Top five tips for spotting a Google penalty

I have been toying with the idea of doing a set of decent basic SEO tips for some time and I’m finally going to take time to write a series of top five tips. These aren’t advanced techniques by any stretch of the imagination, but some basic ideas to help folks with their own small site and are looking for some help with their search engine optimisation. Ultimately more advanced techniques and analysis should be carried out by a professional search engine optimiser, particularly on larger sites and/or more complicated tasks.

So here comes the first instalment, Google penalties. I’m personally of the opinion that Google should (and will eventually have to) notify web masters when a penalty has been applied to their site. As we stand currently only very obvious penalties are easy to spot; if you have ranked well for a keyword for years and the day after a major Google update your site dropped to 56th there stands a very good chance you’ve given the good people at mountain view “the hump”.

Aside from that particular situation it can be really tricky to definitively conclude that a penalty has been applied and from there an absolute minefield trying to conclude what the penalty was for, let alone how to undo it. Aside from the information below the one thing I would definitely suggest you do is keep a record of what dates any changes happen and what keyword(s) were effected. Having this information could prove invaluable to your (or anybody else’s) investigation further down the line, and being able to match up your penalty to a certain Google update could provide the key to being able to diagnose and undo your problem.

Here are my top five tips for spotting a Google penalty:

1. Your site is not listed on Google

Pretty obvious this one. Firstly, this obviously doesn’t count if you’ve just launched a brand new site because it takes time to get your new site submitted, crawled and indexed. If your site has previously been listed and everything has dropped out you have a serious problem. I’m going to write a separate top five covering the best course of action for various penalties but in the first instance check your robots.txt, nofollow tags and webmaster tools to check for any problems in the first instance.

2. All your search results have dropped

Google’s more recent updates (most notably Panda) have effected the authority and by consequence the search positions of the entire site as opposed to single pages or keywords. This means you will see your SERPS drop over your entire site and can be associated with the quality of sites linking in to yours or the quality and quantity of outbound links on your site.

Web 2.0 became synonymous with user generated content (UGC) and many website owners encouraged visitors to write comments, articles, reviews and many other forms of content. Unfortunately there were a multitude of shady SEO “experts” waiting to use these to build links, however poor the quality. For some time Google desperately needed to deal with “comment spam” and other poor quality links, and did so by penalising websites with large volumes of off topic outbound links. I’ve seen countless websites effected by this but seldom anybody who actually deserved it, often people are innocent victims of ruthless link builders and they are paying a heavy price for what others have done (hence why I think Google need to provide notifications).

3. You’ve taken a big drop for your main keyword or brand

If you’ve found yourself taking a drop for a single keyword it may be a case of an over optimisation penalty (OOP). This tends to happen when you have far too many inbound links to a single page or for a single keyword (perhaps you hired the link builders from point two). This situation highlights the risks of hiring cheap SEO “experts” who have absolutely no qualms in doing untold damage to your brand, domain and search positions by using black hat and more risky techniques that may even get quick short term results, but can end in disaster.

4. Your site links have disappeared

If you have enough authority in your domain you will see a set of links to your most popular pages in the SERPS when searching on your brand or domain, these are called site links. Google calculates these in a number of ways but a large part is which pages have most links. When there has been a large change in the ranking of pages you may see a large change in site links and that can be a good indication of an underlying problem.

5. Being outranked by newer sites with fewer links

If you have previously been top for searches on your brand or domain and you suddenly are being out ranked you may have a problem. Check some of the more obvious ranking metrics such as domain age, links, page rank etc and if your site out performs your competitors in the majority of these metrics then once again there may be good reason for concern. This situation is far more relevant if you are starting work on a site with history where you may be trying to diagnose a site that is under performing.

Hopefully these basic tips can help you if you’re at a loss as to why your site is under performing. If you suspect you have a penalty and need help why not drop me a line via my contact page and I’ll be more than happy to get in touch for an informal chat.

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