The SEO Mistake That Wiped Out 80% of My Traffic

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?

Some Background

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, 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:

Penguin Hit

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 including keyword usage in product descriptions and category descriptions. We also 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.

If you found this article interesting or helpful, please share it!

Andrew is the founder of eCommerceFuel and has been building eCommerce businesses ever since gleefully leaving the corporate world in 2008.  Join him and 1,000 vetted 6 and 7-figure store owners inside the eCommerceFuel Community.

Double Your eCommerce Business in the Next Year requesting the most effective growth and profitability strategies we've unearthed from 5+ years of studying successful stores.
  • The fact that you didn’t get slapped back into the dark ages means that your SEO firm was doing a better job than 80% of the firms and gurus at the time (or even today, for that matter). Congrats on orchestrating such a solid recovery.

    I’ll be really interested in following your email capture success. I have so many sites I need to add that to, but it seems like such a unique marketing beast.

    • You might be right! But compared to the site I’d done manually, the relative results were still pretty abysmal.

      Will be excited to share email results as well – and the early results are promising! In April we generated 5%+ of our store’s revenue solely from email, with just a couple of mailings and some cart abandonment emails, so I’m optimistic. Full results coming in July. 🙂

      • Just 5%?

        I’ve heard most Internet marketers say that a good 80% or more of their revenue came solely from their e-mail list.

        Oh, well. Different things work for different people with different business models.

        Thanks for the great post (I actually just wrote an extensive post on Google updates in 2013, lol)!

        JR John

      • Hi Andrew, I just discovered your podcast and love it. Thank you so much, your podcast has been a real support. I have a question, after listening to the the talk with Drew Sanocki, I realized that outsourcing our SEO is not a good idea and we should start learning it outselves. My brother and I launched Goachi more than a year ago, outsourced our SEO and are not getting much traffic. What is the best way to learn SEO, do you have any tips for us? We’re really committed to learning really fast. best, Sarah

  • Great article Andrew! Thanks for that candid look into your SEO situation post penguin. Did you ever have thoughts about starting the site from scratch w/ a new domain name. Would that essentially give you a clean slate to start from fresh? Or would the seo penalties still be within the actual site itself. It would seem like the job of fixing the SEO once its been hit that hard would be very daunting and maybe starting from a fresh domain would be even easier? Not sure if that would have even worked, but curious! Cheers

    • Thanks Jesse! Great question, and I’ve definitely thought about that. Apart from the penalty issues, I’d love to re-brand with a different name as well as I’m not a huge fan now of the “.net” TLD. I think a .com would be more confidence inspiring, and a non-exact domain name would be easier to brand.

      In terms of the penalty, I’m not sure if it would be passed along to the new domain or not. There are varying opinions on that. Some people seem to have the penalty lifted when the site is 301 directed to a new domain, and others aren’t so lucky. So definitely something I’ve considered.

      A great thread on the topic I’ve read through a few times can be found here:

  • Hi Andrew, Thanks for sharing the “ins and outs” of your business, even the painful ones. I am in the process of starting a therapy website. I am afraid this SEO situation will happen to me, although I must admit my understanding of SEO is so primative. If I leave authentic feedback on blog posts and/or article submissions, will leaving my website somewhere in the text compromise me? Thank you, Elin

    • Hi Elin! The reason my site was penalized was primarily that the majority of my anchor text (the words that make up the links pointing to my site) were all very similar – and all highly competitive keywords. If you’re leaving genuine feedback on a blog and/or website, you likely won’t run into this problem.

      Two caveats: Article marketing – where you take one version of an article and spread it to hundreds of sites – is NOT a quality way to market/SEO, and could cause you problems. Additionally, it’s also important to know that most links you leave on forums/blogs aren’t going to give you any SEO benefit because they will be “no followed” automatically by the software. For more info on both of these, see the following articles I’ve written:

      (About Article Marketing)
      (About SEO & No-Follow Links)

      Best of luck!

  • Thanks for sharing your experience with the outcome of outsourcing the SEO aspects on your site. Monitoring the progress, process and outcome of SEO efforts is necessary. Based on your story, we have to really devote time doing the monitoring stuff. It is also a good decision to take advantage of your email list ( I wish I have that, but hey I am working on it :). More good stuff Andrew, we are learning from you.

