OK, so after a long break, I’m trying to get back on track with posting. Had a great time in South Africa (owe an apology to Viperchill for not giving him a call, family business was crazy mate, but I get there about once a year so maybe next time?), had a great time in Eilat on my Marine Microbiology course and now it is time to get back to business.
It seems like Google are applying their penalties all over the place. Instead of manually punishing sites, they came up with all these red flags that can send your site into the depths of -60 / -300 / -950 penalty/filter. The penalties are site specific and it is very interesting to find out what triggers them and when they are lifted.
So, I know it sounds weird, but when one of our customers recently got hit with a severe loss of positions in Google SERPs, a part of me was obviously upset with the disturbance, but another part of me was excited due to the fact that I can analyze the change in locations and try and figure out what would cause this particular filter to be applied. At the beginning I was really flabbergasted by the weird nature of the filter, so I turned to several of my SEO friends for advice and opinion, but nothing could really replace the bricks and mortar approach of doing one change at the time while monitoring the locations. So to cut the long story short, I’m going to give a very concise list of the actions that led to the penalty and the reaction we got from SERPS:
- Customer decides to change the focus of his site to a different, but similar product. That move involves change in on-page optimization, so I am thinking, since there are changes about to be done on the site, why not throw in nofollowing of the majority of navigation links, according to the recipe – link love flows from homepage to all the inner pages and from inner pages only to homepage and pages I want ranked.
- Locations for the new keyphrase begin to change – on www.google.com, as seen from Israel, the site climbs from #53 to #26 and then to #8. On www.google.com as seen from the US (by using the gl=US argument) the site plunges to the neighborhood of #300, fluctuating from #283 to #345. The same is true for every other keyword that was introduced to the on-page optimization and is not represented in the anchor text of the existing links. The old keyword holds first page position on Google seen from any country.
- I remove the nofollow from the site navigation. After about a week, the site climbs to the area of #100 for all the new keywords on US Google. The Israel Google location is moving between #6 and #8. The old keywords are slowly slipping down but are still holding first page locations on both Googles.
- I tweak a few links from our sites + get a link from a relevant PR4 site using the new keyword as the anchor text. After about two weeks, the site is at first page locations for all the new keywords, while slipping to the second page for the old keyword.
The whole incident is summarized in a graph representing change in locations over time:
It is important to notice that when i refer to Israel Google, I do not mean www.google.co.il. It is the good old www.google.com but seen from the Israeli IP address. Similarly, US Google is www.google.com with the ?gl=US argument in the URL or www.google.com seen through a US proxy.
So what happened ? There are several things here that require attention:
- This was definitely a filter and not an overall site punishment. Furthermore, it appears to be automatic and not manual.
- The filter seems to be triggered by a combination of the implementation of nofollow and a significant difference between the on-page and off-page optimization.
- The filter is keyword sensitive
- The filter is country specific! This observations is in accordance to what quite a few other webmasters/SEOs were seeing in other niches. The big question is whether these filters are applied only on Google US as a rule or there is some kind of other input which will define the country on whose results it is implemented. I can think of Webmaster Tools localization, Analytics data or even Google toolbar data as examples of such possible input.
This is not the first time that nofollow has been nominated as a red flag for Google. Eric Lander has written about it on SEJ and there is a discussion on the Sphinn thread. I know that there is a big question about whether nofollowing your navigational links could serve as a signal for Google to punish you, however I don’t think that the nofollowing by itself was what has caused the penalty in this case. I think it was a combination of signals that caused the infamous red flag to be risen above the customer’s site
This is all very interesting as an observation, however without actual implications to my everyday SEO work, it would not be worth much:
1. If you are changing on-page optimization, do it gradually and hand-in-hand with addition of the incoming links targeting the new keyphrases.
2. Do not implement nofollow PageRank sculpting abruptly or at the same time when you are doing other big changes on your website (for example, I wouldn’t try doing it close to a hosting move)
3. Before you optimize your site, try and define where is your target audience going to search from. Then monitor locations on www.google.com as it is seen from each of your target countries. This task can be somewhat automatized by using Google Global Firefox extension.
Anyone else seen similar thing happen ?
PS. on unrelated note, does anyone know how to remove the Sphinn button code from Feedburner RSS ? It is driving me crazy!