Only a few website owners are aware that obscure penalties applied by leading search engines cause unexplained falls in visitor traffic, according to a survey.

The website owners feel search engines have the ability to act as judge, jury and executioner over their sites, and they would like the penalty system to be much more open and transparent, a survey by news navigator found.

Nearly 70 percent of more than 1,000 US and UK website owners surveyed claimed that the search engines could 'do whatever they liked' when it came to imposing penalties and this meant they had little or no control over their own destiny.

The survey found that almost a quarter had suffered large, unexplained falls in their site traffic. Only around one in ten of respondents to the survey were aware that unexplained falls in their site traffic could result from obscure penalties applied by the leading search engines.

Rankings in search engines - the gate keepers of the web - can make or break a website.

A search penalty is a ranking restriction imposed by a search engine that causes pages belonging to a website domain to appear in a lower, less advantageous position on the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Severe penalties can lead to a website being removed from a search engine index, either partially or entirely. It also results in a substantial unexplained drop in search engine ranking and significant loss in visitor traffic from that search engine.

Leading search engines, including Google, can introduce accidental restrictions which can trigger a collapse in a site's hard-earned rankings. Google, which commands more than 70 percent of the global internet search market, has a particularly strong influence over almost every website's success or failure.

Most penalties are routinely applied by search engines on websites which are considered illegitimate, such as spamming sites. But in some cases they are imposed accidentally on legitimate sites, causing many 'good citizens' of the internet to disappear from search results virtually overnight.

Worse still, the leading search engines do not disclose any information about penalties or a website's penalty status. There is no easy or transparent way for website owners to find out why this has happened.

An initiative by One News Page called Have I been penalized..? is campaigning for search providers to confirm to concerned website owners whether a penalty has been imposed and provide an explanation why. It also aims to educate site owners about secret search engine penalties and the potential risk they represent to web businesses.

The survey found that almost 94 percent of respondents are asking for the leading search engines to be obliged to disclose any penalties to the relevant site owner.

It's a difficult area for the leading search engines but, given their enormous influence, it would be helpful if their penalty processes could become a lot less opaque to genuine websites, without, of course, becoming so transparent that malicious spammers could circumvent them, says Alan Perkins, MD of SilverDisc Ltd, experts in search engine optimisation best practices.