Note: Updated Sept. 18 based on more details from Google’s John Mueller in the comments. Thanks again, John! We’re so grateful for Google’s help and guidance in solving our mystery and fixing our errors so quickly!

The month of August gave the Buffer Crafters an unexpected SEO mystery to solve. When Google announced that https would become a ranking signal, we switched our Buffer Social blog over to https—and subsequently lost about 90% of our organic traffic!

Here’s a look at our organic traffic in isolation. The orange line is our traffic before the switch; the blue line is after. Yikes, right?

organic traffic isolated compared to past in GA

We made the switch on Aug. 8, and it took us a while to see the drop. When we did, we checked with various SEO folks (thanks to our awesome SEO consultant Joe Hall and the kind folks at Moz for the hand!) to see if we had implemented everything correctly. (If you’re going through the same process, Joe has an excellent step-by-step resource.)

Once we were pretty sure we had set everything up correctly, we kept digging. We had recently set up Google Webmaster Tools and noticed that the blog had a manual action penalty listed, so we set out to fix that with a full SEO audit. (The penalty turned out to be an old notice and unrelated to the drop, though we still have a lot of ways we can improve!) We switched back to http to see if we could stabilize our traffic. Meanwhile, we knocked on a few doors at Google, and John Mueller was kind enough to check out our situation.

Thankfully, our SEO mystery has a happy ending. John Mueller and his team were quick to look into our situation, for which we are eternally grateful. In a matter of days, we began to see signs of recovery. (The old manual action penalty also was removed.) Knowing the number of requests and communications Google must see on a daily basis, it was amazing to see that they were able to help us so quickly, and they were such a pleasure to learn from.

organic traffic drop and recovery

I learned a few giant lessons from our big screw-up here, namely to:

Take time with site changes. We switched over to https almost as soon as possible, without fully considering the possible effects and repercussions. In Google’s announcement, it says “In the coming weeks, we’ll publish detailed best practices to make TLS adoption easier, and to avoid common mistakes.” I’m sure we made at least one if not all of those common mistakes!

Test changes with smaller sites. When we make future, potentially crucial changes to site infrastructure, it would probably be better to try things on a smaller scale first, rather than with our most trafficked blog. We’ve put this into practice for any future changes we make to the blog, and it’s working much better.

As a result of all this, August’s numbers for Buffer Social look pretty weird. Meanwhile, we published tons of great new content on both blogs, and Buffer Open saw visits topping 100,000 for the first time.

Let’s take a closer look with a dive into the numbers!

Marketing Report

August stats for Buffer Social

  • 37,841 total email subscribers (+12.5% from last month)
  • 490,647 users (unique visitors) (-29.8%)
  • 681,638 sessions (total visits) (-26.6)
  • 866,909 pageviews (-26.1%)
  • 897 direct conversions (-41.9% )
  • 20 total posts published (-2)

Here’s what our traffic looked like in August (in blue) compared to July (in yellow).

August 2014 blog traffic

August’s 10 most popular Buffer Social posts

Six out of our overall Top 10 this month are new for August (they’re marked with an asterisk). This is likely because of our unique organic traffic situation—with most of our ranking search terms lost, newer content and social media sharing had to work a little harder this month.

  1. *15 Twitter Hacks That Will Turn You Into a Twitter Ninja
  2. 10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science
  3. * 30+ Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles, and Emails
  4. 8 Surprising New Instagram Statistics to Get the Most out of the Picture Social Network
  5. *The 10 Best Social Media SlideShare Presentations of 2014
  6. 53+ Free Image Sources For Your Blog and Social Media Posts
  7. *The Big List of Twitter Tools: 59 Free Twitter Tools and Apps to Fit Any Need
  8. The Best Time for Tweets, Facebook Posts, Emails and Blog Posts
  9. *How We Doubled Email Signups in 30 Days: Our Strategies to Get More Email Subscribers
  10. *What Really Happens When Someone Clicks Your Facebook Like Button

You can see how many views each of these top posts received by looking below at our Top Content page in Google Analytics.

August 2014 top 10 posts

Top referral sources

August 2014 top referrals

August stats for Buffer Open

  • 2,376 email subscribers (+23%)
  • 76,572 users (unique visitors) (+21.1%)
  • 101,147 sessions (total visits) (+24.2% )
  • 123,068 pageviews (+18.7%)
  • 155 direct conversions

Here’s what our traffic looked like in August (in blue) compared to July (in yellow).

