Recovering 6 Figure Affiliate Sites Destroyed by Google Updates: Results From Our Hands On Testing & Recovering Sites

There I was, play wrestling with my pet Liger, while Cheeto Burrito (my kitten) cheered me on, and a heavenly breeze graced my perfectly bronzed skin. 

I couldn’t describe how purrrrrfect my day had been: some Post Malone, with a [healthy] dose of Klondike [mint chocolate chip] thrown in, and well... I just wasn’t ready to receive these distress calls from Marie.

Bam, without a warning, Marie, my right-hand Texan SEO lady, throws this extremely offensive image at me:

That’s an image of a keyword that went from #5 to dead ass out of the top 100. And dead...

Then I saw her message:

“This is one of the new sites we just onboarded, I haven’t made any changes, and all the pages have fallen from ranking in the top 3 to out of the top 100. Holy macaroons Lawdy, Moon, I need you back, NOW!”

But her urgency increased, as she kept slamming me with more hideous images:

Do you see what happened on 5/2/2021?

(Let it be noted, we had another client onboarded in April who got hit with the April Google update; a bunch of sites got hit around May 2nd) and then again in June!)

The sun stopped shining, along with the beat of my heart, as she kept hammering me with more images:

Wanna talk about trauma? Girl, I gotchoo:

Mind you, this site was touting hundreds of positions in the top 3, now pages tanking and dipping out of the top 100!!!

All joking aside, there were 10 other sites we had JUST on-boarded before the April/May/June updates, that all showed crazy drops.

Just to give you perspective, these sites were all making anywhere from $500/m to $12,000/m, on average:

Most sites had hundreds of pages that dipped anywhere from 80 points to out of the top 100.

Our work went from: “improve rankings” and “let’s push these rankings to #1 positions” to “holy crap! We have to save these sites!”

Mind you, we didn’t “have to”, but we wanted to KNOW what was causing chaos whereas a lot of these sites were super healthy and ranking well!

With a sinking heart, we notified all of our clients of the ongoing update and started observing patterns.

They cried, but we cried too. We had signed them up to boost their rankings, not recover tanking sites and rankings.

A sinking site plays with your mind.

Totally different type of work!

We knew this wasn’t a typical update.

No data was out.

And shockingly, there’s not much out now either, except in the last week after Marie and I decided to speak more about it, after months of hard work.

But, regarding the sites... what could we do?!

Were we up to the monumental challenge of saving these sites?

PS. If you haven't joined our Free FB group, please do so here: Rule Your Rankings FB Group.

What Exactly Was the Problem?

What was different with these sites compared to the ones that were flying high?

Because Marie and I run an SEO agency, Rule Your Rankings, we are lucky to spot patterns and discuss them with each other.

We actively work in it, not outsource our work.

Though we’ve never had a Google Update impact client sites quite like this...

We had ten sites that all got hit in the same pattern.  We will discuss the patterns deeper into the case study.

But testing each change we made... meant at least a 12-14 days wait. PER. CHANGE.

MADNESS!

We had a range of sites to test on, what more could we ask for?

But let’s return to spotting the issues:

  • Did the site get hit due to links?
  • Were they overoptimized in some way or in many ways?
  • Was it the internal linking?

We ARE the experts, so we put our thinking hats on.

In April, we made a post about the update and got quite a few responses:

From the responses, one thing was EXTREMELY clear:

Affiliate site owners were repeatedly showing Marie and I their ‘best’ keywords tanking. 

90% of the folks who reached out to us, started their convos by showing us images of their “best x” key phrases tanking.

And best and review key phrases were 90% of what was tanking on the 10 sites we had just onboarded.

Okay, cool, now that we know a lot of these sites got hit, let’s try to understand WHY they got hit.

When you see a site with tanking pages, you need to put aside all fear, and put on your genius hat.

Hello Einstein!

Where Does Einstein Start?

Cough, cough, let’s delve into it.

When you are in charge of peoples’ livelihoods and their dreams, you need to put away all your fears and think like a scientist!

But when we see such a crazy update, punishing particular sites, Marie and I decided to jump in deep and understand why these sites were so crazily affected.

