Winning Googles TrustYou’ve just analyzed your website’s traffic, and what you see makes your heart stop: It’s plummeted. You think it might be a fluke until you check your Google rankings. Now you’re in all-out panic mode. You’re no longer ranking on the keywords that you used to dominate. Just yesterday, your site ranked page 1 for these terms – and now it’s nowhere to be found.

Why is this happening? Most likely, Google no longer trusts your site. Don’t let your anxiety consume you. There are ways out of this trap. Just take some deep breaths and try to keep a clear head. You’ve got a lot of work to do.

You’re not alone. Webmasters have been experiencing significant traffic drops in the last two years because of major algorithm changes by Google. The first big update, Panda, sought to punish sites that publish low-quality content. This year, Google unleashed its Penguin update, which mainly targets unnatural inbound links.

There are many reasons why your site might be in the penalty box. Maybe you hired an SEO company without realizing their tactics could get you yanked from Google’s index. Perhaps your site has been hacked. It could be that you’ve knowingly engaged in some black-hat SEO techniques yourself. It’s even possible, but unlikely, that your competitors are responsible for your lost rankings.

Waste no time in finding the root of the problem and fixing it. The longer it takes to restore your rankings, the more money you’ll lose. Use the following as a guide to get your site back on track.

Sign Up for Webmaster Tools

If you haven’t already, sign up for Google Webmaster Tools. You’ll need this to file a reconsideration request down the line. It’s easy and free to join. All you have to do is paste a snippet of code within your site’s meta data to verify that you’re the owner. Webmaster Tools is essential if you’re serious about SEO. If you’re already a member, it’s possible that Google has sent you warnings about your suspected dishonest SEO methods.

Check Your Inbound Link Profile

One of Google’s biggest ranking factors is inbound linking. Google counts each site that links to you as a vote. The more votes your site has, the more authoritative it must be, according to Google’s logic. Spammers figured out how to game the system years ago. Buying hundreds of cheap links from sketchy sites used to earn you prominent rankings, but today it could be your downfall.

SEOMoz’s Open Site Explorer is a great way to see what sites link to yours. Just type your web address in and you’ll quickly see a list of linking domains. Look out for anything that seems suspicious. Sites that are irrelevant to your space that link to you are red flags. If you’re selling wool socks, there’s no reason a computer hardware directory or an insurance blog should be linking to you.

Remove as many spam links as possible. Getting your links removed can be quite difficult. It requires emailing webmasters manually and picking up the phone. You might even need to threaten legal action. Just do your best to get them removed and take note of the ones you can’t. This could easily take you a week.

Assess Your Site’s Content

Ranking in Google used to be relatively easy. You’d pick the terms you want to show up for and repeat them as many times as possible in your content. Google has since smartened up. Read through all your site’s content and make sure it reads like a human being wrote it. Have a relative or neighbor read over it for honest feedback.

Rewrite all content that has keyword stuffing. You only need to include your targeted keywords a handful of times within your content. Just make sure they’re in the meta title, the H1, an image’s alt tag and once or twice within the first few paragraphs and you should be all set. The meta title is important, but don’t overdo it. If you’re a plumber in Seattle, pick “Leading Seattle Plumbing Services” over “Seattle Plumber | Seattle, WA Plumbing Services | Seattle Plumbers.”

Identify Low-Quality Pages

Many sites have tons of pages that provide little to no value to visitors. Comb through your site to find pages that have shallow content. Use Google Analytics to determine which pages have the highest bounce rates. Any pages that have bounce rates of 80-90% probably aren’t doing you any favors.

Beef up the content of all the pages you can and delete any low-quality pages that are not salvageable. Get rid of any placeholder pages. Having a site full of “coming soon” pages makes it look unprofessional to Google and your potential customers.

Ask for Forgiveness

Once you’ve cleaned up your web presence, file for a reconsideration request within Google Webmaster Tools. Only do this if you’re certain your site is no longer in breach of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. You’ll be asked to provide details on what you think triggered the penalties and what you’ve done to correct the problem. If you hired an SEO firm, providing details about the company and its methods “is a helpful indication of good faith that may assist in evaluation of reconsideration requests,” according to Google.

Honesty is key here. If you know you were wrong, admit it and apologize. If you’re the victim of an unscrupulous SEO company, explain the situation in detail and show no mercy for the firm. Google has seen its share of honest companies burned by shady SEOs, so they’ll be sympathetic to your plight if they believe you.

Play the Waiting Game

Count on waiting at least a few weeks for a response. Do not file multiple requests within a short time period. They will either be ignored or decrease the likelihood of your original request getting the time of day. While you’re waiting, continue to improve your site and find alternative sources of traffic. Produce high-quality content that visitors will want to share on their sites and with their social networks.

If your penalty doesn’t get revoked, you may have to start from scratch. Matt Cutts, who heads Google’s webspam team, has said that webmasters who don’t recover should consider starting a whole new website. Let’s hope you don’t find yourself in that boat.