I’ve been working with a local kid on improving my search engine ranking and while it was going well for a while, my site seems to be getting less and less traffic in the last month or two. That’s not right! He told me that I could look in my Google Webmaster Tools area to find out if there are any specific flagged problems, but frankly I kinda think he did some bad things and don’t want his help. I do, however, want to look and see if there are any problems, I just have no idea where that information can be found in Webmaster Tools. Help!
This is a big, complex issue, so before I show you where to find what are called “manual actions” in GWT (as we call Google Webmaster Tools in the biz) I want to talk a bit about search engine optimization, hiring outside SEO “experts” and such. I’m also going to make an assumption based on your using the word “local kid” to describe the person to whom you outsourced the job: That you’re older and find a lot of this akin to voodoo. Then again, you are aware of GWT and have been poking around so that’s a good sign.
Still, as a general rule, I’m always very cautious when suggesting to people that they hire an outside person to help them with something as mission critical as search engine optimization (SEO) because if you pick the wrong person, they can really mess up your site and its ranking in the search engines — not just Google — without there being much recourse. Their consequence for making bad decisions with your site design and marketing are minimal since they’ve been paid monthly, but your consequences can be huge. Imagine having to start over with a new domain, for example.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some reputable SEO companies in the industry. I work with one myself on some of the properties in my online network and they bring a narrow and deep subject matter expertise. To choose them, however, I interviewed peers to ascertain who worked with what company and checked references to ensure that they were delivering good “white hat” results. And that’s super important: some SEO “experts” (yes, I use that in quotes because anyone can call themselves an expert in an unregulated industry like online marketing) have sofware tools and learn some sneaky tricks, applying them to every client they get. Bad results? Try again next time.
Until very recently, you’d be completely out of luck but after years of customer complaints, Google has finally relented and now makes some information available to Webmastes about potential problems identified on their sites through, you guessed it, Google Webmaster Tools.
Finding that information, however, can be tricky because while it’s darn important to us Web site owners, it’s apparently not a huge area of interest to the GWT development team (which I hear is surprisingly small, actually).
Log in to Google Webmaster Tools and make sure you’ve validated ownership of your site with the software. Once you have, you can quick check that there are no overt server problems right on the home screen:
That all looks good! If you ever see any of these not a green check mark you’ll want to investigate and fix it immediately.
On the left are the main navigational choices for GWT:
Can you guess where the information you see on potential SEO problems is located? Yeah, neither can most folk.
In fact, it’s in “Search Traffic”. Click on it to open up the options:
There’s the link you see. “Manual Actions”. Not “Problems” or “Warnings” or “SEO Mistakes”, just the more ambiguous “Manual Actions”. Still, now you know. Click on it and you’ll see sitewide issues appear, if any:
The tiny “None” next to “Site-wide matches” means that there are no issues that affect all the pages on this particular site. That’s good, you want to see “None”.
On “Partial matches”, however, there’s a problem, as indicated by the tiny “Some manual actions apply to specific pages, sections, or links”. And yet, it’s still hiding. To reveal the warning or error problem from Google’s Webmaster Tools system, you simply click on the Partial matches line.
For this particular site, a very interesting result is revealed:
Now that’s a problem for sure. Thin content is one of the new problems that the latest generation of Google’s “Penguin” algorithm is seeking, and having it on a subdomain associated with the particular site we’re investigating is a huge issue. Not only does it mean that the pages on that subdomain (masked behind the black bar in the screencap above) are penalized for being essential “no useful content” pages, but it’s quite likely that the rest of the site is being dragged down for these problematic pages. Google’s simple calculation: If there are some pages on your site that aren’t valuable, well, maybe everything else is less than stellar, we just haven’t figured out it algorithmically yet.
The solution in this case was to actually disable the subdomain and remove all the “thin content” pages in question, then click “Reqeust a Review” and send a brief note to the Google team asking them to re-examine the site and verify those thin content pages were no longer present. Easy enough, but expect it to take a few weeks before they actually analyze your site or pages to confirm things are fixed.
Different problems will require different solutions, of course, but at least now you know how to find if there are any flagged content or site problems through GWT. And as for that contract SEO person? I’d be straight with him and share your concerns that something he’s done has caused your site ranking to lower. You might be surprised at his ideas for analyzing, isolating and fixing the problem, and if nothing else, at least you’ll gain some satisfaction for being transparent and straightforward.