Lost Google Rankings Changed Our Strategy & Made It Better
Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste
This is something I never thought I would share publicly. I’ve kept it pretty close to the cuff for a year but now I realize that telling this story may help motivate you to take action. Because this is a story that can teach us all a valuable lesson. And after all, I was certainly not alone in my experience, it happened to a staggering number of others (is still happening) and we were just one in the crowd. In fact, there are quite a few things to be rather pleased about because this wild ride has been golden.
This is a story of success even though the preface was a crisis that almost kicked my butt. Instead, it fed my fierce nature for survival and expanded my horizons like icing on a cake. This is a story that I hope will help you to understand the need for shifting your attitude towards SEO and will bring you closer to understanding that the New Holistic SEO and Semantic Search demand some changes from you. I hope that reading this will motivate you to finally realize that no matter how good you are at what you do offline, how sincere and how well you play by the rules you know, you can rely on only one thing and that’s your own ability to learn and rise to the occasion. This story can encourage other small business owners, non-profits, solopreneurs to take heed of the changes in search and pay homage.
Here’s The Story I’m About To Tell…
Our website disappeared from Google a little over a year ago. It started to slip in October 2012 and disappeared entirely on December 28, 2012. Gone. Just like that. After more than fourteen years of high ranking, consistently hovering around #3 for Local search we had fallen from grace in Google’s eyes. It was a terrible moment when I couldn’t find our name in the SERPs and I can still recall the feelings that arose with complete visceral recollection. Horrible and shocking. The beginning of a wonderful adventure. One of the best things that has ever happened to me and to Fat Eyes because it opened my eyes up wide to the changes I was going to have to make.
I Know You Want To Hear The Juicy Parts
We recovered. But before I share the details, there are two Most Critical Actions I took that make the recovery sustainable and without which none of the experience would have value. (hint: these are the steps I’m encouraging you to take and that I should have taken much sooner)
- Content Marketing: a fresh approach to marketing our business
(blog posts, social media posts, Images and in my future: videos, podcasts, e-books to name some basics)
- Social Engagement: it was time to venture beyond Facebook & Linkedin
(social media and building relationships and a following)
While embarking on my sleuthing adventure, I simultaneously launched our business blog so I could add new quality content to our site and provide a venue for doing this on a regular basis. I was acutely aware of my procrastination and that had to change. I also set about promoting the posts to get readers, increase our social signals and create natural links back to our site. I did this through social media engagement (and some other related things). I learned that without these efforts even if I recovered our rankings it would only be a matter of time before they sank again.
Tip: If you hope that the beautiful, functional, smart, engaging website we have developed and designed for you will work to its full potential, I encourage you to follow suit. When we explain what needs to happen once your website is launched, don’t shrug that off. Sure, bite off what you can reasonably chew for the moment, but get ready, strategize, plan your budget and figure out how to jump on to the ride that will take you to online success.
From my soapbox I am shouting, “Listen Up!”. Pay close attention to everything you are hearing about developing content and social media. Phrases and terms like “Create Quality Content”, “Content Marketing”, “Growing Your Authority”, “Relationship Building”, “Get Social”, “Engage With Customers” “Be Responsive To Your Audience”, “Share Your Expertise” “Storytelling” all say there’s a need to join in to the online-world-conversation and they all have tremendous importance. This is the new SEO.
From day one of that horrible moment, without hesitation and in somewhat of a fury, I immediately got on the fast track of some highly adrenalized, accelerated re-learning, digging in my heels, calling upon the most persistent bulldog qualities I possess to find out what the heck may have gone wrong and how to come back into Google’s good graces. There’s nothing like a good crisis to pump you into action.
Our recovery took three and a half months of concerted effort. I was already subscribed to the SEO consulting company, Moz.com, but beefed up my focus there and found a ton of helpful information. I poured over the forum and blogs every day and made inquiries of my own.The people were incredibly generous sharing their expertise and taught me a lot. I was trying almost desperately to find the answers. Eventually, they were also there to congratulate me on my successful recovery (that was fun). By the beginning of April, I was seeing a hint of the recovery on Google Analytics and our Moz Campaign reports (oh the jitters each time I clicked open one of those emails) and by the end of the first week of April, full recovery. Pretty darn good as these things go. Sadly, many companies have not had this resurgence. But then, we didn’t have the kind of serious infractions others do and I was building content, social signals and links, strengthening the quality of our site which supported everything else I was targeting for change.
No Definitive Answer
As it turned out, I was never to learn without a doubt exactly what happened. I uncovered a number of things that may have contributed to the Great Disappearance but there was no way to analyze with any reliable logic which one thing pulled the trigger or if there even was a single issue. The details are long and arduous as are the minutiae of the whole process but I’ll give you some of the broad strokes.
To be precise, our site didn’t disappear entirely. We were still indexed (site:fateyes.com). A great relief and a good sign. But by December we were not in the top 50 listings and that’s almost as bad as nowhere even though we were still being indexed.
