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Imagine this scenario: You and your business’ site is just chugging along. A normal repetitive day much like the day before it.
Then slowly, your sales get a bit colder and colder; your customers can’t seem to find you on search, and soon, you learn that you aren’t ranking on the top all of the sudden. Just like the start of a good old zombie apocalypse film, your world is flipped upside down into chaos.
SEO specialists all over know that this is a distinct symptom of a Google algorithm update, and quite frankly, we’ve seen it happen so many times on so many businesses and websites. In more developed countries, even business owners themselves that thrive online know what and why this happens. But how do we properly diagnose this curse of sudden Google algorithm update? Take a seat and plug in that PC from the 80’s because we’re going back to the basics.
One of the first things you should never do is panic. Going back to that genius Zombie reference, did you ever see Brad Pitt panic in World War Z? Dude chugged a flippin’ Pepsi in the middle of all those rabid infected monsters!
The same goes for you and your current situation: stop, and check every aspect of your business or site. Also keep in mind that rank fluctuations are normal, and most of the time, it doesn’t mean that your site even has a penalty on it. Check your rankings again after a couple of days since it usually returns to its previous rank places after a while. Remember that Google has updates all the time and keeps indexing pages, so a little movement is okay.
Next thing to check for is to see if your site’s rankings really did drop. There are easy ways to do this, but if you’re more like a rank tracker tool type of guy, you’ll have an easier chance of gauging what’s currently happening to your rankings — there usually are visibility graphs and stuff like that.
Keep in mind though that rank trackers are always behind (unless they’re very good.) This is due to the fact that they keep chasing after Google and their constant updates. Another way is that to see and observe the rankings manually. (Hello all my old SEO fellas, ya’ll know what I’m talking about.) In the first place, you should be checking how your rankings are doing manually. That way if you were once on number 1 and suddenly go to the 15th or even zero for more than 2 or 3 days, you’ll know for sure that something is very wrong.
You can also check the overall status of the website using the Google Search Console, the Bing Webmaster tools, and again through your ranking tracker tools. There, you can see possible problems that could lead to the decline of performance you’re currently experiencing. Some of the examples are the increase of error pages, or even evil links.
If the website we’re diagnosing has recently updated a few design elements in it or has a few page migrations, then that can also have an effect on ranking. Design changes and such are actually big changes, but the ranking disruptions during such changes will only be temporary — Which is a good thing.
*Cool Tip: Remember Google Search Console? In it, you can check the updated pages (either through the design or migration updates.) There you can see if they were impacted by the ranking drop. This then could be a clue for you. If they are, double check if the updates or changes to these pages are done 100% correctly.
Next is the fun part, which is to check if you actually got a nice, steaming penalty from Google. Again, sometimes there really isn’t anything wrong, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Most especially if you’re in a business where large amounts of money go around you.
One way to check this is to see if your site and its pages are all still being indexed. There are many versions of penalty outcomes; the most severe of which comes in the form of your entire site being erased from Google’s index. Do a manual check by doing a site:domain.com query. If all your pages are still there, then it lessens the anxiety for everyone.
One thing to point out here is that sometimes there can also be a technical issue on why your site is being de-indexed; it could also be because your own robots.txt is preventing it, or you have noindex attributes all over your site. So it’s also best to check these things.
Here’s another way to check for Google penalties: if you’re targeting branded queries, check if you’re still ranking on these branded search queries. One version of punishment through Google penalty is just making you rank for branded keywords. So if you have been using a mix of them and you see that you’re still ranking on non-branded queries, then you’re all good.
Then there’s Google Search Console. Our good old best friend who never leaves our side no matter how much we try to cheat our way up Google’s ranks.
Go to your GSC dashboard and check the Search Traffic section, then the Manual Actions section. Here, you will see notices on the website you’re checking. If it says that there aren’t any notices, then that’s cool.
An aspect in all of this that a lot of people can still miss is the fact that the site might be hacked.
Yes. Hacking is still a thing, unfortunately. What happens is that once your enemies get to hack your site, they will place in bad or malicious codes as well as spammy content and links. The chances of this happening can sometimes be very low, but if in case you have been jacked, you need to know immediately. You don’t want agent smith corrupting you and your business.
To check, you can again use GSC. (See how important Google Search console is? In it you can find various security issues that might be connected to this nefarious situation.)
Going back to website changes, keep in mind that there are 2 versions here, technical changes/updates and content changes/updates.
For technical changes, these usually are the changes in HTTPS, canonicalizations, robots.txt updates (as mentioned before) and Hreflang. These are all also easily seen right away on tools such as SEM Rush for example.
And then the content changes. Search engines use a website’s content to determine its relevance to certain search queries. So it would make sense if a change was made recently, the performance would change as well.
Other aspects of these you need to check are the Title Tags. Minute changes in these will cause a roller coaster of rank changes. Especially if you’re already on page 1 and you changed a word in it.
Next is the Meta Description. While this doesn’t really impact the rankings directly, these elements help in the overall click-through rate for your search result. And CTR impacts your rankings.
Next are the Headings. These elements can also give cues that a page is also relevant, so make sure that these are in place.
After all that, the next thing to do is to literally Google what’s happening. Check for recent Google updates. Websites like Moz and Search Engine Land give all the juicy bits of news. You can also just follow Google on Twitter. #Relevant
Check your backlinks. Over time, if you’ve been actively building links to your site, you’ll get to collect a lot of good backlinks from various sites with different levels of link juice and authority. But one factor that naturally happens is these sites die off and retire; this then leads to the loss of backlinks. Again, with your SEO Tools, check your backlinks. If there is a big chunk of backlinks missing, this can also be a sign why your rankings dropped.
Now let’s say you’ve gone through all of this and still came out clean. Then next thing to check if you’ve been so robotic that you already forgot what your content is addressing: the people. Keep in mind that Google only wants to serve what the people want, and if the audience in front of you feel that you’re too rigid and boring, then they wouldn’t want to take your content. Google knows when that happens.