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Why Did My Site's
Google Ranking Drop?

Hardly an hour passes before some poor frustrated website owner posts a message in Google's Webmaster Help Forum asking why their website dropped in the rankings of Google when they are still ranking high in the other search engines. Often it's a dramatic plea for help from a non-technical webmaster whose small business website has been near the top of the results for his best keyword phrase for quite some time when suddenly, and without his making any changes to his site, it is no longer to be found and he cannot see any reason why. So I've collected a list of the most common reasons here why a website's search engine rankings fall with suggested methods of recovery.

Google Panda and Penguin Updates

Reasons Why Your Site Dropped in Google Ranking

There are many reasons why a website will drop in the rankings, so I've compiled a list of the most common reasons here. Start here, but once you've taken care of any of the ranking issues I describe, be sure to check Google's Guidelines For Webmasters to be sure you're in compliance. Pay particular attention to the Quality Guidelines, because that section contains the rules that will incur a penalty if you violate them. The other search engines all have similar guidelines that you need to follow.

  1. Change in the Search Engine Ranking Algorithm: Search engines are constantly changing the methods they use to rank websites in order to improve the general quality of their search results and to weed out the sites that are resorting to various tricks (ie. so-called "black hat" optimization techniques) to artificially boost their rankings. For the past few years, Google has been making significant changes to their algorithm on a frequent basis. While Bing tends to make less frequent and usually more subtle changes than Google, they don't stand still for long either. The point is that search engines do change their methods and you can't rely on your rankings to remain unchanged forever. A drop in ranking can happen gradually, or it can be sudden when their methods change in a way that particularly affects your website. When your site's rankings fall and you believe that you're abiding by the rules, your best recourse is to reexamine your site in light of the Guidelines and work to make your site better and stronger.

  2. Loss of PageRank/Link Popularity: One or more links to your site that had been providing a significant amount of PageRank to your site have been removed/deleted, moved to a new unranked page, or the PageRank of the originating site has dropped (for similar reasons). Websites with low to modest PageRank often obtain the bulk of their link strength from a small number of strong links. So the loss of even one of them can have a major impact on their rankings. In recent years, Google has begun to aggressively discount or completely negate the PageRank value of links from low quality pages/websites, and links they consider to be unnatural, such as text link ads, gratuitous press releases, forum signature links, blog comments, and listings in low quality directories. The loss of the value of such artificial links can cause a significant ranking drop, and excessive posting of such links can lead to penalties. Artificial links are links that the webmaster generated himself, as opposed to "editorial links," which are links that are posted by other webmasters for the benefit of their users. See the Google Panda and Penguin Updates information for details.

  3. Malware or Hacking: If Google detects malware on your pages, it will warn users who click on your pages in the search results before sending them to your site. This is not really a drop in ranking, but the effect is just as bad since very few users will proceed past such a warning. See my article on Removing Malware for help on getting the Malware Warning removed and for removing the malware itself. Google has some Good advice for repairing a hacked site, too. You can use Google's Safe Browsing Diagnostic Tool to check your site using the form below:

  4. Penalty: The search engines are getting very aggressive about violations of their guidelines and are quick to punish some transgressions. Some of the most common causes of penalties include:

    • Hidden Text: Hidden text is an old trick that can remain undetected by the search engines for a while, but is always discovered at some point. Don't hide text by making it the same color as the page background. Google sniffs that out very easily these days and can get you a significant penalty. You can use CSS methods for drop-down menus or tabbed <div>s to keep content invisible until a user requests it (by mouseovers or clicks). As long as there is a legitimate reason for using CSS in this manner and there is a clear way for users to reveal the content, you won't be penalized. Just don't try to stuff keywords on a page in a way that only the search engines will ever see it. You'll get caught eventually.

