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Google’s New Documentation Penalty?

I hate paper. There, I said it. Anyone who knows me and loves me understands that I live in constant organized chaos. In elementary school, I had a Trapper Keeper that held all of my papers. They stuck out the sides, and to the layperson looked like a big mess. However, as long as someone (a.k.a my teacher or my mom) didn’t try to make them look neat for me, I knew where everything was. Keeping records is still not my favorite thing to do, but I recognize its importance. When it comes to your SEO efforts, those records can be the difference between success and failure.

To that end, here is Google’s documentation penalty and why they did it:

When we get a new client at WrightIMC, one of our first questions is about past SEO efforts. There are several reasons for this. It’s good to know what has been tried in the past. No use repeating history and doing something that didn’t work. Of course, sometimes things that didn’t work in the past can work now with a bit of tweak, but that’s a post for another day.

But, there is a much more poignant reason we ask about a site’s history. Past SEO efforts can have dire implications on the site’s current ability to rank. I don’t care if the guy who used to do your SEO was your brother-in-law, an Eagle Scout and ranked number 1 in his class at MIT. I don’t know a single SEO who is worth their salt who hasn’t violated Google’s terms of service at least once in their career. How do you violate Google’s TOS? Very simply: You buy links and have Google’s Documentation Penalty to fix.

I’m not here to take a stand on buying links one way or the other. But, <soapbox> if you do buy links, make sure that those who could be impacted by a penalty from Google or another search engine are well aware of the consequences. Transparency is key here. </soapbox>

Now, back to record keeping. If someone is building links for you, do you record every link they have requested? Do you know if any links were bought, or worse yet, sold? Do you know what changes were made to your site and when, so you can at least attempt to find some correlation between your on-page SEO tactics and success (or failure)?

Just in time for tax season, Google is the webmaster’s new IRS. Except, instead of an audit, you might get a notice that says something like:

“Dear site owner or webmaster of ….
We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.”

Google Search Quality Team

Google has stated they sent out 700,000 warnings in the past two months through Webmaster Tools, so there’s a good chance you got one. And much like an audit letter from the IRS, Google doesn’t tell you specifically what is wrong. It’s up to you to research and fix it yourself.

All of a sudden, that somewhat shady blog network you hired two years ago – that promised you 10,000 links – doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Especially if they didn’t tell you where those links would come from. In some of the cases I’ve seen, it would cost more to hunt down the offending links than it would cost to just blow up the site and start over.

In addition, Google’s Matt Cutts recently said that the engine will soon be adding an “Over Optimization” penalty to its algorithm. What does that mean? I have no idea – and neither does anyone else who doesn’t work at Google, no matter what they tell you. I do know that whatever it means, I’m going to want to check my records and see what changes were made to a site by the SEO who came before me. Especially if he was your brother-in-law, an Eagle Scout and ranked number 1 in his class at MIT. I hear those guys are shady.

The bottom line, keeping a record of what you do is prudent for peace of mind and for SEO. At WrightIMC, we work hard to document what we do. We’re not perfect, but we constantly make improvements to ensure everyone is educated and coordinated. And, we write it down, because sometimes people forget what they did and think they did something else. Anyone who’s ever been married knows this to be true.

So, is Google’s documentation penalty real? Well, it can certainly be a penalty for those who haven’t documented efforts. Effectively, I think they have. Document your SEO. You’ll be glad you did.

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