How I’ve Recovered From the Google December 2020 Core Update

April 15, 2021

by Vlad Khvatov

How I’ve Recovered From the Google December 2020 Core Update

I've recovered after the Google December 2020 update.

I know a lot of people are interested in this topic, so here's my main point:

Recovery is always possible.

How I've Recovered From the Google December 2020 Core Update Proof

Before the update, my website was bringing in more than 100k users per month.

And it was a real pain to lose that traffic.

The first thing I said to my team when I saw the site crashing was "don't panic."

I needed to keep a cool head. So my first action was to observe the situation.

Observe and analyze.

After the update, sites were divided into two categories (as always): those that grew and those that fell.

My task was to find some common features of both.

People love to analyze sites that fell. Why don't we pay attention to those that grew after the update and see how they managed it?

In April 2021, Google rolled out an update that was directed exclusively at affiliate websites. This update meant my site could recover after all my hard work.

Enough time passed and suddenly Google rolled out an update that was directed exclusively at affiliate websites.

But let's move on to the main topic: How I recovered from the December 2020 update and what it cost me, with practical tips and thoughts that will help you to do the same or even think about if you're good now.

The Steps I Took:

1. I implemented silo

2. I categorized my content in a different way

3. I implemented breadcrumbs for better navigation and Google crawl

4. I created brand-new category pages

5. I rewrote stolen pieces of content

6. I fixed internal links issues

7. I removed low-quality informational content

8. I added 41 pages of useful content

9. I deleted annoying affiliate signals

10. I implemented the first screen theory

11. I improved site speed & prepared for core web vitals

12. I disavowed 482 links

13. I gave my site a completely new design

14. Bonus tip: Diversify your links

Now let's take a closer look.

1. I implemented silo.

The structure of my site was a big surprise for me.

I thought it was set up well and easy to use.

But from a web crawler's view, it wasn't.

Thankfully, WordPress showed me the power of a crawler's logic.

Here's how my site looked before the update:

Before silo

The first thing I wanted to implement was silo architecture.

If you're not familiar with silo, it's a way to group content and link structures in a way that crawlers love.

For example, before silo a page would be located at myhealthysite.com/paleo-diet-recipes/. After silo it would be located at myhealthysite.com/nutrition/paleo/recipes/.

I was thinking about implementing silo around year ago, but it's hard to do and there was "never enough time."

Now I had the time. 😂

Here's how my site looks now:

After silo

How I did it:

I copied all my posts from the posts section in WordPress into pages in the pages section and created parent pages for each silo.

But changing my site architecture wasn't enough, so I kept working.

2. I categorized my content in a different way.

As I said, I thought my site was logically perfect.

But to fix my site's structure and create a better user experience, I had to rethink all my content from a categorization perspective.

And it was a real pain in the ass.

I made a decision: to focus only on commercial content for my silo pages.

It's like using best practices in e-commerce.

I took inspiration from one affiliate website in particular: NerdWallet.

NerdWallet is great at categorization.

Just take a look at their credit card structure:

nerdwallet.com/best/credit-cards/balance-transfer

nerdwallet structure

How I did it:

I did in-depth research on my competitors and created a spreadsheet of all possible ways to categorize my content. It's not as big as you might think, but it has really helped me look at my website in terms of categories. After that, I implemented the best chains for my silo pages.

3. I implemented breadcrumbs for better navigation and Google crawl.

Breadcrumbs are everywhere in e-commerce.

But not in the affiliate and blogging world.

They're simple navigation elements that help Google crawl your site properly, and they also help your users.

Implementing breadcrumbs not a hard technical task, but if you're struggled with it, here are some ways you can do it. About 99% of modern WordPress themes have an option you can enable. It can also be easily done with the Rank Math plugin.

4. I created brand-new category pages.

Almost all categories in the blogging world are awful—and not just on affiliate sites.

Seriously, could you find a quick example of a nice category page (and not from big sites like NerdWallet)?

Creating new category pages was hard, but it was a nice continuation of my silo architecture.

Imagine that a visitor lands on the category page of your site. Will they be satisfied? Can they find something easily?

Poor category pages are a common mistake, so I wanted to find a good template to help me improve.

And I did.

my structure of category pages for affiliate site

Now my pages are more serious and more useful for users.

