The SEO landscape is changing all the time as new websites launch, new pages are published, and old ones deleted.

Google changes its ranking algorithms on a daily basis, so your position in the search results is always in a state of flux.

But what happens if your rank drops suddenly and significantly? You may have fallen foul of a Google penalty for engaging in an SEO practice that is considered unacceptable.

That’s not to say your web marketing agency did anything wrong – they may have used a completely valid technique that has only subsequently been outlawed by Google.

Examples of this include the practice of paying other website owners to link to your landing page using a specific anchor word or phrase.

This was widespread even just a few years ago until Google started to penalise websites for unusual or artificial backlink patterns.

Here are some other common penalties to look out for and how to detect them using your website analytics platform and other methods.

1. Search or social?

First of all, if your total traffic has dropped in your website analytics, check your traffic source and medium reports to make sure the drop is due to search traffic.

If the fall is only on traffic from your social media profiles, then the problem is not Google but could be a broken link or other technical problem with your social network posts.

Knowing the source of the problem is an essential first step – and if the drop is confined to search traffic, it’s a good indicator that your search presence has been affected somehow.

2. Verify your rank

Google’s use of personalised search results in recent years means you might see your website ranked high in your results, even if nobody else sees it on the first page.

Again, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with, so either sign out of Google and use an Incognito browser window to check your rankings or use a third-party ranking checker tool.

If you have fallen significantly in the search results for one or more of your primary keywords, it’s an indicator that Google may have penalised you for some perceived infringement of their rules.

3. Check you’re indexed

There are a few ways to make sure Google is successfully crawling and indexing your website.

One of the most direct is if you have submitted a sitemap to Google Search Console, then you should be able to check exactly which pages have been crawled and included in Google’s search index via your Search Console dashboard.

For a quick and easy check, go to Google Search and enter ‘site:’ followed by your website URL and your search results should list all of the indexed pages Google has crawled and included from your site.

4. Fix your robots.txt

If your pages are not appearing in Google’s search results at all, you may have accidentally instructed the Google search robot not to crawl or index your site.

This can be done on individual pages using the meta ‘robots’ tag, which is often used to hide part or all of a website while it is still under development.

So, if a recently launched section of your website does not appear in Google at all, check that this meta tag was not accidentally left in place.

Alternatively, the robots.txt file is a way to set crawl restrictions for your entire website. Again, this can be useful during development but is catastrophic if you forget to remove those restrictions.

It’s possible that a change made during the development of a new section of your site, could mistakenly prevent Google from accessing your whole website – so look out for this and fix it if necessary.

5. Play by the rules

If you’ve checked all of the above and you still can’t explain why your rank has fallen significantly, consider whether you may have – knowingly or unknowingly – used some SEO techniques that Google disapproves of.

For example, have you paid other websites to link to you, spammed your homepage URL into other blogs’ comment sections, or used the same anchor text on a large number of external inbound links?

Any of these can appear as a red flag to Google when trying to detect unnatural inbound linking patterns to your website, and you could find your rank penalised as a result.

Endgame: The Google Disavow Links Tool

If after all of the above, you’re confident that Google has penalised you – or if you have been notified as such under the Security & Manual Actions section of Google Search Console – one option is to use the Google Disavow Links Tool.

This is a little risky, as disavowing legitimate inbound links to your website can harm your ranking.

But if you’ve fallen victim to a large number of spammy incoming links, it’s a way to tell Google that you do not want to be associated with them, for better or for worse.

You have to compile a text file containing a list of URLs of the pages on third-party websites where the inbound links are located, and then submit this via the Disavow Links Tool.

Google should then recalculate your rankings in the search results as if those links did not exist – which should improve your rank in the case that Google has previously penalised you for them.

Other options

There are different ways to recover from different penalties and ranking algorithm updates. Still, the rule of thumb for the long term is to publish good-quality content and avoid spammy SEO techniques.

Google consistently says that it ranks well-written, well-structured and informative content highly compared to other web pages, so make this the focus of your SEO strategy.

It doesn’t matter what you publish – it can be a medium-length blog post, a marketing-focused landing page or an in-depth exploration of an important topic.

Just make it authoritative and engaging, with sensible SEO keyword inclusion, and you should find it ranks well both now and, in the future, with no penalties or manual actions imposed by Google.