One main thing to keep in mind: there are only two things that can cause a site to go down in rankings:  Off-page or on-page SEO.

The first thing we did, was to evaluate the backlinks.  Were there spammy links being created?

Were there major keywords being hammered by links?

We did this analysis of the backlink profiles of over 25 big and small sites (our sites + SEOs who reached out to us with their sites).

I can’t tell you how much our eyes hurt, but we saw nothing crazy unusual. No glaring patterns to pick up there.

All good though, Bubba.

We saw no reason why the Google Algo Update would trigger such a crazy response, not from backlinks, at least.

So what would cause hundreds of pages (over these 10 sites) to go from top positions (meaning positions 1-3) and alllllllll the way out of the top 100??!

Could it be...

Finally...

On-Page Elements?!

Time to go back to our roots!

Could It FINALLY Be an On-Site Update?!

Like, literally, there Is SO MUCH to on-site/page SEO factors, that it’s crazy. Turn on the fan and throw poo in the air.

It’s everywhere!

Not only are we an SEO agency, but we are also SEOs. 

When we see rankings dipping, we see it as our duty to see WHY this is happening and to be transparent with clients, no matter what.

Once we realized it wasn’t links, we moved on to other aspects of on-page SEO including:

  • Meta title
  • URL
  • Content as a whole
  • Heading tags
  • Alt tags
  • Internal Linking

… and the list goes on and on.

This doesn’t even include internal linking and anchor ratios!

Marie and I split up the sites and started taking extensive notes on what changes we were making.

We changed one item at a time, and then would wait a minimum of 10 days to see the results (excruciating!)

You name it, we did it:

We changed the meta titles, heading tags, revisited the top 3 competitors, and inspected every single aspect of their site.

Every.

Single.

Aspect.

The point was to boil it down to see HOW our clients’ sites were different than a site we just onboarded and hadn’t made any changes. 

We adjusted everything known to mankind for on-page SEO. 

Here’s where it became VERY interesting, and Marie found something amazing and crazy. After excruciatingly changing one header tag a time, and systematically removing the keywords from them... (one at a time, mind you):

“I discovered the new algo for optimization and realized the site had triggered an over-optimization algo.”

What exactly triggered this penalty?  Hold on to your hot potato for a minute more.

After very specific changes to certain pages, the Red Sea parted, and we finally saw some movement.

A bounce UP!

From nowhere to SOMEWHERE, we will take ANY progress from keywords that just tanked:

Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazzzzzzzzz Queen!

Okay, awesome progress, that we then tested on a dozen pages.

Results? 

On average, about 12 days is when we saw some sort of movement or fluctuation and settling of the new ranking.

It was a mixed bag of emotions for some keywords, but here’s the thing with recovering sites:

It takes a while for rankings to settle in.

There is Definitely a New Baseline for Overoptimization!

So... What is the New Baseline for Over-optimization?

First, there isn’t a cookie-cutter answer, but we did find a theme.

I will explain with an example, hold on to your knickers, Laddy:

Let's pretend you are trying to rank for the key phrase "best coconut oil" and "coconut oil".

Let's assume also that your URL looks like this:

https://www.yoursite.com/best-coconut-oil

Your H1 Looks like this:

Best Coconut Oil Brands For Your Health

And your meta title is:

Best Coconut Oil Reviews | YourSite.com

And you have these key phrases in your h2, repeated, and in your COnclusion, and probably in your h3 or h4 somewhere.

Let's also assume you've done some internal linking and built out a sweet link silo.

You've seen great results in the past! But your rankings dropped a crazy 50-100 points!

You've probably used the title of the post (Targets your keywords), exact match anchors, partial match anchors, maybe a few unoptimized anchors like 'read more', click here, yada yada...

But with this update, a lot of 'little things' became BIG!

Keep in mind, the combination of h1, meta title, and URL, COMBINED WITH INTERNAL linking is what is throwing these sites over the edge and it is as insane as it sounds!

If your site took a HIT with the latest update, and you optimized this way, your page(s)/post(s) NOW have hit overoptimization.

It’s a new baseline.