    • Thanks Carissa! Glad you found it useful. And yep, monitoring is crucial. A lesson I had to learn the hard way…

  • Excellent post! So sorry about your penalty. I did have to take umbrage at the following, however— “The best marketing and SEO is done by a committed in-house team who builds real relationships with others in their niche.”

    As someone who has worked as both part of an in-house marketing team and as a consultant, I would have to disagree. While you (Andrew) certainly have a bend for learning your own SEO and marketing techniques and applying them, other entrepreneurs might not. In these cases, an outside professional could make sense—I’ve worked alongside SEO independent professionals towards a successful project numerous times, so I know it can be done. I also know that in-house work doesn’t really have the benefits you’d think over outside, if the professional is committed to “digging deep” into the company. Sometimes, the in-house team even suffers from being a little close to everything.

    I think the real takeaway is, the best marketing is done by the best marketers—which a personal relationship or in-house situation can’t guarantee. Vet the work first. If you can bootstrap it better than a professional, then either you have a pretty damn good talent for it (which Andrew, I’m afraid to say, you do!) or you aren’t comparing yourself to a very good professional.

    Carry on—excellent blog!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Kira! And a well laid out counter-argument!

      I’d agree with you partially – not all entrepreneurs are cut-out (or want!) to do their own marketing and SEO. On this point I 100% agree. Sometimes it’s just not possible for a solopreneur, or a small business, to get done what is needed. In these cases, I think hiring an outside firm makes sense.

      But I do truly believe that the BEST marketing and SEO is done by an in-house team that 1) knows the product and/or brand 2) is committed to the long-term success of the company and 3) works within the organization on an ongoing basis. One of the difficult aspects of hiring an outside SEO or marketing firm is that they have to learn your product/service/business. And despite how deep they dig, they’ll never know it as well as someone in-house who works with the team everyday.

      So is it always possible to pull off? Definitely not. But when you get it right I think in-house marketing has the highest potential to drive outstanding, top-notch results.

      Thanks for the comment, Stoops!

    • One clarification – my point assumes that the quality of the in-house and outsourced teams are comparable. I’d agree that a top-notch marketing outsider would be a better choice than a mediocre marketing in-house employee. But if they’re on the same level, I think the in-house team has the edge. 🙂

      • I’m going to be stubborn in my argument—if for no other reason that I think that for many solopreneurs, and in-house team is out of reach and I don’t want them to think all contractors are black hat! There’s good help out there.

        I agree, it makes common sense that the in-house team would do the marketing best. But, from my direct experience of five years solo-ing, it just doesn’t play out that way in real life. Most high quality solo-preneurs are able to check boxes 1) knowing product/brand 2) commitment and 3) ongoing involvement to deliver results on par with an in-house team. I agree that the outside professional may never know an organization on the same level as the inside team…but argue that can be a benefit. Often, the outside professional is able to maintain enough distance that s/he is able to take a longer view of things, being able to see it somewhere between the perspective of the potential customer, who also isn’t deeply involved in the company, and the in-house team and company itself.

        I’ll still say—the best marketer has the edge! I think either modality works—in house or out—but for smaller solopreneurs and businesses who don’t have the resources for an in-house team, a solo professional IS a worthwhile, viable option…if you make sure to vet the work and take the time to be choosy! Which could be another post…choosing who to partner with (hint: it’s not always people you already know.)

        • This is a full-on comment debate brawl! 🙂 Love it.

          I think we’re actually just about on the same page. I agree that many solo-preneurs can definitely benefit from an outside professional (with proper oversight and vetting), especially if the alternative is trying to do a mediocre, half-hearted job on their own with limited time and knowledge. But, ideally – with “ideally” being the key word – I think in-house teams can do it best.

          From a strategic perspective, having an outside professional working with a long-term perspective can be very healthy. But when it comes to product knowledge, it takes a lot of time to train outside contractors. Early on, I tried hiring people to write CB articles – and it was a disaster. They didn’t know the product well, and it took a tremendous amount of time to get them up-to-speed. In a day when content market (creating valuable on-topic content) has become the preferred method for driving traffic, having a mastery of the topic you’re marketing is incredibly helpful.

          • Alright! I love a good debate (despite my lack of debate background!)

            I am conceding this argument with the clause…IF the product requires a high level of technical understanding to market, and imparting a medium-to-high level of technical understanding to the end consumer.

            For most other products, even specialized ones…if they aren’t highly technical, I still think either option works splendidly…ideally, of course. 🙂 And I echo other posters comments on learning this lesson the hard way—oofda!

