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Why has my traffic dropped 70% overnight?

With the Panda 4.2 change to the Google Algorithm due by the end of the year and an official webmaster announcement stating the search engine giant’s commitment to punishing ‘Hack-Spam’, it’s time to talk about penalties again

Algorithm Timeline

Click to enlarge

Since Google’s inception in 1997, it has continually modified, updated and renewed its algorithm and manual action penalty procedures in an effort to improve its user experience (UX), the announcement of Panda 4.2 has therefore been no great surprise to most (many in the industry had expected it previously – leading to later confirmed rumours about the ‘Phantom Update 2.0’), but is generally good news for the SEO industry. Following on from the rolling penguin, Penguin Everflux in 2014, the Panda 4.2 update – according to a webmaster announcement – is a ‘real-time’ Panda, meaning that Panda penalties will be much easier to clear, speeding up the time between an agency or in-house SEO team clearing problems with excessive spammy or thin content – in order to render it more user friendly, unique and natural – and restoring visibility to a site without having to wait for a Panda refresh. In this regard Google is, in many ways, offering an olive branch. Though a site may be penalised for activity in breach of guidelines, there is the potential now to avoid long-term detrimental effect by quick, expert action.

Penguin Table

What is a penalty?

First of all we’ll give a brief overview of what a penalty actually is for anyone who doesn’t know. When an SEO agency or individual talks about a ‘penalty’, they will (more often than not) be referring to either a ‘manual action’ or ‘algorithmic’ penalty imposed on a site or page by Google. This can take many forms but more often than not, these days, it will be the result of Panda’s over-optimisation (keyword stuffing and the like), link-spam (paid for or otherwise unearned links) punishments or Panda’s content spam (scraped, thin, replicated or otherwise unnatural content) – though the latest announcement on ‘hack-spam’ indicates that unethical, misleading or malicious link redirects will soon be clamped down on. There are several other varieties of penalties, affecting sites or pages to varying degrees and on device specific SERPs, but ultimately a penalty is a punishment by Google resulting in reduced search visibility.

Penalty illustration

What a penalty does

As stated above, a penalty is a punishment for activity in breach of webmaster guidelines, but in reality what a penalty ‘does’ is essentially attempt to reverse (or in some cases more than reverse) any gains resulting, or hoped for from black-hat SEO activity. Therefore, whether manual action or algorithmic, what a penalty will do is to halt or restrict site or page traffic by restricting or removing visibility. As per the above image, this is observable in your site analytics (generally speaking) as a sudden or unexpected drop in site traffic.

How to remove

If your traffic suddenly drops, the first step is to identify what form of penalty you have been affected by – if issued with a manual penalty, you will be notified in your Google Search Console account under the ‘Manual Actions’ tab.

How to view your Manual Actions page:

  • Go to Webmaster Tools’ dashboard and select the site you’re concerned with
  • Select ‘Search Traffic’
  • Select ‘Manual Actions’

You will then see one of three messages. Either it will inform you that you have no manual webspam actions, a partial-match penalty or a site-wide penalty.

Manual action message

Manual action penalty messages

No manual webspam actions: This means that you’re in the clear; no action is required.
Partial match penalty message: Google has applied a penalty to your site. A partial match penalty usually means a penalty that has been applied to a specific page on your site or to a specific group of search terms – your site will not rank for that page or those search terms in Google’s SERPs until the penalty has been removed.
Site-wide penalty message: This is the worst form of penalty. A site-wide penalty is ordinarily applied when a webmaster has violated Google’s guidelines in multiple ways. It means that the whole website has been penalised and your site will not feature in SERPs until you have cleaned up its backlinks, submitted a reconsideration request, and the penalty has been removed.

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Link auditing

Removing a link penalty is rarely an easy process and, if link auditing and removal is conducted incorrectly, it’s likely that Google will not revoke the penalty. If you suspect that your website has been hit with a manual or algorithmic penalty as a result of unnatural links, you should conduct a link audit. This will allow you to identify unnatural backlinks that point to your site from websites that break the rules set out in Google’s Guidelines.

