This very problem happened just before Christmas to a client. One day their site was in Google, and ranking very nicely thank you, the next – poof! – it had vanished.

Closer inspection showed that the site was still indexed by Google (typing the domain name into Google did bring up the site in the search results pages) but it just wasn’t ranked at all for any of the search phrases for which the site had previously scored well.

As any website owner will know, this is more than annoying. If you rank highly in Google, disappearing from the search results is like having your revenue cut off without warning.

In this case, the cause was simple: the site had exhibited some ‘untrustworthy behaviour’ so had been sandboxed. The untrustworthy behaviour was accidental (and nothing to do with us or the client). The domain name had come up for renewal, the person responsible thought someone else was doing it – and so it didn’t get renewed. These things happen.

When the issue was spotted, the website itself had disappeared – because the domain name no longer worked. The client contacted the person responsible; the domain was renewed, but then the cock-up fairy visited: a typing error at the ISP responsible for the renewal meant that the domain now pointed to the wrong website.

The problem was soon rectified, but it was too late.

What Google had effectively seen was this:

  • domain not renewed
  • website down
  • domain renewed
  • a different website appears on the established trusted domain

This happens to be the same behaviour that Google sees when a spammer snaps up a recently dead domain name that had good search engine results and strong traffic, simply to point it to a new site – it might be porn, it might be pharmaceuticals sales, it might be malware.

So, the website was sandboxed. What to do? Well, Google has a straightforward process for asking for your website to be reconsidered. The bummer is that they don’t tell you the reason for them dropping the site, they just point you to a fairly big set of guidelines and let you work out for yourself what the problem is. In this case, the problem was nothing to do with the site or the client, it was a series of simple administrative errors by a third party. So, we asked if this site could be reconsidered. Sadly, this is a process that can, in Google’s own words, take ‘several weeks’.

So, the client was potentially several weeks without the website ranking highly in Google. Some clear thinking and action was needed.

First, we needed to demonstrate to Google in the only way it would understand that the site was running normally. So, we added some more content, plus we undertook a series of press releases to encourage some more inbound links to the website. The kind of thing, quite honestly, that should happen all the time – and, with this client, generally does.

So here’s the interesting thing: although the website disappeared from Google, the traffic to it didn’t shift that much. How can this be? Well, this client isn’t Google-dependent for its traffic. Yes, Google is very important to the client – but it’s not the only source of traffic. The client has an active presence on the Web, with press releases, promotions and advertisements running on many other websites, along with a nice smattering of social networking activity. All of those pages still ranked well in Google, so as well as direct traffic from those sites, some traffic still came via Google itself, albeit through a third-party site.

Whether it was the result of Google’s efficient website spam team (who manually review the reconsiderations – the axing of a website might be automatic, but the reinstatement of one isn’t), the raised level of trustworthy activities, or a combination of both, the website was live again in a little under a week.

There are some simple lessons to learn here.

First, your website may well be sound, your hosting top-notching, but it can be taken down by a one-character misspelling by someone you’re not responsible for.

Next, keep calm. Check over the site, make sure you’re not at fault, and work to understand why Google thinks you’re at fault, and then request reconsideration. Then be patient – there’s no way of shortcutting this process.

Then, engage in activities to show you’re still doing business as usual. If things are really dire, and you’re desperate for the traffic, you may have to use AdWords to carry you through – although in this case, our client didn’t have to.

But the most important thing is the stuff you can’t do anything about once the worst has happened. Don’t let your website and business be totally Google-dependent. Find other ways to generate traffic; let people discover you all around the Web in lots of different ways. This is a solid strategy anyway, as the on-line popularity of your website helps to push you up the search results.

But if the worst happens and the rug gets pulled by Google, you’ll still retain a large proportion of your website traffic. (For some of our clients, visitors via social networking, publicity and other on-line activities represents more than half of their traffic.)

The one thing you can’t really do is sound off at Google – not only because there isn’t really a mechanism for doing so, but because it’s only doing its job trying to keep the search results pages free of spam. (And, to be very honest, we were most impressed with the speed at which the Google Web spam team responded.)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times. Depending on Google, or any single source, for all of your website traffic is madness. Didn’t your mother tell you the one about eggs and baskets?