    • Artificial Links: Artificial links are any links that are not "editorial links" - that is, links that are naturally embedded in the page content as a resource for users. This includes paid links (text or images), forum signatures, blog comments, directory submissions and any other link that you generate yourself. While all of the major search engines prohibit buying and selling links, Google has been the most aggressive in penalizing link buyers and sellers. If you're selling plain text links or image advertising that can pass PageRank, your site may have its PageRank score(s) reduced or it may have its ability to pass PageRank removed. In either case, it can mean your website's internal pages will no longer rank as well as they had before. If you have paid links or advertising on your site, make sure that all of the links have the attribute rel="nofollow" in the <a>nchor tag in the HTML code or that the links point to a redirection script on your site that is blocked in your robots.txt file. If you're a link buyer, the effects of Google's Penguin Algorithm can mean that you've wasted your money on links that are no longer helping your rankings and may well harm them.

    • Thin Content/Low Quality Pages: Google's Guidelines prohibit sites that exist mainly to serve advertising. You can have AdSense ads or affiliate links if your site contains a high proportion of original high-quality content. It's only websites that have a large amount of content copied from elsewhere, and websites with little or no information-rich, original content for the user that will be penalized. Business Ecommerce websites should avoid copying product descriptions from the manufacturer or other e-commerce sites like Amazon, and create their own unique descriptions for each product they offer for sale. In January of 2012, Google announced that they would also reduce the rankings of pages where there is a large amount of advertising "above the fold" that makes the user have to scroll down the page in order to see the content. This includes AdSense ads. Overall, Google now reduces the rankings of websites with a large number of pages that have a high ratio of advertising to content. It's all intended to improve the user's experience in the search results. See my note on the Panda Update for more details.

    • Multiple Domain Names: Having multiple domain names pointing to the same content is a common mistake that new webmasters make, thinking that it will lead to better rankings when just the opposite is true. While this practice doesn't generally trigger an actual penalty, the search engines' methods for filtering out duplicate content can damage your rankings. See "Duplicate Content" below. The solution is to pick one domain name to use and install 301 redirects on all of the other domains pointing to the primary domain you've chosen. See my article on Multiple Domain Names and SEO to learn the best way to use domain names.

    • Domain Farms: This is the practice of creating many websites and heavily cross-linking them all to each other. It's not uncommon for people or businesses to own and operate multiple websites, but if they are heavily linked to each other ("cross-linked") and don't provide unique, high-quality content, Google may consider it to be a "link scheme" you created solely to increase your rankings. If you own multiple domains, it's alright to create a handful of links between them. You can also post individual cross-links within the content of one of your sites pointing to another site you own when it's appropriate to the content and helpful to users. But don't cross-link all of them on every page. All things in moderation!

    • Linking to penalized, or so-called "bad neighborhood" sites: This is another mistake that a novice might make without knowing that he may be doing something in violation of the search engines guidelines. Make sure that any website you link to is one that you would be happy to have your users visit and that has a majority of its pages included in Google's index. In general, a couple of links to a bad neighborhood won't hurt you unless you also have other quality issues, but you should always be careful in posting links on your site. If you need to link to a site you think might be of questionable quality, the best practice is to add the rel="nofollow" attribute to the <a>nchor tag.

    • Cinderella Story or "Honeymoon" Effect: If your site is less than 6 months old, you may have been getting an artificial boost in your rankings from Google to help your site be found by users. But that extra ranking power for new sites doesn't last forever. You'll seem to be flying high one day and not to be seen at all the next. Again, this usually comes down to low link popularity since it takes time and effort to build quality links to a new website. A continuous link building program is your best insurance against falling rankings. See my Building Links article for some good advice.

    • Excessive Link Exchanges: Yes, I know that I recommend link exchanges for new websites and I also know that Google discourages the practice. But although their guidelines are ambiguous, their actions are easier to interpret. Limit your link exchanges to just a handfull of closely-related, good quality websites. A dozen is all you need to get your site on the right track, not hundreds or thousands. Don't do massive exchanges through automated programs that create link exchange directories on your site. Don't make meaningless posts in online forums or comment in blogs just to get links. Such artificial links (ie. links you create yourself) don't improve your rankings and are likely to reduce Google's level of trust for your site. Trust is a term you will run into more and more as you study Search Engine Optimization. Both Google and Bing use that term in their suggestions for webmasters. A high proportion of artificial links can really hurt your site's rankings now. See my note on the Penguin Update for more details on bad links.

