EDIT 19/6: the issue is apparently solving itself

enter image description here

Unfortunately I cannot see any indication of what worked. It could be the spammy-looking domain which we disavowed links from, but it can also be a glitch of Google's own algorithm. The DE-AT links appear unchanged in webmaster console (still showing a lot of links) - so we concluded it was probably not that. We are happy and relieved that the rankings are going back up, but we do feel frustrated and insecure about our future on SEO since these drops are affecting our business dramatically and we cannot really control them.

Original post

We have a website that is present in different markets in Europe. Therefore the content is specifically targeted to specific countries using a TLD strategy (we have site-name.de, site-name.it, site-name.es, site-name.at, etc.)

Up until now (~ 6 years) our rankings on Google have been rising slowly, but steadily.

But recently (starting at the end of April month) we could observe a sudden decrease of our rankings for one specific site - the one in Germany.

enter image description here

The drop is present regardless of mobile/desktop, mostly users from Germany and across all our keywords (also the brand specific ones).

None of our other domains are affected in the same manner as Germany, as a matter of fact, I cannot see any change in the position/impressions/clicks, except for Austria, which looks like this: enter image description here

Theory 1

The volume in Austria is much smaller than in Germany though. My theory is that somehow the improvement of ranking in Austria has affected the German website. I base my theory on the fact that both websites are in German language (we don't allow Google to index the other languages that our websites are offered in, except the default for that specific country) and somehow Google got confused by having the same text on both domains and somehow thinks they are the same and that they are linking to each other.

Another fact that corroborates my theory is that in Google Search Console I see that, under "Links to your site", the Austrian domain is linking to the German one with 239,971 links. But when I inspect any of the pages (from .at) that links to .de present in the sample, I cannot find any link to .de in the .at HTML pages.

The pages that are linked to from the Austrian domain (there are 6 pages in total with 40.000 links):

enter image description here

To mention that these pages (with 40.000 links) are linked to from our footer on all pages.

Update: I have added a rel="nofollow" on the footer links 2 weeks ago, but no change in number of links or ranking.

I ruled out any code changes that could affect the DE domain, and not the other ones - there is simply nothing in my code commits that could affect SEO (no title tags, meta, headers or any SEO-related text or link/url structure changes).

Theory 2

Another theory that we have is that we somehow have some spammy-looking domain linking to our .de site, causing the drop in rankings. We got a tip from our SEO consultancy company, that another site (seems Spanish in origin) has begun to link crazily to our domain (they have used a 3rd party tool to check backlinks and they could see hundreds of thousands of links). Our SEO consultant believes that this is causing the drop. So we have taken their advice and disavowed all the links from that domain, also we have contacted the originator of links and asked them to take down the links to our website - and they agreed.

For now it is too early to see if this helped - Google says to allow few weeks when using the Disavow function.

Update: After 2 weeks of uploading the disavow file to Google, we can't see any improvement of the ranking.

Additional info about our setup

  • Are present in a total of 9 countries using TLD domains (same domain name, different TLD - country specific)
  • We have lots (millions) of individual listings with different specs (they are rather technical so not a lot of unique text/sentences). These listings are different in each country.
  • We have employed usage of SEO texts throughout the website and put emphasis on our category pages (where you can find listings of a particular kind).
  • We only link to other countries from the home pages of each country (root URL) - we've been doing this from the beginning
  • Our time on site and pages/session are fairly high and we have always got high ratings/NPS from our users.
  • Roughly half of our traffic is coming from organic search, rest is either direct or through referral

What can be causing this drop in rankings/impressions? And what technique can we employ to investigate this?

  • "spammy-looking domain linking to our .de site" - in theory, penalties for spam links were depreciated by the FRED update. They now have a null affect instead. However, only Google knows for sure! ccTLDs shouldn't have issues with cross referencing. Are you using HREF lang codes as well?
    – L Martin
    May 30, 2017 at 8:38
  • No, we aren't using rel="alternate" with hreflang yet, but we did have that suggested from the SEO consultancy company to implement. We're working on it this week. The suggestion was to add hreflang="de-AT"/hreflang="de" pointing from the DE domain to AT and vice versa. Does that make sense?
    – Cristian
    May 30, 2017 at 11:14
  • I just had a thought - are the two ccTLDs for Austria and Germany on the same IP address for hosting? Have they got their own certificates and which one does the default IP resolve to?
    – L Martin
    May 30, 2017 at 11:32
  • Dropping in major keyword position does not mean you've done anything wrong, may be your competitor become strong. Analysis your query. May be the answer is there. Adding hreflang is super priority if you have multinational site with similar content.
    – Goyllo
    Jun 2, 2017 at 5:58
  • @Yhorian it is the same hostname serving both. We use cloudflare, so we hide our IPs from public.
    – Cristian
    Jun 6, 2017 at 11:44

1 Answer 1


Theory 1:

I think you give lots of hints inside your theory 1. In fact, Google could consider German webpages to be duplicates of Austrian webpages.

Except that, the Austrian website could be considered to be engaged into a link scheme with the German website. On the link scheme page from google they say:

Excessive link exchanges ("Link to me and I'll link to you") or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking

Since you have added nofollow to those links and that they are many links it will take time.

Since they have a different country TLDs they are considered to be foreign to each other for Google. Your Austrian website is as foreign to the German website than the Spanish website that linked to your website.

There would be no issue if the website would use subdomains like de.example.com and at.example.com because in this case it would be considered part of the same website. Then it would be required to mention that de.example.com is for Germany and at.example.com is for Austrian in Google search console.

Theory 2:

Google has done everything to prevent other websites to give bad reputations to another website. If it would be the case it would be easy for your competitors to take you down by creating a spammy website and linking it to you.

other ideas:

In fact, the problem may still originate from some pages on your German website. It can be a JS script, a hidden link inside the pages of your German website. Also, did something has been added to the german website before the 29th of April?

  • I also agree with your thoughts about Theory 2. Regarding the changes of code, we have already gone through them and there was nothing we could link to this. And we also roll out changes in all countries simultaneously - so can't see why Germany would be behaving differently.
    – Cristian
    Jun 6, 2017 at 11:48
  • and what about duplicate content on the German and Austrian websites? Could it be possible? Jun 6, 2017 at 14:42
  • Yes, that was suspected from the beginning. That's why we have added both nofollow on the footer links and the hreflang tags to point to alternate content. So far (few weeks in), no change :(
    – Cristian
    Jun 7, 2017 at 13:23
  • There is another option. You could disavow links in google search console coming from the DE site in the AT site, and disavow links from the AT site in the DE site. For your information, i had issues like this with bad outgoing links for a directory and did a nofollow and it took 1 month to recover. Only with nofollow. Jun 7, 2017 at 14:48

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.