This is part two of a 3-part blog series on Google penalties and algorithm updates. In this post, we’ll cover how to diagnose if your website has been penalized by Google.
In the previous part of the blog series, we covered preventative measures you can take to ensure your law firm’s website is not at risk of being penalized or affected by an algorithm update. Read it here.
For many law firms, SEO is a crucial element in their business development strategy. SEO, or organic search, can be an extremely effective way to bring new clients to your firm.
What you may not realize is that there is a right and a wrong way to optimize your law firm’s website for organic search. If your SEO consultant or agency engages in unethical, or “spammy” SEO tactics, Google may penalize your website.
A penalty can result in your entire website being removed from Google search results.
We have spoken to many lawyers whose websites have been penalized by Google. They’re often frustrated and don’t understand what exactly happened. The most frustrating part? They weren’t aware of the penalty until after they had begun to lose business.
The best option is always to adhere to SEO best-practices and ensure you’re not at risk of a penalty. However, if they do happen, it’s crucial to identify the issue and set an action plan quickly.
In this post, we’ll cover the two main types of SEO penalties and how to identify them.
A manual penalty occurs when a Google reviewer determines that your website is in violation of Google’s search quality guidelines. A manual penalty can be given to a page, a group of pages or your entire website.
When a manual penalty occurs, Google will send a notification through Google Search Console. That’s why it’s important to ensure that you or your SEO team regularly checks for notifications.
Google Search Console is a free tool that you can set up for your law firm’ website. If you have an SEO consultant or work with an agency, they should have this set up and should monitor regularly. You can also request to be added as a user so that you receive e-mail notifications any time a message comes through.
In the e-mail notification from Google, it should specify why your website has been penalized and what pages the penalty affects. Common causes of manual penalties include:
• Hidden text on your website
• Spammy or unnatural links pointing to your website
• Hacked website
• Thin content
Your first step should be to review the penalty and determine how severe it is and the level of effort required to fix the issue. You may only need to update content on a group of pages, or you may be dealing with a sitewide link penalty that will take more resources to correct.
You should also review your website analytics. How much traffic was organic search driving to your website prior to the penalty? How many calls to your law firm were being generated? This will help you understand the business impacts.
Once you understand the cause, you will want to fix your website as soon as possible. While this may sound simple, it can sometimes be difficult for law firms. For example, we talk to many attorneys who struggle to gain access to their website from the web developer who originally built it.
If you’re unsure how best to address the issue, you may want to solicit the advice of a reputable SEO consultant or agency.
You may need to edit or expand the content of your law firm’s website, clean up your backlink profile or modify your mobile website’s design. An SEO company will be able to do this work for you if you don’t have the resources or expertise within your firm.
It’s important to make your best effort to improve your website quality. Don’t rush through this process, as it could amplify the problem. Once you have made a concerted effort to improve your website, you can submit a reconsideration request through Google Search Console.
After submitting the request, you will receive an update from Google via email on its status. It may take up to a few weeks for the team at Google to review your request.
Google updates its algorithm daily. For many major algorithm updates, websites that do not follow best practices and provide a great user experience are at risk of losing their SEO rankings after an update.
An “algorithmic penalty” occurs when Google updates its algorithm and, as a result, your website experiences declines in rankings and traffic.
With algorithm updates, you will not receive a notification in Google Search Console. Therefore, they can be more difficult to diagnose.
Following an algorithm update, SEO professionals will monitor website analytics thoroughly to understand the impacts, if any, to their website. You or your SEO company should keep a close eye on traffic and rankings so that any anomalies can be spotted early.
If you experience an atypical drop in organic traffic, it could be the case that you have been negatively impacted by an algorithm update. You will need to consult analytics and rank-monitoring tools (We like ahrefs and SEMRush) to dive deeper in to the issue.
Some questions you should aim to answer are:
• Did my website traffic drop significantly in a short time period, or has it been steadily declining?
• Have there been any updates to my website content or linkbuilding strategy?
• Is the decline in traffic across the entire site, a section of the website or a few pages?
• Are my competitors experiencing ranking fluctuations?
SEO professionals love to share knowledge and observations. If you suspect your website has been impacted by an algorithm update, you will need to do some research to understand why exactly you experienced a drop-in traffic.
Sometimes Google will explicitly state that they have made an algorithm update and explain the update. For example, they may release a statement indicating that their algorithm update aimed to reward sites that provide a mobile-friendly experience. Therefore, if you’re negatively impacted, you can assume that the reason is because your website doesn’t measure up to Google’s standards for mobile-friendliness.
In other cases, Google does not announce the algorithm update, making it difficult to pinpoint what you need to do to recover. However, many reputable SEO publications will research and publish insights about the types of websites affected and what they speculate the algorithm update is about.
This can help to provide context and give you starting points. Blogs we recommend consulting are:
• Search Engine Land
• Search Engine Round Table
• Search Engine Watch
Armed with data about your own website traffic and industry insights, now it’s time to dig in and audit your website. It’s important to understand Google’s major algorithm updates and what types of things will get you penalized.
Generally speaking, many algorithm penalties happen as a result of spammy linkbuilding or not following best-practices in your content development. Start by auditing your backlink profile and content and discussing with an SEO professional. Some items to look for include:
• Thin content
• Spammy tactics like hiding content
• Content that is not optimized for mobile devices
• Having a non-secure (non-https) website
• Unnatural links pointing to your website
• Paid link schemes
Algorithm updates can take more time to recover from. That’s because there is no human reviewer at Google to remove the penalty. After you work to improve your website, Google will need time to re-index and rank your content appropriately. It can take a few weeks or potentially a few months for your rankings to recover.
It’s easy to panic and get caught up in trying to recover from a penalty. However, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind as well.
As you deal with the penalty, you should also think about how you want to handle your firm’s other marketing efforts. Think about how you can adjust other efforts to offset the loss your business will incur while you recover your SEO traffic.
If you are running paid search, paid social or other digital marketing campaigns, you may want to consider adjusting your investment in those channels. For example, you may want to temporarily increase your paid search efforts in order to make up for the business you are losing from your SEO program.
On the other hand, you may want to temporarily decrease your spending in other channels. If you have enough word-of-mouth and referral cases to sustain your business, you may want to pause other marketing expenses while you invest in fixing your website’s SEO.
Google penalties are avoidable. If you take an active, ethical approach to SEO and focus on creating great content, you won’t be at risk of being penalized.
We hate to see SEO’s name tarnished from a bad experience with a spammy SEO company. There are good guys out there, and the right partner can help you recover and create a long-term SEO strategy that brings new clients to your law firm.
If you find yourself dealing with a penalty, your first priority should be to resolve the issue. However, it’s generally a wake-up call that your SEO efforts need a new approach.
This may mean investing in content and legal blogging, or even redesigning your law firm’s desktop and mobile websites. After a Google penalty, it’s important to reassess your strategy and create a long-term plan that ensures you won’t have to deal with the consequences of a penalty again.