The dreaded Google penalty. It can strike you out of the blue quickly, and is very unpleasant to deal with. In the face of plummeting web traffic, you have to pinpoint the cause and then take steps to recover. Often an unexpected algorithmic update is the culprit, especially if several occur in a row (we’re looking at you, October 2013). Fortunately, finding the source of the problem and fixing it is possible.
Here are the steps to take to diagnose the problem and resolve it.
1. Find Out if it’s a Manual or Algorithmic Penalty
Google penalties typically fall under on of these two different categories. Your first move should be to discover which category the penalty falls under so you can take the appropriate steps to fixing it.
The first type is the manual penalty. Manual penalties are usually easier to identify, because they are often accompanied by a message from Google within your Google Webmaster Tools account. Manual penalties happen when Google’s spam algorithm is flagged by something relating to your website, and Google decides to apply a manual penalty on your site’s rankings. This action can be against individual pages within your website, or can apply to every page on your domain. In severe cases, your entire domain may be removed entirely from Google’s index. The only way to respond to a manual penalty is via a reconsideration request, which Google must then approve before the penalty is revoked.
The second type is the algorithmic penalty. This type happens naturally as Google updates its algorithms. A small change – or series of changes – can create an automatic penalty that will cause your site to suddenly drop in search listings. Google Penguin and Panda are common culprits.
Algorithmic penalties are typically harder to detect, because they aren’t usually accompanied by any notification within Google Webmaster Tools. However, the severe drop in organic search traffic usually leaves no doubt about their presence.
So, it’s fairly easy to discover whether you have an algorithm or a manual penalty, as long as you have a Google Webmaster Tools account setup. Simply log in and check the “Manual Actions” section under “Search Traffic.”
If you have an algorithmic penalty, then you’ll need to determine whether it’s being caused by Google Panda or Penguin. In a nutshell, the difference between the two is that Panda targets elements on your website itself that hinder usability, while Penguin looks for unnatural inbound links to your website (ie, links that were paid for or built without editorial approval).
The easiest way to figure out which algorithm is affecting your website is to look at your analytics data. Drops in organic search traffic that correspond with known algorithm updates are a fairly clear indication of which algorithm is affecting you. For a complete list of algorithm updates and what days they fell on, see Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History.
2. Apply the Correct Antidote
Once you’ve identified which type of penalty you have, you can take the next steps to fixing the problem.
Manual penalties will include a message within Google Webmaster Tools that notifies you of what action was taken, and why. Often, manual penalties are a result of manipulative link building. In these cases, you need to remove as many links as possible, which often involves auditing your entire inbound link profile and contacting each of the webmasters that own the websites that link to yours, politely asking them to remove the link. Thereafter, a well-written reconsideration request needs to be filed.
Algorithmic penalties are a bit trickier because you’ll often have no indication as to what caused the penalty. This is where your detective skills come into play. Use your analytics data and compare it to the Moz algorithm change history. Using these tools, you should be able to determine whether the penalty was Panda-related or Penguin-related.
Once you’ve narrowed it down to which algorithm is causing the penalty, you can take appropriate action. If it’s Panda, then your site has usability issues. Too many ads on your page, not enough content, duplicate content, poor site speed, and poor navigation structure are common triggers for Panda.
Start by assessing the ads on your website; are there more than two per page? Are there too many above the fold? Next, assess your site’s content. How many pages of content are there? Is the blog updated frequently? Is the quality of the content great, or is it shallow? Is there duplicate content across your site’s pages, or plagiarized content from elsewhere on the Web?
Next, assess the speed of your website. Pingdom has an awesome and easy speed testing tool here. Website speed is often reliant on your hosting provider. (If your website is based on WordPress, then WordPress-specific hosting is ideal.) Finally, assess your site’s navigation structure. Is it user-friendly and logical? Or does the navigation clutter the interface?
For more help recovering from Google Panda, see “The Holy Grail of Panda Recovery – A 1-Year Case Study.”
Penguin penalties require link audits, removals, and disavows. For an overview of the steps to take to recover from Penguin, see “Penguin 2.0: Your Roadmap to Recovery.”
3. Design and Execute a New Gameplan
Link cleanup is frustrating, expensive, and time-consuming. It’s way easier to avoid a penalty than to recover from one. So, redesign your online marketing strategy going forward – it’s time to play by the new rules.
Old tactics that worked years ago are no longer viable (and clearly, can get you in trouble these days). Start with a solid content marketing strategy. A smart content strategy will take care of all the other aspects of SEO by attracting inbound links, providing fuel for your social media campaign, and becoming the engine that drives fresh, unique content on your website. For help building a content strategy, see “How to Evaluate and Overhaul Your SEO Strategy” and “7 Ways to Find What Your Target Audience Wants and Create Epic Content.”
Algorithmic and manual penalties are difficult to recover from, but it’s definitely possible. In many cases, you’ll need perseverance and patience; it’s not uncommon for reconsideration requests to be rejected several times before you finally get one granted. Ditch old SEO tactics that can get you in trouble, and start working on a strong content strategy. That, paired with a social media marketing initiative, will deliver the results you’re looking for, while keeping you safe from Google penalties.
Top Image from Shutterstock, screenshot of Webmaster Tools taken 1/19/2014.