Google Penalty Checklist: Rank Drop Troubleshooting Guide

Is your website not appearing in Google, and you’re not sure why? It is possible that your site has been penalized for not following Google’s webmaster guidelines. This article will walk you through troubleshooting your website to help you turn up some of the most common issues, and correct them so you can achieve the search engine ranking you deserve.

Background

Ranking is the most important objective in any search engine optimization activity. A high ranking equates to a high amount of traffic that usually increases revenue to any commercial website. A high ranking makes a site look glamorous and popular. Other sites will want to be associated with it (i.e. link building), because such an association can increase their traffic. This will speed up everyone’s marketing efforts, simply because that one site achieved that status.

The problem with websites nowadays is that they often practice techniques that are not good for search engine optimization and sometimes even result in a search engine penalty. A search engine penalty is a situation wherein rankings will not improve or even be decreased despite search engine optimization efforts, such as gaining links and improving onsite factors.

A lot of SEO companies fail to conform their practices to the Google webmaster guidelines. As a result, they spend time troubleshooting and sorting out issues which could be very simple to resolve. In the worst cases, these companies are so greedy that they ask for their client’s money in return for investigations which they never carry out. We have heard about a lot of issues between clients and their SEO firms.

The objective of this article is to come up with a standard troubleshooting guide that follows Google’s webmaster quality and technical guidelines. Other industry- accepted Google SEO ranking and penalty factors will also be considered. This troubleshooting guide can be applied by any webmaster, even one without an SEO background.

By mastering this troubleshooting guide and completely understanding how to implement the solution, the webmaster or a site owner may not even need to hire an SEO firm to sort out Google ranking penalty issues.

A highly important requirement for troubleshooting is to add and verify your website in your Google webmaster tools account. You can find more important information here: http://www.google.com/webmasters/

Important note: It may take at most a few days to a week for Google webmaster tools to return data after the site is verified with your webmaster tools account.

In no way should the statements in this article be considered to be affiliated with Google or official statements from them. But as far as I know, there are two types of obvious penalties: algorithm-based and manually-driven. Before we can start troubleshooting, you must understand these types of penalties. Algorithm-based penalties result from your website being “filtered” by Google’s algorithm due to some linking and onsite issues. Different types of filtering exist; the most common involve the duplicate content filters.

Algorithm-based penalties could result from your site sending a poor relevance signal to search engines. It means that your site is not telling them that a certain page on your site is relevant to a certain query.

Other algorithm-based penalties involve minor infractions in the areas of hidden text, cloaked text, nearly hidden text and hidden links, especially on your important pages. Details of these will be included later.

Since Google prefers algorithm-based solutions to combat spam, it is obvious that most website problems are caused by algorithm issues.

The other type of penalty is manually driven. For some types of penalties that are too serious, Google will take action manually. Google gives this type of penalty when it spots a serious violation of its quality guidelines. An actual human working at Google will take a personal look at your site and will send you a mail that the site’s behavior is against the search engine’s quality guidelines. Failure to correct manually-driven penalties can result in a site being banned from Google.

Let us start with our checklist. Basically any search engine optimization deals with two major distinct areas: the link campaign, and onsite improvements. We will cover this in a step-by-step fashion, and then we will go deeper if there are related issues in a certain step. 


  1. Check to see if the website is indexed in Google.

Method of Checking: Using the Google search box, type the query below as your search query, replacing www.yourwebsite.com with your own website:


site:www.yourwebsite.com


The example above assumes your domain’s canonical version uses www. If you are using the non-www version as the canonical version (such as Digg.com), then change the query to conform with the style below (remove the www):

site:yourwebsite.com


Interpretation of Results: If Google does not give any single result for your site pages:

a. Check the following  in your Google webmaster tools: Dashboard — Overview. If the Googlebot has problems accessing your home page, it will return a message like the following: “Googlebot cannot access your home page because it is blocked by robots.txt.” In this case, you need to remove the robots.txt in your web server root directory and submit a re-consideration request to Google. You can read more about submitting reconsideration requests here: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35843

Also, you should go to your home page and view the source. You should NOT see this code:


<META NAME="ROBOTS" CONTENT="NOINDEX, NOFOLLOW">


This code tells Google not to index your home page, and, at the same time, not to follow the links in your navigation menu. If you see this, then remove it and submit a reconsideration request.

b. If the above test turns out negative, find out whether or not there are links pointing to your site. Googlebot can find your site just by following links. If there are no inbound links to your domain, then it will not be found, no matter how many times you submit the site to Google.

