Over the last week, Google has been testing what appear to be some significant algorithm changes, which have cause significant changes in ranking for a variety of sites.
There are some facts and opinion below, but first I want to make sure you have some tangible actions.
Check to see if you're affected, and by how much. Do a quick search on Google for your brand name, domain name and for any high-volume head terms. If you find that you are not ranking on the first page for your brand name, or if other terms have significantly slipped in rankings, then it's a likely sign that you're suffering. Looking at your analytics will give you more insight into how your total organic traffic is looking. This will also help you find out when your site first suffered. Don't panic, and don't make any sudden movements. It might feel like the sky is falling around you right now - particularly if your traffic for a particularly valuable term has just slumped to zero - but an immediate response isn't likely to be helpful. Also, any changes you've made to your site in the last few days / week are unlikely to be the cause of your particular issue; don't worry too much about them or try to 'undo' things. As discussed below, there's a chance that Google has been overzealous and made mistakes here; if this is the case, then we would expect to see some of the impact reversed in the coming days.
Be prepared to clean up your SEO. If you company has benefited from 'shady' SEO techniques, then this is a perfect time to persuade people internally that a more honest approach will be better for the future. Now would be a good time to put the brakes on any low-quality link building practices, and to start cleaning up any poor-quality techniques you've been using, either on-site or off-site.
A Short Timeline / BackgroundDuring March and April, Google has been sending out a significant number of messages to webmasters (via Webmaster Central) - many were 'Unnatural Link Warnings', telling the site owners that Google recognized 'artificial or unnatural links' in their backlink profile. Google also issued warnings to the SEO community about penalties for 'over optimization', but with scant details on what factors they were assessing.
Patrick Altoft from Branded3 blogged about his experiences with these warnings. One of his insights: "If you get this message in your Webmaster Tools account then it is likely that the site will receive a penalty within weeks".
At the same time, Google has been aggressively trying to penalize large link networks. (SearchEngineLand covered this story in March) Sites that relied on using these kinds of services for linkbuilding suffered from the drop in link equity to their site.
On 18th April, Google tried rolling out an update to recognize parked domains (and presumably reduce their rankings or remove them from search.) Matt Cutts publicly announced that there was a bug in this change, which mistakenly impacted some sites. However, it's clear that some sites are still suffering significantly lower rankings, indicating that either this update's issues haven't been fully reverted, or that another algorithm change has come into effect.
ExamplesOne SEO consultant that has been very public about issues with his own site is Wil Reynolds from SeerInteractive. Searching on Google for [seer interactive] shows that their site doesn't rank until the bottom of page 3. (As of the morning of 19th April.) Wil rightly points out that his site has links from a variety of authoritative sources as well as strong 'social' signals, in the form of RSS subscribers and interactions on Youtube and Google Plus.
Our ThoughtsThese effect of these changes certainly looks like it may have been an update targeting exact match domains (EMDs) that got out of hand. If I launch a bunch of domains such as CheapCarLoansInSeattle.com with thin content and a lead gen form, then Google is probably quite right in trying not to give the site much credit. Buying EMDs is a pretty cynical tactic, that's definitely been used as a 'quick and easy' way into the top results.
However, it's impossible to characterize something like 'SeerInteractive.com' as an exact match domain. The phrase was completely unknown when the company launched; Wil & his team have spent years building brand recognition, and they have driven search volume for the term.
One theory is that Google is not miscategorizing sites, but actually misunderstanding search phrases. It seems like they might be making an incorrect assumption that phrases such as 'seer interactive' are not navigational queries but informational/transactional queries; this could then lead them to avoid ranking EMDs for those terms.
There's also a strong feeling (among SEOs talking online as well as my colleagues at Distilled) that Google may well admit a mistake here, and undo or dial-back the impact of some of the recent changes. (There is precedence for this: in the days after the Panda Update, some sites saw their rankings return to roughly their pre-Panda positions.) It is with this possibility in mind that we made the recommendation above to not panic. If you are confident that your site has a clean link profile, and there's nothing murky or egregious in your site's SEO history, then it might be best to lie-low and see what changes over the coming days.
For sites that have used any questionable tactics in the past - particularly if you have any 'gray' links in your profile - now would be an appropriate time to take action on that. There's good advice about cleaning up your SEO in a post from Paddy Moogan (scroll down to section 4) and a recent YouMoz post from Modesto Siotos gave advice about checking assessing the risks of your backlink profile.
After doing the work to make your SEO whiter-than-white, you should make sure you get credit for it. Submit a reconsideration request to Google, with full details about the links you've removed and other steps taken. Link to spreadsheets if necessary.
Sharing is CaringThe SEO industry has long benefited from people being honest and transparent. If you find that your site has been affected in the last couple of days, we'd encourage you to share this. At the very least, it adds more data points to help us all figure out what is going on. Better still, it's an opportunity for people to take a closer look at what might have happened in your specific case, and try to offer advice that will help your site regain its rankings and traffic.
If you feel comfortable, please feel free to share any stories or examples in the comments. If you'd like to share your issues privately, you can email me - firstname.lastname@example.org - and we'll see if we can give you feedback on your situation.
I'll update this post if/when any new, relevant information is available.