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Long-tail traffic 90% down since Oct 28, yet other keywords up?

5:26 pm on Nov 27, 2012 (gmt 0)

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I am trying to understand what happened to one of my sites one month ago. On October 28th it lost 90% of all traffic, and it's been steady at that new low level ever since. The most obvious reason for the drop is that the traffic used to come from about 30,000 various long-tail KWs per month, and now it's down to only 1,500.

However, when I check those keywords that still bring traffic, they are all consistently in positions #1,2 and 3 where they used to be anywhere between 3 and 10 before. Many of the old most popular KSw still bring traffic and are positioned even better than before, but most long tail ones are gone. It's like there has been an overnight hollowing-out of thousands of rare and perhaps very long-tail KWs that only brought 2-3 visits in the entire month. I sometimes can find the old KWs at the very end of the results, sometimes nowhere at all.

I've discovered some spam in UGC (not terrible but rather pesky, visible and completely off topic - it was the election time in US and it was political spam) and submitted a reconsideration request after I deleted it but received a response saying "No manual action". I thought perhaps that political spam had skewed Google's perception of the site's theme. Anyway, whatever it was, it was algorithmic.

I can't find any date reference to an update around October 28th, so it seems like some "normal" re-ranking. I put "normal" in quotes because losing 90% of traffic sure feels like a penalty but Google says it's not.

Would anyone have an idea on how to start digging out of this hole? Has it ever happened to you? How would you diagnose a sudden improvement in rankings of some KWs while the rest is completely gone?

Thanks for all your ideas and comments!
9:30 pm on Nov 27, 2012 (gmt 0)

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I've faced large drops multiple times and each time it is a unique situation requiring a unique solution.

Here are some things to consider:

#1 - Make sure there are no technical problems. I've personally encountered large scale drops due to stupid employees & hosting companies messing up the robots.txt and .htaccess files. Once you fix the technical mistake you should rebound fast.

#2 - Remove the spam and check for hacks. I've also had sites running on wordpress get hacked so bad they lost rankings. Good news is once I deleted the hack and closed the multiple backdoors the hack opened, Google quickly returned my rankings & traffic

#3 - Ask yourself and I mean really ask yourself what value your site provides that isn't found elsewhere. I ignored some of cash cow sites and that allowed the competition to overtake me and I lost my traffic. Are you providing unique valuable information on each page? Or are your pages more similar to computer generated low quality pages? If this is the case it is going to take much longer to rebuild and recover but it is possible.

PS I personally would not spend too much time looking at rankings. Google is personalizing serps and that can throw off your testing. Even if you work around that you still need to account for the bells and whistles that appear on the universal serps, which can decrease click-throughs even if you rank #1. I prefer to look more at traffic patterns and less at individual rankings.
9:58 pm on Nov 27, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Definitely what goodroi said...

I've personally seen #1 (especially with .htaccess files) totally, royally, mess things up and #3 is something I see often, because it seems many people only like to improve things when they're not working rather than working to make sure they stay a-step-ahead constantly. (I may have gotten a 'Been there; Done that' shirt for #3 a few years ago myself, but now I think one of the biggest things to do is keep pushing ahead harder when things look good.)

I also totally agree about not looking at the rankings too much. I've moved much more to traffic and indexed pages as signals than worrying about what varying degree of personalization I'm going to see today.
10:08 pm on Nov 27, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Thanks, goodroi. I agree with you on not obsessing about rankings, and I personally don't spend much time looking at actual positions. It's just this case where the upward movement of some KWs contradicted the overall trend, which piqued my interest and made me go look at the past stats.

I actually do collect ranking stats whenever they are reported by Google, automatically, but never have much time to look at them (except in this case) because, like you said, with all the personalization, localization, day parting, traffic throttling and the rest of the results joggling that's going on, nothing ever makes much sense.

I'm combing my site with a fine comb to find any technical issues right now. Nothing has turned up yet but it's a large site - never know what you might dig out.

11:00 pm on Nov 27, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Was it mostly image traffic that you lost?
12:21 am on Nov 28, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Was it mostly image traffic that you lost?
No, almost no images at all on the site (except for layout of course).

But I am still digging through the stats and finding something very interesting I haven't seen before I posted this: the traffic I lost is disproportionately UK traffic or traffic to UK-related themes. By UK-related I mean let's say like a car that's not unheard of here in the US but not as common as back home in UK. Something like Land Rover for example. So, I lost both google.co.uk and google.com traffic to UK-related sections of the site as well as almost entire google.co.uk traffic to any other parts of the site as well. I do not collect IP info, so the google.com traffic to UK-related sections might very well have been from UK all along.

The loss of UK and UK-related traffic cannot account for the entire 90% drop but it looks to be at least 30% of it(side note: before this I had no idea the site was so dependent on UK traffic!)

The site is hosted in US, is a .com and vast majority of topics are not necessarily UK-oriented. Frankly, I've no idea why UK featured so prominently to begin with.

Has there been any Geo-targeting dial turning lately at Google?