SEO Flatliners - GSQi's Investigation Into a Massive One Month Penalty

The Engineer

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The Post - https://www.gsqi.com/marketing-blog/seo-flatliners-one-month-google-drop-case-study/

The newest Newsstand item comes from GSQi, Glenn Gabe's agency and arguably the best SEO blog in existence.

The summary of events is that a past client, the CEO of an unnamed company, contacts Mr. Gabe about a penalty that kicked in on exactly 6PM on Sunday, February the 17th. It wasn't tiny, and came with a 94% drop in traffic.


The problem is that this site is a legitimate business and doesn't have any shady link-building past. This led the investigation almost immediately into the technical SEO realm.

Glenn Gabe looked into the Crawl Stats of Search Console and crawling had dropped off by about the same amount. This was shown in the log files as well. There was no messages of security problems or manual actions in Search Console.

In the discovery phase, Glenn turns up 3 problems:
  • Lots of non-sitemap, low-quality content indexed that's not meant to be indexed - (Fixed but not likely the issue)
  • Cloudflare had them on a shared SSL certificate and IP address with some really bad neighbors - (Fixed and possibly a contributing factor despite Google saying otherwise)
  • The client re-added a forum they used to have that possible caused problems in the original Panda days - (Most likely the issue)
The forum had been added 3 days before the site tanked. There was nothing wrong with the forum except it was low-quality content. The weird thing is Google had only indexed a handful of pages on the forum by the time they tanked the site. The company removed the forum the same day the penalty kicked in, seeing the obvious connection. They then fixed the other things Glenn suggested.

It's a total mystery as to what caused the drop.

All you can do in times like these is go for the "nuclear option" and fix everything you can find and then engage in as many sessions of SEO Prayer™ as you can. In this case it worked.




Here's the weird part.

Remember that the drop started at 6PM on Sunday, February the 17th. The site came back on March 17th, exactly one month later... but not only that, it came back exactly at 6PM on the dot. One month later to the minute.

So what happened? Was it a security problem that some side algorithm thought it found and then refreshed the next month? Did they tip some Panda issue? There were no obvious algorithm updates in this time period that anyone else reported. Was it a fluke and mistake by Google? They seem to be making mistakes lately far more frequently than in the past.

The answer is that they don't know and Glenn Gabe asked John Mueller but hasn't gotten a response. We may never know.

Mr. Gabe ends his post with the warning of putting all of your eggs in one basket, especially the Google basket.

Have you guys ever seen anything like this?

I know @Ryuzaki is dealing with a weird algorithm situation and has been employing the nuclear option to no avail so far. I saw sites in the past get penalized for the "thin content penalty" in the past which was a misuse of it, where the real issue seemed to have been a combination of technical SEO items. But this issue is even less explainable and far more devastating.
 

Tao

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I know that Glenn has access to the analytics of other sites, based on his previous posts, but it would be interesting to see if any other sites were affected by a similar issue at a similar time, which would remove the doubt over the forum addition being responsible. I am sure he also checked the stats of the other sites sharing the same IP too, or that would have been an obvious match.
Be interesting if someone at a provider like ahrefs or semrush were able to dig into their data and spot any similar trends that might point towards a Google cock up.
It does worry me that most of our eggs are in the Google basket, which is where things like social media and email lists come in I guess.
 

Ryuzaki

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I feel like, in the same way you see random sites get penalized like this for zero apparent reason, that on the flip side Google will give a huge boost to a random site for no apparent reason. This is why I've mentioned even going as far as creating 3-5 versions of your new authority site and seeing which Google randomly decides should rank far better than the others and then working on that one.

There's definitely no telling what kind of crazy side algorithms Google is running offline now and only updating once a month, etc.

If I had to take a wild guess at what happened, that forum existed on a sub-domain (as told in the post) and was either penalized by Penguin or Panda. They then moved it to a sub-folder (as told in the post), probably to dodge a Penguin or Panda issue (not told why it was moved). Penguin is granular now but wasn't in the past and would hurt your entire site. Panda has always been a site quality issue as a whole. So it's hard to say which one that forum got tagged with in the past.

But because it was removed in the past instead of fixed, the penalty flag was probably still associated with the sub-folder / sub-domain, and when they brought the forum back it smacked the whole site. They immediately deleted it, the side filter re-ran a month later and decided that there was no reason for the penalty any more.

I can imagine a scenario that if it was a brand new forum installation and they didn't bring in all the old crap content, the Panda issue might have cleared itself up at that one month mark regardless if they took it down or not. If it was Penguin then probably not.

That's my guess as to what happened.