          • Agreed! If the product is less technical, then outsourcing marketing/SEO becomes a much easier possibility.

            In closing, didn’t you JUST accept an in-house job as a marketing manager? Not to undercut your position or anything, just curious…. 😉

          • Exactly why I’m in the position to say: I could do a good job on this either way. In some ways, being in-house actually hoses up the creative process. BAM!

          • Ha, touche! Well argued. Although I may still forward our thread to your new employer… 🙂

  • Hi, thanks for sharing your mistakes and solutions.
    I will get inspired by this, as it is always difficult to see the limit between good SEO and to much SEO.

  • Hey Andrew, great Post.
    We faced similar problem initially when we launched our website last year. we hired an SEO consultant who messed up things. Later, we did everything in house and within three to four months we were on track, we too saw small boost to our traffic due to the P. update.
    Thanks again for sharing your personal experience.

    • That’s awesome to hear, Sam. You can find great SEO consultants but, like most true experts, they aren’t cheap! I think a lot of people tend to go the budget SEO at least once. Sometimes you have to learn a lesson the hard way for it to really stick.

      Glad you guys are back on track and best of luck!

  • Andrew,

    This is a great “lessons learned” post. Thanks for sharing. Sorry you had to be the one learning the lesson though.


    • Very welcome, Scott! While it was a tough experience, it’s something that’s really stuck with me and will help make my future sites / businesses stronger. For example, launching eCommerceFuel I’ve taken a very clean approach to SEO and marketing. While it’s been much more time consuming (just like my first site), it’s definitely paying off.

  • Thanks for such a candid and transparent look at your SEO – your insights are quite promising – a little more time should (hopefully) confirm them!

    I’ve recently started having some success with guest posts for my site(2 and counting), and it’s quite tempting to really over-optimize links back to my site – but I’m trying really hard – I think your post really drove the nail home.

    This is a bit of a tangential question: One of my main competitors( currently show up at position #10 in Google for “fish finders” and #1 in Bing! I checked their backlink profile in OSE, and most of their links are exactly the kinds of links the pros have been warning us to stay away from post-Penguin and Panda – sitewide links, shoddy directories, irrelevant sites, and probably no guest posts! So the question is a)is it possible they haven’t been punished because of lack of more relevant sites? And b) from your experience, what sort of timeframe do you expect me to start showing up(provided I steadily build links and develop unique content on my own site)?



    • Hey Shabbir! Congrats on the success you’re seeing with guest posting. I know EXACTLY the feeling you’re struggling with regarding over-optimization. Even after my Penguin run-in, I still struggle with the urge to create loads of exact match links.

      To your questions: it’s really hard to say about your competitor. If he does have the backlink profile you indicate, it’s likely just a matter of time before he’s hit. I think it’s much more likely that his link profile isn’t quite caught by the engine’s algorithms vs. a lack of quality competitors in the field.

      In terms of ranking time, that’s also a really hard question to answer. The first few months are usually pretty slow, but if you’re consistently getting quality links I’d imagine you’ll start to see yourself showing up – and climbing – within 3 to 6 months. But that’s a complete estimate, and your milage may vary. It depends on the quality of your links, the other sites, your on-page optimization and loads of other factors.

      Best of luck, Shabbir!

  • Great post Andrew! The long form content on your site is so valuable.

    I learned a lot from this guy Eric Lanchere’s Penguin and Panda Recovery program. I’m no SEO expert and he breaks down what Panda and Penguin are and how they affect your SEO efforts. Maybe your readers will find it valuable…
    (I’m by no means affiliated with either of them)

    Congrats on your recent adventure with the DC BER. Sounds like it was a great time.

    • Thanks Jeremy! And appreciate the link – will definitely check it out. It’s crazy people are specializing specifically in Penguin recovery.

      DC Berlin was a ton of fun, and it was great to meet everyone out there. Hope to be able to do it again in the future! Have you made it out to any of the meetups?

      • I have not made it to any, not actually a member of the DC yet. Looking to join soon as I have been following those guys for a couple years and hear the group is top-notch.

  • Hey,
    Fantastic Guide. We have been doing SEO And I was wondering if there is a tool where you can check from time to time, quality of SEO Being done ?
    We are in top 3 spots for specific search terms . Like Wooden Glasses . is our website…

    • Thanks Abdul! I don’t know of any tools that will automatically give you an idea of the quality of SEO being done. Because there are so many factors, I think it’s something you’ll need to review manually. But spending even a brief amount of time looking through the backlinks for a / your site should give you an idea of the types of marketing and SEO that’s being done.

