Why does Google hate this site?


Something happened the weekend before thanksgiving, Nov 17; a Google algorithm change of some sort that once again took away about a third of our search traffic (it was reported here). This comes on the heels of a first ‘Panda update’ at the end of June which took a third of our search traffic then, and which I wrote about here at the time. Needless to say, this has been a blow to the site on many levels, including its very financial viability. For the past six months I have been taking steps to ‘recover’ from Panda; I see now that this is not going to happen.

The question I really want to know now is: why does Google hate this site? Why did their data refresh or update have a negative, rather than a positive effect on us?. I like this site. I really do, and I would like it even if I were not the one putting it out. I enjoy publishing this site; it is my full time job, it takes a long time to write and to research, and the content is thoughtful and well written. So why does this giant corporation keep punishing us?

It is now almost three weeks since this happened, and it is obviously not a mere thanksgiving-related lull in traffic and shows no signs of letting up. But what is certain is that we are having our lowest levels of traffic (and search traffic) since early 2010. You can see this in the chart below (note that the weekly chart contains a full week’s worth of data for the last data point).

Death - illustrated - p2

In fact, since the first Panda event on June 25th my traffic was steadily increasing, mostly on the strength of newly published content rather than any ‘recovery’. I was hopeful that we will get back to where we where and move on, but all of that was again wiped out last week, by Google’s ‘data refresh’ or whatever it was. And I again find myself seething with anger that this seems to happen for no reason, and angry at my complete inability to affect or influence (or anticipate) what happens to my site and livelihood. I am angry that Google does what it does in purposeful, opaque secrecy, for no apparent reason, and that they deliberately withhold information that affects the lives of thousands of publishers.

Let the guessing game begin:

Here’s my speculation on why this may have happened. This is all shooting in the dark, of course:

(1) Some sort of technical SEO reason

I really wish the reason were as simple as this. About a week before thanksgiving, and based on the recommendation of someone who was advising me on my site experience and SEO, I removed noindex from blog, category, and tag pages, in effect adding hundreds of pages to be indexed that weren’t previously. My taxonomy pages display the titles and thumbnails for posts only (see example here), but the way I implemented this was to hide the excerpts using CSS. What may have happened, therefore, was that I added hundreds of pages of duplicate, invisible content, which in hindsight I figure Google did not like.

Of course, I fixed this eventually, first by reintroducing noindex to these pages, and then by re-instituting it and preventing the hidden duplicate text from being served at all. Its been more than a week though, and my search traffic has not changed or inched back up. I am starting to think that this issue, the only explanation I could think of, is a mere distraction and has nothing to do with what happened.  To my mind, it would be strange to think that Google would punish a blog for having hidden excerpts of it’s own content on its taxonomy pages, but you never know I suppose; they may have thought that I am engaging in some sort of stunt to gain SEO advantage. And how long does it take for Google to respond to changes on a site anyway? I fear its going to be months and months, if at all.

When it comes to Google and search, it seems like the simple act of publishing a blog is sometimes akin to walking through a minefield. Google says ‘oh, don’t overthink it, just focus on creating great content that people want to read’, and that’s pretty much what I was doing. It’s a lie.

(2) Adsense issues, and Google’s end of year results

If you read some of the SEO sites, some users suggest that Google is A/B testing different sites in its SERPs, in order to determine what would best benefit its bottom line in terms of Adsense revenue (with the implication that more profitable sites would be given higher rankings). I am highly skeptical of this, which seems like a conspiracy theory.

But I am very worried that Google doesn’t like my Adsense ad layout (which I discussed previously). So I scheduled an appointment with an optimization guy at Adsense to get their feedback. Adsense are presumably completely separate from Google Search, and the person I spoke with had no information to offer; in fact he was not even aware of any algorithm update (they are never informed, apparently), and had absolutely no input on my ad layout or whether Google search had changed the way they weigh this.

I asked him if Google Search has access to clients’ Adsense data at all, and predictably he said they did not, that search and Adsense were completely separate.

The irony is that Adsense sent out 2 ‘automated’ type emails (on Nov 3rd and 16th) suggesting I move more ad placements above the fold, which is precisely the kind of ad placement that I am worried about from an SEO standpoint.

(3) Some other factor which I am not aware of

I would love to hear ideas that you might have as your read this, because I am completely stumped. If you have any ideas, please share in the comments section below.

The way forward:

I feel like blogging is so fickle and unpredictable that the smart thing would be to get out of it. It really seems to me that the Google people do not know what they are doing, that they put out algorithms that cause uncertainty without promoting the best content, and that maybe this is a symptom that there’s trouble under the surface at Google.

It also seems to me that the model of advertising-supported content is dying. The obvious answer for me would be to find other sources of revenue: selling ebooks, mobile apps, ‘premium’ content, donation drives, etc. But let’s face it: there’s no revenue without eyeballs reading this stuff. For the first time I found myself considering selling my site. It is becoming increasingly clear that publishing a website is a dangerously unpredictable way of making a living, and I find myself wasting time and energy daydreaming about how a small guy like myself can get back at this gigantic corporation that is accountable to no one. I also am thinking about what career I could move to where, like blogging, I could be my own boss, but where I am able to make a semi decent income in the process.