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Is Google Using a Position #6 "Penalty"?

 10:35 pm on Dec 26, 2007 (gmt 0)

Something is happening that was mentioned in our December 2007 SERP Changes [webmasterworld.com] thread and deserves a dedicated thread.

What some site owners are reporting is that search rankings that have held for a long time, often at #1, were knocked down begun to #6. These reports happen often enough that it looks like there might be something specific going on. However, there are always ranking shifts, so zeroing in on exactly this one thing can be difficult.

-- Here are the main signs --

1. Well established site with a long history.
2. Long time good rankings for a big search term - usually #1
3. Other searches that returned the same url at #1 may also be sent to #6, but not all of them
4. Some reports of a #2 result going to #6.

-- What we can identify so far --

A. It's search term specific (usually the biggest and best converting phrase)
B. Therefore, not a url or domain-wide penalty on all terms
C. A little testing on one site seems to show it's not an on-page problem
D. That leaves off-page but on-site, or off-site, or posibly backlink issues

-- Some loose guesswork and brainstorming --

i. Backlink profiles are not diverse enough - is this a new algo tweak on that factor?
ii. Backlinks are aging or stagnating, with no new ones being added?
iii. I thought about the possibility of paid link devaluation (even going back two or three steps from the site) but that would not consistently place a url at #6, so I've ruled that out.

Is anyone else seeing this Position #6 problem? Something like this could be hard to separate out from all the other movement that the SERPs show.

However, I've now seen it happen to key terms on three different sites operated by the same person (different WhoIs, no incestuous linking) and two corporate sites. Plus there are several other reports in the Decemeber SERP Changes thread. Every one of these cases seems to be hitting the domain root, and not internal url.

I'm not happy with the current level of analysis, however, and definitely looking for more ideas.

[edited by: tedster at 6:28 pm (utc) on Dec. 29, 2007]



 12:42 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

Seeing the same thing on two websites I work with, across more than one keyword. Really hard to make what this is about, perhaps some kind of bug or glitch?

Hard to see why only a partial of all keywords would fall to 6, and why that position is the magic number.

I see this for one website affecting inner pages. On the other website it is affecting the root url.

Just to add a few other bits:

One site uses paid links, the other does not.
One website has natural links built (there is no active link building campaign) The other has a small level link campaign going
Both websites get diverse cross section of new links.

[edited by: CainIV at 1:15 am (utc) on Dec. 27, 2007]


 1:40 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

I've seen similar behavior with high quality pages dropping down after observing a series of rapid-fire/simultaeous requests in the logs from multiple independent IP addresses. Perhaps it was unrelated, but I thought the set of requests was a page test, with subsequent small penalty applied for slow page access under a load, dropping them to mid-serp where they'd still be available just not getting a gatling gun of requests...this made logical sense as a top-listed page would tend to get such a volume of requests that Google's customers could get unhappy with sluggish response.

Optimizing pages for speed seemed to help improve their lot.


 3:15 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

I am observing this on a few 2-word phrases that I ranked #1 on for quite a while. Now at #6. Looking into this further.


 3:24 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

We're seeing this on a few sites....these sites held rankings for years, and now rank at #6.... no patterns found yet.


 4:02 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

Check out backlinks (and TF) with exact match for the phrases and then look for sites ranking high that have only ONE of the words in the phrase either relevant on the site or in the backlinks.


 5:21 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

Before anyone runs off and does anything drastic, I'm seeing movement to former positions on certain DC's flickering on and off... much like the "Position #6" (sounds dirty):P started.


 11:07 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

I see my site struck into 2nd page, I got my listings up for other keywords, but this one keyword is my main keyword and there only my site got struck in the 2nd page.

May be that's also a change.. as I haven't seen much on 6th position but definitely Google is doing some vast changes


 11:35 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

You could probably start a thread for a demotion to Position #3, Position #27 and vurtually any position penalty given that people will always be able to find examples that appear to match the apparent behaviour.

If there is such a phenomenen then what would be interesting to know is what is replacing the demoted pages as this may equally be a promotion to Position #1 phenomenon.

So many people clutching at straws these days that Google discussions are becomeing more and more pointless, just IMO.



 11:54 am on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

My site too went from #1 to #6 for its main keyword combination.


