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When Google Strikes: Uncovering Why My Sites Were Penalized

~ 11 Minute Read

It’s no secret that Google has serious power when it comes to determining how much traffic comes to your website.  I’m talking fascist dictator type power.  One day you are living high on the hog with all that free, sweet Google traffic coming in, and then… bam!  Your sites are nowhere to be found in the search rankings and you go straight into panic mode.

To make matters worse, Google is notorious for keeping ranking indicators for their algorithm top-secret.  In fact you’d probably have an easier time finding the recipe for Coca-Cola.  While there is a lot of information out there about what factors Google uses to rank sites, it often comes down to best guesses and speculation.

Recently, I found myself in the wrath of the Google hurricane and I’m still working on climbing out.  The following describes what happened, why I think my sites were penalized, and what I am doing to recover my hard-earned rankings for the keywords I target.

Moving To HTTPS

The story of my sites being penalized starts innocently enough.  In a rare move, Google has made it clear that sites that move to an HTTPS protocol will get a (slight) rankings boost.  Google almost never tells you what they factor in to their rankings, so this came as a bit of surprise.  But the message was clear, with their clout, Google was making a push to make the internet a safer place for visitors.

For those who are unfamiliar with HTTPS, it is simply a way to encrypt visitor data so that it can not be stolen via public wi-fi and other access points.

I have had some of my sites on HTTPS for a while, with others still on the standard HTTP.  With some free HTTPS options developing over the last couple years from Cloudflare and Let’s Encrypt, I felt like now was a good time to move all my sites over to HTTPS.

If you want some tutorials on how to use these resources to move your sites to HTTPS, check out this page.

Sh*t Hits The (Google) Fan


 
After I made this move to HTTPS I felt good, and gave myself a nice pat on the back.  But not so fast.  Shortly after making this change I saw that my web traffic for the sites I moved to HTTPS went downhill practically over night.  WTF Google?

And I don’t mean a little hit to my traffic numbers, I’m talking decreases that ranged from 50% to 80% depending on the site. It was clear to me that something was wrong.

Site #1

 

Site #2

Site #3

Immediately I become an SEO detective and try to come up with what I did to draw the ire of Google.  Being that it wasn’t clear to me, I went for a surf on the interwebs to find others who were in a similar situation.

Gathering The Evidence


 
After checking out several sources I began to develop a couple hypotheses for why my seemingly positive move to HTTPS was turning into a freaking nightmare. This is the first important step to developing an action plan on how to recover your site rankings.  Know going in that the reason your site’s rankings dropped is probably not due to a single factor, but several factors coming together to make a search engine sh*t sandwich.

Hypothesis #1: Errors In My Move To HTTPS Caused Rankings Drop


 
What looked like a simple straightforward move to HTTPS is actually a pretty complicated process. For very large sites, the process of moving to HTTPS can take close to a year!  At first I thought that I could slap on the HTTPS, get the pretty green lock icon when my site loaded, and I was good to go.  I quickly learned this is not the case.

Setting Up a 301 Redirect

When you move to HTTPS, it is the equivalent to moving to a whole new domain.  That means you need to set up a 301 redirect to make sure that your site’s performance stays the same.  If you don’t do this all the backlinks you’ve acquired and internal links on your site will essentially point to the wrong domain, and your “new” HTTPS site will not get the rankings boost that comes with having these backlinks.  You can imagine what happens when your site’s link profile all the sudden disappears, your site loses rank…. big time.

Internal Links

Because my internal links all pointed to the old HTTP version of my sites I needed to update them to start with HTTPS.  Again, this is done to ensure that all the links are pointing to the correct domain.  To do this I used the Better Search Replace plugin (this plugin is free).  All you need to do is put “http://yourdomain.com” in the search column and replace with “https://yourdomain.com”. This will change all your internal HTTP links to HTTPS.

Hypothesis #2: Too Many Affiliate Links

A great way to do some investigative SEO is to compare your site to other sites that are ranking better than you for the keywords you are targeting.  When I did this I noticed a trend immediately, the sites that were ranking well had far fewer affiliate links than my sites.

