2. A drop in rankings is not always because of a penalty

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This article is part of the case study into a the Cayenne website that suffered ranking drops and traffic loss.  However, what I am about to write is not specifically about that site, it is just something I think everyone needs to understand and have clear in their minds when looking at their own sites.  If you have had ranking drops, don’t automatically assume it is because of a penalty.  There are other reasons.

A couple of years ago, adding lots of backlinks to your site increased your rankings.  It actually didn’t matter what quality those links were, since all backlinks counted.  That’s not to say that all backlinks helped rankings to the same extent.  Backlinks on high Page Rank web pages passed on more ranking “juice”.  A couple of high Page Rank backlinks could boost your rankings significantly, whereas you might need thousands of backlinks on low Page Rank pages to have the same effect on your rankings. 

Back then, automated software appeared to help webmasters quickly build up massive numbers of backlinks.  Ranking was easy.  Plug in some spun content, and the software would automatically generate thousands, or hundreds of thousands of backlinks, and pages would rise in the rankings. 

Google had a policy at the time which meant bad backlinks could not harm your rankings, so webmasters went to town and this type of software became very popular.  Add blog networks, article directories and other easy backlink sources, and webmasters could make really bad content rank highly for popular searches.  In short, webmasters were making Google look bad.  What did Google do?  They changed their policy on backlinks, and made webmasters responsible for their own backlink profile.  Rather than ignoring bad backlinks, Google decided to actively penalize sites that had them in their link profile.  In doing so, they were waging war on the link spammers and forcing webmasters to stop using the automated backlinking tools.

Did Google devalue backlinks?

I used to use Ezine Articles as a source of backlinks to my site, and they worked really well.  However, in the last year or two, I noticed something change.  New articles I submitted to Ezine Articles (and other article sites) did not increase my rankings like they use to.  I noticed the same thing happen to other backlinking sources that I had previously had good results with.  It seemed pretty clear to me that Google had somehow devalued a lot of popular backlinking sites, so that links from those sites no longer helped a page rank.  They might have drawn up a list of popular sites used by “link spammers” and just wrote them into their algorithm to not count those backlinks, or they might have turned a few dials to make low PR and low quality pages (most ezine articles pages and other “automated” backlinking sources are PR0) have a lot less, or zero effect on ranking.  I don’t know what the mechanism is, but it does seem clear that sites that used to contribute to the ranking of my own pages, don’t seem to have the same boosting effect.

So, assuming Google have devalued a lot of backlinking sites, what does that mean to the average webmaster?

Well, it will mean that all of those backlinks that used to make your pages rank high, no longer do so.  Your rankings will naturally drop.  That’s not a penalty, that’s simply maths.  Backlinks that used to make your pages rank highly now have less or zero boosting effect, so your pages fall back to where they would have been if you never got those links in the first place.

Popular sites now work against us

Over the last few years, I have also seen an increase in traditional backlinking sources making outbound links nofollow, deleting links in articles, or even deleting all user-submitted content (I believe Zimbio is deleting all content).  Why would they do this?   Well, Google have made it quite clear that if you link out to “bad neighbourhoods”, your site can be penalized.  A lot of these sites have accepted content for years, way before Google started penalizing for bad outbound links.  Rather than just delete all of the old content, which would have a detrimental effect on their own site authority, many sites took the decision to make the links in all user-submitted content, nofollow.  In doing so, they are telling Google they don’t endorse those links, and that keeps them safe.  However, in making all of those links nofollow, those sites are effectively cutting off the link juice to your pages, and any ranking boost those links use to have, is gone.  As a result, your pages drop in rank.

The take home

What I want you to take home from this is simply this.

Don’t expect backlinks you use to rely on for page rankings to still help your pages rank well.  If your website rankings were built on poor backlinks, you would expect to have seen your rankings drop over the last 2 years, even if your site was not penalized.  Having said that, if you were engaged in a lot of dodgy backlinking, chances are your site will have been penalized.

A note about the Disavow tool

I should probably also point out something else.  If your site is penalized for bad backlinks, it loses rank.  If you submit the bad backlinks via the Disavow tool, and Google do indeed remove those links from your profile, don’t expect your ranks to return to where they were before the penalty.  Think of it this way.  If all of the links in your profile are contributing to your page rankings, then when those links are found out as being bad, you get penalized and lose rank.  However, until you were penalized, those links were contributing to your rankings.  Therefore when you get those links removed, you also remove the ranking boost they provided before the penalty.   If Google do disavow links in your profile, you should see a ranking boost, but not to pre-penalty levels, simply because you now have fewer backlinks.

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5 thoughts on “2. A drop in rankings is not always because of a penalty”

  1. Hi Dr. Andy,

    Do you think it is better in some cases to leave the backlinks intact, since removing links and using the disavowal tool may result in even lower traffic than before Penguin?


    1. David
      A backlink with the potential to hurt your site will always be just that, potential, at least until Google actually penalize you for it. I tend to remove ALL bad backlinks. By bad, I am referring to links on sites that are clearly spammy or low quality. They will have very little power to boost your rankings anyway, so disavowing won’t make much difference, at least in terms of ranking drops.

  2. Yes that makes sense. Bad links coming in from spammy sites can’t help you and could possibly contribute to getting the site penalized, so just get rid of them.

    I have one site that lost quite a bit of traffic due to Penguin, but I have not removed any links or used the disavowal tool for fear of making things worse. I can see your point in removing bad links, but I’m wondering if the rest of the links (unnatural according to big G) currently pointing at the site are better left alone as the site does still get decent traffic even after the penalty.

    1. There is no way of accurately knowing PageRank of a page these days. However, even when Google offered this data, it wasn’t very accurate. Nowadays we need to use other tools. Do a Google search for MozRank.

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