Has your site seen a dramatic drop in search traffic sometime in the past few weeks? If so, you’ve probably been scrambling to figure out what on earth is going on. You’re not alone. Sites across the web have been reporting huge drops in rankings and traffic.

With so many sites reporting issues at the same time, the general answer to the problem becomes obvious: Google’s been changing their algorithm again. However, the more specific answer to your site’s conundrum may be a little harder to identify. Why? Because this time around, Google’s been making several significant changes at once.

So what can you do about your site’s traffic drop? We’d recommend three steps.

Step 1: Identify the Culprit
Google has acknowledged three separate things on their end that have had effects on search over the last few weeks. To figure out which (if any) of these items have affected your site, you need to look at your site’s analytics and determine the EXACT DATE when your traffic plummeted. Then compare that to the dates of Google’s maneuverings. Here’s a timeline:

  • April 17—Google misclassified some sites as parked domains.
  • April 19—Google refreshed their Panda algorithm update (so we’re now on v3.5).
  • April 24—Google made a new update to their algorithm, dubbed Penguin.
  • April 27—Google gave Panda another refresh (v3.6).

If the date of your traffic drop corresponds very closely to one of these dates, you’ve probably found your culprit. Additionally, if you were hit by the parked domain mistake, Google claims to have fixed the problem, so you should have seen a recovery shortly thereafter.

Step 2: Understand the Target
Before you can move your site toward recovery, you have to understand the types of sites that Google was trying to eliminate from their results. Knowing the reason behind the change will enable you to develop a strategy.

In the case of the parked domains mistake, there was no intended target. It was strictly an error on Google’s part. Google’s Matt Cutts attributed the error to a problem with files connected to their parked domains classifier. And if this is what hit your site, you don’t need a recovery strategy since your rankings should already have recovered.

The Panda refreshes, on the other hand, intentionally target low-quality sites. In a sense, nothing’s really changed, since that was the purpose of Panda when it was first rolled out in February of 2011. Google’s just tweaked their algorithm in an effort to eliminate even more of the same type of low-quality site (though of course there are always some higher-quality sites caught in the crossfire).

The Penguin update aims at devaluing outright spammers rather than low-quality sites. (This turns out to be the much-anticipated “over-optimization” update.) This time they seem to be weeding out keyword stuffing, paid or unnatural link profiles, comment spam, poor quality guest posts, and article marketing.

Step 3: Decide on a Strategy
If you believe your site was mistakenly hit by Penguin, Google has created a new form so you can bring the matter directly to their attention. However, there’s no guarantee that that will actually do anything. They may simply be collecting data. If you DO decide to fill out the form, do your best to make a case for the high quality of your site and how it’s a great result for searchers. That’s all that Google is going to care about.

Whether you were hit by Panda or Penguin, your overall strategy for recovery needs to be the same: improve the quality of your site. Stop engaging in spammy, black-hat SEO tactics aimed at tricking Google’s algorithm. Start providing real value for searchers. Almost exactly a year ago, Google’s Amit Singhal outlined a series of questions that site owners can ask themselves to help assess the quality of their site in Google’s eyes. Those questions give some strong clues as to the kinds of work you need to put into your site in order to keep it Google-friendly.

Still not sure what to do? We’d love to talk to you about ways you can improve your site. Contact us and we’ll talk.