4 min read

Case Study: How I Recovered a Blog by Changing Its Categories

Last year in October, a site I was actively growing got hit by a Google update.

Organic traffic fell by 50%, from 1,000 daily and 30,000 monthly to 500 daily and 15,000 monthly visitors.

Ouch.

The update?

It was the October 2022 spam update.

When Google rolls out a spam update—not to be confused with a link spam update—it penalizes spammy sites using its SpamBrain AI-based detection system.

You wouldn’t think that a two-year-old tech tutorials site built on a fresh domain with 100% unique, human-written, and screenshots-rich content would get hit by a spam update… but it did.

When a site gets hit, conventional SEO wisdom tells us to look at technical SEO, content quality, and backlinks.

Technical SEO seemed okay.

The site had a high PageSpeed Insights score on desktops and phones, schemas were handled correctly by the Yoast SEO plugin, only a handful of posts and pages were more than three clicks' distance from the home page, and internal linking was in place, with contextual links inside posts and descriptive anchor texts.

The content was good—and I mean really good.

It was written by me and my most experienced writers, in first-person narrative and with plenty of screenshots and videos, covering topics that required subject expertise, which we not only had but had also emphasized in our author bios.

The backlinks were strong and relevant.

In April that year, I had acquired the aged domain of an old web-based tool that had fallen into dismaintenance for $1,960 from Odys.

The tool had a blog with tutorials, which I recreated from scratch and redirected accordingly. I didn’t recreate the tool itself; instead, I redirected the home page to an acquisition page on my site.

My aged domain redirection tactic for this site

Was there a chance, even slight, that the aged domain was the culprit?

Absolutely, yes.

Was I convinced it was the culprit?

No.

I had a hunch that the problem lay somewhere else: categorization and coherence.

The site seemed to stretch out too thin, across too many tech-related topics that didn't necessarily fit together. At least not in the way the content was organized and presented at the time.

The categorization didn’t make sense to a human—let alone a bot.

The categories were all over the place, and, even though this was clearly a tech site, there were no overarching themes to bind them all together.

The site’s description on the "About" page didn’t help, either. It just stated, "We have tutorials about this and that in tech, blah, blah, blah," and didn’t even try to make it all fit together.

Rather than deleting existing posts or adding to silos, I made a bet:

Changing the categorization and overall presentation of the site would lead to its recovery.

So here's the recovery play I came up with:

  1. I’d restructure the site’s categories so they made more sense, in a way that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I decided to not 301-redirect the old category archives to the new ones, and so I let them 404 instead.
  2. I’d improve the site’s "About" page, and the short description in the "About Us" widget in the footer that leads to it, so that it made it clearer which audience this site was for.

In addition to that, to nudge Google to "reset" its perception of the site and its pages, I would:

  1. Change the WordPress theme to introduce a new and different HTML markup on all pages.
  2. Change the permalink pattern from "/blog/%postname%/" to /%postname%/ and 301-redirect. (Originally, I had envisaged to have a /blog/ and a /course/ subdirectory. That obviously had to change as part of my recovery play.)

Search engines are machines that use algorithms to classify and rank websites. When a site is penalized by an algorithm, I want to do all I can to signal to that machine that a lot of things about the site have changed.

To convince the search engine that, this time, it's different.

via GIPHY

Controversial, I know. But it seems to have worked.

I made the changes in November, then waited for the next Google update.

Sure enough, when Google rolled out the December 2022 Helpful Content and December 2022 Link Spam updates, the site sprang back up again.

I published a few posts in Q4 2022, but made no changes to any of the posts that had already been published.

Which means that either I recovered the site "just" by changing the categories, "About" page, theme, and permalink pattern… or I got lucky, and the site got on the good side of Google in spite of my recovery play.

What I can say for sure is that, today, the site gets 2,500 daily and 50,000 monthly visitors.

This goes to show that, (A), you never really know with algorithm updates, and, (B), it's worth trying every plausible tactic that could work.

If your site gets hit and, after conducting a thorough analysis, you find it's stretched out a little too thin to have focus and topical relevancy, think about reworking the categories and description.

With too many people creating too many sites with AI content and a spray and pray approach, you need to make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts for every website in your portfolio.

I won't know for certain if implementing categories that made sense and a description that finally nailed the audience down to something that gets people to say, "Aha, I get it! This site's for me!" helped.

It certainly didn’t hurt.

Besides, it beats going back and trying to update four hundred posts.

P.S. That tool that once existed on the aged domain's home page?

To make the aged domain acquisition bulletproof, I used ChatGPT to build a new, more modern version of the tool on a "/tools/tool-name/" page, and redirected the aged domain's home page to it instead of the acquisition page.

I don't count that as part of the recovery play; it happened long after the site bounced back up. But I do count it as part of my "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" play for this website.