Updated: May 17, 2024.

All you need to know about Google’s site reputation abuse policy.

Google’s ongoing efforts to combat web spam and improve search quality have led to the introduction of the Site Reputation Abuse policy.

This policy primarily targets websites that host third-party content to manipulate search rankings by exploiting the host site’s authority, a practice commonly known as parasite SEO.

As Google begins enforcing this policy through manual actions and algorithmic updates, website owners and SEOs must understand what constitutes Site Reputation Abuse and take appropriate measures to protect their sites.

Google's Site Reputation Abuse Policy

What is Site Reputation Abuse?

Site Reputation Abuse occurs when a website hosts pages published by third parties with minimal oversight from the host site. The primary goal of these pages is to leverage the host site’s authority and manipulate search rankings. This third-party content often lacks value for users and is not directly related to the host site’s main theme. This is commonly known as parasite SEO.

Examples of Site Reputation Abuse

Google provides several examples of Site Reputation Abuse in its documentation on spam policies.

Site reputation abuse examples

Extending on the examples Google provides, and what we are seeing in the SEO industry, we can say the most prominent examples of Site Reputation Abuse include:

  • Coupon and promotional code pages created by third parties, unrelated to the host site’s central theme
  • Sponsored content promoting products or services not aligned with the host site’s niche
  • Gambling and betting pages on sites not primarily focused on these topics
  • Low-quality, thin affiliate content designed solely to drive traffic and generate commissions
  • Guest posts with irrelevant or spammy backlinks to unrelated websites
  • Injected content, such as payday loan pages on a university website, without the host site’s knowledge or oversight

Site Reputation Abuse policy timeline

Here’s a detailed timeline of the Site Reputation Abuse policy and its enforcement.

March 2024:

  • Google announces the Site Reputation Abuse policy as part of a broader set of spam policy updates.
  • Google provides a two-month grace period for website owners to review their sites and make necessary changes to comply with the new guidelines. That’s uncommon and new.
Google's announcement of Site Reputation Abuse

May 5, 2024:

  • The Site Reputation Abuse policy officially goes into effect.

May 6, 2024:

  • Google begins enforcing the Site Reputation Abuse policy through manual actions.
  • Manual actions seem to have affected many well-known publishers, including CNN, USA Today, LA Times, Fortune, Daily Mail, Outlook India, TimesUnion, PostandCourier, and SFGATE.
  • The manual actions primarily target specific subdomains or directories containing third-party content, such as coupon and promotional code pages.

May 7, 2024:

  • Google’s Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan, confirms on Twitter that the enforcement of the Site Reputation Abuse policy has begun.
  • Danny clarifies that Google is only issuing manual actions at this point and that the algorithmic component is not yet live.
  • Some publishers experience a more significant loss of visibility across their entire domain, indicating that the impact of Site Reputation Abuse can extend beyond the penalized section.

May 13, 2024:

  • Reports emerge that Google has begun lifting manual actions for some sites that have taken corrective action and are no longer violating the Site Reputation Abuse policy.
  • Sites that have successfully had manual actions lifted have typically removed or noindexed the offending content.
  • However, even after manual actions are lifted, the previously affected pages are unlikely to regain their rankings, as Google’s crawlers still need to process the changes and remove the noindexed pages from the search results.

Future (date unspecified):

  • Google has stated that algorithmic updates targeting Site Reputation Abuse are planned for the future.
  • These algorithmic updates will aim to demote websites that violate the Site Reputation Abuse policy, even if they have not been hit with a manual action.
  • Google has not disclosed the exact date for the rollout of these algorithmic updates.

Real-Life Examples of Site Reputation Abuse Policy Enforcement

Since Google began enforcing the Site Reputation Abuse, several high-profile cases have emerged, providing valuable insights into how the policy is applied and its impact on websites.

Here are a few real-life examples with more details.

CNN, USA Today, and LA Times

  • These well-known news publishers were among the first to be hit with manual actions for hosting coupon and promotional code pages on their sites.
  • The offending pages, often located on subdomains or in specific directories, disappeared from Google’s search rankings shortly after the policy enforcement began.
  • In the case of the LA Times, the coupon pages were part of a collaboration with a third-party provider, Savings United, which managed the content and relationships with brands.
  • This example highlights how even reputable news sites can fall victim to Site Reputation Abuse if they host third-party content that is not closely related to their main theme and is primarily designed to manipulate search rankings.

Forbes

  • Before the enforcement of the Site Reputation Abuse policy, Forbes had a coupon section on its website that was managed by a third-party provider.
  • Recognizing the potential risks associated with this content, Forbes proactively removed the coupon section from its site before Google began issuing manual actions.
  • This example demonstrates how some publishers took preemptive measures to avoid being penalized under the new policy, even if it meant forgoing the potential revenue generated by third-party content.

