One of the more common emails we get is from people who think their website has disappeared from Google. If you’re in a similar situation, we have some ideas for you in this article.
If your previously high-ranking website seems to have fallen out of Google altogether, you are probably teetering somewhere between panic and desperation. As friendly consultants who care about your mental health, we want you to know this first:
Don’t panic! You probably didn’t get banned.
Give this a few hours and see if it works itself out.
We say that because it’s the most common scenario that we’ve seen. But if you can’t bear to wait around to see if the problem will resolve itself, read on.
Special note: If you’re experiencing a major drop in your website traffic or ranks that occurred in late April 2012, this is probably due to Google’s Penguin and Panda 3.5 updates. The Penguin update was intended by Google to address spammy SEO techniques. The Panda 3.5 update continued Google’s ongoing adjustments to reduce the prominence of low-quality content in its index. Here are some of our thoughts on recovering from a Panda update. You can read more about Google’s Penguin update on SearchEngineLand.com.
The first thing you need to do is clarify the problem. Specifically, has your entire site been removed from Google, or has it just been knocked down in the rankings? To figure this out, you can do a site search, by typing this into Google:
(replacing “myurl” with your own URL, of course). If Google doesn’t display any pages from your site, it’s likely that your entire site has been dropped. Another way to check is to take a unique string of text from your website, one that is unlikely to be on anyone else’s site, put it in quotes, and search for it on Google. If Google displays the page from your site that contains this text, then your site hasn’t been dropped from Google.
If your site is still in Google, but your ranks have taken a sudden and dramatic nosedive, skip down to the “What Happened to my Ranks?” section, below. If, after several strategic searches, you still can’t find your site on Google, then yes indeed, your site has been removed from the index, and it’s time to figure out why.
It’s possible that your site was found guilty of spamming in Google’s eyes, and got banned. Websites can be banned for SEO spam techniques such as “white on white” text, blatant keyword stuffing, or tricky redirects. J.C. Penney’s website was famously banned temporarily for using a link-buying SEO technique. It’s not likely that your website would be banned if you’ve never done anything to intentionally trick Google into thinking that your site deserves a higher rank than is appropriate.
If you’re not sure about your status as spammer, SEO expert Jill Whalen has a forum that discusses “SEO No-nos.” Read it to get some indication of whether your site was spamming inadvertently.
You’ll also want to check all your messages in Google Webmaster Tools. There, Google will sometimes (but not always) alert website owners that their site has been penalized for spam.
Victim of Foul Play?
Whether you’re into conspiracy theories or not, you should entertain the idea that someone else did the spamming for you, causing your site’s disappearance from Google. We’ve seen it more than once: a site’s domain expires for a short time, and during that period, the pages are taken over by a domain squatter that displays not-so-nice content. Or, your site may have been hacked and stuffed with nuggets of spammy badness (this is especially common with outdated WordPress versions, so keep your WordPress up-to-date, yo!).
The fallout from one of these scenarios is something we describe in our case study of Providence Restaurant. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that even though that site temporarily displayed spam content, it suffered with terrible ranks, but wasn’t entirely dropped from Google’s index.)
Again, Google Webmaster Tools can help you diagnose this problem. Check your messages to see if there have been any alerts describing malware or other problems on your site.
Another form of devious doings on the web is content scraping, which is when other websites steal content from your site and then republish it, often multiple times. If this has happened to you, it is possible that Google banned your site along with the “bad guys” who copied you. Try doing some searches on other search engines, looking for strings of text from your website. You just might find an unexpected match.
Redirects or Canonical Tags Gone Wrong?
We once had a client who inadvertently added a canonical tag on every page of his site pointing to a different domain. Google followed this instruction diligently and removed every page of his site from its index. Yeowch! The good news: once the errant canonical tag was removed, ranks and indexing were back where they belonged within a couple of weeks.