It's really hard to change category pages in WordPress. It's rarely possible in theme settings. I recommend using Elementor or Thrive Themes (as I do). They make life much easier.

5. I rewrote stolen pieces of content.

One more thing that blew my mind was how Google ranks my pieces of content.

I'll explain.

If you put your search query in quotation marks (""), Google will search specifically for this part of the text. It's a simple and powerful way to find duplicates of your content—to find who stole your content.

And here's the truth:

If you find your content anywhere else, it's not your content anymore.

Why?

Because Google thinks you stole it (even if someone else stole it from you) and will decrease your search ranking.

Unfortunately, generic websites (doorways) will rank above you.


I know a lot of people who complain about this point, but I'm 90% sure that if your content doesn't rank first when you search it in quotes, you're in a bad position in Google's eyes

It's like when you Google your own brand and aren't in the first spot.

BTW, if you know of any research about this type of duplicate content, please leave it in the comments.

I would be happy to check the research and bust this myth if it is one.

Place your most important pages (or the pages where you've seen a drop in rankings) in plagiarism checker and find the most-copied paragraphs. Google some of the sentences within quotes. If you're in first place, you're good. If you're not in first place, rewrite some content.

6. I fixed internal links issues.

A few months ago, I was listening to The Authority Hacker Podcast (if you're in affiliate marketing you must pay attention to it) and the hosts were talking about the evolution of niche sites.

A guest (Spencer Haws) said one thing about internal links that caught my attention:

If you place an internal link, make sure it's relevant and correctly optimized.

Sounds so simple that everyone would already understand it, right?

Not exactly. It's all about attention.

I'll give you an example.

A writer created an excellent article about grills. It covered a broad topic that would fit under the best grills keyword.

When the writer was describing budget models, he made an internal link to another best budget grills article with the anchor text "best budget grills." Later, he linked to an article about best grills under 100 with the same anchor text.

All of these links describe budget models, but Google doesn't understand which one ranks for the "best budget grill" keyword.

I see a lot of people making this mistake—even experienced content creators—just because other staff members did so or because they didn't pay enough attention.

I've even seen this mistake on my own site.

So I decided to fix it.

The solution is to place relevant anchor text with keywords you want to rank for. For example, if you want to rank for "good grill under 100 bucks," make that your anchor text.

The best and fastest way to do it?

Manually. Seriously.

With automated tools it's really hard to tell whether your anchor text is understandable in the context of the complete text or not.

7. I removed low-quality informational content.

What happens when one of your best copywriters starts screwing up and missing things like uniqueness and on-page optimization?

You get poor stats like these:

1. When you target a keyword with only 1,800 searches per month:

1st example of low quality content

2. When you target a keyword with only 14,800 searches per month:

2nd example of low quality content

And so on.

When it comes to search results and traffic, it's doesn't matter if an article is well written and easy to read if it's not optimized and unique.

It just won't rank, or it will rank the same as low-quality duplicate content.

Sadly I didn't realize this earlier, but I worked to fix the problem.

How I did it:

My team rewrote all our low-quality content and optimized it with Surfer and by understanding user intent.

8. I added 41 pages of useful content.

But there was one problem with rewriting old stuff.

We removed a lot of informational content when we started rewriting.

In March, Matt Diggity published a video about the December 2020 update.

If you didn't see it, here it is:

Most of my site content was "best" pages—articles about the best products in certain categories.

In the video, Matt gave me some things to think about, and new theory came into play.

My team needed to add more informational content.

So we added 41 new pages of how-to posts and other informational content, all in a very short period of time.

We didn't do anything special to add the content—we just hustled. But I do want to mention that I've seen Google starting to hit affiliate websites really hard. The way forward I see for myself in this business is to start concentrating more on informational content.

One more thing:

I've checked dozens of affiliate sites in the hosting niche. There's one I still remember to this day because it was really good.

hostingfacts ahrefs

Nice links, awesome content. But 80% of its content was reviews and "best" lists. It made me think about this again.

9. I deleted annoying affiliate signals.

The next theories on how to improve my site came from researching sites that lost traffic in the Google update and also more potential reasons why websites got hit by the update.

Here's an important question for affiliate sites:

When you go to the website's index page, how do you understand whether it's an affiliate site or a real business?

These sites will have huge numbers of links from the index page to "best" reviews. It's annoying.

