If your website traffic suddenly drops and you see a corresponding decline in rankings, there is a good possibility that you are on the receiving end of a Google penalty. Google reported in 2014 that over 400,000 manual actions are taken against websites every month by their web spam team (1), and that's really only a fraction of the total number. Many other websites are penalized when Google rolls out new algorithmic updates to Penguin or Panda.
A sudden, unexplained drop in rankings can be disastrous for retailers, as it can prevent visitors from finding and purchasing your products, but you can recover from a Google penalty. The first thing you need to do is find out what the cause is.
Google typically penalizes websites in one of two ways. The spam team could identify a problem with your website and issue a manual action, or you could suffer an automated drop in rankings due to an update to Google's search algorithm. In both cases you will need to find the root cause of the decline (2).
The first thing you should do is log in to Google Webmaster Tools and find out if you have any notifications from Google. If you have been issued a manual penalty, you will find a "notice of unnatural links detected" or similar message that explains that Google has discovered low-quality inbound links pointing to your site. Examples of unnatural or low-quality links may include ones that have been purchased to pass PageRank or look like part of a link scheme. Regardless of what they have found, your job is to fix the problem and submit your website for reconsideration for Google's search results.
If you find no messages in Google Webmaster Tools, the problem will require a closer examination of changes Google has recently made and how it impacted your site.
To uncover the type of penalty you are facing, you will need to track down the time period when your rankings declined and match it with a date that Google rolled out a new update to its search functionality.
There are two primary Google algorithm penalties are related to Panda and Penguin. Panda is focused on content quality. It keeps websites with duplicate or very thin content from ranking high in search results. Penguin is concerned with backlinks, aiming to identify websites that are trying to manipulate rankings by using low-quality inbound links to make the site look more authoritative than it really is. Most updates to Penguin and Panda are relatively minor, but regardless of how big the change is, every website is vulnerable to the rules Google lays down in the interests of providing a better user experience.
A quick search on sites such as Search Engine Land (3) and Search Engine Journal (4) will often turn up news of a recent algorithm update. Moz keeps a running record of updates organized by year, including articles that highlight the changes (5). You should also follow Matt Cutts, head of Google Webspam, and Google Webmasters on social media. If there has been a recent change at Google that is affecting websites like yours, there is a good chance someone in the SEO trade is writing about it.
The root cause of most penalties is backlinks, also known as inbound links. These remain an important factor that influences rankings, and as SEO has become increasingly competitive, some marketers try to acquire links through unnatural means that incur penalties.
Examples of low-quality websites to avoid:
Google has penalized or banned – If you have inbound links from websites that Google is taking action against for violating guidelines, you should get rid of them.
Websites that have duplicate content – If a website has segments of content within a domain or across domains that have content that is duplicate or very similar, Google will probably determine the website is low-quality.
Websites that have nothing to do with your industry – Many websites inevitably get links from sources that have little or nothing to do with your focus. If the link looks completely random, with no context at all, it may look unfavorable to Google.
Comment spam and forum links – These links will almost certainly get your website penalized. People who drop links in blog comment sections and forum profiles are not only annoying; they are actively violating Google's guidelines and will likely pay the price.
" Inbound links from directory and social bookmarking sites are low-quality."
Websites with very little content – In earlier years, backlinks from online directories were great because they were relatively easy to get and they gave your SEO a boost. Not anymore. Inbound links from directory and social bookmarking sites are low-quality and if you have them, you should use a nofollow tag to make sure they do not hurt your site quality.
Global website links – If you have links coming from sidebars, footers and widgets, it looks suspect. You should avoid these.
Advertising links – Any link that comes from sponsored content should not pass PageRank. If you have ads linking to your content, make sure to use a nofollow tag to make sure your rankings will not be affected.
Tactics designed to trick search engines – Websites that hide links or text in its scripts, or use redirects, doorway pages and auto-generated content should all be avoided.
Google penalties can be costly. The best way to keep your website ranking well is to know and follow Google's Webmaster guidelines (6). Focus on making sure your content and backlink profile is high-quality and you will continue to enjoy a healthy relationship with users and search engines alike.