Identifying Google Penalty or Algorithm Change Affecting Your Website

Google is always improving their algo, and with each passing change some sites lose their traffic. They are also sharpening their spam filters so many sites fall in oblivion due to a penalty. Both algorithm changes and penalties can be reversed for your benefit, in some cases penalties or drastic traffic loses due to algo changes can be the most needed wakeup call for any webmaster, it all depends how you deal with the situation. Panda, freshness update, page layout update or any reason for a penalty can change the way you look at web promotion and SEO, some people tend to give up altogether, but for those who want to proceed and improve their knowledge the things I will talk about here may help.

Obviously the first part of dealing with either a Google penalty or an algorithm change is to identify the problem. Without realizing what happened chance of going back or improving your standings are close to zero. So let’s talk about how we can determine what actually happened, after that we can create a plan to get back on our feet.

Before that, please understand that a penalty and traffic or rankings loss due to algorithm change or update are two very different things and should be approached in different ways. I know that some webmaster don’t make the difference (especially after Panda ), a traffic loss is a traffic loss to them, but being penalized is much worse than being affected by an algorithm change, so keep that in mind.

  1. The easiest way to try and identify an obvious penalty is by looking at your rankings. If there are massive ranking drops for a cluster of keywords or you don’t even show up for your branded terms you are most likely penalized. Do a quick search in Google using “” and see if your website shows in big G at all!
  2. If you do show up for your branded terms but a great deal of keywords are missing from their previous rankings you need to investigate more, two options emerge, certain links are devalued and thus the loss of rankings or the pages in questions have suffered from an update. This obviously requires more research, check your backlinks, try to find if some of them are removed from Google and don’t appear in their index anymore, like the recent blog networks wipe, or go through the list of the most recent updates Google made and check the factors that might be the cause of the drop.
  3. And 3, use resources provided by Google to see if this was a penalty, you can try Google webmaster tools and notifications, going through malware, robots.txt and general issues your site might have.

Now in most cases these few simple tips will help you either identify the problem or at least narrow it down to the most likely suspects. But things aren’t simple as that, in my experience sometimes it’s almost impossible to find the reason, at which point you just have to start with a clean slate and do everything over, this time better. To identify the exact problem you need to know of all the possibilities, if you are suspecting a penalty (probably because you know you messed with some dodgy techniques or hired a not so trusted SEO) these are the things you must investigate:

  • Backlink profile (velocity, mass link building, mass link exchanges, mass exact anchor text links, paid links, blog networks, hidden text links, or any other spam or shady type of links built, also bad outgoing links can do the trick)
  • Bad content (Duplicate content, similar content with thin pages, repetitive pages, over-optimization, keyword stuffing, scraping, hidden text)
  • Hosting Neighborhood (unfortunately this can royally screw your honest efforts, so look for websites hosted on your server)
  • Tech screw-ups (malware, redirects, cloaking)

If you are not sure then hop over to Google Webmaster Guidelines and get to know them by heart, this may help you identify the issue at hand. If none of these seem to be the issue, you have your terms but they are low on the scale, then you have not been penalized, but have suffered a change due to a Google update. Like I said above, knowing the most recent updates may help you identify the cause by simply matching the date of the rankings and traffic loss with known updates at that time. But in case you are not sure (there are many updates, minor ones, big ones, indexing is late etc…) then going over the following may help you find the issue again:

  • Major updates like Panda which affect many factors
  • Freshness issues (content and links)
  • Link values change (Google devalues some links, sees them as less important or any other algo change that may affect your link graph)
  • Outgoing links, Page layout, ads, duplication issues (some of these can get you penalized, but Google is improving their algo to clean the index automatically with each update instead of penalizing sites manually, which is why some people still see updates as penalties)

Also, be sure to consider traffic sources, it may happen that the third alternative is in question, neither a penalty nor an update directed to some bad issues on your site or link profile. Some updates target local searches, so you may have ranked in top 5 globally for some keywords, but with the implementation of certain local filters you may dropped in and for English terms, and the traffic is cut in half.

