If you step outside of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, there’s a small chance that the so-called “black hat” search engine optimization (SEO) practices you decide to employ might help your law firm website gain visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs) in the short run. 

But Google is always on the lookout for sites that violate its guidelines and, if you (or a third-party SEO provider you hired) operate in black hat territory, you can bet that you will eventually be caught, and that your law firm website will likely suffer.

How Are Law Firm Websites Affected by Google Penalties?

Google says that it never intends to “punish” website owners who operate beyond the scope of its webmaster guidelines. Rather, the search engine claims that the intention behind penalizing such sites is to reward website owners who adhere to white hat SEO tactics (those that are within search engine webmaster guidelines).

Still, the result is the same — sites that don’t follow webmaster guidelines are eventually relegated toward the bottom of search results for failing to play by the rules, and sites that understand the guidelines and stick to them either maintain their positions on SERPs, or continue to rise in the rankings as black hat actors are demoted.

Google can implement search engine rankings penalties in two ways — either by instituting sweeping deranking of targeted black hat tactics via changes to its search algorithm, or by applying a penalty manually to a specific site or page that has been found to violate its guidelines.

As we mentioned in the latest release from our “Summer of SEO” eBook series, each type of penalty comes with its own set of expectations with respect to what it takes to pull your site back up in the rankings after you receive one.

We’ll look briefly at both in this post, though you can go more in depth on the topic by downloading our free eBook, titled “Playing the SEO Game to Win: All In on a Losing Hand.”

Manual Penalties

If your law firm website experiences a quick drop in Google’s organic rankings, there’s a chance that you may have been hit with a manual penalty for employing black hat tactics on behalf of your site.

It should be fairly easy to verify if this is the case, as the search engine will notify you of any manual action it takes against your site in your Google Search Console dashboard.

If your site has seen a drop in search engine visibility but there is no message from Google about it in your Search Console dashboard, it’s possible that your firm was penalized automatically via an algorithmic update (more on this later).

There are essentially ten reasons why Google might apply a manual penalty to your site. They include:

  1. Unnatural links pointing to your site
  2. Unnatural links coming from your site
  3. Providing thin content on your site
  4. Cloaking pages on your site or using “sneaky redirects”
  5. The presence of user-generated spam on your site
  6. The presence of hidden text or use of keyword stuffing
  7. It sees your site (or a portion of it) as pure spam
  8. Your site was hacked
  9. Your site contains spammy structured markup
  10. Your site is using a spammy freehost

You can explore each item in this list more deeply using the links provided above, or by downloading our new eBook.

For the purposes of this post, however, it’s enough to say that, following the application of a manual penalty to your site, each specific issue listed here requires its own approach to correct it. That includes:

  • Taking steps to rectify the problem directly;
  • Documenting how you managed to fix the issue; and
  • Submitting a Reconsideration Request to Google.


The request should also include an indication that you are taking steps to ensure that the problem doesn’t arise on your site again in the future.

SEO Tactics For Attorneys Playing the Game To Win: All In on a Losing Hand

Automatic/Algorithmic Penalties that Can Be Applied to Attorney Websites

If your site’s visibility on Google’s SERPs has dropped, but there is no indication in your Search Console that the drop was the result of a manual penalty, then it’s possible that your site was affected by an update to the search engine’s core algorithm.

Google updates its algorithm several hundred times a year, and it doesn’t always inform the public when it does so.

If your site does fall in the rankings following a Google algorithmic update, it can be more difficult to overcome than a penalty that was applied to your site manually.

This is largely because Google does not inform website owners when they have been affected by an automatic penalty, and those affected by automatic penalties are not given the opportunity to submit reconsideration requests to restore their visibility on SERPs.

Rather, determining why a site has slipped in the rankings falls on the website owners themselves in such circumstances, along with the labor required to repair the issue. There may not be an obvious course to correct the problem, however, if attorneys are not sure what guidelines the content on their site has violated, or if the cause of the problem was performed by a third-party SEO provider.

For more information on Google’s penalties and how to recover from them, as well as some examples of high-profile penalties Google has applied to major companies in the past, download your free copy of “Playing the SEO Game to Win: All In on a Losing Hand.”