Yesterday, I almost had a heart attack –and it was all Google’s fault.

Several years ago, I started to create a collection of web sites, aimed at “beginners”, about a variety of topics: from “lenen” (loans) and “hypotheek” (mortgage) to “schaken” (chess) and “sudoku“; from “Spanje” (Spain) and “Frankrijk” (France) to “bloemen” (flowers) and “DVD“. At the time of writing, almost fifty sites have been created; in a few years’ time, I hope there will be more than one hundred.

Being a cheap, eh, frugal kind of person, I’ve hosted all these sites on a single domain: voorbeginners.info (as you may suspect, “voor beginners” means “for beginners”). I own “voorbeginners.com” as well, but I decided to use the .info TLD for two reasons. First, I also have a (much smaller) collection of sites in English, hosted at forbeginners.info, and for that domain, I do not own the corresponding .com; and second, if the .info TLD was ever “appropriate”, I thought it would be for these informational sites!

Over time, the sites started to rank well for a number of search terms –until yesterday.

I rarely look at the statistics for my sites (currently, most of them don’t even carry advertising, so there’s no real reason for me to “obsess” over web stats), but I happened to be talking to a friend on the phone about one of the sites. Just for fun, I googled its main search term –only to find that it was no longer on the first page of the results. Or the second. Or the third.

At that point, I did decide to take a closer look at the stats –and what I found nearly made my heart stop: almost all of my traffic had disappeared overnight… (You should know that, in The Netherlands, Google has a market share of about 90%; Yahoo, MSN and a few local players are responsible for the remaining 10%.)

So I started to look up one term after another that used to be in the top 30 (or even top 10) of the search results, and found that my sites had completely vanished; they weren’t even in the top 100…

Had I received some sort of penalty? But why? I was, well, almost 100% certain that I hadn’t used any “shady” tactics to promote my sites; for example, I hadn’t even engaged in reciprocal linking… If it wasn’t a penalty, could a “competitor” somehow have sabotaged my rankings?

I decided to send an e-mail to Google, using an old address that had worked several years ago. Within minutes, I received an autoreply, instructing me to use the form located at a particular URL to contact Google instead. Fine, except… there was no contact form at that URL!

I was starting to despair now. If my rankings were gone and I had no way of contacting Google about it, what was I to do?

Fortunately, I had one final “bright” idea: find out if I was the only person who was having this problem. And sure enough, when I turned to WebMasterWorld, I found a new thread called “My 300 Keywords stopped working and traffic is 0” –that sounded pretty much like the problem I was having!

If you read that thread, you’ll see that several people had a similar problem yesterday, and the one thing they had in common was that their sites were hosted on a .info domain…

I suspect that Google made a slight programming error. They probably wanted to “filter out” a subset of the .info domains, but somehow forgot to add the appropriate conditions, and as a result, they ended up removing all .info domains.

Fortunately, this affected so many webmasters that Google was bound to find out about the problem pretty quickly –and indeed, within 24 hours the situation has gone back to “normal”, my sites rank where they used to and traffic is around the previous level.

Still, this “incident” had me thinking about my dependence on Google –an issue that Aaron Wall has written about repeatedly in his SEO Book Blog, but that’s actually even worse here in The Netherlands, because of Google’s near-monopoly in the Dutch market… Even if you believe (as I do) that Google is usually “fair”, a minor SNAFU can wipe out your traffic, and there is no way to contact Google about it! Solutions, anyone?

Finally, why had .info domains been singled out? It may have something to do with the TLD’s low price. Registrars like GoDaddy regularly charge $0.99 for the first year’s registration of a .info domain, versus $9.99 for most other TLDs. This, of course, makes .info domains very appealing to people who need thousands of domains and/or who only need the domains “briefly” –people better known as spammers

Filtering out all .info domains just because some of these domains are being abused is, of course, far too draconian a measure, and I don’t think it’s what Google intended. It would make much more sense if they filtered out, say, .info domains that had been registered less than a year ago and that didn’t have some minimum number of “trusted” backlinks.

Oh well… Perhaps Murphy’s Law even applies to the GooglePlex!