9 Reasons Why Your Google Search Rankings May Tank

Question: I have a client that frequently ranks at the top of the search results then sharply drops. His website's Google rankings keep bouncing back and forth. Why do they fluctuate so much?

Answer: Via using spammy links, leveraging the internal link structure of a high authority site, or cross site scripting exploits just about anyone can rank for a day, but it is harder to stay there day in and day out until you build massive domain authority.

Google and other major search engines have many filters, editors, algorithms, and barriers which are used to prevent spamming or minimize the profitability of overt spam. I believe that Google has moved away from banning sites as much and instead moved to using filters more, because that makes it harder to know when / why / where something went wrong. Was your host down, did you screw up your robots.txt file or is that a penalty? The more they can obfuscate their algorithms the harder it is to do SEO and the more people will opt into Google's webmaster tools authentication system.

Here are a few of the most common reasons pages stop ranking / get filtered out of Google for their target phrases (ie: go from ranking in the top 5 results to many pages deep or near the end of the results).

Too Much Similar Anchor Text

If a link profile is natural many of the inbound links will use alternate phrases in the anchor text. If almost all of your anchor text is focused on your core phrase that may preclude your site for being able to rank for that phrase. This actually hit SeoBook.com about 2 years ago. Mixing anchor text is important, especially for a new site in a competitive marketplace.

Page Too Well Aligned with a Term

If your internal anchor text, inbound anchor text, page title, meta description, page headings, and page copy all target the same phrase too closely then the page might get filtered out of the search results.

This problem can occur due to being too aggressive, or due to scrapper sites that keep linking to you over and over again with your page title as the link anchor text.

You know you have achieved this filter when one of your former top ranking pages no longer appears in the top few hundred results, but a subpage of less importance and lower relevancy outranks it (perhaps even somewhere beyond #100).

The easiest way to fix this problem is to change the page title to target an alternate version. If that does not work you may also want to change your internal anchor text and try to get a few more inbound links that are not keyword rich.

Scrape You Very Much

If you have a new site with few trusted links a web proxy or scraper site may get credit for your content. The easiest ways around this are to ensure you have some absolute (not relative) links in your site's navigational structure, and to build some authoritative links to make it harder to knock your site down.

Site Too Aligned With a Term

Somewhat like the above filter, if it is obvious that your site is targeting a keyword it may not rank well for that phrase or derivatives of it. For example, it is probably not a good idea to start every page title on your site with your core keyword at the beginning of the page title. Google has a lot of patents in this phrase based IR area.

You know you have achieved this filter when you rank for alternate nearby phrases but few or none of the pages on your site rank well for shorter search phrases containing your core keyword.

Too Many Reciprocal Links

My wife's main website only ranked for one 5 word phrase until after we dumped the reciprocal link directory her SEO provider put on her site. After removing that page her rankings quickly improved. It is not that reciprocal links are bad (as some forms of reciprocation are a natural part of the web), but if an abnormally large percentage of your links are reciprocal then it is easy to get hit. You can also accidentally walk into this sort of penalty by launching an effective site rating / review awards program that gets a new site too many reciprocal links.

Getting Banned & Manual or Automated Penalties

Some sites that are penalized automated or manually are not completely banned from the search engines, but are stuck ranking somewhere beyond the top 30 results for everything. You know your site stands a good chance of having this penalty if your don't even rank for a unique string of text on your site wrapped in quotes.

Manual penalties and bans are not too common for quality sites, but they do happen. If you feel you are banned or penalized and your site is above board you can plead your case to Google inside their webmaster console.

Duplicate Content & Wasted PageRank

If you have an internal architectural problem and your PageRank is spread across thousands of pages of duplicate content then some of your good content will end up in Google's supplemental results, and won't rank for much. The remaining pages in Google's regular index may also rank worse because they will not have as much link equity as they once did.

You know you have messed this up if you keep track of your page count in Google and see it drastically balloon. This increased page count will also be accompanied by lower rankings, especially for long tail keywords that matched up with deep content.

Are You in Your Community?

Google may re-rank results based on local inter-connectivity. Large authority sites like Amazon.com and Wikipedia slip through based on their site's clout, but if you are a new and small player in a marketplace it helps to get some on topic / in community links. Re-ranking is more likely to occur for shorter queries where there is a significant community around the topic. Longer queries likely place more weight on on the page content.