1. Any words that are in the h1 AND meta title AND slug/URL: make sure they are removed from any other headers.

2. Where you remove those keywords in other headers, replace them with synonyms IF POSSIBLE.

3. Clean up your interlinking so that keyword exact match is only once or some very low percentage number [when we say low, it has to be extremely low].

This took us a little while to discover, that the combo of h1/meta title/slug would present major issues if the keywords were being used in other headers + internal linking.

God, it took us a while!

The problem with deoptimizing a page is that we are SEOs.

It feels counterintuitive. After all, you've seen crazy good results by using the keywords in various h2/h3s/h4s and so on...

The old way would've been to use the best coconut oil a few more times in text plus other headers.

You would legit see rankings boost and it’s been this way for YEARS.

How do we know it's over-optimization?

The moment we stripped them out, the pages bounced BACK to the top; seeing is believing:

We've seen sites making $40-50k per MONTH range take a knee to the groin as well as much smaller ones.

It's painful. It usually happens to dozens or hundreds of pages at a time because affiliate site owners build out their money pages the same way.

However, a lot of rankings were still not back in the top 3:

And that’s a problem that needs to be understood (why it’s happening) and resolved (happy clients).

Between Marie and I working on so many pages and comparing notes, we hit levels of exhaustion that only Einstein must’ve known.

And his kitten, obvi.

What’s Left?

After figuring out HOW we were over-optimizing and seeing very positive results (a few pages that only had this issue, settled into the top 3 positions), but quite a few remained on the bottom of pages 1-3 and some, still tanked.

So, regarding positions 10-30:

Okay, so what was considered optimization before is now considered over-optimization so we can’t optimize for that keyphrase the same way.

What were we missing?!

Here’s what we did.

We manually started searching and studying competitors.

And when I say mind blown.

I mean, mind fudging blown.

What did we notice?

In the past, I have rolled my eyes at entities.

But what I am about to share with you, will blow your mind.

PS. If you are loving this information, check out our course, RYR: Level UP!, a community of elite SEOs making a living loving what they do! Also, our Bonus Video goes live this week, covering all this information with questions from our community members.

Entities Matter That Much?

Marie started sifting through the top 10 competitors and using Text Razor, started sifting through “entities”. This process was extremely manual because it requires a fine eye for spotting the entity gap; the tools we got our hands on were simply not cutting it.

What are entities?

An entity is a thing or a concept that is singular, that is unique, that is well-defined and that is distinguishable. Here is a post explaining details:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/RuleYourRankings/posts/3958715314255976/ <- Join the discussion here!

The thing about entities...... we have never seen such an effect on search rankings as we have up until now.

Out of Marie’s mouth to your ears:

I sifted all of the entities out on the competing pages for all of the top 10 competitors and I would then cross-reference my client with theirs.

 I discovered my client had entity gaps! I began to fill in the entity gaps and by doing so made the article or page more well-rounded for the topic.

 I then researched the main entity in Wikipedia and sifted out all of the first degree entities and I added as many of those as I could to my client's site.

 I was making sure my client site had MORE entities than the competitors but they were also first-degree entities that filled the gap!  In other words, you are using entities to create topical relevancy.

We first implemented this on three pages.

After realizing we still had to wait two weeks to see any movements (if there were to be any), we went ahead and researched first-degree entities for another 25 pages and made changes.

When you’ve got hundreds of pages to recover and Google taking its sweet time to show any movements (positive or negative), you don't have time to waste!

Also, if these pages somehow did worse after entering entities...

… I’d go apply to work at Taco Bell.

The first set of results came a solid two weeks after applying our entities:

But, keep in mind, we are only tracking certain keywords, not all, so here is a screenshot from Ahrefs:

And dozens of pages that are coming up, that will be included in updates to this case study:

For our discussion on Entity tools, click here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/RuleYourRankings/posts/3964692530324921/

About that Over-optimization Though:

The pages that didn’t respond well to overoptimization, we took our next step:

Internal Linking Audit

We found other than the client or their previous SEO agency’s internal linking, the theme/site had its own additional links going to it.

Using the example above:

In a lot of cases, we found pages like the homepage, review page linking to articles with exact match anchors: “Best Coconut Oil”...

