After going through one of the more puzzling why did the Google rankings drop” so suddenly episodes w/ one of our best performing client’s website, I thought detailing the cause/effect would provide a good resource for other webmasters & marketers who might run into the same thing.

I’m not going to provide the website or our client’s name specifically, but just know they are in a competitive industry with millions of competing websites (4.4m competing web pages for a 3 word phrase using quotes).  The client’s website is only a few years old, but we’ve been able to position very well during that time for the majority of its primary/core keywords.

20% Loss in Google Rankings in Less than 30 days

You can imagine that seeing a ranking report w/ a 20% drop in a single month would cause alarm and it certainly did w/ this client.  Amazingly though, the rankings were all similar keywords and upon further research, ended up being a single page of the site that was ranking well for all of those keywords.  Unfortunately, it was the homepage….DOH!

So we started by looking at the backlinks and other off-site indicators that might’ve impacted the site’s rankings.  Granted, these factors aren’t supposed to be able to directly impact your rankings – right…   Anyway, another site that this same client owns was spammed via vulnerabilities on other websites recently (backlinking from malicious sites), so we wanted to see if the same thing was happening.

We utilized the backlink data from MajesticSEO both in November and immediately when the December updates came out.   The link data didn’t really show much at all – definitely not the malicious backlinks we could see in the other site’s report.

The “Ah-ha”

One of our SEO staff analyzed the relationship of the keywords that had dropped and found that they were all centric around 2 individual keywords.  Ok, so the site lost 20% of its rankings – keywords ranking w/ those 2 specific keywords in them.  Sounds like a Google penalty right? (for sure)

So what we did next was identify which page of the site that had those rankings previously.  That didn’t take long – it ended up being the site’s homepage.

Now that we have the page identified that is being penalized by Google, we took a closer look.  Title & Meta Description looked good, the page had not been hacked & the content looked the same as it always has… except for a new section added to the very bottom of the site.

This new section didn’t inherently look like anything bad, but when you did a search of the page for the 2 keywords that had been penalized, the new section of copy lit up like the 4th of July w/ highlighting.

Fixing the Problem

Once we identified that new section as a potential cause for the Google penalty, we contacted the client to find out when it was added, why, etc.

We found out that the new content was a legal requirement that had to be present on the page (various DBA’s, etc. for licensing), but the amount of disclosures that had to be listed naturally looked repetitive and spammy.

The content was added on November 4th, 2009 – rankings had dropped in Google almost immediately and were discovered when the monthly ranking report ran the 1st week of December.  The rankings weren’t even the 1st indicator that their was a problem either… Google traffic was down almost 1,000 visits in November compared to October.

The client modified the implementation of the licensing content on 12/10/09 and as of 12/18/09, their rankings have re-appeared on the 1st page of the Google results.  Not very long for Google to re-index the page and remove the penalty – definitely an automatically applied penalty based on keyword density or other factor.  The licensing info was in a smaller font & different color as well, so it could’ve been several factors combined.

Needless to say, the crisis is over and the website is back in Google’s good graces.

Conclusion (Strong Advice)

As simple or stupid as it might sound, adding/changing content on your website can affect your search engine rankings.  The algorithms are specific and it’s easy to do something to mess up the site (much easier to mess it up, than to acquire in the first place).

Be sure that you’re talking with your online marketing company about changes to the site and the impact they may have on the SEO strategies that are in place.

Communication is key… the more you talk w/ your SEO company, the better off you’ll be in the end.