Operator Error

If you have a problem with your .htaccess file or accidentally block a large portion of your site with robots.txt or robots noindex meta tags then your traffic will go down. Make sure that if you change your site architecture that you test to ensure your URL redirects and rewrites work properly. If you sign up for the Google Webmaster Central tools they will display any crawling errors or 404 messages they come across.

Minor Changes in Ranking

Sites with few links may also see their rankings bounce around quite a bit, and their crawl depth limited, until they acquire some high trust links or Google can figure out other ways to determine if the site deserves to be trusted.

If your rankings fluctuate a bit but are always near the top you may just need a few more links with target anchor text, or a few more authoritative links. Algorithms change all the time, and your strongest competitors are actively building their brands every day, so your site either grows with the web or fades in relevancy.

Microsoft likes fresh links a lot. Google may also place weight on fresh links, but they also look at link quality and rate of growth. If your link growth is too spiky or beyond what is normal they may filter or ban your site, like they did to their AdSense blog 2 years ago.

Published: July 25, 2007 by Aaron Wall in Q & A


July 29, 2007 - 11:29am

This is my very problem with my blog. I think it's the "site too aligned with a term" that's causing it.

Thanks for telling!

July 31, 2007 - 3:50pm

I had a problem with an htaccess file and within one day I had lost all of my two and three keyword rankings. I saw the traffic drop off so I fixed the problem and was relisted in about 2 days. Google is quick to drop you but fortunately almost as quick to relist when you fix the problem.

July 25, 2007 - 2:46am

Completely OT, and I apologise for that; but you say, "My WIFE's main website"... in the past I've only heard references to a girlfriend, has there been a recent marriage or anything? :)

July 25, 2007 - 2:46am


Did I miss something? :)

July 25, 2007 - 2:48am

Heh. Check out the buzz.

"We're in ur blog, stalking ur relationship status..."

July 25, 2007 - 3:37am

Mmm good food for thought thanks for that.

When your talking about Reciprocal Links, just how many are you saying is too much??

July 25, 2007 - 3:47am

I see this phrase on your blog a lot, dropped in there as if it's so easy: "Get more high authority links".

The big question here is "how?". Webmasters of high authority sites must be sick and tired of constantly receiving link requests - the last thing I want to do is add to their spam. Google frowns on paid links, so what does that leave? Are new webmasters relegated to trying to think up yet another linkbait article?

If an answer isn't appropriate here (or pointers to where to find the answer) drop me an email please? If I need to buy something reasonably priced to get the answer, so be it :)

July 25, 2007 - 3:53am

Hi Burgo and Brian. I got married to the most wonderful girl in the whole world on the 2nd of this month.

When your talking about Reciprocal Links, just how many are you saying is too much??

Hi Jermayn
I don't think it is just an absolute number. I think it is a ratio dependant on link quality, ratio of recips to non-recips, site age, site authority, and other factors.

The big question here is "how?"

That is where SEO becomes a subset of marketing. Create things people would like to talk about and then market them. Another way is to buy older sites that already have the links you want and work from there.

July 25, 2007 - 4:04am

I find that Google sometimes plays with the SERPs on weekends to see if alternative results yield higher CTR. Some of my high rankings will slip for Sat/Sun in the US but then go back to normal in the business week.

Congrats on the marriage Aaron!

July 25, 2007 - 4:35am

(Belated) Congrats Aaron... wonderful news! (Isn't it weird [and a little creepy], how a reader of a blog can get excited for someone they've never met?) ;)

July 25, 2007 - 5:17am

Aaron is somewhat of a celebrity to his readers, and people always care about what their favourite celebrities are doing, regardless of the fact that the celebrity likely has no idea that the fan even exists. Congratulations Aaron, from a long-time lurker :)

July 25, 2007 - 5:33am

I posted about this exact topic Yesterday :-)

July 25, 2007 - 5:44am

Congrats Aaron! Drop me an email with the new address, and I'll send you two a nice wedding gift!

July 25, 2007 - 8:04am

Congratulations Aaron. Do we hear the patter of tiny feet?

Re: wasted page rank - what would you do if you had a whole load of oh-too-similar pages in the supplemental index that you wanted to drop? 301? Ban the folder with robots.txt?


