A few times a year, every year, I receive a panicked “What should I do?” email.
The emails read something like this…
“We used to be position three for our main keyphrase. Now, we’ve dropped to the second page. Our other keyphrases aren’t positioning as well as they had been, either. I think Google penalized our site and now we’re losing leads every day…”
I totally understand why someone would freak out about lost positions. Hey, even I get cranky when I see the occasional dip. For many sites, losing positions directly translates into lost revenue — so seeing a positions drop can mean an income drop, as well.
But, is that drop because Google is out to get the site, and the powers-that-be slapped them with a manual penalty?
Or, is it a normal algorithmic fluctuation — meaning other sites are now positioning because Google “decided” those other sites deserve a top position?
Let’s break this down…
Just because your positions have dropped (even severely) doesn’t mean that your site has been “penalized” by Google.
Kristine Schachinger, in a recent Search Engine Journal article, clearly defines what a penalty is…and isn’t. Her quote:
“The only true penalty (officially) is a “manual action” from Google.
A manual action is when a Google human reviewer has looked at your website and dampened your visibility in the search engine result pages (SERPs) for violating the Webmaster Quality Guidelines in some manner.”
If your site (or your client’s site) wasn’t hiding text, participating in link schemes, or doing other things on Google’s bad list, it’s probably not a manual penalty.
Which is good news — and bad news.
The good news is, you haven’t annoyed Big G, causing them to slap you with a manual penalty.
The bad news is, it means that Google finds other sites more relevant for your desired keyphrases. It’s called “algorithmic devaluation.”
That’s like hearing your baby is ugly.
Sometimes, getting positions back is easy. It means looking at your existing content and determining how to add more value. I’ve tweaked some pages that had dropped in position, and they bounced right back up.
Sometimes, the process is much harder. Getting those positions back may require you to change your content, to tweak some technical aspects, and to revise your existing process. This can take a long time and may require multiple experts.
Especially if Google changed the game and you were hit with a big algorithmic update (for instance, health and medical sites got hit this year.)
Fortunately, in cases like this, we have Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines to help us understand what Google considers high-authority content. Yes, it’s a long, boring document — but it provides so much insight.
I’d recommend reading it, even if your site isn’t in trouble. It’s a great way to peek inside Google’s brain and to figure out what it really wants.
How can you tell if you were hit be a penalty — or an algorithmic burp?
This one is easy. You won’t have to guess — in fact, Google tells you when you’ve been bad (assuming you have Search Console set up on your site.)
This is valuable for an older site that may have had multiple SEOs providing “expert” advice. A site owner may not know that a past employee set up a spammy link campaign — or pages with hidden text. Fortunately, Google will pinpoint the issue, provide helpful resources, and give you the opportunity to make it right.
Once you’ve made the necessary fixes, you can submit your site for a reconsideration request. Google will either determine that you’ve changed your spammy ways and will remove the penalty (yay,) — or it will let you know there’s more work to do.
You’ll know either way.
What do you think?
Have you heard, “Google keeps penalizing me”? Is Search Console set up on your site — or your client’s sites? (If not, this resource will help.) Leave your comment below!