Remember the Google update I reported in early March? One thing I left out of that story, intentionally, was some chatter that the those noticing a ranking decline around then may have had a bug with the popular Yoast plugin. I left it out because after reviewing the Black Hat World thread in detail, it appeared the general consensus from that community that the bug with the Yoast plugin was NOT related to this Google update because (a) many who were hit didn’t have the Yoast plugin and (b) those that did have the plugin didn’t strongly believe it was related. There were some that felt their hit was solely related to the plugin but based on A and B, I really felt it was unrelated.
What was the bug? Well, Joost de Valk documented it on May 30th. From what I understand, the bug in the plugin did not automatically forward attachments to their original source, which may result in confusing Google but at the same time, from how I understand Google works, Google wouldn’t just drop tons of pages in rankings overnight over a bug around a forward of attachments. This is how Joost explained it:
When you upload an image in WordPress, WordPress does not only store the image, it also creates a separate so-called attachment URL for every image. These attachment URLs are very “thin”: they have little to no content outside of the image. Because of that fact, they’re bad for SEO: they inflate the number of pages on your site while not increasing the amount of quality content. This is something that WordPress does, which our plugin takes care off (if the setting is correctly turned to “Yes”).
Historically, we had had a (default off) setting that would redirect the attachment URL for an image to the post the image was attached to. So if I uploaded an image to this post, the attachment URL for that image would redirect to this post. In the old way of dealing with this, it meant that images added for other reasons (like say, a site icon, or a page header you’d add in the WordPress customizer), would not redirect. It also meant that if you used an image twice, you could not be certain where it would redirect.
In Yoast SEO 7.0 we introduced a new feature to deal with these pages. Now, we default to redirecting the attachment URL to the image itself. This basically means attachment URLs no longer exist on your site at all. This actually is a significant improvement.
Joost said “because with that setting being “No” XML sitemaps was enabled for attachments. As a result of that, lots and lots of attachment URLs got into Google’s index.” But those types of issues normally can take months and months to notice in the search results, if ever.
Joost asked Google’s John Mueller about this, who responded:
Sites generally shouldn’t be negatively affected by something like this. We often index pages like that for normal sites, and they usually don’t show up in search. If they do show up for normal queries, usually that’s a sign that the site has other, bigger problems. Also, over the time you mentioned, there have been various reports on twitter & co about changes in rankings, so if sites are seeing changes, I’d imagine it’s more due to normal search changes than anything like this.
Then we had an article from Search Engine Journal with the title Yoast SEO Plugin 7.0 Bug Causes Ranking Drops. The community was split on the title, many called this title clickbait and unfair because based on how Google works and John’s statement, the early March complaints was likely not related to this Yoast bug. In fact, John Mueller did a rare response on Twitter calling out the article:
It does take longer to create, but you create long-term value for your site, and the whole industry, by getting the bigger picture right. Other SEO news sites/blogs often have the same problem; don’t give in to the temptation to just bait when you could educate.
— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) June 4, 2018
He also took the time to slam some SEO blogs in general. :/
Joost from Yoast said based on their analysis around the Google issue, he believes it was minimal at best.
But my overall assessment continues to be true; for the majority of sites, this should not be an issue. But that’s a perspective taken on millions of sites and I can totally see that if *you* are hit, that feels wrong.
— Joost de Valk (@jdevalk) June 3, 2018
So that’s exactly the point; for *some* sites it’s an issue. Maybe even for a large group of sites in a particular niche. Niche being determined by topic, but also optimization methods and purpose. Don’t think your niche is even remotely an example for the wider web.
— Joost de Valk (@jdevalk) June 3, 2018
Here are some industry feedback on the Yoast issue as it related to Google ranking issues:
in my opinion, putting all the blame on @yoast @jdevalk is not fair.I believe you should change the title accordingly + add some info in the content copy about the March Google update + quote @JohnMu
— Tomek Rudzki (@TomekRudzki) June 3, 2018
Right @jdevalk spoke with John and he said it wouldn’t cause massive rankings drops. And there was a huge update right on 3/7. Here’s just one of John’s comments… I tweeted a few out earlier explaining more. https://t.co/8pYUFWZGmq
— Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe) June 3, 2018
After weeks of denial and scapegoating after I blogged about it and @jdevalk said it was unfair to put the blame on them for ranking decreases. Still “Not a major issue”?
— Charles Floate (@Charles_SEO) June 3, 2018
Multiple Google updates were reported since the start of March. Keep in mind that the impact of a Google update can be huge, so if your rankings dropped over the last few months don’t blame @yoast right away – investigate. Do the research, look at the bigger picture.2/2
— Steven van Vessum (@Stevenvvessum) June 3, 2018
I would also add: read the fracking notes that every tool releases when launching an update 🙄😀
— Gianluca Fiorelli (@gfiorelli1) June 4, 2018
I did ask Joost for a response and he told me:
Obviously, we had a bug, and one that shouldn’t have happened. We normally are very good at keeping attachment URLs out of the search results for sites. We unfortunately “unfixed” our own fix.
We fixed the bug pretty quickly (within a day), so not all that many people have been affected by it, relative to our 8 million+ userbase. For those that were affected though, some showed a rather enormous impact, one that I at first thought: nah, this can never be tied to this. Once we confirmed it did at the very least partially cause it for some sites we got to work on a fix, which is the plugin we released.
This was very unfortunate, and we’re very sorry that this happened.
As an SEO, there’s some silver lining to this though: the plugin we released contains an XML sitemap that only lists URLs that have 410 statuses. A… negative sitemap, if you will. I think that’s a small invention that’ll come out useful in more places.
Overall, I don’t think Yoast is to blame for the big Google March update but rather the two happened around the same time. I wish Joost was faster to find the issue, but they didn’t and it is what it is.
Personally, I have never been a fan of using code that you did not write yourself or fully understand how it works because things like this can happen. If they do happen with your own code, you’d likely find out sooner and know what exactly happened. I like to control everything and a lot of that has to do with not using WordPress or third party plugins. But at the same time, not everyone has the resources for that and these plugins and platforms are really awesome. Just be careful and don’t be quick to point fingers – ultimately, you installed the software, you should know what it does if possible.
Forum discussion at Twitter and Google Webmaster Help.