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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Sudden Ranking Drop? Don't Panic!

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling when you discover that the Google rankings you worked so hard for suddenly plummet? You might be used to seeing your rankings move up and down several places. This is normal. Search engine rankings are dynamic by their very nature, so a certain degree of movement is normal and expected. Up one day, down the next. But one day you wake up to find that you can't find your site anywhere for your targeted keywords.

Panic sets in!

You ask yourself "What have I done? Have I been banned?"

Unless you've done something silly like use deceptive optmisation techniques, stuff that you know is risky, then the most likely cause is you've over-optimised. Luckily this can be easily fixed. If, however, your PageRank has gone to zero (where you had PR before) and a search for site:www.yoursite.com on Google returns no results, then it's likely you've been removed from the index, and you probably already know why. The only way out of that mess is to reverse the dodgy techniques you used before and be prepared for a lot of groveling. Or buy a new domain and start over.

But let's assume you've done nothing unethical and this came as a total shock. The site: command confirms that you are still indexed, just not ranking for keywords you usually rank well for. What's happened is you've experienced an over-optimisation penalty. In other words you've tried too hard, and Google have called you on it. The simple solution is to de-optimise.

First, check the keyword density on your page. Do your keywords appear more often than would appear natural? If so, reduce the number and/or substitute similar or related keywords. In other words if you are targeting "website design software", replace a few instances of your keywords with "HTML editor" or something similar.

Next, check your internal links. Do lots of pages within your site link back to the homepage with your targeted keywords in the link? This is normally an effective optimisation technique, but it can be overdone. Same story for anchor text in external, in-bound links. If those keywords are contained in too many links you'll be penalised on those keywords. Why? To Google, this appears un-natural. When other sites link to you it is normal and expected that they will do so in a variety of ways. Sometimes they'll link to you using just your URL as the anchor text. If all the inbound links look the same this sets the alarm bells ringing and Google figure you are attempting to manipulate results.

So, for the inbound links that you have control over (which won't be all of them), change the anchor text to different, but related keywords. Or, build some new links which don't contain your targeted keywords at all.

When I've experienced this over-optimisation penalty, by just making a few changes and de-optimising, those rankings will return, often as quickly as the next day.

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