      • Thanks for that. I went through links and I believe we need to focus more on fashion blogs. We have been quoted on press and fashion blogs through reviews and that is bringing traffic but need to be more focused. I think signatures do not count towards bank linking. Is not ?/

        • Blog comments or forum signatures are almost always “no followed”, so no, those wouldn’t provide any SEO benefit.

  • Hi Andrew,
    Boy can I relate! Thanks for sharing your story for this site.
    Outsourcing SEO these days without at least having some understanding of the basics and controlling the strategy is close to crazy in my opinion. Having said that, I do think you can outsource much of it – but like you ensure the quality is high.
    I was also very interested in commentary about penalties being applied to certain pages. As a test I recently started removing some of the affiliate links from some pages that recently got hammered and Bingo – the traffic bounced back like within a day. Have you tried adding some content to your pages or reducing the outbound link density? For example, the “Minn Kota Riptide Motors” page could discuss what is so good about that particular model. Just a thought that you may have already tried….
    Thanks for the insights!

    • Thanks for sharing, Quinn! I think going forward, the aspects of SEO and marketing I’ll be outsourcing are the highly time-consuming but non-crucial aspects. Like identifying linking / guest posting opportunities and getting contact information. But when it comes to reaching out, writing content or defining the linking strategy those are all things I’ll be keeping very close to the chest. 🙂

      Great per-page suggestions. I haven’t tried those specifically, but I’ll definitely look into it. To clarify: do you mean that you had some outbound affiliate links on your pages, and simply by removing them your rankings increased? I’d never heard of that before…

      Thanks Quinn!

      • Your outsourcing plan seems like a good way to go.

        Glad I could add something. For this page, you are already ranking above Amazon so my initial thought was that you are actually doing pretty well.

        With regards to outbound affiliate links – Yes thats exactly what I mean. Spencer from Niche Pursuits had a similar problem with the site he talks about. In my case the site is much larger but it was really clear that the pages with the most affiliate links suddenly got less traffic. The traffic penalty seems to directly tie to the affiliate link density as well.
        I just started wondering if it might be a similar situation for you but rather then affiliate links – links where a sale was trying to be made. (See “How to Get a Google Penalty Using Affiliate Links”) Might be worth some testing anyway.

        Great to see the progress you have made already!


        • Quinn – That’s really interesting. I’d never heard that affiliate links specifically could cause page penalties. Thanks for sharing!

  • Kudos to you for being honest about failures as well as successes. Really good white-hat SEO becomes almost indistinguishable from good marketing and brand building. Except just transferred to being online rather than offline.

    I’ve mostly stuck to the basics of on-page SEO: keywords in titles and permalinks, having an XML sitemap, using a robots.txt file for search engines, submitting sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools, etc. For off-page SEO, I concentrate on building relationships with others in my niche, and building a reputation by sharing/creating good content. Longer to build, but hopefully longer-lasting.

    As a follow-up, maybe you could write a guide about how to choose an SEO consultant/firm to hire? Or how you fixed your SEO after this debacle? I’m sure lots of people would be interested in the latter.

    • Thanks Marcus! Trying to keep it honest and transparent. Anyone who hasn’t made a few serious mistakes either isn’t doing much or is a liar. 🙂

      You said: “For off-page SEO, I concentrate on building relationships with others in my niche, and building a reputation by sharing/creating good content. Longer to build, but hopefully longer-lasting.”

      …which I think this is absolutely the best way to market a site. It’s the strategy I took with RCR and eCommerceFuel, and proved successful both times.

      Great follow-up ideas – I’ll add them to my post list. Thanks!

  • Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for sharing your pain. It’s definitely helpful to those of us who are starting new sites.

    I’ve just launched my ecommerce site with a blog to go with it. I’m in the middle of doing my own link building through submissions to directories and the like. I’ve done most of my on-page stuff, other than needing to work in some text on a few of the pages (I have descriptions on all of my product pages, though).

