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Yoast SEO on WordPress Kills Rankings with Update

By: Chris LaFay on June 7, 2018

The Yoast SEO plugin – which powers a lot of SEO for the web – released a bug during a normal version update.  This update may affect your website, so read below on how to resolve the issue. You can also get in touch with us to make sure you’re in the clear.

What Happened?

When Yoast updated to its newest major version (7.0 – released in March 2018) a toggle switch was permanently switched to the “no” position.  This switch dealt with how image redirects were handled.  This is how Yoast described the technical issue:

The bug was simple yet very painful: when you updated from an earlier version of Yoast SEO to Yoast SEO 7.0-7.0.2 (specifically those versions), we would not always correctly convert the setting you had for the old setting into the new one. We accidentally set the setting to ‘no’. Because we overwrote the old settings during the update, we could not revert this bug later on.

Is the Problem Affecting Your Site?

Login to the backend of WordPress, hover over Yoast SEO on the left navigation bar and click on Search Appearance.  You will be greeted with a screen with multiple tabs at the top (see screenshot below).  Click on the Media tab.

WordPress admin panel of Yoast SEO

A screenshot of the Yoast SEO WordPress admin panel where the switch was incorrectly toggled

If this toggle switch is set to “No” then you might be affected by the bug.

My Switch is Set to “No,” What Should I Do?

If you are aware of this switch and intentionally set the switch to No, then you are perfectly fine.  However, if you aren’t aware of this switch, then chances are you need to move it back to Yes.  Before you make a change, let’s make sure you know what this toggle switch does.

What Are Attachment URLs Anyway?

When you upload an image to WordPress, it also generates an attachment URL.  This URL is not a direct link to an image. It is actually a link to a dynamic page on your website that will load the image.  This dynamic page is then added to your website’s sitemap.  The downside to having these attachments as pages (from an SEO perspective) is that it bloats your sitemap.  Google now will index every single image and attachment as if it were a page on your website.  Those “pages” don’t have any relevant content to your site, and it therefore waters down the impact your other real pages have.  When the setting is toggled to Yes, Yoast automatically redirects all the dynamic Attachment Page URLs to their actual attachment.  Now, your sitemap isn’t bloated and Google doesn’t index a lot of “thin pages.”  The update Yoast pushed moved this toggle switch to No thus bloating a lot of companies’ sitemaps.  This caused search ranking drops for a number of businesses.  From the founder of Yoast:

For some sites our bug might have a truly bad impact. In Twitter and Facebook discussions I’ve had, I’ve been shown sites that had the number of indexed URLs on their site quintupled, without adding any content. 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. Some of those sites are now suffering from Panda-like problems. The problem will be specifically big if you have a lot of pictures on your website and few high quality content-pages. In these cases, Google will think you’ve created a lot of ‘thin content’ pages all of a sudden.

I’ve Been Negatively Affected

For those people who have seen a drop in site traffic and/or a hit in your Google Search Console, Yoast has released a plugin that will assist in removing the sitemap bloat version 7.0 caused.  Yes, you need to toggle the above switch to Yes just like we talked about, but changing that switch won’t allow Google to react quick enough if your site has been affected.  Toggling the switch to Yes removes all the dynamic Attachment Page URLs from your sitemap, however Google won’t notice a removal for quite some time.

What Does This Plugin Do?

Installing this plugin creates a separate sitemap for just the Attachment Page URLs.  When those URLs are publicly available through a sitemap, Google is forced to re-crawl them.  In that sitemap, each of those URLs have been flagged with a 410 status code.  This code tells Google that all those pages no longer exist and that Google needs to remove them from it’s index.  After six months, Google should have deleted all your attachment URLs, and you can remove the new plugin you just installed.

Most people are probably not going to be affected by this plugin update.  The founder of Yoast actually spoke with John Mueller of Google about this problem. Here is what he had to say:

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.

Yes, you definitely should take the precautionary measures as outlined above.  But, unless your website has a huge footprint on the web the likelihood of this having catastrophic effects on your website is pretty slim.  If you do have any questions about this, please don’t hesitate to reach out and one of our team members can assist you.

Written By:

Chris LaFay

Chris founded CCC after trying to figure out how to have the work-life balance that everyone dreams of. Not only does he get to enjoy designing + implementing websites, he also gets to play with his dog, travel, enjoy family dinners, and keep up with baseball. Check back with Chris for articles on web design, user experience, and project case studies.