December and the run up to Christmas is normally an exciting, happy time – particularly if you have a young family. Counting down the days till the 25th, shopping for last minute gifts, wrapping presents and stealing kisses under the mistletoe. It’s also a great time to be an affiliate marketer as online stores have their festive spike and commissions skyrocket.
Well, December last year started out great for me. For one of my main niche affiliate sites traffic was at an all time high and conversions were excellent – particularly through the amazon associates program. And then, on December 10th, out of nowhere, disaster struck. Overnight my rankings dropped like a stone and I lost just under 75% of my search traffic – going from a peak of 485 referrals (on the 10th) to a low of just 124 referrals on the 20th December.
I obsess with metrics and, particularly at that time of year, am checking my google analytics much more than I should – probably once every couple of hours – so I noticed it quickly on the morning of December 11th. Normally by about 10am I would have had about 150 visitors to the site, but I had in fact had just 90 or so. Something seemed seriously up, but I decided not to panic, perhaps things would recover over the day.
They didn’t and, as the hourly screen shot below shows (comparing Dec 11th with Dec 10th), traffic had dropped by around 50%.
What did this mean for my commissions?
Well, here are my earnings for the 11th December, which reflects the sales for the 10th (you get the commission when amazon ships the next day).
So, my total commissions for Monday 10th December were £170.37. I was a happy man! And then the traffic dropped…
Things were ok for a couple of days as people had probably bookmarked my site for later etc, but commissions started to slide and by the Friday (14th December) I was down to £135.48
Needless to say, by this point I was working hard to get my traffic back and I knew exactly what had happened, but before I get on to that – let me show you just how bad things got.
As my traffic continued to dwindle and hit the low of 124 search engine referrals on the 20th December, naturally, so did my commissions.
The next screen is painful and still makes me shudder even now. Here are my amazon commissions for the 20th December (report date 21st December). Now bear in mind, this is peak selling time (this product sells right up to the last minute) and commissions should have been at an all time high…
Ouch! So, I had lost anywhere between £100 and £150 per day and was in a panic.
Well, like I said, I had identified the problem quickly and had been working hard to get my traffic back, so before I go into what was wrong and how I fixed it, here’s a quick screen shot from the 27th December (my traffic started to recover around the 22nd and by the 26th was back to normal) just to show you that things did get better! Although I had just lost the prime two week selling period in the run up to Christmas 🙁
So What Had Happened?
I knew that something had to be seriously wrong to see such a dramatic drop in traffic. If you have read any of my articles in the past you will know that I am a white hat SEO and I hadn’t been up to anything dodgy.
The affiliate site in question featured product review pages with price comparison and a blog with unique content and in depth tutorials (themed around the product). The product reviews were/are very in depth, informed and the best out there (if I do say so myself). I had not been aggressively building links and had concentrated on creating good content, promoting through social media and securing relevant guest posts.
I was racking my brains… and then I had a thought.
The product range I promote through this affiliate site is a very popular UK brand, which has long been a target for chinese fraudsters. They sell fake copies of the product and had littered the web with sites selling them, throwing millions of spam links at the sites and cluttering up the search results. They had copied some of my content in the past, so I wondered if this had happened again. I copied a paragraph of text from my website (from one of the key products) and put it into google, with quotes for an exact match. And then I almost had a heart attack. From memory there were about 40 results for the phrase, all from spam sites and my page was nowhere to be seen on the list.
I poured myself a stiff drink and picked a paragraph from another page. Same result, again my page was nowhere to be seen and there were 30 – 40 spam sites in the results who had copied my review verbatim. Panic was setting in as I checked more and more pages and found that they had all been copied and were outranking my site. In fact, they weren’t outranking me – they had blasted me out of the search results!
How Could This Happen?
Surely as the originator of the content I should be ranking at the top? Well, you would think so, but unfortunately not. Like I said above these spam sites had literally blasted millions of links at their sites and I believe they had probably timed it to hit the key selling period. I don’t doubt that within a couple of months google would have clicked on to what was happening and they would have been deindexed and things would have gone back to normal, but I couldn’t afford to wait that long. I was losing £100 a day – £3,000 a month!
So What Did I Do About It?
Well, firstly, on the Wednesday I began the painfully laborious process of manually filling in a DMCA copyright infringement notice for every single webpage that had copied my content.
If you have never filled in a DMCA takedown notice before, the process goes a bit like this –
1) You go to the google DMCA form here
2) You fill in the form, giving them details of the infringing site, a link to your original content and an explanation of why you believe this to be your copyright
3) You wait for google to act on the notice and remove the site from its index (around 2 weeks)
It only takes a couple of minutes, but if you can imagine doing this for 20-30 sites x 25 or so pages. I had to fill in about 500 of these damn forms over a couple of days. Time I should have been spending marketing!
Like I said above, it normally takes google a couple of weeks to act on the DMCA and as after a week when I hadn’t heard anything and commissions were becoming scarcer by the day I decided to take drastic action.
Rewriting My Key Content
I picked my key 5/6 pages and completely rewrote the content. For information, each of my reviews was around 1500 words long, were in depth and authoritative, so this wasn’t a 10 minute task. I decided to also make the reviews very personal with lots of first person ‘I think’ etc so it would look odd if copied for a chinese ecommerce site.
I added authorship for the reviews (the blog had this but not product pages) and as soon as I had written the new content for each product I submitted it to google’s index through webmaster tools, so it was immediately spidered.
To help get my rankings recover and to make sure the new pages were regularly spidered and the content clearly defined as mine I knew I would also need some fresh links to the product pages, so I did it the cleanest way I could – through some high quality guest posts. Using real relationships I had fostered, I secured around half a dozen guest posting slots, wrote some well researched, relevant articles and achieved a handful of fresh links to my site and key product pages.
Disabled Copy And Paste
I’m not normally a fan of this, but I figured I should do all I could to protect my site from future content theft, so I disabled copy and paste on the site. Basically I made it impossible to select anything within the div that contained the main content.
Blocked Chinese IP Addresses
This one was radical, but I didn’t want this happening again so I took the step of blocking access to the website from all chinese IP addresses. I did this through .htaccess with the following rule: –
deny from 220.127.116.11/14
My .htaccess file contains around 8,000 lines like this!
Well, after hitting the all time low of 124 search referrals on the 20th December, things started to go back up the way and by the 26th search referrals were back up to 414. The screen shot below shows the period.
Visitors stabilized and remained around about the 400 search referrals a day.
So, my efforts had succeeded and I had managed to recover from a 75% drop in traffic. I have no idea exactly how much money I lost over the period of the drop, but I would imagine it would have been between £2,000 and £3,000 – pretty sore to take. But hey, you live and learn!
Well, firstly, protect your content. Make sure you have google authorship set up for everything you write. You might also want to consider signing up for the premium version of copyscape, which will alert you if someone pinches your painstakingly crafted words.
Secondly, and importantly it taught me to never take anything for granted when it comes to affiliate marketing. Although I hadn’t done anything wrong here and was the innocent party, it nonetheless showed me that you can be riding high one minute and come crashing down the next. The phrase of not putting all your eggs in one basket is a salient one.
So, that’s how I lost 74.4% of my search engine traffic overnight and through a bit of blood, sweat and tears successfully got it back. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my experience and as always please feel free to leave a comment below, or connect with me on twitter.