My Google Rankings Dropped Dramatically – Immediate Steps to Audit for a Google Penalty

You are a business owner or marketer and you conduct a Google search for a keyword you are accustomed to seeing your company rank in the number one of two position for. All of the sudden, it’s nowhere to be found. It’s fallen off the first page. Heck, you can’t find it on the second or third page either.

I’ve been in this situation with clients and even for my own business [listen to podcast on how I helped a billion dollar car insurance company recover from a Google penalty]. This feeling of seeing your hard-earned rankings completely drop off is indescribable.  For starters, don’t panic. This does not mean you’ve been penalized by Google or permanently lost your rank. 

Below are the steps you should take immediately after seeing a severe ranking drop on Google, all of which are explained in more detail throughout the article.

  1. Check Google Search Console to see if you received a manual actions penalty 
  2. Conduct a manual Google search to check indexing
  3. Check Google Search Console to determine if the web page is properly indexed 
  4. Determine if web page has technical issue or was deindexed
  5. Look into keyword tracking software such as Moz or SEMrush to see if you’ve noticed a large drop in rank or search visibility amongst a large set of keywords.
  6. Check to see whether or not there was a major algorithm update. MozCast is a weather report showing turbulence in the Google algorithm over the previous day. 
  7. Follow key SEO leaders covering Google Algorithm updates to see if they’ve written about a new algorithm update dropping. Some of my favorites are the following: Barry Schwartz, Marie Haynes and Glenn Gabe. There is also the official Google Webmaster Twitter account, although the industry experts normally pick up on this before Google announces anything. 
  8. Check with people who work for your company or the SEO company you hired who has access to your site to get an understanding of recent changes made to your site. You will also want to get an understanding of strategy in terms of backlinks being built for your site along with content strategy. 

DON’T PANIC

SEO is one of the core services our digital marketing agency offers. I was on vacation and stupidly checked our website rankings. Some of our core SEO keywords had suddenly tanked (see below). I was ranking #3 for “Columbus SEO Company” and then I couldn’t find our SEO page anywhere on Google. I followed the steps I’ve outlined below, which helped me create this “cheat sheet.” 

When you see a keyword on Google drop dramatically, you immediately expect the worst (I certainly did). It’s a natural reaction. I held tight and followed the steps below to audit the situation. Google runs over 3,000 algorithm updates per year. In many instances, it can just be Google tweaking its system and your rankings can return within 24-48-hours.

Below are the steps you should immediately take after seeing your Google rank drop significantly:

1. Check Google Search Console for a Manual Actions Penalty
Login to your Google Search Console account to see if you’ve been hit with a manual action penalty. Once logged in underneath your domain name, you will click where it says, “Manual Action,” which I’ve highlighted below.

If you don’t have access to your Search Console, make sure your Webmaster or SEO agency provides you with this access. 


Below is an example of a warning you would have received once clicking into manual actions. I got this image from
SEORoundtable.com article, where Dejan SEO was hit with a manual action penalty for link building. If you follow Dejan on Twitter, his case study is fascinating!

Hopefully when you check your manual actions via Search Console, you are seeing “No Issues Detected.” 


What if you got hit with a manual actions penalty?

Google has made it known via Search Console that something is wrong with your SEO practices. It could be related to link building, thin content, duplicative content or other manipulative practices. All of the items below could have led to a drop in your keyword rankings.

Unfortunately, many webmasters had no clue that what they were doing on their site or off their site (like manipulative link building) could lead to this sort of penalty. In many instances, an in-house SEO expert or an agency could have caused this issue (completely unintentionally). 

Opinion: I’ve always felt Google is too harsh when issuing a penalty that impacts rank rather than issuing a warning first. If a warning was issued, you could fix the problem before seeing your keywords plummet, which obviously impacts your rank and new business coming to your site. I truly believe most webmasters had no clue that what they were doing was manipulative and it’s harsh to not issue a warning before taking immediate action that could affect business so severely.

If you’ve been hit with a penalty, there are plenty of ways to recover. An SEO expert with experience in Google penalty recovery will help you identify a roadmap to recovery.

There are plenty of SEO experts that have no experience in Google penalty recovery, so do your research before hiring someone to help your rankings recover. This is a niche industry and you don’t want to pay someone to “learn on the job.”

What if my keyword rankings tanked and I didn’t receive a manual actions warning?

If you haven’t received a manual action penalty, continue following the steps below. It can be extremely nerve wracking if your Google keyword rankings tanked and you don’t know what caused it. There is a strong possibility there is no penalty at all and there are some technical issues just need to be fixed. Google may also be going through some sort of update that could have impacted your rankings, but only temporarily.

2. Conduct a Manual Google Search to Check Indexing
It could be that the webpage associated with the keyword you are searching for isn’t being indexed, hence the drop in rank.

The first thing you’ll want to do is go to Google.com. In the search navigation, put “site” followed by your entire URL (see URL highlighted below). This is called running a site command.