We have also seen examples of sites that redirect their pages to another domain using a 301 redirect, and then are surprised when their domain is dropped from Google. A 301 redirect is like a permanent change-of-address for search engines. If you redirect your entire domain to somewhere else, Google is not going to continue to display your domain in its search results.
Robots.txt or Robots Meta Tag Deindexing?
Have you double-checked that you didn’t accidentally deindex your entire site with the robots.txt file or robots meta tags?
Here’s the line you really don’t want to have in your robots.txt file:
User-agent: * Disallow: /
And here is a tag that really shouldn’t be on every page of your site:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex”>
Go on… check it now. We won’t judge you.
Your server might have hiccupped just when Googlebot came to visit your site recently, but that shouldn’t cause your site to be dropped from the index. We believe that Google will check a site at least a couple of times before dropping it. But, if the site went down for an extended period (days, weeks), this could be an explanation.
Most likely, the bot will come back and rediscover your site, and you’ll find your site back where it belongs after that. But how long will you have to wait? It depends on how many links there are to your site and how often Googlebot visits it. While there’s no sure-fire way to trigger a visit from Googlebot, getting some new inbound links, refreshing your content a bit, and submitting to the free URL submittal page probably won’t hurt. You can submit an XML Sitemap via Google Webmaster Tools, which has the nice fringe benefit of telling you how many of your URLs are indexed.
In the future, if your site has anticipated downtime, set a 503 server status so that search engines will know it’s just a temporary glitch.
If you are certain your site has been penalized for spam or malware, you can submit to Google’s request for reinclusion page. Matt Cutts of Google has posted some information on how to file a reinclusion request. But before you file a request, be very, very sure that there’s nothing spammy on your site.
What Happened To My Ranks?
If Google hasn’t actually removed your site, but you just noticed a sudden and substantial drop in rank for your favorite keywords, there are several possible explanations:
- Google could have made an intentional change to its results or its algorithm. Panda 3.5 and Penguin (late April 2012) are a couple examples of algorithm shifts that blew some sites out of the water. SearchEngineLand.com is a good place to look into industry chatter about algorithm updates. See also our post about recovering from Panda. Once the dust settles, we’ll write a post about the Penguin update.
- Google could be experiencing some temporary weirdness that makes the results different from what you’re used to. As we mentioned at the top of this article, we’ve seen this so many times with so many clients that this is probably the most likely scenario. In this case, just check your ranks again in a day or so . You might once again see that good rank you were used to.
- Your competitors could have gotten their acts together. OK, if your rank dropped by a few hundred spots, it’s probably not your competitors, as that would mean a lot of competitors getting their acts together at the same time! But if you’re just being outranked by legitimate competitive activity, then it’s time for you to work on your site. And this work includes optimizing for, and tracking, additional keywords.
- Is there something funky going on with your homepage, but not other pages? We’ve seen sites that have suffered big rank drops because their homepage had been deindexed due to redirect or canonical issues, and no other page had as much power as the homepage, so no other page on the domain was making it into those previous ranking spots. If you’re seeing only a portion of your site in the index, run through the diagnostic steps above to see if you can figure out why.
- Is your website new? Sometimes, websites show up in search results briefly after being launched, but then seem to drop dramatically out of the rankings after a couple of days, and are stuck in the depths for months. It’s a phenomenon that some have called the “Google Sandbox.” How to get out the sandbox? Get some inbound links to your site, and be patient.
- Is it possible that something has dramatically changed on your website? Say, you intended to update a single page but accidentally changed the page titles on every page of your site? Don’t forget to check your site and make sure everything is in order.
- Could you be seeing different results because your personalization has changed? We’ve known people who thought their ranks were phenomenal – only to be brought down to earth when they realized that the ranks they were seeing were personalized just for them by Google. Read more about Google search personalization.
Hopefully we’ve given you some ideas about how to track down the source of your site’s disappearance from Google. Regardless of what you find, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re offering lots of great content that makes people want to link to your site, and do some link building. In this way, you’ll have other sources of traffic that makes a Google problem like this less devastating.