By Luke Bonanno
In Franz Kafka's 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find that he's turned into a giant bug. I can certainly relate to that, because sometime on February 7, 2011, I became a bug. Not literally, of course. But in the eyes of Google, the multi-billion dollar corporation whose name has become the verb that describes the one thing that almost everyone on the Internet does, I suddenly had the worth of an insect. My scenario is just as nightmarish and inexplicable to me as Gregor Samsa's was to him. Four months later, death seems to be the only way to end this saga.
Some background... in January 2001, while resting after knee surgery, I scribbled down on a legal pad ideas I had for a website that would list all the different Disney movies and detail their availability and respectability on DVD. Thus, The Ultimate Guide to Disney DVD was born, within an Angelfire-hosted "Home Improvement" fan site created a couple of years earlier. As unlikely as it now seems to me, the site, which expanded to include detailed Disney DVD reviews, found an audience. In early 2003, I registered the domain "ultimatedisney.com" and installed a forum to succeed the increasingly trafficked free message board often tackily decorated with unremovable ads for condoms.
Ultimatedisney.com continued to grow. By 2004, we had gotten over 1,000 forum registrations and we were now receiving and reviewing advance copies of Disney DVDs, just like any relevant news outlet with a significant readership. At this point, there was neither time nor interest for me to get a second job. With minimal monetization (chiefly from the Amazon Associates program and to a much smaller degree, Google's AdSense program), the site's mission of high quality, trustworthy articles was generating enough to cancel out costs and (barely) live off of. Midway through 2005, the site became a full-time operation, with second reviewer Aaron Wallace helping to ensure new content was posted practically every single day.
As our articles improved in quality, our traffic and modest revenue also rose. By 2007, we were getting nearly as many unique visitors in a month as we had gotten in the entirety of 2004. At the same time, maintaining our steady stream of traffic became a challenge because Disney DVD was starting to be too narrow of a subject, with the studio having severely scaled back the number of titles they had been releasing on the format. The solution seemed obvious: continue what we were doing but stop limiting ourselves just to Disney DVD. After a few e-mails took us in the right direction, we were able to make Night at the Museum our first non-Disney DVD review. Contacts were made, product was received, and by August 2007, we began posting non-Disney articles at the newly-registered domain "dvdizzy.com." There were some readers who didn't like the change, feeling that tuning out content they didn't care about was too much to ask of them while giving them detailed, high quality articles at the most reasonable price of free. Others were more excited.
The site progressed in a natural fashion, myself and a couple of additional writers covering a wide spectrum of entertainment with passion and increasing expertise. Having been met with slight but frustrating resistance to some product requests, I decided in early 2010 that it would be best to drop ultimatedisney.com as the site's primary domain name. So, the front page, the forum, key resources, and oft-updated other sections were moved over to dvdizzy.com, to more accurately reflect the extent of our readership and the diverse nature of our content. All was well. Traffic may not have been at its all-time high, but it wasn't far from it and there were few major studios and titles we weren't getting to cover. Having become the site's only regular writer, I was working as hard as ever, striving to come as close as humanly possible to publishing one article a day, no matter how much time and effort went into one of our comprehensive reviews.
Then came February 2011. On Friday, February 4th, while watching Paranormal Activity 2, my home theater system started randomly interrupting playback. I was amused by the possibility that the disc was haunted, but it turns out my 5-disc Sony DVD changer was only dying, after 18 months of heavy use. I purchased a Blu-ray home theater system that night and prepared to be able to cover high-definition releases in the format that I had resisted but studios had reveled in. I wasn't crazy about Blu-ray, but having the capability to play it ensured there would be no shortage of new releases to write about. The future looked bright.
