How To Survive When You Get Hit By A Google Update or Penalty (And Lose 99% Of Your Traffic)

My name is Graham. I am a lover of internet marketing, mopeding, and dogs. Doug graciously asked me to contribute to Niche Site Project, and as both a friend of Doug’s and student of Five Figure Niche Site, I jumped at the chance.

I am going to share with you the story of my first site – the meteoric rise, rapid fall, and what I learned from all of it.

  • My Affiliate Story, And How I Was Making $1,500 Per Month
  • Getting Blindsided By An Algorithm Update
  • Trying To Rebuild My Empire
  • Key Things I’ve Learned, And What You Should Know As Well
  • Surprise Jump Back Up In Traffic

My Affiliate Story

I started getting interested in affiliate marketing way back in April 2017. The idea of making money on the internet sounded like a dream come true. By May, I had a website set up in the health niche and was reading every piece of information I could about affiliate marketing.

I was hooked.

For the first few months, nothing really happened until I stumbled across some guy named Doug Cunnington on YouTube. I thought to myself, here’s someone who is actually telling the truth

If you’re a new affiliate marketer, you should keep this in mind – there are a lot of people out there promising you untold riches for just pressing a couple of buttons.

This, of course, is not true. For most people, it takes many months, or even years of hard work to make a sustainable income in affiliate marketing. So I was impressed by his honesty, and how he stressed that yes, affiliate marketing is work.

I enrolled in the July 2017 Five Figure Niche Site course and started putting Doug’s ideas into practice, notably the Keyword Golden Ratio, which blew my mind.

I started pumping out content, and I was ecstatic to see the traffic start to increase.

I was floored. My articles slowly started to rank for long tail keywords, and as those compounded, my traffic started to spike, and with that, came sales! My first sale came in September, just a couple months after starting FFNS.

I kept pushing, working hard, and traffic kept growing and growing, along with my income.

Things really took off, and by January 2018 I was essentially doubling my traffic and income every two months.

By following Doug’s guidelines, I was actually making good money on the internet, and life was good. I was passionate about the work, enjoyed building a fantastic asset, and I was optimistic about the future. I had smashed $1,000 in revenue in May 2018, and I was hoping to do $2,000 by September.

Then I got hit by an algorithm update, and everything fell apart.

Getting Blindsided By The Algorithm Update

Before this, I had never really paid attention to Google Algorithm updates. I had simply put out solid content following the KGR principals, and Google had rewarded me handsomely with solid rankings and traffic.

I figured Google clearly liked my site, since at this point they were sending me 50,000 people a month, and I was one of the top three websites in the niche.

But then bam, August 1st happened.

Around the end of July, I started noticing my traffic was acting wonky – I was down to about 1,400 people a day from my high of 2,200. After that, it all truly fell off a cliff.

Nearly all of my top rankings disappeared overnight, and traffic slowly declined from 300 people a day, to 200 people a day, to 100, all the way down to 30 a day over the course of a few months.

Ouch.

It wasn’t just me, either. All of my competitors were destroyed as well.

Oof. That is one steep drop-off.

Everything I had been working on for over a year had been crushed, and it was heartbreaking, in what has since become known as the Medic Update – sites throughout the internet that were focused in the health space were ripped apart.

I fell into a pretty deep depression – unfortunately, I am one of those people who conflate their work success with their personal worth, which is obviously not good. I seriously questioned whether or not I even wanted to continue with affiliate marketing, and what could be done with the site.


 

Doug’s Note: I need to point out a couple of things about the site:

  • It had some health and medical topics.
  • It was created before Graham joined Five Figure Niche Site.

I know some people will read this post and use it to confirm their impression that Amazon Affiliate Sites are DEAD. Or that the Five Figure Niche Site doesn’t work.

But neither not true — medical and health are areas I don’t recommend and never have. (Actually, if you disagree, please leave a comment! It’ll be great for the discussion.)

However, there are two big risks with the business model.

  1. Organic traffic from Google is great! Unless there is an issue with the traffic like an algorithm update or manual penalty. Then your traffic can drop like a rock.
  2. The Amazon Associate program can change and potentially lower rates (or raise, potentially). The rules are strict! And if you don’t follow the rules exactly, then you may be kicked out of the program. In fact, I recently worked with Amazon on a FULL audit of my account. Leave a comment if you want to hear about that.

Trying To Rebuild

Experts in the field thought the update had something to do with Expertise, Authority, and Trust (EAT), so although I felt depressed and like a year of my life had been wasted, I was determined to do what I could to salvage the site and get my traffic back up to its former glory.

I hired an “SEO Expert” on UpWork to acquire backlinks, continued to pump out great new content, and tried to build up my EAT to show Google that my site was useful and helping people.

I spent all of September 2018 working on it, and I can proudly show you the incredible results below.

Nothing.

In fact, despite all of my hard work, and the “guarantees” from my SEO specialist, my rankings continued to fall and traffic continued to dwindle.

At this time, I talked to a huge variety of people in the SEO space, and I heard a variety of things.

 

You need better backlinks from high-quality publications.

You have too many affiliate links. Nix those and the rankings will return.

Try setting up a CDN to speed up the site. Google loves speed and will award you accordingly.

I tried nearly every piece of advice that was given to me, and still, the rankings didn’t return. This is when I learned a valuable lesson.

We have almost no control over what Google does. The fact of the matter is, the advice I was given was pretty good.

Better backlinks probably would help the site. I could cut down on the number of affiliate links, speed up the site, etc. These are all great things that would probably help tweak my rankings.

But it doesn’t really matter if Google decides to make sweeping changes, and that’s exactly what happened.

My theory is that as human beings, we need there to be quick, concise answers to our problems, and we need to feel like we are in control.

This is called the Illusion Of Control, and it is defined as the tendency for people to assume that we are more in control of outcomes than we actually are. I think this is especially true when we’ve put hours and hours of our lives into something and we begin to feel like experts.

I had to learn to accept that things had changed and that Google now showed favoritism towards big, established sites in the health space like WebMD and Mayoclinic. And there was nothing I could do about it – so I had to walk away.

I survived by learning my limits and shifting my efforts into things that were more worthy of my time, instead of continuing to sink my time and money into something that was dead – also known as the gambler’s fallacy.

Key Takeaways & What I Learned

1. Diversify Your Traffic Sources

My first major mistake was not diversifying my traffic. Nearly all of my traffic had been coming from organic search from Google, and it is never a good idea to put all of your eggs in one basket.

I should have been utilizing different sources such as YouTube, Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram in the event that my traffic plummeted. I recommend you do the same.

2. Stay Away From Your-Money-Or-Your-Life Sites

Some of my peers may disagree, but I would highly recommend staying far away from Your-Money-Or-Your-Life sites.

Although the update that affected my site was nicknamed “The Medic Update” because it targetted a lot of sites in the health space, the truth is that it really affected YMYL pages.

What is are YMYL sites? Anything that affects your health, happiness, finances, or safety. Spencer from Niche Pursuits put it best – are there college degrees in this field? If so, you should stay far, far away from building sites in this space.

Unfortunately, I also experienced this with a second site in a similar health niche. I started building it in June 2018, and although it wasn’t directly hit by the Medic Update, it was eventually punished in a very similar way.

And to answer your question, no, it doesn’t get any easier. This site has not been punished as extremely as my first one, but it’s still disheartening. I don’t think you ever get used to sites declining after putting a ton of work into them.

However, I have definitely learned my lesson – most people should stay far, far away from YMYL sites if you are trying to rank organically in Google.

3. Have Multiple Sites

In September I bought a site on a website brokerage for a few hundred bucks. My goal was to leverage the existing content, backlinks, and age of the domain, and make it profitable by giving the site a facelift and pumping it with great KGR content.

Plus, in theory, I would get to skip the Google sandbox period, which means I could quickly rank for keywords and start getting traffic and making money.

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing, and I’ve been pleased with the growth of the site. It’s been slower than my first site, but I am okay with that – every niche is different. And yes, this site is far, far away from the health niche.

4. Try Not To Worry About What You Can’t Control

Obviously, this is a lot easier said than done. But as an affiliate marker, you have to come to terms with the fact that there are massive entities on either side of us, and we’re in the middle just trying to make a few bucks.

  • Can you control it if Google decides overnight to change its algorithm and punish your site? No.
  • Can you control it if Amazon decides to change its commission structure? No.
  • Can you do anything about it if someone decides to copy your entire site, spin the content, and then publish it and compete with you? Not really. (Yes, this happened with my first site.)

However, there are a ton of important things you can control, and that’s what you need to be focusing your efforts on. Your productivity, the quality of your writing, how many hours a day you put into working on your site, and much, much more.

This is something that I am still working on every day – there are times when I am discouraged and don’t feel like doing the work, but I keep going because I believe that eventually, it will all work out as long as I keep going.

If it doesn’t work out, then I can have learned countless valuable lessons, and developed a ton of skills in the marketing world that I can (hopefully) parlay into a position at a great company.

5. Don’t Go Fulltime Until You’re Ready – And Have Backup Plans

This is a mistake that I made, partially because I was so excited that the site was doing well, and partially because I was also experiencing optimism bias, which is the bias that we are invulnerable and less likely to suffer from misfortune than we actually are.

It’s why people continue to smoke even they though know it’s bad for them, drive drunk,  not wear sunscreen, and think that they’re going to one day be millionaires even though only 4 in 10 Americans can handle a $1,000 unexpected charge.

Optimism bias isn’t inherently bad – in fact, I think it helps explain how people are able to go on after awful tragedies in their lives like bankruptcies, divorces, and career failings. We’re hardwired to believe that things will work out for us. On some level, it’s what has kept me going even after two sites being smacked down by Google.

That being said, we should plan for the possibility of things not working out, even though we all think it will.

I highly recommend waiting at least six months, and preferably closer to a year, before quitting your job and living off of your affiliate income. This should be a good indication that your affiliate earnings and traffic are relatively stable, and also provide you with time and money to start other sites.

Additionally, I recommend having additional streams of income in the event that things go south. Sign up to do freelance work on Upwork or Fiverr. Get approved to drive Uber. Write for other blogs (Thanks, Doug!). Start new sites. Whatever you can set up now will protect you in the event that you hit a rough patch.

I’m working on putting systems in place now so if that one of my sites dies, it won’t be catastrophic since I have many other income streams in place – I recommend you do the same.

This is going to take a lot of time and energy, but it is a lesson that was hard earned by the death of my first site. Learn from my mistakes.

Surprise Jump Back Up & What I’m Doing About It

At this point, I had all but forgotten about the site, and was letting it run in the background and bring in ~$50 bucks a month with no effort. But then the strangest thing happened.

Google decided, in my estimation, that they had overcorrected with the Medic Update, and my site was worthy of some traffic and rankings. Nearly overnight traffic jumped back up to around 300 people a day.

I wish I could take credit and say that it was the result of getting new backlinks, changing my anchor text ratio, deleting affiliate links, and everything else that was suggested to me by SEO experts.

The truth is, those things probably helped, but I think the real thing is that Google decided they simply wanted different results for their users, and I benefitted from it.

My competition benefitted as well. I know for a fact that many of them tried a ton of SEO tactics to revive their sites. Nothing helped.

The sites in the niche jumped back up at the same time, which further cements my argument that at the end of the day, Google really decides what happens.

I am grateful that traffic is now returning to my site, although it is a far cry from the site’s peak of 2,000 a day. Will it continue to grow? Will it plateau, or will Google decide to kill it again?

Truthfully, I am not sure – but I am fairly certain that we are moving towards less anonymity on the internet, and Google will continue to want to see credible, authoritative sources, and that is the future I am planning for.

I think there is still plenty of money to be made in the online sphere, but I would stay far away from topics requiring a degree.

Additionally, I have also been experimenting with using Pinterest as a source of traffic, and have been creating pins for my old content.

I bought an eBook that taught me some of the best Pinterest tactics and also starting using Tailwind, which automatically posts on Pinterest at the best times each day. I’ve seen my impression count skyrocket, and I this is translating into clicks to my website every day.

I am hoping one day this leads to a large daily volume of Pinterest users on my site since the health niche is still valuable on Pinterest. I would recommend doing this for anyone in the health, home, food, travel, and finance niches, among others.

The point is I am diversifying my traffic, working hard on a variety of websites and other projects, and not counting on continued traffic from Google. If it happens, that’s great! But if not, I am prepared. I recommend you start to build up different traffic sources as well.

Some Parting Words

I want to make a few things clear – I love affiliate marketing. I know this article may seem negative, but it is really not meant to be. There are a ton of success stories about affiliate marketing, but I felt it was important to show happens when things don’t go your way.

The point is that I survived, learned, and am pressing on. If you are reading this because your site I died, I commiserate. If you have never experienced a situation like this, that is great, but you should always be prepared.

Soldier on, diversify your income sources and keep going.

About the Author: Graham is a student of Niche Site Project, Five Figure Niche Site, lover of dogs, and creator of websites.

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15 comments… add one
  • Marty McLeod Apr 29, 2019 @ 10:44

    Very good article, Graham (and Doug)! Lots of good stuff to take away from this.

    Especially not giving up but kind of taking a step back and then looking at things with a different perspective. Then starting with some other things, too.

  • Ronan Apr 29, 2019 @ 11:14

    Hi Doug and Graham,
    Thanks for post and the details. I am somehow writing posts related to health but haven’t been hit by medic update. I write about physical well being (Google may think it is ok).
    I am interested in learning about your full audit of your Amazon account.
    Take care 😉
    Ronan

  • Bushra Apr 29, 2019 @ 11:39

    What I have learned is that sometimes Google Algorithems are difficult to understand. But if you know SEO you are going to stay longer. What do you think about it?

  • David Neff Apr 29, 2019 @ 12:42

    Great freakin’ article!!!!
    This same exact thing happened to my niche site 🙁
    I was totally unaware of the Google Medic Update. I’ve been blaming myself for my site’s overnight loss of traffic ever since last August. Right around the same time of the Medic Update I moved my site to a new web host. I thought this was the cause of the loss of traffic to the site. Probably had nothing to do with it…horrible timing.

    I’m going to keep running my site even though the income it generates is much less than it was before the Medic Update. I help people who are suffering from a very painful health problem that I personally dealt with myself. The only other option other than the product I promote is to have surgery, so I it is important to me to continue helping as many people as possible.

    Hopefully, someday Google will see that my site is invaluable to people dealing with this problem and they will give me back my Page 1 ranking for several of my keywords. I was ranking organically right next to WebMD before the Medic Update.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this article.
    It was very helpful.

  • Adrian Diaz Apr 29, 2019 @ 12:46

    Awesome article bro…

    …spit it all out 🙂

    It’s good to put out on “paper” all your experiences, good or bad.

    It releases pressure and stress and allows you to assess the situation and start again, with much more experience now than before.

    I keep saying that knowing how to write an article or how to create a nice page or how edit a picture, have “good content” etc …

    it’s not enough to win at Google’s game.

    We MUST get good at understanding the basics of Google’s algos and what THEY THINK it’s a “good quality website”.

    Once we understand that, once we understand WHAT Google wants AND HOW TO GIVE IT TO THEM…

    … everything will become “easier”.

    On the “Medic Update” some sites went down and at the same time, some went up.

    Google realised they was pretty harsh in August last year, so now in March, altough some people think Google reversed the Algo, like CTRL+Z thing :)…

    They actually just dialled it down a bit.

    That’s why some sites like yours and other friends that I know have recovered, but less than half.

    Same like DrAxe … he fall deep into the whole in August, in March recovered a bit but nowhere near where it was.

    Maybe this could be a chance for you to clean it up a bit bro, maybe apply some of those things I recommended.

    But it’s not the end of the road anyway … YOU KNOW how to do it. You know how to get to 1500 bucks p/m.

    You did it once, can do it again😉

    Good luck bud.

  • Alex Cooper Apr 29, 2019 @ 14:10

    You’re so right when you say that there are so many things beyond our control that can wreck a business and you have to try and not let it affect you mentally. Great Advice!

  • Carl Apr 29, 2019 @ 15:07

    Fantastic insight into your struggles and successes. Thank you for sharing.
    I too was hit by the update and lost 50% of my traffic as my site was in the health niche like yours. Glad your traffic is improving.

  • Martin Apr 30, 2019 @ 1:24

    The same thing happened to my site and since March it’s recovered to about 70% of the traffic it had prior to the update. And earnings now are actually better than ever.
    What I did to recover? NOTHING! Literally, I did not touch the site for 8 months.

  • Kotton Gramer Apr 30, 2019 @ 6:27

    I was in the safety niche got knocked out too but sold the site for $5000 before it completely tanked. Its now totally dead last time I checked.

  • Termux Apr 30, 2019 @ 6:59

    Thanks so much Doug for this great piece of advice. It just reminded me I’ve got more work to do on my site.

  • Marcus Apr 30, 2019 @ 10:22

    Awesome article. My site was also smacked my the EAT update but has seen a great recovery since March.

  • Kyle May 2, 2019 @ 10:49

    Great article I was also hit by the medic update and did see my traffic start to pick up again in March of this year. My site was never as successful as yours was so it didn’t hurt so bad but was very discouraging. I have gone to Pinterest to generate traffic to my site as well. At this point, I wished I had chosen a different niche, since I had put so much time in it, I will try to stick it out.

    Thanks

  • Nootan Kumar Jun 12, 2019 @ 3:37

    Hi, Graham and Doug

    Wonderful article, my website also got hit by recent google June 2019 algorithm update. After reading this article, many of the things have been cleared. But still, I have a question – does any tech product-review websites (such as laptop or tablet reviews) falls under YMYL site category? Can you give some examples of the niches that don’t come under the YMYL category?

    Thank you very much.

    Nootan Kumar

  • Maureen Aug 19, 2019 @ 16:45

    If you found the Pinterest ebook to be a valuable resource, would you mind sharing the name and author?

  • john Sep 6, 2019 @ 23:11

    This a nice article Graham, but please can you advice me because am confused, am a farmer, I elaborate and teach people about organic herbal medications for animal birds farming in my website, is there any possibility I could be hit or penalized by google as I run the medical niche on birds but not human?

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