Site hit by an algorithmic penalty. Can't pinpoint the reasons.

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Hi guys, I got an aff site that got hit on 10th and 21st of December. I am confused because I really can’t tell what the problem is. I keep track of around 60 sites in the niche, and the majority of them are fine. I will keep it short and give some info about the site in a hope that someone can throw a suggestion.

# Some basic info
The site is 3 years old, I worked on it in 2016, 2017 was off, at the beginning of 2018 I started working on it again .

Content:
It has around 100 posts, 55% of them are money content (best of X and product reviews), 45% are info posts. All of the content is written by people who have knowledge about the niche and can be considered “experts”. The info posts are of good quality and written by native writers. Most of the money content is written by non-native writes, but I think the quality is OK. I think all of the content meet searcher intent.

Links:
The site has links from roughly 200 referring domains. 25% of those are on public PBNs (I checked them and they are indexed except 4 domains), 25% are free contextual link drops, 25% are guest posts on topically relevant sites and the rest 25% are misc (social media, profiles on big sites, forums, industry resource/link pages and some relevant comments).

Anchors:
Generally, I strive to keep them diversified. I haven’t calculated and categorized the exact ratios recently.
There is some % of exact match, partial match, single KW, page title, and LSIs. The major proportion consists of branded and naked (mostly example.com). There are quite a bit of long phrases as well. Those are a mix of call to action with some topical relevant KWs in them.

# The Drops


Last links were built in early October when I did some outreach. Since then I was only publishing money content. On the 10th of December, 90% of the KWs dropped with 5-20 positions. In the following 8-9 days I did nothing.

On 18th or 19th I disavowed around 100 domains (spammy shit like scraper and stats sites). The other thing I did was a change on the homepage, on which I am linking to the majority of the buyer’s guides using page title as an anchor. I changed all the anchors from ‘’Best Blue Widgets” to “Blue Widgets”, the word best was clearly overused so I thought I should remove it. Two days after that rankings dropped with 40-60 positions. Through that period of time, there were big SERP fluctuations according to all of the tools out there. According to some folks around the web there were algo updates at that time.

The interesting thing is that according to the search console, mainly the desktop rankings have dropped.


# What to do next?
I know that the site can be improved in many ways, so before I make any drastic changes I will start with the on-page. Stuff like titles, meta descriptions, images, and interlinking. Interlinking it’s pretty poor, there are some contextual ones, but the majority of the links are generated from a similar posts plugin, which generally pulls posts from the same category, on half of the posts I’ve picked suitable posts manually.

Site speed was decent, but in the summer I moved the site to a new hosting and it seems that was not a positive move, because it drastically slowed it down.

When it comes to links, I have a feeling I messed up the anchors. I did go heavy on the branded ones. The domain name is a partial match, and I have a bunch of these. Let’s say domain name is PistolDirect.com, this year I started publishing content about shotguns so I decided to “re-brand” the site by naming it PDirect. Then I started to use “PDirect” and “PD” as a branded anchor, while at the same time site was getting natural or outreach branded links anchored as “PistolDirect”, and it got a bit messy. Also, there are a lot of links pointing to inner pages with branded and root URL anchors. Generally I think I should take a more closer look at the anchors.

What are your thoughts guys? How do you think I should proceed from here?
Thanks,
 

Ryuzaki

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I'm seeing a similar comparison on Mobile vs Desktop rankings, where I'm lower on Desktop by about 10 spots on average.

I wouldn't expect the disavow to have caused any fluctuations, especially since it was trash links on trash, no-power domains.

There's been a ton of updates, like every two weeks. It could just be you getting caught up in that. I've been tangled up in it since the start, it sucks. In this case, the "big ones" have been core algorithm adjustments which likely involved many ranking factors. I suspect the constant updates since then have been adjustments to that, rolling some back, tweaking others further, etc. In my case I've been focusing on usability, E-A-T, freshness, speed optimization, content pruning, and most recently indexation (uncovered some serious problems here). Since we don't, and nobody does, understand what's happening with these updates, I've focused on increasing my overall quality scores in every area I can touch. Whether that helps remains to be seen. This could be one of those where we have to wait till the next big update where they roll in offline calculations.

Going from "Best Blue Widgets" to "Blue Widgets" across a lot of money pages could have had a huge impact on them, especially from your most powerful page on the site - the homepage. Best Blue Widgets and Blue Widgets have different meaning and intent for Google. One is comparison, learning, and content based and one is shopping on e-commerce platforms.

Your anchor situation as described by PDirect and all that, I doubt that's an issue. If anything you probably need more non-branded, keyword based anchors, but not necessarily exact match.

It's hard to say, but I'm not sure I'd jump to the conclusion that you received a penalty. Lots and lots of sites have seen that kind of hit in the past 1-3 months. It's been brutal. But if you want to stay ahead of a penalty I'd consider disavowing those PBN links, especially at 25% of your backlink profile. You'll definitely lose some page rank when doing that and have to make it up though.

This is a shot in the dark but check your indexation on the new Search Console Coverage dashboard. Look for errors, Valid with Warnings, and Valid (but indexed and not in sitemap) and look for anomalies there. If you have a ton of pages indexed beyond the number you have, I'd look at fixing those. I've toyed with everything possible and it made no immediate difference. I'm cleaning up these indexation kind of issues now (done and waiting on Google to catch up). It's the last puzzle piece that may or may not have an immediate impact. If it doesn't then I'm at a complete loss and hopefully benefit from a higher quality score in general when the next update comes.