August 2014 traffic Open blog

August’s top 10 Open blog posts

Six out of our overall Top 10 this month are new for August (they’re marked with an asterisk). 

  1. *Happiness Hacks: The 10 Most Unexpected Ways to Be Happy, Backed By Science
  2. *How to Send Better Email Without Second-Guessing a Single Word
  3.  5 Surprising Tricks To Increase Your Motivation Immediately, According to Fresh Research
  4. *What I Wish I Knew About Creativity When I Was 20
  5. *The Science of Taking Breaks at Work: How to Be More Productive By Changing the Way You Think About Downtime
  6. *6 Ways My Brain Stops Me From Creating – And How I’m Fighting Back
  7. Morning Routines: How Successful People Start Their Day
  8. *Single-task Your Way Through Your Day: How Focusing Unlocks Extreme Productivity
  9. Introducing Open Salaries at Buffer
  10. The Art of Reading, Remembering and Retaining More Books

You can see how many views each of these top posts received by looking below at our Top Content page in Google Analytics.

August 2014 top 10 Open blog posts

Media syndication stats

Here’s a breakdown of how many visitors (and what percentage conversion) syndication efforts brought to the blog in August.

August 2014 syndication stats

Social stats

Facebook

Facebook August 2014

LinkedIn

LinkedIn August 2014

Twitter

Twitter August 2014

Google+

Google+ August 2014

Thoughts and outlook

Experimenting with content upgrades

If you’ve read the blog before, you know we’ve been working on growing our email list with lots of different methods and strategies. This month we tried a new one: the content upgrade! This method offers a giveaway unique to each post in exchange for an email

We love this method because it falls perfectly in line with our mission to provide our readers with as much value as possible on the blog. And it worked like gangbusters for us—211 new email signups from our first experiment!

You can see how it works for yourself in our post 30+ Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles, and Emails.

content upgrade headlines post

I predict we’ll be doing more of these–in fact, September’s report will have ebooks and more.

Continued SEO focus

With this month’s challenges, it seems like we picked a pretty good time to get serious about search engine optimization. In August we commissioned an excellent SEO consultant, Joe Hall, to provide us with a full SEO audit of Buffer’s online presence. He’s just finishing that up now, and we’re sure to share many of the details and actions here in the future.

Decision maker process

Throughout Buffer, we’ve been experimenting with a new management structure we’ve been calling the decision maker process, based on the book The Decision Maker by Dennis W. Bakke.

In a nutshell, the process works by leaving each decision to the person closest to the situation—no need to ask permission. We do ask advice, though, from other members of the team. The bigger the decision, the more advice we get.

On the Crafters team, we’re really enthusiastic about the way this new process is allowing us to focus, and getting advice from other members of the team has been a great experience.

Here’s a look at our areas of ownership:

Courtney: Content suggestions, syndication, SEO, paid acquisition, product launches, Buffer Open

Kevan: Email marketing, social media marketing, writing, ebooks/whitepapers

I’m sure we’ll be writing lots more about this process soon.

Your turn: What do you want to know?

Are there any questions about our blogs, our team, or our social media marketing that we can answer? Share them in the comments, I’d love to keep the conversation going.

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Gotta say I’m beyond excited to see that some ebooks/whitepapers are going to be rolling off the Buffer press soon! Ever since Belle started with her incredible posts on timing or content to include — I’ve been praying you guys would release those ‘definitive guides’ like QuickSprout has or KISSmetrics.

    The blogs are fantastic; having all of those put together in one package? Even better!

  • Dan Shaffer

    Congrats on getting that penalty removed! It’s rare to have Google remove it in just a few weeks! Would love to know more about the process behind your seo audit and how you got the penalty lifted.

    Thanks for keeping us all updated!

    • Hi Dan, thanks so much! I agree; what you’ve suggested would make a great followup post. I’ll get to work on it! :)

      • Dan Shaffer

        That sounds great! Can’t wait to read it!

  • I’d love to know how you guys set up Google Analytics reports. Your insights definitely go deeper than what I currently know how to set up!

