What would you do if your website dropped off the face of the earth or in this case Google? It’s possible. Search engines like Google are constantly updating their rules and algorithms to improve their product. In doing so, your website’s SEO performance is always under the microscope. Even well optimized websites can encounter an unexpected SEO emergency that de-indexes their pages and craters impressions and traffic. This is the story of one website we manage that had this very nightmare scenario happen and how we fixed it.
What makes SEO an ongoing initiative?
When most people think of SEO they go directly to achieving higher search rankings. Others will consider the end results of higher traffic and improved user engagement in the form of pages-per-visit and time-on-page metrics. Less often, are nitty gritty SEO factors considered such as page speed performance, usability, and code integrity.
The reason SEO is something that is continually monitored, is because search engines like Google are continually updating themselves and effectively changing the game. This is done with good intent, to improve their user’s experience viewing search results and visiting pages they are suggesting.
We recently encountered a scenario that demonstrates how drastically and quickly things can change. So we’re going to share this example as a reminder of the importance of regular SEO monitoring and adjustments.
How an SEO emergency can surprise you.
Our story begins with a well optimized and mobile-friendly website that was built in 2014. The website had grown in content through page and article updates over time and had accumulated around 175 ranked keywords along the way. Over 8 years traffic would spike and dip, but continue on an upward trend line consistently out-performing previous years.
Then it happened. As if in a blink, during monthly reporting, it was discovered that the site had lost nearly all of its accumulated rankings and traffic had bombed over just two weeks. It happens that quickly. At the beginning of the month we’re making updates and by the end of the month during reporting it surfaced.
Six weeks prior Google had released the Helpful Content Update (read more about Google’s Helpful Content Update here) and shortly after another algorithm package. One of these updates caused nearly the entire website to be de-indexed. We needed to find out why fast and fix it.
How to diagnose an SEO emergency.
So we immediately turned to Google Search Console to see what was happening. In the Mobile Usability area of Search Console we saw that the number of usable mobile pages had dropped drastically with 3 related warnings pointing out why.
These three usability warnings were related, primarily due to the viewport setting in one line of outdated (2014) META code in the header of every page of the site.
We were relieved actually, as this one line of code only took 5 minutes to update across the website.
How to fix an SEO emergency.
First, we updated the outdated line of code in the old website.
Then, we generated a fresh sitemap which allowed us to bulk submit all of the website’s pages for reindexing with the new code in the header.
We also manually submitted top-level pages for inspection and re-indexing to jump start the process.
And then we waited… weeks.
The result of an SEO fix.
As with most SEO related metrics, the performance bounce back took some time. In this case around 1.5-2 months.
Around 75% of pages have been reindexed, most of which are primary pages. Some secondary pages remain in the queue. This has resulted in nearly a full recovery of impressions.
The majority of previously held rankings have reclaimed their spots held prior to the error. Traffic has bounced back to about 75% of its expected YoY forecast.
What to watch for after your fix and beyond.
We’ll be looking to push the fix to reach 100% pre-penalty levels for rankings, traffic, and indexed pages. We already see the trend lines increasing for each indicating a full recovery.
This story is a reminder that initially optimizing a page may seem like a “set it and forget it” task, but there are a number of other factors that need to be continually monitored to ensure search visibility long-term.
You have to stay aware of your website’s rankings movement, page speed performance, site map accuracy, indexing status, and its code’s integrity.
If we weren’t actively watching over this website. It would’ve disappeared from search results with no one the wiser. Incredible to think about that possibility.
The ability to diagnose and fix issues like these is part of both the value and responsibility of a professional SEO team like ours. Yes, the rankings. Of course, the traffic. Absolutely, the user engagement. But let’s not forget about the stability and knowledge that these things are all in working order and improving.
SEO is as much insurance and awareness as it is visibility growth.