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Can a 13-year-old site recover on Google after a year of loss?



7:14 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

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For 12 years our site ranked fine. We had our up's and down's like anyone but never to this degree. For the past year, our 13th year, we've been hit hard in the most important areas of our site and we have scoured through the site for the past year searching for anything that could be wrong.

We do not have spam, we have a ton of content and yes, we have we a nicely built affiliate store. Before everyone jumps and says the conspiracies about Google and anti affiliates, our competitors which are affiliates are all still ranking fine.

We had a number of link changes a year ago when we plummeted and we had 301's for a long time which all eventually were switched to 404's. We were advised that 404's were not a problem, if you wanted old pages to go away, 404 was the best way to go. Not to mention, if we couldn't have exact 301 content to content pages, then they could do more harm than good. So, when we had to make a large number of link changes, we knew we would never be able to get good matches across so we went with the 404 route.

Now, it's been a year as of next month. At this point, we are wondering if anyone has ever seen year long hits by Google ever recover. We seem to be fine on Bing and Yahoo but, as we are seeing, not enough people use that to keep us afloat.

I guess we just don't know how much more effort to put. It seems a terrible loss to loose a 13 year old site which is our baby but if Google is just never going to recover us and we are just being hopeful for no reason, then we end out looking the idiots.

If anyone has seen recoveries after this long, then we will gladly keep adding content and babying the site. And paying for a server we can no longer afford.

Any advice is greatly appreciated.

Thank you,



9:34 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

I hear a lot about turning old 301's into 404's these days and from personal experience I have had nothing but bad results when doing this.

One client had been hit by a panda update and he insisted we do 404's to all the bad and what he thought was duplicate content. We did this and he dropped even further. 3 months late we 301'd the pages we could remember to the best fists on the site and the site recovered to traffic levels post original hit. It never recovered totally but it did at least get back some traffic.

Yes 301 redirects when done wrong can be dangerous but when done right are way better than 404 pages. Unless of course the pages are extremely spammy or spun content. However in a case like that I think your site probably will never recover.


9:47 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

Hello Viral,

The good news is we never had spammy content on our site. EVER.

The bad news is, we are talking nearly 25,000 pages and there is no way on earth I would be able to remember what pages should go where. We do not have direct matches from old to new. Basically we let go of our old affiliate and replaced it with a new one. Therefore, no direct match redirects. We had been advised on the Google boards that the last thing you want to do for the bot or for people is to let someone looking up one brand item and then plopping them on a completely different brand and MAYBE an item of similarity. That was a maybe. So no, it wasn't spam but everywhere we read, a 301 on something that doesn't very closely match is not good either and that it sends the wrong message to the bot. Not to mention people. We also had questioned then could we just send them to the front page. We were advised not to do that either with that many pages.

But then again, I guess we aren't supposed to be designing sites for people anymore. :/

So I guess since we are talking thousands of pages that have no logical home, we are pretty well screwed.

I guess the rule of thumb here is even if an old affiliate supplier is screwing you over, if you are ranking, never change your site. This has been a most depressing thing to have found out. We were miserable being treated so poorly, now we are miserable because our 13 year old site is suffering for our store.

The rest of the site does alright still. Which is weird. It's not AS strong but it's not completely dead. Problem is most of our sales came from organic search results.

Very sad. Thanks for the input.


9:53 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator phranque is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

have you created a GWT account?


9:57 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

Yes we have a GWT account and nothing triggers as unhealthy.


10:29 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member sgt_kickaxe is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 5+ Year Member

Just add a google noindex meta tag to any page with an affiliate link and voila. Didn't you hear? Google's earnings are way up because they want to be the only affiliate in the world!

I wish that was entirely sarcastic.


10:34 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

Ha, they aren't being indexed right now anyway. Well, they are.... They rank when you put quotes around the title of those pages!

Even if we did do that, then we would be in the exact same boat. But I do feel your sarcasm, truth. Problem again though is that our competitors are affiliates and they are fine. So I don't believe we are being punished for being an affiliate, I think we are being punished for making too many link changes last year and opting for 404 over 301 even though they had no logical place to go.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place now I guess.


10:41 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

Berrysharpie : quite frankly most of the information you get at google's own forums is garbage. Advice given by "experts" who's only real skill is staying up late and pretending to an authority on Google.