To get more specific, most of the sites that continued to rank well had anywhere between 0-15 affiliate links in a page.  My sites on the other hand were often over 20, which is pretty affiliate-heavy.  Another thing I noticed was that based on my experience, Google views affiliate links above the fold in a similar way in which they view PPC ads.  If you want to rank well in Google you should not have any affiliate links (or ads) above the fold.

While the content on my sites were top notch for the niches I target, my affiliate strategies had become too aggressive for Google.

What Does This Have To Do With HTTPS?

The sites I moved to HTTPS are pretty old in internet years, all of them having been started in 2013.  The benefits of having and keeping sites this old is that Google views older sites more favorably.  It also appears that if you create good content over several years Google begins to trust that your site produces quality content and does not have the same expectations as it does for newer sites that are starting out.

After going through this experience I feel that Google has only told webmasters half the story when it comes to the HTTPS rankings boost (sh*tty move Google).  In reality, it appears that Google uses a website’s transition to HTTPS as an indicator to check the site’s content for quality, especially when this hasn’t been done for awhile by the regular algorithm.  In particular, the “FRED” algorithm update from last March (which you can read more about here) seems to be of importance.

My belief is that FRED basically takes several ranking indicators and evaluates all of them to come up with an aggregate website score.  If your site does not meet the threshold score from FRED, then your site is penalized by Google until the necessary changes are made on your website to improve your FRED score.

Removing Affiliate Links

My main strength as an affiliate marketer is designing buttons and links that people find irresistible to click.  Before the recent penalty, my top performing site was getting an affiliate link click for every five page views, which is very good….too good in fact in the eyes of Google.

I went through every web page on the sites and made sure there were no more than 12 affiliate links on each page.  My best guess is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-15 affiliate links is the upper allowable range by the Google Algorithm at this time.

I also removed any affiliate links and ads that were above the fold.  In total, I removed well over 100 affiliate links on the three sites combined.

The truth is that these changes have certainly had a negative impact on my affiliate link click through rate, but I need to experiment to see if I’m on the right track.  Later I’ll try to make additional changes to increase the click through rate.  Right now my priority is regaining my Google rankings.

What Have Been The Results So Far?


 
Even though I only made these updates a week ago, I’ve already seen some positive changes in my Google Rankings.  To be clear, it is best to wait a few weeks before deciding what type of impact changes to your site have had when it comes to Google rankings as it can take awhile for all the cards to shake out.

Two of the three sites have had their traffic double from their Google Penalty lows since making the changes.  The third site is still lagging, but I’m hoping that within the next couple weeks there are some more positive changes in terms of rankings.  If not, I’ll go back to the drawing board and try to discover what is causing that site to continue to be penalized.

Site #1

Site #2

Site #3

Note: Google Analytics does a poor job at showing the improvement.  But if you look at the page views key you’ll see it jumps from 600 to 1200.  Meaning this small looking improvement from the lows amount to about an additional 300 page views per day.

Review

The reason I wrote this article was not to simply tell you about my personal experience with receiving the dreaded Google Penalty, but how to think like a detective to begin a campaign to recover your rankings.  Below I’ve created some bullet points to use when you find yourself in this stressful situation.  For those who have received a penalty, try to remain calm and remember that whatever caused your Google troubles to begin with can be undone.

In the meantime, I’ll be keeping a close eye on these sites and will update my readers on any new progress.

Google Recovery Tips Checklist

This is not an exhaustive list, and the amount of issues that can cause a drop in rankings is enormous.  Every situation is individual, but this list should give you some ideas.

  • Use Google to search for articles from webmasters who have encountered similar SEO issues
  • Research competing websites that are outranking your site(s) and see if you can find some differences in terms of your on-page content. Some things to look for:
    • Number of affiliate links on a page
    • Article length
    • Backlink profile
    • Above the fold content
  • If moving sites to HTTPS be sure to do a 301 redirect and to change all your internal links to HTTPS
  • Use https://gtmetrix.com to do a website speed test.  If speed is poor try a couple things:
    • Use JPEGmini to optimize images
    • Install WP Super Cache
    • Use Cloudflare for your websites
  • Make sure to use Google Search Console (previously called Google Webmaster Tools)
    • Verify every domain variation (http://, http://www., https://, https://www.)
    • Check Google Crawl errors and be sure to fix any Site errors immediately
    • Submit a sitemap for each domain
    • Disavow any spammy or poor quality links

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