Most SEOs agree that the past year and a half has been the craziest period in the history of SEO. The rankings-crushing algorithm changes known as Panda and Penguin have wreaked havoc across the industry. Many companies have seen their website traffic plummet, leaving their SEO consultants confused about how to proceed. At Evolving Interactive, we are experiencing a surge of sales leads from potential clients hoping we can reverse these penalties and return their website to its previous status. All of the uproar over Panda and Penguin is real and all of it is worth studying. However, it is important to be accurate when diagnosing any drop in rankings or traffic. Too often these days, SEOs and business leaders automatically assume that a penalty is caused by Panda and Penguin before doing a thorough analysis. I believe that it’s more important than ever to make sure that you have a firm grasp of the basics before making assumptions.

A big part of any SEOs job is to troubleshoot problems. If a client’s website is experiencing a big drop in rankings and/or traffic, it’s entirely possible, likely in fact, that their site was penalized do to Panda and Penguin. However, there are many other reasons that could contribute to the drop. There are plenty of very good articles about how to diagnose a Panda or Penguin penalty. I recommend reading Distilled’s excellent write-up about Penguin and checking out Search Engine Land’s infographic about Panda. Since Google continuously roles out new versions of Panda and Penguin, the easiest strategy would be to check your analytics to see when traffic drop occurred and then see if the date matches-up with the any of Google’s algorithm changes. But what if you’ve done your homework and determined that it wasn’t Panda and Penguin? What else could you have done to upset Google?

Long before the days of Panda and Penguin, SEOs were quite busy diagnosing problems. It’s entirely possible that you aren’t following best practices that have been around for many years, but don’t get the same level of attention today. In fact, we have found that problems like duplicate content, slow load time as well as more egregious tactics are still being attempted quite regularly.

This post was inspired by a client who was ranking very well in Yahoo and Bing, but not in Google. They came to us assuming that Google must be penalizing them as a result of Panda and Penguin. After all, that’s what everyone was talking about on all the search blogs. When we examined their analytics, there were no obvious red flags. Instead, what we found was that the company began running a blog shortly before a big drop in rankings, with scraped (i.e. copied) content from other sources. The problem wasn’t over optimization or participating in spammy link practices. It was duplicate content, an issue that’s been around for years.

What else should you be on the lookout for? Check Webmaster Tools to make sure that you don’t have any crawling or indexing issues. Do a search for your domain in Google, Yahoo and Bing to make sure that at least your most important pages are getting indexed. Amazingly we have a client that launched a new site and their developer applied a noindex, nofollow on every page. Make sure your pages load quickly and work on all browsers. Avoid flash and other programming languages that can’t be read by search engines. Avoid shortsighted tactics, like adding hidden text, doorway pages or sneaky redirects. Most importantly, make sure you know the basics. Review the Webmaster Guidelines to make sure you know all the rules to the game. You don’t have to be a professional SEO to understand what you should and should not do. Finally, don’t make assumptions just because of the buzz. SEO does change often, but I’m amazed at how the core principles have stayed the same:

• Make sites for users, not search engines
• Publish unique high quality content
• Avoid any get-links quick schemes that will doom you down the road.

If you have a good grasp of basic SEO, you can avoid the overwhelming majority of mistakes.