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I just checked the rank for the first time in about a month, and now I'm on the 5th page.
Do you have a Webmaster Tools account?
In that case your traffic from Google should have taken a huge drop sometime during the past month. Did you see such a drop? The traffic is the true indicator of how your site is doing.
A couple months ago I de-optimized my site to huge benefitWhat type of changes are we talking about? Not sure if you meant a benefit to users or you've actually benefited from a traffic increase (huge, no less). But since this sounds like some dramatic changes have been done, it would seem reasonable to look at those as a potential culprit. The timing is also right.
A couple months ago I de-optimized my site to huge benefit.
Are you a backlink builder?
Have you been building links on (high PR) non-relevant sites?
What type of changes are we talking about? Not sure if you meant a benefit to users or you've actually benefited from a traffic increase (huge, no less). But since this sounds like some dramatic changes have been done, it would seem reasonable to look at those as a potential culprit. The timing is also right.
So, what did you do?
Erm if your traffic is unaffected, and going up, tis possible you caught your ranking on a down period, rankings do fluctuate, and its unlikely that your visitors are seeing the same rankings as you
This may the issue. To some degree, to de-optimize is to optimize. And if you de-optimized a perfectly optimized site that was already ranking well, then a ranking drop might be expected. Also, if the site was stale and you made sudden changes to the text, it could cause a ranking drop. I have personally witnessed this. You didn't state specifically if your site was stale, so I am just suggesting it as a possibility.
Did your rankings drop for all keywords, or just this one? If it's just this one, that doesn't match up with what I've seen in the past when a penalty hits. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it seems unlikely that only one page would suffer.
Welcome to your new glass ceiling, Tonearm, and if you improve your sites aggregate rating (google secret sauce type stuff) you will enjoy continued success with Google.
What's the overall traffic doing?
Overall traffic is way up
It actually doesn't seem to be the page. The keyword is "widgets". My second highest-traffic keyword is "purple widgets" and I'm currently #1 for that keyword. Both keywords relate to my widgets.html page.
Who is currently ranking for that trophy keyword, a bigger brand name?
To me, this doesn't sound at all like a penalty. Rather, it sounds like Google simply doesn't think your page is as relevant for 'widgets' as it used to be. There could be many different reasons for that, but the de-optimization is likely the culprit IMO. If it's possible for you to compare the current version of the page with a version from a few months ago, that might set off some lightbulbs.
I stopped worrying about "x keyword position" because any given page generally gets 100+ keyword combinations with none accounting for more than 5% in total. I start worrying when the traffic dips well outside the norm which means all of those keywords have been dinged at once.
If I am caught in "Google's Rank Modifying Patent for Spam Detection" what should I do? Just wait for the "target rank" to settle out? How do I know when that's happened?
i would suggest to make list of all Panda and Penguin updates datewise and then analyze your traffic.
Back to basics: Your 9/12 post mentioned rankings but, again, not traffic, the only metric that is really important.
That sounds like a fine idea but Piwik doesn't seem to let me get granular beyond a monthly data point with keyword referrers. How do you guys go about analyzing your traffic in this way?
What version of Piwik are you running? They've allowed you to create reports using a date range for a while now. Maybe you just need to update your Piwik installation.
Check backlinks, maybe someone is maliciously attacking with penguin-esque links to drive your page down. (Although if "widgets" is still ranking high as opposed to "blue widgets", it would be a term based penalty, so check for exact anchor text). Usually when only one term drops it must be a term based penalty, which in the past related to exact match backlinks or over-optimization of on-page stuff (keyword stuffing, etc.)