An Interview with Matt Bailey
Continued changes in Google's algorithm have more webmasters than ever concerned that their site might be penalized when they notice a drop in their rankings. How can you tell if your site is suffering from a penalty or just a change in the algo?
I discussed site penalties with Matt Bailey, Web Marketing Director for The Karcher Group. Matt spoke at the "Cleaning up the Mess" session at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, and is scheduled for the same session in Chicago next week.
Scottie: I hear this question all the time: "Is my site penalized?" How do you answer that?
Matt: The answer is: Have you done anything that should be penalized? Do you use "tricks" on your site? Have you done anything to your site that was recommended by an article or tutorial that you might not have totally understood? Did you have someone work on it in order to get you rankings? Those questions should be a starting place for your investigation. Penalties are typically a result of hiding something from the user that's only meant for the search engines.
Scottie: How do you start investigating whether or not a site has a penalty?
Matt: Once I've ruled out recent server downtime or other technical issues, I take a look at the log files. I start by comparing historical activity over a number of weeks, primarily the search engine referrals and amount of referred traffic, to see if there is a significant enough decline to be concerned. Usually if there is a penalty it needs to be evaluated over a couple of months. Even with a keyword moving around in the top 30, referrals tend to be consistent. However, if the primary ranking phrase is dropping in both rankings and referrals, then it may indicate a problem.
Scottie: What exactly are you looking for?
Matt: It's not a scientific determination by any means -- it's really a gut feeling. Generally, I'm looking at multiple factors such as rankings, backlinks, number of pages in index, visibility, etc. You can often compare these things to past performance and see if there is an overall decline.
Scottie: OK. Once you've decided that it's likely there is a penalty, how do you find out the probable causes?
Matt: I look into possible doorways and cloaking -- start big, then work down. I do this with HTTP header requests, text browsers, and an HTML editor.
Scottie: And you are looking for...?
Matt: Anything that is out of the ordinary: invisible gifs, server re-directs, frameset cloaking, hidden links, and invisible text. I examine all links to verify paths to make sure they aren't going to any "search engine food" pages. So much of it is based on a feeling and what to do next is based on what the site is telling me. I become one with the site; it talks to me.
Scottie: Very insightful, Yoda. When should you be concerned?
Matt: Something happening one day and maybe lasting for a day to a week is not likely to be a penalty. Something causing your site to lose rankings, reported backlinks, traffic, and conversions over the course of a couple of weeks is a red flag.
Scottie: How would fewer conversions indicate a penalty? Wouldn't your traffic still convert at the same rate?
Matt: It's all mathematical at this point. You lose "new" traffic that may find you for keyword results, but you are still found for company name searches -- meaning customers, probably looking for your phone number. The quality of the traffic changes when you aren't being found under key phrases.
Scottie: Why can't I tell if I have a penalty from the Google toolbar?
Matt: At one point, it was easier to do that than it is now.
When you are trying to determine if a penalty has been assessed, a drop in PR on a single day doesn't tell you anything. The key is that anything that happens in a single day or week doesn't mean that there is a penalty. A consistent drop in PR is an indicator that you may be losing links to your site. Look there first. Are you losing links? If so, then why? Were they reciprocal links? Were they links from bad sites? How did you acquire these links?
Scottie: How do links figure into possible penalties?
Matt: Linking issues are different, because often it isn't so much of a penalty as much as the links are simply not being counted anymore. As long as you aren't linking to sites that have been penalized, it's more likely that your links just aren't being counted. It seems to me that Google now filters out links that they determine are not relevant or important, which is not a penalty, but it can still cause a drop in the rankings. You still need to reassess where you stand.
The key is not to look at the Google PR evaluation on the toolbar. It is not the sole authority in determining a penalty or ban. The value can change daily, or not even appear for a couple of days at a time, depending on what Google is doing at the time. Turn it off and watch your stats.
Scottie: With all the current changes at Google, should people worry about being penalized?
Matt: Trying to relate this recent update into whether or not you are penalized is tricky. Penalties tend to happen over months, not during single update. An immediate drop in rankings during an update is attributed to an algorithm change. It goes back to what I said earlier -- if you were hiding something from the engines or trying to trick them, then fix it. The recent algo changes seem to be completely separate from actual penalties.
Scottie: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about possible search engine penalties, Matt!
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
February 20, 2005
Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.
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