Whilst Google’s 2021 algorithm updates have resulted in spectacular SEO wins, we mustn’t forget about those domains that have not been so fortunate and have seen a decrease in organic visibility over the year, whether unintentionally or knowingly due to an SEO faux pas.
As with the SEO winners, we have looked at the 2021 SISTRIX Visibility Index data and uncovered the 250 domains that have experienced the biggest absolute and percentage visibility decreases on Google (.co.uk).
SEO intelligence on the CIA
An interesting domain that has seen a percentage decrease in visibility this year is cia.gov, the official website for the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (-93.1%).
From deeper analysis, we can see that the directory that has seen the most drop in Google SERP visibility is /library. This decrease occurred at the beginning of January, and around this time, the /the-world-factbook directory emerged within the Visibility Index data.
Based on historical URL data, we can see that The World Factbook previously resided in the /library directory, indicating that the CIA has undertaken a content migration.
When comparing keyword data from 4th January 2021 to 10th January 2022, we can also see the domain has lost rankings for approx. 2,454 keywords. Many of these keywords were targeted across a mix of HTML pages and PDFs within the /library directory.
On clicking through to several of the pages associated with the lost keywords, many now resolve in 404 errors. The errors and the lack of redirects implemented – confirmed by our Broken Links tool – suggest no equivalent content on-site, and where this is not the case, the appropriate 301 redirects have not been implemented to transfer PageRank.
Inspecting link data has also confirmed that many of the broken links have a significant amount of backlinks (particularly the top-level page for The World Factbook – /library/publications/the-world-factbook). As a result, any link equity obtained by these pages will have been lost, further impacting the domain’s organic visibility.
Post-acquisition drop-off for Debenhams
There were more retail casualties as we moved into 2021. At the beginning of the year, the Arcadia Group went into administration. The Arcadia Group was the parent company of many well-known fashion brands, including Burton, Miss Selfridge, Topshop & Topman.
All Arcadia’s brands were purchased in January & February 2021, with most brands being snapped up by fast fashion brands ASOS & Boohoo.
One of the brands acquired by Boohoo was high street favourite Debenhams. In January, Boohoo purchased Debenham’s online assets, including debenhams.com.
The domain obtained good Google SERP visibility until mid-March when it began to nosedive.
Reviewing the homepage content around the migration date indicates that a number of changes were made to it and in between those, the page redirected to a 404 page.
The directory-level data also shows that /women saw a similar decline to overall site visibility. It also highlights that Boohoo migrated the directory’s products to newly structured categories within a new /category directory.
In October 2021, Boohoo announced that they had launched a new marketplace for Debenhams powered by Mirakl. With debenhams.com retaining stable, albeit lower organic visibility since the changes to the category structure, is it possible that these changes were the beginning of this transition? Either way, Boohoo has been unable to restore debenhams.com’s organic visibility to the levels seen before the acquisition and structural changes.
During the year, companies undertook migrations based on mergers, acquisitions, domain changes, platform updates and rebrands.
Of course, one of the most notable and intriguing SEO migration stories of the year was the ASOS/Topshop migration which resulted in an initial 80% drop-off in Google SERP visibility. Check out our dedicated article about ASOS’ approach to the Topshop migration for more detail.
From analysing other Arcadia domains acquired by ASOS (topman.com & missselfridge.com), it is clear to see that they have taken the same or a very similar migration approach to topshop.com.
There is no question that asos.com has sustained strong organic visibility throughout 2021. However, their visibility growth has been minimal (+11.29 VI points) and could have been far superior if they had taken a more considered SEO approach with their newly acquired domains.
Another example of a domain migration that resulted in decreased Google search visibility was World of Books (also known as WOB), who migrated from worldofbooks.com to wob.com in November. WOB sells used books to customers worldwide.
WOB saw good organic visibility growth in the lead up to the migration date. On 8th November, just before the migration process began, their Visibility Index score had reached its highest ever level (8.62). Since the migration finished, they have experienced a terrifying drop of 8.05 VI points!
