Blogpocalyse

My Website Traffic Tanked After Running a Popular Plugin

One of the hardest parts about blogging is confronting the reality that websites are really fragile things, and that simply pushing the wrong button can wreck total havoc on a site.

This is the story of how a seemingly-routine attempt to improve Travel Lemming’s site speed by using some very popular plugins (ShortPixel and WP Rocket) somehow destroyed my search traffic almost overnight.

It’s the story of my worst month as a travel blogger.

And it’s a story that, at least as of today, sadly doesn’t have a happy ending.

Frankly, part of the reason I’m writing this post is in the probably desperate hope that maybe some savvy blogger or web developer out there (maybe you!??!?) sees this and understands better what happened to me. If you do read this and have a thought that might help, please email nate@travellemming.com. You’ll be my hero forever.

Ok, now let’s talk about how it started:

Waking Up to a Blogger’s Nightmare

It all started while I was on a long weekend vacation to Iguazu Falls, which was supposed to be a much-deserved retreat from what had been a long January of intense work in Buenos Aires preparing over 25 articles for publication.

While sitting in my hotel’s bed, I casually logged into Google Search Console only to be confronted abruptly with the realization that my site’s search traffic had dipped over 50% just in a matter of a couple days.

A chart like this is every blogger’s worst nightmare:

Chart showing Google traffic drop on a travel blog

My heart jumped through the roof, of course.

And, sure enough, when I checked my rankings on Google, Travel Lemming had absolutely plummeted.

It wasn’t just one article or keyword that fell either. Unlike some bloggers who derive most of their traffic from one or two very popular posts, Travel Lemming’s search traffic is very distributed across many articles and smaller long-tail keywords.

So this wasn’t just a problem with one post – it was a problem with all of them.

Keywords where I previously ranked first were now showing Travel Lemming in position five. And keywords where I had ranked fifth were now showing me off the first page entirely.

Worse, virtually every article Id written in the past six months fell out of the rankings entirely.

The drop was precipitous and affected every single article on the site, except one which had somehow survived the carnage.

Could it be a Google Update? (Probably Not)

Nate Hake with a computer near pool
Putting on a brave face for social media in Iguazu – when I was actually freaked the f out

When you see a site-wide drop in search traffic like this, the first thought is usually that it must be a Google Update.

Google periodically updates its ranking algorithm to favor or disfavor certain factors or types of sites.

Getting hit by a Google Update is the worst fear of many travel bloggers, and initially I thought it must have been what happened.

But, upon further digging, that doesn’t really make sense as an explanation here.

First, while Google tweaks its algorithm all the time, major updates are usually announced publicly.

There had been a major Google Core Update announced on January 13, 2020.

That update hit many of my travel blogger friends hard, so seemed to be an obvious potential culprit.

But my traffic drop didn’t start until January 21st, a full week after the core update rolled out, which meant at least that update probably wasn’t the root cause.

Second, my site was the only one that changed in the SERPs (search engine results pages). If there had been another Google update affecting my keywords, you would have expected to see more volatility for other sites in our SERPs as well.

Third, the drop in rankings was swift but happened progressively over a few days. As Google crawled each URL, it would drop, then it would crawl another, and that would drop.

From what I could tell, all of this seemed more indicative of some sort of technical or structural problem with our site.

Since I had recently hired a site speed expert, who came highly recommended through one of the big travel blogger Facebook groups, I started looking deeply at the technical changes she had made to the site as part of that project …

Narrowing it Down to an Image Problem

Digging further into the problem, I noticed that while my overall search traffic had halved, image search traffic had absolutely cratered by about 85%:

Image Traffic Falling on Google Search Console
My image search traffic for January

I then checked my site audit on Ahrefs, a tool that’s supposed to mimic how Google’s crawlers go through a site.

Sure enough, there was an obvious problem with images.

Ahrefs crawlers suddenly weren’t picking up on most of the images on my site:

Screenshot of Ahrefs image audit
Images (in purple) suddenly vanished from the Ahrefs audit
Ahrefs audit screenshot
Ahrefs audit suddenly showing images as not there

Similarly, my sitemap generated by Yoast was suddenly showing only 1 or 2 images for many posts – even though they actually had dozens of images.

Maybe something went wrong such that Google Bot can’t see that I have images on my site?

If Google thought my site didn’t have images, it certainly would make sense that Google would downgrade my site in the search rankings.

I mean, after all, who wants to read a travel blog that’s just text without any photos?

It would certainly make sense as an explanation …

An Image Optimization Run Seems to Have Triggered the Problem

Upon digging further, I realized that the problem started right after my speed consultant ran a bulk image optimization through ShortPixel, a plugin we had been using without problems to help compress our images.

We ran that bulk optimization on January 21st, immediately before traffic and rankings plunged.

That bulk optimization created WebP versions of all of our images (WebP is an next-gen image format that in theory should help speed up image loading).

When we ran the ShortPixel bulk optimizer, it converted all the images on our site to WebP images and wrapped them in <picture> tags for the first time (this part becomes important later).

Also, importantly, we just barely ran out of our monthly ShortPixel credits, so the optimizer ended up only running on about 95% of the images on our site.

That meant almost every post was changed by the ShortPixel run … except one, which ShortPixel didn’t get to before running out of credits.

And remember that one post I said earlier was somehow magically survived as the only post on the site that was spared SEO carnage?

