It all started quite simply: I just felt it was time to redesign my website. Along the way I thought it would be a good time to learn a little something about search engine optimization (SEO) and see if I could improve my search ranking.
Being a photographer in Tucson means going up against a lot of competition when it comes to search engines; there are hundreds of photographers in Tucson and who knows how many businesses and web sites related to photography and photographers here in town. Before I started on this project a couple of months ago, I admit that I didn’t pay too much attention to my ranking – at least in relation to other photographers in the area. If you search for my name, it comes up at the top, and that’s all I really knew or cared about. But when I started talking with an advertiser about the importance of having a strong and visible presence on the web in today’s business world, it got me to thinking. And for me, that’s usually where the trouble begins.
When I got the website looking like I wanted it to, I started tinkering around with different things within the code to see what effect those changes might have on my rankings. I did the obvious things, like modifying keywords and descriptions, and making sure I had good titles on all of my pages. I would change a thing or two, then watch my rankings for the next week or so to see the effect of the changes.
Generally, when using the search term “Tucson photographer” I ended up on page six or seven. Not bad, considering the number of photographer and photography related websites, businesses, articles, and activities out there. Not good enough, though, if I considered that that put me only in the top hundred or so search listings and certainly not good enough if you subscribe to the belief that people generally don’t look past the first two or three pages of search results.
So I kept experimenting. And then I went too far.
I’ve since learned that Google has a whole set of rules regarding what one can and can’t do in order to try to affect page ranking, and I broke one of those rules: I tried to put hidden text onto my home page – text that matches the color of the background so it’s not seen, but it’s there. And within forty-eight hours, it was as if I no longer existed in the photographic world – at least, not in the eyes of Google.
I logged on to my site one day to check the activity and noticed a bunch of hits to the site with no reference to where they came from. Then, as I’ve gotten into the habit of doing, I checked to see what my page rank was for the day. I wasn’t there. And I don’t mean I wasn’t on page five, or six, or ten. I wasn’t there at all. I scrolled through the seventy pages of results, feeling more and more ill with each page click as I tried figure out what had happened.
Then I did another search: “dropped from Google”.
It was immediately obvious that this is a common topic, and apparently has been for years. I just didn’t know it. In fact, Google has a Webmaster page that goes into this topic in great detail, and one sub-section that specifically addresses their Quality Guidelines for design and content. Number one on the Specific Guidelines list of things to avoid? Hidden text or hidden links. Oh…they really meant that? Apparently, yes – along with a bunch of other things.
Fortunately, Google also has many in-depth help sections, from simple advice on how to improve search rankings to what to do if your site is found to be in violation of their guidelines. In my case, I had to first correct my violation of their Quality Guidelines by removing my hidden text, then submit my site for reconsideration. In a resubmission request, it is up to you to identify and correct the violation or violations – Google does not tell you what you’ve done wrong or how to make it right. In fact, Google doesn’t even tell you that you have done something wrong. One day you’ll be there in the search results and the next day you won’t. Simple as that. And apparently there’s a good reason for this.
Google needs to have quality search results in order to keep people using their search engine. Put another way, people need to be able to trust that they’ll find what they’re looking for if they use Google to search. So Google has a complex method for determining whether a site has quality, regularly updated, and relevant content, and it tries to separate – sometimes literally – the bad from the good. See, it turns out spammers and bogus sites will often do the things that have ended up on Google’s list of don’ts, and that’s a part of how the Quality Guidelines came to be. By notifying people each time a violation occurs – before removing them from the search index – Google might run the risk of handing spammers the keys to the house, so to speak.
The upside to this whole thing is that I now appear to be back in Google’s good graces. Fortunately, I was able to see the drop-off from the search rankings within about twelve hours of it happening and therefore able to figure out what happened in a timely manner in order to submit an immediate appeal to Google for reconsideration. Google will not tell you if you’ve been reconsidered or reinstated, nor will they give you any information as to how long it will take for them to review your appeal other than that it may take “several weeks”. As quietly, if not as quicky, as you disappeared from the world of digital search results, you may reappear. That is, if Google thinks you should.