How to use website data to spot a penalty

A website under a Google penalty can suffer a devastating loss of traffic, especially if it is affecting the whole site. If your website suffers a big drop in organic search traffic, your first question may be, “Have we been penalised?” This article explains how your website visibility and traffic data can help you diagnose a penalty. The hard part is spotting a penalty when there is no obvious drop in overall traffic.

You could suffer a manual penalty (where a human at Google takes some kind of action) or an algorithmic one – or a combination of both. Your website could also be partially or completely penalised.

The tools we use to identify a website penalty

  • Google Webmaster Tools – notices from Google as well as drops in visibility
  • Google Analytics (GA) – drops in traffic
  • Majestic, Open Site Explorer or aHrefs for backlink analysis
  • News announcements – has there been an algorithm update?
  • Our own big data platform Apollo Insights – which collates data from all of the above – to demonstrate the visual effects of penalties on visibility over time

Our fix, boost, fill approach to SEO also works when we’re trying to overcome a penalty.

Manual penalties come with a notification

This is why all website managers (and owners) should be hooked into Google Webmaster Tools (GWT). This free tool provides notifications of manual actions or signals that could lead to your site losing visibility in search results.

If Google takes a manual action against your website, a notice will be posted in the GWT account. Four examples of such messages are listed below.

Unnatural links to your site

Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. These may be the result of buying links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

Unnatural links to your site – impacts links

Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. Some links may be outside of the webmaster’s control, so for this incident we are taking targeted action on the unnatural links instead of on the site’s ranking as a whole.

Hacked site

Some pages on this site may have been hacked by a third party to display spammy content or links. You should take immediate action to clean your site and fix any security vulnerabilities.

Thin content with little or no added value

This site appears to contain a significant percentage of low-quality or shallow pages which do not provide users with much added value (such as thin affiliate pages, cookie-cutter sites, doorway pages, automatically generated content, or copied content).

Basically, then, if your website is the subject of a manual penalty, you are generally told about it by Google via Google Webmaster Tools.

Sudden loss of traffic – but no manual penalty

Now, let’s say you look at your Google Analytics account one day and you see a massive drop in organic search traffic and you haven’t received any notifications of why.

Here are the first questions you should seek answers to:

  • Has there been any announcement of a Google algorithmic update?
  • Is the Google Analytics code still appearing on every page of the website? Did the developers make any changes that would have accidentally removed the tracking code?
  • Were there any server outages that caused your website to be down during the time in question?

Assuming these questions all yield the answer that nothing has changed and everything is working as before, you can start to diagnose what penalty, if any, you are suffering from.

This is where you need to start reviewing visibility graphs (GWT) and traffic graphs (GA).

An example of a site penalised by Penguin

Using historic GWT data stored in Apollo Insights, we can demonstrate how a client website suffered losses in visibility after two separate updates of the Google Penguin algorithm, which is primarily focused on the quality of links.

GWT impressions showing a penalty
NB: Impressions are the numbers of daily appearances in search results reported by the GWT API, which is a percentage of total search impressions for a site.

In the graph, we can clearly see a general fall in daily impressions after Penguin was released in May 2013, then another more marked fall in October 2013.

This loss in visibility leads to a loss in organic AND direct traffic.

As you might expect, a loss of search impressions should be reflected in a loss of organic traffic. You can see this in the corresponding traffic graph from Apollo Insights.

Visits by channel graph

You can also see the correlation between organic search traffic and direct traffic. People who visit your website via an organic search may return later through a bookmark or from a saved link in their browser – such a second visit would be a direct visit. Consequently, if your organic search traffic falls, so does your direct traffic.

Spotting the penalty

In the example above, we can clearly see that, in May, both visibility and traffic fell at the time of the Penguin update. In October, though, with the release of the next Penguin update, a drop in visibility did not lead to a corresponding loss of traffic.

This would require further investigation. There could be a few explanations for this:

  • The drop in visibility in October was related to queries that were not generating traffic anyway.
  • The drop in visibility may be related to an irrelevant geographic location, where the website was appearing to people in the wrong country.
  • The visibility drop may be in Google Images, which generate a lower click-through rate, generally.

Inbound links get penalised – you suffer

If you look at your website traffic and you see a sudden drop in daily traffic, you should first eliminate any obvious reasons, like seasonality, holidays etc.

Graph showing sessions dropping due to a penalty

Once you know there is no obvious reason for a drop in traffic, break down the traffic sources to get some understanding. You can do this in Google Analytics using segments.

Graph showing traffic sources dropping

A loss of rankings for your site may not be due to your own site being penalised – instead it could be due to links from other sites being devalued.

This is an example of a website that did see a drop in traffic in May 2013. Around May 22, Google released its fourth update of the Penguin filter, also known as Penguin 2.0. This filter went deeper into websites than the original version, which caused a lot of links to be devalued.

Looking at the graph above, you can see that the website suffered a loss of organic search traffic, but it also experienced a loss of referral traffic. This is a symptom of a Penguin 2.0 penalty affecting the site indirectly, by discounting inbound links on other websites.

In this case, the website suffered a loss of rankings for its own pages because of the authority being devalued by those penalised inbound links.

Poor quality content can hurt you

A loss in traffic could also be due to Google’s Panda algorithm, which is designed to look for poor quality content, or behaviour that signifies poor quality content. For example, this could be a site full of content that’s duplicated from elsewhere; a high rate of people going from search results to your site and straight back again; or lots of pages with very thin content.

Thin content sometimes means a lack of words, but not always. It may simply mean poor quality writing, such as the over-use of specific phrases in an unnatural way.

In order to know whether your traffic loss is due to links (Penguin) or content (Panda), you should look at the timing of traffic loss to see if it coincides with an update to the Google algorithms.

What if there hasn’t been a Google update?

Assuming you have not received a notification from Google Webmaster Tools of a manual action, and there is no logical reason for traffic falling, there are still a few things you can check:

  • Run a search in Google for your site using the string ‘’ to check the site is still visible.
  • Look in Google Webmaster Tools, in the Crawl section, to see if there is a high rate of recent crawl errors.
  • Check your site speed to see if this has recently dropped significantly.
  • Test your website to make sure it has not been hacked.
  • Look for recent big increases in back-links pointing to your website. You can do this in a tool like Majestic, Open Site Explorer or aHrefs.
    New and lost backlinks may cause a website penalty

You don’t need Google to run an update for your website to be penalised. Changes to the health of your site could cause a drop in rankings at any time, because the search engine spider is regularly re-indexing pages of your website.

Lee Wilson profile picture
Lee Wilson

Lee has been working in the online arena, leading digital departments since the early 2000s, and oversees all our delivery services at Vertical Leap, having joined back in 2010. Lee joined our company Operations Team in May 2019. Before working at Vertical Leap, Lee completed a degree in Business Management & Communications at Winchester University, headed up the online development and direct marketing department for an international financial services company for ~7 years, and set up/run a limited company providing website design, development and digital marketing solutions. Lee had his first solely authored industry book (Tactical SEO) published in 2016, with 2 further industry books being published in 2019, and can be seen regularly expert contributing to industry websites including State of Digital, Search Engine Journal, The Drum, plus many others. Lee has a passion for management in the digital industry and loves to see the progression of others through personal learning, training and development. Outside the office he looks to help others while challenging himself, having skydived, bungie jumped and abseiled (despite a fear of heights) with many more fundraising and voluntary events completed and on the horizon. As a husband and dad, Lee loves to spend time with his family and friends. His hobbies include exercising, trying new experiences, eating out, playing countless team sports, as well as watching films (Gangster movies in particular – “forget about it”).

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