September 27, 2014
Wow. What a whirlwind of a day. So yesterday I recounted how my beard website, which is my money site, got hit by Panda 4.1, reducing my traffic by 50%. I wrote it quickly and it certainly wasn’t my most eloquent diatribe. In fact, I was mainly venting. I posted it to inbound.org, which is basically a reddit for marketers, responded in a comment to an existing submission on the site, and then went to bed.
The next morning, I started getting comments on the article from inbound.org viewers. My submission was never up-voted, but the one I commented on was, and naturally people followed my link to see exactly how bad my site was hit. I went out for the day to spend time with family. While I was gone, Rand tweeted a link to my article.
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) September 27, 2014
The retweets and comments came flooding in. When I wasn’t driving, I was scrambling to answer comments and tweets like a mad man. I got some great feedback. There were three main camps of opinion:
#1 – Your content is too thin
I completely reject this one, because it’s not true. This opinion came from folks who looked at the homepage of my beard website, and that was about it. The idea goes that because my category pages have nothing but thumbnails and no text, that Google thinks my site is “thin”, and is not ranking it well.
I don’t think this is accurate, mainly because I don’t think Google expects every page on your website to be 2,000 words long, or they penalize you. Now, some of my content is indeed that long. My researched articles, such as “How to grow a beard thicker” and “Why do men grow beards?” each push 2,000 words. I’d say at least 50% of my website is content like this.
The other 50% are product and category pages–what I call “converting content”. This is content not designed to rank on search engines. Instead, this content is short, pithy, and designed to encourage conversions–to get people to fill a form, or click a link.
Converting content is popular on almost all websites, and certainly all popular websites. Amazon, for example, has just enough text on each product page to convince you to buy the item. I’d bet that the majority of product landing pages on Amazon have fewer than 300 words; and yet, Amazon consistently ranks well for product related queries.
Additionally, even after being penalized by Panda 4.1, many of these converting pages on my beard site still rank well. My homepage is a first-page result for “beard growth products”. My accessories category page is the #1 result for “beard accessories”. None of these pages have more than 50 words on them.
#2 – You need to cloak your affiliate links
This one has more merit, and indeed, this was one of the solutions I proposed in my original article. However, after doing a bit of research, I’m just not convinced that cloaking my affiliate links will solve my issue.
The argument goes like this: Google hates all websites that make money via affiliate commissions–that is, any website that gets a small percentage of all sales made by a referral from that website. If Google hates affiliate websites and wants to penalize them, then, goes the reasoning, we need to “cloak” affiliate links so that Gogole can’t discover them. This will protect us from Google’s fiery wrath.
Since Google honors the robots.txt file (so they tell us), they will never access this subfolder that contains all your redirects, and therefore will never discover your affiliate links.
The more I think about this, the more silly it sounds. Imagine you are Google. You see that a website links to one subfolder on their own website 90% of the time. That subfolder, however, is invisible to you. Now what would you think? That something nice and warm and fuzzy lives there, and you’ll just move on with your happy Google self and leave the website be? Or that the website is trying to hide something from you, and is most likely using affiliate links?
If I were Google, I would guess the later.
Additionally, Google has never said that they penalize affiliate websites, or that they don’t like affiliate links. There is a great thread on this issue on Google Webmaster Forum that Patrick Mackaaij linked me to, that really spells this out well. In the thread, Jon Wade responded:
Google does not have a problem with affiliate links, so long as they are not used to manipulate search results.
I think that is probably true. If you cloak your links, this looks more like you are trying to manipulate the search results, than if you were to leave them alone.
#3 – You have too many ads above the fold
I think this argument is the best. As I said in my plea on the Google Webmaster Forum, I originally had 15 ad units per page. My site still loaded quickly, my bounce rate never increased, my time-on-site never decreased, and my average page views never decreased. In fact, ever since I added all 15 ads, all of those metrics improved as my traffic increased.
After my penalty, I reduced my ads to 9 per page–3 above the fold (Google), 3 in the sidebar (Amazon, Buy Sell Ads, and Yellow Hammer), and 3 after the end of each article (Buy Sell Ads, Amazon, Cox DS, and Yellow Hammer).
9 is a good number, in my opinion. Pinch of Yum, an affiliate website I admire, has 9 ads per page, and they get over 1 million five hundred thousand sessions a month–400,000 of which come from Google. Here is the kicker–none of their ads are above the fold. All of them are in the sidebar, except one, which is in the footer.
Jon Wade, from the previously mentioned thread, claims that he tried placing an ad above the fold and was penalized. After removing it, he regained his traffic. It’s worth a try.
My bet is that my above-the-fold ads are the culprit. I will start by removing all above-the-fold ads for a while to see if I regain my rankings. If I do, then I will slowly reintroduce my ads, one by one, until I am penalized again, to discover exactly which ad unit is the culprit. My guess is that it is the ad unit directly beneath the article title.
If I don’t regain my traffic, then I will remove ads altogether and see if this works. If it doesn’t…well. I’ll get back to you.
Stay tuned for updates.