Outlook India, TimesUnion, and SFGate

  • These news and media websites were found to have “parasite” directories on their sites, which hosted third-party content that was not closely related to their main themes.
  • Google took manual action against these sites, deindexing and removing the offending directories from search results.
  • In the case of PostandCourier, another affected site, the publisher added a noindex tag to all pages within the “parasite” directory after being hit with a manual action.
  • These examples illustrate how the Site Reputation Abuse policy is being enforced across a wide range of publishers and content types, and how the consequences can be severe for sites that fail to address the issue promptly.

What is not considered Site Reputation Abuse?

Here are some examples of content that Google does not consider Site Reputation Abuse, along with some potential gray areas.

Below is the screenshot from Google’s documentation.

And here are more details and my insights on how these can potentially become gray areas.

Syndicated content

  • News publications featuring syndicated content from other reputable news sources are not considered Site Reputation Abuse, as the content is typically high-quality and relevant to the host site’s audience.
  • GRAY AREA: However, if a news site syndicates content from a source that is not reputable or is not relevant to its primary focus, it could potentially be seen as Site Reputation Abuse.

User-generated content

  • Websites that allow user-generated content, such as forums or comment sections, are generally not considered Site Reputation Abuse.
  • GRAY AREA: However, if a site fails to moderate user-generated content and allows spam, irrelevant, or low-quality content to proliferate, it could be perceived as a form of Site Reputation Abuse.

Genuine guest posts

  • Guest posts written by reputable authors, providing original and valuable content, and including relevant backlinks are not considered Site Reputation Abuse.
  • GRAY AREA: However, if a site accepts guest posts from low-quality or irrelevant sources, or if the guest posts contain excessive or irrelevant backlinks, it could be seen as a violation of the Site Reputation Abuse policy.

Affiliate content

  • Websites with affiliate links or sponsored content are not automatically engaging in Site Reputation Abuse, provided these relationships are clearly disclosed, and the content offers genuine value to users.
  • GRAY AREA: However, if a site features an excessive amount of affiliate content that is not relevant to the site’s primary focus, it could be perceived as Site Reputation Abuse.

Embedded ads or affiliate links

  • Simply embedding third-party ad units or including affiliate links within a page’s content is not considered Site Reputation Abuse, as long as these elements are not the page’s primary focus and do not significantly detract from the user experience.
  • GRAY AREA: However, if a page is overwhelmed with ads or affiliate links, or if these elements are not clearly distinguished from the main content, it could be seen as a violation of the Site Reputation Abuse policy.

The Blurry Lines Between Acceptable Content and Site Reputation Abuse

The lines between acceptable third-party content and content that could trigger a penalty can sometimes be blurry.

As Google continues to refine its algorithms and enforcement policies, the definition of Site Reputation Abuse may evolve.

To err on the side of caution, website owners and SEOs should carefully evaluate any third-party content on their sites and consider the following questions:

  1. Does this content provide genuine value to my target audience?
  2. Is this content closely related to my site’s main theme and purpose?
  3. Has this content undergone a thorough editorial review to ensure quality and compliance with Google’s guidelines?
  4. Are any commercial relationships, such as affiliate partnerships or sponsored content, clearly disclosed to users?
  5. Could search engines or users perceive this content as manipulative or spammy?

Site Reputation Abuse policy is not about linking

Google’s Danny Sullivan recently clarified this point, emphasizing that the Site Reputation Abuse policy is unrelated to linking practices.

This means that the links pointing to or from a website do not directly impact whether or not that site is considered to be engaging in Site Reputation Abuse.

Instead, the policy focuses on the content and whether it is being used to manipulate search rankings by exploiting the host site’s reputation and authority.

Site Reputation Abuse & SEO

Site Reputation Abuse is a critical issue for website owners and SEOs, as it can significantly impact a site’s search visibility and organic traffic.

Here are some key steps you can take

Conduct regular site audits

  • Regularly review your website for third-party content that could be considered Site Reputation Abuse.
  • Pay close attention to subdomains, directories, or pages that host content from external sources, especially if that content is not closely related to your site’s main theme or purpose.

Remove or noindex offending content

  • If you identify any pages that violate the Site Reputation Abuse policy, take immediate action to remove them from your site or add a noindex tag to prevent them from being indexed by search engines.
  • If you choose to noindex the pages, be aware that while they won’t appear in search results, search engine bots may still crawl them, and the association with your site may not be entirely eliminated.

Implement strict content guidelines

  • Develop and enforce strict guidelines for any third-party content published on your site, including guest posts, sponsored content, and user-generated content.
  • Ensure that all content meets high standards for quality, relevance, and originality, and that it aligns with your site’s main theme and target audience.
  • Regularly review and update these guidelines to stay current with Google’s policies and best practices.

Further reading on Google’s Site Reputation Abuse policy

I strongly recommend further reading on the topic. These are the best resources to check:

Olga Zarr is an SEO consultant with 10+ years of experience. She has been doing SEO for both the biggest brands in the world and small businesses. She has done 200+ SEO audits so far. Olga has completed SEO courses and degrees at universities, such as UC Davis, University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University. She also completed Moz Academy! And, of course, has Google certifications. She keeps learning SEO and loves it. Olga is also a Google Product Expert specializing in areas, such as Google Search and Google Webmasters.
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