GOOGLE PENALTY ALGORITHM CHANGE: DEALING WITH LOST TRAFFIC
There is nothing worse for a webmaster and website owner than to wake up one day and find Google Armageddon has taken out all of their site’s rankings and traffic. In almost all cases, mayhem ensues as they scramble around to try and figure out what happened or if they have run afoul of the mighty Google search engine in one way or another.
This framework should help you keep your head should the unthinkable happen. Sadly this topic really isn’t written about a lot, or discussed (go figure; peeps don’t want to public talk about a smackdown) so let’s get into some of the issues surrounding this particular, often poorly understood, phenomenon. We’ll also look at some preventative measures, just in case.
Have You Been Penalized?
Some of the basics first. We need to establish if it is truly a penalty. As much as it may be intuitive to some, one of the more common things we see are people that think they’ve been penalized in Google, when in truth it’s often not the case. So what masquerades as a Google penalty?
• Filters and dampening factors: Google may have changed how they’re treating your particular space. Be sure to always track not only your own rankings, but those of your competitors as well. Is there a shake up in the space? Or is it just you?
• Data center anomalies: The other obvious one is that rankings can vary depending on location. Be sure to have others check the rankings (from target market region) and cross reference Google referrer traffic in your analytics.
• Algorithm updates: Such as Panda, GooPLA and so on, (see below).
Remember, recent updates such as the Google Page Layout Algorithm, (GooPLA) are in fact not a penalty per se. It is more of a filter/dampening factor. You can’t go to Google Webmaster Tools reconsideration request form and say, “We removed the ads from our site, please put our rankings back”. Why? Because you weren’t penalized. It is an effect of the algorithm evolution. That’s an important distinction.
What Can You Get Penalized For?
If we now know the difference between algorithmic changes and penalties, what is a penalty? A few of the more known ones include;
• Link manipulation: Paid links, hidden, excessive reciprocal, shady links etc.
• Cloaking: Serving different content to users and Google.
• Malware: Serving nastiness from your site.
• Content: Spam/keyword stuffing, hidden text, duplication/scraping.
• Bad neighborhoods: Links, server, TLD.
• Doorway pages.
• Automated queries to Google: Tools on your site, probably a bad idea.
As you can start to see, this is not a Panda event. That’s an algorithm change. A penalty is
about breaking the guidelines more than anything. One place to also look around is the
Google Webmaster Guidelines.
Diagnosing a Google Penalty
This is usually the easy part. Most people notice that traffic and revenues have taken a nose dive. But that doesn’t really tell us if it is algorithmic or an actual penalty. The fastest way is to check if your site is in the index (use the [site:yourdomain.com] query). If it’s gone, then my friend, you are most certainly in hot water.
Sometimes though, it can be less obvious, on the page level. But that’s not as common. You can also check on brand searches (still getting those?) and exact match searches for page title’s that should be ranking. We have seen instances where a website was penalized but still ranked well for its brand.
The next question: are there any of the above punishable elements being used on your site? For most people this is usually the first one – link manipulations. You should also check Google Webmaster Tools to ensure you haven’t gotten an ‘unnatural linking’ notification. If you haven’t been active in ways that might get you in trouble from the list, it’s unlikely you’ve been penalized.
But not impossible. Another common aspect we see are sites that have been hacked. You should inspect your server. Inspect the logs. Even look at the query reports from Google Webmaster Tools, (for more read Hacking for SEO – important stuff).
The other obvious measurement tool is your analytics. When the traffic died was is it site-wide (losses in Google traffic)? Was it only on a page/keyword level? Once more though, first be sure that it’s a penalty, not an algorithmic change. There are two approaches to rectifying the situation.
At a Complete Loss?
In some more desperate situations we might also do a little deeper digging. The answers are usually much more obvious, but just in case, here’s a few other ways to research the issues.
• Spy On Web: Check for suspect sites on your server. In extreme cases they will actually consider nuking or dampening on this level if a given IP is infested.
• Email blacklists: Use tools like MX Toolbox to see if there are any events related to the domain.
• Malware: You can also use the safe browsing diagnostic tool to ensure there hasn’t been any malware detected recently on the domain.
At this point you should likely have a sense of where your problems lie. You should have identified if you actually have a penalty or not. If you believe you have been penalized… let’s look at what we can do to get it fixed.
How to Deal With a Google Penalty
Many instances Google will just re-crawl the site and place back if the offending content has been rectified (this is for algorithmic penalties).
The thing with that is, if you have an algorithmic penalty, Google would likely take no action from the reconsideration request, just allow the algorithm to do it’s job (re-crawl and remove the penalty). If you have all of these, you will be in much better shape should the day come that you have to deal with traffic/rankings losses. And if you’re bringing in outside help, these data points will be invaluable to the person doing the analysis.
And that’s the basics for you. Remember, there is always an answer, one just has to find it.
“Muddy water, let stand becomes clear.” – Lao Tzu
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