    • Hi Brittany! Great idea; I’d love to explain anything in particular that would be helpful to you! Most of this is from the overview or content drilldown pages.

  • Darren Slaughter

    Problem is, most small businesses can’t “knock on Google’s door” for any real help in these situations. But congrats on getting to the root of it!

    • Hi Darren! That’s a great point, and part of the reason it feels great to focus on transparency in these reports and share as much as possible with you. Although to be very honest, I had no idea anyone from Google would actually reply when I reached out over a few Google+ threads. I’ve learned a lot about “polite persistence” since coming to Buffer–it works quite well!

      • Darren Slaughter

        Polite persistence, I love it! Well, I am glad it worked, and I am glad you shared your findings. We may all get a better look behind the curtain soon if the courts in Germany get access to Google’s algo.

    • Steve “Berto” Bertolacci

      Actually, the webmaster hangout on air that John Mueller does are open to anyone including small businesses. If you’re not on the hangout, there’s a question entry section where John will go through them in order of popularity to provide answers. It’s really pretty nice. As for the looking into the penalty himself, he does that when something sounds off as the case here must have been.

      • Great info to share here; thanks so much for adding this! I found Google+ invaluable during this process, and John Mueller was super helpful.

      • Darren Slaughter

        That’s a great tip Steve, thanks!

  • Steve “Berto” Bertolacci

    So what exactly caused the penalty with the switch to secure?

    • Hey Steve! We still don’t entirely know, and to be clear the penalty may have been there before the https switch–we’re not entirely sure. We only recently got everything set up in Webmaster Tools (told ya we were new to SEO!) so perhaps it had been there for a while and we only noticed it then. Another theory is that the switch to https sort of “activated” the penalty, so to speak. Or maybe there were two totally separate issues (penalty and https weirdness) happening in tandem. I welcome all theories and discussion; we are quite new to this! :)

    • johnmu

      It was an older manual action, not related to this change. When you see something out of the ordinary, and you find a manual action that you weren’t aware of, simplifying by resolving the manual action helps you to concentrate on the remaining issues.

      • Thanks so much for jumping in here and clarifying that, John! I’ll update the post as well to make things a little more clear. Again, your help proves invaluable!

        • xoex

          You are so lucky to recover so fast. So it was manual action that reduced your traffic, not HTTPS technical issue?

          We’re in similar but worse situation with Google, We experienced a sudden drop (-90%) in august, recovered after nearly 20 days and then after 10 days Google dropped us again! (see attached image, very strange!)
          I wish I had your relations with Google staff too!

          • So sorry to hear that! If you think it’s a technical issue and not a penalty one, a good idea might be to reach out through some relevant Google+ threads–that’s what I did. I have no special relationship to anyone at Google but found them really helpful!

  • Robert Ramirez

    So what penalty was listed in the manual actions section of Google Webmaster Tools? I’m interested to know if this was an unnatural links penalty, SPAM penalty, thin content penalty? The theory that it may have gotten “triggered” when you went to https:// is an interesting one. If Google treated the https version of the site different then it did the http: version, then it may have reinstated an expired penalty. Curious to know what penalty specifically we’re talking about though (if you don’t mind me asking). Great article!

    • Hi Robert! It was a partial match, unnatural links penalty, the kind that (from my understanding) is only intended to affect certain inbound links to your site.

    • johnmu

      The manual action was older & completely independent of the technical issue. When I see sites with manual actions that also have technical issues, I generally recommend fixing/resolving the manual action as soon as possible, to make it easier to diagnose the technical aspects.

  • Sweet, I missed the first ebook. Gotta go check that out! Thanks also for describing the Google/SEO situation and putting that change on our radar!

  • Lindsay Marder

    Hey Courtney! Is there an email you can be reached at?

  • Aaron

    Hey Courtney

    Really great to hear that content upgrades have worked well for you guys. I always though that was great approach but have yet to try it on the Campaign Monitor blog.

    I’d be really curious to know how big email is for you as a channel. I know you guys have doubled down on your email list and have been kind enough to share your successes in building your list, but I’d love to know more about what that has done for you.

    How much traffic does email drive on a monthly basis? How much does it make up on a per post basis (say for your ‘6 ways my brain stops me from creating post’)? And how much has traffic grown from email as a result of your email list building efforts?