July 25, 2007 - 8:07am

Hi Steve
If they had any inlinks and I could redirect them to a related URL I probably would. Otherwise I would probably just robots.txt the folder

July 25, 2007 - 11:09am

Muchas felicidades, desde España ;)

July 25, 2007 - 12:49pm

Nice article aaron dude as always!

Wife? Having SEO from other source.... :)

July 25, 2007 - 1:12pm

Hi Aaron,

Congratulations!! Happy married life! Where are you off to for your honeymoon?

We had a similar problem (with rankings fluctuating and tons of pages in the supp index) a few months back. I spoke to Aaron at that time and started working on getting rid of noisy pages that leaked PR, changed the internal link structure to make sure only the top priority pages got site wide exposure, got rid of our reciprocal link directory and started adding in unique and interesting content.

The fluctuation is still there. But I hope to see some improvement with the upcoming PR update at the end of this month.

Thanks Aaron for your tips and suggestions!


July 25, 2007 - 2:31pm

Congratulations Aaron, all the best for your futures!

Stephan Smith I...
July 25, 2007 - 2:32pm

Great post Aaron.
The part with having "Too Much Similar Anchor Text" surprised me.

I'm going to have to change some things up.

July 25, 2007 - 5:52pm

Do you think I should add a nofollow to my wordpress blog archives? (you know, the links that read 'october 2006', etc.)


July 25, 2007 - 6:06pm

Congratulations on the marriage. June 23, I got married to the most wonderful girl in the world.

July 25, 2007 - 7:33pm

woohoo..Congrats on the marriage Aaron!

July 25, 2007 - 7:42pm

@Jim I find this comment very interesting. How frequently does this happen?

"I find that Google sometimes plays with the SERPs on weekends to see if alternative results yield higher CTR. Some of my high rankings will slip for Sat/Sun in the US but then go back to normal in the business week."

What do you think of this theory Aaron? Have you witnessed something like that before?

July 25, 2007 - 7:53pm

Mazel Tov! I enjoyed meeting your then girlfriend (now wife); you two "matched" well with each other.

I'm glad to see you posting on one of my favorite subjects too -- the EOS / MOS subject has been rather interesting.

Matt Keegan
July 26, 2007 - 12:32am

This is what I am afraid of: my effort to strengthen my linking strategies scuttled because of something that I did wrong. This next PR update will reveal much for me as in, "did I do the right thing or was I wasting my time?"

July 26, 2007 - 4:50am

Dude I didn't know you got married! Congrats!!!

July 26, 2007 - 10:20am

Congratulations, Aaron!

That's great news.

I guess that means search is over for you.

Much happiness now and in the future.

August 18, 2008 - 1:12pm

Nice topic! It is still relevant for todays rankings.

July 25, 2009 - 11:53pm

Why when logged into google webmaster tools does your site appear number one and really high rankings for many words but not when logged in?

Q2 : Having a partners link page that only links to the partners and doesn't have a link back to your index page, will that hurt rankings? This is what I thought caused my drop, and I fixed and requested google reconsideration. ?!?!? any other thoughts?

July 26, 2009 - 3:49am

The answer to your first question is search personalization.

To answer your second question we would need to know a lot more about your site. Feel free to ask that question in the member forums if you are a subscriber.

January 20, 2010 - 10:35am

My website dropped from PR 2 to 0 couple weeks ago. I looked into my google webmaster tool account, and I found out that the sitemap failed. I'm not sure how it can fail, while it's been fine all these months. So I submitted again the sitemap link which is generated automatically by xmap joomla (the tool I use to generate sitemap). Now that the sitemap link is ok and accessible by google, the PR stays at 0. But luckily, my website doesn't drop much in the search result for my targeted keyword.

Could the sitemap problem be the reason why my PR dropped?


January 20, 2010 - 6:11pm

Sounds like you already figured it out, but if your actual search rankings and traffic from Google stayed the same then that shows you toolbar PageRank is pretty useless.

Rankings and traffic matter. Toolbar PageRank? Not so much, eh.

January 22, 2010 - 8:13am

Thanks for the response Aaron.
So, are you saying that there is no relation between Toolbar PageRank and Google ranking?

My search ranking varies between different browser on google.co.id. Using mozilla, my website is no. 3 for the keyword "baju" (means clothing), but using Internet Explorer, my website ranks around no. 10 (second page). (My website: sulaymancity.com ). Is it because search personalization?

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.