    It’s a ton of work, but it’s also interesting. I can’t wait to start building some legitimate traffic to my sites, which will lead to some sales. I’d be happy with a couple grand a month in profit, but the exciting thing is that based on your back of the napkin analysis that you mention in your ebook, the numbers are from my niche have close to a 7-figure profit potential on the high end. Obviously I don’t expect that, but it’s nice to know that there’s plenty of room to grow. 🙂

    I love the theme here, by the way. I almost bought the eleven40 theme for another blog of mine. In hindsight, I probably should have. I love the clean look and colors of the theme.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing. I hope you have an outstanding end to the week!


    • Glad it’s helpful, Barry! And best of luck with your SEO efforts. It IS a lot of work, but if you do it correctly – and for a sustained period – it can pay off handsomely.

      Hope things wit the new store go well and thanks for reading!

      P.S. I’m a fan of the theme, too. Out of all the WP themes I looked at, this one way my favorite by far.

  • Nice post Andrew.

    I’ve just found your site and I guess I’ll be around for a while now 🙂

    I have my ecommerce site (4 months now) and I would like to know how to write a product’s title that increases SEO?
    For instance, in my store I sell tablets and I don’t Know if I only write the features is a good way to do it like “Tablet X22- 1 GB RAM, 512 MB ROM” and so on. Do you have some advice for me on that point?

    Regards man!

    • Congratulations on your new store!

      For maximizing SEO for meta titles, I’d focus on getting the most commonly used keyword version of the product in the title, and at the front. So for the tablet you mention, I’d probably do:

      “Manufacturer Name Tablet X33”

      …to begin, followed either by your company name or your unique selling propositions. Because your meta titles are seen in the search results, you want to make them compelling so people click on them. I recently wrote a piece for Shopify on writing great product titles, which you can see here:

  • Thanks for sharing your personal experience andrew. For the same reason I’m doing all SEO for my site myself. Because there is no guarantee that the person whom I’ll outsource will be as careful as I’m. Another thing I’d like to add is that Google’s importance is going to decline in future just because of one simple reason. There is a limit after which a company starts to see negative growth and especially in Internet and Tech Industry you don’t even notice when a popular service became extinct. Already social media has started to show results and with the rise of more and more alternatives to search it’s quite natural that people will start focusing on other methods than SEO. Email marketing is one of the best ways to keep in touch with your customers and build relationships.

    • Doing it yourself is definitely the safest bet.

      While I think Google will stay play a pretty major role for years to come, I think it’s definitely possible to use other methods (social, email, etc) to grow a site without having to depend in Google. With regards to the eCommerceFuel blog, direct word-of-mouth and email traffic beat out Google organic traffic as the #1 source of visitors for me. So it’s definitely possible to do.

      Thanks for reading, Hamza!

  • Great post, as always! Thanks for sharing the numbers – there’s a lot of talk about Panda/Penguin, but seeing your experience in black and white really tells the tale well.

    Outsourcing SEO is so hard. There’s so much junk out there, and people tend to want to get it done for as cheaply as possible, it’s a perfect storm for traffic devastation with Google updates.

  • Incredible insights about the Penguin update. The concrete data points about search strings and rankings, even when they may not be representative of wider trends, are instructive. Your discussion about building a brand I think is incredibly important and it ties back into something that Google advises again and again regarding SEO optimization which is that when you focus on generating great content (as opposed to generating keywords and burying them in content that is meant only to serve as the delivery vehicle for the keywords), you are also building a brand. I can imagine that some time in the future we could even see things like link-bait pages with generic and uninteresting top 10 (or whatever #) posts and pages getting down-ranked in favor of content like this blog which contains thoughtful and actually useful content. Thanks for this! Tweeting this out to our followers.

    • Thanks Brendan! Appreciate your comments, and your sharing it with your followers. I really do think brands are going to become more and more important. As Amazon continues to grow, one of the best ways to retain customers will be through cultivating loyal, raving fans in a unique niche.

  • Its hard to adapt to all these new algorithm changes that Google makes. They keep changing the rules every 2 month or so and all of our hard work we put in SEO vanishes. One of our website was also hit by the Penguin update, but fortunately, we lost only 30% of google traffic.

    • One of the best ways to stay above all the algorithm changes is by trying to keep your marketing and SEO as clean/natural as possible, not over optimize and focus on create top-notch content. If you do, you’ll be able to avoid the vast majority of penalties and issues with Google. Best of luck!

  • Hey Andrew – loved your story. It feels like having a good system in place to watch everything SEO related proactively would be helpful…I’d love to hook you up with a free license of Conductor in light of this article, and your contribution to the SEO space. Let me know.