 12:34 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

If there is such a phenomenen then what would be interesting to know is what is replacing the demoted pages as this may equally be a promotion to Position #1 phenomenon.

no that would be something entirely different.


 1:14 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

"Before anyone runs off and does anything drastic, I'm seeing movement to former positions on certain DC's flickering on and off... "

I do not see that my site has changes on other DCs.
Still solid position 6 across the board for a broad combination of 2 & 3 keyword phrases.


 1:28 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

Yes, this might well be nothing real, and only a coincidence among sites. Still, going from 1 to 6 is quite a fall, especially for a long established site that has been at #1 for a long period. When someone mentioned it we immediately had an unusual number of people who had just seen the same exact thing this month. That much corroboration for something so exactly described bears a closer look, I think.

For the ranking shifts I've looked at, the previous #2 is what moved to #1 - in fact the rest of the top sites did not shuffle around or see new entries. However, the sample size here is still quite small.

Among those who've recently seen this happen, do any of the ideas I shared hold true for your demoted sites? No recent backlink growth, for instance? Or how about an unusually high number of exact keyword-match anchor text - compared to the website's domain name, which normally would be high in the kind of natural or spontaneous linking that Google likes to see?


 1:39 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

I can see absolutely no sign of this with any of my sites or the areas I check


 2:07 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)


I can confirm that this is occuring on a few phrases I watch for. I am in the process of testing for link volume growth for specific time periods to see if this is a factor -- looking at the 1 through 5 rankings, I can definitely say it is not an on-page manner, nor is it something devaluing paid links/reviews.

If anything, the sites falling have a better link diversity profile than the ones not falling (on the examples I'm aware of) so a volume test seems like the best bet.

The first occurance I noticed was Dec 6th; an influx of links resulted in a rebound within 3 weeks (#6 back to 1 and 2)...unfortunately, whether it was the volume or the simple matter of newly acquired link strength is difficult to say. A follow up test is currently in the works.


 2:24 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

This has happened to my site but only for a main 1 word keyword. Only a couple of new links over the last month, all using domain name as anchor.


 2:55 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

These were all downgraded to 6 since about 17 Dec for my client's site.

<edit>5 different phrases which have overlapping keywords</edit>

The position changes appeared intermittently until seeming fairly sustained since Dec 24.

The downgrades were predominantly to 6 and these are the most competitive terms.

We remain at one for <edit>one phrase with a different modifier</edit> which was created using that term in anchor text inbound.

The wholesale move to no. 6 seems too much to be a coincidence.

[edited by: Robert_Charlton at 7:27 pm (utc) on Dec. 27, 2007]
[edit reason] removed specifics [/edit]


 3:21 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

We just came off a stretch of about ten months at # 1 for our main two word phrase, and sit today right on the button at # 6. Interior high ranking pages, for slight variations of this key word, are fine, many sitting at # 1 where they have been for a long time.

Tedtster threw out some possible traits, and one we are probably guilty of is no real new back links of any significance. Complacency could be the culprit, but when something’s working you tend to leave it alone. This site also suffered a drop in PR last update, and even then we really began to wonder about age of links. Used to think age of links somehow made them superior to newer ones; but right now we have some doubts about that. Of course we have not changed the content in quite some time, so possible staleness there as well.

They really do seem enamored with these “penalties” or rote, ranking reductions at the plex these days.

cheesy snacks

 3:26 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

yep i have fallen to #6 for my 2 word key phrase. still hold #1 for another competitive keyword so dont think is a form of penalty...

Doesnt seem like a coincidence...but very odd.

I will be watching this thread very closely!

One thing I notice is that I do hold alot of supplemental pages in relation to normal 'indexed' pages. ie. similar meta desriptions/title.

In the process of amending these and waiting for results.

cheesy snacks

 3:28 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

how many outbound links to people have on their homepage? (which are crawled by google)

Stagnation could be something.internal link structure has noit been amended for a few years...my competitors have been link exchanging like crazy (reciprocal)..in the old days I thought google would have come down on this.


 3:36 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

As Confuscius asks, who's moving up to take your place? Is there an obvious pattern, such as a type of site or page that's gaining?


 3:45 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

iii. I thought about the possibility of paid link devaluation (even going back two or three steps from the site) but that would not consistently place a url at #6, so I've ruled that out.

