Google Rankings Gone? Here’s How To Diagnose The Problem
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It’s something every website publisher dreads. You wake up one day to find your website has suffered a significant Google ranking drop. After all the hard work you’ve put in to gain footing in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs), to lose not just a couple of spots, but ten, or twenty, or more, can be disheartening, not to mention a hit to your revenue. If your site’s not ranking, it means people may have a tougher time finding you, which means they’re not reading your content or buying your products or services. What do you do?
Diagnosing a Google Ranking Drop
The first step is to diagnose the Google ranking drop. So many factors go into a website’s rankings that it may be difficult to immediately see what caused your site to lose its position. And you can’t fix it if you don’t know what’s wrong. So take a deep breath, approach the situation calmly and rationally, and start narrowing down the possibilities.
Note: Many of the issues and suggested fixes listed here are very complex, and could warrant in-depth examination on their own. We’re focusing on diagnosing issues, with a few simple suggestions for how to fix them. However, always research issues further, and understand that correcting some problems may be much more involved than updating copy or removing a backlink. At the end of this guide we’ll link you to some additional resources to tackle some of the move complex issues.
Every site is different, and there is no one solution that will work for every problem every time. If in doubt, consult a professional in search engine optimization (SEO) for assistance.
What Kind of Ranking Drop Are You Seeing?
This is the first question to ask. Websites gain rankings in several ways, so before you do anything else, it’s important to determine the type of drop your site has suffered.
Single Keyword Drop
Check Google Analytics. Is it showing you’ve lost traffic for just one of your keywords? If so, where does that keyword appear on your site? Is it focused on one page or spread across several pages? Check those pages for issues.
It could simply be that search behavior has changed. Perhaps a previously popular term for a service has given way to a new buzzword. It may be a simple matter of updating your copy with the newer term to regain a former ranking position.
This issue has grown more difficult to diagnose now that Google has moved toward totally secure search, and organic keyword referral data is not as readily available as it once was. You may need to seek out alternative tools in addition to Google Analytics in order to gain access to keyword data. A few options are:
- Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools)
Whole Site Rank Drop
If your entire site dropped ten or more places in the SERPs, or disappeared altogether, you’ve probably been affected by a Google algorithm update or manual penalty.
Google doesn’t usually publish algorithm updates, except via press releases covered by news outlets. However, you can keep up with all the changes here.
Correcting issues on your site and regaining your position in the SERPs will depend on the algorithm update and what it was created to address or on the nature of the manual penalty. Be aware that once you’ve adjusted your site to correct any issues, it may take a little while before you see any movement in the SERPs as Google will have to crawl your site again, and you may be vying against competitors also affected by the update and trying to get their rankings back.
Understanding Google Search
Before we talk about recovering from a drop in ranking it’s important to understand the different factors that can affect your Google SERP ranking. Just as numerous factors go into determining a website’s search engine rankings, several factors can have a negative effect as well. Again, if you’re not the most technically savvy webmaster, or you’re still unsure what’s causing your site to drop in the SERPs, consult a professional to help you.
Google Algorithm Updates
Google’s search algorithm is constantly updated to keep pace with the evolution of the Internet, and the ways that Web publishing and searching change. Some of the biggest updates in recent memory include Mobilegeddon, Pigeon, Pirate, Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird.
As you read about these major algorithm updates you’ll see that nearly all of Google’s algorithm updates are aimed at improving user experience. What all of these updates boil down to is an effort on Google’s part to produce high quality search results. Google is trying to serve their customers well. If you want your website to do well in Google’s SERPs over a long period of time, the best way to accomplish that is to develop a high quality website, and to produce high quality content.
- Mobilegeddon, formally named Mobile Update, was rolled out in April 2015, and had the result of giving search result preference to websites that are mobile-friendly. You can be forgiven if you didn’t recognize Mobilegeddon as it happened; the impact on search results was less pronounced than many had expected. It’s still a good idea to have a responsive website, and Google even provides a free tool to help webmasters determine if Google’s bots think their website is mobile-friendly.
- Local search results were altered by the Pigeon update released in 2014. The rollout initially affected only the United States, but as of December 2014 Pigeon had rolled out to the UK, Canada, and Australia as well. In effect, the Pigeon update is an effort to provide more relevant local results.