Then on that following Monday, Google struck. Checking Google AdSense reports the next day (one of the easiest ways to monitor traffic and site accessibility), I naturally assumed we had just had a slow day and possibly some downtime. It was unusual but conceivable. At some point, though, I tried to find a page on the site by Google, a tool whose use had become second nature to me, like so many Internet surfers. Oddly, we were nowhere to be found. I tried a more specific term and that too turned up fruitless. Eventually, with more searches and a lot more reading, I deduced that Google had apparently penalized us. There was no message, no explanation, not even a vague warning in Google Webmaster Tools, a resource many webmasters relied on more heavily than I. Poof! Just like that. Gone! Well, not entirely gone, but actually pushed down to no higher than the bottom of page 5 for even the most specific searches. Searching for "DVDizzy" brought up some kid's Twitter account, and many pages about and links to our site, but the site itself was buried several pages in.
Four months later, it remains that way. I don't know why. I have read up on Google penalties. Being relegated to what is known colloquially as "Google's sandbox" is almost always the result of search engine optimization and devious techniques employed to acquire traffic. I was familiar enough with search engine optimization to recognize it by its common acronym SEO. But I had never given it much thought or practice. Our hand-coded pages always ranked highly in Google results and I could see no reason why they shouldn't, since they squarely fit the unique original content model that Google encouraged above all else. I knew we got a good amount of traffic from Google, as any popular website does. But I didn't realize quite how much until this penalty, widely called a "-50 penalty", wiped out the overwhelming majority of visits through Google web and image searches and all that stemmed from that.
What to do? Google's only means for dealing with a penalty is to file a "Reconsideration Request". You explain what you think may have triggered the penalty and how it has been dealt with. The situation seemed obvious to me. Beginning two weeks before the penalty was received, I had noticed odd changes happening to our home page. Someone somehow had managed to edit the front page. It was baffling to me: page breaks would be removed from a mildly outdated version of the page (one with our Secretariat review as the latest posting). What was the point? How was this happening? My web host had no idea. But I eventually found a revealing discrepancy. One of our ads was being replaced with an "iframe" displaying the Algerian website elbassair.com (obviously, I do not encourage visiting this site, though amusingly enough it's easy to find on Google, having incurred no penalty). What was this site? Who was hacking my site to display it? How and why were they doing it? I still don't have the answers to these questions but I did figure out the source of the attack and was able to eliminate it.
The stress of that situation pales in comparison to what follows, after my description of that episode was supposedly processed but our Google penalty (affecting both domains) remained inexplicably intact. I submitted subsequent reconsideration requests. I read more about SEO, frowned-upon "black hat" techniques, and Google penalties than anyone ever should. I explained everything I could think of in my requests and waited. Request processed. Results still absurd. I've changed certain things that I feared could be misconstrued for a penalty: displaying pages only with the "www" in front and doing away with secondary versions of articles with numbers at the end of their URL for inclusion in Google News, which in conjunction with this mysterious penalty had immediately stopped displaying my articles there, another huge blow, also with nary a word or explanation.
This incomprehensible situation reminded me of another one of Kafka's most famous works, The Trial, in which bank clerk Josef K. is arrested by unidentified law agents for an unspecified crime. In May, the fourth of my reconsideration requests was processed; each previous one had taken about two weeks and been replied to with a "We've processed your reconsideration request" form message saying absolutely nothing of meaning. The first time I was actually very excited, anticipating a quick fix but then allowing a couple of days for changes to take effect. Never happened. This fourth one, reflecting changes in the policy of the Google Web Spam team, confirmed a penalty with the subject line "Reconsideration request for http://www.dvdizzy.com/
Site violates Google's quality guidelines" and a second paragraph consisting of "We've reviewed your site and we believe that some or all of your pages still violate our quality guidelines."
I don't expect much of people. I don't expect people to delve into the fifth and sixth pages of Google search results to find our articles. I don't expect readers to give a thought to how a free website manages to exist through ad and affiliate revenue. I don't expect much of this article to have any meaning to anyone who hasn't experienced a similar thing. But seriously, what the hell is going on here?