Along with (sometimes), Related posts plugin, or ‘Next/Previous’ type of plugins linking to the money article with exact match titles or the whole title (which is highly optimized).

In some cases, deoptimizing anchors worked but took weeks to stabilize rankings.

Today, how does the site look? Bigger keyphrases looking really good:

And more:

So, in some cases (pages/posts), deoptimization will work (Stripping headers); in others, that is not enough.

There really is no way to know other than waiting a solid 14 days, unless you see super aggressive anchor texts.

We had to take several other steps to deoptimize, which we are choosing to not share, as it is our process we have tested and developed in the last two months and is exclusive to our agency. But internal linking and link silo structures have a LOT to do with it.

More Affiliate Sites...

Let's take a look at a couple more affiliate sites we had to clean up:

Here's another affiliate site showing a decline in traffic due to these Google Updates.

Already having some test results in, we hit the ground running to clean up some of the pages/posts and begin our work in three main phases.

Results:

In other cases, pages/posts fall from rankings due to the missing First Level Entity Gaps. To cover the First Level Entity Gaps, we use our own manual methods + a tool.  The combo has been unreal!

Another affiliate site got hit:

A few weeks later after applying our changes:

A Note on Local Sites...

See the image above?

We saw drops in local sites too.

Some were smaller like here, some were way bigger, just like affiliate sites.

It is CLEAR that Google is changing the SERPs up in quite an impactful way.

Now, take a look at what happened once changes were implemented:

Because we had been testing on affiliate sites in April and May, we decided to test out our recovery theories on this local site as well.

Let it be noted that before the G Updates, it had been in the map pack as well as top organic spots.

The first green arrows show when we deoptimized the site according to the new baseline.

The second green arrow shows when we implemented the First Entity Gap.

Look where it stabilizes: In the top 3!

Side note: There are other nuisances for local sites, which we will detail in its own case study.

PS. If you are loving this information, check out our course, RYR: Level UP!, a community of elite SEOs making a living loving what they do! Also, our Bonus Video goes live this week, covering all this information with questions from our community members.

The Biggest Challenge

After hours and weeks of testing and truly understanding what was causing issues in these sites, I can see why SEO agency owners and affiliate site owners are in distress. It took us two months of pure testing to find concrete results.

But also, if you don't have a proper team behind you, this is extremely hard to execute if you have dozens or hundreds of pages to clean up.

There are steps to deoptimizing and adding First Level entities and, as much time as we spent organizing and cleaning up all these sites at once, we have nailed it to a tee.

We are confident that most other SEO agencies don't know what's going in (and fairly so, as they are busy with clients), let alone testing and thoroughly understanding what is causing chaos on these sites.

Over the last 4 months, we have completely refined our onboarding procedure as well as how to optimize on-page SEO factors and what to look for with internal linking/link silo structures.

In the coming months, we will be sharing all the changes in our FB group, especially to our own affiliate sites, as well as more client cases.

Join our FB group here: Rule Your Rankings SEO Group.

In Conclusion...

All in all, the sheer amount of testing and hours we have put into testing and recovering websites from April to July?

A gazillion!

All joking aside, our work became 3x the amount it was.

If you have questions about this case study or have a site that took a hit due to April->July updates, contact us to see if you’d be a good fit for site recovery!

I can once again return to wrestling with Ligers in the Jungle!

Our Thoughts on these Google Updates

So, what are our thoughts on these updates?  Since April, there have been updates EVERY month.

Google Updates are absolutely necessary, as they are keeping users in mind and the quality of searches being returned.

SEOs have learned to game the system over the years and there were things like keyword stuffing that worked-oh-so-well.

But two things are clearer than ever:

  • Entity gaps and topical relevancy matter now, more than ever
  • Be careful with how you optimize your pages the bar has been moved

Maybe Google will decide to become less touchy, but is it fair to burn sites if a page about cat litter repeats the word cat litter throughout the article?

Is it fair that in years previous, using the term Cat Litter in headers would boost your rankings, and now your site is being punished for it?

Let’s discuss in our FB group, where you can find out our opinion here:

PS. Contact us if you noticed a dip in rankings after April -? July updates; we love recovering sites and would love to see if we can help YOURS.