- Repeat copyright violation offenders were targeted by the Pirate update beginning in 2012. While the original rollout was broad and produced only a modest impact on search results, in 2014 a highly targeted, and extremely potent, update was released. The 2014 update hit a limited number of websites with a long history of software and digital media copyright violations. Websites affected by the 2014 Pirate update saw their Google search visibility decrease by as much as 98%.
- Panda addressed the issue of low-quality content, dropping sites lower in ranking if their content was not considered to be of high-enough quality. The quick fix here is to not only improve the quality of your existing content, but to ensure you only publish high-quality content. Panda hit sites beginning in February of 2011, and has been updated more than 25 times with the most recent update coming in September of 2014.
- Penguin addressed overoptimization issues beginning in April of 2012, hitting sites that had too many optimized backlinks. For example, if your site sells digital cameras, and you had thousands of links coming into your site with the optimized anchor text “buy digital cameras online,” you may be singled out by Penguin. The quick fix here is to reduce the number of optimized links coming into your site, and to change up your anchor text to include more natural and diverse phrasing. Penguin has been updated several times since 2012, most recently in October of 2014.
- Hummingbird was such a subtle tweak, no one really noticed it until Google announced it—a month after it took effect. This update is meant to show results based on more natural wording of search queries. For example, instead of a site showing up in results based on a search of “best digital camera,” it may get more attention—and a higher ranking—by using more natural wording such as, “what is the best digital camera I can buy for under $500?” The Hummingbird update hit Google’s core algorithm in August of 2013, and has received any updates, or at least any updates that Google has announced.
Google is sure to create future updates that will shake up the SERPs, so keep an eye out for changes. The best way to ride them out, though, is to simply make sure your content is of high quality, and is worded naturally. To echo wisdom passed on by Google’s Webmaster Academy: write for your audience, not for search engines.
Fix and Improve Google Rankings
Good search engine optimization (SEO) practices, referred to as Whitehat SEO, should be understood and implemented by every good webmaster. Fixing these issues will leave your page optimized for best search engine performance.
Format robots.txt Correctly
This should be one of the first things you check for. You may be surprised how many sites jinx themselves with simple errors in their robots.txt files. The robots.txt file tells search engine bots which pages to crawl, and which ones to ignore.
If, by some mistake, your robots.txt file is telling the bots to ignore your entire site, you’re probably not appearing in the SERPs at all. Or maybe you have accidentally added a page that you do want crawled and indexed. To see what’s going on, go to Google and type insite:yourdomain.com (or .net, .org, whatever your site’s extension is), and take a look at the results Google returns.
If your site’s pages are showing up the way they should, then your robots.txt file is most likely functioning the way it should be. However, if you see only partial results, the file may be blocking some of your pages. You may even see a message saying that site information cannot be displayed because of a robots.txt error.
If you think your robots.txt file may be interfering with your ranking take a look at http://yourdomain.com/robots.txt. What you see at that page will tell you which pages Google bots are being told to ignore. If you see pages listed in your robots.txt file that should be indexed by Google, you have some corrections to make.
A few quick edits to this file can put things right again, although you may have to wait a little while for your site to be crawled again, and the index to update. To speed things up you can manually request that your site be crawled using Google Search Console.
Find and Fix Broken Backlinks
A backlink is a link coming into your site from another website. Google considers backlinks to be sort of like votes for your site’s authority, quality, and popularity. If, for some reason, a backlink to your site breaks, you lose that positive effect.
Backlinks can break for many reasons—the site that linked to you moved the page that was linked, or just no longer exists; you moved or deleted the page on your site that was linked to; or even just one tiny typo in the link code can break a link.
To discover broken backlinks to your site, try using a tool. A few options are:
- Screaming Frog
- Open Site Explorer
Keep in mind that while Google’s algorithm loves organic backlinks, it hates spammy artificially-generated backlinks. It’s never worth paying for backlinks, or artificially creating them in link directories or the comment sections of other websites. The best way to earn organic backlinks is to create original content that your readers appreciate and share.
One of the many factors by which Google judges the relevance and quality of the websites it ranks is by how fresh the content is. If you create a small, static website, and then just let it sit, chances are it won’t do as well in the SERPs as it would if you were updating a blog on a regular basis.
