It was just over a year ago that one of my sites lost nearly 80% of its organic web traffic due to Google’s now-infamous Penguin update. As much as I wanted to blame Google, sadly I was the one responsible for my misfortune.
What SEO mistakes did I make? And how can you prevent this from happening to your business?
As many of you know, I started my first eCommerce business, Right Channel Radios, in 2008. As a solo founder with an eye on expenses, I bootstrapped everything myself, including SEO. I reached out to blogs, wrote articles and built personal relationships. In short, I invested a lot of time connecting with others, guest posting and creating valuable resources. And it worked! Within a year, I’d built a solid reputation, and the business was growing largely due to organic traffic.
With some traction under my belt, I decided to launch my second site, TrollingMotors.net. I figured I could use the cash flow from Right Channel to grow my new site quickly by outsourcing much of the SEO. So I hired an SEO firm to improve my rankings, thinking it would free me up to focus on other aspects of the business. No need for me to get down-and-dirty with all this difficult work to increase my organic traffic! This time I was going to take it easy.
I had good intentions to monitor the firm’s progress, but as time went on, I didn’t follow through. I was busy with other aspects of my businesses, and because I knew the SEO firm’s owner, I assumed things were being handled well.
Then last April I was checking my rankings in Google when I noticed I’d slipped from #2 to #10 for ‘trolling motors.’ Figuring it was just a temporary adjustment or data center issue, I checked my site analytics. Horrified, I discovered that the site’s organic traffic had dropped 80% over the last few days. After some frantic research, I realized what had caused it: Google’s Penguin algorithm update, which targeted over-optimized sites and backlink profiles:
Some long-overdue analysis revealed a trail of over-optimized links, with one page having 14 of the 15 linking domains using similar anchor text. And while I knew the SEO firm hadn’t used 100% squeaky-clean link techniques, I unearthed strategies and links that were downright spammy and embarrassing. It was amazing I hadn’t been penalized earlier.
Not surprisingly, the Penguin update didn’t negatively affect the traffic for Right Channel, my business where I’d done all the SEO and marketing work myself. If anything, I even saw a small boost in traffic as a result.
So what did I learn thanks to Penguin and my outsourcing debacle?
Be Very Careful Outsourcing SEO
I’m sure this is a no-brainer to most people, but sometimes you need to learn lessons the hard way. When you outsource your SEO, you’re trusting someone with the future of your business; it’s imperative you monitor them closely. This is even more important if you drop ship! Due to the smaller margins, it’s much more difficult to build a profitable drop shipping business with paid traffic versus free organic traffic.
It was easy to justify my lax oversight with the fact that I had a personal relationship with the firm’s owner, and I knew he was using the same methods to generate traffic for his own businesses. Big mistake. Had I been monitoring things closely, I likely would have been able to catch and correct many of the over-optimization issues that occurred.
But even assuming you’re committed to careful monitoring, outsourcing causes you to miss out on crucial feedback. Engaging with people during marketing gives you the opportunity to learn about their problems, issues and pain points. In turn, this allows you to offer better solutions and products, and helps build your knowledge and expertise. You miss out on all of this when you outsource SEO, especially when launching a new business.
So be warned and learn from my mistake! Outsourcing can seem like a great way to get additional traction with your SEO and marketing efforts, but it comes with strings attached.
The best marketing and SEO is done by a committed in-house team that builds real relationships with others in their niche. And if you’re marketing your first site, I strongly recommend doing your own SEO and marketing to learn the ropes and build your experience. If you ever do decide to outsource it in the future – or hire your own in-house team – having the knowledge from doing it yourself will be crucial to properly manage the process.
At the very least, if you do outsource, make sure you keep a close watch on the processes and results.
Diversify Your Traffic
While the pain caused by the Penguin update was ultimately self-inflicted by my poor oversight, it drove home how risky it is to rely on Google for the majority of my customers:
When you play by the rules, Google is obviously a (well, THE) best source of ongoing traffic you’re likely to find. But my run-in with Penguin made me realize how crucial it is to invest in other sources of inbound traffic so my businesses don’t rely primarily on Google. Here’s how I’m planning to diversify my traffic stream:
Utilizing Email Marketing
Despite having a great database of customers, I never made email marketing a priority. A quality email list/newsletter offers the ability to drive traffic on demand. As I highlighted in my previous post, we’re ramping up our email marketing efforts for 2013 and will be sharing the results on a quarterly basis.
Investing in Building a Brand
Just last weekend I was talking with an SEO expert about how building a brand is the only way to have guaranteed long-term success with eCommerce. People visit websites. They talk about, recommend and are loyal to brands. And the more well-known your brand, the more likely people will actively seek you, generating traffic that’s not dependent on Google.
