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If your website’s Google search ranking has plummeted, you may have been penalized.

A website’s search ranking for a specific keyword is bound to fluctuate over time. Your site may rank No. 2 for its target keyword one day and No. 5 for the same keyword the following week. If a website competing for the same keyword improves its SEO practices, for instance, Google may rank it higher than your site regardless of whether you’ve received a penalty.

There are times, however, when Google will penalize websites by lowering their search rankings. When this occurs, you need to take immediate action to identify the cause of the penalty so you can take the necessary action to remedy it. Only then will you regain your lost search rankings.

Automatic vs. Manual Penalty: What’s the Difference?

There are two types of Google search ranking penalties: manual and automatic.

Being the world’s largest and most popular search engine, Google uses a sophisticated algorithm consisting of hundreds of signals to determine where websites should rank in its index automatically. If Google’s algorithm believes you’ve violated one or more webmaster guidelines, is engaging in manipulative optimization practices, or otherwise views your site as being subpar compared to other competing sites, it may automatic penalize your site by lowering its search ranking.

While most search penalties are automatic, Google still issues a substantial number of manual penalties. According to Matt Cutts, former leader of Google’s web spam team, Google performs around 400,000 manual penalties every month.

Check Your Search Console for Messages

So, how do you know if your site is experiencing an automatic or manual Google search penalty? Unfortunately, no method for detecting an automatic, algorithm-based penalty is 100% accurate. However, Google typically notifies webmasters via the Search Console if their website has received a manual penalty.

After logging in to your Search Console and selecting your site, click Search Traffic > Manual Actions, at which point it should reveal whether your site has received a manual search penalty. If it says “No manual webspam actions found,” then that means your site hasn’t received a manual penalty. If your site has received a manual penalty, you’ll see a message indicating what it was for, such as “Unnatural links from your site” or “Unnatural links to your site.”

Check for Google Algorithm Updates

You should also check to see if your site’s recent drop in search rankings correlates with a latest Google algorithm update. Google updates its search ranking algorithm hundreds of times per year, each of which changes the way in which it ranks websites. Some of these updates are minor and only affect a small number of sites, whereas others have a more significant impact.

Visit Moz.com/google-algorithm-change for a calendar of Google’s algorithm updates. Major algorithm updates get names, such as Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and Possum and Fred. If your site’s search rankings plummeted around the same time as a major update, there’s a good chance you’ve been hit with an automatic penalty.

Conduct a Backlink Audit

Because most Google search penalties — automatic and manual — are attributed to bad backlinks, you should conduct a backlink audit of your site. Using a backlink analysis tool like Aherfs or Majestic, you can see how many backlinks your site, the anchor text of those links, and where those links are.

The goal of a backlink audit is to identify the URL source of your site’s bad backlinks. Once you’ve created a list of these bad links, you can request to have them removed and then disavow the remaining ones.

Here are some examples of bad backlinks:
• Links on pages with a high number of outbound links
• Links on pages with spam, malware, adult material or malicious content
• Site-wide links on footers, headers, sidebars, etc.
• Links with hidden text that only search engines see
• Paid links
• Excessive link exchanges (reciprocal links)
• Links to irrelevant anchor text
• Over-optimized anchor text
• Forum profile links
• Advertisement links without the no-follow attribute
• Links created automatically using software or scripts
Contact Websites

Your next course of action should be to contact the websites on which your bad links are located and request to have them removed. Depending on how many bad links you have, you may want to create and use an email template instead of making a unique email for every website you contact. You don’t have to explain your reason for wanting them to remove your link. Just politely ask the webmaster if he or she would mind removing your link.

Not every website that you contact is going to remove your link — that’s okay. Even if only 10% fulfill your request, it can still help your site recover from a penalty. Furthermore, there’s a solution to negate the harmful effects of the remaining bad links: the disavow tool.

Use Google’s Disavow Tool

On December 16, 2012, Google launched a tool to help webmasters regain lost rankings attributed to low-quality or otherwise harmful backlinks. Known as the disavow tool, it tells Google not to count the link as part of its ranking algorithm.

You can access the disavow tool by visiting Google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main while logged in to your Google account. After selecting your site, you can then either enter the URLs on which your bad links are located manually or upload a file containing them.

With that said, you should use the disavow tool with caution. Because Google treats all disavowed links the same — it doesn’t factor them into its algorithm — adding good links can hurt your site’s rankings. To prevent this from happening, double-check your bad links before adding them to the tool.

Submit a Reconsideration Request to Google

The final, and arguably most important, step is to submit a reconsideration request to Google, which you can find under the Manual Actions area of your Search Console. You’ll need to explain what you’ve done to improve your site, such as asking webmasters to remove your links and disavowing the remaining the links, after which Google will “reconsider” lifting the penalty.

Google doesn’t process reconsideration requests immediately; it usually takes two to three weeks before you’ll hear a response. But when a webmaster doesn’t see his or her site’s rankings return after performing these steps, they may feel compelled to start over with a new domain. Starting with a fresh domain allows you to bypass the penalty, but it also means you have to build and optimize your site all over again.

Regardless of why Google penalized your site, you can usually recover by following the tips listed here. Be patient, add unique, high-quality content to your site, and you’ll eventually regain your lost rankings.