It is the thing all business owners fear the most, watching their website disappear from search engines Results Pages (mostly Google) for any local keyword searches. On December 17th, 2012 it happened to us.
As a company that always followed Google webmaster guidelines for SEO, it was impossible to believe. How could this happen to us? We were feeling the first stages of loss as ANGER and DISBELIEF.
After that we experienced SADNESS and REGRET along with HUMILITY and then finally ACCEPTANCE. It forced us to have a second look at the guidelines and what we'd been doing. Over time, we finally began to see a clearer picture of why we disappeared from search engine results. It was like a light coming on in the dark and illuminating the shadowy corners that used to be hidden from search engines. We were now fully exposed and punishment was being exacted upon us.
Figuring out why our site disappeared from search engines
What exactly happened, anyway? The first thing we did was try to figure out if it was real, like a bad dream that we hoped to wake up from with 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 with no idea how long it is going to take to get a response. It took less than a week to get my answer but all the response said was "No manual spam actions found." Okay.... 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 how to fix it”.
At that point, I really started to dig in. Looking at my backlink profile and some information on the Google Webmaster forum, it seemed as though that was the problem. Going through all the guidelines, I determined that 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 that my backlink profile showed 384,000 backlinks from 100 domains. This was due to the credit link for the websites we built. Well, that's what they were showing me anyway. One-hundred and eight thousand backlinks were coming just from one domain because somehow the Google bot got in there and just started building links, bouncing around like crazy. Probably from some glitch in a Joomla extension.
How to fix this problem: We had to put nofollow tags on the credit links coming back to our website so Google wouldn't pass SEO credit. Sound 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. Was it fair to be punished? No. Is this what we should have expected? 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 upside 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 a disciplined approach for how to optimize for the web.
Coming up next: Surprising results from traffic analysis (Hint - There is hope)
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