February 6, 2009
Are you baffled about a recent drop in your search engine rankings? Do you know where to start and get a handle on what the problem might be and how to remedy it? One option to consider is using search engine forums as a resource. They are full of questions from people who have experienced similar situations and are great resources for an answer or two. But let’s say you really want to get to the bottom of the problem and you want to do it yourself. The following are some of the beginning steps StepForth takes when evaluating dropped rankings.
Retrace Your Steps
Write a list of everything that anyone has done to your site within the past 3 weeks. Now look for anything that could have negatively impacted your content, site structure, or the reliability of your URLs. Once you write down the course of events the answer might pop right out at you. Here are some common situational culprits:
- You just moved your website to a different hosting provider: did your site experience much, if any, downtime during the switch over? Quality hosting companies will allow you to setup your site on their servers before the switch takes place so that downtime is minimized if not removed entirely. If a search engine happened to visit your site while it was down there is a small chance your rankings would be negatively affected but it will only happen for a short period. Once the search engine re-indexes your website everything should be back in order.
- The structure of your site has permanently changed: did you redirect the traffic from the old URLs to the new URLs using a 301 redirect? If not then you should. A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect which tells any visiting search engine to permanently change its index to reflect the new site structure.
- Contact your hosting company to check if your server has had any downtime recently. In most cases search engines will not drop your rankings if they visit your site and it is offline once; however, if this happens consistently then your rankings can fail. If your hosting company states that downtime has occurred then you have at least one possible answer for your ranking woes. As long as your site is now reliably online and has not been offline for an extended period (days or weeks) the rankings should reappear as your site is re-indexed. There may be a notable drop in rankings but in most cases they will return to pre-incident status.
Check Your Content
Is all of your textual content up to date? It is amazing just how quickly a website’s rankings can drop when someone accidentally overwrites optimized pages with older, non-optimized pages. Check the content and if you find old content just overwrite it with the newer content and wait for the search engines to come back and re-index your website; Google and Yahoo are likely to come back within a week or even a day.
Check Your Server Headers
When a search engine visits your website it must first respond to any commands provided by your server. These commands are often identifiable in the server header. As a result, we like to verify that no incorrect, unusual or unnecessary commands are stashed in the header of your site. We use our free Server Header Checker Tool to review any headers and take action if required but there are others freely available as well.
Search Engine Webmaster Tool Resources
If you have not already done so I strongly recommend claiming your website on Yahoo Site Explorer, Google Webmaster Central and Live Search Webmaster Center. Each of these fine resources provides extremely useful feedback (from each respective search engine’s perspective) for site owners such as:
- Whether your site is currently banned. If you are, in some cases they will tell you why.
- Notes on any impediments the search engine has experienced when trying to index your website.
- Who is linking to your website.
- Which pages are the most popular on your website.
- Which keywords lead the most traffic to your website.
In addition these free webmaster resources allow you to submit an XML sitemap of your website so that you can ensure no pages are missed when the search engines index your website.
Search Your Site for SPAM
It is possible that your site has been “lucky” enough not to have been penalized until now for certain content transgressions. You see, search engines don’t always catch SPAM right away. In fact, I occasionally find myself shaking my head in disbelief when I see blatantly spammy sites appearing in the top 10 search results. Your site may not be entirely spammy but all it takes is for one transgression to come to light for a search engine to penalize your search engine rankings. What SPAM is and how to identify it is an article unto itself so here are some helpful resources for you to review:
- 15 Shades of SEO SPAM by Jim Hedger (written in 2006 but still applicable)
- Wikipedia’s Definition of SPAM has some great content worth reading as well.
Contact an SEO or Request a Forum Review
If you haven’t found a reasonable answer after following the instructions above I would recommend either contacting a reputable SEO company for advice or posting your ranking problems publicly on a popular search marketing forum within a resource like Webmaster World. There are a lot of people on forums that can be incredibly helpful and may have an answer for you. But a word to the wise, make sure the person providing advice has a solid reputation. I strongly recommend reviewing a number of their previous posts and Googling them to ensure they have suitable experience to provide advice – unless of course you have a ‘no duh’ moment where their advice makes perfect sense.
by Ross Dunn, CEO, StepForth Web Marketing Inc. Celebrating 10 Years of Web Marketing Excellence