SEO Case Study – Growth in a Competitive Niche

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A few years ago I met someone who already had an SEO firm, but also got hit with a few “penalties” and was opened to having someone else help.  After talking, we discovered that the project was not a penalty recovery but first a site strengthen because there were some drops, and then a focus on new rankings.  Although there was a large penalty years before, the team (not agency) had already recovered their site from that.

Below is a step-by-step walk through of how we diagnosed the penalties/devaluation, the plan we created to strengthen the site and then how we executed and also got some new rankings.  The success section is the end results if you want to skip to that directly.

  1. Evaluate which penalty hit the site
  2. Look at other revenue sources and how they can be optimized
  3. Now its time to begin the actual recovery
  4. Begin outlining a plan that helps to strengthen the site
  5. Success

seo case study growth in a competitive niche

Evaluate Which Penalty Hit The Site

The very first thing you need to do is find out what penalty hit the site.  This is a good test to see if the client is a good one to work with.

If they say they aren’t sure, they are probably opened to feedback and your expertise.  If they insist on one penalty vs. another they may either be knowledgeable about SEO or they could have read some articles and made assumptions and will probably be difficult to work with.  This is a big factor on if we take on a company for a recovery or not.


Ok, so lets figure out the penalty.  Have the client or potential client share their analytics with you.  Set the dates to the lifetime of the site or when analytics was installed.  If you use tools that can track a site’s history (email me through the contact form if you want the one I use), you can start by focusing in on the date range.

Log into Google Analytics and go to acquisition > Overview > Organic Search > Google.

Now look at when they had large traffic drops.  Set the dates for the month which encompasses the drop.  Next go to Google and look up which algorithm updates happened then.  You can find detailed timelines on numerous SEO blogs and websites.  This is the easiest way to find which penalty hit the site.  In some cases it may not have been a penalty but instead duplicate content or competing pages.

If there were no penalties during this time frame, ask the client what happened during this time frame.  Maybe they launched a new site design and didn’t set canonicals, alternate versions, etc… They could have started indexing pages like search queries with thin content (you can see this in search console by looking for an increase in indexed pages) or numerous other things.  In the site we’re talking about here it resembled a Panda penalty,,,,but wasn’t one.  Just a devaluation.

If nothing was changed on the site, then go under the secondary sorting in Google Analytics and select landing pages in the acquisition category.  This will let you see a traffic drop on specific pages with the source of Google or SEO and for that time frame.  It may have been they lost a series of keywords and you need to focus on getting that page back up.

If you can select that time frame in search console, you may be able to see which queries it was as well by comparing keywords to landing page.

how to find competing pages in google

Note: this is an example from my blog and not the client’s site.

In the screen shot above you’ll see an example of a keyword which generates 1 page result in Google but 4 in bing and Yahoo!.  This means that these search engines feel there is more than 1 possible answer for this query within the website.  This could be a reason why your site lost it’s rankings.  This tool which is the one from the screen shot above takes about 24 hours to run and then you’ll be able to see for yourself.  It is awesome for trouble shooting competing pages.  Now back to the recovery.  We handled this like a Panda penalty.

Panda is one I love to work on because it’s site architecture, content and things that are almost 100% within your control.  Penguin relies on offsite factors and recovery becomes a lot harder.  Manual actions combined with these are even worse.  Knowing that Panda styled devaluations hit this site gave me a good starting point to help them recover…but first we had to try to drive more revenue so that they had extra money coming in to cover employees, the costs of doing business and our fees.

Look At Other Revenue Sources and How They Can Be Optimized

If the company has revenue to keep it running while you focus on recovering, then get going and don’t worry.  If they have money but there is more they can do to lower their dependence on Google, begin there.  The first place to look is what the products and services are, and where their customers are looking for them.  You could try selling in marketplaces like Amazon or buying ad space on the sites that replaced you if they have ad space.

Next look at the resources in your control.  If you have a large and or engaged email list, find complementary companies and do cross promotions.  You could also upload that email list to different ad platforms and run ads to the people who already shop with you…if you have products that need replaced or have repeat customers, send an email blast as a reminder.

Once those options are done, look at your paid channels like PPC.  Are your ad groups properly optimized?  Have your Facebook targets been narrowed down to hyper-targeted niches or optimized with ads that speak directly to that group?  Are your landing pages relevant to them as well?  This is the perfect time to begin focusing in on them to try and reduce your CPAs so that you can increase volume and possibly cut waste.

Now Its Time to Begin on The Actual Recovery

Note: Penalty recover is not getting your rankings back.  It is getting your site healthy enough to be able to rank again.  You have to start doing SEO again to recover the rankings.

seo quotes about penalties

The first thing I did was audit the on site factors.  We needed to know everything from how many unique products there are, how many language versions, how many blog posts, is the site using schema, are the canonicals set up, do they use proper tags on images, are paginated pages set up the right way, etc…

SEO audits are frustrating for company owners.  They hand you a bunch of money and are stuck waiting for you to bring back results.  That’s the non-frustrating part.  Getting the results from the audit is.  Many times in penalty recovery they realize they spent a ton of money paying people to cause damage to their company…so its important to always be positive and show that the audit is a good thing.