You will get much better information here. Or find an SEO to do an audit of your site. There is a very good one who did a presentation at Pubcon recently and even put up slides on slide share of his presentation.


[edited by: aakk9999 at 11:22 pm (utc) on Oct 27, 2013]
[edit reason] ToS [/edit]


10:54 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

Thanks Viral, We do have a serious problem now and we can barely afford the server now. It's very depressing and we refuse to let go of this site. It's been our lives.

Unfortunately we learned too little too late when it comes to the Google forums. It's so long now that putting 301's up at this point would almost seem tragic. We've no reference to what the old links are anymore as it's too long now and even if we did, again, no logical place to redirect them to.

Very frustrating.


11:05 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 5+ Year Member

...and opting for 404 over 301 even though they had no logical place to go.

I got my hands on a site this past June that had tanked in google and was thrown out of Bing/Yahoo. It had existed for 10 years prior and had gone through numerous redesigns along the way (verified in The Way Back Machine).

The main problems were immediately obvious. It had so many orphaned pages, broken links, as well as having been hacked (an unused old WordPress installation with default everything left in the root).

It's just a small site for a local business. It had just over 100 pages in the web space when I took it on. After redesigning it and cleaning it up I got it down to about 25 pages.

It took a few months but it has come back in top results for targetted terms in google and Bing/Yahoo has them back in favour on about top page #2 for many terms, page #1 for others.

I didn't let anything return 404. What I couldn't 301 I 410'd. I can't say that's what helped but it probably didn't hurt. 404 is a default reaction to a missing page. It could be missing for many reasons including webmaster error. But a 410 is explicit, it requires manual action to make it happen. For me, if I were a search engine engineer, I would treat that as a website with "awareness" and under someone's careful control.

I don't know if search engines pay special attention to 410's or not but if they don't they should.


11:14 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

Sevencubed is right. If you really want the content to be gone use 410. Google keeps coming back for a while looking for the old 404'd page. 410 explicitly says forget about this page.

However you really need to use them even more carefully than 404's. A 404 you can come back to and 301 at a later stage. 410's you can't.


11:23 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I've seen a number of similar cases lately among the many sites we manage.

10-13yrs old websites full with good content going from 1500 viewers per day to almost zilch. And no recovery in sight for almost 2 years now. GWT does not show any manual actions.

What do these sites all have in common? tons of good content but poor old design. Something that would not pass a quick human review unless the reviewer specializes on the topic and can appreciate the actual content (but ignore the poor design). It has been my opinion for quite some time now that the sites simply received a manual penalty and did not pass a human review.... forget the rest.

My advice. Try to work on the site "looks" and try bringing it up to date, then request a manual review.


11:33 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

These are excellent suggestions. We had not even considered issuing 410's over 404's but I can see exactly what you are saying and this might be something we should carefully consider. I respect that we need to be careful how we go ahead and do something like this. We naturally don't want pages that might just disappear for a day or two but then return but have no chance if they were 410's. So this is something that we need to take some time figuring out how to issue properly. Excellent advice though and I really like it!

As far as the upgrade look goes, the funny thing is, we were just about to start a redesign but then we got scared thinking maybe we shouldn't touch anything! So we put it on the back burner. Sounds to me like we should get the ball rolling and hit it head on. New look, new feel, and figure out how to issue 410's for things we want officially cleaned out. The site doesn't look particularly old but it's been about 3 years since it's last overhaul. It's time.

I think we have a battle plan forming here. I am feeling a little more encouraged here!


11:47 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

Before everyone jumps and says the conspiracies about Google and anti affiliates, our competitors which are affiliates are all still ranking fine.

It may well be that the difference between you and your rivals is

a matter of Time , and eventual Google awareness,

Your posts suggest that the content parts of your site are doing fine, yes ?

The money making bits where modded, return 404s lots of 404s and have now tanked eventually,

Plenty of 404s trigger some G quality checker to have a quick look at site they've ignored to date,,,


11:48 pm on Oct 27, 2013 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member


My experience is identical to yours. Old established site(s) that were well regarded by Google for years... and then hit for reasons that I am no closer to understanding now than I was back in April 2012 when Penguin struck.

Like you, my sites have never received a GWT message indicating what the issues might be, so we have to assume that changes to the Google algos are the root cause of the problem.

