Google Downrank Penalty

One is torn between respect owed to Google for all they’ve done with search and frustration with their insufficient help/info for downranked sites. I know a small number of folks on the web spam team work to keep “collateral damage” low, but I think what bugs me is the ongoing strong implication that there is very little collateral damage when in fact there is a lot.

Ironically this opaque approach to downranking penalties is what spawns a lot of bad information at many forums and leads to the mistrust of Google that is increasingly common among many of the elite SEOs and webmasters.

The big part of my frustration comes from what I think is a lie, or at best a misleading thing that Google tells sites in the standard emails from Google support, which says that because your site is found in the Google index you have no penalty.

I now believe that by any reasonable definition of “penalty” this is a false and unreasonable statement.

What they really mean by this emails is that your site has no “manual penalty”. A manual penalty is invoked in extreme cases where sites are removed from the index. This is generally for things like hidden text, sneaky redirection, or other SEO tricks banned by the Google Webmaster Guidelines. However, if your site has a big downrank it probably has been penalized by the algorithm in a direct way, probably by a subtraction of points that leads to a much lower score for many/all of the pages in your site.

Here’s a good example of the downranking penalty at our Online Highways Travel site:

Searching Google for “Province of Djizak” it would be reasonable for a user to find this page somewhat high among the results:

Why would a user want this page? It’s highly relevant for the search, leads to more info about Uzbekistan, and our Uzbekistan section was created mostly by a leading travel expert from Uzbekistan who publishes the leading travel magazine for the Silk Road region of Asia.

So, why is this page relegated to obscurity, at position of approximately 190 of 193 results listed? Here it is on the last page of the Google results.

I wish I knew, though I’ve been assured by Google in several emails that we have no penalty when clearly … we do.

Google probably has a right to penalize and re-rank however they see fit, but along with this power and responsibility goes an obligation to tell an unvarnished truth about the status of sites. I used to believe that large sites with high advertising spends were not more likely to get special help than small sites, and to Google’s credit they have historically been good listeners/talkers at events like WebmasterWorld and Search Engine Strategies, but I now wonder if the lines are getting blurred between the advertising and ranking realms at Google. Google probably has the right to do things as they see fit, but please don’t tell me that thousands of small and medium-sized sites with relevant pages aren’t getting penalized and downranked when they … clearly are.

Update: Blogging about this has affected the results – on May 11 this blog post is number one for the term “Province of Djizak”! Our subject page remains very low – about 201 in rankings even though it is *referenced* by the number ONE page for the term (and of course is much more relevant to the search).

This, combined with the Chico the Wonder Dog experiments and a lot of reading and talking with SEO people, leads me to think that the downrank penalty really is site wide and that Google really is sacrificing a lot of good pages like our UZ section to punish us for what they see as undesirable cross linking / thin pages / failure in some cases to use nofollow on links / ?

Update 2: Maybe I shouldn’t complain about the rank? Our Djizzak Province page appears, after all, two places above this, um, highly relevant page for that query: Application of defecation lime from sugar industry in Uzbekistan

Update 3: OK, I have now created what I would argue is the world’s best “Province of Djizak” web page, located at the Online Highways blog. Unfortunately I had a problem changing the title but that page should *at least* rise higher than 200 for a query. Why? Because it is quite a bit more relevant than any others for that term and it now has TWO LINKS from this, the top page for the query “Province of Djizak“. If my hypothesis is correct it will not rise up because it will fall under OHWY’s site downranking penalty.

Update 4: Province of Djizak original OHWY page is now number one at Google for “Province of Djizak”. This is NOT at all consistent with my site penalty hypothesis above. It is consistent with the idea that we need to beef up incoming, new links to get pages re-ranked.

Update 5 (June 1). The original OHWY page is again heavily penalized – number 216 from number 1 yesterday. This, alas, is totally consistent with the sitewide penalty hypothesis I describe above.