There can be few worse moments in a website owner’s life other than discovering rankings and traffic have dropped as dramatically as Ronaldo entering the opposition’s penalty area. However, it happens, and what you do next is the key to saving the subsequent free kick.

It’s a heart-stopping time, and as you dart from analytics tools to SERPs to visibility checkers it slowly dawns on you that Google has penalised your site and not even had the courtesy to leave a note to say why.

First things first: you need to address who has access and what they’ve been doing to ‘improve’ your site.

Could it be the eager to please intern who has been writing your content and has managed to copy over 100 Wiki pages?

How about your SEO guy who’s been so keen to show you just how many ‘quality’ back links he’s been getting, all thanks to blog hosting sites such as My Blog Guest?

Or is it you? Have you been doing something wrong and employing slightly darker hat techniques albeit with the best of intentions?

Whatever the reason, once you’ve identified the potential culprits and ascertained just what they’ve been up to then it’s time to right the wrongs and get you back in Google’s good books.

Having a sensible, step-by-step strategy is the only way to deal with things, and below is just such a sequence of actions to help you cope in the coolest and calmest of fashions before you finally go screaming to the referee.

Step One
Are you sure you’ve been penalised?

Make sure you’ve checked and double checked potential technical issues that may have led to rankings and traffic drops for your most important key words and pages.

Are there any crawler issues or obvious errors that may have caused a dip? Has there been a search algorithm update that could have affected your rankings? Moz’s Algorithm Change History tool will help you check whether a drop correlates with any known updates: http://moz.com/google-algorithm-change

Could it be that the sites that you had built links on (paid or otherwise) have been served with a penalty and now you no longer gain the same benefit due to their bad deeds as opposed to yours?

Alternatively, could your drop be the result of seasonality or a tracking problem? Finally, you may have been hacked, so check Webmaster Tools for any malware alerts.

Recognising the difference between a specific punishment for your site, an algorithm update or a simple dip in form is essential prior to beginning the clear up process and moving on to Step Two.

Step Two
Find out why you’ve been hit

When you’re sure that you’ve been slapped by Google then, obviously, you need to work out why the big guy is picking on you. If you’re a large brand or online provider then it’s less likely that you’ll be hit hard as what you’re offering Google customers is something of definite value to them, but it’s not outside the realms of possibility.

However, if you’re a smaller fish then there’s every likelihood that if you’ve been doing something slightly shady e.g. cloaking, paying for links, duplicating content etc. then you’ll be feeling the weight of the Google boot squarely on your backside.

Next step is to ascertain whether you’ve been hit due to a manual penalty or an algorithmic change like Panda (poor user experience), Penguin (back links).

To see whether you’ve been affected by an algorithm change or specifically singled out with a manual webspam action, go to Webmaster Tools –> Search Traffic -> Manual Actions. If there’s a manual penalty on your site it will be listed there, but bear in mind that it’s possible to be hit by both manual actions and algorithmic factors at the same time.

Also, check your keyword results in other search engines so you can begin to pinpoint exact areas which Google have deemed worthy of punishment and which discrepancies apply to all. Often penalties will only be applied to certain pages or key phrase groups, so this can help you to identify where you’ve been going wrong.

Step Three
The time for action

If you or your SEO agency have been up to no good then now’s the time to stop and ‘fess up. Once it’s all out in the open, then you can do something about it.

Find on-site issues

On-site problems are by far the easiest to fix, so it’s worth prioritising them. Using a spider tool to crawl your site is an excellent means of highlighting broken links, duplication, missing headers etc. and giving you the means to view your site through the eyes of a Google spider bot. Although the process can be lengthy, depending on the size of your site, it is a great means of identifying errors which may be causing a drop or just limiting your site’s ability to rank well.

Remove toxic links

Next step is to evaluate your profile by clearing your site of harmful back links which are mainly responsible for penalties incurred under the Penguin update. Google Webmaster Tools will give you a selection of your backlinks, but other backlink tools like Majestic SEO, aHrefs or Moz Open Site Explorer will help you see a wider range of links – for best results we recommend combining data from as many sources as possible.
At this point it’s worth pointing out that back links aren’t all bad. Every established site has a few links from less authoritative or less relevant sites, and most of the time these don’t cause a problem. Instead of looking at links on an individual basis, look for patterns in the type of linking sites, type of page content or anchor text that could be causing Google to think they’re manipulative – even links from authoritative sites can be part of a manipulative linking pattern, so be honest with yourself.

Once you’ve identified the links you’re not happy with, first priority should be to remove them by contacting the publisher directly. This will be met with varying levels of success depending on your relationship, and many publishers will only take down harmful links if you pay them for the privilege.

If you do get knocked back, don’t panic. You need to be seen by Google to be making in-roads in your quest to clean up your bad backlinks, so compile a document which shows who you’ve tried to contact and how many times, whether it’s successful or not.

For those sites who won’t play ball, add the domains to a disavow file and hand it over to Google to assess and approve. There is a tool to help with this in Webmaster Tools: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main.

Also, don’t forget to check your site’s internal links – if your blog is full of exact match anchor text links back to your key pages, or if you’ve installed software that automatically turns every instance of a keyword into a link, it’s possible that Google could be penalising you for these too.

Assess your content

Whoever is responsible for your web page’s content needs to be aware of the Panda update, which basically knocked keyword stuffing, duplicating and poor quality reading material in to touch.

Structure, images, infographics, video and word count (ideally over 300 per page) all need to be taken into consideration, and a good level of original content within blogs, pages and news feeds is essential if you feel your site has been hit by Panda. If your on-page content is sub-par, improving it can take time, but is well worth the effort – as well as improving your rankings it’ll improve your user experience and potentially your conversion rate too.

Step Four
Reconsider and review

Once you’re happy with the changes you’ve made, the next step depends on the type of penalty you’ve received. If you’ve got a manual action, you’ll need to submit a reconsideration request to Google explaining what you’ve been doing to clean up your site and asking them to remove the penalty. If you’ve been affected by an algorithm update, you’ll need to wait for the update to refresh (until Google next crawls your site for technical problems, around a month for Panda, but potentially six months plus for Penguin).

Whatever happens, Google will need time to recheck and evaluate your site once changes have been made. However, happens after that will depend on the type of penalty you’ve suffered, and recovery times can vary, so you’re not out of the woods yet.
If you’ve been hit because of technical, content or internal linking problems, you’ll probably see an increase in visibility (potentially even a full recovery if you’re lucky) once you’ve fixed the problems.

However, if you’ve been hit by a link penalty and have had to remove links, you’re unlikely to see much improvement even once the penalty is lifted. The spammy links that were previously helping you to rank are gone forever, so you’ll need to rebuild your site’s authority and trust with Google over the long term.

Be honest with yourself and Google as you implement your changes and continue to monitor your traffic and rankings on a regular basis. More than anything, don’t be tempted to try any more shady tactics to get your rankings back – repeat offenders are punished more severely than first time penalties, and a second penalty can set sites back years. There are no short cuts to recovery, so make sure your strategy is sustainable and adheres to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines as closely as possible, and be prepared to stick with it for the long haul.