As far as I am aware, sites in this situation have to make changes that satisfy the algo and any changes should have an effect as soon as the pages are re-indexed. These sites DO NOT have to wait until the next Penguin update (if I understand correctly.) Reconsideration requests, disavowals etc are only for sites that get a message.

This "satisfy the latest algo" approach has had no effect on my sites... all the recommended actions from MC and John Mueller have had no effect at all.

I would not be too quick to dismiss the idea of anti affiliate bias. In my niche, every singe small to medium affiliate was wiped out around the same time that Google Hotels arrived and the travel sector was gifted to the big brand names.

Not one of those small to medium sites has ever come back... that's a group of about 20 something sites, all owned/operated by experienced, savvy web practioners with years of experience and not one of them has been able to come back.

I've posted on this subject a couple of times in hopes that someone would jump all over my commments as unfounded crud and give some reasons why.... but to date no-one has.

You will see similar comments from many, many people who are in the same situation where all their years of effort is being sacrificed at the alter of Google's profit and share price.


12:12 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

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tons of good content but poor old design

Can you elaborate on what you mean by "poor old design" and why you think site design would trigger a manual review?


12:14 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

How quickly an encouraged feeling can turn back to discouraged...

The rest of our site is doing "OK", not as well as it used to but it's hanging on. Our index page does not rank like it used to by any means. We assumed the drop in overall rankings was because of so many pages changing in the other area of the site that the main area lost some overall "oomph". So they are ok but not what they used to be. I guess if they were doing just as well as before the change while only the shop was suffering then we would feel that it was 100% because we had an affiliate store. But that's not quite the case. There has been a slump everywhere, just some areas more extreme than others.

I keep a close eye on the other affiliate sites and they are going strong. I guess it could be that we triggered it by issuing 404's. That only leads us back to we are dead in the water and we will never recover.

Argh... Not sure what to do now.


12:17 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

One of our competitors has a horribly old design. Hasn't been touched or updated and has looked exactly the same for the past 15 years. They are doing well BUT, I don't think they have also done anything to attract attention to itself like link changes. My bet is anyone at Google took a look at that site they would consider it abandoned and maybe manually hit it. We have looked always much more modern than that site but we tinker with changes and try to improve the site for people. Ha, silly us.


12:26 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member


You seem to be very focussed on the issue of 404's.

I've seen several comments over the years from Google to the effect that they know how to handle 404's and that it is very unlikely that 404's by themselves will bring down a site.

They recommend doing regular housekeeping via GWT and getting rid of the reported 404's but that's as far as it goes.


12:35 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

It's hard to say also that it MUST be the store being affiliate. I've heard the affiliate argument for 13 years and in the past when we had issues (Big Daddy we didn't have the canonical URL) everyone was saying it was affiliate links. We fixed the www and non www and we bounced back with no problem. It's just hard to swallow that we are basically done because of our store. That means it's over and there really can't be anymore small businesses that can't afford their own inventory.

I'm not focused only on the 404's. I am open to suggestion but at the same time, if I just accept it's affiliate store then it's time for me to shut down the server and roll over. Which might very well be the case but shouldn't I be exploring all suggestions? This has been my sole business for 13 years. It's not like I am webmaster of several sites and if it goes down, then I move on.

So, I am just seeing what all the ideas might be out there so we can explore more. In case we have missed something.

In fact, we weren't assuming it was to do with 404's all this time considering that is what we were told to do on the Google forums as we didn't have smart links to 301 to. We were assuming it was because we changed 25,000 links out of a ~80,000 page website.

Also, if it was just to do with the affiliate pages, then why is the rest of the site slumped? Again, not as badly but still slumped.

Sometimes it's not an obvious problem and so I came here to hear any and all ideas. If I have to throw in the towel because I have an affiliate store, then I guess I have to do that.


12:52 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

Berry have you tried doing the following.

Go into your analytics account and go back to before you lost the traffic (you do have an analytics account?).

There should be at least one but probably many points where you see a steep traffic decline. Go to moz's Google update page and mark in red the points (on the anaylitcs graph)that you see the steepest declines. compare these dates with what Moz is saying in it's updates page and then you will get a clearer understanding of the creature/creatures that are hounding you.

I do this when I start with a new client it puts into graphic form exactly what is happening. you can then post the anonymous data here and we can all have a go at guessing what beasts are attacking you and giving you a better strategy to fix the problem

At the moment it kind of sounds like you are focusing on what might be but at least by doing what I said above you can get some sense of the definite.


