Sudden Ranking Drop? Don’t Panic!

I originally published this article way back in 2006. I think it’s still pretty relevant today but have updated to take into account various changes in the SEO world since then.

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 or drop down several places. This is normal. Search engine rankings are dynamic by their very nature, so a certain degree of movement is expected. Up one day, down the next. But one day you check your rankings and you can’t find your site anywhere in the SERP (Search Engine Result Pages) for your targeted keywords.

Panic sets in!

Google ranking drop panicYou ask yourself “What have I done? Have I been banned?”

Unless you’ve done something silly like use deceptive optimization techniques, stuff that you know is risky, then the most likely cause is you’ve over-optimized. Luckily this can be easily fixed.

Login to your Google Webmaster Tools (Search Console) account. Don’t have a GWT account? You should. Do it now. Check for messages and check “Manual Actions” under “Search Traffic”. If you see “No manual webspam actions found” you can breathe a sigh of relief. You still have a problem, but what you have experienced is algorithmic in nature and can be fixed much more easily than if Google manually removed your site from their index.

If you have been removed, be prepared for a LOT of work. The only way out of that mess is to reverse the dodgy techniques you used before and ask to be reconsidered. Or buy a new domain and start over.

But let’s assume you’ve done nothing unethical and this came as a total shock. You are still indexed, just not ranking for keywords you usually rank well for. What’s happened is you’ve experienced an over-optimization penalty. In other words you’ve tried too hard, and Google have called you on it. Perhaps “penalty” is the wrong word. Let’s just say you’ve had a significant loss of rankings. What can you do?

Check your on-page content

First, have a look at the content on the page/s that have lost ranking. Do your targeted 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. Is the content a bit thin? Take the time to review the page and give it a refresh. Is it engaging your visitors? Is it tightly focused or does it go off on a tangent that would confuse visitors…and Google…on what the page is about? Check your meta titles and descriptions. Are they using SEO best practice?

Indexing issues

In your Search Console, go to “Index Status” under “Google Index”. Has there been a big drop in the number of pages indexed? Check “Sitemaps”, under “Crawl”. Have you submitted an XML sitemap? When was it processed? Are there errors or warnings? Obviously if a page ranked well for a particular keyword you will no longer rank well for that keyword if the page has fallen out of the index. If necessary, rebuild your sitemap and resubmit.

Check your internal links

Do lots of pages within your site link to other pages using the same targeted keywords in the link? This is known as an “anchor text” link…normally an effective optimization technique…but it can be overdone and have a negative effect. If so, try mixing up those anchor text links.

Review your external link profile

In your Search Console, go to “Links to Your Site” under “Search Traffic”. Then go to “How your data is linked”. This will give you a breakdown of the anchor text used. The crucial thing here is you should see a balanced mix of navigational and keyword links. If most of the anchor text contains the keywords you have lost ranking for, this could well be causing your problem. Is your brand name and URL near the top? Most naturally occurring links will contain either of these in the anchor. Google knows this…so a link profile that is missing those elements will appear unnatural. If the balance doesn’t look right take whatever action you can to address it.

Review your external links

If your overall link profile looks OK it’s time to have a closer look at the actual links pointing to your site. Where did they come from and how were they obtained? Mention the word “Penguin” to any SEO consultant and their mind will not be drawn to cute, flightless birds wearing a tux…but rather a Google algorithm update launched a few years back designed to reduce the ranking of sites using “webspam”…in Google-speak.  Essentially these are sites using techniques which do not comply with webmaster guidelines. If you have a whole bunch of links pointing to your site which do not meet Google’s quality guidelines, not only will these links fail to improve your ranking but they can now have a negative affect.

And that means…you need to get rid of them. Once you have identified these low quality links you need to contact the webmaster to have them removed. This won’t always be easy. In fact…a lot of dodgy webmasters will see an opportunity to make a buck and will actually want to charge you to remove them. Don’t play that game…

Google “Disavow” tool

If you have attempted to have low quality links removed but have been unsuccessful you can submit a list to Google and ask them to disavow the links. Use this tool with caution though…I’ve seen sites that were not subject to a penalty lose rankings significantly after submitting a disavow, based on a tool identifying most of the backlinks as low quality. So don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Only use disavow as a last report and only submit links which are clearly low quality and likely to be hurting you. You can always submit an updated list after you have judged the effect of submitting the original list.

Google “Panda” update

While the Penguin algorithm update was designed to tackle webspam, Panda’s objective was to lower ranking on low quality and “thin content” sites. Panda is more focused on your overall site quality than the ranking of individual pages, but a high number of low quality pages can affect all your pages. So as I mentioned at the top of this article…start with looking at the content of the pages which have lost ranking. But don’t stop there…beef up or remove those thin content pages.

Keep calm…take action…review

Above all don’t panic and make rash decisions. Sometimes your rankings will return after a day or two without you taking any action. It happens..and usually means some other temporary factor came into play. But if the situation doesn’t change…start putting your recovery plan into action. Take a measured, step-by-step response and you will see those rankings quickly return.

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