If you've ever lost your search engine rankings to a competing site, you may have wondered if you were suffering from an algorithmic penalty from Google or if your content simply wasn't as good as your competitors'. You're not the only one.
Google's Matt Cutts takes on this question in the latest "Webmaster Help" video:
How can you tell if your site is suffering from an algorithmic penalty, or you are simply being outgunned by better content?
First he addresses manual penalties. Make sure that's not what you're dealing with by checking Webmaster Tools. You'll get a notification if so, and then you can go from there. He also notes you can learn about crawl errors in WMT. Look for that kind of stuff. But if that seems all well and good, then you might want to think about the algorithm.
"It's tough because we don't think as much or really much at all about algorithmic 'penalties,'" Cutts says. "Really, the webspam team writes all sorts of code, but that goes into the holistic ranking that we do, and so if you're affected by one algorithm, you call it a penalty, and if you're affected by another algorithm, do you not call it a penalty, is a pretty tough call to make, especially when the webspam team is working on more and more general quality changes - not necessarily things specifically related to webspam - and sometimes general quality people work on things that are related to webspam, and so deciding which one to call which is kind of hard to do."
Webmasters might get a better idea of what exactly they're dealing with if Google still provided its monthly lists of algorithm changes, but they think the world was "bored" with those, so they're not putting them out anymore.
"We rolled out something 665 different changes to how we rank search results in 2012," Cutts continues. "So on any given day, the odds that we're rolling out some algorithmic change are pretty good. In fact, we might be rolling out a couple if you just look at the raw number of changes that we're doing. However, when we see an algorithmic change that we think will have a pretty big impact, we do try to give people a heads up about that. So for example, the Penguin algorithm, which is targeted towards webspam or the Panda algorithm, which is targeted towards quality content on the web...whenever we have large-scale changes that will affect things, then we tend to do an announcement that 'Oh yeah, this changed,' or 'You should look at this particular date,' and that can be a good indicator to know whether you're affected by one of those sort of jolting algorithms that has a big impact."
He continues, "What you've seen is, for example, Panda has become more and more integrated into indexing, and it's had less of a jolting impact, and in fact we've gotten it so that it changes the index on a pretty regular basis, and it's build into the index rather than rolling out on a certain day, and so it's less useful to announce or talk about Panda launches at this point, whereas Penguin is still a switch that flips or is something that starts rolling out at a discreet time, and so we're a little more willing to talk about those, and let people know and have a little heads up, 'Hey, you might be affected by the Penguin algorithm.'"
I think people would still be interested in knowing just when Panda is rearing its head, even if it's getting "softer" in its old age. Again, even those monthly lists would be helpful. Cutts did say recently that Panda updates happen roughly once a month.
"In general, if your site is not ranking where you want it to rank, the bad news is it's a little hard and difficult to say whether you'd call it a penalty or not. It's just part of ranking," he says. "The good news is it is algorithmic, and so if you modify your site...if you change your site...if you apply your best guess about what the other site is doing that you should be doing or that it is doing well, then it's always possible for the algorithms to re-score your site or for us to re-crawl and re-index the site, and for it to start ranking highly again. It's kind of tricky because we have large amount of algorithms that all interact..."
A large number of algorithms that webmasters used to get hints about via monthly lists of algorithm updates that Google is no longer providing.
Image via YouTube