One Update Away From Pure Panic

This month has been chaotic, and the first time in a long time where my anxiety has flared up, all thanks to one single algorithm update.

It’s only now while writing this that I have some what calmed down. But the last month has shown me obvious signs that I rely far too heavily on my business.

It has deeply affected my mental health. I go to a dark place, I panic, I think about my family, how my failure will affect them and how I have let down my team.

September 17th we saw a slight decline in our traffic, this was because of Google’s Helpful Content Update which shakes up the search engine to make results “better” for the reader.

Some sites go up, some sites go down.

We went down by around 30-35%. It kept going down and down, with finally some signs of slowing today.

That’s 30%+ of our revenue gone, in just a couple of weeks. The power that Google has over my life is horrifying and quite frankly, it needs to change.

I’ll be honest when I say I did not expect this to happen. I do ZERO shady or black hat tactics across our sites, we have superb organic backlinks thanks to our content, we produce high quality videos, great E-E-A-T and have followed standard content SEO optimisation for years.

But, I believe that last part is what has shot us in the foot. This tiny misuse of SEO in hundreds of articles is what has caused us to get hit.

We follow Yoast’s green light system far too closely, we keyword stuff in our posts, our content is 80%+ keyword focused, we use stock images (although not a lot compared to our competitors), we have a lot of affiliate articles and we sometimes update content with little new content to admittedly change the date in the SERP’s for increased CTR.

I am a fool for doing this, it’s what every SEO in the space told me to do, it’s what has worked for years, but Google now know that majority of sites doing this are primarily trying to take advantage of the SERP’s.

Their response: stop creating content for Google, instead create content for the reader.

Take what you can from that, but I believe over optimisation is now a thing, and it will affect you site-wide if done across majority of your articles.

I have decided to work with Lily Ray, a SEO specialist who I have followed for a long time. She will be doing a deep SEO audit across our website to see if there’s something I have missed.

I am not very technical so perhaps she can spot something.

It isn’t cheap, coming in at a $3,000 expense, but I believe it’s mandatory for me to get back on track and build for the better.

I will document Lily’s findings, implement them and keep you updated, as I want to help fellow builders like me turn their sites into something awesome.

There were a few other failings that happened over the last month to. One being the installation of a new plugin called WPLasso that has been thrown around on Twitter. After installing it, it added new URL’s on our site directing to affiliate links that replaced our entire review articles.

So readers would see our Retroid Pocket 3+ review on Google, click on it and it would go straight to our tracked affiliate link! These were live for about 3 weeks, and tanked a handful or our high traffic reviews.

We also had a bug where our reviews Schema disappeared from our reviews too, it could be related to WPLasso or the algorithm update, I’m not too sure yet.

So, as a fellow creator, double check what plugins you install, even if influencers are raving about it, as it screwed us up without even knowing it.

What short term changes am I making now?

I have had a meeting with my content team and informed them of what’s happened.

Moving forward:

  • We are stopping any type of “over-optimisation”. We will write naturally, with no forced internal links or keyword stuffing.
  • I have asked the team to take pictures of their games library and sent them out to local retro gaming stores to take custom pictures of products and games so that we can use them in our best games lists. We have hundreds of best games lists, all using stock images on a Retro Dodo background. Google knows this is not unique, and i think are deeming it “unhelpful” if done on lots of articles. We now have 500+ unique images of games that will be implemented into old and future articles.
  • I have removed approximately 30+ articles that are not in our niche, and another 30+ that are “best lists” with majority stock images or of products we have not used. For example, we reccomend lots of LEGO products because they’re great, we know our reader will like them and I have played LEGO ever since I was 5, so i know the product is good… however we still use stock images so Google see’s this as not authentic because there is no proof we have used that product. That’s fair enough, I can’t afford to buy every LEGO Super Mario set, we will be out of business in 6 months! Lists with all stock images are now deleted.
  • No more “fake freshness“, this is where we would update an article with a few paragraphs, or change some images to unique images and then update the article publish date. We did this because a CEO of a big media company told me to do it (they were also hit) and to make it look like our article was more up to date than our competitors in the SERPS. But, i believe we were punished for this in the wrong ways. One of our highest traffic articles (best Pokemon ROM hacks) is a superb piece of content that’s updated regularly. We have separate reviews for some of the games which we link too, I even made a custom video that has 250,000+ views for it, but it was hit. Google replied to me and said that they don’t punish updates that are good for the reader but don’t respect “fake freshness”. I think I was incorrectly punished here, but its easy to see why, as its our top performing article, and i strive to make it great for the reader… perhaps too often with monthly updates.
  • Finally, I am cleaning up some backend stuff, cleaning up some bad links, removing tag archive pages to increase crawl budget and adding more informative author pages. I just updated my own author page on Retro Dodo, and this will be the template for all writers and contributors moving forward.

