Getting through the Google “winter”

Posted by AB
Oct 31 2008

Winter came early to the usually sunny and warm South-West Utah this year. First, early frost came in the beginning of October, killing tomatoes my wife was so fond of, as well as quite a few other outside plants of hers. Then, at about the same time I’ve got an email from Google stating “Removal from Google’s Index … In order to preserve the quality of our search engine, pages from winability.com are scheduled to be removed temporarily from our search results for at least 30 days.” WHAT??? It took me a few seconds to understand what it was about: Goggle decided to penalize my main business web site for something that violated its terms of service. Considering that Google was a significant source of visitors to the web site, my heart skipped a few beats.  It looked like we were up for a long, cold winter this year.

I went to review the source pages of the web site right away, to see what exactly triggered the Google penalty. It turned out, I had a paragraph of text on the page enclosed with the tags <div class=”description”>…</div>. Nothing bad by itself, until you pull the style.css file and see that the definition for class “description” was: .description { display: none; } In other words, the text that was between the tags was not displayed on the page. Yet it was visible to the googlebot. A clear violation of the Google’s terms, indeed!

How come I had that piece of hidden text on the web page? It happened a few years ago, when I was doing the last redesign of the web site. I was playing with different style sheets, one designed to display the web page on the screen, and another one to be used when the page was sent to the printer.  I was using the display: none; attributes in the printing style sheet to suppress the printing of the non-essential elements (like menus, which have no use when printed on paper). While playing with the different layouts, I forgot about one invisible piece of text I left there. And now, several years later, Goggle finally figured out that the text was hidden and decided to penalize me.

Once I realized what the problem was about, I removed the hidden text from all pages, and submitted a reconsideration request to Google. They replied: “Please allow several weeks for the reconsideration request.” Several weeks! As if the stock market crisis was not enough of bad news at that time.

Then, after a few days passed, the frost was gone, and the usual warm fall returned to Utah. One morning, while checking the Google search results the N-th time, I saw my web site back in the results. Hurray, Google has lifted its punishment, and allowed my web site back into its index! It turned out that instead of “at least 30 days” or “several weeks” the penalty lasted only about 6 days. (Of course, I’m not complaining!).

Looking at the web site statistics, here is how the Google penalty affected the traffic:

Google "winter"

The decrease in the traffic was noticeable, but not devastating. Why? Because the “organic” Google traffic, although significant, was not the primary source of the visitors to my web site. What was the primary source then, you might ask? Sorry, I’m not telling (I have a lot of competition!) Let me just mention that the “word of mouth” kind of traffic, that is people telling their friends and colleagues about my products, the web sites recommending my products to their users, and other similar sources, play a very prominent role in keeping my business alive.

Even though the Google punishment was light, I promised to myself that I will pay better attention to the web pages in the future and make sure I don’t do something stupid again that would trigger the Google “winter” again. It may not be so short next time.

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