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Saturday, December 9, 2023

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The Algorithm Ate My Lunch: Responding to Catastrophic Ranking Changes

One of the most unpleasant situations an in-house SEO can face is a major search engine algorithm change that results in a massive downward shift in rankings. Some webmasters have reported search engine traffic losses of up to 90% as a result of Google’s “Mayday” update, and similar catastrophes have been attached to every algorithm update significant enough to have been named.

There is only one course of action open to you in such situations: figure out what the problem is and fix it. While this can be a difficult and harrowing prospect, the good news is that any issue that resulted in such negative consequences can eventually be corrected. It may even present the opportunity to make positive changes to your site that will not only see your rankings restored but, in the long run, surpass their previous heights.

Don’t panic

As every search professional knows, high organic search engine rankings are not achieved overnight. As difficult a pill as it is to swallow, it follows that reclaiming lost rankings (and, of course, the organic search engine traffic those rankings bring) will not occur overnight either.  Take a deep breath and prepare for a bit of a slog as you attempt to assess the damage, determine its causes, and figure out what it will take to get your site back to its previous level of health.

You may not be panicking, but others in your organization might be doing so. Your first job, then, is to calm your colleagues down and explain how you are going to go about addressing the situation. As much as you may be pressed for immediate solutions, it is imperative that you move forward in an orderly fashion, and manage expectations regarding how long corrective measures are likely to take.

Okay, panic a little

In very short order, look at some basic possibilities for why your site may have suffered. These are unlikely to be related to an algorithm update, but need to be examined and eliminated.

Indexing issues. Ensure that there is nothing blocking search engine robots from indexing your content, and check your site indexing and crawling statistics in the search engines’ webmaster tool consoles. Except in the unlikely event that the robot for a specific engine has been blocked, indexing problems should impact your performance in all search engines.

Site changes. As noted in the case of indexing problems, issues arising from changes to your site should be observable in all major search engines.

Penalties. Have you suffered a penalty as a result of “bad behavior?” I am referring here to known and egregious bad behavior, such as might result in your site ceasing to appear for well-established brand queries, or to disappear from a search engine’s index altogether. In the event that a “penalty” has been imposed in the absence of any changes in your optimization tactics then the rules have changed – and at this point your task is assessing causality in the context of the new algorithm, rather addressing issues that are already known to trigger a penalty.

Again, you chiefly need to look at these factors in order to simply eliminate them as causes. In the event that any of these factors are in play, then the fact they coincide with an algorithm update is largely coincidental. While an algorithm update may engender new classes of penalties, or change the threshold at which a penalty is applied, issues related to indexing or your site environment are going to impact rankings in any case.

Assessing causality

The first place to start is with your site metrics. Did all pages on the site suffer an equal percentile drop in search traffic, or did the impact vary between pages? If so, what are the characteristics of the pages most and least effected? Sometimes statistical analysis can reveal patterns which can be invaluable in crafting counter-measures; but the metrics may also be of limited benefit in determining what factors may have contributed to your site’s problems, particularly if the observed impact is site-wide.

On occasion the search engine in question may provide publicly-accessible information on their recent algorithm change, though this has seemingly become rarer – and, in fact, they might not acknowledge that an algorithm change has been made at all.

Where details are disclosed there might be important clues you can use to help guide your forensic efforts, but in general what the search engines disclose about an algorithm change is often unhelpfully vague.

For an algorithm change of any magnitude a lot of information – both good and bad – will start to be generated within the SEO community.  Commentary and analysis posted on SEO blogs and news sites may be help you to define the nature of the change. Much information will also start to appear on webmaster and SEO forums, and often forums have the benefit of people citing actual examples of impacted sites and their characteristics.

For both of these sources, keep your critical thinking hat firmly on your head, as not all community-generated information is created equal – and, in any case, you will be forced fairly quickly to judge the relative merits of contradictory theories that will inevitably surface.

This is also the time to tap into your network, as you may be able to gain insight from SEOs who were similarly afflicted. Or not afflicted – from all sources, your investigations should encompass analysis both of sites that suffered as a result of the algorithm change and those that survived it intact. In doing so you will start to develop positive and negative site profiles that can help guide your restoration efforts.

Possible causes to consider

I cannot provide an adequate checklist here to run through here, as any algorithm update resulting in major ranking shifts is going to be related to specific aspects of a website and the online space related to that website. You can and must look at a number of factors that may be a (or the) cause of your woes, including the following:

External linking environment. Was your site buoyed by links that were devalued in the algorithm update? If your links were coming from a limited number of websites or a well-defined network, were those linking sources similarly impacted?

Information architecture. Have your investigations revealed types of websites that have been impacted that can be classified according to the type of information architecture employed?

Uniqueness of content. Has duplicate content played a role in the observed ranking shift? Look not just a content that may have been duplicated across your site, but locations where content has been aggregated and might have been devalued.

Web technical and URL environment. Might domain structures have played a role? Are there URL canonicalization issues on your site that previously were not harming you that have now become a dampening factor on rankings? Are you employing redirects that may be a factor?

All in all, performing a forensic SEO analysis can be among the most difficult and aggravating of tasks. Ultimately you will not know if your assessment is correct until you put a remedial plan in place, execute it, and observe the results.

Making a remedial plan

Limited ad hoc counter-measures are unlikely to yield success in the light of a genuine catastrophe, as it is unlikely that they will address the underlying problems associated with a massive decline in search traffic. Once you have identified a likely cause or causes, the best course of action – if it is possible – is to put together a plan that includes a hypothesis, testing, and an analysis of observed results.

Proposing a hypothesis to test is important because it will help you determine which baseline metrics to put in place before testing. Even if testing is difficult (as it often is a large complex site like an e-commerce store front) it is important, particularly in situations where your analysis has resulted in several hypothesis about the cause of your search rankings and traffic decline. In the event that you are confident that you have identified the underlying cause you may wish to make broad-based changes without first testing their impact: I can only hope that doing so does not result in the number of sleepless nights it would cause me

Whatever your approach, once you have put a remedial plan into action it will then be a matter of time to determine if your actions have been correct. As any SEO knows, the impact of any change on organic search engine rankings takes time to take hold, and the wait can be an agonizing one – particularly if the impact of the algorithm change has had tragic bottom-line consequences for your organization’s business.

Your most important tasks through this period may be calming down frazzled executives and resisting the urge to continue to make changes to the website that you cannot reasonably measure.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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