Do You Recognise The Warning Signs Of A Google Penalty?

- Posted by Seb Atkinson in

Has your site dropped out of the rankings in Google completely? Or have some of your keywords mysteriously vanished from the top 50 while others remain at page one? Have you received a message in Google Webmaster Tools warning you of a manual action? All these are warning signs of a Google penalty. But what should you do next, and how do you verify that it is in fact a Google penalty? In this article we will look at some simple ways you can diagnose a penalty and some actions you need to take to get your site ranking again.

Make Sure Your Site Is Up And Running

The first thing to do if you suspect your website has been hit with a Google penalty is to rule out all other possible scenarios. There are several other reasons why your website may suddenly drop out of the rankings.

Start by logging into your Google Webmaster Tools account. If you don’t have one yet, now’s the time to set one up! Once you’re in, go to ‘site messages’. If you’ve had a manual penalty applied to your site, you should have a message here letting you know. If there’s no message, then you have have received an algorithmic penalty.

The next thing to do is to check your Google Analytics tracking code is working properly. The easiest way to do this is to check the real time reports section of Analytics, and open up your site in a new tab. Your activity on the site should register in real time in Analytics, provided you haven’t filtered your IP address out Analytics. For more information on how to do this, try this post by Daniel Waisburg.

Next, check your website’s robots.txt file hasn’t accidentally blocked your whole site. This is possible by adding a noindex tag to the homepage or by adding a rel=canonical tag on every page pointing to the home page. Your best bet here is to use this handy tool by Frobee.

Finally, be sure that it’s not just a seasonal flux in traffic! Many industries see huge traffic changes depending on the season. Retail obviously sees higher traffic in the run up to christmas or your business may be season dependent for example selling winter or summer holidays. Even if you sell to other businesses, don’t think your exempt from from seasonal trends for example some businesses will decide to withhold purchases until the next tax year. The best way to rule out seasonal trends is by comparing your traffic to the previous year’s traffic.

Use a year-on-year comparison to check for seasonal traffic trends

Look For Patterns In Your Drop

Chances are, you became suspicious of a Google penalty due to a drop in rankings. At this stage you should be checking your rankings to see whether a penalty was applied to your entire site or if it just affected certain pages.

Using your rank tracking software, check the rankings of all your keywords and record them in a spreadsheet, along with the URL of the page that is ranking for that keyword. After you’ve added all your keywords, rankings and URLs, you may start to see some patterns. Either you’ll see a drop in rankings for all your keywords, indicating a site wide penalty, or only certain pages will be affected.

The next thing you can do is run your site through the Panguin tool by Barracuda Digital. This clever tool overlays your website’s organic traffic over known dates of Google algorithm updates. This can help you get some indication of what your site was hit with, and why.

Every so often, Google releases a new Penguin algorithm, which adjusts rankings depending on external links pointing to the site. If your drop in traffic came after a Penguin update, you can be fairly sure that your backlinks were to blame.

Check For Low Quality Backlinks

The next step is to check your backlinks to see if they are the cause. Fortunately, using some free tools it is easy to get an overview of the quality of your links with ease.

The first thing you can do is run your site through Majestic SEO and get a quick overview of the quality of the backlinks pointing to your site. Majestic SEO use two metrics to measure the quality of links: Trust Flow and Citation Flow. When you run a site through Majestic SEO, you’ll see a graph showing the Trust Flow and Citation Flow of your links. If your links are high quality, the graph should look something like this:

On the other hand, if you have a low number of quality links pointing to your site, the graph may look more like this:

For a detailed explanation of using Majestic SEO to check the quality of your links, click here.

Another useful tool to help you check the quality of your links is Ahrefs, which offers a similar service as Majestic. Ahrefs includes a graph showing links over time, giving you an overview of what link building activity has happened over time. If you have the date that your rankings first dropped, you can see whether this correlates with the creation of a low quality link.

Another useful tool is the anchors cloud in Ahrefs. This shows the percentages of different anchor text used to link to your content. Generally, you’d want to see a wide range of different anchor text, as well as a high percentage of branded anchor text, like this:

If your penalty was applied to just one page, you can put that into Ahrefs to get the anchor cloud and backlinks for just that page, helping you to isolate the problem area of your site.

The next thing to do is to check your backlinks in Webmaster Tools. This tool by Google shows you exactly what links Google has picked up on. To check your links, login to Webmaster Tools, click on ‘search traffic’ then ‘links to your site’ in the left hand nav bar. You’ll then be able to see which sites are linking to you.

When looking through your links, your aim should be to look for any low quality links, like spammy looking sites or web directories. Usually it isn’t too hard to find dodgy looking sites - look for anything with ‘seo’ the domain or any low quality looking web directories that look like their sole purpose is to provide a link to your site.

When going through your links it is also a good idea to check any old SEO reports or link building activity that has happened in the past. If you or a previous SEO company have ever purchased links then your site could be at risk of a penalty. If you are suspicious of any links, it’s best to get these checked by an SEO company offering a penalty recovery service.

Begin Your Google Penalty Recovery

If after going through the above steps you are sure your site has been hit with a penalty, whether algorithmic or manual, there are several things you need to do to get this resolved.

First, speak to an SEO company to help you identify which backlinks have caused your ranking drop. These will need to be removed if possible, or disavowed so Google no longer takes them into account when ranking your site. If you received a manual penalty, you’ll need to submit a report detailing everything you have done to clean up your site, and offer acceptable assurance that you won’t continue to use bad link building practices.

Second, this is a good opportunity to review your website content. While the Penguin algorithm is rolled out incrementally, it is relatively easy to tell if you have been hit by it. Google’s other well known algorithm dealing with spam is the Panda algorithm, which helps to determine rankings based on your onsite content. Panda is now baked into the main Google algorithm, meaning it is harder to detect.

Take this opportunity to review your website. Does it offer value to your users? Do you have a blog with useful content that other webmasters will want to link to? Is the website easy to use? Is the site slow, or does it have a bad design? Creating a quality website with useful, valuable information will make it much easier to recover your site in Google’s rankings.

Next, you will need to review your link building strategy. Removing your spammy or paid links is not enough to recover your traffic to pre-penalty levels. As Marie Haynes reports, lifting the penalty is only the start. In many cases, the exact links that caused your penalty were also the ones that helped you rank for your keywords in the first place. This means that your next step after receiving a penalty is to plan a new link building strategy to replace your old links with new, less risky ones. Only then can you recover your site’s traffic.

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Seb Atkinson
Seb Atkinson

Seb is the head of Social Search at Square Social. Seb has a wealth of experience across social media marketing, content marketing and search engine optimisation. Seb has helped SMEs, startups and large corporate clients achieve their online marketing goals.