Google Makes Penalty Mistakes: The Buffer Story

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Buffer’s Courtney Seiter posted on the Buffer blog that they had an unusual Google Penalty that resulted in a 90% drop in organic Google traffic to the site. The issue had nothing to do with the Buffer web site, but rather a bug with Google, according to Courtney.

Courtney said they noticed after the traffic drop that there was a manual action penalty listed in Google Webmaster Tools. But the manual action didn’t seem right, so Buffer and Joe Hall, the SEO they hired, reached out to Google’s John Mueller who reportedly told them it was an issue with Google and they fixed the issue after it was reported to them. So Buffer didn’t have to make any changes or fix any SEO related penalties, despite the manual action.

Courtney wrote:

Thankfully, our mystery has a happy—though slightly inconclusive—ending. Mueller’s team at Google found an issue and let us know they had fixed it. The manual action penalty was removed Aug. 28 and we began to see signs of recovery immediately after.

Here are graphs showing the huge drop in traffic; the first a comparison and the second, showing the drop and recovery over time:

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This would not be the first time Google a Google mistake either via their algorithms or manual actions have led to huge traffic drops for publishers. Back in 2012, Google has a bug with their parked domains classifier that resulted in sites dropping out of the index. More recently, Google confirmed MetaFilter was hit by an undisclosed algorithm that impacted the site’s rankings for years. Google made some adjustments over the past few months and their rankings have appeared to return.

The interesting part is that the Buffer case had two points:

(1) The traffic drop was around the same time as the HTTPS migration they went through. Although, Buffer believes the traffic drop had nothing to do with the HTTPS migration.

(2) This was a manual action that required a team of Googlers to fix, to bring Buffer back in their good graces. Aren’t manual actions manual, and not algorithmic or automated?

Courtney told me that the manual action was not dated, so it is hard for her to know if the manual action was related to the traffic drop or not.

Now, it is 100% possible that the traffic drop had nothing to do with HTTPS or the manual action. We have reached out to Google for a comment to clarify the issue here.

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