Rankings drop shock

Oo No!!

The first time it happens, your heart races as you stare in disbelief. Sure that something must be momentarily wrong with your computer, or your browser, you frantically open a different browser and search again. When the same result appears, it feels as though the world has shifted on its axis. You check stats and see the devastation displayed graphically – a line sharply slanting downward into an abyss of declining traffic. Shock turns to panic as you rush to find answers from forums, social networks, friends…anyone who might be able to make sense of the devastation. As the morning turns to afternoon, your eyes begin to blur from the hundreds of posts you’ve read from others who are as frantic as you. Disaster has truly struck. Google has just released a massive algorithm update.

I’ve seen this scenario played out many times over the last decade, and I know exactly how it feels, as I’ve had sites take the plunge on more than one occasion. I’ve also been on the other side of that same fence, as I watched my sites benefit while other webmasters weeped. Along the way, I’ve done many things wrong, and some things right while reacting to the heart-stopping drop in rankings.

Below is a list of things I’ve learned to do, and things I’ve learned to avoid when faced with a sudden SERPS plummet. And yes, I’ve done all the “don’ts” in this list, some on more than one occasion. I guess it sometimes takes me a few burned fingers to learn that I shouldn’t touch a hot stove. But no matter how many times I reacted the wrong way when faced with a rankings loss, eventually, I learned my lessons. I hope sharing a few of them will serve you well the next time you face the dreaded sight of lost rankings.

  1. Determine, as best you can, if this rankings drop is a result of a large-scale Google algorithm change or if it only affects your site.
    • DO check to see if the sudden drop in ranking coincides with a known Google algorithm change. SEOmoz’s Google Algorithm Change Calendar and SERoundtable are both good sources of reliable information that help assess if and when a major update has occurred.
    • DON’T make willy-nilly assumptions based on the multitude of rumors that fly on blogs and forums at this time. While such sites are useful to ascertain if others are seeing major changes as well, it’s very likely that everyone is as clueless as you are at the moment, so take any advice you find here with a very large grain of salt.
  2. Focus on the problem and possible avenues of recovery.
    • DO spend time determining what the known underlying reasons are for a particular penalty or algorithm change, and pay strict attention to the more well-known remedies. At some point, it is likely that Google will confirm the rumors and will give a name to the update. They may also give hints as to what the update is targeting. You may need to read between the lines, but if you’re lucky, it will be a new iteration of an old problem, which means there will be plenty of information on possible remedies. For example, if Google ran a Panda update, you’ll know that Google is targeting low-quality content. With that knowledge, you know where to begin when auditing your site for problems.
    • DON’T spend time whining about the unfairness of it all. In the long run, it doesn’t matter that Google has loved your site just the way it is for the past decade. It doesn’t matter that some sites who do exactly what you do still rank well, while yours has been relegated to the trash heap. No amount of moaning or arguing or protesting is going to make a bit of difference. What matters is that you accept the fact that this has occurred and that you immediately begin working to resolve the problem. I’ve watched webmasters spend months on forums, rejecting good advice over and over again, because they just can’t get past the “unfairness” of it all. If they’d spent that same time rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to solve the problems, they could have recovered and moved on, rather than just spending endless hours, days, and months raging against the system.
  3. Determine if you are facing a manual penalty or an algorithmic update.
    Your Ranking Stinks

    Your Ranking Stinks

    • DO the research required to understand the difference between a manual penalty and an algorithmic update. Once you know which problem your site faces, you may be able to place your site’s issue within the penalty bucket or the algo update bucket. If your site has been manually penalized, the final resolution tasks will be different than those for sites that have not been penalized, so it’s important to know which classification applies to your site. If you have your site registered in Google Webmaster Tools, go there first to see if Google has any messages for you there. Google is now sending messages for nearly 100% of the manual penalties they serve. With a manual penalty, you’ll need to make every effort to resolve the problem, and when you believe your site meets Google’s guidelines, you should file a reconsideration request. If you’ve successfully resolved the problem, a Google employee will lift the penalty (although you may still need to “serve” a sentence of an indeterminate amount of time for the transgression).
    • DON’T make the mistake of thinking that all rankings drops are penalties. The net effect on your business may feel like a penalty, but Google has a very narrow definition of a penalty, and that definition matters to the success of a recovery strategy. If you file a reconsideration request and are informed by Google that no manual penalty exists, then you were affected by an algorithmic action instead. No Google employee will lift the penalty in this case because technically there is no penalty to lift. Only another iteration of the algo update will help, and another iteration may take place days, weeks, or months later. At this point, even after making the changes necessary, all you can do is wait and hope that the next update results in a rankings recovery. If not, then you’ll need to try again – and wait again, sometimes going through this cycle many times.
  4. Honestly assess your site, or hire a neutral third-party to do so.
    • DO be brutally honest when analyzing your site for potential problems. Every site owner has a natural tendency to wear blinders when viewing his own site. Most will deny that they are biased about the quality of their sites, but it’s very difficult to be impartial when analyzing the work you’ve done. If you can’t be truly unbiased and impartial, do hire a competent third-party who will see what your blinders are hiding from you.
    • DON’T rely on inexperienced friends to tell you the honest truth about your site. First, they are inexperienced, so what seems fine to them may actually be a negative signal to a search engine. Second, they are your friends, and even if you ask them to be honest, they’ll always soften the blow because they care about your feelings. Find a reliable, trustworthy, experienced person or company who will give honest feedback on the issues your site faces.

The blow from that heart-stopping moment when you see your rankings drop will always be painful, but if you keep these points in mind in the hours and days that follow, you’ll have a shot at recovering much more quickly – with far less stress.

Have we missed anything? Do you have any tips for handling the shock of a rankings drop? Let us know.