Signs You’ve Been Hit By A Google Update (and what to do)

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If you’ve experienced a significant drop in your traffic, revenue and/or keyword rankings, then you may have been impacted by a search engine algorithm update.

Another sign is if you see a bunch of red, down-facing arrows in your keyword rankings on software. For example:

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Before we talk about what to do to prevent these drops in the first place, let’s talk about what you should do if you think you’ve been negatively affected by an algorithm update.

Perform a Penalty Audit

When you perform a penalty audit, you’re trying to determine two things:

  1. The cause for the drop in traffic (specifically looking at Google algorithm changes).
  2. Next steps to mitigate the decline and hopefully reverse the trend.

To identify the cause of your drop in traffic, revenue and/or keyword ranking, it’s important to perform a Search History Analysis. This involves looking at the organic search traffic history in Google Analytics to see when the substantial drops in traffic occurred.

From there, you want to review other analytics reporting, such as Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools and third-party data like SEMRush and Searchmetrics, as well as review other organic search engine traffic over time, like Bing and Yahoo. You can also compare search traffic over time for a specific niche by using Google Trends. You might find overall search trending down for a specific niche versus just a Google update.

Investigate the Penalty

Once you’ve figured out what algorithm update negatively impacted your site, you then want to break it down and understand what that update entails. Take Panda, for example. The Panda algorithm was developed to penalize sites with any of the following qualities:

  • Large amounts of internally or externally duplicated content
  • Excess pages with thin content
  • Over-optimized keyword usage in content
  • Domains with advertising-heavy page designs

Identify Areas of Improvement

Next, assess what improvements can be made to your website. For example, if you discover that your penalties are directly related to Panda ranking factors, then you might find that your site has:

  • 750 pages have duplicate content issues (content is similar or identical)
  • 15 pages have duplicate meta descriptions
  • 13 pages have duplicate title tags
  • 263 pages have duplicate content in the H1 heading and the title tag

Short- and Long-term Fixes

Short-term

When you’ve been hit by a penalty, there are four short-term things you need to do to fix the critical issues:

  1. Upgrade your SSL certificate
  2. Remove references to all insecure (http://) resources on your checkout pages and make them secure (https://).
  3. Remove empty product pages as they are counted as duplicate content. In addition, disallow their paths from robots.txt (and remove from the XML sitemap, if applicable).
  4. SEO Writing:
    1. Rewrite your title tags and meta descriptions for pages with duplicate title tag and meta description values in process.
    2. Implement meta descriptions and H1 tags for pages that do not have them.
    3. Add Image ALT tags on all product images.

Long-term

On e-commerce sites, it’s not uncommon for there to be low text-to-HTML ratios. Unfortunately, these are viewed as very similar to one another, leading to duplicate content penalties.  In the short-term, this can be addressed by massaging the copy. Longer-term, however, we recommend:

  • Planning for an alternate structure for product pages so that similar products only have one page with various options (i.e. ages, colors, sizes) that users can select on that one page. This will significantly improve both SEO and UX.
  • Write separate product descriptions for external sites if there is a lot of duplication of product descriptions on external sites in order to reduce the potential for duplicate content penalties.
  • Conduct an SEO user experience audit. This type of audit focuses on the information architecture of your site to evaluate how user-friendly it is for visitors. People may be finding your site in their search, but if they are frequently leaving because your UX isn’t good, Google frowns on that.

Proactive Steps to Prevent an Update from Negatively Impacting Your Site

There’s no question that dealing with penalties is a pain. One of the best things you can do to prevent them is to stay on top of all algorithm updates. I appreciate that this is easier said than done as it can be quite time-consuming. This is actually one of the reasons we send a monthly search engine update to our clients – rarely do they or their team have time to monitor them all.

With that said, here are some things you can do if you have the time and the resources:

  • Read Search Engine Land and SEO Roundtable. Subscribe to their emails.
  • Read forums, follow chatter, etc. to see who is being negatively impacted by search engine rankings.
  • Check Moz’s Google Algorithm Change list.
  • Monitor your Google Analytics traffic so that you are not surprised by a penalty.
  • Read articles and blogs about Google’s updates. For example, we recently wrote a post about Google’s updates to Penguin and Panda to help companies understand what the changes were, how they might affect their site, and what to do so that they don’t get penalized.

For high-level SEO strategy and recommendations that will support your in-house efforts, reach out to our advanced SEO and digital strategy team. We can perform a penalty audit to determine if you’ve been affected or an SEO site audit to help you prevent a drop in your traffic, keyword rankings and revenue.

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