If your site is being indexed, you’ll see it populate in the search results like this.


If your site is not being indexed, we need to figure out if it’s a technical issue causing this or if Google has deindexed your page for one of these reasons. We’re hoping it’s just a technical issue, which you can troubleshoot immediately by going to Google Search Console. If Google de-indexed a page on your site (or your entire domain) this means they they don’t like something you’re doing.  

In addition to typing in the entire domain, I recommend doing a couple of Google searches for the pages that dropped in rank with your brand name in front of the search. If I were to have typed in “The Media Captain SEO” and wasn’t able to find any pages for SEO on my own site, this would support the fact that your page is not being indexed, which is not good.

Below, I was able to find the reference of this page on our site. 

If you were to do a search for your brand name and nothing populates, that could mean your entire site got deindexed, which is more problematic.

3. Check Google Search Console to Determine if Web Page is Properly Indexed
If your site or a page on your site is not being indexed, this would mean that you would not see it in the search results when typing your site name into Google search. At this point, we need to figure out why it’s not being indexed.

Google Search Console will confirm whether or not your site is properly indexed, which will determine whether yous webpage isn’t populating due to a technical issue or some sort of slap on the wrist by Google.

There is a reason to be concerned if you follow the steps below within Search Console and your site is being indexed in Search Console but when you follow step #2 above, you can’t find it manually on Google. 

  1. Visit Google Search Console
  2. Click on “URL Inspection”


Once you click on “URL Inspection,” you will enter your website URL (see example below). Search Console will tell you whether your URL is live on Google. 


If you see that your URL is live on Google within Search Console, then your site is getting indexed fine by Google, meaning there are no technical issues. If you’re not populating in search results, however, Google isn’t indexing your site for some other reason, which could mean bigger problems.

4. Determine if Web Page Isn’t Indexed Due To a Technical Issue or Was Deindexed

Potential Penalty:
If the URL you inspected in Search Console is “On Google” according to Search Console, but you can’t find it by conducting the manual Google Search and/or running a site command, this could be problematic and will require further investigation by an SEO expert as it could be some sort of penalty. 

HERE is a great article by Search Engine Watch that identifies 13 reasons why Google isn’t indexing your site. Hopefully, it’s just a technical issue that’s holding your site back (like your sitemap not being submitted or a robots.txt being active on the page).

Don’t panic though. I’ve seen instances where a page was indexed by Search Console but wasn’t populating in Google Search and 24-48 hours later, everything was back to normal. If 48-hours has passed and your site still isn’t being indexed on Google even though it’s “On Google” in Search Console, this can be a reason to be concerned about Google deindexing a page on your site.

Technical Issue:
If your URL is not live on Google when you search in Search Console, this likely means there’s a technical issue with your site, which can be quickly fixed. This is good news! 

You can easily “request indexing” which I highlighted in the screenshot above. Sometimes, when Google is crawling your site, they miss a page and reindexing can quickly resolve your issue. I also recommend checking your sitemap.xml to make sure this has been recently submitted and the page that isn’t populating is a part of your sitemap.xml. HOW DO YOU DO THIS?

It’s important to note that there are different levels of severity when it comes to being de-indexed. Sometimes, it can be just a page or two on your site. Other times, it can be an entire domain, depending on the severity of the penalty.

It is important to note that if you have a robots.txt on your webpage or if it’s no-indexed, you’ll need to remove this for Google to actually crawl your site and index it. HOW DO YOU DO THIS/CHECK THIS?

Feel free to contact a developer with SEO experience to help you identify if any of THESE ISSUES are holding back your site from being indexed.

5. Look into keyword tracking software such as Moz or SEMrush to see if you’ve noticed a large drop in rank or search visibility amongst a large set of keywords.

Do you have your keywords added to an SEO software like Moz or SEMRush? If no, I would recommend signing up with one of the companies above. This will help you detect trends amongst your keywords.

On August 30th, 2019,  I had a minor panic attack when I saw one of our major keywords drop on Google. Our agency has always ranked well for “Columbus SEO Company” and similar searches. 

When you see a keyword on Google drop dramatically, you immediately expect the worst, it’s a natural reaction, even if you are certain there was nothing done to manipulate Google’s search engines.  

Of course, during the course of the 24-hours when our ranking dropped, I was nervous but I didn’t panic. I made sure not to rush to conclusions for at least 24-48 hours. I audited the situation and noticed that this page wasn’t being indexed on Search (despite it populating in Search Console just fine). I resubmitted the page for indexing and resubmitted our sitemap. Within 24-hours, we were back to normal.


The beauty about SEMRush is you can track all of your keywords and then create tags for better segmentation.

The eCommerce skin care company I own with my family, DermWarehouse, carries hundreds of different brands. We track all keywords and segment the keywords by brand.

Below is an example of the keyword, “Is TNS Essential Serum Worth The Price.” This was a blog written on our site by one of our skincare experts. Of course, we were thrilled to see it jump 49 spots into the #2 position. Without a keyword tracking software, it would be too tough to manage a jump in rank or a downtick in rank. You can see that on August 30th, there was a huge jump followed by a major drop back to its normal level.