In this case we discovered some great link opportunities in addition to onsite improvements.  The previous SEO company was focusing on a specific type of links, but not necessarily bad ones.  A natural looking link portfolio will have a mix of do follow and no follow, blog and news sites, resource sites, some directories, hopefully some .edu and .gov links.   They will not have a ton of forum or blog comment links…but may have some since people reference sites when providing solutions or examples when people are asking questions.  These types of links should be expected if it is a site that has had organic rankings, a blog and a good resource section.

Begin Outlining a Plan That Helps to Strengthen the Site

Remember, this site wasn’t de-indexed so we did not have to do a reconsideration request.  It also did not have Penguin penalties so although a disavow sheet exists, it wasn’t a key function of recovery.  It was more of a Panda styled devaluation.  The first thing we did was begin developing a ton of content.  I believe in total we created more than 2,000 original and non-thin pieces.

We created guidelines to send to the team that described thin vs. useful content, how to not write spammy pages.  It outlined how to provide value to the visitor on the page and things to avoid.  Within those guides were also specific instructions on when to include an internal link vs. not using them.  It also talks about how to provide solutions that will add to the user experience.  The team caught on fast and everyone began creating good copy.

Next we looked at pages that dropped in traffic.  It turns out that not everything had mobile versions.  We took the pages that should exist in a mobile experience (or responsive) and created pages for them while double checking all of the tags, links and everything to make sure they are set up correctly code wise.  We also created AMP versions of the pages that were created as resources and guides.

Now we looked at the blog and noticed there was a ton of duplication.  We set the proper xrobots, we began updating and removing thin content from the recent past and set up new posting guidelines so that every new post would be value adding, non-thin, content relevant for the main site and not compete with pages on it either.  This included teaching the blogging team how to do keyword research.

Once we had all of this moving.  The IT person and myself began scouring the site’s tech SEO.  We checked the sitemaps, alternative tags, load times, etc… and began cleaning through them.  This was the longest process but luckily this client’s IT person has a strong marketing background so we were able to cut the time down in half.  It was lucky that we spoke the same language.

Once the mobile versions were live and the team was all on board with content creation, it was time to develop the link plan.  We started with internal links to properly guide Google through the site and display they pages we wanted.  We looked for internal links that pointed to redirects, 400 errors and other things and cleaned them up.  We looked for pages generating a 404 error and saw if the traffic came from backlinks and reset those pages so they made sense.  Next we went and fixed internal links that would give mixed signals to Google.  There are tools that can help make this easier, but you still have to go through manually and fix everything.  We also created some really useful content that people would hopefully want to link to naturally and pushed it out into the world.


Where we struggled with flat traffic after the initial drop, we eventually started to recover.  Then we got a couple of small boosts and now we’re strong enough that we can begin getting new rankings and launch more content that we hope will attract organic links.  The key to this recovery and growth was all about quality content and making sure that all indexable pages had a reason to be indexed, as well as a clear series of queries it should show for.  Here is a couple before, during and after shots.

first signs of decreasing traffic

There are a couple of important things to note about the screen shot above.  There is a seasonal drop which occurs across the board…but you’ll notice a continuing downward trend instead of a stable flow of traffic.  The rate of the drop is what was concerning.  It wasn’t a penalty but it was something to look at.  I also do not have a shot of the original actual penalty because they had a different analytics account back then and we don’t have access to it.

site stabalization begins with some new growth

This screen shot is over a year later and we have everything stable. I chose the same time frame so you could see the spike and drop again.  We had a small increase which was good, but we also had enough knowledge to know what was and was not working.

The traffic volumes were a bit lower than in the first screen shot which is why we went the extra step and helped the client with other channels for free.  They were not hurting for money, but we were an additional expense and knew it would be a long time to growth because their niche is filled with huge brands and extremely competitive keywords.

higher seo rankings are achieved

When we figured out what was working, we started implementing and are seeing nice climbs and growth every month over the previous year.  The best part is, this is natural growth from creating awesome content and a user experience that helps people with issues and makes them want to share or link to us.  You’ll also notice the traffic patterns somewhat match the previous year.  This is because of a couple things.

  1. We moved up in positions so the traffic increase came from the shift but matches the same patterns.
  2. There are some new keywords and phrases since we are providing useful content which means the peaks are a little longer horizontal wise.

The strengthening and growth for this client was a great project to work on and one we will hopefully get to continue with them for many years.  I won’t list or name the company, but if you’re having issues with rankings, noticed drops or want an audit to try and figure out what you could do to try and gain higher rankings, feel free to contact us here.  We work with companies of all sizes and budgets.

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