It is not unusual to see a blog post appearing in the Google search results within a matter of hours of it appearing online, sometimes even quicker, but how quickly does Google react to other bigger site changes?
In the past we have seen new site launches and re-launches being picked up in a matter of days with Google replacing the old pages with the new ones in a very short time period. However, because we usually take a lot of care over such procedures, we haven’t had much data about how quickly Google reacts when something isn’t done correctly.
With this in mind we decided to do an experiment to find out what happens when a website is ‘broken’ and how quickly Google notices with the aim of seeing how Google reacts and how that might affect the search engine optimisation of websites.
After some recent house keeping on one of our servers we found the ideal subject to test – a site that had been long since abandoned, that was no longer used but, importantly, still ranked in Google for some terms.
The first step was to see where the site stood with Google. Using the Google Web Master Tools we could see that the site was getting around 1000 impressions per day in the search results so with that as a bench mark we decided to ‘break’ it and see what happened.
After some discussion we decided to go all out and remove the site, pointing the domain at a ‘parking’ page. Importantly this meant that each page still returned a ‘200 OK’ even though all the content had been removed.
After 5 days there was an expected drop in the number of impressions the site received in Google, a fall of roughly 40-50%. Unexpectedly impressions didn’t go down any further. Crucially the site remained on the first page for some reasonably competitive terms for the next 20 days.At this point we decided to intervene again and removed the parking page so that the domain name no longer resolved to an IP address. Google noticed this and notified us, via the Webmaster Tools, that the site was inaccessible within a day but the search results remained for a couple more days.
The graph below shows the time line with impressions show by the blue line. A indicates the day the content was removed, B the day the parking page was removed and C the final day of any rankings.
So what can be learned from this?
Firstly, creating good content matters. The site had a lot of good quality content, built up over a few years and had earned a number of good incoming links. Although the number of impressions in Google dropped crucial rankings remained. Importantly Google kept the page previews and snippets for a number of key pages for over 20 days after the content had been removed. This suggests that the historic authority of the page carried some weight. As with most things SEO related, creating consistent, quality content could help iron out ranking bumps caused by other issues.
Secondly, always check that the Google Bot can access your site and is receiving the expected status code (200 if the page is there, 404 if it isn’t). As demonstrated by the installation of the parking page, Google still knew the pages existed and continued to rank them despite the drastic change in content. As soon as the site became inaccessible (and not just returning 404 not found headers) the pages very quickly dropped out of the index.
Thirdly, if you make a mistake on your site don’t panic, Google seems to notice changes very quickly but takes a couple of days to act on them. Unless you have made your site completely inaccessible – in that case you should fix it as soon as possible but probably still avoid panicking.