This is why you cannot panic when immediately seeing keyword rankings drastically improve or drop. There can be a flux taking place and can lead to major fluctuations.

 
If you don’t have your keywords tracked within SEMRush or Moz, go ahead and set this up. Moz offers a 30-day free trial. Even if your keywords dropped dramatically and you didn’t get the data during the initial downtick, if you put your keywords immediately into an SEO tracking software, you’ll be able to see if they recover.

Within SEMRush, you can set-up email notifications to inform you if your keywords have moved up or down more than 10 spots on Google. Rather than driving yourself crazy and constantly checking rankings, this is a good way to monitor things.

The data in SEMRush and Moz will support the first four components of this article. If a page on your site was deindexed or you received a manual actions penalty or there was just a technical issue on your site preventing a Google crawl, you’ll see this reflected in your keyword rankings.

Not everyone conducts manual searches on Google for their keywords on a daily basis. Having a keyword tracking software to detect major drops in rank is crucial for your business. If there is a major drop in rank, you’ll want to immediately investigate so you can quickly resolve the issue. 

6. Check to see whether or not there was a major algorithm update
When you see your keywords drop dramatically on Google, one of the first questions that comes to mind is, “was there a major Google algorithm update.”

In 2018, Google reported an incredible 3,234 updates — an average of almost 9 per day. According to Moz, while most of these changes are minor, Google occasionally rolls out a major algorithm update (such as Panda and Penguin) that affects search results in significant ways. 

Note: There are also local ranking algorithm updates in the snack pack, which we follow closely [read Swapasaurus GMB Theory] This article is not related to local ranking algorithm updates in the map listings, this is pertaining to organic search positioning.

A great way to check whether or not there was a Google algorithm update (that coincides with your rankings dropping) is looking into MozCast. MozCast is a weather report showing turbulence in the Google algorithm over the previous day. You can see below the weather temperature over a 30-day period. If you saw your keyword rankings drop dramatically on a day there was inclement weather, this could mean you were negatively impacted by a Google algorithm update.

Of course, don’t jump to conclusions. There could have just been a Google flux in ranking and things will return to normal. You will want to keep a close eye on your ranking over for a couple of weeks if you experienced a flux. Sometimes, it’s a sign of things to come. Other times, it’s nothing more than a flux. In the Moz Flux forum that I shared, you can see it was a sign of things to come.

7. Follow key SEO leaders covering Google Algorithm updates
Often times before a major algorithm is announced or before the MozCast weather is released, industry leaders such as Barry Schwartz, Marie Haynes and Glenn Gabe will tweet about an algorithm update and will be the first ones to break the news. 

How do they gain insight before Google announces a major algorithm update?

Similar to our agency, they manage hundreds of clients and have hundreds of thousands of keywords being tracked, which provides them with insight into key data points.

It is easy for me to run through our client rankings to see if we’re seeing anything outside of the norm based on the sheer volume of keywords we’re tracking. The same holds true for the SEO experts mentioned above.

8. Check on Recent Website Changes and Get an Understanding of Overall Strategy
Were there recent changes made to your site? This is the first question you should ask your webmaster. We’ve seen instances when a new SEO plugin is installed, like Yoast, and they accidentally select the feature to enable robots.txt file, which means the site doesn’t get indexed to Google. 

It’s also good to get an understanding of the overall strategy. There are two core components you should look into, which is backlink building and content creation.

Backlinks: A law firm client of ours was using an SEO company that built shady backlinks to their site. This caused a penalty, dropping their rankings significantly. When I’m talking about shady links in this case, I’m referring to backlinks on Asian websites and directory sites that are completely irrelevant. 

Make sure to ask the SEO company you are using for a backlink report from Google Search Console so you can audit whether or not your backlinks are legitimate. I would actually recommend downloading the report yourself, so it will not get manipulated. You can watch how to audit your backlinks here.

Manipulative Content: This same law firm client of ours was trying to rank well in each market throughout the state of Ohio, even though they just had one physical office. They created 10-12 city level pages. They tried their best to write unique content but it was evident to Google that they were manipulating the system. Don’t write thin or duplicative content as it can hurt your rankings and hinder the user experience on your site. 

Conclusion
If you are this far into this article, you are likely concerned about a Google algorithm update impacting your site and hurting your rankings.

Don’t panic right away if keywords drop. Follow the steps above and allow 24-48 hours of time to audit the situation before jumping to conclusions.

Hopefully there was just a technical issue holding your site back. If you feel your rankings dropped due to some sort of penalty, there are ways to recover to better improve your site and you need to contact an expert. Google Penalties are complex and very extensive issues. If you are a business owner who casually checks rankings but are not extremely well-versed in SEO generally and Google penalties specifically, you can do yourself more harm than good by trying to recover from the penalty without the help of an expert who specializes specifically in Google penalties.