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In Nov/Dec of 2003 it fell way back in Google. Since that time, I receive more referrals from Google Images and MSN than from Google's main search. The site doesn't actually sell the product so much as display images of the product for people who would then order offline, the point being that it is an image-laden site, hence the Google Images referrals.
After the fall-out at Google, in the past 3 years, I continued to update, albeit rarely, with new images. The site didn't lose its ranking on the somewhat obscure non-competitive phrases for which it was at #1 and I knew of no other phrase that was more competitive to check. It did, however, lose about 1/3 to 1/2 (it fluctuates) of its site visitors/stats. I presume (now) that this loss was on competitive words within phrases (meaningful to someone out there but not the type of thing that brings customers for this site) that the site was being penalized for. Maybe I was inadvertently over-optimizing.
Tonight I was looking at the site at google using site:mysite.com. Four results are listed on the first page. They are the home page and then the other 3 are listed as "supplemental". When I click on "repeat the search with the omitted results included," by the 3rd result on this page, there is the title tag listed and the next line has a word repeated 3 times, separated by commas, and then the description and so on. This word is not in the visible text of many of the web pages at all. It is a word that I named my "images" directory instead of calling it "images". It occurred to me that it's probably a competitive term on the Internet, something that could trigger a spam flag.
Has anyone else seen this type of thing? Should I rename my "images" folder to "images"? The word is an appropriate word for the site and is somewhat sprinkled within the content on the site. It just isn't as intuitive to me as other synonyms, so I didn't make a point to use the word. Being that it's used as the name of my "images" folder, though, and being that i use Fireworks with splices, etc., I counted it in the source code 58 times on one typical page.
If I change the name of the "images" directory, I will lose the Google Images referrals until the bot recrawls. Years ago this could take awhile and, in those days, I was still getting main Google referrals to make up for the temporary loss. I could do the htaccess 401 thing... (sigh...) I guess...
Here is how it looks in the Google results:
Title of Niche Page
competitive word, competitive word, competitive word. Description typed in by me starts here, bla bla bla ...
www.nichesite.com/noncompetitive-synonym/page.html - 18k - Cached - Similar pages
Does each page have unique title elements, meta description, meta keyword elements? You mentioned that the site is image heavy, do the pages have enough unique text to differentiate themselves from others?