Giphy is the most popular website for animated GIFs and has become a dependable tool to instantly share images on social media, such as Twitter, which allows you to add a GIF with only a few clicks. Giphy is so dependable, in fact, that the average user probably didn’t notice that the website had experienced dramatic drops in online visibility. This article is going to explore what happened to Giphy and try to figure out whether this was some kind of grand conspiracy or just another avoidable technical SEO nightmare.
An Interesting Coincidence?
On March 10th, Fast Company published an article about Giphy’s success and cultural impact:
Giphy has capitalized on its cultural currency to amass an audience of 300 million people who see a GIF from Giphy every single day, triple its total since just December 2016. They share more than 2 billion GIFs a day across Giphy.com and the many platforms where Giphy is embedded: Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, iMessage, Slack, and even Zendesk.
Co-founder and CEO Alex Chung seemed wildly confident about Giphy’s growth: “We’re thinking about revenue not in terms of millions or hundreds of millions (of dollars), but, like, billions.” He even went on to brag about how Giphy was #1 with “GIF” and “Happy Birthday” in the search results.
Coincidentally, Google lowered their rankings ON THE SAME DAY.
In fact, Giphy has lost 95% of its Google organic visibility within the last 5 months – that’s a loss of 27 million users a month.
Naturally, none of this went unnoticed on social media.
The most ironic part is the article was published on 10/4, the exact day Google hammered them. Wow, NEVER brag about rankings. Ever. https://t.co/wfyjP9hYo5
— Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe) October 9, 2017
1) Google says it will acquire GIF platform Tenor, which is integrated into a variety of keyboards and messaging apps 2) Giphy (which also has a keyboard) continues to get hammered after creeping back from the October nuclear strike https://t.co/mXuF9NYXUL pic.twitter.com/ABhXSClEYL
— Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe) March 27, 2018
I don’t want to join Gabe in making conspiracy theories (he’s too smart for that anyway), but it is worth noting that Google is acquiring Tenor – a competitor of Giphy.
Did Google hammer Giphy because they wanted to promote their new website – Tenor? Or was it because of the fact that Giphy was bragging about their rankings?
SPOILER ALERT: No, probably not.
When we look at the chart from Sistrix, it’s clear that recently the /search directory lost almost all of its organic visibility in Google. In contrast, the “gifs” landing pages gained organic visibility (slightly!).
I suspect now it’s clear to you. Google just deindexed the best performing directory of Giphy.com – “/search”.
Let’s discover the top landing pages of the /search directory of Giphy.com (data from Searchmetrics):
|Keyword||URL||Position (as of 10/01/2017||Traffic Index||Search Volume||Current status (as of 4/4/2018)|
|happy birthday||giphy.com/search/happy-birthday||1||268,728||1,644,499||DE-INDEXED in GOOGLE|
|happy holidays||giphy.com/search/happy-holidays||1||48,068||294,153||DE-INDEXED in GOOGLE|
|good morning||giphy.com/search/good-morning||1||47,772||292,348||DE-INDEXED in GOOGLE|
|naked girl||giphy.com/search/naked-girl||8||35,108||2,250,195||DE-INDEXED in GOOGLE|
|what||giphy.com/search/what||3||30,948||699,171||DE-INDEXED in GOOGLE|
|birthday cake||giphy.com/search/birthday-cake||1||30,072||184,038||DE-INDEXED in GOOGLE|
Like Mother Nature, Google can be as cruel as it can be loving.
But we can’t put all the blame on Google. Let’s take a look at some of the mistakes Giphy made that brought on this visibility nightmare.
Mistake #1: Poor Relevance and Low Quality
Google’s job is to present the relevant results for various queries. To put this more scientifically: better relevance = more happy users. Giphy was hit during the core algo update (which happened on March 7). Google’s John Mueller confirmed it was about relevance.
My take is that in the case of Giphy, Google was seeing their result pages/tag pages as not relevant to most of the queries these pages were ranked for and then decided it was of low quality. This alone would be enough to delete such pages from the index.
These search results were often just irrelevant. When I typed a totally random sentence like, “You know Giphy lost its SEO visibility” I found…65,339 GIFs.
Here’s some quick math for you: a countless number of tags x thousands of GIFs for each of them = poisonous “food” for Googlebot.
Mistake #2: Lack of Indexing Strategy
Giphy didn’t care what they indexed. Even totally random GIFs with zero results were indexable.
Furthermore, it seems Googlebot was able to see the sorted results.
Also, URLs with typos were indexable:
John Mueller clearly stated that Google can punish a website on a section (directory) level. So it can audit the whole section and decide if it should appear in Google’s ranking.
Mistake #3 – Poor Internal Linking
Giphy noticed Google doesn’t “like” their search pages. So, on or about October 22, 2017, Giphy started deindexing their internal search pages. It just added a meta “noindex, follow” to their source code. Then, Giphy was hoping its /explore (tag pages, https://giphy.com/explore/happy-holiday is an example) would rank high.
