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Do This, Not That, When Faced With Sudden Google Ranking Drops

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 wept. 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.


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35 Responses

  1. I’m really shocked when I read your first sentence. I check my website. LOL :D, Huuuft thanks God, it seems I’m in the right ways. my ranking is better than before and show more significant result. But, I should careful to the change of Google Algorithm sometime. Thank for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Hey Donna, just faced a sudden drop in Google ranking. It was a major rank drop, nearly 60-70% of our keywords which are earlier topping the SERPs are nowhere near in the top 50s. I had gone through your post and all Dos and Don’t but, I think for me it’s loss of backlinks, I had just checked through majestic SEO, and found that I’ve lost around 1000+ backlinks in a single day. Is there any other tool, you can recommend to check lost backlinks of any site? since, I need to re-create them.


  3. I just step in blogging and i found it hard , it’s not an easy job to get ranking for specific keyword. Till now my ranking is too low. But some time i see lots of fluctuation in rankings. I don’t know what Google is doing with my ranking.

  4. I think many people experience changes when new updates arrive because its like restarting a computer. Once updates are applied, processes have to reboot and then serve their function all over again. Eventually, rankings should resurface, but it may take some time to get there.

  5. There are a lot of people who says about Google Dance. Sudden drop of ranking happens because of Google dance. What is actually Google Dance? I am not really sure about it.

  6. You should check also by using Ahrefs to find out who is linking in your site. You will know that are your competitors, through you could have an analysis what direction to go so you will not leave behind in your competitors.. There are cases also the competitors will often spam your website with bad links to be able to destroy your rankings.

  7. My site today took a blow, not sure what to do. Went from page 1 for a search term to page 6. It was weird, because even my home page didn’t show up at all in searches for several hours. I really need to get this figured out. Thanks for the post

    1. Are you sure you took the hit today and not two days ago? Penguin 2.0 hit then, so if the changes took place two days ago, then you know it’s time to start looking at low quality backlinks pointing to your site, along with an over-abundance of the same backlink anchor text. There’s tons of information on Penguin out there. If the hit did happen today, then it could be any number of things, so I wish you the best in figuring out where the problem might be.

  8. Dear Donna, it would be more clear if you could provide some screenshot or how to recover from a particular type of penalty or reason. Otherwise your advices are very good to recover our self from these kind of sudden drops in ranking. Thanks for posting this useful guide for us. ~rakesh

    1. Plenty of resources are available detailing how to handle various penalties, but each situation is usually unique in some way. This was a broader look at reacting to any kind of penalty, whether it is one we already know much about, or future ones that may occur that no one has seen before.

  9. Actually I believe we should make website for readers not for seo purpose, write good stuff, and more and more people will link to you and in return you will get good rank.

  10. Great post! There is nothing worse than waking up to that dreaded disappearing act! Let’s face it, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is so a step by step list of what to look for is a huge help! I’ll be saving this list for future reference!

  11. Donna,

    Great article. One of our customers was hit by a Google update. We were able to return the website to its all-time-high rankings. The very best thing one must do in this situation is not to panic. Most of the google penalties are not permanent.

  12. Hi Donna
    I have been worried about what I do seo wise as I don’t want to get penalised in one sense I am lucky as my site is only just getting ranked and I have missed a lot of the updates by google. Your post has all eaves a bit of that worry.

    So for that thanks lee

  13. Hey guys,

    I had a site whose keywords were in top 10 but suddenly they have reached to 250 and above. This happened on 21st January 2013. And from past 3- 4 days the ranking is continuously dropping. The strange thing is I haven’t done anything different to the back linking efforts. Only the thing is that I have changed is the content of site keeping in mind not to do the stuffing of the keywords. And content was changed a month ago. Is this due to Content? Will the position be gained again?
    Please Suggest


    1. Hard to say with such limited information. Have you checked in Webmaster Tools yet? I know Google admitted to a Panda update on the 22nd, but since your drop happened on the 21st, it’s difficult to say definitively that the black and white bear bit you. If content is the problem, and Panda is the culprit, then you’ve got some work ahead of you to regain those rankings. But since I don’t have enough information to make that call, the best I can say is to do your research so you can best determine the cause, and then be prepared to work hard to fix the problem.

        1. hello John,

          Same issue with you. my site is no. 4 drops to 100+ right now. if you find information about the solution to regain the past ranking let me know. thanks in advance!


  14. Hey Donna,

    You’re quite right here. It’s really confusing to determine the reason of sudden drop in your rankings. But unless you ensure the reason of drop ranking, you can’t take the correct action to do the needful.

  15. Hi Donna, Excellent analysis. I had this happen to me in the spring and it did send me reeling. I wish I had this article then, though I never did figure out what happened and my traffic recovered within a few weeks.

  16. Hi Donna, Excellent analysis. I had this happen to me in the spring and it did send me reeling. I wish I had this article then, though I never did figure out what happened and my traffic recovered within a few weeks.

    I hope it never happens again, but if it does, at least I know now where to turn.

  17. Hi Donna, nice article here. Most people go into shock when they see their rankings drop or disappear completely. It is very important to know exactly what happened to your site, which should be identifiable by the date it was affected. There are many resources available – Google Penalty List – out there. Correct, one should not believe the hype or buzz, and should do the research, and if need be hire a professional to check out the site. I would check the traffic decline date and match that up to a list of penalties.
    Please feel free to visit our blog, we just deleted all the garbage comments and there is now plenty of space for good informative replies.


    P.S. The link I posted above is our from our blog, and if need be you can delete it, just wanted to give that info to someone who might need it, the link itself is not really important ๐Ÿ˜‰

  18. Frankly in lots of cases there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Every site owner believes their site should outrank your’s anyway.

    All you can do is create the best site possible and hope somehow Google recognizes that. They have incredible power yet no matter what anyone tells you to the contrary there is no one formula that works across all spectrums.

    1. True, Howard, there isn’t a formula, but there’s usually something than can be done when faced with a sudden drop. Even if that “something” is to “create the best site possible” … i.e. improve the site’s quality. More often than not, though, a cause can be found, and when you know the cause, you can usually determine the way back to Google’s good graces.

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