Our panel:

To answer this question, I’ve enlisted the help of some search engine optimisation experts. They are: 

Do you think Google is clear enough about what steps need to be taken to recover from penalties? 

Kevin Gibbons: 

No, I don’t think they are. However, while I’m not sure I like to agree with Google on this, it is in a difficult position and I can see why it wouldn’t want to be too open in the information provided. 

If it was easy to recover, this takes the risk away from people link building as the worst case scenario will be to get the ban quickly lifted.

The fact that Google make things difficult and somewhat unknown means that it wants to get people thinking longer-term, about considering customers first, improving UX etc, with links becoming the by-product of brand and audience building, as opposed to the main goal.

Mags Sikora: 

Over the past two years, Google has clearly made steps to become more ‘transparent’. It has published more official announcements and the G+ Hangouts with the key members of the Web Spam Team are also quite useful.

However, in terms of the approach to individual penalties, not that much has changed. Yes, now Google sends notification about manual actions but the messages are so vague, not really concrete or actionable. 

We all remember the Mozilla or BBC examples when a single page was responsible for a manual penalty notification, but in the notification message was no mention about the scale of the penalty.

How can a site like the BBC, with 20m+ pages, find that single page to analyse it? Why not tell people exactly what’s wrong with their site when notices go out?

Julia Logan (aka Irish Wonder):

Google has never been particularly good at being transparent with the webmasters, neither it has changed now.

I am aware of a number of sites penalised due to bad links hose owners keep submitting a reconsideration request after a reconsideration request, disavowing more and more links, only to find Google telling them there are still spammy links in their backlink profile, providing examples which are hardly representative, sometimes providing links that no longer even exist as examples of bad links.

One can hardly call this kind of communication cooperative. 

Andrew Girdwood: 

Google does not make the process of recovering from a penalty easy. The overall direction, though, is pretty clear – sites need to be ‘significantly clean’ in order to recover.

This means they need to have plenty more positive quality signals than negative ones. Usually, but not always, the best way to achieve this is to undo all the negative ones created by dodgy SEO or allowed to occur by not doing SEO in the first place.  

How that process happens or how much work needs to be done remains unclear, will differ from site to site, and Google does not provide a clearly marked finishing line for you to aim at.

Jimmy McCann: 

Yes and no….

No because it is so hard to understand which elements you need to address to regain your previous position after a drop in traffic.

But then if Google was explicit in what you had to do then people would have more information on what it values most in the algorithm, leaving it more open for reverse engineering and manipulation.

Yes,  because the guidelines are there online for everyone to see, comply and you will be fine – the only thing is that many companies take notice of them when it’s too late.

If you have good visibility in SERPs now is the time to audit your site and ensure compliance with the guidelines, not after you have been hit.

Sam Silverwood-Cope:

No, Google obfuscates and is extremely unclear. When link penalties became quite prevalent the SEO industry became nervous based on the fact that there was not enough information.

This is because Google can not police the whole sector so it makes big noises about possible penalties but is unclear on what the penalties are actually for and which links are the culprits.

However, ultimately Google has always stated that if you pay for a link you will be penallised.

This is difficult to prove, if you have done this then you should be concerned. 

Should Google be clearer with businesses that have held their hands up and are looking to ‘comply’? 

Kevin Gibbons: 

In certain circumstances, yes – especially with the smaller businesses who haven’t done SEO before, or don’t have the awareness around Google penalties.

But again there is an element of you don’t know who’s going to do what they say they will. As always actions speak louder than words and what Google often wants to see isn’t the admission but of past activity, but the level of effort you’re prepared to put in to make amends.

Julia Logan (aka Irish Wonder):

If Google is not making it possible for businesses to clean up their act and have their sites reinstated one of the two possible outcomes can happen: either the affected business gets ruined completely, or they stop trying to comply and go the dark route, doing what suits their business interests rather than keeping in mind Google’s requirements. 

Andrew Girdwood:

I think this is a balance Google needs to walk. 

I have seen brands hold up their hands, admit wrong doing, promise never to be naughty again… only to watch them buy links from undisclosed blog posts a few years later. CMOs come and go. A brand’s promise is not sacrosanct.

Equally, the “Google experience” a searcher has is tarnished if they go looking for a recognisable name and cannot find the official source in the search engine. In these scenarios you can see why Google might want to give a compliant and authoritative site a helping hand. 

Jimmy McCann:  

Yes, providing a more comprehensive list of ALL LINKS linking to a domain would be fantastic, as Google WMT only provides a sample. Only then you can get a hold of removals / disavowal.

Sam Silverwood-Cope:

Absolutely. I have known many digital managers and agencies that have inherited bad practice, it seems slightly unfair that the business continues to be punished when it was perhaps an individuals or another agency’s fault.

Google did well in the US by targeting bad practice from certain agencies who were paying for links and YouTube views. But ultimately the business should take responsibility for its actions.

Link purchasing was endemic a few years ago. It’s an extremely good thing that this has slowed down, but Google is quite an unapproachable corporation when it comes to discussing your site. 

Hannah Thorpe: 

The short answer would be yes. In an ideal world sites should be allowed to say sorry to Google, admit they’ve broken the rules and then they’d get a list of ways to make it better. But if this was the case then everyone would opt for short term gains and not fear a penalty because it would be easy to recover.

It might not seem fair to those genuinely trying to resolve their site’s issue, but just remember for every one of those sites there’s hundreds more trying to make quick progress.