How Google Nearly Destroyed My 12-Year Old Business

"You haven't failed until you blame someone else."

That's always been one of my favorite quotes and something I try to live by. So, I better rephrase the title of this article. It should be: "How I Nearly Destroyed My 12-Year Old Business ... By Making It Dependent on Google."

MSW Interactive Designs is now a 17-year old business. I have waited five years to write about this one so that I would have a success story to share. And trust me, this isn't an easy thing to admit, let alone write about and share with the world.

Rewind to very early in 2011. MSW Interactive was a 12-year old successful small web design and hosting company, with a nice secondary niche in the wedding marketing featuring wedding portals in 26 cities across the USA and an online retail store called Our wedding portals dominated page one of Google, and our retail site consistently ranked in the top three listings of page one nationally for terms like "bridesmaid gifts" and "wedding supplies".

Our web design rates had always been geared to small business and affordability for this market. With just a two person team on the website side, you can imagine this was not a hugely profitable endeavor, but it worked fine to pay myself and an employee (or so I thought). The wedding side of the business supported another three employees (who are family members - one full time and 2 part time) and it was truly the cash cow for the company at the time. We processed hundreds and hundreds of orders for wedding supplies per month!  

The business was completely debt free and cruising along beautifully.
All was good with the world.

Then, BAM!  It all came to a screeching halt in February of 2011 with Google's Panda algorithm update. According to MOZ, "A major algorithm update hit sites hard, affecting up to 12% of search results (a number that came directly from Google). Panda seemed to crack down on thin content, content farms, sites with high ad-to-content ratios, and a number of other quality issues." 

Well, we were part of the 12%. Our storefront literally dropped out of the top three listings on page one, to being nowhere to be found in the first 30 pages of Google ... overnight.

We were hit hard by the Panda algorithm (followed closely by the Penguin algorithm update) because the wedding portals had quality issues in the eyes of Google. We had many banner ads on them (wedding vendors paying for exposure to brides in their local markets), plus our 26 wedding portals (all of which linked back to had duplicate content on them and were hosted on the same IP.  I thought:"Really?? How many ways can you write a wedding planning checklist or tips on how to hire a photographer? And just because my 26 locally focused sites are on the same web server and linking to my national storefront for wedding supplies doesn't mean I am doing anything to trick Google. It means I am just promoting my store on my sites."

It was extremely financially stressful for the business and it took me years to fully recover. Our wedding retail sales had plummeted to almost zero overnight and there was nothing immediate that I could do about it.

I went through the typical panic phase, the consideration of laying off employees, a few tears (maybe more than a few) ... and after a couple weeks of self-pity, I pulled myself together and made a decision.

I made the choice to put the business into debt to keep my team members employed, then I went to work on solving the problem.
It was going to be a huge undertaking.

While the wedding portals weren't hit too badly on their own rankings, the "spammy" signals they were sending and attributing to with all the inbound links and duplicate content linking in to the site killed us.  And Google doesn't take its penalties lightly, let me tell you.  It's now 5 years later, all of the wedding sites have been rebuilt so the "ads" link to dedicated internal pages on our sites about the advertisers (before sending them to the vendor site), all the "duplicate content" was moved to a single location in our blog, and has clawed its way back up to page three. We are still working to get back to page one for, but I am no longer working so hard at it and this is why ... 

The lesson I learned (the hard way), and the lesson I want to share with you is this:

You CANNOT make your business 
livelihood dependent on Google.
You should not make your source of customers or site traffic dependent on ANY one thing!  
Especially when you  have zero control over that one thing.

We weren't doing anything on our wedding sites to manipulate Google. We were giving great exposure to local wedding professionals, and we were providing local brides with great information to help them plan their weddings. Our wedding sites got great reviews from all who used them. We were doing all the things right for our clients and retail customers on that side of the business.

But Google decided to make a change. No notice that it might impact us. No individual review of OUR sites so they could see we weren't doing anything wrong. They simply changed the math in their algorithm, and that math resulted in a huge negative for, and as a result, MSW Interactive Designs.

Fast forward to 2016.
MSW Interactive Designs is doing great!

In fact, over the last three years we've added eight new employees. We've expanded our service offerings to help clients NOT have to depend only on Google. We encourage clients to invest in a robust social media campaign to grow their visibility, reach, and reputation across other channels than search engines. We encourage them to get the word out across as many different platforms, advertising mediums, and networking events as they can. And guess what ... it works.

For our side of the business, we moved heavily into social media, blogging, and Pinterest over the last 5 years, so our web traffic is not ONLY dependent on traffic from Google. Yes, these things have helped us move those ranking back up, but we could take or leave our Google traffic. It won't kill us if it stops ... ever again!

Check out the difference:

In late 2011, nearly 64% of our site traffic was coming from Google organic search, and another 20% was direct ... meaning people where just typing us in by name (most likely because they had been there before from finding us in Google). That's nearly 80% of ALL the traffic.  I used to be proud of this ... now when I see stats like this, it scares the you know what out of me!

2016 traffic sources today ... organic search is only 20%. Social media traffic (five different channels) is almost 40% and referral traffic is almost 23% (traffic from other sites like blogs and directories). Direct traffic is only 17%. This is a MUCH safer distribution of traffic sources to sustain a business if something changes that's out of our control.
Note: Ignore the colors in this graph compared to the one above. Google changed their color key. :-)

The Take-Away

The take away ... well, it's something Moms always tell us growing up. Don't put all your eggs in one basket! Google rankings are great, don't get me wrong. But being singularly focused on getting that top spot can ultimately be devastating ... especially if it comes at the peril of not focusing energy and resources on deriving traffic and customers from OTHER sources.  You can work YEARS to finally to get a website to the #1 spot (or even a page one ranking) in Google, only to have a big fat ugly Panda come and take it away overnight.

Think social.
Think reach. 
Think about positioning yourself as the expert through an ARRAY of media and resources.
Think about INDEPENDENCE, rather than dependence on one thing.

Google may or may not be there for you. It may be here today and suddenly gone tomorrow through the fault of nothing other than a simple algorithm change. You can't blame Google, though. I tried blaming them in 2011 and it did no good. They didn't care. All they did was confirm we were hit with a penalty. I already knew that.

Ultimately, as the owner, I am responsible for spreading the word about my business and my services. The lesson is: Google is just one tool ... but it takes a lot of different of tools to build and (more importantly) sustain a solid business over the long term.

Lessons learned the hard way not only stick, they become a passion.


  1. awesome - what an honest, thoughtful and insightful post. Well written!


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