  5. Canonicalization Problems: My personal favorite because, without changing a thing on your site, you can fall victim to this problem in Google. All it takes is someone linking to your site with the wrong version of your URL and you can start to have some problems. This is mostly a problem for newer websites that haven't firmly established themselves in Google. It means that Google has indexed pages from your site with more than one version of your URLs. It can be two versions of your domain name (ie. '' and simply ''), or it can be the correct domain name, but using both HTTP and HTTPS. You can also have problems if you set a rel="canonical" tag to the wrong URL. I can personally attest to how easy it is to make that mistake. Fortunately, you can recover easily from this issue. See Website Canonicalization Repair article for details.

  6. Broken links: If one of your internal pages is critical to your website's success - either for its ability to draw traffic by its high search engine ranking or because it's a critical navigation page - making a typographical error in a link can mean a major section of your site is suddenly disconnected from the rest of your site and therefore vulnerable to being dropped by the search engines. Normally, a critical page will have several links, but novices will sometimes fall victim to this error. The cure is to make a habit of regularly using a link checker like the free utility Xenu Link Sleuth, or the W3C's Link Checker.

  7. Server Problems: If Google has difficulty accessing your site, if it's slow to respond or responds with an error code for a sustained period, it can lead to problems. Search engines are very tolerant of short periods when a site may be unavailable for maintenance or other issues, but if the problems persist over many days it can impact your rankings. If you know your site will be down for maintenance, you should set your server to respond with the HTTP response code 503, which informs the search engines that you're aware of the situation, it's only temporary and they should try again later. Other server problems include chains of 301 or 302 redirects that take too many steps to reach the final page. Two redirection steps should be the most any HTTP request to your site should return. My Server Response Checker will show you how your server is responding.

  8. robots.txt or robots <meta> Tag Issues: Your robots.txt file or a robots <meta> set to "noindex" or "nofollow" may be blocking the search engines from crawling some or all of your pages. Review your robots.txt file to make sure it looks good. The "Fetch As Googlebot" tool in Google's Webmaster Tools console will let you test your robots.txt file to make sure it only blocks the URLs that you want it to. The Webmaster Tools console also shows a list of URLs Google found were blocked by your robots.txt file in the Crawl Errors report.

  9. Duplicate Content: You should do your best to prevent the same content from being available through more than one URL on your website or anyone else's. When Google finds duplicate pages, it tries to select the "best" or "canonical" version and devalues all of the copies. But as a webmaster, you don't get to choose which copy they select as best. This problem crops up quite often when people have blogs or shopping carts on their sites, or have separate sites for different countires and/or languages. If your website uses a popular blog, forum, or shopping cart script, be sure to look for the latest version of that software and any plug-ins that might be available to help. Another source of duplicate content is other sites copying your website. This is particularly annoying since you obviously had nothing to do with creating the problem. It's a good idea to use services like CopyScape to check for other sites copying your pages. They have both free and paid services available. If you find someone copying your site, contact them and demand they remove it. If they don't comply, contact their hosting service and tell them what happened. It can also be helpful to submit a DMCA Removal Request to Google.

Google offers webmasters substantial help through their Webmaster Tools. You can get a detailed analysis of your site's status in Google there. But for websites that have incurred a manual penalty, there is a form called the "Reconsideration Request" form that lets you tell Google that you have repaired any violations you found and ask that any penalties be removed. While Google's automatic systems will usually remove a penalty over time if a website has been brought into compliance, filing a Reconsideration Request can speed the process along by several weeks or months. Note that the Reconsideration Request will only help if you have had a manual penalty applied to your website, which are penalties for violating Google's Quality Guidelines, and only if you've fully resolved the problem that caused the penalty. Google considers other issues that have the same ranking effect as a penalty to be a part of their algorithm and they rarely take any direct action in those cases.

