If you’re in the affiliate marketing industry with a content site then it’s pretty likely that Google organic traffic is the lifeblood of your business. If you notice that your site has had a substantial drop in traffic, chances are you’ve suffered a Google Penalty. A loss in rankings often means an instant loss of income in affiliate marketing, so if you have been hit, you need to take action as a matter of urgency.

How you recover your rankings is completely dependent on the type of penalty you’ve received. There are two types of Google penalties; manual and algorithmic, so we’re going to discuss how to respond to these separately.

First things first, you need to find out why your site was penalized and by which type of penalty.

1. Manual Penalties

Manual penalties are also referred to as manual actions. This means that a member of the Google spam team has come across your website and penalized it for one reason or another. Unlike algorithmic penalties, Google will inform you of a manual action through your Google Search Console account.

How to Identify a Manual Action

To find out if your website has been subject to a manual action, simply log in to your Google Search Console account and check to see if you have received a notification:

Google will give you a general reason as to why you have received a manual action, and may even give you a few examples of what may have caused the penalty.

Below, you can see an example of one of these notifications.

How to Get Rid of a Manual Action

The good news about a manual action is that there’s actually a real person behind your penalty who you can communicate with. If your manual action states that your backlink profile looks unnatural, like in the example above, you should ensure that you clean up your backlinks.

This means that you should check your backlinks, contact webmasters for link removal and disavow any links you don’t want to be counted by Google. It’s not usually a walk in the park, but there are some tools such as Link Detox that can help you when reviewing your links. Google wants you to show “considerable efforts”, so be sure to keep an e-mail log proving you have contacted webmasters for link removal.

After cleaning up your backlink profile, you can contact Google and ask for the penalty to be revoked. This procedure is commonly referred to as a “Reconsideration Request”, and can be quite time-consuming. It usually takes a couple of rounds until Google actually revokes the penalty, so it’s crucial to make sure you do it right – which is much easier to do when using the right tools.

Thanks go to Christoph C. Cemper (the founder of LinkResearchTools) for the above guide on removing manual penalties.

2. Algorithmic Penalties

If you’re in the majority and haven’t received a notification in Google Search Console then you’re most likely the victim of an algorithmic penalty. Unfortunately, you may also have a much bigger challenge ahead to get the penalty revoked, as you’re negotiating with Googles AI rather than a friendly member of the webspam team.

How to recognize an algorithmic penalty

When it comes to spotting an algorithmic penalty it’s half science, half art. Remember larger Google updates often roll out over a longer period of time or start a series of mini updates which cause multiple traffic fluctuations. This can mean it’s very difficult to say “X update on Y day instantly resulted in Z loss of traffic”.

The best tool currently available to compare your traffic to a timeline of potential Google updates is the Panguin Tool by Barracuda. Initially, this tool was created to help people spot algorithmic penalties due to Panda and Penguin and has since been frequently updated to show other algorithm updates (even those without names).

The above graph is an example from the Panguin tool with all of the potential updates visible. As you can see, this website has potentially been impacted by multiple Google updates.

Let’s break down this example:

  • 24th December 2017 – Appears to have benefited from an update that penalized a lot of websites with PBN links, this could indicate this site is pretty good at content marketing as is using clean link building methods (if any).
  • 28th March 2018 – An update that appears to relate to content quality started a downward trend in traffic, this update may also relate to EAT (Expertise, Authority, Trust).
  • 14th May 2018 – Another update but a small one discovered from forum chatter that has no name. Very unclear what was impacted but a lot of sites that had gains in traffic during December 2017 lost out in this update, potentially Google relaxed the link building algorithm.
  • 26th September 2018 – The Google Birthday Update as it has been nicknamed looks like an update of the Medic update. A lot of sites that lost out during Medic recovered here, however for this site things simply got worse.

In the case of this site it’s highly likely they’ve been impacted by several of the algorithm updates over the last year, as changes in traffic match update lines on the graph.

This is about as far from science as you can possibly get. Effectively all you’re doing is correlating chatter and popular opinion on Google updates with changes in traffic. Unfortunately, we’ll never know exactly what Google has changed, so this is your best chance of spotting an algorithmic penalty.

What can you do about an algorithmic penalty?

So you’ve been hit by an update (or several) and you’re pretty sure you know when it happened. What next? Time for a little more guesswork to get to a root cause, here’s what you need to do:

  1. List all the changes that made traffic go down – Include common factors from the chatter, for example, this update seems to relate to content quality and EAT or this update seems to have hit sites that don’t have as many high-quality links.
  2. List all of the changes that made traffic go up – Sometimes with Google it feels like you’re on a winning streak and you have a series of updates that all result in increased traffic. Note when these happened and what changed, sometimes an update looks like it has simply hit the rewind button and reset your traffic to the same level as a previous update. This is really important!
  3. Correlate similar big ups and downs – If we look at our example then the site gained a lot of traffic in December 2017 following an update that hit sites abusing PBNs, if it hit PBNs then we can probably guess it devalued a lot of other links too. If we look at the losses in both March and May 2018 both of these updates have some relation to links and authority, so the root cause of our problem may well be a lack of links.
  4. Look at the rest – So in our example, we’re left with just the Google Birthday update. In our case, we lost traffic, unlike many others who recovered from Medic. This implies this update relates to EAT most likely authority and links so once again our suspicion turns towards links.

So you’ve been playing Sherlock Holmes investigating traffic changes for a day or two and think you have a pretty good idea about the root cause, time to test your theory:

  • Make changes relating to theory – In our case we would start link building and networking with higher authority websites trying to develop a brand and become more renowned in our area of expertise.
  • Keep everything else the same – Whatever you change you should do this on top of your normal SEO work, so if you normally post blog posts five times a week and do a guest blog once a week then continue to do this. If you completely switch focus and bounce between what you think might work then you will never know for certain as you’re controlling no element of your test.

Remember if your traffic magically improves this doesn’t mean you’ve fixed it, you can’t ever be sure that your actions caused the ranking improvements. Google could have simply dialed down the algorithm which caused your algorithmic penalty, there’s no way to really know!

A lot of SEO comes down to instinct, continuous testing, and guesswork. As long as you’re focussing on activities and seeing progress then keep doing it. Just remember to try and stick to two key areas: building authority (link building, social, other traffic source growth etc), and improving user experience (better content, more content, better site speed etc). Treat your SEO like marketing, not a game of beating Google and you will see progress in the long term, no matter how each individual Google update impacts you.