Ever wondered why your once-popular business website that lived most of its life on the front page of Google searches suddenly dropped down a to page 5 without notice, drastically reducing traffic to your website? We'll go into one reason for this happening, how it can affect your business and what you can do to protect your website in the future.
When a customer searches in Google for a topic or keyword, Google determines which website results to display to them using what's called the Google Algorithm, which they keep updated over time to meet their expected standards, affecting the results of searches over time.
SEO experts Moz keep an up-to-date history of changes to Google's algorithm, which includes links to various blog posts about each update, and helps website owners understand what exactly Google expects of them and why their website may have been affected by the updates. It might seem a bit overwhelming, but it can offer some helpful insights to businesses who want to understand why their website's Google ranking has changed over time, for better or worse.
Why Google updates their algorithm regularly
These changes are made for a variety of reasons, which Matt Cutts usually announces on his Twitter and blog. Sometimes they change the algorithm to help "balance out the system", ridding it of websites who "cheat" by achieving rankings that they don't necessarily deserve (at least in Google's eyes). Other times it's to help improve the quality of results for searchers by removing or punishing websites who display too many ads "above-the-fold" on their pages. Whatever the reason, the overall aim is to promote honest and "worthy" websites while demoting the ones that appear to be less valuable to searchers.
Visual representation of the Google Algorithm changes
Over on Hubspot you can find a nice simplified history of the updates, which is great if you're just looking for a quick overview of the changes Google has made over time instead of diving into the complexities of them all.
What your lost rankings mean
If a website's drastic drop or gain in rankings coincides with one of Google's Algorithm updates (keep in mind that some aren't announced publicly), there's a good chance that it was the result of that change. You should take this demotion as a warning sign that your website isn't up to Google's updated standards in some way and that you may need to rethink your optimisation or content strategy.
Depending on which update affected your website (you can look up the most recent update on Moz's algorithm history mentioned above) you'll be able to figure out which aspects of your website have "broken the rules". Start there and either fix the issues yourself or speak to your website developer about what you've discovered.
You can also check your Google Webmasters account messages, as Google might tell you explicitly that issues have been found on your website and how you can fix them. If you find nothing there, you may need to speak to an honest SEO expert who can really delve into the depths of your website to locate and fix the issue for you. The longer you leave it, the worse your Google reputation might become, potentially making it harder for you to improve your rankings in the future, so getting on top of it right away is important.
Matt Cutts has a few words on how to tell if your website was affected by an algorithm update or not.
Protecting your website from Google updates
There's no way to remain absolutely unaffected by Google updates, but one of the most effective ways to protect your website from these algorithm changes is to employ only white-hat SEO practices when trying to improve your website's rankings. White hat practices in this instance would be anything that aligns with Google's optimisation suggestions.
Generally, Google's ideals don't change too often, they just choose to enforce their existing ideals every now and then, so by learning a bit about Google's values and by following their recommended practices for optimising websites, you'll find that the updates have little to no effect on your rankings - if anything, they may actually improve when Google decides that your website is run in an honest way and is of value to searchers.
To stay up to date on what Google suggests you should avoid or embrace when optimising your website, you should take note of what Google's Matt Cutts says in his blog and videos, as generally the majority of what he says ends up eventually being incorporated into the algorithm as ranking factors.
Generally, what you need to do is simply avoid annoying your customers; try not to pack your website full of ads or unrelated content, focus more on the quality of your content and try keep an eye on the current best practices. Regularly checking your Google Webmasters account will also tell you if Google's spotted any obvious issues with your website.
If you follow these ethical techniques both you and your customers will benefit, and losing website rankings due to Google's algorithm changes should be a thing of the past.