Being able to identify whether or not your site has fallen foul of Google’s terms and conditions will help you to close gaps in your SEO strategy and tackle any issues with ranking drops quickly and effectively. In order to be alert for penalties from the search engine, you must learn to recognize the signs that your site has been flagged and is at risk of removal from the SERPs. Interpreting these warning signs as just that, and not seasonal anomalies or routine position changes, gives you the chance to act quickly and minimize damage. You can then also request reconsideration and regain favor as soon as possible. The site owner not taking time to familiarize themselves with these early warning signs can waste months unaware of the fact that their sliding rankings are due to search engine filters or penalties.
If you feel that your site may have been penalized, try the following self-diagnosis:
1. Check Your Referrers Using Google Analytics: If you have been penalized by Google, a major warning sign will be a drop in rankings. The net effect of this drop will usually be a smaller amount of referred traffic from the search engine. As most sites capture the majority of their audience from an engine, a drop in traffic represents a significant problem.
To check if this is the case, log in to Google Analytics and run a traffic sources report. The Search Engines filter will show traffic trends over a period of time. Have referrals from the search engine dropped dramatically recently? Look out for patterns and take the time to study the report, as traffic loss may be global across the whole site or localized at individual pages.
If you have already noticed that only a select group of your keywords have been affected by the rankings drop, Analytics will help you to identify the pages at the root of the issue (these pages will demonstrate noticeable downturns in traffic.
2. Use Google Webmaster Tools: Google’s suite of tools for webmasters should be one of your first ports of call when attempting to identify possible penalties. The interface gives valuable insight into how the search engine interprets your site. Check reports such as the crawl errors – it may be that the page is timing out or has restricted robots.txt files causing problems with spider access rather than a demotion caused by a penalty or filter.
3. Access Google’s Very Useful Safe Browsing Diagnostic Report: The report tells you the search engine’s current listing status for the domain. Crucially, it tells you if the site is identified as “suspicious” with the search engine. If so, you can be pretty sure a penalty or temporary filter has been applied. The Safe Browsing page also reports back on any malicious software being downloaded or installed without user consent in the last 90 days – again, if the report flags up software activity, a penalty is likely. Suspicious content and the hosting of malware or use of the site as an intermediary for the distribution of malware is also checked and findings reported. To run the diagnostic enter the following in to your browser address bar — http://www.google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site=www.mywebsiteaddress.com.
4. Conduct Google Searches For Your Domain: Go to Google and conduct a search for your domain name. If your site is not too new, it should naturally rank number one for its own URL. If not, there’s a very real possibility that your site has been penalized. You can also try a site: yourwebsiteaddress.com search. When conducting this search, it helps to know how many results are returned under normal circumstances. While it’s clear you have a problem if the search returns 0 results, a handful of results could simply be the result of the site being fairly new and not fully indexed or it could mean a problem with some sections of the domain. The only way to know for sure is to be able to benchmark the number of results returned with the figure given when all was well.
If the results of these tests indicate that your site has been penalized, resist the temptation to make huge changes quickly in a bid to regain rankings. Having confirmed your site has fallen foul of Google’s required standards, you’ll need to tread carefully to identify the root of the problem. Possible causes include duplicate content, keyword stuffing, a large number of inbound paid links or injected outbound links in source code to obvious bad neighborhood or spam sites.
Owners of large sites may find themselves facing two or three of these problems – the key is to change things slowly one step at a time and test the impact of these changes over the course of a number of days. For non-serious infringements, the penalties will disappear automatically at the next crawl. However, in some cases a reconsideration request will need to be submitted to the search engine to get things working normally again.