Feature Article (Pub: Sept 07) What goes up must come down (or how we lost Google placements for two weeks) by Paul Rudman

I always think that articles and research is so much more interesting to write about and talk about when it's something that happened to you (as opposed to starting with 'I once had a friend that..'), so I just thought I'd write an article about some recent issues we had with some of our ranking placements in Google.

As every SEO worth their salt does, I have a tendency to keep an eye on the ranking placements of the CT site, but I don't spend half as much time developing the website and building on it as I should - I'm usually too busy doing SEO for other people. But I am also acutely aware that after direct referrals from other happy customers, being able to show potential clients that you practice what you preach and you rank well in the engines yourself is a very solid testimony to your optimisation skills.

We've ranked pretty solidly for the killer phrase in this industry - "search engine optimisation" - for about the last 6-9 months, varying in position from 10th through to about 19th, so you obviously keep tabs on something like this, because you can be sure that the position is so valuable as a marketing tool that the guys in the top 5 are probably spending über-amounts of cash and resources each month fighting tooth and nail to keep the position they've got.

So, what happened then?

Anyway, about three weeks ago we lost our coveted high spot. It was a very strange situation I have to admit, as we noted the following occurrences:

  • It seemed the www.commercetuned.co.uk/ cache had been wiped by Google, leaving only the cache for www.commercetuned.co.uk/index.php. Now the strange thing about this is that they are the same page, and Google knows this as any page called index in the root will always been recognised as the home page, so therefore to avoid duplication issues in its own database it will settle on one or the other, either the domain or the home page plus index.php
  • Once Google had wiped the domain / from its index and replaced it with the /index.php file, the ranking placements of the site dropped off for 'search engine optimisation' from mid-teens to down in the 70s as it seemed to re-align the placements, deciding that /index.php was less valuable than the domain alone was
  • The strangest part of it all was that we've always consistently ranked in the teens and mid-twenties for 'search engine optimisation company' and 'search engine optimisation services', yet the placements for these phrases remained unaffected, so it seemed almost a deliberate manipulation of the algorithm to isolate and lower the rankings for a single phrase for the website
  • It was only a few days ago that the listing returned to somewhere near normality, so we've been running through the potential causes more out of interest than anything else, as even in the SEO trade we know that you don't put all your eggs in one basket, if you ever get to the point that your website relies on a single source of traffic and business then you're in trouble, as no-one has control over the search engines or a god-given right to being ranked well for a phrase that pays your wages.

And the reasons for this were?

We ran over the potential reasons for the short-term fall and discussed the following options:

Was the site penalised?
As an ethical search engine optimisation company it's important that we do not use any black-hat techniques on our own site. We considered whether we had been penalised for something - perhaps incorrectly - as the initial symptom did suggest manual manipulation of the Google rankings to drop the site, almost like a slap on the wrist for being a bad boy. It has come to our attention recently that certain other SEO companies actually put competitors under the microscope to look for ways they can get them punished to improve their own listings and those of their clients. This is not something we'd do as it's pretty sad - we're all SEO's in the same trade, and it's our livelihoods that rely on our business, and to me that's not something you mess with.
Was the domain / de-listed because the site is hosted abroad?
We've discussed at length in a previous article how having your site hosted in a country other than the local Google search index you want to appear in can cause major problems if you have a .com or .net domain (basically anything that does not tell Google who your content is relevant for). We've also seen Google de-list home pages of .com domains that are hosted in the UK, It's a strange anomaly, and normally rectified quickly (within a period of a month or so). It is possible that this has now been stretched to cause issues for other sites, such as .co.uk sites hosted outside the UK?

All in all we determined that is was most likely the second result. It is entirely possible that someone did try and get us penalised for something, but we're very careful - and proud - of the fact that we've got to where we are in the listings clean and based on merit. We firmly believe that the design, build, and quality of content are the reasons that we have good Google rankings, so the penalty option is very unlikely.

I'll be continuing to track the rankings over the next few weeks, so I'll update anyone not already bored to tears if I see any more strange behaviour in the Google listings!


Paul Rudman is the director and head of optimisation at CommerceTuned, he's been involved in developing search strategies and search engine optimisation for 7 years.

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