If your site has been neglected for too long, consider updating your content. And if you don’t have one already, think about adding a blog. Publishing fresh, new content can breathe new life not only into your site, but into your rankings.
Avoid Blackhat SEO Practices
Practicing bad SEO, or Blackhat SEO, on a site can include everything from not knowing any better and using overoptimized anchor text, to placing artificial backlinks in article comments and paid directories, or actively trying to fool Google with hidden text and other sneaky tactics. While those tricks may have worked in previous years to artificially boost a site’s rankings, Google’s algorithm has become significantly more sophisticated over the years, and is now able to detect things like hidden text, artificial backlinks, doorway pages, parked domains, and footer spam.
Again, check Google Search Console for any messages that might explain a rankings hit, and take appropriate steps to fix them. Then, be sure to follow SEO best practices when creating new content, and new websites.
If one page of quality content is good for your rankings, then two pages with the same content must be twice as good, right? Not so much. No matter how high the quality of your content is, duplicating it can result in a rankings drop.
This is based on the same principle of why keyword stuffing is bad. Trying to artificially raise your rankings through repetition of keywords or entire pages of content is considered an unethical practice, and Google does not take kindly to it.
It’s entirely possible, though, that you’ve accidentally duplicated content. For example, if your site is built in WordPress, and you have entire blog posts displaying on your archives pages rather than excerpts, you have a duplicate content issue. Check your WordPress and theme settings to ensure you’re not shooting yourself in the foot this way.
Another way you may be publishing duplicate content without even realizing it is by hosting multiple websites from a shared hosting account without putting the proper redirects in place. If you are hosting more than one domain on a shared hosting account, most hosts will have designated the first domain as your primary domain, and any subsequent domains as addon domains.
Due to the way many hosts configure shared hosting you will be able to access the website at your addon domain by visiting the domain directly, or by visiting http://addondomain.primarydomain.com. In effect, your website could be crawled by Google twice making it appear that there is a duplicate content issue going on. One easy way to fix this issue to implement a redirect of all traffic from http://addondomain.primarydomain.com to http://addondomain.com. You can do this either through your hosting account control panel or by adding some code to your websites .htaccess file.
If you’re practicing good SEO it’s unlikely you’ll ever face a Google penalty. However, if you make a mistake, and either intentionally or unintentionally implement some Blackhat SEO tactics, and see your SERP rankings take a hit once Google wizens up, you can always fix the issues that caused the penalty and recover your site’s Google search performance.
What is a Google Penalty?
Two basic kinds of Google penalties exist. The first is essentially a by-product of an algorithm update. For example, Google’s Penguin update targeted sites with too many overoptimized links. This means a site that had too many exact-match anchor text links pointing to it. If a site sells air conditioner parts, and it had 10,000 links pointing to it with the anchor text “air conditioner parts,” it’s likely that site would have been affected by the Penguin update, and seen their SERP rankings take a hit.
Then there’s the manual penalty. This occurs when the Google Search Quality Team notices your site is somehow violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and the team penalizes the site for it.
What Happens if Your Site Receives a Google Penalty?
The effects of a Google Penalty can range from a moderate to severe drop in rankings in the case of an algorithm penalty, to being removed from the index altogether due to a manual penalty. Losing your ranking position is bad enough, but being removed from Google’s index can be a business killer if the problem that caused the penalty is not addressed immediately and to Google’s satisfaction.
The good news is, most penalties occur simply because a site owner has made a mistake or something beyond their control has occurred. It really takes some effort to be removed from the index, and if you’re engaging in behavior that can result in removal, you’re aware of it, and you know that you should probably change your methods before Google catches up with you – which they will.
How do I Know if my Website Has a Google Penalty?
Because a penalty can arise from so many areas, and for so many reasons, it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint exactly what has happened. One exception to this would be in the case of a manual penalty for webmaster who have signed up for Google Search Console. In that case, Google will notify the webmaster of the manual penalty, and include a list of the reasons for the manual penalty. If you don’t use Google Search Console, or if you are being hit by an algorithmic penalty, this checklist will help you narrow down the possibilities, determine whether and why your site has been penalized, and take the necessary steps to fix it.
- Check Google Analytics for Traffic Data: If one day, your traffic seems normal, and the next day there’s a sharp drop-off (or possibly no traffic at all), that’s a pretty good indicator of a possible penalty.
