Let’s be honest for a second, you’re here because either you or your company engaged in some shady marketing practices in the past in order to game the system and rank higher in Google. If that offends you, I’m sorry, but you don’t get hit with an algorithm penalty unless you’ve done something to deserve it.
Look, I get it. Ranking #1 for your target keywords is worth its weight in gold (and an amazing feather in the SEO cap) and sometimes the brass doesn’t care how things get done as long as they get done.
However you got here, you’re here now and your website’s performance is being tanked because of those poor SEO practices. Lucky for you that it is 100% possible to recover from an algorithm penalty, but I’ll be honest with you, it isn’t going to be easy and it won’t be fast.
Identifying the Penalty
We’ve previously outlined how to figure out whether or not you’re affected by an algorithmic penalty, but the short version is that you’re seeing an anomalous drop in Google organic traffic that has evened out at a lower level and is accompanied by a drop in SERP rankings.
One thing to keep in mind is that 1-2 weeks with atypical traffic / rankings is not indicative of an algorithm filter or penalty.
This is what an algorithm penalty looks like.
For an algorithm update to be responsible, you have to be getting consistently, and significantly, less traffic than your normal cycle, your rankings have dropped off sharply, and the previous two can be traced back to a specific time frame. The caveat to this is that you have to be monitoring your traffic and rankings. If you’re not, you need to. Set up Google Analytics, Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools), and Moz Pro.
Fair warning, Moz Pro is a paid subscription and the lowest tier is $99 / month, but if you care about your website having a solid online presence (and you should), it’s money well spent. Honestly, it’s the one SEO service we can’t live without. The tools and information it provides is downright amazing.
Find Out Which Algorithm is Responsible
Even though Google has become more vocal than they have been in the past about when they push a new algorithm live or refresh an existing one, if you aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing, you’re going to find out the hard way after the damage has been done. Your traffic, leads, phone calls, and / or revenue starts shrinking and there will be no clear reason as to why. Like we said previously, this is where it pays off to be regularly checking Analytics to track your data as the more data you have, the easier it is to zero in on exactly when your website’s traffic dropped off.
Once you’ve identified your website’s Day 0, it’s quite easy to correlate with any news of an algorithm update. Personally, I’m a big fan of Moz’s Algorithm Change History page as it’s organized chronologically, but you can also check out Search Engine Land’s articles on algo updates and Rank Ranger as well. If your traffic / rankings change is caused by an algorithm change, it’ll be listed there.
Realistically, if you’re peeking in on your Analytics / SERP rankings on a regular basis, you’ll see the changes immediately and know that they are atypical. However, you’ll still have to be patient to wait and see how things shake out in order to guarantee that an algorithm is responsible and not a bug to do with your analytics code, a site outage, or some other data outage.
Fix the Problem
Once you know the cause of your traffic hit, you have a literal road map on how to fix it. Google has been super transparent on what each of their algorithms hope to achieve which has made our job as SEOs both easier and harder depending on which side of the white hat / black hat line you fall on. There are really only two algorithms that are going to have a major affect on your inbound organic traffic and they are Panda & Penguin.
If there was a Panda refresh on / near the date, your website has been penalized for having thin or / and duplicate content. This can be anything from having to many information pages with little to no content (i.e. short blogs, service pages, etc.) to having duplicate copies of your site being crawled by Google. Every site is different, but the most common issues we run into are sites that have multiple pages on the same topic with almost identical content, extensive doorway pages, and duplicate copies of the site being live and indexed by Google.
If there was a Penguin refresh on / near the date, you’ve been penalized for having an unnatural link profile. There are only two ways to be penalized by Penguin; 1) you engaged in shady link building practices that are now biting you in the ass, or 2) you’re being hit by a negative SEO attack. In either case, the fix is the same and that’s the Link Disavow Tool which lets you tell Google to ignore inbound links coming from a domain / specific URL.
Two quick warnings. 1) The Disavow Tool, while simple, can have devastating effects on your site if you don’t know what you’re doing (contact a professional, seriously) and 2) uploading the file will not have immediate results. Recovering from Penguin takes a lot of time and some site’s are often better off by starting fresh depending on how extensive the damage is. Some websites won’t see a blip of improvement until Penguin is refreshed and there’s no set schedule for that.
Keep an Eye on Your Analytics
After you’ve implemented your fixes, all you can really do is keep a watchful eye on your organic traffic. You can resubmit your sitemap to get Google to re-crawl your website or you can file a reconsideration request in hopes of getting back on Google’s good side, but the only thing that’s guaranteed to work is patience. Some websites see their changes within a month while others have to wait over a year. Be patient, follow white-hat practices, and stay the course.
Like we said, you don’t get hit with an algo filter unless you’ve done something to deserve it. Now that you’ve fixed the problem, don’t fall back into bad habits. Stop taking shortcuts. Old tactics that worked 5+ years ago are no longer viable so stop trying to game the system. They’re what got you into hot water in the first place and trying to make them happen is only going to put you back where you were at the beginning of this mess.