Has my website been punished by Google and what can I do?
There is lots of talk mainly by SEO companies about punishments and the threat of possibly being punished by Google for various reasons (like working with another company, doing the SEO yourself etc). In reality, getting punished is quite rare and there are only 2 ways of doing so.
The first is an algorithmical punishment. This simply means that you will suddenly drop in the rankings quite massively over a short period of time (normally in less than 24 hours). If you were ranking strongly to begin with this can lead to a massive slump in traffic and hence new business. The only way of knowing is to be keeping an eye on your rankings and knowing what your key terms are. This punishment is simply Google saying “this is where you should actually be” after it has uncovered an amount of black hat activity (normally bad or high quantity link building). Previous to the start of 2016 Google used to round up all the bad links it spotted and then punish all the offenders overnight about once a year. Since 2016 it has now been punishing links (and content) live, so just as there was a benefit to link building immediately, there is now the equal harm.
The second scenario is less common and it’s worse as your entire site can be de-indexed. Basically it won’t even be found in Google for anything. Your site still works but you won’t be able to get to it from Google. Not just for key terms but for the domain name etc. This takes some seriously bad behaviour on an epic scale and you will have been notified with a penalty notice in your Search Console (formerly Web Master Tools). This email will tell you that you have been de-indexed but probably won’t say why specifically. It can be that your site was hacked or has a virus but it’s most common that you have been misbehaving.
Common causes for rankings to drop and sites being punished
The are a few common causes for rankings to drop. One being that your site has been hacked into and used for spammy purposes (having lots of outbound porn or gambling links for example). You will normally be oblivious to this and Google will inform you in it’s message somewhat that action needs to be taken. The other most frequent cause is a large amount black hat SEO activity which most commonly means spammy links (lot’s of them) or bad quality content pages being added (lot’s of these too). Both these things will look suspicious and low quality (spammy) to Google and you can get punished. Links are the more common thing to get punished for as these can be done en masse by low quality SEO companies and are less noticeable by site owners. Bad content needs more time by a webmaster to be added to your site and is more instantly noticeable. Often this content is “spun”, meaning it was taken from original content and re written by machine to essentially create another version the original to make a site larger. This almost never reads well and Google will notice especially if done aggressively.
What to do if my rankings have disappeared
Both these scenarios are completely rectifiable but will take time and some skill, commodities most business owners don’t have much of if their primary revenue stream has been removed.
If you have had a penalty notice then there are steps to follow back through Googles Search Console (GSC, formerly Web Master Tools or WMT’s) to have your site re-examined by Google once the virus or huge amount of spam has been removed (normally by re installing a recent back up of your site) and if it passes then this test then your rankings should be fully restored very quickly with little or no change.
Bad content can be re written, or if there is a lot it can be removed permanently. Links are hard to remove manually and it really does take an awful lot to get punished heavily in a short amount of time, but you can use Google’s disavow tool. This needs to be done by an experienced SEO company as this can be a very risky thing to do. You are basically doing Google’s job for it by telling it what you only think are bad links. Google will then examine these more closely and remove their negative impact if you are correct, but it will also examine the whole site these links come from, all other sites on the same IP address, and all other links on that site leading to more punishments. This is a complex topic and it’s fair to say that most SEO companies would never recommend their users using the disavow tool on their own or without their input. Recovering from a Google ranking drop is almost as complex as gaining the rankings themselves so you should nearly always involve the help of a professional SEO company but it is entirely possible and never permanent.