A strange case of ranking loss (& an important lesson learnt)
Updated: Nov 20, 2022
I don't remember exactly when it started exactly but it must have been in early 2018.
My wife runs a website about Barcelona's museums and had built some pretty decent traffic to her site over the years. But for the past year her Google rankings kept getting weaker and weaker.
Looking at this graph from Ahrefs you'll see how drastically the number of organic keywords dwindled.
This was very strange, especially because she was even able to get mentioned on a few other travel blogs in spring 2018. But it all didn't help.
We kept on trying to get the site back by improving the content and looking into its backlink profile. It didn't help either, the rankings kept getting worse.
Strangely, her other, similar websites in German, which are running on the same Weebly website builder weren't affected at all.
What else could it be?
We further analysed the situation. One of our team members, Josep, came up with a few theories:
Slow page speed
The strange coincidence that the rankings started falling after she had launched the French version of the site
Since a lot of the pages talk about tickets, could it be that Google now wants the visitor to be able to purchase it there directly (as in a transactional query)?
The Maccabees update, which apparently took place in December 2017. Nobody really knows what it did exactly but apparently it was UX-related.
The switch to the mobile-first index.
But nothing here really provided a compelling case for such a huge drop that seriously looked like a Google penalty.
And then it happened. Céline was testing a new ticket widget on her site to enable the visitor to start the ticket purchasing process directly without having to leave the page. Just in case Google really switched its preference from an informational to a transactional query.
She sent it to me for testing.
I tested on Desktop - ✅
I tested on Mobile - ❌
Something was off on the mobile website. I couldn't interact with this widget at all. Whenever I taped a button, some random internal page would open. It was completely weird. At first I thought it was an issue with this particular widget until I realized that almost the entire website was impossible to navigate.
Pretty quickly I noticed that it must be mobile menu. It was always active even when wasn't visible.
So indeed, something was very wrong with this website. The mobile version was completely unusable for most visitors.
And unsurprisingly Google felt that it was severe enough to treat it like a (slow and painful) penalty. Unfortunately, she never received any warning from Google Search Console about it.
We made the same mistake as many do: we are sitting in a comfortable chair in front of our laptop, just testing the desktop site. The mobile version, if at all, is usually not more than an afterthought.
But since they launched the mobile-first index, the reality is that Google cares much more about the mobile website in most cases.
10 days after our initial discovery (and, most importantly, fixing the issue), the rankings started to slowly recover. Let's take a look at the full version of the above graph that goes until 3 April.
Right after discovering this issue, the website has started to rank again for more and more keywords. Céline also showed me her analytics, where traffic is way up as well. Let's see how this continues, but so far it looks very promising.