If you’ve ever opened your website analytics account and found a significant and surprising drop in search engine referral traffic, you know just how devastating a search engine penalty can be.
But don’t panic! Not all search engine penalties are permanent, and with a little detective work and remedial action, you should be able to restore your previous rankings and rebuild the flow of organic traffic to your site.
Here’s how to do it…
Step #1 – Check Google Webmaster Tools
Immediately after noticing a potential search engine penalty, the first thing you should do is check your Google Webmaster Tools account (assuming you have this service set up for your website). In many cases, when an automatic or manual penalty is issued to your website, it will be accompanied by a corresponding note posted in your Webmaster Tools account, detailing the specific rationale behind the penalty.
Interestingly enough, according to Barry Schwartz, writing for Search Engine Land:
“Google has sent over 700,000 messages to webmasters via Google Webmaster Tools in January and February 2012. That is more than the total number of messages Google sent in 2011 and almost more than what Google has sent since launching Google Webmaster Tools message center.”
While this is certainly a scary prospect for webmasters who fear receiving one of Google’s “Notices of Death,” it is somewhat reassuring to know that you’ll at least be informed if a penalty is assessed to your site.
Step #2 – Check SEO News Sites for Recent Updates
Of course, these notices are often only issued when Google applies a specific, known penalty to a website based on a set of defined criteria. But what happens when it’s simply changes to the search engine ranking algorithms that have affected your site traffic?
Indeed, there have been plenty of cases where sites received “penalties” that weren’t really penalties at all – they were simply lost rankings due to a reprioritization of the algorithms. For example, in the case of the Panda 1.0 update, thousands of sites lost rank overnight, resulting in a significant, widespread traffic loss for many industry-leading sites. Although Panda didn’t technically qualify as a penalty, per se, the results that many webmasters experienced were similar.
To see if an algorithm change is to blame for your diminished search results, check out your favorite SEO news sites for information about potential rollouts. Often, whenever major changes are made to the search results ranking algorithms, webmasters gather together on sites like Search Engine Roundtable and Digital Point to discuss the impact of the updates.
Step #3 – Determine the Extent of the Penalty
At the same time that you’re combing your Google Webmaster Tools account and your favorite SEO news websites for information about what led to your search engine penalty, take the time to determine the extent of its impact as well.
There are a few things you’ll want to check:
- Is your site still indexed? Perhaps the biggest penalty of all is to have your website removed from Google’s index entirely, though this drastic measure is typically only applied in the most serious of cases. To check whether or not your site is still indexed, enter “site:http://www.yoursite.com” (without the quotes) into Google’s search bar. If no results appear, it’s possible your site has been deindexed.
- Have you recently started a new link building campaign? Often, when you start promoting your site through link building, your rankings can be caught up in what’s known as the “Google Dance.” In these cases, the search engine is attempting to reevaluate where your site should rank, so it’s not uncommon to see your natural search rankings vary wildly for a few weeks before settling down into their rightful place.
- How old is your website? Though Google has never officially confirmed it, there’s a widespread acceptance throughout the SEO community of the presence of a “sand box” filter that issues a dampening effect to the rankings of young sites (typically 2-6 months old). If your website falls in this age range, it’s not uncommon to see it enter the SERPs and then fall out before it’s deemed trustworthy enough to reenter the results pages.
- To what extent has your traffic or rankings changed? Are you seeing a decrease in rankings for all of your target keywords or just a few? Has your traffic declined significantly or have you only lost volume slightly? Determining the extent of your search engine penalty will tell you whether you’ve been hit with a site-wide penalty or total ban (in which case all traffic would be affected) or a smaller penalty affecting a single keyword.
One situation that’s often incorrectly regarded as a search engine penalty is the devaluation of some or all of your site’s backlinks, which would typically only affect traffic to a single keyword you’re targeting. Essentially, what happens is that your site is enjoying unnaturally high rankings as the result of poor quality backlinks. When the search engines devalue these links – as is the case with the many webmasters who lost rank after Google deindexed several of the most popular blog networks – your rankings plummet, though not as the result of a specifically applied penalty.
Step #4 – Review Your Site Against Search Engine TOS
Now, no matter what the size or scope of your search engine penalty, you’ll want to review your website and your backlinking practices against the Terms of Service (TOS) issued by the search engines.
For reference, the following are the locations of Google, Bing and Yahoo’s TOS statements:
In addition, take a look at Google engineer Amit Singhal’s list 23 questions that highlight the characteristics Google is looking to reward in the SERPs. Check your site and your promotional practices against these guidelines- as well as against the search engine TOS policies listed above – and highlight any areas you believe may be bringing down your site’s rankings.
As an example, considering the following five questions, as pulled directly from Singhal’s list:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
Now, take a look at your website in relation to these questions, trying to be as objective as possible. Can you really say for sure that – based on your site’s external appearance and content quality – you’d be comfortable handing over financial information or labeling your articles as “expert-level content”? If not, attempt to remedy these flaws by building trust with your user and positioning yourself better as an authority figure within your industry.
Step #5 – Take Corrective Action
If you’ve highlighted any areas of weakness within your site or your chosen link building methods, rectify them as quickly as you’re able to and then follow Google’s rules for requesting a reconsideration of your site. While it may take time to introduce high quality content to your site or to delete low quality backlinks you believe may be harming your natural search results placements, this effort will pay off in the long run, as Google aims to reward sites that provide the best results for their readers.
Keep in mind, though, that what initially looks like a penalty may not – in fact – be a true penalty, and that the corrective action you may need to take in these instances is less about fixing past mistakes and more about improving your own site’s SEO according to current best practices. The SEO field is becoming more and more competitive each day, so it’s possible that the “penalty” you’re struggling to get over is actually a better educated competitor surpassing you in the rankings.
Do your best to stay on top of the latest SEO news and apply the lessons you learned to your website. Over time, you should see the results of these efforts rewarded with higher search engine results page rankings and more natural search traffic being directed to your site.
Image Credit Ben Haslam / Haslam Photography via Shutterstock