Your diagnostics tool kit
Google Search Console's webmaster tools
Check for messages from Google, which can include sudden changes in how Google can access your site, the sudden appearance of errors and manual actions (where Google staff come to your site and manually penalise it).
In the “Search Traffic”, “Who links the most” and “Links to My Site” sections, you can click “download latest links”. This spreadsheet tells you if there’s been a sudden change in the links to your website. Bad links are a major cause of search result drops.
If anything in the Search Console gives you red flags, talk to your SEO company immediately.
SERP tracking sites and forums
Check search engine results pages (SERP) tracking sites/forums for signs of an algorithm update:
• .com.au sites use Algaroo
• .com sites use Mozcast
• Warrior Forum hosts discussions about any changes with clues to what the issue could be
• Consider purchasing a month of keyword tracking by SEMrush to monitor your progress
Identify roughly when the changes happened. You should note the dates of your traffic drop and cross-references with one of the above resources for algorithm changes on or around that date.
The top algorithms affecting SMEs
The major algorithms to impact SMEs are Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird and Fred. While these are the “main offenders” updates, targeting website features like pop-up boxes and locked content may also affect your performance.
Different algorithms can apply to specific kinds of businesses:
Penguin updates target websites with low-quality inbound links or too many keywords attached to links (anchor text).
Penguin also covers “black hat” tactics like doorway pages, bait and switch redirects, hidden links and the like. Updates roll out regularly and tend to have pretty big implications for SMEs.
How to diagnose Penguin penalties
Check your Search Console list of inbound links. If it looks spammy, it’s quite possibly spam. You can paste the linking URL into MozCast’s free Open Site Explorer “spam rating” to give you a ballpark idea of the spamminess of a link.
Penguin can affect individual pages rather than the whole site. Start by disavowing links via Google Search Console on the worst links to not take them into account for your SEO. If you see improvement, you’re on the right track.
Panda updates target low-quality (short, thin, badly written) content or content that has been sourced from “content farms”.
For SMEs, you may find that product descriptions copied from supplier sites suddenly disappear from search results. This is Panda disregarding your “duplicate content”.
How to diagnose Panda penalties
Identify content that has dropped in search results using Google Analytics. Run your content through Copyscape or another reputable duplicate content checker to see if the pages/sections affected by the update are sending up red flags for duplicate content. Google the keywords you’ve lost ranking for to see if the newly ranking content is "better" than yours. If so, it could point to a Panda update.
How to fix Panda penalties
Create original content that helps the reader on their journey.
Hummingbird wasn’t an update as much as it was a complete overhaul to how SEO worked. Instead of monitoring keywords and links of value, it sought to understand user intention and reward sites that best answered that intention.
How to diagnose Hummingbird penalties
If you’ve prioritised keyword traffic over being helpful to users, it shows. Your bounce rate is high, your conversion rate is low, and your time on site and screens per visit are all low.
If your Google Analytics stats show that you’re not really pleasing your visitors, you won’t be pleasing Hummingbird either.
How to fix Hummingbird penalties
Create content that answers keyword search terms perfectly. Research what people are really after when they Google and answer it better than all of your competitors.
Fred is the new kid on the algorithm block. The jury is still out on whether Fred is a standalone algorithm or if it is related to Panda as it targets low-quality content that exists to generate income from advertisements.
Sites hardest hit by Fred rely heavily on sponsored posts or AdSense style ad servers to monetise their content; think low-quality blogs and private blog networks. Private blog networks have been the cornerstone of low-quality, cheap and cheerful SEO for a while now.
How to diagnose Fred penalties
Fred is all about low-quality content and too many ads. If you’re monetising by selling ads into content, then it’s likely Fred is the culprit for your traffic drops.
If your SEO company has been using private blog networks to build your links, these sites will have been targeted and their links devalued, which will take your site’s SEO value down with it.
How to fix Fred penalties
Don’t publish content for the sake of getting sponsorship/ad revenue. Publish quality content first, and consider monetisation second. Don’t follow all your outbound links to sponsors and advertisers and most importantly, don’t be spammy.
Most SMEs have some knowledge of SEO best practice and incorporate it into their daily business dealings; however, diagnosing Google penalties is a methodical practice that may require deeper knowledge than you can get from a single blog.
Like any practice that could make or break your business, it’s important to turn to the experts in dire times. Talk to your SEO company (or a reputable one that doesn’t use private blog networks) before doing anything drastic.
Dana Flannery is the owner and strategist at Talk About Creative, an SEO company based in Brisbane.