Company-X: A multi-million-pound bricks-and-mortar ski shop that saw rapid online growth over a 5 year period. Their accelerated growth was mostly a result of competitive pricing and paid-marketing activity. Excellent customer service, shipping rates and effective marketplace activity also had a significant impact.
So, what was wrong?
Digital marketing and user experience issues
Company-X had neglected some areas of digital marketing and user experience in lieu of quick results. As a consequence, Company-X were still making money but they weren’t very profitable.
Company-X’s organic channels contributed approximately 28% of visitors and 27% of revenue. PPC, in contrast, contributed to 50% of total revenue over the same period. Their average SERP position ranking was ’44’ in the UK. This story will focus on how Company-X addressed their organic channel deficit.
The poor organic performance resulted from severe technical SEO issues and unstructured, untracked organic activity. A relaunch of their website provided the perfect opportunity to realign their organic strategy and get things organised. But did it have the desired impact? Let’s find out.
Technical SEO issues
Google Search Console identified that all URL parameters were being indexed. This meant that an almost eternal number of dynamically generated URLs could be found by Googlebot.
Indexation of URL parameters meant that Google saw 90% of content was duplicated across hundreds or thousands of different URLs. Not ideal. This resulted in Google ranking the more ‘stable’ product pages above category pages. Not ideal, either.
Organic channel issues
Severe technical SEO issues were compounded by a strategy that relied heavily on transactional product-specific content but almost entirely neglected informational content.
Ultimately, it resulted in a severe imbalance. Google Analytics and Search Console identified that:
- User search intent was largely transactional
- Top-ranked search terms were for discount pages
- 86% of blog pages received between 0-50 visits per year
- Top revenue blog posts were promotional, not informational content
- Informational content had no internal linking
It was (almost) technically impossible for Company-X to rank highly for top-level category search terms like ‘all-mountain skis’ because product category filters generated infinite indexable URLs. Search engines were unable to figure out which one to show so they displayed none.
Company-X’s organic strategy and the structure of their workforce adapted to compensate for the website’s technical SEO issues and reliance on paid-marketing. They focussed on ranking product-level URLs.
Product descriptions, in-house imagery and some video would be re-created for every winter season. Of course, this worked well for customers considering specific products and converting. But that’s a very small percentage of potential search traffic.
This relied on an unsustainable amount of resources. Company-X needed a new platform, better design, optimised content and a logical URL structure. Not only to generate organic revenue but to be profitable.
A new website and a strategy to make it work
A new website and accompanying SEO strategy were the first steps towards making any improvement to Company-X’s organic revenue.
The website development project included everything necessary for site-wide on-page optimisation, implementation of SEO best-practice, and technical SEO solutions:
- Functional platform: Open-source Magento 2
- Improved design: User interface and user experience
- Content: Optimised and prioritised
- URL Structure: logical hierarchy, no-indexing parameters, canonicalisation
The new SEO strategy prioritised high-value product and brand category pages. Conducting thorough keyword research and evaluating search intent meant that these pages could be optimised for the highest-searched, most relevant terms. Benchmarking and tracking organic performance allowed future insight.
Note: There’s obviously a lot more detail involved in creating, researching and implementing an effective organic strategy. I’ll explore the intricacies of it another time. Keep your eyes peeled.
The biggest challenge facing this strategy would be page indexation. Previously, search engines could understand the purpose of Company-X, but technical issues stopped them from indexing the most relevant pages.
Complex website development & migration: what can go wrong?
In total, 568 categories were well researched and structured, they were given relevant titles, structured URLs, original meta descriptions and bespoke on-page copy. However, the road to increasing organic revenue is paved with danger.
The more you alter, the more that can go wrong. A brand new e-commerce website with four departments, seven international storefronts, five hundred and sixty-eight categories, and thousands of seasonal products has over one-hundred thousand separate URLs.
All these URLs were completely new to search engines. They had never seen them before. This meant that these pages were invisible until they’d been indexed. How can invisible pages drive organic revenue? They can’t. One critical element should not be missed, but it was.
URL Redirect Map: the most important part of website migration
A URL Redirect Map collates all relevant URLs from a website and designates a new URL to which traffic is redirected. Sounds like a big job? It is. But it is a cornerstone of successful website migration.
All of a website’s old URLs and key information about those URLs should be gathered. In particular:
- Pages with more than 1 visitor in the past year
- Pages shared on social media
- Pages that are indexed by search engines
These pages can then be redirected to their new counterparts. This is essential for a few key reasons, all of which greatly affect website and SEO performance:
- User experience. Being redirected to a nonsensical page, or a homepage is a jarring experience
- Bounce rate. Showing a non-relevant page increases bounce rate. Not good.
- Indexation. Search engines need to know.
A new website can have the perfect design, fantastic content and an efficient platform but if traffic and search engines are not redirected then organic revenue will drop.
Note: For more information on how to conduct a successful website migration then check out SiteVisibility’s Ultimate SEO Website Migration Checklist.
Two steps forward and one step back
And organic revenue did drop. Without a URL Redirect Map in place before the new site launch, there was no chance that Company-X would be able to maintain organic traffic and revenue. It’s impossible.
Search engines had little assistance in replacing deleted URLs with the new, more relevant pages that Company-X had created. This meant that web crawlers would crawl and index a completely new website.
After 8 months Google Search Console showed that 21% of new submitted URLs were indexed, and around 40% of Company-X’s indexed URLs were for legacy pages that no longer existed.
The issues were initially compounded by an automatic redirect ‘catch-all’ tool. Instead of showing an HTTP 404, the tool would redirect traffic to a page with a similar URL.
Redirecting users and search engines based on URL similarities alone was harmful. It meant that organic bounce rate increased and that search engines struggled to display new, relevant pages in the SERPs.
A catch-all redirect tool would have worked well as a backstop to planned URL redirects. However, it lacked the ability to precisely redirect users and search engines to relevant pages. So, was the website migration successful? Yes and no.
Was the new website successful?
Ultimately, the success of a new website depends on what you’re measuring. In this case, we’re looking at how a website redesign can overcome severe SEO issues and increase organic channel revenue to affect bottom-line profitability. So, did Company-X’s new website do this? It did not.
The new website did overcome a whole series of issues that Company-X had previously been facing, however, it did not increase organic revenue. If the same case study were focussed on conversion rate, bounce rate or a whole series of other metrics, then the answer would be different.
So what’s the point in sharing the story of an unsuccessful project?
Learning from your mistakes
The point is learning. If we don’t analyse mistakes and try to learn from them then a failed project is bound to fail the next time, which means there isn’t much reason to do it in the first place. I wasn’t primarily responsible for how Company-X launched their new website, but neither was I skilled enough to identify the potential weaknesses. I was learning.
If I knew at the start of the project what I know now about successful website redesigns and migrations then this story would be very different. As it happens, the next story you see here about migrating a website will be very different: because I learnt.