You can check this data in Google’s webmaster tools. Go to Dashboard— Links—- Pages with external links. If Google does not find any links leading to your site, consider getting links before you continue with the rest of this diagnostic testing.

  1. Does your site hide content and stuff keywords?

Check your home page first for possible hidden text and keyword stuffing issues:

  1. In your home page, press control A. This will select all, and can detect text using the same color as the background.

  2. If you cannot find a problem, try disabling the CSS using the Firefox web developer tool plug-in. Go to CSS —- disable all styles. This will show the hidden text using a CSS method. Slowly look for signs of spam in that text,  especially the kind that appears when CSS is off but is hidden when the style is turned on.

  3. If you cannot find hidden text using CSS and the Control A method, try disabling your browser’s JavaScript. In Firefox, this can be done by going to Tools— Options —Content, then unchecking JavaScript. This method can detect text that has been hidden by using JavaScript. Be cautious about what changes when JavaScript is on, and when it is off.

  4. Finally check using an SEO search engine spam detector tool. You can use this one: http://tool.motoricerca.info/spam-detector/

However, you cannot just rely on this tool. It is important to double check the source code as well. Double check every section of your site, starting with the home page, then do a sample check of your category pages, product pages, site map and other related pages. Note that stuffing keywords can relate to using a sentence that is entirely unnatural to read and appears very spammy, such as:


Buy Viagra online cialis is one of amazing SEO buy Viagra online , take free online personality test become famous cialis Viagra online buy one now.

By the way, you should also make sure that all of the sentences in your content are perfectly legible, or else the search engines will consider them to be spam.

  1. Does your site has substantial duplicate content across pages within and outside of your domain?

It is possible you have more than one indexed version of your home page. To spot this, take a sample phrase (one sentence is enough) and copy and paste it into a Yahoo or Google search box. Put quotation marks around it to emphasize that you are making an exact query. Example : “ This is my first experience with site building and I hope my instructor gives me a good grade

It is possible that you have more than one result for this. If you do, it means that you have a duplicate content issue. You should consider blocking those duplicates or 301 redirecting them to your canonical home page. You can, however, check the percentage of similarity for those pages with respect to your home page by using this tool: http://www.webconfs.com/similar-page-checker.php

The result should also tell you whether there are exact duplicates of your pages outside the domain. Take note of this; you can also double check with http://www.copyscape.com/

Warning: Do not fall into the trap of assuming that duplicate content will cause a penalty. It simply means that the search engines will filter your pages, which otherwise should rank higher than those duplicates. If any substantial duplicates are found, shut them down or link them to all of your canonical pages. This will sort out this issue.

  1. What is the quality of your outbound and inbound links?

Be completely honest. Have you been buying links and placing those links on the footer section of highly unrelated domains, or on spammy link pool pages? This is the time for you to forcefully ask them to entirely remove those links and submit a Google reconsideration request.

Now, does your site link out to completely unrelated domains that provide no value to your visitors? Please remove all of those links, and then check all of the external links on your domain one by one. Unchecked external domains are a sign of carelessness, and one of the main reasons a site does not perform well in search results. This is especially true if you have link pages, directories within your domain, and/or forums that pass link juice. You can use Xenu sleuth, located at http://home.snafu.de/tilman/xenulink.html to entirely scan your domain for external links. During the setup, please uncheck “Check external links,” then filter all external links into a spreadsheet.

Make sure all external links are pointing to highly authoritative and relevant sites that are trusted by Google. When looking at each link, ask yourself this question: "Does it help my visitors?" If not, then remove it.

Put rel=nofollow tags on to forum links, blog comments, and everything that does not need to be associated with your site.

What if you have gone through this check list, and everything seems fine? Then you are not being penalized; you are just losing out to your competitors. Consider doing some ethical SEO work on your site. You can learn more about SEO for free in the SEO Chat forums: http://forums.seochat.com/

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