Seriously, it takes like one second notice if something is an affiliate site or if something looks like a real business. If you use spam techniques, you just show Google that you want to make money, not help people.

Let's take a closer look:

Gear Hungry

Gear Hungry ahrefs
Gear Hungry index page example

Wise Pick

Wise Pick ahrefs
Wise Pick index page example

Pet Life Today

Pet Life Today ahrefs
Pet Life Today index page example

PS — Pet Life Today removed this block and now the links on their index page only go to their informational articles. Nice job! 🙂

So I removed the block too.

We all know an index page is really powerful for link juice. My recommendation in this section is just a theory, so why am I doing all these crazy things? Because I needed to help my website recover, and to do that I wanted to implement every single theory.

10. I implemented the first screen theory.

My next theory had to do with the first screen visitors see on a website.

I'll give you an example because big sites are already trying to implement clean first screens.

Let's look at Gear Hungry again:

Before

Gear Hungry before update

After

Gear Hungry after update

This is even being implemented by REALLY BIG SITES.

Seriously, let's take a closer look.

Wirecutter

Wirecutter page example

NYMag

NYMag page example

CNN

CNN page example

Forbes

Forbes page example

They all have clean first screen without annoying "Buy now! My best offer is here!" ads.

I understand it's confusing to compare small affiliate sites with such giants.

But my sites had the same problem.

Seriously.

They had a first screen with a big offer (or even two or three). Then after a simple introduction, there were more offers.

When you try to sell like crazy, it probably indicates to Google that your site is a spammy affiliate site.

So I removed the offers and created a clean first screen.

PS — Some of you will find this theory funny or even crazy. But I'll repeat: It's just a theory and I wanted to try every single one for recovery. Maybe it was helpful, maybe it wasn't. But it was important to try. 😉

11. I improved site speed & prepared for core web vitals.

Everyone talks about web vitals right?

But I also understand that I need to prepare before the core web vitals update releases in May.

Why?

Because I understand that the only way to check if your changes will help your website recover is to wait for Google's next update.

Here are the results:

One of our review articles

My affiliate site roundup page for core web vitals update

Our homepage

My affiliate site index page for core web vitals update

How you do this varies from site to site and depends on the technology a site is using. But I highly recommend to check the latest article about page speed by Matt Diggity.

12. I disavowed 482 links.

482 Disavowed links proof

This step is simple but effective.

It won't help you recover too much, but in the long run it's a nice move to help your site grow.

13. I gave my site a completely new design.

To roll out all my changes—silo, new category pages, etc.—I decided to completely refresh my website's design.

Seriously.

Why?

To make it unique and keep it from looking like an affiliate site.

And here's an important tip:

Remove all old tech stacks and make one from scratch for all other projects. Now I don't need to worry about tech things on other sites because my main tech stack is good enough for at least 80% of my other projects.

14. Bonus tip: Diversify your links!

This is my last theory, which I love.

Not only can it potentially save your site in the affiliate world, but it will also give you more commissions.

Just take a look:

Wirecutter

Consumer Reports

Men's Health

See?

You need to give your readers choices.

All the big sites are doing this. They diversify links.

They link to a product on Amazon, Target, Walmart, etc.

And I will do the same for my projects.

Conclusion

So there are my theories and my results.

In fact, I've seen a 611% traffic increase. And this keeps growing.

Do you have any questions?

Or maybe you've already implemented some of my theories.

Maybe you have more ideas to share.

Feel free to leave a comment—I would be happy to discuss this with you!

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  1. Honestly

    I was also hit hard by December google updates.

    I implemented 75% of the things you have covered here and I recovered in April too.

    I will be stealing some of your ideas from here.

    Thank you for the tips

          1. I also heard that adding info content makes difference, so wondering what % of info content was before/after

          2. Before it was around 30-40%, but there were a lot of low quality pieces of content as I mentioned in the post. So in fact it was much less. For now, it’s around 60%+.

    1. Happy to hear you recovered from the the Dec 2020 Update.

      I, too, have a site that got hammered bad. And I think it's because it's too bottom-heavy, it's full of reviews and little info content.

      Been meaning to start working on it, and now that I've learned a trick or two to quicken the process, I'll start executing my my recovery strategy.

