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Surprisingly, that's a fairly common question. Nobody seems surprised that a doctor would need to see x-rays or lab reports before beginning a treatment regimen or that a mechanic would want to test-drive a car before ordering parts.

Yet many website owners want to have their lost rankings restored, without having to determine why those rankings were lost. The situation is very similar between a human patient, a malfunctioning vehicle and a penalized website.

Proper diagnosis is the key

There are many different things that can happen to cause a sudden loss in rankings. It could be a penalty or an algorithmic dampening. Depending upon the cause the treatment can be quite different.

Additionally, in either case, it's imperative to know which specific effect is being felt by your website. Is it Panda or Penguin? Is it a pure spam manual penalty or did the search engine determine that you were cloaking? Is it is simply an algorithmic dampening? If so, which algo?

The greatest area of confusion for many site owners seems to be the diagnosis of the actual problem, but since this is the key first step, a misdiagnosis can lead to even greater problems. It almost always leads to more lost time and money, as well.

Knowing the difference between a penalty and a dampener

This is actually the easiest part of the puzzle. If it's a penalty, you'll receive a penalty notice in Google Webmaster Tools. In the absence of such a message, if your rankings have fallen significantly, it's likely that you've been dampened.

Dampeners can be employed in several ways, but some of the most common include:

  • 1. Reducing the value of incoming links from specific domains/pages;
  • 2. Reducing the value of incoming links for specific keyword-rich anchor text;
  • 3. Reducing the ability to rank for specific pages;
  • 4. Reducing the ability to rank for specific terms.

What to do next

Finally! This is where specific tasks can yield positive results. Having determined whether your site has been dampened or penalized, and for what specific reasons, you can begin taking corrective action.

In the case of a dampening effect, simply correcting the problem and waiting for a re-crawl will be sufficient. In the case of a manual penalty, you'll need to correct the issues and then submit a reconsideration request.

So, as you can see, a correct determination of how your site has been affected and the precise nature of its issues must precede any corrective action. The only way to accurately determine both is by a forensic SEO analysis.

Who can perform forensic SEO analysis?

Like many areas of website optimization, forensic analysis is highly specialized. In order to be effective, the specialist must be proficient in several different areas:

  • In depth familiarity with the search engines' guidelines;
  • Solid understanding of how the search engines' algorithms understand data;
  • Knowledge of the standards the search engines have in terms of practices and quality and what they consider to be "natural";
  • Proficiency in the acceptable and effective corrective techniques.

With well over 500 updates each year to Google's algorithms alone, staying abreast of their standards and abilities is a full-time job. And since Google is careful to never give out much information on exactly how their algos work, a lot of observation and testing is needed.

Site owners don't have time to study patents and run tests. Even many SEOs don't have enough time to stay immersed in the day-to-day changes. That falls to the forensic SEO specialist.

Much like a general physician concentrates on keeping you healthy while an oncologist concentrates on what is killing you, the jobs of the typical SEO and forensic SEO rest at opposite ends of the scale. They only approach the point of overlapping after the diagnosis is complete.

At that point, the forensic specialist begins working to correct or remove the offending aspects of the site. When that has been accomplished, his forensic work is done and standard SEO best practices should take over.

What can be expected after the forensic specialist is finished?

Immediately, very little. Whether a site suffers a manual penalty or an algorithmic dampening, their removal may initially show only slight results, if any. And what improvements may exist are extremely difficult to spot.

In the case of the Penguin algorithm, for instance, which deals with unnatural links, the offending links will have already been rendered worthless by the time the decline is noticed. Removing or disavowing those links at that point will regain no equity for the site's pages.

A Panda penalty recovery can sometimes be spotted more easily, if close attention is paid. But since recovery is normally dealt with by employing several different techniques simultaneously, it can be easy to miss the precise point at which recovery begins.

What is the difference between an SEO and a Forensic SEO?

Rather than look at the differences in tasks, let's look at the difference in their effect.

A good SEO will help you achieve high SERPs visibility for your pages.

A good forensic SEO will help you recover from what a bad SEO caused to happen to you.

See the difference?

About this SEO tutorial

This tutorial was written by John S. Britsios (aka Webnauts), Search Experience Consultant at SEO Workers and was published September 30, 2013.

Copyright reserved. Not to be reproduced.