Is the page of webmaster quality guidelines that Google refers me to any use? No. Nearly every single guideline there seems to describe us in a positive way. "Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content." (Check.) "Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank." (Check.) It's like they know what I had and hadn't done to achieve a modicum of success over the past 10½ years. But on February 7, 2011, they somehow forgot it all. They apparently think I've done something bad. Worse than JC Penney rewarding those who linked to them with discounts. That retail giant had its publicized comparable penalty removed after three months. As of this week, my inexplicable violation has been in effect for over four months. Readership and revenue are at about 25% of their previous levels and falling. There's a very real chance that the site won't make enough money to have to file a 2011 tax return. Needless to say, this enigmatic plight has given me some strong tastes of depression.
One item on the webmaster guidelines page troubles me most of all: "Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines." Why, that's exactly what I did, for over ten years, giving little thought to design and optimization issues and believing, with good reason, Walt Disney's old credo that "quality will out." And here I am, found guilty of an unknown crime that I have zero reason to have committed and zero reason to feign innocence over. And what is the only conceivable way of fixing this problem? To makeover all my pages for search engines, and not all search engines, since Bing, Yahoo, and many less relevant others have done just fine at getting searchers to the information found in our pages. If I spend the rest of my life tinkering with the thousands of hand-coded articles written for the site, I might have a chance at being returned to Google web results visibility.
In so many ways, it just does not make sense to me. A site that Google values highly for the better part of ten years is suddenly buried in their results -- manually or automatically, we'll never know -- falling below sites robotically generating their content from it. I understand that Google is the biggest force on the Internet and the number of penalties they administer every day must be in the thousands. But in nearly all the other cases I could find, there is some glaring cause of the problem: "thin affiliate sites", buying and selling links, copied content. Nothing like this could ever apply to my life's work. Nor does Google's highly-publicized "Panda" algorithm update, occurring a few weeks after my smackdown.
The best theories I could surmise are that duplicate pages issue and the illusion of something called "interlinking" (which refers to unrelated domains from the same owner unnaturally linking back and forth). I've addressed and detailed all these issues at length, in passionate reconsideration requests shaped in varying degrees by the famous five stages of grief established by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In return, I've gotten this: "We've reviewed your site and we believe that some or all of your pages still violate our quality guidelines."
How any business, let alone one of the biggest businesses in the universe, could topple an individual's world without any accountability and without so much as one human word or sentiment is beyond me. Like a family tragedy, life goes on very much the same way for everyone else except the affected, which in this case is primarily just me. But there is a very real chance this could affect you in some way, should you ever venture into the world of electronic publishing or should you hope that this site does not soon end up like Gregor Samsa, returning to its room, waiting until sunrise, and dying.
Is there anything that can be done? I don't know. I've tried the many reconsideration requests, making any conceivable and feasible adjustments, putting on a happy face and hoping for justice and redemption. I get the feeling that nobody cares. I could ask for donations to counter the sudden, devastating drop in income this nightmare has incurred, but that is a temporary fix and one I don't see why you should or would want to offer. I could ask you to complain directly to Google, though I'm sure that this too is penalizable somehow. I could ask you to pass this article on, to spread the word of giant search engine Google senselessly crushing a small business owner, a person who loved to write about movies and television and spent a large chunk of his life doing just that. I suspect you won't. And I've already lost too much sleep and wasted too much time and thought trying to comprehend and correct this penalty.
So, what to do with my life? Three hours a day at a minimum wage job would bring in more money than this site is presently making. Perhaps this is the kind of life change I should make, as dictated by the cold, compassionless, automatous search engine gods of Google.
If you're still reading this, thank you for sticking around through the whimper with which this now seems so likely to end. Feel free to send comments, questions, and condolences to tsdvd at yahoo.com.
I understand this is technically the wrong section for this to be posted in, but I presume it will catch more eyes here.
I'm at a loss of words. I'd like to help in any way I can, and I'm sure most of us here would agree. So what can we do? I
And to Luke personally, I really wish you the best of luck and hope you're able to come out of this as soon as possible. We're all glad to have this place to come to visit, and I'd hate to lose it.