- Check Whether Your Site is Still Indexed: Go to Google and type in site:yourdomain.com. If just a few of your site’s pages show up, you may be looking at a penalty problem. However, you may also simply have a problem with your robots.txt file. Check that for errors first before you assume the worst. If, when you perform the site: search, nothing at all shows up, your site has been removed from the index. At this point, it’s pretty safe to assume a penalty is in place, and you have a lot of work ahead of you.
- Check for a Recent Google Algorithm Update: If Google has rolled out another big update the likes of Panda (quality) or Penguin (overoptimization), depending on what the update targeted, and how your website is set up, your site may be collateral damage. Moz keeps track of all Google algorithm updates, so you should be able to correlate an update roll-out date to the time when you noticed an issue with your site. Once you’ve determined that Google has released an update, find out what the update targeted, and how to address it. For example, when Google released the Panda update, they explained that it was meant to target low-quality content. In order to recover from a Panda hit, website owners had to increase the quality of content on their sites. If there’s been no recent update, you can rule that out, and continue looking for other possibilities.
- Check Google Search Console: If, instead of a penalty arising from an algorithm update, your site has been levied with a manual penalty, you should see a notification in your Search Console account. Google will notify you whenever they detect any non-compliance with their webmaster guidelines. The nature of the warning should be an indication of what you need to do to fix the problem. For example, if you receive an unnatural link warning, use a program such as Screaming Frog to take inventory of your backlinks, and determine whether there are any spammy or overoptimized links pointing to your site.
How to Remove a Google Penalty
Once you’ve determined that your site has indeed suffered a penalty by Google, whether through an algorithm update or manually, and you’ve taken the appropriate steps to fix the issue(s), you can submit a Reconsideration Request.
Google recommends only submitting a Reconsideration Request if you’ve had a manual penalty. The only real way to recover from an algorithmic update penalty is to fix whatever issues the update targeted. However, if you’re still unsure whether your site has suffered an algorithmic or manual penalty, there is no further penalty for submitting a Reconsideration Request anyway.
Reconsideration Requests are submitted through your Search Console account. Follow the instructions there. Google does review each request manually, so it may take a bit of time to receive a response.
Google Penalty Follow-Up
When you receive a response to your Reconsideration Request, the answer you’re hoping for is that Google no longer sees any issue with your site, and the penalty has been lifted. But that’s only going to happen if you received a manual penalty, if you’ve cleaned up all of the issues, and explained to Google’s satisfaction how you’re going to keep from making the same mistakes in the future.
If the Reconsideration Request response says no issues are noted, but your rankings and traffic are still not where they were before, then it’s likely your penalty is due to an algorithm update, and all you can do is make your site better.
Suffering a Google penalty is undoubtedly frustrating and can be very disheartening, but if you rose through the SERPs once, you can do it again. While you’re addressing issues with your site, take the opportunity to improve everything from content to design to usability. The best way to ride out future Google algorithm updates – and avoid any manual penalties – is to maintain a site of the highest quality possible, in every sense of the word.
Hacked Websites & Google Ranking
Few things are worse for a website publisher than getting hacked. Discovering that you’ve been randomly attacked by hackers can leave you feeling vulnerable, angry, and even fearful. Why did this happen? Can you fix it? What if it happens again?
Of all the terrible things that can result from a hacking incident, one of the most difficult to deal with can be a loss of Google ranking. This is not a superficial thing to be taken lightly. It can take years to climb Google search engine results pages (SERPs), and earn a top spot that brings visitors to your site, and revenue to your business. To lose all that hard work in one fell swoop because of a hacker can be devastating.
Luckily, it’s not the end of the digital world, and you can recover your Google rankings after getting hacked. It may not be easy, and you may be in for a bumpy ride, but it can be done.
Getting hacked can result in an algorithmic penalty is your site is loaded up with low quality or spammy content, or a manual penalty if Google catches wind of the issues and removes your site from it’s index. Moving quickly once you recognize that you’ve been hacked can help minimize the damage.
Fixing the Hack
Before you can begin to recover Google rankings, you must first correct the issues caused by the hacker.
