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What’s the Difference Between Google Penalties and Algorithm Updates?

Determining the difference between a Google penalty and an algorithm update isn’t the easiest task for SEO practitioners. On any given day SEO forums are lit up with posting asking, “Did Google just update Penguin/Panda?” or “Did I just catch a penalty?”

In the heat of the moment, when traffic and revenues are plummeting, the difference may seem like a moot point but it’s not. Understanding whether you’ve been hit with a penalty or an algorithm update drives your corrective action.

Here’s the basics of penalties and algorithm updates every affiliate partner needs to know.

What is a Penalty?

Google penalties are the result of manual actions taken by a member of Matt Cutts’ Web Spam team to punish a specific site. These penalties are often, but not always, proceeded by a notification from Google that can be found on your WebMaster Tools account and there’s a complete list of known penalties on the Google Webmaster Guidelines.

If there’s an upside to penalties it’s that you can oftentimes appeal them through a reconsideration request. Otherwise, expect your websites to be sitting in timeout for a month or two.

In short, a penalty is the equivalent of getting dumped by someone who says, “It’s not me, it’s you.” For a great take on determining whether you’ve been penalized or not, check out Google Penalty or Algorithm Change: Dealing With Lost Traffic by David Harry on

Google likes keeping life interesting for webmasters. Here’s a list of 10 of their all time greatest surprise moves.

What is an Algorithm Update?

Unlike penalties, algorithm updates like Panda and Penguin are automated and aimed at a widespread pattern of behaviors, like content scraping and unnatural links. This can be confusing because the net result of an algorithm and a penalty are usually the same, a serious drop in page rank and traffic.

Algorithm updates are regularly refined and refreshed which can make them seem like movie villain that just won’t die.

The good news about algorithm updates is that you won’t be the only one feeling the impact. That mans determining a corrective course is often as simple as a visit to SEOMoz, SearchEngineLand or one of the many SEO forums on the Web.

Maybe It’s Neither One

It’s also important to remember that not every drop in traffic is the result of a Google algorithm update or a penalty. Webmasters with top page rankings, or a reliance on black hat SEO, can become complacent over time.

Those top rankings have to maintained and they can plummet overnight if your competition decides to step up their game, so always keep one eye pointed in that direction.


SEO is far from an exact science and Google is notorious sending out mixed, and often very vague, signals to webmasters. That means adhering to white hat best practices as much as possible is a key element in maintaining both your site traffic and your sanity.

What’s your method for determining the differences between penalties and algorithm updates? Post up your tips in the comments section below this article.