Google Panda Algorithm

On February 24, 2011 Google released a major update to its ranking methods, popularly referred to as "Farmer" or "Panda" since the purpose was to target so-called "content farms" which are large sites filled with low-quality content. The update also targets sites that have an excessive ratio of advertising to content and sites that have a high level of duplicate or 'scraped' content. This is one of the rare circumstances in which a Google ranking factor works on a site-wide level, as opposed to an individual web page. If your site's rankings dropped significantly recently, you should read the article on Search Engine Land by Googler Vanessa Fox, Google Traffic Dropped With Farmer/Panda Update that suggests ways to analyze why your rankings dropped and how to restore them.

Generally, you should keep your pages rich with fresh, useful, original content. Websites that syndicate, republish, or repackage content from other sites are likely to have their rankings drop significantly. The same holds for sites with a large number of pages that consist mostly of advertising and other template content with little useful content. If you have low-quality pages that simply can't be improved, but whose content is still important to your users, you should either add a robots <meta> tag set to "noindex" to those page, or block them in your robots.txt file. A better solution is to merge that content into other relevant pages and delete the original page.

Since this is a sitewide ranking factor, you won't see any improvement in your rankings for quite some time after you make any attempts to improve the quality of your site with regard to this update in Google's ranking algorithm because they only update this information periodically.

Google Penguin Algorithm

Google has also made a second major change in its algorithms. This change has been officially named "Penguin" and you can get a sense of how it works in the Inside Search article on Penguin by Google's "distinguished engineer" Matt Cutts. In that article, he examines some eggregious examples of webspam with overt and deliberate attempts to scam the search engines. It's not the imfamous "over-optimization penalty" that he had discussed at an industry conference earlier in 2012, apparently, but might well be a step along that path. Issues like unnatural keyword usage and irrelevant and artificial links were highlighted in the article, but it's not clear yet just what Penguin specifically targets. But the message is clear. Google wants websites that are designed to deliver quality content for users to rank best, and websites that try to beat their algorithms should not be rewarded. Bing has also recently made it clear that they consider many similar aspects of page quality and usability to be important to their ranking methods.

One aspect of Penguin that is well-established is its targeting of artificial links, such as blog comment SPAM, article SPAM, paid links, forum signature links, and other webmaster-generated links. If you're trying to diagnose a drop in your rankings, check the "Links To Your Site" tool in the "Search Traffic" menu in the Google Webmster Tools console. One thing to look for is large numbers of links coming from single domains. These are often so-called "scraper" sites that just copy content or automatically generate content that include links. And since they're low-quality sites, Google is targeting these links in their ranking systems. Look for any links you created that might appear to be SPAM. Once you identify these potentially harmful links, contact the webmasters of those sites and ask them to remove the links. If/When that fails, you can use Google's Link Disavowal Tool to request that Google ignore them. Removing such bad links has helped some websites to escape from Penguin issues. In the end, you want the vast majority of your links to be natural (ie. "editorial") links from high-quality websites.

October 20, 2014 Update Google has confirmed it has deployed an update to Penguin, dubbed by the SEO community as "3.0". They have said it should help smaller websites perform a little better. It also updates their link data, so if you've been cleaning up your backlinks over the past year, you may see some improvements.

December 10, 2014 Update Google has announced that Penguin will now be updating on a continuous basis, rather than having periodic (ie. glacial) update releases. So there is hope that websites that work on their backlink profile will see results much faster now.

May 21, 2015 Update Google tried to clarify the issue of Penguin updates. Apparently, the internal data collection is continuous but it requires a "data push" for that data to be incorporated into the rankings and such data pushes are only done periodically. Does the term "geologic epoch" ring a bell?

This page was last updated on May 26, 2015

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