SEO Case Study: Google December 17th Update

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    Google Update off the Port Bow!

    image of pirate flag for seo articleAhoy, SEO mateys, but today we have a twisted pirate’s tale to tell; thar be a story of a ship that went off the edge of the world and came back to tell ye about it.  Arghhh.  (Why the pirate accent?  I don’t know…too much espresso I suppose.)

    And Now, In the King’s English

    If you are a regular reader of Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz, you might remember this post that he put up about 2 months ago discussing another phantom Google algorithm change that Google was sorta-kinda denying.  (Well, they didn’t really denying it, in my opinion.  Make up your own minds.  Barry’s post is here.) The main reason I took such note of the post is that 2 of my client’s sites were absolutely hammered on exactly that date.  What do I mean by “hammered.”  Allow me to illustrate.  The most noticeable drop was recorded for a client who operates a successful moving company in a major metro area.  This client has scored quite strongly in rankings and has been gaining strength over the last year.

    The Edge of the World, aka the Cliff

    Out of 303 keyword terms that we track, our client scored on page one for 90 going into December.  On December 17th they almost disappeared and their number of page one rankings dropped to 11.  Here’s what it looks like on a chart as of December 20th:

    graph showing impact of december 17th google update on rankings


    In this case it was the client who alerted me to the change in rankings.  They did it in a highly technical way: “What the frick?!?!  We’ve disappeared!!”

    I confirmed that we had indeed gone off a cliff, and no major changes had been made to the site.  I immediately went to Moz’s invaluable chronicle of Google updates, and this is what I saw (to confirm this, you can visit


    screen capture showing Moz's listing of Google algorithm updates as of 1/1/14


    What Now Captain?

    I was bewildered.  If the mighty Moz doesn’t pick up on an update, who am I to think there was one?  There was however a ray of insight from Barry Schwartz’s post, yet another Moz tool, namely Mozcast (side note: I don’t spend much time staring at these tools on most days, as on principle I’m opposed to obsessing about minor rankings changes).  When I took a look at Mozcast, which shows a higher “temperature” on days of greater rankings fluctuations, I saw this contrary picture:


    screen shot of mozcast for december 17 2013


    At this point I realized that there was enough evidence to take a closer look at my client’s site.  In this case I suspected something to do with Panda and the site’s content.  It used to be that Panda updates were easy to peg as the smoking gun, since Panda was a filter applied separately, and updated separately, from Google’s core algorithm.  But now Panda is baked into the core algorithm and Google will neither confirm nor deny updates to Panda-style actions.  In fact, I think soon we’ll stop using the word “Panda” entirely and simply call it what it is, a Google update that affected content-related issues.  Of course, now that I key that in I see that using “Panda” is about 500 characters shorter and everyone in Search Engine Optimization knows what I’m talking about.

    Dupe Content Subtleties

    Although my client’s site had passed Copyscape dupe content checks on numerous occasions, I still suspected something to do with content.  What really called my attention to it is a piece of content the client very badly wanted on their homepage, namely their latest 2-3 Facebook reviews.  The client updates this manually whenever a new review appears on Facebook.  Although this was less than 20% of the textual content on the home page, I also did some Google searching and found that that local yellow pages sites were carrying bits and pieces of other content that was appearing on the home page.  This may have been caused by the client’s own local citation submissions, but more likely it was part of their own scraping processes.

    So I convinced the client to remove the duplicate reviews from their home page.  I then personally re-wrote and expanded the rest of the content on the home page.  Additionally, one of our staff went through and checked other pages on the site for similar issues and found a number of pages that appeared suspicious.

    The Site Returns from the (almost) Dead

    Now often in SEO you make changes and wait, and you think you see a result, and you make some more and think you don’t and so on.  Over time you see gradual improvement (usually).  But in this case the result was dramatic.  Within a week my client’s rankings came back stronger than ever.  In fact, if I expand the ranking chart I used above and push it out to our check on 2/1/2104, here’s the graphical result (I waited on this blog post for 6 weeks to make sure that the rebound was persistent).


    screen capture of updated rankings


    So, what are the takeaways from this adventure.  Here’s what I learned:

    • Duplicate content issues are not always diagnosed by Copyscape
    • Duplicate content issues are becoming more subtle
    • Don’t be afraid to re-write content to deal with dramatic changes like this
    • Don’t rely simply on Moz’s listing of algorithm changes if you’re assigning dramatic changes in your rankings and traffic to changes in Google’s evaluation of your site.

    Oh, by the way, if you go to now, here is what you’ll see:


    screen capture of more recent view of Moz algorithm change page


    They updated their record of changes, now including an “unnamed” update for December 17th.  Moz made this change on January 10th, 23 days after the December 17th cliff that my client went off.

    Arrghhh.  Me thinks they were a bit late to the party.


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      About Ross Barefoot

      Ross Barefoot has been involved in website development and search engine marketing since Google was merely a gleam in Sergey and Larry's eye. He has recently joined the Search Engine Academy team as a Master Level Instructor and operates the Rocky Mountain Search Engine Academy, offering training in Colorado and Utah.


      1. @SEOchirp says:

        Excellent work Ross! Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m saving me schillings in the hopes of making it out to one of your workshops someday.

      2. Great article, Ross! It’s so important to keep the client’s total package in mind when dealing with updates of any sort. As I learned in the seo training I just completed, seo is more art than science!

      3. Excellent coverage Ross.

        Since they are manually entering the reviews, what about storing reviews in a database or file and then loading them client side with a little AJAX after the page finishes loading? Would like to have your thoughts on an AJAX approach for duplicate review style content.

      4. Adam Smith says:

        Hey can you please help me with my site what has caused its traffic to lower down in 17th dec 2013 update ?

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