The factors (and events) that led to our disappearance were constructed by Google in the form of various Panda and Penguin algorithm updates created to remove and devalue poor quality websites from the SERPs whose high rankings had been achieved through manipulation and gaming the system. Unfortunately, there was a lot of collateral damage destroying the rankings of authentic sites like ours that represent authentically solid businesses. But while we were well-meaning, authentic and established, we had made some mistakes. While the clock was ticking, I was busy tracking and compiling a list of possible sensitive issues yet none seemed glaring enough or in high enough volume on their own to have caused this. So I grabbed at the straws I had and changed and fixed anything that I felt might make a difference. In retrospect, I may have learned more about the ‘why’ this happened had I made those changes more systematically.
Finding The Help I Needed
I devoured articles about the Google Panda and Penguin algorithm updates and learned what I could from scores of other businesses who had lost their rankings. I subscribed to and used a number of reliable blogs to learn about the current issues in both SEO and Social Media — moz, searchengineland, seo, copyblogger, distilled, seobythesea, jeffbullas, hubspot, socialmediatoday, socialmediaexaminer, searchengineland, searchenginewatch, socialmediahat, searchengineroundtable quicksprout to name a hefty handful — hoping to ensure that I was learning from and taking the advice of people out there with the most to offer. (This was when Rand Fiskin, Cyrus Shepard, Dr. Pete and Mark Traphagen also first became familiar to me though Moz). It was later that I began learning about Semantic Search and Hummingbird was launched to solidify the surety that indeed the old days of SEO are fading.
Panda Or Penguin, Manual Or Algorithmic?
There were a lot of questions and confusion about algorithmic and manual penalties and even determining if your site was suffering a penalty or which kind was like untangling a messy ball of yarn that didn’t necessarily have a beginning or an end. I wasn’t sure of exact dates of traffic fall-off other than the December date so checking for an algorithmic penalty was iffy. No messages in Google Webmaster Tools. A good sign that it wasn’t a manual penalty, but not a guarantee of anything. My tactic was to fix anything I could find that might have a hint of having contributed to the situation.
A Typical Scenario And My Own Error In Judgment
(other than a lack of content marketing, social media and a deficit of natural inbound links due to both of those)
We had outsourced for some help from a team we’d worked with for a couple of years and trusted, yet had not used for SEO. They approached us about it and we agreed to give it a try because they felt they could improve our organic listings beyond Local. Dangling carrot that it was, I later learned what a big mistake I’d made. Sadly, when it was too late, I realized that some things they did for us were unwise as was the timing.
I invested a lot of effort in undoing their work. I found toxic inbound links and (pre-blog) mutated articles that I’d written in all sincerity that they had submitted for me across the web. I discovered that they were appearing randomly with fake authors and had them removed from suspect sites by methodically writing to webmasters to ask that they be removed. I was lucky to get results. Even though the team recommended disavowing the links I found questionable, I did not go down that path. I hadn’t received an “Unnatural Links” warning or any other messages from Google and decided to move with caution on that front (thank you Moz). I worked on a general clean up of our on-site optimization cutting down on the overly enthusiastic use of keywords and re-writing much of our site content because I determined I may have over-optimized the site although my Moz reports didn’t indicate it. A couple of site hacks we’d suffered the previous led to us to employing better security. Those hacks may have played a part. Anchor text links to Fat Eyes in our client site footers is now a practice we no longer employ and we made changes on existing ones that were exact match. I used getlisted.org to claim and re-claim our business in reliable local directories. I created complete and consistent profiles web-wide. I joined Google Plus (the big life-changer), Twitter and eventually Pinterest as well. And I began taking my social media efforts a lot more seriously as mentioned above.
Don’t Be Passive
What I found frightening was that everything I’d done on my own in the past was basically ethical white hat. And of course, I trusted others to do the same when I should have been more discerning in the case of the outsourcing. Passivity was my gravest error on a few fronts. Most people tend not to take action to fix something that doesn’t appear broken and to ride the edge of the wave that may be dangerous. We convince ourselves, if things look okay, that maybe they are okay. If they don’t seem broken, maybe they’re not. I don’t recommend this attitude. Nor do I recommend trusting any outside SEO firm without personal recommendations from other professionals in the field and vetting of their practices.
And Finally, The Benefits Of Never Letting A Good Crisis Go To Waste
Kind of like Dickens, it was the worst of times and the best of times. We got our rankings back and that’s critical for the operation of our business. But even better, without my knowing where it would take me, this experience and its unfolding was the doorway to a huge reallocation of priorities and a stimulating explosion of new potential. My interests, focus, skill sets, knowledge, even my job, our company and what I have to offer our clients have completely shifted. A widening took place and with it a thrilling excitement about the future of the web and my place in it.
