September 26, 2014
A few days ago, I noticed that my traffic was sliced in half.
This is traffic to my biggest money maker, my beard website. I discovered this drop in traffic on Tuesday, and immediately flipped into crisis mode. I checked all possible explanations. I called my hosting provider to see if there had been an outage. I checked Webmaster Tools to see if there was a manual penalty or an algorithm update. I checked my backlink profile to see if I had been hit by negative SEO. And so on.
By Wednesday, I was at my wit’s end. Out of desperation, I posted a plea on the Google Webmaster Forum, asking if anyone knew what was going on. A few people mentioned the recent private network crackdown, but seeing as I had never used a private network, that couldn’t be it. In fact, one of the goals of this website was to see if I could create a financially profitable website without doing any backlinking.
Up until Monday, it was working. I use Jetpack, a WordPress plugin, to give me real-time stats on my traffic, so I was alerted to this change almost as it was happening. It took Google Analytics a few days to catch up, but when it did, it reported that I had lost just over 50% of my traffic.
Was it Top Heavy?
The one area where I knew I was crossing the line was with ads. My beard website had nearly 15 ad units per page–all asynchronous, and all fast loading, but still, 15. My thinking was now on the idea that I had somehow been targeted by the “top heavy” aspect of Google’s algorithm, which penalizes websites that have too many ads above the fold. I was hesitant to believe that this was the case, since so many websites I follow not only have lots of ad units, but horribly disruptive ones, like pop-ups, timers, and so forth. I’ve never had any of these, just simple text and display ads. But a lot of them.
Still, it was the only possible solution, so I spent the better part of the day this morning trimming my ad units per page down to around 9. This would cost me hundreds of dollars each month in revenue, but it would be worth it if I could regain my traffic.
Today, I read about the news of Panda 4.1, and everything clicked into place. From information posted on a Google+ profile, we learn that Panda 4.1 affects between 3-5% of all results. Google is using new signals to penalize websites they think are thin or have poor quality, with the result of promoting medium to small websites more.
This description hits me pretty hard. I read every horror story from webmasters who suffered from Panda updates in the past, but shrugged them off because I knew I would never get hit by Panda. After all, Panda was about quality content, and I prided myself on creating quality content. I never took shortcuts, and always worked hard to make sure everything was well-researched and perfect before I published it.
My beard website has over 100 posts of original, well-researched, long content. Some of my personal favorites include my interview with Dr. Alen Baumen about beard transplants, and my research piece on why men grow beards, which was copied by newrepublic.com. Before Panda 4.1, I was ranking on the top 50 results for all 300+ keywords I am following, and I was in spots 1-3 for over 100 keywords I tracked. These keywords pointed to evergreen articles I wrote weeks, months, and years ago.
After the update, my site has been pushed off Google for 120 of my tracked keywords. Here’s what it looks like in Moz.
Is this really what you wanted, Big G?
After Panda 4.1, I have to ask whether Google is achieving their desired results. My site has thousands of comments from an engaged community who value the information I provide in my numerous guides. My content is frequently shared on social media. The average length of one of my guides is 1,500 words long, with original copy and photos. How can Google judge it as thin?
When I set out to make money as a blogger, I wanted to spend my time and energy investing in quality from the very beginning. I wanted to build a permanent community information site, not a churn-and-burn domain. Google says that Panda 4.1 will help smaller to medium sized sites, but that’s exactly what mine is. I’m not The Huffington Post. I’m a small blog with a dedicated fanbase and high quality original content. And I got hit by Panda.
To Cloak or Not?
One thing I never did is cloak my affiliate links. I made money with my site by getting commissions when I referred people to Amazon. I read time and time again that I should cloak my affiliate links, but I never did because I felt this was against the whole principle of organic blogging. If Google is going to promote blogs who just produce amazing content, then I want to spend my time doing just that instead of cloaking my affiliate links. Why would Google penalize an affiliate website, even though what I provide is quality? Why make the Net a poorer place by taking money out of the pockets of the people who need it to do what they do? Without affiliate income, I can’t run my blog. Is that what Google wants?
I have a sneaking suspicion that one of these “new signals” Google is using to penalize websites is the use of affiliate links. If this is true, then I think this is a huge mistake on Google’s part. It will prevent authors like me from doing what we do best and providing new value.
Here’s a question for you: If you got penalized by Panda 4.1, do you cloak your affiliate links, or not? I’d really like to know.
At least I know why I lost traffic. Now, I have to clean up this whole mess. Instead of producing new amazing stuff, I have to spend my time cleaning this up. Here’s what I plan to do.
Cloaking My Links
I’m going to cloak my affiliate links. This is a huge pain in the ass. And it is something no blogger should ever have to do. This is the sort of thing that no one would ever think to do on his own, unless he was trying to protect himself from Google. I think this could be considered a manipulation of Google’s algorithm. That’s right, Google is forcing me to do something “gray hat” just to survive, when all I wanted to do was write.
Update: After reading your amazing comments, I am changing my strategy. I won’t be cloaking my affiliate links (yet). See my step-by-step progress here:
Focus on Guides
My content that still ranks well are all guides. I have a number of product pages that used to rank well, and these have been decimated on Google, even though each of these pages are 100% unique with custom images and copy. Product pages are out, long guides are in.
Diversify My Incoming Traffic Sources
One of my biggest inspirations is Pinch of Yum. They recount how only 30% of their traffic comes from Google. Their biggest referrer of traffic is Pinterest.
While I don’t publish recipes or snap shots of food, I’m going to focus more on Pinterest and other social media to gain a stronger presence there, in the hopes of gaining more diversified traffic. That’s right, Google is forcing me to stop creating stuff for them, and pay more attention to social media. Is that what you wanted, Google?
It’ll Be Ok
I have no doubt that this time next year, I’ll have recouped my traffic, and hopefully gained more, because Google doesn’t own me or my blogs. I’ll keep on writing, because I love to write. If Google doesn’t help me gain an audience, then I’ll gain that audience elsewhere.
What sucks most about this is that I feel betrayed. I recently left a career of 4 years because this blog had gotten to the point where it could support me and my family. I took the plunge to become a full time blogger–and then this happens. It’s really poor timing for me personally, but it’s a good lesson. I knew I relied too much on Google for my traffic, but I never did anything about it. Had I been focusing on Pinterest or other networks this year, I would not be in as big of a mess.
I don’t think that Google has any nefarious reasons for doing what they did to blogs like mine. I really do think they are trying to make their search engine a better place. I just think their implementation is poor. I’m a guy who has never built a backlink, never published a guest post, never written guest posts, always written unique content, and never published thin content–and I got penalized. Something is off.
Oh well. Back to the grindstone. Time to make infographics for Pinterest.