    1. It depends.

      If you see this thing on all of your website pages it might be a big problem.

      In gray niches like betting\gambling etc, it’s a way where big guys steal content from smalls and Google will think they are the source and it’s YOU stole content from them. I saw some cases and the only thing you can do is to rewrite and make your content unique again.

      But as I said it depends on the percent of your website content and stole one.

  2. Hey Vlad,

    What are you using to map your internals/silo above in the before and after pictures?

    Are you allowing your categories to index as well as the paginated pages associated with them?

    1. Hey Dillon.

      1. Screaming frog. Just go to “Visualisations” -> Force-Directed Crawl Diagram
      2. I personally created noindex but follow for paginated pages. And of course index for category pages because they are well optimized.

  3. Hey Vlad! Very inspiring!

    Building a silo is so underrated by so many people! But it's one of the things that helps Google understand your site much better!
    The idea with breadcrumbs also falls into this category and should be used much more often.

    Also, the approach of rewriting the stolen content, fixing internal links, and deleting bad content is very contrary to what most SEOs think.
    I like your approach to testing things – even if they are not proven yet, but you just have a good gut feeling 😉

    Keep up the good work – you just got a new reader 🙂

    Best,
    Fabian

    1. Hey Fabian,

      Big thanks 🙂

      Yeah, the silo is a great one. I also see the advantage of a lot of affiliate sites that use silo in SERP.

      Especially in competitive niches.

      As for breadcrumbs, I’m the person who didn’t pay attention to it too. But it’s a useful and must-have thing. So, for now, I implement it on each of my projects.

      “I like your approach to testing things – even if they are not proven yet, but you just have a good gut feeling ” – it’s the only thing to move your ass in SEO space ahah Nothing to say more, just try and test everything and probably you’ll succeed 😉

      Thanks again Fabian, you’re welcome! 🙂

  4. Hi Vlad,

    I know the site in reference here but for the sake of the privacy I won't mention it here, however I must say the changes are great and it gives the site a fresh and modern look and I have noticed several competitive keywords have come back so congrats. And finally thanks for detailing the process.

    1. Hey Ankit,

      Big thanks for the feedback. Tbh it was really hard to implement such big changes in this period.

      I hope you found some interesting things and wish you luck with your projects.

  5. Thanks for your great post.
    Brother, Can I get your email? I need some help. Please I need to contact with you.

  6. Well written Vlad. I'm trying to figure this out for my ecommerce site (non affiliate) and I'm glad I came across the post. Silk and cluster is something I've been working on for a few months now. But haven't figure out how to get around it. I do create cluster content and interlink them but need the parent silos better defined and incorporated in the site architecture. The fact that my store is on shooify isn't helping. But I doubt that's my only issue though.

  7. Thanks for the artilce, very useful.

    As far as I understood you took your existing pages mywebsite.com/page-name and add a category to it and then redirected, so now it looks like mywebsite.com/category/page-name?

  8. Hi Vlad,

    Amazing Tips, I got hit in december as well, I have added 40+ Info posts, Updated Old content, Fixed missing alt texts, optimized the speed but nothing improved, I have not done anything to silo, I guess I should work on the silo.

    1. Hey Saeed.

      It’s a really bad man, hope soon you’ll recover, because soon is the May update.

      Btw email me via the contact form, want to check your website. Probably will find more issues.

  9. Good article, thanks for sharing. Your said you had 100k visitors a month before the hit, do you mind saying how much you're at now after the recovery? A full out partial recovery?

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience. I have question that in your 1st point you shared that you copied all your posts to pages. Is that mean you created separate PAGES for each content and remove old POSTS?

  11. Love this post! I actually implement silo's and breadcrumbs before the December update and my site ranks so much easier and quicker for keywords and I'll do it for all my sites. However, I totally understand the part of not finding time, it really is a pain for existing sites.

    The diversify the links option is a great idea but it's another time-consuming task. Do you know a way to speed it up?

    Thanks for the great article.

    1. Hey James,

      Thanks a lot 🙂

      Yeah, it’s a pain. But these small changes could be game-changers sometimes.

      As for your question. Yeah, just focus on the main pages. Here is the 20\80 rule that works fine.

      Seriously. I’ve seen great revenue growth and don’t worry about other pages much, just a golden CRO rule.

      PS. Nice design of your agency website.

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