The easiest thing to do when traffic falls from SEO is blame a penalty, a bad link builder, or your tech team.
But playing the blame game doesn’t solve anything.
Also, many “penalties” aren’t actually penalties. They’re more like devaluations.
Your page speed might be too slow. Your content might be too thin or not as good as other websites that now rank above you. Or maybe your site simply lost rankings because the design of the SERPs has changed.
What Should You Do?
The most important thing to do is calm down and begin problem solving.
Here are the first three things to look at:
- Did something push your ranking lower (even if you’re in position 1)?
- Rich snippets have been added
- Maybe there is a new answer box
- More PPC ads may have appeared
- Do you have pages that rank within the top 100 instead of the first page and top 5 results?
- Is your site fully wiped from the top 100 except for your trademarks?
If number 3 sounds like you, then you probably got a penalty. Penalized sites do not typically show any results for any queries in the top 100.
If your problem sounds like 1 then you have your rankings, but the design of the search engine results has moved you lower or out of the traffic positions.
If it’s number 2, which is the most common, it could mean a few things.
- Duplicate content
- Thin content
- Competing pages
The good news is these three things are all easy, but sometimes labor intensive, to fix.
Below you’ll find the tools I use to troubleshoot the issue, and which ones I use to fix these.
1. Duplicate Content
Duplicate content is when your body copy and meta data are exactly the same as another page.
Technically it would also be the same code, same tags, etc., but for this post we’re focusing on body copy.
Moz, SEMrush, Screaming Frog, and Deep Crawl can all help to identify these issues by looking for duplicate or incredibly similar content.
To fix duplicate content issues, it’s important to understand why you have the duplicate content.
To find duplicate content, start by looking at:
- Your .htaccess to make sure all redirects and formats are equal.
- Canonical links are set to the best version or original version of the page to show.
- Meta robots noindex dofollow is set on all duplicate versions (but this can be overkill).
2. Thin Content
Many of us think our content is great, but the reality is it could be thin.
If you’ve dropped in rankings from the first page to no traffic, take a look at what is on the page and what is now in the top 10.
Look at your competitors and ask yourself:
- Are they providing better solutions and answers?
- Is there more content or less content than the previous top 10?
- Do the new rankings have informative content, sales copy, or is it more of a store?
- What is the page speed?
- How long does it take to get a first paint and for the page to fully render?
- Do they properly nest schema?
- What is their site structure?
Next you want to think about how you can provide similar solutions but in a better formatted and easier to understand and access.
Thin content is the best issue to have because fixing it is simple.
It may take a few months (sometimes a year) for the search engines to re-fall in love with it, but when you do it better and build something of quality, your rankings can come back and sometimes increase because of the long-tail and snippets it may attract.
3. Competing Pages
This is the most common issue and what I see the most.
Only one tool I know of can help to find and resolve it: Authority Labs. Unlike Moz (which shows URLs up to Page 5) or SEMrush (which shows where you rank with one URL), Authority Labs tracks the top 100 positions and all of the URLs showing up in each of the positions for that particular phrase.
You also get the history of which pages from your own URL have been ranking, which are new to the rankings for that term or phrase, and which have disappeared.
For example, you may rank in the second position for the term blue widget and all of the sudden you wake up and have no traffic or sales. This is a nightmare for many companies that rely on SEO.
Start by looking up the keyword and see which URL used to be in a traffic position. This is available almost anywhere.
Next, look up when it first disappeared and see if it just dropped into the top 100 but is still there.
Then, look to see if other URLs are now ranking for that term and in which position.
Most of the “content penalty” sites that come to me end up not being penalties, but instead have competition and duplication issues.
It could be that canonical tags went missing or that someone wrote a blog post that isn’t unique enough from the main page and now both the post and the page are hanging out in the top 100 waiting to be given a reason to rank.
If you do find a grouping of URLs for that phrase, there is a good chance you need to scrap the bad ones or redo the copy on the newer ones to give them enough of a unique twist to not compete with your core page and to exist on their own.
Here’s how I detect and resolve these issues.
- Plug the keywords I’m looking at from Google Search Console, SEMrush, SpyFu and other tool accounts into my Authority Labs account and start collecting data.
- See how many URLs are showing up and where.
- Look at each URL and write down what the theme of the page is.
- Do some research. Go to Google Keyword Planner, Quora, and Google’s “people also searched” results and create a list of topics and unique ideas around them for that specific theme.
- Now it’s time to outline new pages based on these new topics that are similar to each other
- I mark up the outline or draft copy with internal links to further help define which page is about what and why they shouldn’t compete
- Last I begin implementing the copy and adding the new keywords to Authority Labs to watch as the URLs hopefully start to disappear from the main keyword and appear in their own keyword phrases.
If you’ve made the copy unique enough, even if they are about the same product and same copy, and given them a reason for Google and other search engines to rank on their own, you should now see them all start to rise for their phrases and no longer compete with each other.
If you left the original page that got damaged by a new product version or a blog post alone, it may also return to its previous traffic position, but that isn’t always guaranteed.
Many times when you hear someone say they “got a penalty” it isn’t an actual penalty. It’s actually a devaluation of their site’s content and UX.
If site and page speed aren’t an issue, begin digging through your content and see if that is the problem. Most of them time when I’m helping with recovery projects, this is where and what I do for them when it isn’t technical SEO or backlink oriented.