Due to following good international SEO practices, worldofbooks.com/en-gb was the highest performing directory pre-migration in Google’s UK SERPs (as it should have been). However, from analysing the equivalent directory on wob.com, it is evident that organic visibility has not been retained through the migration process.
SISTRIX’s link data also indicates that several pages have been 301 redirected to 404 pages, resulting in a loss of organic authority. From further analysis, many of the redirected pages have a good amount of backlinks pointing to them. Keyword ranking data also suggests that WOB has seen a decrease in ranking for their best performing keywords, including those they were ranking for on page 1.
From an initial glance at the website and its structure pre and post-migration, there are no notable changes in content, metadata or design. This could mean a deeper technical issue has caused this domain’s visibility to decline.
Google Update Losers
The three core updates in June, July & November caused the visibility of many domains to drop significantly. However, many of the victims of these updates also seemed to be affected by some of the more specific algorithm updates of the year.
Top Cashback is one of the most popular cashback websites in the UK. Top Cashback has partnerships with over 5,000 retailers and allows users to reclaim hundreds of pounds per year on their purchases.
Looking at the Visibility Index, we can see that topcashback.co.uk visibility started to decrease around the first of two June Spam Updates.
When looking more closely at the directories around this time, we can see that all the top-performing directories saw a visibility decrease, particularly the /category directory. This directory houses all the cashback offer pages (e.g. “Games”, “Cycling” & “Car Insurance”). Throughout the year, the structure of these pages has remained the same and link metrics have remained consistently stable.
Topcashback.co.uk’s overall organic visibility continued to worsen as the July Core Update rolled out and overall, their visibility decreased by 90.5% in 2021.
Another domain that suffered as a result of Google’s algorithm updates was honestjohn.co.uk (-69.1%). Honest John is a one-stop-shop, providing advice to car owners and prospective car buyers. It also includes an internal search that allows users to find cars for sale in their local area and beyond.
From February 2017 to late 2020, honestjohn.co.uk had seen an incremental decrease in organic visibility. However, the site’s luck changed when Google rolled out in December 2020 Core Update, experiencing a notable uplift in visibility. Unfortunately, this increase was short-lived as the June 2021 Core Update triggered the start of a downward trajectory which continued during the July Core Update.
On inspecting the directory data, we can see that Honest John has specific subdomains dedicated to specific vehicle types as well as a root domain. From delving deeper, we can see that several of the significant losses recorded are associated with their forum and vehicle sales pages.
We know that forums can be problematic for SEO, and they can introduce page quality issues that can affect the perceived quality of a domain overall. From manually reviewing the root and subdomains, there is also a consistent pattern of a high ad to content ratio, and these do seem to distract users from the page’s main content.
Based on these two observations, is it possible that Google’s Panda algorithm was an up-weighted factor in the June Core Update? Did the Page Experience Update that followed 8 days later add further insult to injury in this case?
Full list of 2021 losers (absolute & percentage tables)
We have provided two tables that contain the top losing 25 domains (absolute and percent). These have been filtered to remove adult content. We have also removed a large number of country-based Pinterest and Amazon domains that have been effectively removed from the UK search results this year. Links to unfiltered lists are provided below.
View the complete, unfiltered list of top 250 losing domains that saw the highest percentage decrease in Google visibility.
View the complete, unfiltered list of the top 250 losing domains based on their Visibility Index points (absolute increase).
The ripple effect of the 2021 Google updates and external factors made for an exciting year of search. Through delving further into the Visibility Index data, it seems that the Spam Updates, Product Review Updates and Page Experience Updates have, in some instances, been as impactful as Core Updates, which is usually not the case.
However, one thing that remains consistent is that the search engine giant continues to make improvements to benefit users and businesses whose websites are ticking the right boxes.
What will 2022 have in store for the SEO community? I guess we will have to wait and see.