Between major algorithms like Panda and Penguin, and just plain old everyday Google algorithmic changes, it can sometimes be hard for to figure out why your site isn't ranking in Google as highly as you would like.
So how can you know why exactly your site isn't a ranking well in Google? Is it Panda? Penguin? A regular search algo issue? Or does a competiting site simply have better content than you? This is the topic of the latest Google webmaster help video featuring Matt Cutts.
First, Cutts brings up the issue of a manual penalty and suggests users first check their Google Webmaster Tools account. Here they can see whether the problem has been detailed within the account and what the solution is.
"... It could very well be the case that, 'hey we thought there was some keyword stuffing or cloaking or whatever going on,' and that's a clear-cut case, you'll get a notification, you'll get a message, and then you can start to figure out and investigate, 'OK, where can I start to improve things or what can I change to make things better.'"
Google Webmaster Tools will also alert the webmaster to any issues such as crawl errors that may be impacting the crawlability of a site.
"We have seen sites that will launch a new development website that was previously noindexed, and forget to take off the noindex tag," Cutts said. "Or there's 404s or we can reach your site, or that sort of thing."
But what about other algorithmic issues? First, he explains is a lot more difficult to determine algorithmic "penalty" because Google doesn't really view it as being a penalty.
"Really, the web spam team writes all sorts of code but that goes into the holistic ranking we do, and so if you're affected by one algorithm do you call it penalty, and if you're affected by another algorithm do not call it a penalty, is a pretty tough call to make," Cutts explained. "Especially when the web spam team is working on more and more general quality changes, not necessarily things specifically related to web spam, and sometimes general quality people work on things related to web spam, so deciding which one to call which is kind of hard to do. So we typically just think about it as the holistic ranking."
Also coming into play is the vast number of changes and tweaks that Google makes to its search algorithms at any time. If every change was considered a penalty, it would quickly become a convoluted mess for webmasters trying to sort out each individual change made.
Some changes are more obvious than others, but some are such subtle tweaks that it can be really hard to notice the difference or to determine what exactly was impacted, especially if multiple changes are rolled out at once.
"We rolled out something like 665 different changes to how we rank search results in 2012, so any given day, the odds that we're rolling out some algorithmic change are pretty good. In fact we might rolling out a couple, if you just look the raw number of changes that we're doing," Cutts said.
Cutts said Google likes to give heads up when they are releasing some change to the algorithm that they think will have a pretty significant impact on a larger group of websites.
"For example the Penguin algorithm, which is targeted towards web spam, or the Panda algorithm, which is targeted towards quality content on the web. Whenever we have large-scale changes that will affect things, then we tend to do an announcement, that 'oh yeah this changed,' or 'you should look at this particular date,' and that can be a good indicator to know whether you're affected by one of those more jolting algorithms that has a big impact," Cutts said.
Why doesn't Google make a point of announcing more of these changes? Cutts said that sometimes the changes are subtle enough or only tweaked slightly that there is not really any point in announcing the changes, however they do when there is significant change.
"What you've seen is, for example, Panda has become more and more integrated into indexing and it has less of a jolting impact, and in fact we've gotten it so that it changes the index on a pretty regular basis, and it's built into the index rather than rolling out on a certain day, so it's less useful to announce or talk about Panda launches at this point," Cutts said. "Whereas Penguin is still a switch that flips, or it's something that starts rolling out a discrete time, and so we're a bit more willing to talk about those and let people know and have a heads up, 'hey you might be affected by the Penguin algorithm.'"
So what does this really mean for those still trying to figure out what kind of penalty or algorithm is impacting their site's rankings negatively?
"In general, if your site is not ranking where you want it to rank, the bad news is that it's a little hard and difficult to say whether you call the penalty or not, is just a part of ranking," Cutts said. "The good news is, it is algorithmic, so if you modify your site, if you change your site, if you apply your best guess about what the other site is doing that you should be doing or that it is doing well, then it's always possible for the algorithm to rescore your site or for us to recrawl and reindex the site and for it to start ranking highly again.
"So it's kind of tricky because we have a large amount of algorithms that all interact and whether you call something a penalty or ranking change, or any of those things can be really hard to draw a fine distinction between those different points," Cutts said. "But the nice thing is, as you change your site, you can always see that these algorithms can sort of rerun and reprocess the site, and then the site can regain in rankings many of the times."
Bottom line, it comes down the best practices. We can see what your competitors are doing better than you that are also outranking you in Google, and see if you can make some changes to improve the quality of your site and make it better in the eyes of Google.
There are very few sites that are totally perfect in every way, and there's almost always something that can be improved upon in order to increase or maintain rankings in the Google search index.
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