It’s an amazing feeling to say “it was one year ago ” and know what an amazing year it’s been, how much traction I’ve gotten, the territory I’ve traveled in this one year. There are rewarding new relationships and insane levels of learning thanks to Google Plus and the brilliant people I have met there. So thank you Google for messing me up and setting me on a new course. I couldn’t have done it without you.
There you have it. Take it and run. Not to the nearest hills, but to your own bright and shiny, smarter experiences and better marketing for your business. They are waiting for you.
Endnote Wink: Another thank you to Google for being there when I needed to search for answers.
Photo Credit: Gina Fiedel
Congratulations! I’m so glad it has a happy ending!
I’m struggling with traffic that is 20% of the peak of a few years ago. Panda and Penguin were not the only reasons but they were big factors.
Thank you for your comment John. I’m sorry to hear your traffic is down. The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is to make sure that Content Marketing is part of your plan. I hope it improves for you!
Thank you for writing this article. I am currently going through the same thing you did. My company was hit at the beginning of October 2013. I have three sites and two disappeared.
Like yours, they were still listed but not showing up until page ten. One of the sites had been on the first page of Google and even the first position for our chosen keywords for over eight years! Then in one swoop… gone!
I turned to Ross Dunn from the SEO 101 podcast and he did site audits for my sites which showed we had thousands of bad incoming links and that the sites were all over-optimized.
I had written over 3000 articles and submitted them to article sites when it was still okay and even recommended to do so. They were also placed on my blog. I stopped in 2011 with the article submitting but the damage was done.
We’ve requested that the links be taken down with limited luck and have now used the disavow tool. We also removed all the articles that we had summated to article sites. Now we’re writing all of those articles with more semantic search friendly text. What a chore!
I’m happy to say that it is working and we are seeing our good search results return. There is still a lot of work ahead though. I look forward to reading more from you. Hope to see you on Google Plus. I’m there daily now. LOL.
All the best,
Thanks for your comment, Dan. Such a classic story. It’s great you got the site audits and were able to identify the issues, though. It seems that’s often the toughest part- just figuring out what went wrong. I don’t envy having all those articles to re-write. Glad to hear you’re on the come-back side of the loss. Congratulations!
Thanks for sharing your story. We love hearing from customers who’ve been able to use our site and educational content to improve their work. Even if being penalized sucks! Glad to hear that everything’s on the up and up, and best wishes for continued success. 🙂
Hi Erica, Thanks for popping in and commenting! It’s extra special to hear from you and Moz. You guys are my heroes. Being penalized is beyond lousy, but I was so grateful to have a place to go to get the support I needed. And yep. We’ve been great since April and holding steady. With what I’ve learned and the steps I’m taking, it’s hard to imagine running into any more trouble in the future. But if we do, we have Moz and all the outstanding individuals I’ve gotten to know on Google+ to give us a hand. Thanks again!
About to head to dreamland, but I had to tell you that you’re a rock star first. And that I’m so pleased to say “I know the woman who wrote thic kickass post.” Tomorrow I share this with the intro “How do you spell SEO inspiration? g-I-n-a,”
Thank you so much, Marisa, you know how much I treasure knowing you. And your enthusiasm is contagious and my rock star fantasies are blossoming. Just picture me on crazy multimedia stage singing some sappy love song to my husband while my dog howls next to me. And I’ve got my brother on keyboard and my niece on guitar singing harmony. I wonder if I could get Doug on the drums….hmm. Thanks again also for the G+ post share. So appreciated!
Your cautionary tale is unexpectedly generous and uplifting. Thank you for all the suggestions of good places to go to learn about SEO and the idea of having your site checked for its potential crappy back links.
You’ve made me so glad that the various offers of SEO help from very enthusiastic SEO companies was not taken up.
You’ve also made me feel very grateful that when those changes came my site did OK.
I also appreciate John’s comment about articles being put out on the web. 3,000 articles represents so much work. I was advised to get articles out there too and never took the time to do it. You made me feel better about not doing it.
This was a great story Gina, I’m just so sad you had to live through it. It will certainly establish your bonafides as an SEO savvy website developer for the future!
Calla, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you feel it’s uplifting! And I’ll take generous too. What the heck. Very glad to hear your site has been fine.
I should have included this link in the article, but this is the site that can evaluate your link profile: http://www.linkdetox.com.
The articles thing is over, but hopefully, you are Content Marketing.
Thank you for this article! I am trying very hard to increase my SEO and it is nice to hear a seasoned professional’s experience.
You are so welcome Hayley. Thank you for reading the article and commenting. I’m thrilled that you found it useful and can apply some of the concepts to your own strategy.
Thank you for this very encouraging article. We followed everyone’s advice to get to page1 and google quickly made that a big mistake. Luckily most of the article sites and directories are gone now but still a lot of work to back track and get everything removed. Trying to move forward is hard when back-tracking. Instead we have been focusing on our off-line business with new designs and products. Hopefully in time rankings will improve.
Best of luck to everyone, Tony