- Change Your Passwords: You don’t want the hacker to be able to gain access to anything while you’re making repairs, and possibly make even more of a mess. Use a strong password generator, or make up your own complex password, but avoid using anything too obvious such as your name, birthdate, or any terms related to your site.
- Contact Your Hosting Provider: This is especially important if you have a shared hosting plan as you may not be able to complete some of the clean-up and recovery steps yourself. It’s also just a good idea to let your hosting provider know your site was hacked so they can also evaluate their security protocols and make sure there’s not a bigger issue than just your site. Before you do contact your provider it’s a good idea to make sure you have downloaded a backup of your databases and website data so you can figure out how the hack took place. It’s possible that your hosting provider will lock down and wipe clean your account as soon as they learn of the hack, so getting a copy of any data before you reach out to them is a good idea. It’s worth noting that you should be careful not to use any infected database or website data, and that you restore your website from a clean backup and clean software installation. You’re just downloading the data so you find pinpoint exactly how your account was compromised so you can keep it from happening again.
- Take Your Site Offline: At least temporarily. If you’re using a content management system such as WordPress, you can use a maintenance mode plugin to display a message to your site visitors so they know you’re working on the site, and it’s not just completely gone. You can also use a 503 status code so Google doesn’t crawl the site while you’re fixing it, which can further affect your rankings.
- Remove Malicious URLs: Sometimes hacking is about gaming the system, and placing a link on your site to the hacker’s site in order to boost their rankings. Go to Google Search Console, and use the URL Removal Tool to remove any added URLs or hacked pages from the search results.
- Take Inventory: The hacker may have compromised your site just to boost rankings, or their purpose may have been more insidious. Could they have gained access to sensitive information through your site? Did they install any malware? Check your website data and database for any suspicious new files, or for modified files. If you don’t have access to your server, your hosting provider should be able to help you with this.
- Reinstall Your Operating System: Again, if you have a shared hosting plan, or you’re just unsure how to go about this step, ask your hosting provider for help. Make sure the install comes from a reputable source. Only reinstall the software once you’re sure you’ve removed all traces of the hack, i.e., URLs, suspicious files, malware, etc.
- Restore Your Site: Using a recent backup of your site—preferably from before the hacking took place—put your site back together. Even if the backup is from before the hack, do a sweep to make sure there is no trace of the hack.
- Perform Software Updates: If any of the software you use on your site, such as a content management system or forum application, needs to be updated, or has any available security patches, be sure to install them.
- Review Your Site for Malware: If, when you checked Google Search Console, you had a malware warning, request a site review to ensure the malware has been completely removed.
- Restore URLs: If you used the URL Removal Tool to remove valid URLs from the index while you repaired your site, use Google Search Console again to revoke the removal so those URLs can once again appear in the index.
- Relaunch Your Site: Remove the maintenance mode and/or the 503 status code so your site can be crawled again, and start the ranking process over.
Prevent Future Hacking
No site is invincible, and no matter how many precautions you may take, it’s still possible your site will be hacked in the future. But you can at least make it a little more difficult for hackers to wreak havoc.
- Change Passwords Often: Yes, this can be an inconvenience. But compared to the inconvenience of having to fix your site after it’s been hacked, changing your password on a regular basis is nothing. Set a reminder for yourself if you have to, and consider using a secure password manager to help you remember all your site passwords.
- Keep Software Updated: Software updates aren’t always just about aesthetics or fixing minor bugs. They often include security patches which the software manufacturer creates in response to an identified vulnerability. Very often, those vulnerabilities are exposed by hackers. Keep an eye out for software updates, or make a point of manually checking for them, just in case.
- Protect Sensitive Information: If you run an ecommerce site that collects customers’ personal information, take steps to protect that information. If you’re not already using it, consider adding Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol to your online checkout. You may also want to use a secure ecommerce platform. If you’re storing credit card data, rethink that decision. Do you really need to do that? Sure, your customers may need to type in their credit card information each time they make a purchase, but that’s preferable to having that information stolen by a hacker.
- Reconsider Your Hosting Solution: How long did it take you to realize your site had been hacked? Any amount of time is too long, really. Consider upgrading your hosting to a managed hosting plan. Some hosting providers will include site monitoring as part of managed hosting. This means they would be alerted as soon as your site is hacked—even if it’s the middle of the night—and can take immediate action, thereby mitigating damage.