    • Thanks Seth! And appreciate the offer! Could you give me the one-sentence summary of what Conductor does? Is it similar to SEOMoz Pro or Raven Tools?

    • Actually, just realized you linked over to it in your name. The service looks great, and thanks for such a generous offer! Will email you to finalize…

  • The reason that your site was penalized by penguin was due to irrelevant links to your site and nothing else.
    For example, look at the link that you gave to your site from this article.
    This site has nothing to do with trolling motors.
    If such irrelevant links increases then you get hit by penguin.

    • Respectfully disagree, Danny. Having a handful of links from quality non-niche sites will – to everything I know and have studied about SEO – not hurt you. As long as they are decent authority (which eCommerceFuel is), and not spammy, you won’t be penalized for them. But having a number of links from sites in your niche CAN help your rankings, that is true.

      The fact that my site’s rankings plummeted at the exact moment Penguin was announced – a Google update that focuses exclusively on over-optimized pages and anchor text – is fairly convincing evidence that that’s what the cause was. Also, I have a number of other sites that have lots of (non-spammy) links from sites outside the primary niche, and they do very well – even post Penguin.

      I’d love to see and evidence you can provide to the contrary and am open to changing my mind, but based on what I know I think you’re off on this one.

  • This story breaks my heart. From a clients perspective, yes, monitor the work. But from a vendor standpoint, be transparent. I practice SEO by making sure the client hears everything, understands everything, and responds to everything.

    Guess that was just the way I was raised to do business.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • That’s a great way to do business, Bill! The world could use more SEOs like yourself. Thanks for the comment.

  • Very interesting, I’m having a similar problem in that my organic traffic has dropped significantly over the last 2months, my keywords still appear in the top 10 rankings but slightly lower in positions compared to last year and previous months. I really like the table above where you highlight the keywords that were affected by the Penguin update and wanted to know how exactly did you generate that in Site Explorer, hope you can help.



    • Sorry to hear about the decrease, Chet! The table above I created manually in a spreadsheet, so there’s no automated way to do it unfortunately. For the data, I’m a SEOMoz Pro member, so I used the ranking tracking data in my account to compile the stats.

      Hope this helps!

  • I have worked closely with our web developers who have also done our seo, this time last year we started to see a fall off in traffic and over the past 12 months we have seen a near total collapse, our traffic is now down by 75% and the web developers have rebuilt, the site in the pass few months, they have removed links and we have been rewriting content but still we have not seen anything other than the fall. SEO company’s should be made responsible for their actions.

    Andrew I think that you are right the best way to go is to learn yourself, you might not have the full skill set but if you are doing your own linking and branding your not going to risk building spammy links which wipe your business off the face of google.

    Great article

    • That’s tough Ed, I’m sorry to hear it. I know how you feel!

      I do know SEO fairly well, so my mistake was simply outsourcing it recklessly without following-up on the progress regarding Going forward, I’ll definitely be much more careful and keep everything in-house or VERY closely monitored. 🙂

      Best of luck as you’re working to recover – I hope you’re able to restore your previous traffic.

  • hi nice and inspiring tips…unfortunately my blog was effected by the recent Google penguin update and i have been facing the same organic traffic dropped issue…I did not hire any company for seo,but still don’t know the reason of this huge drop in organic traffic….?

  • Just today I saw an interview on YouTube you did about your cb radio site. It was amazing. I signed up for your book and just glanced through the pages. Then I saw this article about your real world experience with over seo.

    My concern is with the assumption that the “Minn Kota” drop was due to mistakes made on the site. Could it be that Google simply made a change to range non selling sites higher for that search term. Perhaps “minn kota sale price” keyword went up. It is so difficult to understand how Google’s 200 ranking factors really change our rankings.

    Where do you think your site should be ranked. Would you place yourself at number 5, 10, or 50. Should a site Minn Kota motors rank above the company’s pages or those pages about the engines. Is Google assuming sales sites selling the engines are less relevant than other sites.

    I know this is far above my understanding of seo. Even two experts will look at a page and say there are too many keywords and another says the percentage is too low. It is very painful to test pages and see rankings go up and down.

    Anyway, I loved your article and website and how someday we all better understand how Google works.


    • Hi Wayne! The reason I’m very confident that the result were attributable to the Penguin update was that:

      1) The occurred at exactly the same time as the Penguin update was released
      2) The changes were VERY significant

      Sites can always bounce around a little bit based on minor changes, but these were some pretty major changes – like going from being #2 to #50, or worse.

