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EDIT: Reworded & Cleaned Up to Ease Understanding

There has been a significant drop (90%) in traffic from Google to one of my well-established sites (6+ years) in the last week. Searches show that the top 3 wide keywords all dropped 4 spots. Searches for other keywords do not show ANY results in the first 10 to 25 pages of results, while previously one 1st or 2nd page at most.

Since there are 200 factors for ranking, the question really is:

What steps are necessary to figure out what caused such a drop?

There have been no major changes during this period or the last month on the site and certainly not in the homepage which has dropped in rank. Over all the years of running this site and plenty of others, I have never experienced this. There are is duplicate content on my site and I have rigorously used canonical links for the last few years to ensure it is not misinterpreted as such.

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I've also had a significant drop in the same time frame. I had attributed it to changes I had made to the site, but perhaps not. –  UpTheCreek Jul 17 '11 at 17:48
    
@UpTheCreek - Did your PageRank get affected too? Mine went from PR4 to PR0 which is why it truly seems like a penalty. They may have updated the algorithms to consider something we do as a penalty. –  Itai Jul 17 '11 at 18:18
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5 Answers

Yeah, learn how search engines work, and what it is they index! There's your answer. Ignorance is not a virtue! What do search engines index? What are webpages made from? What do webpages contain? All very simple questions you should ask yourself.

Search engines index content that is stored in HTML and CSS, everything including scripts are garbage and mean absolutely nothing! Every webpage on the face of this earth requires HTML and CSS, or XML of some sorts. No HTML and CSS, no webpage. If you understand how webpages work, and can code them to industry standards, and you read and follow the search engine webmaster guidelines, then your problem is solved.

How are you implementing those canonical links? You are asking a question with no information.

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You mention that the Google Analytics code now appears in the headers rather than at the end of the page; has that changed the page load time appreciably? The GA code may now be executed before the page content loads, slowing down the time it takes for Google to see that content; if you were close to some limits before, it's possible that could have pushed into a penalty area. OTOH, I'd not expect a page speed penalty to be anywhere near as drastic as yours seems to be.

You can check loading patterns with something like http://loads.in/ (and probably Google Analytics somewhere...).

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Cool site! Never seen it before, even substitutes as an ultra-fast Browsershots! But no, it did not slow down anything. In any case I reverted the change quickly since it was an easy one to do. –  Itai Jul 22 '11 at 12:34
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Some possibilities:

  • The sites who moved up in the rankings may have gotten quality links that boosted their relevancy (as opposed to you losing relevancy).

  • You may have lost quality links

  • The sites that leaped ahead of you made big improvements in their SEO and now are reaping the rewards

  • There was a small algorithm change that played to the other sites' strengths

  • There was a small algorithm change that played against your weaknesses

Also keep in mind that rankings naturally fluctuate. It's very possible you will return to your previous rankings soon without having to change anything on your site.

One thing you should do is check to see if any of the sites that moved ahead of you are new or if they made any changes (if you don't check out the competition regularly you may not be able to do this). If so, you may want to make similar changes and see if it helps you. Be prepared to roll the changes back if they do not help or hurt your rankings.

My advice whenever someone has this occur is always don't panic and don't change anything. This is a perfect opportunity for you to make changes that you really don't need to make and they end up hurting you in the end.

If your content is still strong then wait it out. Keep getting links to your pages. Don't panic. Be patient.

update

To diagnose a drop you need to:

  1. Undo any recent changes and wait to see if your rankings revert back.

  2. Make sure you are up to date on Google's latest changes to their algorithm and see if any of them apply to you. If so, make changes that should affect that algorithm change and wait to see what happens. If nothing changes then rollback your content as that was the last known well-ranking format for your content.

That's about it. If you didn't change anything and Google hasn't made any announced changes then you have to assume your competitors got better either through better content/SEO or minor tweaks at Google that were unannounced and difficult to test for. In this case just keep plugging away. If your content is strong, you will regain your old positioning at some point.