See the following example: https://giphy.com/search/happy-holidays
So Giphy, knowing Google is punishing them, simply decided to deindex all the internal search pages in order to fight the low-quality content.
But now, it’s May. A half a year has passed. And… they still massively link to the /search pages. The /explore section is not internally linked.
It’s not a big deal for Google to rank pages high that have no internal links, right?
I bet now you’re opening the Giphy homepage and you can see some contradictory data.
Check it again. Change the user-agent to Googlebot. I would like to inform you that in the case of Giphy, users get a totally different version than Googlebot. That’s right, they cloak Googlebot.
Mistake #4: Giphy Cloaks Googlebot
Open the Giphy homepage (with the normal user agent).
You will see some trending GIFs, with a large number of links to the /explore section.
Now, switch the user agent to “Googlebot.” The page looks the same, but there is a “subtle” difference. When you view the page as Googlebot, you will see tons of links pointing to the /search directory, and you will not find any links pointing to the /explore directory. So the internal links structure of Giphy is totally different depending on the user agent.
I noticed that they use four different versions of their website based on the user agent. If you want to play around with it, open Giphy.com and start switching the user agent:
- Normal user
- Switch the UA to Googlebot Desktop
- Switch the UA to Googlebot Mobile (using Chrome 6x)
- Open Chrome 41 and switch the UA to Googlebot Mobile (Google uses Chrome 41 for rendering).
You can observe how their internal linking changes depending on the user agent.
Disclaimer: There is a small possibility that Giphy cloaks Googlebot because they want to “fight” thin content – to make sure Google deindexed all the search pages. But personally, I doubt it. As of April 5, 2018, the vast majority of Giphy’s internal search pages are de-indexed in Google.
Even Popular Websites Can Suffer
Pinterest is a popular site designed to help people find information online through images and the like, and is considered to be one of Instagram’s biggest competitors. In the case of Pinterest.com, you can find a similar pattern as Giphy. Here, Google deindexed tons of tags (the entire “/explore” directory).
Instagram is Facebook’s photo and video-sharing social network service. With over 800 million users (as of this month), it ranks as third most popular social media platform. When you look at Instagram you will clearly notice a similar issue. In June, Google was ranking Instagram’s tags (/explore/tags) highly. Then, these kinds of pages started dropping in Google.
Returning to Giphy’s competitor Tenor, you will also see that their organic visibility dropped. In fact, their /search pages suffered the most.
The Pattern is Clear – Tag/Search Pages Got Hit
Now, it should be clear. Google deindexed/lowered rankings for tag/search pages of popular websites like Pinterest, Instagram, and Tenor, and Giphy was simply next in line to receive a TREMENDOUS drop in their organic traffic.
Why did this happen?
In 2007, Matt Cutts, former head of the web spam team at Google, in his blog post “Search results in search results”, stated:
In general, we’ve seen that users usually don’t want to see search results (or copies of websites via proxies) in their search results. . . so Google does take action to reduce the impact of those pages in our index.
That was 11 years ago. Nowadays, Google algorithms are more sophisticated, and they can detect thin content/low quality/search pages easier than ever.
The Risk is High. Very High.
If you have tons of tag/search pages on your website, you’re on the way to being penalized.
Google may punish you on three levels:
- Landing page
- Section (directory)
- The whole website
If you have tons of low quality tag/search pages returning no relevant results, you run the risk that Google will deindex all of your tag/search pages (even the valuable ones) receiving a massive amount of traffic coming from Google!
Seems serious? It is. And that’s exactly what happened to Giphy.
But, it’s not all black and white. A relative small number of valuable tag/search pages may be good for your SEO efforts. As long as you keep it under control. A website’s structure should not be based wholly on tag/search pages. Here is where the technical SEO teams come in handy. They can help you:
- Introduce indexing strategy
- Work on your Information Architecture (sometimes it’s the best way to restructure your website to make sure both users and Google benefit from it)
- Determine if the tags are of low quality
My advice: if you have tag/search pages and want them to rank high while minimizing the risk of being penalized, make sure you work with an experienced technical SEO team.
Did these internal search results/tags stop ranking because of thin content? Because of poor user experience? Because Google decided these were not relevant for the queries these websites were ranking high? Or, just because of the fact that Google tried to avoid presenting internal search results?
The truth is that many websites have a similar structure to websites like Giphy, Pinterest, and Instagram. Should they be worried about their rankings in the future? That’s a great question and just one more reason you should work with experienced technical SEOs.
It’s worth noting that all websites can be penalized, despite their size or importance. Also, many smaller companies use, for example, Pinterest to promote themselves. If Pinterest loses its organic traffic, this could affect those third-party vendors, like small businesses.
Clearly, Google stopped ranking the internal search results/tags of Giphy; just as they did for Pinterest, Instagram and Tenor. As a consequence, these websites lost a major part of their organic visibility. I am sure there are many more websites that have suffered from the same issue.
As always, I am happy to receive your feedback. Feel free to share your thoughts with me, either via the comments or Twitter.