Yep, it’s the exact same post that wasn’t changed in the ShortPixel run!

Aha, now we’re on to something!

The correlation seemed pretty obvious at this point – something about the ShortPixel run seems to have blinded third party crawlers like Ahrefs (and therefore, presumably, Google Bot) to the existence of images on my site.

So I immediately bulk-restored the images and deactivated ShortPixel.

And … viola! Ahrefs crawler was immediately able to see my images again:

Website Traffic audit Ahrefs

My rankings slide, which had continued day after day during those first frantic 5 or 6 days, also thankfully stopped immediately.

But … did traffic go back up?

Well, we saw a curious small rebound in search results for about 48 hours, but then that disappeared and everything went flat after that (and has stayed that way since):

Website traffic chart

I’m not really sure why search traffic would pop up like that for a day or two and then immediately revert to where it was, but that’s what happened.

Maybe undoing the ShortPixel run was the only fix possible to the problem, but since traffic hasn’t rebounded I am not about to stop searching for a more fulsome explanation:

ShortPixel and WP Rocket Support Teams Point Fingers at Each Other

I reached out to ShortPixel’s support team and, though I had to pull teeth for several weeks, eventually got my ticket escalated.

We created a staging site off a backup of the site as it existed during the period of the ShortPixel run.

ShortPixel’s team was adamant that ShortPixel doesn’t do anything that could cause this sort of issue, despite pretty clear correlational evidence that the problem was caused by ShortPixel.

After a ton of back and forth, ShortPixel’s team finally responded by pointing the finger at another plugin – WP Rocket. Here is what they said:

[T]he issue only started to manifest when you activated the WebP delivery in ShortPixel Image Optimizer, that’s why it seemed to come from our plugin. The problem is that WP-Rocket doesn’t seem to handle lazy-loading of PICTURE tag properly. Or the crawlers don’t properly crawl a lazy-loaded picture tag but this seems less probable. This problem can be replicated with our plugin deactivated, if you create a page or a post with a PICTURE tag in the HTML. While the images loaded with PICTURE can be seen OK in a browser, when running a test with Ahrefs, the images will not be crawled.

-Email from ShortPixel Support Team (emphasis mine)

This explanation sorta makes sense since we didn’t have <picture> tags on the site before the ShortPixel run.

On the other hand, I’m still a little skeptical of this explanation, since we have been unable to re-create the issue with other image optimization plugins that also use <picture> tags (Smush and Imagfy).

Still, I reached out to WP Rocket’s team and sent them what ShortPixel’s team had said.

Unfortunately, WP Rocket’s team has been even more uncooperative than ShortPixel’s.

So far they have basically taken the Shaggy defense – “it wasn’t me.”

WP Rocket flatly refused to run any tests or de-bugging on our ShortPixel staging site, instead only running them on our live site (which now uses Imagfy) and responding to say that everything is fine there, so there’s obviously wasn’t anything WP Rocket could have done wrong.

Here is their latest, cheeky response:

> So why can Ahrefs’ crawler see the images with Imagfy but not with ShortPixel?
This is clearly a question for Ahref and ShortPixel. ; )

-Email from WP Rocket Support Team

At this point we basically reached a dead end – neither ShortPixel nor WP Rocket’s support teams seem particularly interested in figuring out what happened, and both blame the other for the problem but don’t provide enough detail to figure out who is right.

That’s pretty disappointing, since these are two VERY popular plugins and if there is some sort of bug or conflict between the two, it could affect many more customers beyond me.

So where does this leave me?

Now I’m at a Dead End

Having now spent 5 weeks of my time trying to figure out this issue in a desperate attempt to regain the lost traffic, I’m now frustrated and not sure what else I can do.

We’ve obviously removed all the <picture> tags from Travel Lemming, and Ahrefs has now been able to see our images in our site audits ever since.

So, hopefully, that means Google Bot and Google Image Bot are also seeing the images as normal again.

But, unfortunately, traffic simply hasn’t recovered.

Maybe we’ve implemented the only fix we can and Google just sandboxed my site for awhile in response to the issue.

So maybe with time we will earn our rankings back.

Over the last week or so, I’ve seen a small but clear improvement in rankings that gives me a glimmer of hope (though image search impressions remain close to zero). It hasn’t translated to improved traffic, though, but it’s hard to parse because this was also a week when coronavirus fears seem to have driven down travel-related search volume generally.

So I’m not really sure what I can do other than wait and hope at this point.

And, of course, all of this comes at a terrible, terrible time from a business perspective – the coronavirus is hurting almost every travel blogger friend I have, and 2020 is shaping up to be an absolutely terrible year for the travel industry.

For now I’m trying to keep a brave face, but at these reduced traffic levels, the business just isn’t going to be able to support my requisite salary much longer. Maybe it’s time to dust off the old resume.

Anyway, thanks for reading along.

If you’ve read this and have a thought as to what might have caused this issue, please drop me a line at nate@travellemming.com or in the comments.

PS – Even though both their support teams think this is an isolated issue, if you’re a travel blogger running ShortPixel or WP Rocket, it obviously might be worth checking your WebP image settings and seeing if third-party crawlers like Ahrefs can see the images on your site.

That’s it for this article. Before you go, check out some of my other travel blogging-related articles:

Cheers from Buenos Aires!

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