Understanding Google’s Rich Snippets Penalties and How to Avoid Them

Peter Roesler, President - Web Marketing Pros

By Peter Roesler

President, Web Marketing Pros

Rap-Genius-black-hat-seoOne thing that surprises most people about SEO and Google, is that it’s easier to get a penalty than they imagined. Because of the excessive and deceptive use of simple tactics (e.g. link exchanges), Google has fine tuned their search algorithms to ferret out and punish cheaters. This is fast becoming the situation with rich snippets, the little pieces of meta information that are sometimes displayed on search results. Google recently began using a new manual penalty aimed at rich snippet scams. What is now a manual penalty will most likely become algorithmic in a future update. This sort of fine tuning is good for business owners because it means their rightful pagerank won’t be stolen by a site using sneaky practices. However, business owners need to be sure that they aren’t doing small things that Google may flag as suspicious, even if it’s completely legitimate or an unintentional error. This post will show internet marketers how to avoid Google penalties that stem from their rich snippets.

To understand the situation for business owners, it’s good to see the problem that Google is trying to fight. Rich snippets give information such as author, ratings, price range, reviews, etc., that can be shown on the search results page. Normally, Google pulls this information from a variety of sources, but some savvy, but dishonest, web developers started marking up their pages so that the rich snippet would say whatever they wanted it to. All they needed to do was just keep trying different markups to see which one would get accepted.

Though Google hasn’t changed the algorithm yet, the manual penalty shows they are aware of the practice and plans to do something about webmasters who use this tactic. Prior to this move, they reduced the amount of rich snippets shown in search results by 15 percent back in October as a spam reduction technique. There is also a Rich Snippet Spam Reporting Tool that people can use to report sites they suspect of abusing rich snippets.

“A rich snippet may be considered spam if it harms the user experience by highlighting falsified or misleading information,” writes Google on the instructions for the tool. “For example, a rich snippet promoting a travel package as an Event or displaying fabricated Reviews would be considered spam.”

The second example, involving fake reviews, is the easiest penalty to avoid because it just involves doing the right thing. But beside the obvious abuses, business owners need to make sure their internet marketing team is using rich snippets correctly. This is what is alluded to in the first example. A marketer could legitimately think of a travel package as an event of sorts, but to Google, it’s a product or service and an invalid use of rich snippets.

Marketers can also find themselves afoul of Google if they don’t use the proper snippet for what they have in mind. Google gives the example of music festival advertising their $10 ticket price in the event snippet. This is wrong because there is a specific snippet for tickets that should be used instead. There are also some small rules involving properties that must be observed. Google offers information about the possible properties and snippets on their site and in their webmaster tools.

Finally, the html and markup formats need to be clean and use proper web design tactics. In other words, any kind of coding trick that wouldn’t be allowed on a website shouldn’t be tried in the rich snippet. Some marketers have tried to include hidden text in the snippet. This is always a bad idea. This is one of things that Google mentioned in their messages to the people who the recent target of the manual penalty.

“Markup on some pages on this site appears to use techniques such as marking up content that is invisible to users, marking up irrelevant or misleading content, and/or other manipulative behavior that violates Google’s Rich Snippet Quality guidelines,” was sent in a message to the troubled sites.

Google’s effort to combat rich snippet fans are necessary to preserve the integrity of search results to and help people find the best businesses to fill their need. The crackdown shouldn’t worry most business owners so long as they follow the guidelines provided by Google and don’t engage in deceptive practices. Remember, that even if it seems possible to get away with a shady tactic for a while, Google and other search engines will catch on and punish those users. In the end, the movie title is right: if you “Do The Right Thing” with SEO and you almost never have anything to worry about from penalties.

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