Taking precautionary measures will not only help to keep your site more secure and a little safer from hackers, it will also help you protect your Google rankings, and allow you to focus on actually running your business.
Recovering Google Rankings After Getting Hacked
Where your site appears in the search engine results pages (SERPs) once you’ve repaired the damage done by the hacker depends on several factors, including but not limited to:
- What position it occupied before it was hacked,
- How long your site was up after being hacked before you began the repair process,
- And how long the repair process took.
Just realize that if you occupied the third position on the first page prior to being hacked, it’s unlikely your site will automatically jump back to that position right away. Taking all the steps to repair your site will go a long way to helping you get back on your way to original—or higher—rankings, but it won’t happen overnight. You do have a few tactics available to you that can help you get back where you were.
Add Fresh Content to Your Site
If you have a blog, publish a new post (perhaps detailing your hacking experience to help others). If you don’t have a blog, consider adding one. Not only can adding new content on a regular basis help you with your rankings, it can also provide a way to communicate with your customers, and strengthen your brand.
Use Social Media
Take to Twitter and Facebook to let your customers know your site is back up and running, and to reassure them that their information (such as credit card numbers or other personal data) is once again safe and protected. Be willing to answer questions. Also share your new content via those networks, perhaps including LinkedIn and Pinterest. Google is placing more importance on social media as an authority signal. The more you can engage people and get them to share your content, the better your rankings will begin to look.
Getting hacked is an awful experience, and it’s not fair that you have to bear the brunt of the damage done by the hacker. Take solace in knowing that you’re not alone. Be transparent and honest with your readers or customers about what happened so they understand why things may be a little different on your site than they’re used to. They may even make more of an effort to share your content and your story in order to support you. Above all, be patient. It may take a while to climb the SERPs again, but you’ll get there.
Working with an SEO Expert
If you’ve done everything you can think of, and you still can’t figure out why your site has suffered a Google ranking drop, or you’ve tried to fix the problem but still haven’t seen any change in ranking, it may be time to bring in a pro.
During an SEO audit, your site will be examined for technical issues that may be preventing it from ranking well. The SEO professional will detail any problems discovered on your site, and will lay out recommendations for fixing those problems.
Even when hiring a professional in SEO, make sure you know what’s going on with your site. As with any career field, you may encounter some people with questionable ethics, or who don’t really know their business as well as they should. Those people may make suggestions that can further damage your site rather than helping it. Ask questions. If the person you hire is either unable or unwilling to answer your questions, move on and find someone who will work with you to regain your rankings, and who will educate you in the process.
The most important takeaway from diagnosing a Google ranking drop—and then fixing it—is learning what not to do, or how to do things better in the future. This will help you to avoid losing rank, and will allow your site to better ride out the inevitable Google algorithm updates.
Further Reading and Resources
Google Webmaster Academy: An introduction to what it means to be a webmaster. The course also introductory information on good SEO practices.
Google SEO Starter Guide: If you’re a webmaster and you haven’t read Google’s SEO Starter Guide, stop what you’re doing and go read it. Google directs a huge percentage of the web’s traffic, and when they publish a free guide that tells you how get more traffic, you should pay attention.
FEInternational Website Penalty Indicator: A free tool that plots website traffic results gleaned from Google Analytics data against Google algorithm updates allowing you to see how algorithmic updates may be affecting your website traffic. Just remember that correlation does not necessarily imply causation.
50 Reasons Your Website Deserves to Be Penalized By Google: A solid introduction to good SEO. Lists common Blackhat practices to avoid, semantic HTML markup moves to implement, quality control measures to consider, good reasons to be picky about your hosting provider, and more.
Google’s Matt Cutts on Google Penalties: Hear directly from the head of Google’s webspam team. If you want to learn about Google penalties directly from the guy who heads up the team that levies those penalties, check this video out.
Steps to a Google-friendly site: A quick read that runs through the most important steps to take when building a Google-friendly website.
Google Webmaster Guidelines: An overview of the design, content, technical, and quality guidelines Google uses when deciding how to index a site.
Google Reconsideration Request: Have you cleaned up a site hit by a manual penalty? Check out this article to learn how the process of requesting reconsideration of your site for Google’s index, as well as some guidelines on how to improve your chances of receiving a positive reply to your request.