Long Term Strategies?

I do believe Google is slowly killing the traditional content site. Google are putting Reddit pages above genuine experts, placing e-commerce brands above reviews and are often punishing true clean builders instead of those that use shady tactics.

This month has shocked me into how much we as a business rely on Google, and it’s not even funny. Yes, we recently built a book that is doing incredibly well, but I only get paid royalties twice a year, so it’s also not something I can rely on.

My long term thoughts:

  • I want to build a really rewarding and fun membership for Retro Dodo. Readers and viewers who enjoy our content can support us monthly/yearly and in turn will get a wide number of benefits including ad-free content, giveaways, a welcome kit and a invite to a yearly meetup with the team and other members free of charge including food and drinks. You can look at my draft of our premium benefits here (PLEASE DON’T SHARE IT), I am tempted to launch it in Q1 2024. I am most excited about the meet-up, I want it to be filled with retro gamers, industry folk, new products and journalists, and to eventually be the event everyone talks about – “are you going to the Retro Dodo meet up?”. It’s basically ready, i just need to work out the payment methods.
  • I want to create more products. Our book A Handheld History has sold over 15,000 units this year, and we’re launching the second book of the series in Q1. But I want to go further, perhaps clothing or premium displays for consoles, or storage cases for games. Something physical that we can rely on.
  • I want to eventually create an expo, or a convention that overlaps with both RetroDodo and Card Gamer that we run every year. This will bring together community, brands, products and industry folk all in one place, making it the perfect content house for two days as well as it generating revenue through sellers, sponsors and ticket sales. I have a name, but i won’t reveal it yet, as i would create a documentary around it for our channels to kickstart some crowdfunding to make it a reality. With our social following, and the help from people i know, I’m sure I could turn it into something great that could eventually move out of the UK if done right. But this is not something I can think about right now, I have lots on my plate.

A reality check

When my website dropped, and kept dropping the only thing i could think about was how much I rely on my business. I have taken very little revenue from the business since founding, majority of it has been pumped back into the business, into talent and content.

I should be taking more from the company and if anything I shouldn’t be taking big risks when I haven’t even paid off my house.

My mortgage is one of the things that stresses me out the most. Because of the way I think, I don’t believe it’s truly mine or my partners. It can be ripped from us if we can’t pay just a few repayments… that in my eyes is not my property if it can be taken.

I know it’s not the right way to think, but i’ve always been like this. I hate debt, if i can’t afford it, I won’t buy it. Things, cars, holidays its all cash… apart from the roof over my head.

I thought about what would happen if Google turned our websites off, and it was horrible, I couldn’t sleep well for a week.

This isn’t the way to be living, even though I truly love what I do, I am incredibly grateful, but I’m slowly killing myself trying to build this media company all without taking much from it.

To round it all off, my partner is pregnant and we are expecting a child in January, what kind of father am I if I run a business that can be quite literally turned off, or am I overhtinking?

I dunno, this is just my thoughts and my place of journaling.

This hit has happened for a reason, and I think the reason was that I need to stop relying on Google. Period.