Manual Google Penalties VS. Algorithm Updates
Word on the SEO street is that Google is at it again. For what seems like the millionth time this year, they’ve updated their algorithm—and, as a result, a bunch of websites have seen their organic search rankings plummet. If your site was affected, the first thing you probably did was search something like, “Google algorithm update December 2012.”
Upon performing such a search, you were probably shocked at how little information has been published so far—by Google and the SEO community as a whole. With most of the previous Google algorithm updates, there were dozens of blog posts published each day—detailing everything from the characteristics common across penalized sites to strategies to recover rankings.
Maybe everyone has end of the year fatigue?
What We Know
Sometime between December 1st and the 18th, 2012, webmasters began communicating significant drops in non-branded organic traffic (not related to the holiday season or the weather). During the same time period, companies like Mozcast, SERP Metrics, and SERPS.com began announcing serious turbulence in the organic rankings.
Take a look at this:
Then, on December 21, 2012, Barry Schwartz announced on Search Engine Land that Google has rolled out a Panda update which could impact up to 1.3% of English search queries. So, it’s official, Google has updated their algorithm. If your website has been negatively impacted, this might be the cause. Then again, your site might also be suffering from a manual penalty.
Manual VS. Algorithmic Penalties
Not all Google penalties are created equal. According to Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, there are two different types of penalties—manual penalties and algorithmic penalties. The prescription for ranking and traffic recovery is specific to the type of penalty, so it’s important to understand which type you’re up against.
Characteristics and Signs of a Manual Penalty
Manual penalties typically occur when Google receives a spam report indicating that your website is in violation of some aspect of their quality guidelines. A manual penalty may also be issued as part of Google’s normal policing (Did you know that Google has an army of work-from-home humans that do nothing but perform web searches and evaluate the quality of the search results and websites in the index? They do!). According to Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, Google will tell you if your website has been manually penalized.
Recovering from a Manual Penalty
If you suspect your website has been manually penalized, the first thing you should do is get a complete audit of your website and your linkscape (this is really the first thing to do when faced with any type of website issue). Now, compare the results of your audit against Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. Before you submit a reconsideration request, you want to make sure you have identified (as best you can tell) the root-cause of the problem. From what we’ve heard and read, Google wants you to acknowledge the problem and communicate what you’ve done to fix it. Submitting a reconsideration request to Google before you’ve taken corrective action, is likely to fall on deaf ears.
Indications of an Algorithmic Penalty
An algorithmic penalty can occur any time your website trips one of Google’s filters. If your website suddenly drops in the organic rankings and you’ve made no changes, you want to search the web to see if Google has updated their algorithm. If your organic rankings have abruptly tanked and you have made changes to your site, review the changes and see if any fall into a category of what Google might consider to be web spam. Maybe you’ve hired an SEO firm to work on your behalf and the problem is related to work they’ve done? A lot of business owners really have no idea what their SEO firms do from month to month. If you fall into this category, you might want to invest in a tool that can track the changes made to your site from month to month. Here’s an example of such a software for the HVAC and plumbing industry.
Regaining Rankings After a Google Algorithm Update
Assuming you can identify the change you made that “tripped” Google’s filter, the first step toward recovery is to undo the changes that caused the problem. Let’s say you own a web design company. Recently, you updated the anchor text in the site-wide footer links on all your client websites—changing the text from your company name to a keyword. The following week, you notice that all your organic rankings for your most competitive target keyword phrases have dropped. It’s likely that the change you’ve made has tripped some aspect of Google’s link scheme detection formula. Your first move would be to reverse the change.
How long will it take before your rankings improve?
It’s difficult to say. Things should improve as soon as Google re-crawls your website, but we have heard your site can remain penalized until the next Google algorithm update/data refresh. Again, according to Sullivan and Search Engine Land, “Sites caught by these filters will feel like they’ve been assessed a penalty. But unlike with manual actions, filing a reconsideration request won’t help. The only appeal is to the algorithm. That means making changes and waiting for the next time one of the filters is updated, to see if the site is no longer caught.” (waiting until the next time one of the filters is updated… ouch; although, lately it seems as though there’s a data refresh once a month!)
Some Additional Tips from Matt Cutts
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About The Author: Ben Landers is the President and CEO of Blue Corona, a data-driven, inbound internet marketing company. Submit an inquiry to book Ben to speak at your next conference or event.
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