Don’t Panic, Start the Recovery Process
A Google penalty can be rough – It’s the scenario every website operator fears: traffic and sales, previously healthy, suddenly drop off a cliff. After a quick look at the analytics, it becomes clear that Google has fallen out of love with your site, and is no longer sending you any traffic. You check your ranks, your site is languishing on page four or lower, and you realize you’ve somehow landed yourself a dreaded penalty.
What should you do? First of all, don’t panic, or at least not too much. Take a little time to put things in perspective. The situation is less than ideal, but it’s usually solvable – although it’s not going to come good on its own. Here’s how to start on the road towards restoring your traffic.
Is It a Manual Penalty?
The first thing to determine is whether you’ve been hit by a manual penalty or an automatic one. If you have a Google Webmaster Tools (Search Console) account linked to your site, then any manual penalty will be listed here, along with a brief indication of why your site attracted it.
Although a manual penalty is serious, as it means an actual Google employee has looked at your site and decided that it violates their quality guidelines, it doesn’t mean all hope is dead. In most cases, fixing the reason for the penalty and filing a reconsideration request will result in it being lifted – although the chances are you’ll struggle to regain all your rankings after removing your previously effective tactics.
Causes of Manual Penalties
Most manual penalties are fairly easy to understand, as they usually come down to borderline practices such as artificial link building or poor quality content, or simply outright spam. If you’re honest with yourself, you can probably recognize the root cause of the penalty, even if you consider it a harsh judgment, and can work on remedying the problem.
Artificial links can be removed if possible or added to the Google disavow system. Low-quality content can be improved or deleted entirely. Spammy techniques can be eliminated and repented of.
Once you’ve cleaned up to the best of your ability, submitting a reconsideration request detailing the actions you’ve taken can be enough to get the penalty lifted, given time. Including some form of apology and a promise to abide by the rules in future probably won’t hurt.
If you have no manual penalty message, then things get a whole lot murkier.
Algorithmic penalties are those which are automatically applied without any human intervention. They can be dramatic, with your site disappearing from view almost completely, or more subtle, where you simply drop a page or two on most of your terms.
In the first case, the chances are you’ve been badly hit by one of the major updates that Google rolls out from time to time, usually under deceptively cute and friendly names such as Panda or Penguin. If you think you’ve been caught up in one of these, determine exactly when your traffic took the hit, and then visit some of the major webmaster forums and blogs to see if anything was reported around the same time. If many other people experienced similar disasters, then you can probably isolate the issue to some extent, and begin considering how to rectify it.
After a major event, there will likely be a lot of speculation and misinformation flying around on forums, blogs, and social media, but if a consensus begins to emerge you’ll have something to work with.
If, however, you seem to be suffering alone, it’s more likely you’ve tripped a filter that has caused the lost rankings. Some don’t consider this to be a penalty at all, just a case of not ranking as well as you once did, but that’s something of a moot point. The result is the same – decimated traffic.
Possible Legacy Issues
The only thing you can do in this situation is go over your site and its link profile with a fine tooth comb. You may have been affected by an algorithm tweak whereby questionable factors from the past, having previously flown under the radar, are now enough to tip your profile over the edge and trigger the penalty.
These factors aren’t necessarily obvious spam, as the definition of what Google finds acceptable has changed frequently over the years, so you need to acquaint yourself with the current quality guidelines and see if any legacy issues transgress them.
If you’ve been putting off addressing any possible issues because you’ve sailed through previous updates, now’s the time to get to work. Clean up any dubious links you can find, either through removal or disavowal. Review your site’s content to see if it’s as high quality as it could be – and cast aside any rose-tinted glasses before doing this. Also give your site’s technical aspects a thorough audit to rule out any glitches caused by poor coding or other easily fixable problems.
You’ll need to get methodical and accept that you’re probably in it for the long haul if you want to recover your site’s fortunes. If you’re working for a client or an employer, be honest with them about what you think has happened, and what you plan to do to rectify the situation – if the penalty is severe, people need to have realistic expectations over how long it may last.
Call In the Cavalry?
Finally, consider hiring professional help from someone with a track record in having penalties lifted, whether manual ones or automatic. It may cost a little, but faced with the prospect of your site being in limbo for an extended period, you’ll probably find it a price worth paying.