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Don’t Get Penalized For Rich Snippet Spam

Last year, Google’s Penguin update sent many webmasters and SEO specialists scrambling to try to find a way to regain rankings that were lost and to figure out why.

While algorithmic changes like Penguin were a broad-based, universal shift, a more recent trend has seen Google issue penalties in the form of manual actions warnings for structured markup deemed as “spammy” (aka: “rich snippet spam”).

To understand how structured markup could be considered spammy, we must first take a look at what structured markup is and how we ultimately got to this point.

A History Lesson   

First, a little background on structured markup: structured markup and rich snippets have really become not only the talk of the online marketing world in the last year or so, but have become absolutely essential in the visibility and ultimately, the success of a website.

Structured markup like Schema.org, is code that’s written into a website’s existing code with special attributes that help search engines verify that what you say is on your website, really is.  These “attributes” are generally in the form of ratings, reviews, store hours, etc.  Search engines, like Google, read and consume this markup.  If they like what they see, then rich snippets can be awarded. These rich snippets are enhancements to the search engine result.  The structured markup is great for search engines, and rich snippets are great for the users.  They have been proven to work wonders from a marketing standpoint as internet users are more drawn to search results that feature additional information like previously-mentioned ratings, reviews, store hours, etc. on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Being awarded a rich snippet from Google means that the structured markup was implemented correctly and Google decided they want to use it.

Eventually, a few marketers and SEO professionals found ways to manipulate the system and began to implement markup that wasn’t genuine.  The most common examples included fake reviews, placing structured markup on webpages that didn’t actually match the specified product, and “hiding” markup within webpages.  As you’ll see, this is becoming a lot more difficult as Google has begun cracking down on these offenders.

Manual Action: a Warning

By now, everyone knows that if you have been awarded rich snippets, they can be taken away at any time (per Google), and now, more than ever, it seems that if you implement markup incorrectly that doesn’t follow Google’s strict guidelines, you run the risk of having your markup labeled as spam and you will never be awarded rich snippets with spammy markup.

Basically, this new manual action is identifying and penalizing sites that are marking up content in a manner that is misleading or disingenuous, in order to manipulate rich snippet creation and make their site appear more attractive/relevant to searchers on SERPs.  This could be the practice of marking up content that is invisible to users, or it could involve marking up things like fake reviews or unrelated content (Search Engine People, 2/5/14).

In Google’s eyes, this is a crude attempt by webmasters trying to find a loophole in the current algorithm, rather than focusing efforts on providing a valuable and honest search experience for users.

Interestingly, you don’t necessarily have to be a spammer or someone trying to game the rich snippet system to be penalized; you could make an honest mistake while trying to mark up your own pages and products and be warned by Google – it doesn’t matter to them.

“Manual Actions” warnings are issues/actions that are generated manually by a Google reviewer that require your attention.  The reviewer may suspect that you are employing unnatural or unethical practices that do not follow Google’s strict guidelines.  In this case, marking up your website.

The penalty notification from Google is a spam notification (viewable through Webmaster Tools) for “spammy structured markup,” and the warning reads as follows:

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.

Manual warnings (like spammy markup) are dished out because Google believes that you’re in violation of its terms of use but can’t identify that exact violation through the use of their algorithm.  Website owners first started to receive manual warnings when Penguin was released, and many didn’t understand that the warnings and Penguin weren’t one-in-the-same (Search Engine People, 1/14/14).

avoid schema.org semantic markup spam

What to Do?

The bottom line is that Google is constantly changing not only their algorithm(s), but the way they view potential spam. Always remember that your structured markup must match the information found on a specific webpage.  Also, you cannot hide your structured markup on a webpage. Any of these mistakes will result in Google penalizing you by denying rich snippets and possibly dropping your website’s ranking as well.

Considering that rich snippets are a somewhat new phenomenon, it’s best to practice “safe” markup practices that are in line with Google’s Rich Snippets Guidelines.  These rules are pretty black and white and should keep you and your site out of trouble.   Staying within the Guidelines is the best way to make sure that your site can take full advantage of structured markup and the end result: rich snippets.

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