Solving an incorrect publication date in the SERPS

It won't surprise you to learn that I don't pay the bills with this site. Instead, I am very lucky to work for a fintech startup in Berlin. I love my job, and I watch our rankings like a hawk. As is the case for many small online businesses, we still depend on 3/4 high ranking landing pages to deliver a large percentage of our traffic.

You can imagine my shock therefore, when I arrived on the 11th of November to find two of my key landing pages had dropped from #1 and #2 in the SERPS to #11 and #15.

My guts began to digest themselves and I started digging furiously to try and find the reason for this potentially detrimental drop. I started with the worst case scenario, heading over to my Search Console to see if we had been hit with a manual action. Mercifully coming up short, I turned to my backlinks to detect any major changes which might have occurred, causing this drop. Again, nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

With the obvious candidates out of the way, I racked my brains for more esoteric culprits. Let's look at the situation unfolding before us:

  • 2 landing pages had experienced a significant fall in rankings
  • Blog posts, other landing pages and the homepage were unaffected
  • No significant loss of backlinks, in fact the # of referring domains had increased
  • No manual action was registered in Search Console
  • Content on those landing pages was fresh and original

What is QDF and how did it screw me over?

I'm going to cover the basics first so everyone can follow along.

Query deserves freshness (QDF) was reportedly invented by Amit Singhal, a Google VP, in 2007. It's definition is quite simple:

QDF is a part of Google's search algorithm which tries to determine whether a keyword deserves up-to-date content or not.

Now, this is the theory behind it and it makes a lot of sense. If you google "Presidential Campaign" for example, you want to read about Clinton and Trump, rather than Eisenhower and Stevenson, squaring off.

The truth about QDF, in my experience, is that almost all commercially relevant content gains a small boost by being updated regularly. As a result, I make sure to update my content all the time, changing some of the copy, the images, including new Infographics, polls, media, and even including the words: "Updated on DATE" at the top of the page to let Google now that this content is as fresh and relevant as possible.

So what does this have to do with my drop in rankings? The short answer is: everything.

Something in the way the Googlebots were now treating my landing pages had changed and I needed to figure out what.

I began where all SEO begins, with a Google search. What did my landing pages now look like in the SERPS?

Checking out the SERPS

The publication date on both affected landing pages was now March 22. 2011(!!).

Google falsely believed that my landing pages where 5+ years old, and the QDF part of the algorithm had demoted them accordingly. In Google's eyes, content on commercial topics older than 5 years apparently does not deserve a spot above the fold.

This is why my content fell so sharply in the rankings and it was a wake-up call to QDF's real power in the algorithm.

But how could this happen? As part of my QDF strategy I make sure to update and re-publish landing pages and blog posts on a monthly basis. The actual publication date, as seen in Wordpress, was the 23rd of October 2016.

So where was Google getting this date from?

9 times out of 10, Google will pull the publication date from the meta-property provided by the CMS. So although the publication date may not show on your blog post or landing page, your CMS will provide a time stamp, which is picked up by Google and other Search Engines. In the source code it looks something like this:

Failing this, Google will turn to more guerrilla ways of ascertaining the date, such as scanning the content and detecting any dates provided in the HTML.

With this in mind, I scanned my content, but couldn't find a date of any kind and certainly not March 22. 2011.

Next, I went hunting in the HTML of the page. Both affected landing pages used the same template. So although the content on each is unique, some aspects, like images, a video and formatting are the same.

This approach also failed to bring any significant insight. I included and updated the date in the copy at the bottom of the page, and kept thinking.

After spending long hours scrolling through Google and Wordpress help forums, I decided to go through every element of the pages one-by-one. Then, looking like I'd just barely survived the Hunger Games, I finally found the culprit.

And here it is:

Don't let the cute lama in the thumbnail fool you. This video singlehandedly tanked my rankings.

Suffice to say that the startup I work for operates in the bitcoin space - a very niche market in which we often need to educate visitors about the fundamentals. To help with this, we include(d) this cute, informative video in the template for most of our landing pages.

With nowhere else to look, I finally checked out the publication date for this video on Youtube. Guess what:

BOOM! The Youtube video embedded on the affected landing pages was published on March 22, 2011. Finally, a light went on in my head.

Google was using the publication date of the embedded Youtube video as the publication date of the landing pages.

Fixing the problem

If you are in charge of marketing for a small online business, do yourself a favour right now: Open a new tab, search for your most important keywords in Google, and look at the publication date. If everything is as it should, congratulations. If an incorrect, older date appears, you need to fix this right now or your rankings might tank like mine did. Follow these instructions to fix the issue:

1.  Make sure the publication date in your CMS is up-to-date. If you are using Wordpress, check the top right of the page and edit if necessary.

2. Scan the copy of your content for a corresponding date. If the date in the SERPS matches a date provided in the copy, include a "Updated on DATE" at the top of the page.

3. Run through the HTML of your page to see if the date is hiding in your uploads.

4. Check the publication dates of any embedded media. (This was the issue I had)

Google is not plucking the date from thin air. If your page is shown with a publication date in the SERPS, something on the page is making Googlebot believe it to be so.

Once you have identified the culprit, you would be well advised to replace it with a more up-to-date version. In my case for example, I found a recently published video that I liked better, and embedded that instead.

Now that we know what is causing the problem and fixed the issue, we need to head over to Google Search Console and fetch the page as Google.

Next, enter the URL of the landing page you want Google to re-index, and fetch and render:

After a few second, you will be able to request a re-indexing:

Within a few hours, your landing page should be indexed at the correct date.

Conclusion | Significant boost for my rankings and heart successfully out of mouth

Nothing could convey my happiness more than the following graph:

A day after submitting the URLs to be indexed, my rankings not only made a full recovery, but even surpassed their previous level.

Thank you for reading! 😁 If this helped you, please consider sharing it. For any follow up questions, please let me know in the comments.

(Update: After publication, I found this MOZ thread which might provide further assistance.)

Thanks to Britney from MOZ for the awesome shoutout 🙏

Great Case Study: How to fix incorrect publication date in the SERPS (re YouTube embeds) by @cgrundy_10

— Britney Muller (@BritneyMuller) November 22, 2016