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Too late about the panic :( I've been in the business long enough to see natural fluctuations. This is not one of them. It is huge and systematic. Previously natural drops would be slower and in the order of 10-15% after one month. This is 40% DOWN in 4 days! In the worst case this time I dropped 4 spots from 3 to 7. Two competitors are new and too were below me, I cannot tell from their site what changed. It may not be on-page for all I know or it may be nothing, if it someone else's fault. –  Itai Jul 16 '11 at 4:12
    
Even stranger. I noticed one of those sites that went above mine has been dead with no change whatsoever in roughly 3 years! Their contact form and email address is no longer working and the only parter listed has been also dead for 3 years. Really puzzling but this suggests issues with my site rather than theirs. –  Itai Jul 16 '11 at 4:18
    
Totally agree about not panicking and not making off the cuff changes without solid evidence that it needs changing. –  JMC Jul 16 '11 at 4:25
    
Right. I am panicked because I depend in this but I would not make any changes blindly. The real question is how to diagnose the issue rather than which issues are possible (most of these are logical). –  Itai Jul 16 '11 at 13:02
    
Thanks for updating! For now, I have reverted last week's global changes. If the source of the problem is an algorithmic change, then that probably won't do anything but I have nothing else to try. –  Itai Jul 19 '11 at 17:24
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Have you edited any search engine control factors such as your robots.txt or settings in webmasters.google.com? It very easy to accidentally block google or change some setting that alters how google views your site.

Have you checked your site for broken links or broken pages. Make sure that you site is loading the way you expect it to load. Find a friends PC and test on it too.

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No but good it was a good idea to check. That was not the case here. Webmaster tools indicate no such problems. –  Itai Jul 16 '11 at 21:21
    
Hmmmm. After checking it over and over, there are only two things I did in that time frame, which I would not think have a consequence, but at this point anything is possible. One is replaced the old google analytics code (the one at the end of pages) with the new one (now in page headers). One new link was added in my footer to a new site I created on a related topic. –  Itai Jul 17 '11 at 18:20
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If you're using a good analytics program, check if the majority of your pages have taken a hit or just the top pages. Example: look at your middle of the road pages and see if they've also been reduced by 20 - 60%. If you see a consistent drop across your pages then you've likely been bitten by Panda and there's a long road ahead. Don't panic though, but there is no easy fix to the problem.

If you're just seeing changes in a top few pages then you really have nothing to worry about and should just continue what you normally do.

Given the age of your site, it's also possible that a number of incoming links to your site were devalued during an algorithm update and that caused a domino effect across your pages. So it might not have been directly related to your site, but more a reflection of the relevance of sites linking to you.

What's your site's main source of revenue?

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The drop is generalized, with way more pages dropping in traffic than those not. Panda is about duplicate content, no? Most of my content is made of long articles and AFAIK (with one exception of an article that one site has entirely copied), sites usually only copy 2-3 paragraphs at a time and then refer to mine as the source. We have no duplicate content in article directories either. The site has revenue from AdSense and Affiliates, almost split evenly. As expected it has significantly dropped :( and this is how I make a living. –  Itai Jul 16 '11 at 13:00
    
A lot of people speculate about Panda's intentions, but duplicate content usually isn't part of it. Getting rid of poor quality content is the most agreed purpose of Panda. This is all speculation on my part, but Panda seems to place a bigger bulls-eye on older sites with lots of long articles, especially if they're written more to the search engine than the end-user (not saying you fall in this category). –  JMC Jul 16 '11 at 15:19
    
Yes, no one really knows. I know my site does not fall into that category but Google's algorithm may not have the same interpretation. If this is causing the drop, it is certainly an aggressive change. –  Itai Jul 16 '11 at 21:19
    
Yes, most people affected by it feel it's way too aggressive. It's like getting blind sided in a car accident, you don't see it coming. A number of people believe that deleting the lowest performing pages has a beneficial affect, but I haven't seen that work in action yet, I can't vouch for it. It makes sense, but it will also lower your overall traffic so it's a gamble, but possibly worthwhile since you're dropping the low performers. –  JMC Jul 17 '11 at 4:14
    
Checked the PR with a couple of services. I do not know how reliable they are but they now indicate a PR of 0 while they would previously indicate a PR of 4 for the homepage. Does that give any hint? –  Itai Jul 17 '11 at 14:00
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