How I Lost 74.4% Of My Search Traffic Overnight (And How I Got It Back)

stats4December 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.

stats3

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%.

stats1

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).

amazon1

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

amazon2

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…

amazon3

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 🙁

amazon4

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.

Fresh Links

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 1.12.0.0/14

My .htaccess file contains around 8,000 lines like this!

What Happened?

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.

stats2

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!

Lessons Learned

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.

stats4

About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

Leave a Reply 13 comments

Himanshu - July 8, 2013 Reply

Hello David,

This article is good for me. I am also an wordpress themes and plugins affiliate marketer.Some sites usually copy my blog images and links and put them in their blog.I personally crop & upload lots of images to my blog which is not easily available.So i decided to put watermark on my images.

Second thing,I started using ninja affiliate plugin which helps me to protect my affiliates link from being copied.

Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    David McSweeney - July 8, 2013 Reply

    Thanks Himanshu. Protecting your content is so important, so watermarking your images is certainly a good step. If the images are good you could maybe invite people to contact you if they would like to use a version without watermark – with a proper attribution link back to your blog.

Nathan - July 9, 2013 Reply

David,

Sorry to hear about the issue causing you grief and loss of income. I do appreciate that you produced such a thorough write-up so that others can learn from what happened to you.

I think you’re lucky that you had dealt with the Spam sites before and that saved you many hours in identifying the issue. One can see the cause (or outcome) of the problem but finding the root cause can be much more difficult. Cheers to future success!

David McSweeney - July 9, 2013 Reply

Thanks Nathan. Yeah, while it was a nightmare at the time, it’s all experience and you’re right, it was lucky that I knew where to look. Glad you enjoyed the article.

Geri Richmond - July 10, 2013 Reply

Hi David,

WOW!!! That is all I have to say. What a great story, not for you, of course. I feel really bad that you got ripped off like that.

Guess you can’t be too careful. I just did a google authorship on my site. It was really smart of you to disable the copy and paste option on your site.

I have been ripped off too. Asians were responsible, which is very sad. There are always the “bad guys” that the rest of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

Really sorry for your losses and all the time you spent putting everything back together. I learned a good lesson.

Thanks so much for an excellent post.

Geri Richmond

    David McSweeney - July 10, 2013 Reply

    Thanks a lot Geri, glad you enjoyed the post

Bernard Z. - July 13, 2013 Reply

Wow that really sucks, It didn’t even happen to me and it upsets me so I can imagine your frustration. I expect that some people want the easy traffic and money so I kind of expect some people to do something like that. What really upsets me is Google for not noticing. You would think that cause you posted your content first that they will be aware of this as “your” content and not allow you to be out ranked by full copies, not even spun.

I work on an eCommerce site for a company where the boss always asks me to simply take an image from Google Images and use those instead of creating my own(if so I go for the creative commons). Don’t get me wrong, hes a good guy. But he doesn’t understand the victims perspective. Perhaps I will let him take a look at this.

Just out of curiosity, I noticed that you make a substantial amount of money and you also made it sound like you did all the work. Is this true or you hire people at all? The reason I ask is cause I’m not on that level and I’m not sure if its needed to start making those figures. I’m a one man army at the moment. I understand if you don’t want to answer. 🙂

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

David McSweeney - July 13, 2013 Reply

Hi Bernard, I guess to be fair to google that’s where they are trying to go with the authorship, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be quite there yet. As I said in the article, I suspect it would have righted itself within a couple of months without me doing anything directly, but obviously there was no way I could wait that long.

With regards to images, if the site has a blog then zemanta is a useful tool for getting images to use with proper attribution.

Yes, I am a one man band! I am fortunate in that this particular product I know very well as I used to be a merchant myself, selling it through my own ecommerce business. The margins were getting squeezed and squeezed though, so I decided it would be more lucrative to be ‘the middle man’.

Writing is also a passion of mine, so creating content is never a chore.

For information the site had been live for around 3 years, however, I hadn’t done anything with it (was getting about 10 visitors a day or something) and when I started working on it after leaving my other business, it took about 4/5 months to get it to that level. Takes a lot of hard work, but if you pick the right product/products to promote it can be done. Best of luck with your sites and I’ll check out your blog!

Bernard Z. - July 13, 2013 Reply

Hi Dave, can I call you Dave?

Maybe I am being a little harsh on Google, but its just that they are so quick to flag someone. Not to mention I know how hard I work and the time I put into my blogs and with the little mula I make. So its kind of tough for me to not be a little upset about this situation.

On a positive note I am glad to see you got your traffic back and it looks like it was a learning experience which is good.

The eCommerce site is a Magento(former Joomla) and I meant he wants me to take ads, and product pictures from other sites. I know its a matter of being time efficient but he doesn’t know what I know SEO wise. Its not to bad though, I go in Photoshop and edit them so I make them somewhat original, try to at least.

Perhaps I should make my own eCommerce, I mean I have the experience, just no products which is my biggest issue. My R2R blog that you visited(thank you by the way) is not only for obvious blogging reasons, but also to act as my resume so I guess I’m my own product. The blogs been around since November of last year so I’m not even sure if its at a good stage for the amount of time given. I have this habit of comparing my blog to others so when you say 4/5 months it makes me feel like I’ve been slacking! Not complaining, it actually motivates me.

Thank you for checking out mines and your kind words, and advice.

Stay Awesome!

Anywho,

    David McSweeney - July 14, 2013 Reply

    Dave is good for me 🙂

    Your blog looks great to me and it does take time to build things up, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

    The model for the site I was writing about above is slightly different – it has a blog, but the ‘money’ pages are price comparison for the product (there are about 10 in the range) with highly detailed reviews. It’s a very high demand item here in the UK and I get about £6/£7 commission per sale, so it quickly tots up – particularly at peak buying times (Christmas etc).

    As I said, I knew the product and target market intimately, so it was slightly easier for me to become an affiliate and to attract traffic/sales.

    I came out of ecommerce last year as the margins were getting squeezed and squeezed until it just wasn’t worthwhile anymore. If you can find the right product then selling yourself is the way to go, but it is very hard with the economy the way it is right now. Like I said, for now I’m happy to sit in the middle.

    Will take a look at your site in more detail over the weekend and post some comments. Read a few articles earlier and liked what I saw 🙂

Bernard Z. - July 14, 2013 Reply

I see… As for me I just added Google AdSense to my blog since I’m starting to see the traffic increase but all my readers know what ads look like so I don’t think its a good fit for my blog. Maybe I should look for a product or an affiliate instead. Either way you are right, it does take a good bit of work to get to that point. I also wrote a business plan for myself so after I do this short term plan I should see my traffic double and hopefully my income will as well.

But I guess I should do what you did and find something that’s in high demand with low competition if I where to take the affiliate route. Something related to my blog and I feel comfortable selling/promoting.

Thank you for stopping by my blog. I’m looking forward to your comments. I will take a look around here some more as well.

Denis D. - September 30, 2013 Reply

That’s a pretty crazy story. I knew that plagiarism was a problem especially on the net, but not to this extent. Like you mentioned it’s a good idea to write reviews with I in it to make it odd for others to copy your posts. Also when writing blog posts you can include examples from your life experiences and if anyone copies that it would just seem strange because it will probably will not fit with their bio. Anyway this is a huge problem and I think Google should be addressing it more. I know my mom writes a blog about art and music and she constantly has people stealing her stuff.

    David McSweeney - September 30, 2013 Reply

    unfortunately it’s not going to be a problem that goes away any time soon, but as google authorship grows and improves it should help.

Leave a Reply: