I appreciate you offering to take a look at The Military Guide.
Based on the overall situation, I think the most likely culprit is an overlooked technical issue. I just can’t find it.
Here is a quick rundown of the situation:
I purchased The Military Guide (https://the-military-guide.com/) in May 2018. I’m not a fan of dashes in domains, so I purchased https://the-military-guide.com/ from GoDaddy auctions shortly afterward. I did a quick overview of the domain before buying it, and there didn’t appear to be any spammy backlinks (I viewed the backlinks in Ahrefs and SEMRush).
My family and I moved in the summer of 2018 and didn’t have time to do much work on the site. Other than cleaning up a few issues, the site sat largely untouched until I changed the domain name on January 27, 2019. The site has since suffered a catastrophic loss of organic search traffic.
Summary of current situation – more details after this section, to include a timeline of events, the work I have done, and a summary of what I have checked.
- Jan 27 – Domain change – full details below.
- Jan 27 – Google Search Console & Google Analytics
- Google Search Console and Google Analytics Updated for New domain, both linked together.
- Filed Change of Address in GSC to from Old domain to New domain. All four versions, (http/https; www/non-www).
- Submitted new XML sitemap for new domain.
- Jan 27 – Jan 30 Organic Search Traffic Traffic Normal
- Jan 31 – Organic Search Traffic Traffic Drops 40%
- Feb 1 – Organic Search Traffic Traffic Drops 90%
- Feb 2 – Today – Organic Search Traffic Traffic Drops 99%
- Google Index Still shows both old and new domains in index.
- I have been monitoring the search index for both domains since the domain change. Both are still showing hundreds of pages.
Timeline – Dates & Events in the Domain Change:
- Jan 26 – Domain changed to new url. WPEngine (WPE) had issues with the SSL certificate, so we reverted back to old url.
- Jan 26 – AdSense alert that a new domain (https://the-military-guide.com/) was showing ads on my AdSense account.
- Added/activated the new domain to my AdSense account. I added the AdSense verification code to my site header to verify ownership.
- Unfortunately, I tried activating the new domain in AdSense while we had temporarily reverted back to the old domain (I didn’t think it would be an issue since we were changing it right back).
- However, as of Feb 14, 2019, the site still has not been added to AdSense account (this is one reason I think there is a technical issue; I don’t think Google is reading the account properly).
- Jan 27 – Changed to new url. This time everything was good to go.
- Everything changed on hosting account, using 301 redirects. Old url redirects to new url at the server level (Redirect module on NGINX).
- Everything updated in WordPress, including the General Settings WordPress Address and Site Address.
- All database links and internal links changed
- Jan 27 – Updated Google Search Console
- All 4 versions of old domain were registered (http/https, and www/non-www)
- Registered all 4 versions of new domain (http/https, and www/non-www)
- Did Change of Address for all old domains to point to respective versions of new domain
- Submitted sitemap for new domain – https://the-military-guide.com/sitemap_index.xml
- Note: I only submitted the sitemap for the primary domain on the 27th (https://the-military-guide.com/). I submitted the sitemaps for all other versions of the domains on Feb 12, 2019 (an oversight on my end).
- Jan 27 – Updated Google Analytics – changed primary url for the Analytics account.
- Jan 27 – Connected Google Analytics and Google Search Console for new url
- Jan 27 – Updated FaceBook links and links on all sites I control (2).
- Jan 27 – Jan 30 – Traffic was great (well within normal ranges for this site)
- Jan 31 – Organic Traffic drops 40%.
- I expected to see a 30% – 50% traffic drop with the domain change. The 40% traffic drop did not concern me.
- Feb 1 – 90% drop in organic search traffic.
- Not happy to see this, but still not too concerned. A few days of fluctuations are normal.
- Feb 2 – Feb 13 – 99% Traffic Drop.
- Not normal. At all.
- Feb 7 – 12 – Started a massive cleanup campaign on site.
- The site had hundreds of errors on it when I acquired it last year. The previous owner had deleted over 100 pages during a site audit, but never properly redirected them or removed or changed internal links (or the redirection file got lost prior to me acquiring the site).
- I started the process of cleaning up these errors by
- Creating redirects for all the major 404 errors,
- Redirecting them to the closest page,
- Changing or removing the internal links pointing to the 404s,
- Removing low-quality pages
- Consolidating similar articles, and deleting other version, etc.
- Improving site content, such as Start Here page, About the Book page, and several other important pages.
- I am using the WordPress Redirection plugin to track 404 errors as they come in. This makes it easy to stay on top of 404 errors and correct these issues. I am using the Search Regex plugin to find/replace those internal links as well.
- Note: I am only using the Redirection plugin to track the 404 errors. I am hosting the redirects at the server level with the WPE Redirect Rules.
- During this time I have cleaned up or removed well over 100 URLs, to include creating redirects and changing internal links.
- This breaks down to about 15-20 page removals, and redirecting about ~80 URLs for pages that had already been deleted, but had not been redirected, leading to 404 errors.
- I have also created several new pages, which I have requested to be indexed via Google Search Console.
- Feb 12 – Google Search Console
- Feb 12 – Google Search Console
- Requested Indexing for top 15 articles, by traffic, on https://the-military-guide.com/
- Also Requested Indexing for several articles I updated substantially after the domain name change.
- Requested indexing for what is essentially an HTML sitemap – Post Titles by Month – https://the-military-guide.com/post-titles-by-month/
- Feb 13 – Turned off all site caching – site was being cached by WPE and CloudFlare.
- Feb 13 – CloudFlare
- Verified CloudFlare settings – nothing appears to be different than prior to the change.
- Bypassed / Turned off caching for entire site (both old and new urls). Followed this tip and CloudFlare documentation.
- Purged cache for both old an new domains. CloudFlare is currently only acting as a DNS provider.
Traffic Drop Visualized (this hurts).
Here is What I Have Checked / Verified:
Hosting & DNS Information:
- Old url – https://the-military-guide.com/
- New url – https://the-military-guide.com/
- Host – WPEngine (WPE)
- DNS Provider – CloudFlare (both sites also utilize the CloudFlare caching service, since bypassed & purged).
Everything We Have Reviewed:
- Robots.txt – not blocked. – https://the-military-guide.com/robots.txt
- .htaccess file appears to be in order (according to WPEngine)
- All internal redirects handled via WPEngine (I’ve been on support chats with them 4 times verifying redirects and functionality)
- WordPress General Settings – WordPress Domain and Site Address both point to new url
- WordPress Reading Settings –
- Search Engine Visibility – “Discourage search engines from indexing this site” radio button not checked (doing so would obviously be bad).
- Yoast SEO plugin – not blocked
- Canonical URLs – all appear to be correct (using Yoast SEO plugin)
- Theme Settings – nothing is blocked in theme settings.
- Both the old and new domains are still indexed in Google:
- I have been checking this for two weeks. The old domain is stubbornly hanging on. It generally has fewer indexed urls than the new domain, but it still has a substantial number of indexed URLs.
- Old Domain # of Indexed URLs: anywhere from 400-500 indexed urls. This is the site search https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Amilitaryguide.com
- New Domain # of Indexed URLs: anywhere from 500 – 700 indexed URLs. https://www.google.com/search?ei=0EdjXJC9E-SQgget_J6gBA&q=site%3Amilitaryguide.com
- Traffic drop has been confirmed.
- I have verified the traffic displayed via Google Analytics is correct.
- The server logs show a dramatic decrease in the number of hits and bandwidth served
- WordPress Jetpack is also installed (secondary traffic verification)
- And our display ads also show extremely low traffic. Turned off banner ads due to low traffic & for testing.
- I am continuing to monitor the site and fix areas of concern.
- I continue to monitor the site for 404 errors using the Redirection Plugin, and correcting them as I find them.
- I have also been making other improvements to the site, by cleaning up broken links, merging old pages, and doing general housekeeping.
- I have submitted several updated pages to Google Search Console to have them fetch as Google and Index those pages.
- The goal here is to make Google crawl the site more frequently and index the new pages.
What Am I Missing?
Most people I know who have changed domains saw up to a 30-50% drop in organic search traffic that lasted a few weeks before the site achieved a complete, or close to complete, recovery. It has only been in very rare cases I have seen or heard of such a catastrophic traffic loss.
Unfortunately, my site has experienced an almost total drop in organic traffic (99%). That’s the catastrophic range.
The sudden and drastic drop, and the fact it has been lingering for so long, makes me think there is a lingering technical issue at play.
Other factors that lead me to believe there is a technical issue:
- Google still has both the old and new url indexed.
- Google AdSense has not been able to verify our site after more than two weeks, even though we have:
- Added the AdSense code to the header,
- Confirmed the site via Google Analytics and Google Search Console,
- Linked Google Analytics and Google AdSense, and
- Linked Google Analytics and Google Search Console.
I’m not sure what step I missed in the domain change process or what else to check.
Any ideas are more than welcome – firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading!
P.S. This page should be no-indexed. And I hope to delete it when the site recovers it’s prior traffic levels. Or keep it as a case study. :)