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How Long do Google Penalties Last?

On the heels of the recent manual penalty against J.C. Penny, Matt Cutts released a new Google Webmaster Help video that talks about both manual and algorithmic penalties and how Google treats each of them.

– Google has two different types of penalties: algorithmic and manual.
– Algorithmic penalties are assessed automatically if Google determines that your site is engaging in a tactic like keyword stuffing or using jscript redirects. Since these are evaluated and set by the algorithm, cleaning up your site and getting the new version crawled will remove it once Google “recomputes” everything. If you notice a large drop in your rankings and you know you’re engaging in very grey and black activities, this is the first step I would take.
– Manual penalties are set by Google and these can range from 30 days to months / years (in my experience I’ve seen two years for the worst of the worst). These can only be lifted if you file for a re-inclusion request where you essentially admit to your mistakes and encourage Google to manually review your site and remove any penalties that have been levied. If your site has an algorithmic penalty, Google won’t take any action. Manual penalties eventually expire but you need to weigh the cost of submitting a re-inclusion request and playing clean vs. waiting for the penalty to be lifted.
In J.C. Penny’s case, it would be smart to file a re-inclusion request due to the economic impact of the penalty. However they need to realize that you not only have to clean up, you have to stay clean because Google isn’t fond of giving third, fourth or fifth chances to sites that continually break their terms of service. I would advise that J.C. Penny, or any other webmaster thinking of filing a re-inclusion request, to be as honest as possible. Here are some tips should you ever need to fill out a re-inclusion request:
1. Admit to everything. If you engaged in redirects and link farms, don’t admit to just one. Google knows exactly what you’re doing especially when someone is hand-reviewing your site.
2. Don’t throw your SEO company or web guy under the bus. In the end your company authorized and paid for their services and if they violated their contract, take them to court.
3. Don’t whine that its not fair. Filling a re-inclusion request with lines like “but this was only done because and were doing it too” sounds unprofessional and makes it seem like you aren’t taking responsibility for your site.
If a practice has become rampant within your industry then include a line that says something like “We appreciate Google’s efforts to improve their results and we understand why we have been penalized. However the practice of (fill in the blank) is not unique to our site but in fact can be found throughout our industry. We encourage Google to examine other sites within the (fill in the blank) industry in order to address other potential violators and ensure a level playing field for all competitors.”
Ultimately, the responsibility of ensuring that your site is being optimized within the T.O.S rests on both the client and the SEO company.