Prospective client: Help! I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!
Me: Where are you?
Prospective client: Massachusetts
Me: I’m 3,000 miles away! Call 911!
Prospective client: No, it’s my website! We lost 50% of our traffic overnight! Help!
Me: How much can you afford to pay?
Okay, that’s not actually how the conversation went, but it might as well have, given the fact that I came in and performed a strategic SEO audit, the client made all the changes I recommended, and, as a result, a year later they’ve increased organic traffic by 334%!
Now, when you look at that data, you might assume several things. Ryan Jones saw those numbers and tweeted just such an assumption:
Rather than leaving people assuming what was done to get such insanely great results, I figured it would make sense to write an actual case study. So once again, I’m going to ask you to indulge my propensity for excruciatingly long articles so that I can provide you with the specific insights gained, the tasking recommended, the changes made, and the lessons learned.
First Task – Look at the Data for Patterns
One of the first things I do when performing a strategic SEO audit is look at the raw data from a 30,000-foot view to see if I can find clues as to the cause of a site’s problems. In this case, I went right into Google Analytics and looked at historic traffic in the timeline view going back to the previous year. That way I could both check to see if there were seasonal factors on this site, and I could compare year-over-year.
That’s when I discovered the site was not just hit by Panda. The problem was much more deeply rooted.
The MayDay Precursor
The data you see above is from 2010. THAT major drop was from Google’s MayDay update. As you can see, daily organic visits plummeted as a result of the MayDay update. That’s something I see in about 40% of the Panda audits I’ve done.
From there, I then jumped to the current year and noticed that, in this case, MayDay was a precursor to Panda. Big time.
What’s interesting to note from this view is the site wasn’t caught up in the original Panda. The hit came the day of Panda 2.0.
Okay, let me rephrase that. Both of my claims about the site being hit so far, MayDay and Panda 2.0, are ASSUMPTIONS. Because we work in a correlation industry and since Matt Cutts refuses to poke this SEO bear, I doubt he’ll ever give me a personal all-access pass to his team’s inner project calendar.
Since we don’t have the ability to know exactly what causes things in an SEO world, we can only proceed based on what Google chooses to share with us. This means it’s important to pay attention when they do share, even if you think they’re being misleading. More often than not, I have personally found that they really are forthcoming with many things.
That’s why I rely heavily on the work of the good Doctor when it comes to keeping me informed because I can’t stay focused on Google forums info. I’m talking about the work Dr. Pete has been doing to keep the SEOMoz Google Update Timeline current.
An Invaluable Correlation Resource
The SEOmoz update timeline comes into play every time I see any significant drop in a site’s organic traffic after they call me in to help them. I can go in there and review every major Google change that’s been publicly announced all the way back to 2002. You really need to make use of it if you’re doing SEO audits. As imperfect as correlation work can be, I’ve consistently found direct matches between major site drops and people coming to me for help with entries in that timeline.
The Next Step – Is It Actually a Google-Isolated Issue?
Once I see a big drop in the organic traffic for a site, I dig deeper to see if it’s actually a Google hit or if it might be all search engines or even a site-wide issue. Believe me, this is a CRITICAL step. I’ve found some sites that “appeared” to be hit by search engine issues, but it turned out that the site’s server hit a huge bottleneck. Only by looking at ALL traffic vs. Organic Search vs. Google specific will you be able to narrow down and confirm the source.
In this case, back during the Panda period, organic search accounted for close to 80% of site-wide traffic totals. Direct and Referrer traffic showed no dramatic drop over the same time period, nor did traffic from other search sources.
Curiosity Insight – Google Probes Before Big Hits
Not always, but once in a while when Google’s about to make a major algorithm change, you’ll be able to see (retroactively in hindsight) that they turned up the crawl volume in big ways.