Be sure to check Google Updates and keep updated, here are two great resources to stay updated: and

Now going over the damage and repairing it is a different matter, there can be dozens of reasons as you can see above and dozens of solutions, so I won’t talk about dealing with actual issues as this will turn into an e-book rather than a post, instead I offer some great resources to help you recover from any possible issue. The most important thing to remember is to find the cause; after you identify the issue dealing with it will not be hard. A penalty or an update with a negative effect on your site can be a positive thing in the long run, as people struck by penalty learn the most valuable lesson, to create amazing content and promote it the best they can.

I will say one more thing, updates will come and go and if you keep track of best practices and promote your content as best you can you will always stay on top of the game. On the other hand penalties can get you out of the picture forever, which is the basic difference between a penalty and an update! You can go through several updates with negative impacts and still get back on top, while penalty can be beat once or maybe twice, but 3 times, no sir, you are better off buying a new domain and starting from scratch, this time the right way!

About The Author

is the founder and CEO of Practical SEO and also a passionate blogger. All of his free time he dedicates to his Practical SEO blog and giving free advice as well as participating in the blogging community.

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8 Response to Identifying Google Penalty or Algorithm Change Affecting Your Website

  1. Bjorn on April 10, 2012

    I have had a bit of a drop in my SE traffic. The traffic from Google have dropped for å month now. It is hard to figure out why. I have not done any black hat. I think I have to trough the issues you mention here and se if I can get the traffic back. It can maybe be the login redirects, or the hosting that is the problem..

  2. SEO UK on April 11, 2012

    Everybody knows that Google is very much aware about all the wrong things, so identifying Google penalty or Algorithm change may affect your website and it depends how you deal with the situation. I think Google has done a great job.

  3. Shane WIlliam on April 12, 2012

    I love this article. I have lost lots of my sites since I was not aware about Google Algo changes. That’s true all they were not due to penalties it’s just algo changes.

  4. Deb Dulal Dey on April 18, 2012


    Sorry to hear that you are hit by Google. You can do the below thing:

    1. Noindex all categories
    2. Remove duplicate content –

    duplicate version of

    3. move forum to subdomain – to
    4. have u been building links via forum posting., blog commenting??

    For any other assistance shot me a mail at debdulaldey at

    deb dulal dey

  5. Bjorn on April 18, 2012

    Hmm. The topblogged story is syndicated from my rss feed. Via blogengage. There is no doubt my article is the orginal, since top blogger links to my site…
    Can syndication bring penalty now? How about all story syndicated by webmagazines. Should maybe delete the whole forum since nobody is using it.. But I am not sure if it would help on the SEO.. Yes I have done some links in comments like here, but not on forums.
    Thanks for looking at my site, and thanks for the advices. I will try out and see if it helps..

  6. Abdul Rehman on April 20, 2012

    Hello Zarko Zivkovic
    I have been enjoying my traffic till NOVEMBER 2011, and soon after that i noticed it started droping the se visitor. for some keyword i was ranking 1# to 7# in first page. and even i noticed that i was having around 18 good backlinks but now it became zero.
    I checked in Google WMT, there is no problem with robots, malware issue and i tried seraching my site:domain.tld in google its showing.

    So what you think is i am penalized or due to update of algo, i am affected ?

    i have very good service on my site, its totally related to Mobile Phone.

    Please help me to resolve this issue.


  7. Workers comp bill on November 5, 2012

    One of the best ways to know is check your rankings for a certain keyword that used to rank in top 10 and is disappeared or pushed back beyond top 100.
    Chris Harris

  8. Panagiotis Kontogiannis on April 18, 2013

    If your site disappear from SERP, things is bad, and you have penalty. Solution is one, make new site and don’t do previous wrong steps in optimization. Learn from your faults.

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