We personally in the past few years, have not seen any site that is heavily involved in old school link exchanging, or involved in the paid link market, drop in ranking whatsoever. I know a lot of people recently saw some sort of round of knock downs for sites engaged in paid links, but we did not. Especially during these “penalty” threads, it’s important to mention this. The sites, over the past year that we see doing better, relative to other sites, are in fact those sites that are engaging in aggressive link building tactics, through exchanges, purchases and even interlinking between sites.

“Linking”, of any sort seems to help (despite a lot of “talk” to the contrary). Maybe its time to start thinking that a lack of active new linking, just may be more of a risky strategy.

cheesy snacks

 4:34 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

yes the sites above me now have been my competitors for a number of years...but have undertaken aggressive link exchange (reciprocal or otherwise) from their homepage.

I have gone the 'old school' route, preferring one way inbounds wherever possible, and having few outbounds on my homepage.

But I have slipped down to 6th. Perhaps heavy reciprocal linking does not now trigger am 'over optimisation' penalty anymore?


 4:39 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

To Confucius, efv, and any future doubters -

No offense, but I often study(and keep databases on) my competitors even more than my actual sites. As others stated in the previous thread, I really don't care what it's called - bug/glitch (we hope), penalty, demotion, filter, "whatever".

A jump from #1-#3 to #6 in almost any niche is a huge difference. I can name only a very few (like 10-20) impossibly competitive terms where the top 5 sites are interchangeable. On the 99.99999999% of all other keyword terms, the #1, #2, and/or #3 pages have a huge difference in overall "ranking factors" than the #4-#10 entries.

To even further debunk the "competitors are just gaining" red herring. For some of my clients terms, they are far and away the #1 "site" by any metric possible. And in no possible way would the #3-#5 site be ranking above them by any human or computer standards -- sans penalty/filter.
(I could see where the #2 might surpass us, but certainly not the other 3 pages)
Which again points to the basic facts tedster laid out in the original post.

Hopefully, we won't need to have this particular discussion again. I can and have ruled this out immediately -- which is why I originally posted it as a "-5 penalty" (aka Position #6 penalty) and not "sour grapes" about the algo changing or competitors being "better"

Now, on to solutions....

Can anyone rule out the suggestion about slow-loading pages?
While it seems unlikely Google would be dense enough to apply the penalty for that reason, they've been known to use odder logic.

Overall Link Growth -- while I can't rule this out with any certainty, pages in question do engage in a steady, but natural link-building process.

Paid Links Devaluation -- I agree with tedster. No evidence of this even following sites 3 back.

Has anyone added new pages which point to the penalized pages with similar or new anchor text?

Has anyone added new backlinks with substantially different anchor text to those pages?

Yes, I'm still seeing short burst (about 10 minute periods) of the penalized pages returning to former rankings. (for some terms)


 5:19 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

OK, Whitenight, let me put it differently: What are the unaffected sites doing (or not doing) that might be saving them from being bumped to #6 (or #5, or #7, or some other position that's lower than their previous rank)? Can you see any pattern?


 6:10 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

My site is most definitely at number six for some big terms from twos and threes and no paid linking going on.

Slow loading is a possibility.

cheesy snacks

 6:17 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

I dont think slow loading is anything to do with it. I have another completely different website which is unaffected which is hosted on the same servers.


 6:19 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

Focusing on the sites that have moved up is a red herring. For this approach to have any meaning, all five sites which were below yours would have had to have had superior factors --or to have implemented those factors-- which caused them to suddenly outrank your site -- all simultaneously, and all to the same degree (since their order did not change). Even cursory statistical analysis suggest that this is extremely unlikely.

Focus on why the one site dropped -- that is the productive path.



 6:28 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

Yes, Jim is spot on, the sites above have just overtaken the downgraded one in my case they've gone up by default.


 6:36 pm on Dec 27, 2007 (gmt 0)

Why have we ruled out on-page factors?

Is it vanity? Surely it can't be something that I did!

I've just noticed a competitor page with two keyphrases at the dreaded six, but the same site owner at twos and threes with much less optimized sites. Could it be over-zealous on page optimization being dampened?

My own client site has been the subject of recent heavy WPG driven optimization which is doing wonders on Yahoo and MSN/Live and luckily overall our business objectives look in better shape taking all into consideration.

By the way I've been an SEO 6 years full time.

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