One of the most dreaded scenarios in SEO is to wake up one day and discover a catastrophic crash in your site’s search engine results page (SERP) rankings. If the site is an important business channel, the resulting decrease in organic traffic may even lead to a decrease in conversions, which could have negative implications for the survival of the business.
This scenario is something all experienced SEO professionals experience at least a few in the course of their careers. If you’re a black hat SEO, you probably experience this every other month. In most cases, drops in site performance are linked to either a failure to update content or sweeping changes to the site. But what if neither of these applies?
Barring the previously mentioned scenarios, dramatic dips in site performance can usually be attributed to three possible causes:
- Google Penalties
- Google Core Algorithm Updates
- Filters on Your Site
Each of these potential causes has different triggers and needs to be addressed with a different set of best practices. Here, we’ll take a look at what you can do to find out what is causing your site to underperform and what action you can take to reverse or prevent its drop in SERPs rankings.
1) Google Penalty
To improve the quality of its search results, Google has terms and conditions as well as an extensive list of guidelines for webmasters to follow. In theory, if a majority of webmasters follow Google’s terms and guidelines, users can enjoy relevant, high-quality search results. To enforce these rules, Google penalizes sites that are judged to violate its terms and conditions.
However, the internet is an enormous place. In reality, violating these terms and conditions does not always result in an immediate ban. As a result, black hat SEOs or ignorant webmasters may do things to the site that may improve its performance today but cause it to be penalized weeks or months later.
Google penalties are most often caused by link spam but they can also be caused by low-quality content, fake news, malware, and ham-fisted SEO practices. There are two main types of Google Penalty:
- Manual Action Penalty. These are manually triggered by Google’s team. These penalties could be page-level or sitewide. If you receive a manual penalty, you’ll receive a notification email on your Google Search Console account. The email should include details of the penalty as well as the possible fixes that will help lift it, following a reconsideration request.
- Algorithmic Penalty. These are triggered automatically, with no action coming from Google’s team. If you receive a sitewide traffic drop but receive no notification email on your Google Search Console account, an algorithmic penalty can be a possible cause. After ruling out core algorithm updates and filters (more on those later), try to see if your site has any characteristics that may cause it to be penalized. Algorithmic penalties are widely considered the most difficult to overcome because you won’t necessarily know what triggered them, to begin with. Additionally, you won’t know when reconsideration might happen — it can take days, months, or possibly never.
2) Google Core Algorithm Update
This happens when the Google Search algorithm is altered in a way that changes how it ranks different keywords. For example, Google might prioritize backlinks today and decide to make them less important tomorrow.
These updates can create sweeping changes across different industries, solely based on Google Search users being shown very different results compared to what they were being shown previously.
Core algorithm updates can be very fluid and capricious. This means that if you attempt to redo your site to account for the changes of a recent update, the algorithm might very well revert in a few weeks to favor how your site used to be.
The best way to keep ahead of these updates is to simply work to continuously improve your site’s user experience. At the end of the day, this is what Google wants. If you design your site and content with visitors’ experiences in mind, any negative effect from a core algorithm update is likely to be temporary.
Unfortunately, there is no way to completely guarantee that a site will not be permanently downgraded because of a core algorithm update. But if you keep all the usual best practices in mind, chances are your site will be fine. If your site performance remains downgraded after some time, observe the pages that are currently ranking for your keywords. This will help you find out what it is your competitors are doing that you should be following as well.
3) Search Filters
Google’s search algorithm includes filters that automatically exclude certain web pages from search results. Filters are intended to help the search results be more useful for users. Content that is too similar to another piece of content on your site or elsewhere is often automatically filtered from the Google SERPs, often causing it to have much less traffic than other pages that are not filtered from the results.
Filters are different from penalties as they don’t indicate any violations of Google guidelines or policies. However, being filtered is a negative outcome as it renders it impossible for a page to rank for its target keywords.
Filtering issues are extremely common in ecommerce websites as it’s not uncommon for discrete products to have similar specs. For instance, if a site sells a t-shirt design in different colors and sizes, Google Search might only return one result with a certain spec while excluding everything else.
The strategic use of canonical tagging is the standard way to handle site issues related to filters. Using a “rel canonical” tag on a designated master copy tells Google which specific page to index. Rel canonical tags allow you to preempt Google’s filters by essentially letting you choose which specific pages to include in their search results.
It should be noted that filtering doesn’t just happen within websites. It can happen across domains as well. This is most common in affiliate marketing pages, where product copy and manufacturer specifications are often simply copy-pasted, resulting in duplicate content. This has given rise to a misconception that Google dislikes affiliate marketing pages. In reality, Google has no problems ranking affiliate marketing pages so long as they have original content.
Penalties, core algorithm updates, and filters can all cause catastrophic drops in rankings. However, they aren’t all the same. Each should be addressed in a different way.
To avoid falling victim to these, make sure to always have your visitor’s experience in mind when designing your site and creating content. Remember — Google’s long-term goal is to ensure all search users have a great experience. Making sure that your site is always the best possible version of itself will, in most cases, be more than enough to help it avoid and overcome these disastrous events.
Get in touch with our team to learn SEO best practices that will keep your site on top of Google’s SERPs.