The 5 Stages of Google Update Grief

Sad Dog

Sometimes it seems like everything is going perfectly, until suddenly, it’s not.

Right now a lot of websites find themselves reeling from the effects of a number of different kinds of Google updates and penalties. With Penguin, Panda, niche specific updates, manual penalties, and phrase based penalties people are taking hits from all sides.

Rankings have plummeted. Traffic has taken a dive. The panic is setting in.

Whenever someone is going through a difficult time, any good freshman with half a semester of Psych 101 under their belt will default to the 5 Stages of Loss. Whether we’re talking death, divorce, or an act of God or Google, the basic process we go through to find a new normal can be the same.


They say the first step to getting help is admitting you have a problem. Sometimes with site issues it’s easy to find yourself in denial that there is something bigger going on. Things like seasonality, promotional events, site changes, market shifts and algorithmic tweaks can affect your traffic and rankings pretty regularly without necessarily being indicative of a hit.

But if the trend is prolonged, significant and it started in a time frame that corresponds with a known Google update then, if it looks like a duck, it’s time to call it Donald. Hoping that you’ll bounce back without changing anything or that the traffic will rebound on its own usually won’t help.

Sure, sometimes it’s a temporary glitch. A few of your phrases may have slipped a few spots. There may be some volatility around places 1 through 3 for a few core phrases. But that doesn’t necessarily represent a pattern.

We’re talking serious bleeding. When a huge chunk of traffic is lost after a specific time, and top landing pages are showing a downward trend across the board, you may have been hit and the longer you deny it, the harder it becomes to treat.


Once you realize you have a problem, whether it’s an immediate reaction or one that takes some time to come to, you’re pretty likely to get mad about it. I don’t blame you. Look around at the craziness that got us here.

Anchor text links worked. They just did. You could buy them in bulk and they’d rocket you up the SERPs. Everyone was doing it; it was a link directory, paid blog review, article syndication block party. The whole lot of online marketers got drunk on cheap links. Until Google showed up, pulled the tap out of the keg, and turned off the lights.

Why wouldn’t you be mad that the 20 pages of content you built to capture every keyword variation from cheap to affordable to discount turns out to be a bad thing?

Shouldn’t it be maddening to think that SEO tactics that worked, that you paid for, are suddenly the same things bringing you down?

Yes! It’s totally natural. We deserve to be angry. But then we need to get over it.

Staying angry that the market is changing and clinging to old ways because they are what worked a few years ago is an exercise in futility. Remember, this has always been Google’s game; they are only letting us play it, which means they can change the rules whenever they want.

So go ahead and get mad, fine. But then put that energy to good use.


So you’ve decided to take action, to fight back, to win back the rankings you deserve. Good.

The problem? A lot of us make a mistake: we aren’t willing to go far enough (e.g., going straight for the disavow without really trying to get any backlinks removed, or being willing to de-optimize a little but not really thinking about the root of user intent).

Our first instinct is to try to get Google to compromise and meet us half-way.

Depending on how egregious your situation is, bargaining may or may not be effective.

If you have fairly minor infractions, maybe it is enough to do a little house cleaning on and off-site. Tighten things up, consolidate some similar content ideas, submit a conservative disavow and think a little more about the user experience. It may be enough.

But if you’re sending up red flags like a Russian color guard, it may take major reparations to set things right with your biggest source of organic traffic.


If the negotiations go south, then you may find yourself in the depression phase. It’s that feeling like nothing you do is enough, that you’re never going to see traffic for anything but obscure long-tail products that only you sell again.

It’s hard not to give up when you’re losing money and it seems like everything you’ve tried has failed. Maybe you’ve even filed a reinclusion request and been straight up rejected. A few times.

How do you re-act when it feels like you’re sinking and there’s nothing to bail you out? You could give up, or you could remember how to float.


If everything else fails, then you may have no option but to rebuild. The only choice may be to roll back your SEO to where you started.

The fact is, if you never built any really good links, if you never earned any links based on your value, then it’s no surprise that when you disavow everything unnatural, there isn’t much left. You can’t expect to regain ground without anything real to help provide traction.

If you’ve tipped too far to the SEO side of on-page content, then maybe you have to peel it all back to minimalist keyword levels to make Google respect you again. It could mean downsizing big sections of the site that weren’t really adding much to the world.

It may not be fair; it may not be what your competitors have to do. But to think that way is focusing too much on the “why me and not them” part of competitive analysis.

Besides, if you’ve been hit and they haven’t, you’re not on the same ground. It’s the difference between a regular kid and a hemophiliac getting a paper cut. Different circumstances, different outcomes.

Moving Forward

Sometimes we have to accept that our fate is to go back to the beginning to try again. It means building content intended to be read by someone other than search engines, and a back link profile that isn’t bloated with anchor text.

It may not be easy to get there and it may hurt. But if everything was just fine until the day all came crashing down around you that could be what you’re looking at.

So go ahead, grieve. Process the whole thing. And then do what it takes to start over.

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