EDIT 19/6: the issue is apparently solving itself
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.
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.
The drop is present regardless of mobile/desktop, mostly users from Germany and across all our keywords (also the brand specific ones).
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):
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).
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