It is said that in arts studies, the objective is to succeed in understanding an author’s thoughts and to reproduce them in writing. It is important to have autonomy of thought and a critical mind. There is a parallel with one of my experiences in SEO.
In March 2016, the agency I worked for was called upon to support the redesign of an e-commerce site for which SEO had been forgotten. In the specifications of the website that we had obtained to audit the site, a paragraph of a few lines was dedicated to SEO:”[…] will be kept the current bases of natural referencing”. It is difficult to understand the author’s intention here. However, it was not difficult to understand why this same SEO had been the poor parent of the redesign.
The redesign had taken place in November 2015. Since the day of the launch, organic traffic has been declining to the point of losing more than 50% by the end of December compared to the previous year. The impact on sales was even more severe. Then, in March 2016, only historical customers and a few users landing on the site via the very long tail were representing the low proportion of organic traffic.
Business at stake
As an agency, it was not enough to only illustrate the issues identified in a beautiful PowerPoint and attach a budget to it. No. It had to be demonstrated that our actions would prevent our interlocutor from closing his website to rely solely on his shop. At least, that our actions would allow him to safeguard his investment in the web (the site cost him about 200 000 euros).
The site was a real sieve and each element audited raised fears that traffic would plunge even further before our recommendations were implemented. The other difficulty being the industry: only a few players shared market shares and one of them, the leader, had such a powerful force that it was perfectly impossible to reach it in the field of active notoriety. We knew in advance that the acquisition of backlinks would not work and so much the better, I never liked it. It was therefore necessary to find other key success factors.
SEO no bullshit
At this point, I want to say that the audit was not really useful because nothing or almost nothing worked properly in terms of SEO (I may blacken the picture but… it was really not beautiful to see). I therefore spent more time studying the most interesting requests in terms of potential turnover, obviously taking into account the purchase price, margin, expenses and therefore potential benefit. I would like to point out here that it is the only client (and undoubtedly the best) who has agreed to share this type of data: it was invaluable in terms of added value in the SEO approach. Once I had analyzed the main requests, I analyzed the target pages of the competing sites to try to identify the key success factors of the industry: a few appeared but too few to convince me to reach a TOP3 on one of these requests.
This is where my introduction makes sense: the key came from a discussion with the client where we were opposed between SEO recommendations and business constraints. Our discipline is known to be subject to fierce debate but also to compromise.
At the end of this discussion, we both made compromises and we unanimously decided to think quite differently about the vision of the ecommerce site.
It was decided to abandon the endless list pages on the assumption that the user needed to be guided more precisely to the product answering his question and then the number of products displayed was reduced: a product available in several sizes, colours, etc. resulted in a single product sheet with a list of choices for this type of attributes.
I was lucky enough to have a in-house web editor who would then write unique descriptions presenting the different lines.
The top selling product over the last 15 days was also displayed for each line.
Once inside a line, faceted navigation was used to create pages with specific content only for “line name + brand” query combinations exceeding a certain number of monthly searches.
Otherwise, the page displaying all the available products displayed a very short contextual text, accompanied by a photo allowing the scenario to be put in place. The idea is, in the long run, to customize the design of each of the lines. Indeed, each one addressed a defined consumption mode: one did not have with the other within the same range.
It was simply impossible given the number of products in the catalogue to expect to have a single content for all product pages. Thanks to the customer’s data (purchase price, potential profit), we have, in addition, calculated:
- The cost of inventory
- The time before more innovative products arrive.
- The estimated average shopping basket: would it be higher via the website or via a placement at the top of the shelves in the store?
- The ROI compared to the ROI of paid search engine optimization (managed by a third party agency).
It was thus possible to distinguish the product pages into three levels:
- Level 1: products of high interest. It was therefore necessary to post a long and unique description, an expert opinion written with the support of a customer or a seller and the technical specifications.
- Level 2: medium interest products. Only a long description and technical characteristics were displayed.
- Level 3: low interest products. Only the technical characteristics were present on the product sheet.
On the technical side, it was decided to focus on the elements that most affected performance.
A lucky guess here surely: the agency that developed the site was reactive and involved, which allowed us to make rapid progress on the technical sites.
The first step was to lighten the code by removing all calls that did not need to be linked to the pages. For example, tracking codes for paid search campaigns were removed on all pages that were not landing pages of paid ads.
The weight of the images was also reduced without compromising their quality thanks to an algorithm that kept the quality of the most important pixels in the image intact.
Marketing choices, especially on line depth, also made it possible to reduce the weight of pages.
Product life cycle management
First, it was necessary to manage the flow of 404 errors left behind by deleted products over the years. We often read, especially on John Mueller’s Twitter profile, that 404 errors have no impact, but when we see that they represent half of Googlebot’s hits over a day: we have reason to wonder about the interest of leaving them as they are.
Two simple rules have been established:
- If a replacement product exists (more innovative, etc.) then the old product is redirected to it.
- If there is no replacement product then a 410 status code is assigned (log analysis is showing a much lower crawl on this response code).
It was a workaround but not a solution for all the next 404 errors that we could see coming soon. The idea is also to automate or semi-automate as many SEO actions as possible. Thus, another rule was defined:
- When the product reaches a stock of 0 (which can be due to sales or a withdrawal of the product from the catalog for a reason X or Y), a script triggers an alert email to the person in charge of suppliers and stock giving him 5 days to define the replacement product. If no action is taken then a 410 response code is automatically assigned to the page.
These decisions and the actions taken to correct all SEO weaknesses have restored the average monthly natural traffic before the redesign, about 160 days later.
A few weeks later, we placed ourselves in 3rd position for THE main request which included 65,000 average monthly searches then we oscillated between 3rd and 5th place afterwards (before the redesign the page was on the second page of this request and literally forgotten after the redesign): a great victory therefore.
From my SEO point of view, it was a real victory. When we discussed it with the client, he simply answered me:
That’s good, but it doesn’t make me recover the turnover I’ve lost so far.
This was obviously not enough: it was necessary to find a way to recover the lost turnover between December 2016 and August 2017.
One could say to oneself that one’s reaction was exaggerated, that one should have considered oneself lucky not to lose one’s traffic forever and that, in the first place, it was enough to pay attention to one’s choice of service provider but… there was a real challenge to go and find more.
Organic and paid search: the combo
We therefore recovered the paid search management and started by cutting all ads leading to pages that performed very well in SEO. We also cut off the purchase of the brand name (not a big expense in itself but a matter of logic to us), as well as the bids on keywords with too little at stake in terms of potential profit.
After one year, in March 2018, we were about 10% more, all channels combined (SEA and SEO) than before the overhaul and we were achieving a higher turnover than what had been achieved so far.
However, shortly afterwards we were up against a competitor with whom it was difficult to compete: Amazon. I can’t say what the outcome would have been, certainly a stop of more than 50% of paid SEO campaigns and more SEO efforts. The company has been bought for several million by the industry leader. We knew that we could never compete in terms of market share, as I mentioned earlier, but everything suggests that our actions have borne fruit in the legitimacy of the company to make itself attractive / dangerous enough to be bought back.