keyword stuffing, hidden text or hidden links, paid links and automated linking systems.


What does Google do to penalize websites?

When Google penalizes a website, the website will either be removed completely from the index or the positions of a website in the search results will be lowered.


Does Google ever forgive a penalized website?

In a discussion in an online forum, webmasters shared their experience with re-inclusion requests on Google. One webmaster reported that it took over one year until a website had its old rankings back:

“One of my clients was completely banned from Google for a spammy link exchange program; we cleaned ‘em all up and filed a re-inclusion request, and they are currently #1-3 for just about every relevant search phrase you could think of.

They’re ranking higher now than they ever did before the penalty – but it did take about a year to work their way up to that point.”

Another webmaster confirmed that it takes long until Google re-gains trust in a website:

“That’s what I’ve seen, too. A long, slow release from ‘probation’ as trust builds.

I do think Google always has a record of the past penalty somewhere, and any future infractions might be dealt with quite harshly. But you definitely can see a site get completely released from the ranking effects of a penalty.”

It’s very likely that Google keeps a record of all previous penalties that have been applied to a website.


What does this mean for your website?

You should avoid shady SEO methods at all costs. Do not participate in automated linking schemes. If someone promises you a quick and easy solution that requires no or little work then it is very likely that it’s spam.

If your website has been penalized, remove all spam elements from your website and file a re-inclusion request on Google.

It seems that Google does forgive penalized websites but it takes a long time until a penalized site has its rankings back. During that time, you’ll lose a lot of visitors and sales.

If you want to be on the safe side, only use ethical search engine optimization methods to promote your website. These methods might not sound as impressive as some of the promises that you can read on the Internet but they make sure that your website will get lasting results on Google’s first result page.


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