How to conduct a link audit

To increase the prospect of identifying all unnatural links to your site, use a number of backlink identification tools including Search Console. It’s important to use various tools for the backlink identification stage, as one may discover a link that another misses. Create a document that lists the unique backlinks listed by each tool. You are now ready for the link analysis stage.

Link removal

The removal process involves contacting the owner of each site on your final list of URLs and asking for the links to be deleted. The most effective link removal procedures take a few weeks as each website owner should be contacted a number of times over a period of weeks if no response is immediately forthcoming.

You will eventually need to submit a reconsideration request to Google and it is therefore vital you document your efforts so you can offer proof to Google that reasonable work was attempted to clean your backlink profile. Simply disavowing your links without attempting to get them removed will probably result in your reconsideration request being rejected.

How to get links removed

  • Work through your list of URLs, contacting each webmaster to request removal of offending backlinks. As noted above, you should contact each webmaster numerous times until they (hopefully) remove the link. Some webmasters may not be contactable – keep a note of these
  • Once you have requested link removal from each website a reasonable number of times, create a document listing the websites that did not remove the links
  • Compile a separate list of websites that have honoured your link removal requests. You can submit this with your reconsideration request to Google, to illustrate your link removal efforts

Disavowing links

If you utilise all forms of communication but fail to make contact with webmasters of certain sites, or can’t locate contact details for them, you can use Google’s Disavow Links tool. This tool should be used with caution, however, using it too often suggests to Google that you have made insufficient effort to have the links removed, and this may harm your site’s future performance.

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How to use Google’s disavow links tool

  • On the Search Console homepage, select the site you’d like to manage
  • Upload the list of links you could not get removed

By disavowing links that you couldn’t have removed, you are effectively asking Google not to take them into consideration next time their site is crawled.

Reconsideration request

Include information about your company’s founders: Google are likely to take a reconsideration request more seriously if you prove that your website is a reliable, authoritative source of information. You can do this by providing details on the company founders – illustrating why they are experts. Provide links to the founder’s LinkedIn page where applicable.

Explain why your site is valuable: Include a detailed explanation of what your site offers and how it provides value to visitors.

Provide supporting statistics from Google analytics: Backup assertions by providing historical data from Google Analytics. Outline details such as your bounce rate, average time on site and volume of returning visitors.

Provide detailed descriptions of your removal efforts: Explain your efforts in detail, sharing a link to the spreadsheet you created during the link removal process to support your assertions. The spreadsheet should include information on all links you could get removed and those you could not.
Where possible, include:

  • The name of the domain hosting the link
  • The anchor text used within the link
  • The contact details for the hosting domain
  • When the link was established
  • The dates that you contacted the website owner to request removal.

Once you have finalised your reconsideration request, you’re ready to submit it to Google.

How to submit a reconsideration request

  • Login to your Search Console dashboard using your Google account.
  • Under ‘Search Traffic’ click on ‘Manual Actions’.

This should prompt a ‘Request a review’ pop-up, with an area for you to write your reconsideration request in. Write your reconsideration request in the box provided. This is your opportunity to showcase how proactive you have been in cleaning up your website’s backlink profile. Tick the box to acknowledge that your site does not violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Once you’re happy with your reconsideration request, click ‘Request a review’.

A comprehensive, illustrated ‘how-to’ guide for this process can be found here – this guide will also walk you through the process for the removal of an algorithm penalty.

How to avoid

The simplest way to avoid penalties is to ensure you keep a close eye on Google webmaster announcements and best practice manuals and, wherever possible, attempt to refine your efforts in excess of the stated requirements – this way no update will ever take you by surprise. Keep UX at the heart of your online and search strategy and you can’t go too far wrong.

To find out what we can do to help you recover or remain penalty proof, contact us today.

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