Going forward, we’ll be sponsoring more events, giving away stickers, holding contests and continuing to focus on great customer service in order to improve our brand recognition. “Brand building” can sound like hokey marketing jargon, but the KISSMetrics blog just wrote a great article on the power of brands and how to build your own.
Focusing on SEO That Drives Direct Traffic
Pursuing strategies that emphasize traffic in addition to link juice is a great way to improve visits and to diversify against Google. I’ll be focusing on SEO opportunities that generate traffic AND link juice.
A Few Penalty Insights
Although this post is mainly about the broader lessons I’ve learned, I want to share some technical data points regarding a few keywords that were hit hard and others that weren’t affected as severely. Be warned: Geeky SEO talk ahead. :-)
The chart below lists keywords that were affected by Penguin and are grouped by how severely their rankings were hit. The “On-Page Fix Improvement” column refers to how the keyword rankings changed after I un-optimized the page for a given keyword. ”Anchor” refers to the anchor text in the links pointing to the page a keyword ranked for.
Please note that this is a VERY small sample size, so these conclusions are by no means scientifically provable. But that won’t prevent me from hypothesizing about a few things anyway. :-)
Penalties Focus on Off-Page Issues
After reviewing the pages that were hit the hardest, I realized that my on-page SEO reeked of over-optimization. My keyword phrases appeared far too often on-page, and far too prominently, so I quickly made changes to address the problems.
Unfortunately, this didn’t solve the issue and resulted in many further declines (refer to the ‘On-Page Fix Improvement’ column). You could make the assumption that the Penguin penalty isn’t primarily an on-page one, as de-emphasizing my on-page SEO only made things worse. Over-optimized anchor text, it could be argued, seems to be the primary culprit.
This hypothesis is a bit weaker than the others, as many believe the Penguin penalty only updates/corrects occasionally, instead of on a daily or weekly basis like Google’s overall algorithm. So it’s very posible that the de-optimization changes could have helped if I’d left them alone long enough to be recognized by a Penguin update. That being said, from all the other research I’ve done, it appears that over-optimized anchor text is one of – if not the – biggest triggers of the Penguin penalty.
Penalties More Aggressively Applied to Popular Pages
One hundred percent of the anchor text for my “minn kota riptide” page was “minn kota riptide,” which you’d expect to trigger a penalty. And it did – the ranking page dropped five spots, from #1 to #6.
But it didn’t drop nearly as much as our page ranking for “minn kota.” Despite having anchor density that was less concentrated than the “minn kota riptide” page, the “minn kota” page dropped 42 spots, falling from #7 to #49. Ouch. The most noticeable difference? The number of unique linking domains: 4 to the “minn kota riptide” page and 15 to the “minn kota” page.
It’s likely that Penguin penalties are more aggressively applied for pages with more incoming links. If two domains link to a page with the same anchor text, it doesn’t necessarily imply over-optimization. But if 150 out of 300 do, an orchestrated SEO campaign is much more likely.
If you’re trying to recover from Penguin, it may make sense to start with your best ranking pages with the fewest number of incoming links. You may need just a few new anchor text variations to lift the penalty and restore your rankings.
Recovery and the Lasting Impacts
One of the most painful aspects of irresponsibly outsourcing your SEO is the massive mess you’re left to clean up. Trying to scrub lots of spammy and over-optimized links is a daunting, confusing and involved process. While I won’t be offering a detailed description of how to do this in this post, there are a number of great pieces on Penguin recovery, including this one on the SEOMoz blog.
Over the last year, we’ve contacted site owners in attempts to have links removed. We’ve re-examined the optimization on many pages and removed keyword-optimized footer links from the site. We’ve also built a number of new high-authority links in an effort to boost our authority with Google and “dilute” the percentage of over-optimized links.
While we still have a ways to go, we’ve seen some encouraging progress. Initially down to just 20% of our original visitors, our organic traffic has risen to 45% of our pre-Penguin levels. It’s still a far cry from where we were, but it’s an improvement. And our recent relaunch of the site doubled revenue per visitor, which helps offset the loss of so much traffic.
Despite these improvements, a painful reality remains. We’re still under a penalty, one that will take significantly more time and resources to remove. When you consider the cost of initially hiring the SEO firm, the loss in sales and the cost of trying to repair the mess, it would have been so much cheaper to simply do things right the first time.
As the old adage goes: “The longest way round is actually the shortest way home.”
Questions About My SEO Debacle?
Hopefully my sharing this experience will help you avoid making some of the same mistakes! It’s tempting to take shortcuts with marketing and SEO, but you always end up paying for them – either now or in the future.
As always, I’m happy to answer your questions! Please leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.
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