It is the thing all business owners fear the most, watching their website disappear off search engines (mostly Google) for any local keywords. On December 17th, 2012 it happened to us.
As a company that allows followed Google webmaster guidelines it was impossible to believe. How could this happen to us? Feeling the first stages of loss in ANGER and DISBELIEF.
After that we had SADNESS and REGRET along with HUMILITY and then finally ACCEPTANCE. What it did was force us to look at the guidelines and what we've been doing and then finally began to see a clearer picture of what was going on. Like a light coming on in the dark and illuminating the dark corners that used to be hidden from search engines. Now fully exposed and punishment exacted upon us.
So what did happen anyway? Well the first thing we tried to figure out is if it was real. Like a bad dream in which we hoped to wake up from and all the wrongs undone. Waiting for something to change in our favor, hopeless. Then after weeks of nothing realizing that is wasn't going to happen and we needed to actually stop and figure this out. What did we do? Why does Google hate us? We're good people! Really.
So I started my investigation.
You can make a reconsideration request in Google Webmaster Tools. It's pretty easy, you fill out the form, send it into the Google oblivion, and wait. No idea how long it is going to take.
Well it took less than a week to get my answer. All that the response said was "No manual spam actions found." OK.... that was a big help. Frustrated I went back into my anger stage until I realized that I had no recourse and I was at the total mercy of Google.
What Google was really saying was "You may have tried to fix the problem but you have a long way to go". (and we're not going to tell you what to fix it)
So now I really started to dig in. Looking at my backlink profile and some info on the Google Webmaster forum it seemed as though that was the problem. Going through all the guidelines I determined there were no on-site issues so it had to do with my backlink profile (links coming into my site from other websites)
The first clue I found was my backlink profile showed 384,000 backlinks from 100 domains. This is due to the credit link for the websites we built. Well that's what they were showing me anyway. 180,000 were coming just from one domain because somehow the Google bot got in there and just started building links bouncing around like crazy. Some glitch in a Joomla extension.
How to fix this problem: We had to put nofollow on the credit links coming back to our website so Google wouldn't pass SEO credit. Sounds crazy? Not if you think like Google and any backlinks you have control over should not pass credit back to your website.
The bottom line is that we never did any spammy backlinking or any black or grey hat SEO, ever. Is it fair to be punished? No. Is this what we should expect? Yes.
Are we done?
No. We are still recovering and working on our backlinks.
Why is this a good thing?
The reason this is a good thing revolves around the fundamental way we look at organic search. Before this happened we may have felt we deserved those rankings because of all the hard work we did to get those results. The real truth is that Google was giving us all that free traffic and now we have to earn it. Another up side to all this is when we lost our "free" rankings we started doing other things to get traffic to our site.
Google has changed the entire landscape for SEO forever and requires changing everything in regards to how to optimize for the web.
Coming up next: Surprising results from traffic analysis (Hint - There is hope)