On Monday, we got hit by a brutal Google SEO penalty. The number of impressions went down by a factor of 100 overnight. On Friday the next week, the penalty was removed and the number of impressions went back to it’s previous level. The penalty lasted exactly 7 days.
Just after being penalized, shocked and dumbfounded I vented my frustration through a diatribe against Google. (see A rant about Google’s tyranny)
Then it was time to think of what could have triggered the penalty. There was no message in WT, so this was obviously an algorithmic one.
A first quick check with Panguin revealed that the penalty was not related to penguin or panda. The tool showed that no algorithmic update actually took place during that time frame.
The next step was to take a look at Mozcast to see if any turbulence in the SERPs may have happened the day of the penalty and the day of the recovery.
Although the rankings were a bit unstable around the day of the penalty, they were pretty stable around the day of the recovery. The causality wasn’t very definitive.
Black hat tactics had always been out of the question. We didn’t do any aggressive or automated link building. So, what was I left with? The only 2 potential grayish practices I could think of were a few directories and the “badge technique”.
The badge is a small image that displays a domain’s number of backlinks with a dofollow link to a detailed report on these backlinks. This come from our free backlink checker tool. The problem is that we don’t control where the badge is put and most of the time it ends up in the footer. This generates a lot of site-wide links.
Matt Cutts said in a video that widgets backlinks should be no followed. Widgets, clients site footer, badges, they appeared to be all the same technique to me. But should I nofollow these links when it actually had worked wonder for our competitors?
I should also mention that these reports were all hosted on a subdomain and all the links were therefore pointing to that subdomain. And the blog which is hosted on its own subdomain was not affected by the penalty. (btw, there was an ongoing debate about subdomains VS subdirectories until Matt Cutts finally said it doesn’t matter. After seeing that the penalty didn’t affect the blog, I came to the conclusion that it does matter).
So, I decided to take 2 actions.
I changed the link in the badges source code from dofollow to nofollow. But because I couldn’t change the existing badges, I just 404ed the current reports. That was a radical measure.
Next, I disavowed a bunch of directory links that I had built months ago, at a time when I was looking to bootstrap some traffic.
The next day of the disavowal, the penalty was removed. Was it the cause then? I don’t think so, the disavowal notice is just a message to confirm that a file have been submitted. Disavowal actions are not supposed to have any effect before at least a couple of months.
Could it have been the 404ed pages? It takes time for Google to crawl pages and see that previous links are now pointing to a 404 and update its index.
Were we a false positive like MetaFilter? They recovered only months later from their penalty but our lasted only a week.
Could it have been an algorithmic glitch? They usually last less than 24h.
I would be very curious to know your opinion about the most plausible reason of this SEO penalty and it’s quick recovery. Let us know if you have any idea.