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Why sites usually drop in the SERPs and what to do if it happens to you.

Visit any one of the excellent internet marketing forums on the web and you will see a host of threads dedicated to the same topic: My Site Has Dropped. Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask and the other engines are constantly in a state of flux, so to a degree this is to be expected, but sometimes major shifts in rankings and resultant traffic are seen and sometimes sites are penalised. Consequently, on any given day there are plenty of webmasters who wake up to discover their traffic has vanished into this air.

For hobby webmasters, this is generally not a problem. For anyone making money online, though, it can be extremely nervewracking. For those whose livlihoods depend on their websites, losing all search engine traffic can be a devastating blow.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the threads and dicussions on this topic often result in a large amount of misinformation. For example, as a result of one recent Google update, many sites had lost significant rankings. Some forums were claiming that the specific industries had specifically been targetted and sites in that industry had been penalised in some way. Some claimed that Google had "lost" a serious amount of data, or had re-added old data, and that was what caused the change. There are as many explanations for loss of traffic as there are sites that have dropped out there.

Unfortunately, with all of the wild ideas and crazy theories being bandied around, the average site owner has a very hard time working out first what has happened, and second what to do about it.

The very first thing to consider when looking at the effect of a shift in algorithms is that a change rarely affects all ranking criteria at once. They rarely, if ever, target a specific industry, even though the effect of a change on a specific market may be far greater than in others (this is especially true in ultra-competitive arenas, such as real estate, finance and the adult industry, where those at the top are often precariously balanced, and a tiny change in algorithms can mean major changes to the SERPs).

Fixing The Problem

Before anything else, it is important to make sure there actually is a problem. The forums usually first fill with these types of posts during an update. However, while the update is going on the SERPs are in a state of flux. Sites can appear all over the place during an update, so save the panic until the update is over. Updates can last days, and it is a good idea to watch a few of the SEO forums to find out when an update has finished.

If the update has finished and a site has definitely dropped, it is rare that it will be able to regain the exact same (or better) traffic within a short space of time. If an algorithm change has caused a site to be dropped, the chances are that one specific thing that was making that site rank well (for example, rented links) has been devalued. If the only thing that was making a site rank well has become less important, there are probably no quick fixes.

Is It a Penalty?

The first thought to cross most peoples' minds when sites lose traffic and drop down the SERPs is that there must be a penalty applied to their site. Penalties are very real, yes, but there is no reason to suspect you have had a penalty applied unless one of the following is true:

  • You have been doing bad things. If you've been using cloaking, hidden text, doorway pages, keyword stuffing or link farms etc, expect to be penalised.
  • You can't find your site - at all - in the search engine you suspect has penalised you. In the case of Google, search for "site:addedbytes.com" (replacing addedbytes.com with your domain name, of course). If no results are returned, Google will show you something like this:

    Your Search - site:addedbytes.com - did not match any documents.

    Suggestions:

    • Make sure all words are spelled correctly.
    • Try different keywords.
    • Try more general keywords.

If you have been penalised, then you'll get no sympathy from me - be more careful in future! SEO is not about getting top rankings for two weeks before vanishing forever from results, it's about a sustained and long-term effort to get top spots. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's not worth taking the kind of risks that will get you penalised unless you have no choice. (</lecture>)

To come back from a penalty is not a quick process, but it is relatively simple. First, remove all remotely-fishy stuff from your site. Before a site is reincluded, the chances are it will be checked, and if you've not corrected what you were doing wrong, you will not be reincluded. Be over-cautious at this stage - better to remove absolutely anything that a search engine might dislike than remove the obvious things and be refused reinclusion because you've assumed that the search engine penalised you for something specific and that fixing that alone is enough. Once you are certain there is nothing left on your domain that can be considered dodgy by the whitest of white hats, then file a reinclusion request with the engine you are having trouble with.

Then wait - and it may be many months before you are reincluded, if at all. Don't pressure the engine and don't file the request every day or week. File it once and wait. You're the kid in the corner with the large hat with a D on it. THe search engine doesn't like you - you tried to manipulate it (even if it wasn't your work, it's your site and your responsibility). Have patience and work on building links to your site and building content - at least then when you are reincluded you should have better traffic.

What Next?

If you've not been penalised, then you should look at why you have dropped. Actually, let me rephrase - you should look at why your competitors have risen up the SERPs - that is a more accurate way to look at it. Check out the top sites in your field - what are they getting traffic for? What do their sites have that yours doesn't? Link quantity? Link quality? Content? Meta tags? A title in a specific shade of blue? Look for themes in the top ranking sites - if you can find out why they are top now, and you are not, you know what to work on.

The chances are that if you're not been penalised and your site is not performing as well, you need to look at improving or updating your online marketing tactics.

If your site is lacking in normal, organic links for example (you have previously paid for all of your links), then start adding things to your site people will want to link to to add to your normal organic links. Add a blog and post controversial or funny (but always unique) items on there. The web is a conversation, and you are not as prominent as you once were because the search engines are getting better - to get yourself noticed, you need to be talked about. [The same applies in all area - if the people doing better than you all have very content-heavy sites, hire some copywriters and get them writing some interesting and engaging content; if the people doing better than you have sites built with good quality, semantic markup, and you don't, have your site rebuilt.]

The most important thing is to treat a perceived drop in rankings for what it is: a temporary glitch in your grand plan. Put in a bit of hard work and a little investment in your online marketing and you should see improvements. You were ranking well before, so the chances are good that you will rank well again.


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