12:53 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

I guess what we could do is put noindex on the product pages as they are the ones with the affiliate links, not the upper level of our store. If we do that, and Google likes it, then that would mean the affiliate links are in fact the problem and then the rest of the site should bounce back up. IF it's the affiliate links then it might be logical to assume that is what is causing the particle slump on the rest of the site.

So if we issued 410's to just clean up the old junk that is no more, put noindex on anything that has an affiliate link on it and went forward with our new template, maybe we will get somewhere. If it brings the site back to it's normal positions, that will at least be one big bonus. Then I guess we need to decide how we can make a steady income without relying on organic search results.


12:57 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 5+ Year Member

I've seen several comments over the years from Google to the effect that they know how to handle 404's...

Nooooooooooo. The site in question that I've mentioned above -- the pages are returning 410s -- absolutely. Verified numerous times via the Firefox Live Headers as well as server raw logs.

Google has them all listed as 404s in WMT. If that's knowing how to handle 404s I wouldn't want to see what WMTs would look like if they didn't know how. That's quite basic, page is returning explicit 410 -- "ah never mind lets record it as 404 anyway" -- because they don't know how to count higher? WMT has always been broken in many ways and it's painfully slow to update. I just use it for a general guideline.

But you are right to point out not to focus on that exclusively. It's just one of many things to take into consideration.

Also, berrysharpie, my comments about redesign are not intended to be about superficial surface appearance. I'm referring specifically about putting a new engine in an old car:

1) HTML5 (even if you don't yet need much of the functionality of html5).
2) CSS
3) CSS Sprites for images where possible
7) VALID CODE (W3C or other sources)


12:58 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

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@viral We don't have an analytics account. :(

We had added it a long time ago, shortly when it was launched and we crashed. It was kind of strange, first we added the site map ability, then we crashed for a couple months. So we removed it and we came back. Years later we added the site map and we were fine. Then we added analytics, long before this situation, and we crashed. So after our experience with the site map, we got spooked and removed it. Then we bounced back. We had never actually gone back to putting it back up. I will look through our clunky stats from our server though.


1:03 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member


I assumed you meant a whole rehaul, not just "looks". ;)

1) Already done.
2) Already done.
3) Done in many places
4) Not done - That should be pretty easy change.
5) Not done
6) We believe we have our server pretty nicely tweaked but we can look into that more.
7) Done - Might need a recheck since we've made some visual changes more recently.
8) We are fairly anal about speed but will look again to see if anything else could be fixed.


1:08 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Let me correct #5, the site shows well on mobile sites but we don't have an m.oursite.com or a mobi. We used clean HTML5 so that the site would show well and it does. Is that not enough? Do we need an "m."?


1:13 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 5+ Year Member

4) Not done - That should be pretty easy change.

Famous last words uttered by me when I went to ems some time back.

Beware of font size inheritance if you've never messed with ems before! It could leave you scratching your head if you aren't aware.


1:16 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 5+ Year Member

I would, and do, totally ignore a need for separate site or sub-domain for mobile. Responsive takes care of a mobile visitor's needs.


1:20 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Haha, I remember playing with it quite some time back and it was tricky. I will have to refresh my memory again on our development server before I go messing with the real one.


So far our decline isn't matching at all with the moz updates. I'll have to spend some more time on this and also see if we have better stats. It looks like our stats just stop for days and weeks and then start up again. Great, another issue. They weren't showing like that when we were investigating this a while back.
We did move to a new server 3 months ago and I suspect we've lost data.


1:26 am on Oct 28, 2013 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member


Great, then I think we are pretty covered on the mobile side. You can easily surf our site on a mobile site. We are pretty picky about things like that as well.

This makes me even more worried that if these things check out, then either Google really does hate us being an affiliate despite thousands of content pages, or we really screwed up when we dumped ~25,000 pages and did it rather sloppily. I was just reminded that we first 301'ed the pages for a short while but then because we were told 301'ing a page to something that isn't almost an exact match is the wrong thing to do so we killed that and went 404.

On a side note, Google does say we have approximately 39,000 404's which makes sense when you total the pages we killed plus all the older pages that were also on the 301 but were stopped when we went all 404.

Doubt that helps with anything.
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