Last fall I received a phone call from the owner of a local patio furniture refinishing business. His organic traffic was on a downward trend and he was looking for solutions. After a quick look at his site, I was fairly certain that an evaluation would reveal that his site had been impacted by more than one of the major changes to Google’s algorithm.
Google changes it’s search algorithm around 500 – 600 times every year. Sometimes they are minor changes and we barely notice them, in other cases the updates are major and they have a significant impact on search results. Google gives some of the bigger changes code names and they seem to be fond of naming them after animals (such as Penguin and Panda). They implement these changes to fight spam and reward websites with high quality content and inbound links (links from another website to your’s.)
In the SEO world, Panda changes target low quality content and Google Penguin changes address questionable methods of gaining inbound links.
Diagnosing the Problem
An extensive evaluation of the website and competitive landscape revealed a problem that was even bigger than he thought. Not only was the organic traffic for the year of 2013 declining, it was down significantly from the previous year.
There were more than a few factors affecting the declining traffic which included:
- An outdated website – the website hadn’t been re-designed since it was first implemented over a decade ago.
- Hidden navigation elements – navigation to the much of the important content on the site was hidden and only accessible from the sitemap.
- Content didn’t pass the MeMe test – in other words, the most prevalent terms used through out the website were those of the brand and not the products or services.
- Overuse of Keywords – targeted keywords were overused within the content and didn’t read naturally.
- Lack of targeted content – content related but distinctly different services combined on a single page. This represented an opportunity to to write content that describes the service/process in more detail and in a way that provides information that is important to a specific audience.
- Low quality inbound links – an extremely high percentage of links to his website from article directories and web properties that had been de-indexed by Google.
The organic traffic had already been down by more than 25% on average year over year and it was down a shocking 46% in June and July. One of the biggest penalties Penguin 2013 targeted sites with high numbers of links from low quality sites was implemented by Google on May 26th which explains the big drop.
The firm that was handling his SEO at the time was aware of the problem and had been working to address it without success. The really unfortunate thing is that there had been no communication between the agency and the business owner about the problem.
Solving the Problem – The Recommendation
At the top of the list of recommendations was a complete site re-design; it was time to start over. The first thing we did was explore the language used by his customers when they contacted the company with a question. This was a great way to get started on keyword research from the perspective of the prospective customer and not the industry.
Once the research was complete I set about the task of creating a wire-frame mock-up for the new website. It’s my favorite way of mapping out the navigation and menu structure because it takes the distraction of imagery and color choices out of the equation until the graphic design phase begins.
After a couple of minor iterations, he was ready to select an agency to build the site for him. One of the side benefits of teaching SEO to agencies that provide website design services is that I know when I refer someone to them, the client will be in good hands. Morroni Technologies was awarded the engagement in January 2014 and they immediately got to work bringing the wire-frame mock-up to life. In the meantime, I wrote the web content and once it was approved passed it along to the web design company.
Three months later
The Southern Company had a brand new website that solved a number of problems and resulted in some immediate improvements.
- Average page load speed decreased by nearly 25%
- Site-wide bounce rate decreased by 23%
- Pages viewed per session increased by nearly 30%
- Visit duration went up by 46%
What about Search?
Most of the time you don’t see immediate results from search engine optimization efforts , in fact it’s not unusual for a website to actually lose ground in search results after a complete site redesign. There are always exceptions and this was one of them.
The new site launched in late April traffic was even with the previous year and by June traffic started exceeding traffic from the same time period the year before.
In July organic search traffic was up over 45%.
Three months after implementation Vice-President John McCrudden summed it up, “Our numbers are up big time. The feedback we’ve received from our customers has been nothing but positive. We’ve received numerous compliments on its usability and chic new design. Overall, we’ve been very pleased with how things have turned out.”
The combination of great content and a well designed website and white hat SEO practices were the backbone of this successful project and are a great example of how a business can experience a recovery from Panda and Penguin updates.