  • Thanks for this, it’s very interesting that you actively got rid of bad links and this worked for you. It’s very encouraging that combining this with with the “dilution” of bad links helped you. *Tweets*

  • Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Did you manage to recover your sites rankings at all after the Penguin update and the negative rankings it caused you in late August? Thanks.


    • Hey Adam! Some of the rankings have come back, yes, but not all of them. We originally only had 20% of our original traffic, and that’s back up to close to 50%. We’re still working on it, but have a ways to go…

  • Thank you for the information. I myself had a big trouble outsourcing SEO firm for my tech websites, things went bad because of those inexperienced guys.

  • Great. Last two weeks, I also lost almost 80% of traffic. My KWs from page 1 drop to page 4 or even worst. I was sad. Btw, I didn’t outsource my SEO stuff. I do it myself. Since that incident I learn more about SEO. That’s why I reach your site. And today, I have just made a few changes and remove few links. Hopefully tomorrow morning can see the improvement.

      • Thanks. FYI, all my KWs are back to top on 21/7/2013 after reading your blog on 18/7 and got the idea what is going wrong with my SEO mistake. I quickly modified and removed the links, after few days Google re-crawl my blog, then, my blog back to normal. Traffic back to normal. Great.

  • Sorry to see what happened, Andrew.

    I do not think all of your traffic drop is Penguin related, as there may be a bunch of indirect factors in play, that added to the overall downturn.

    Though, I did not hire an SEO, I can still relate 100% with you in the sudden(almost sudden) crash in rankings/ traffic with drops from page one(around 2nd to 4th position) for some high quality / volume terms, to around 500+ .

    My major crash seemed to happen around April / May , this year, and there has been almost no recovery.

    Google has had a few Algorithm adjustments around that time, though, I don’t believe this is the main contributing factor…

    I had no warnings from Google and have been in Good standing ( no unnatural links warning in Google Analytics) I don’t buy links or do any dodgy “dark side” tactics, so now I need to go through my whole site and try to come up with answers.

    One thing that did “throw a spanner in the mix” was a few server side issues within my hosting file manager, with a couple of data base issues, and this may have been the Catalyst that then created some kind of snow ball effect, of “site performance, issues…

    As to hiring an SEO, the number of SEO companies(sites) seems to have increased quite dramatically, so along with that there is going to be an increase in “shonky” companies.

    A large number(if not most) companies would be outsourcing their SEO work these days, and this makes the whole thing very “hit & miss” as to what you will end up getting in the long term.

    I think that for smaller to medium sites(less established) it would be better to go over every possibly aspect of their own sites performance, and also to do some cleaning up and editing of their posts.

    Bye the way, Love your Genesis 11/40 theme and how you added your own custom logo(simple , yet, effective).

    • Sorry to hear about your SEO issues, Danny! Although I’m pretty sure the vast majority of my issues were Penguin related as they occurred exactly when Penguin was released in 2012 (last year).

      Best of luck with your recovery efforts and thanks for reading!

  • Good advice and it’s something I will take into consideration because I’m just starting off here and don’t want to make callous mistakes. Anyway if you have time and don’t mind could you email me, I have some questions about guest blogging.

  • I myself had a big trouble outsourcing SEO firm for my tech websites, things went bad because of those inexperienced guys.

  • Andrew,
    This is one of the reasons I always try to advocate that people train the people they hire in the Philippines. People always want to hire someone who “already knows SEO” so they don’t have tuo understand it. I always think it’s such a big mistake because you have no idea what crap they might be doing to your business.

    My team of Filipinos is pretty darn good at SEO. They were good at it 3 years ago (when all you had to do was spam google), and they’re pretty darn good at it today.

  • Hi! Andrew.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. As I am also thinking about to launch some of my own niche websites but before stepping in to that I just wanted to learn some basics of all the fields that will be used in good niche website thats because I have came across many entrepreneurs who have some what same experience like yours.
    I am also learning about Domaining and EMDs (Exact Match Domains) and the myths around them specially after Panda-Penguin Update. I like to share a great article about that from I thought it will be of some help to the fellows here. Here is the link-

  • This is great advice! Just like you did with your first site I have always thought that SEO is more of an extension of a good solid marketing tactics. It seems that you get rewarded when you do things that build your brand and business as a whole, if your site benefits from the link itself and not just the authority passing metrics from that site than you know its a win-win!