Business > Merchant Voice

Overcoming search-engine penalties the DIY way

Ecommerce is a competition. No matter how well you run your operation, using white hat techniques, producing original content and sharing it on the web, ecommerce owners compete against a fluctuating tide of search engine standards and other business owners in their niche. It is a competition only few will win, and many struggle with. The interaction between your online business and its customers will be the basis of success or failure. Your business depends on your voice being heard in a web overflowing with image and content competition.

So how does your ecommerce business stand out among a pack of wolves?

I’ve been struggling with this question recently. In 2012, my business was on the top of the world. I was listed in the 1 to 3 top search engine spots for my main keyword, and for secondary and long tail keywords. Business was thriving and we were growing. We had a record year. I wrote my own product descriptions, articles, blogs, and content. I tried to stay as active as possible on social media, following from all the recommendations I read. I consumed every search engine optimization article and social media marketing article I could find to stay up to date on techniques. I was determined to grow my business even more in 2013.

To celebrate a long, busy, and successful season and to take a much-needed break, I flew to Paris for my birthday. It was September 27, 2012. When I arrived, I checked my rankings as I did daily. My heart sunk; somehow I had dropped from the top listing just the day before to the sixth. In the blink of an eye, I lost significant traffic and revenue; I was no longer on top.

What did I do wrong?

Upon my return, I began analyzing competitor link profiles. Perhaps they were just building more links quicker. I looked at my internal links: Was I over optimized? I looked at the site redesign that we had just had done in August: Was I penalized for it? Was my load time too slow? Was my content not “fresh” enough? Was my content too thin? Were my keywords over used? I had no warnings in Google Webmaster tools. There were no notifications of what the issue was. I had seemingly a million questions and no answers. There were four Google algorithm updates in the five days I was in Paris. I couldn’t pin down if my site had experienced a Panda or Penguin penalty.

I knew that I had to do something. I needed to take action to stay competitive in my ecommerce niche. I decided to hire a marketing manager because I couldn’t focus on search engine optimization and marketing without one or both suffering. It was the beginning of our slow season and I needed to ensure sales remained stable even with our loss of rank. With an employee focusing on our marketing calendar, updating our social media profiles, and keeping our email and affiliate marketing up to date, we achieved record numbers during our slow season even though we remained at the center of page 1 search results.

Then Panda hit again in March 2013. We fell off of page 1 and began to fluctuate between pages 2 and 3. Three competitors called me that month and offered to sell their websites to me; I knew I wasn’t the only one in trouble. Big box business, BuzzFeed articles, and Pinterest boards began to flood the first few pages for my keyword. Google’s algorithm updates were hitting my industry hard; high rollers were being favored over long running, small business niche websites.

May 2013, Google’s Penguin 2.0 algorithm rolled out and in an instant my business was gone. You could search 20 pages deep and find my site — or those three competitors that offered to sell. Google erased ten years of work without regard. Ouch. That. Hurt.

But ecommerce is a competition; I wasn’t going to give up. While my sales suffered, I had to continue. This was my livelihood. My plan of attack was twofold: (1) find and fix the issues, and (2) identify creative ways to maintain sales.

Step 1: Find and Fix the Panda and Penguin Penalty Issues

  • Analyzing my link profiles. This required not only looking at my anchor text to see if I was using the same keywords, I also had to do a link audit. Using Moz, Open Site Explorer, and Market Samurai I discovered I wasn’t diversifying my anchor text well. I looked to my competitors for ideas and used Google’s Keyword Planner to find variations of my main keyword. I developed a list of variations and started implementing changes, which I am still actively working on.

For the link audit, I downloaded a list of the most recent links via Google’s Webmaster Tools. I sorted the table to see if there was a pattern to the domains that were linking to me. I was shocked to find numerous spam blogs with hundreds of spammy links — even some links that used adult words — to my site. I never outsourced my link building; I did all link building myself. Upon further analysis of these pages, I wasn’t the only one with links on these pages. Some of my competitors were also there. Did another website have negative SEO done against my competitors and me? I began to make an Excel spreadsheet of these links and contacted the sites (such as LiveJournal) to remove my links immediately. For each listing in my Excel sheet, I inserted a date and a contact email. If the link wasn’t removed within 30 days, I moved it to a disavow list and submitted to Google. I then crossed my fingers and prayed. I wasn’t notified in Webmaster Tools of a manual penalty, so I did not submit a reconsideration request.

  • Checking for duplicate content and installing authorship tags. Articles that go viral is good. But articles that go viral from copying and pasting verbatim without proper credit could cause duplicate content problems. I had hundreds of original content articles written on my website with just a copyright symbol, the date, and my name. I found many of my articles copied without credit. I began going through my article list and installing the Google authorship tag on each article, linking to my author profile so Google would know where the original content came from. I also checked Google’s Webmaster Tools to see if I had duplicate META titles and descriptions on my own site. I changed them to ensure I had no duplicate content for my products.
  • Removing thin content and condensing my site. When I first heard the term “thin” content, I had no idea what it meant. I mean, all my content was good, wasn’t it? I used to write articles to be seen as an authority on my topic. But I learned more isn’t merrier. If the page just lead the user to hit the back button, it wasn’t helping my bounce rate and it wasn’t converting. But it was telling Google the site had thin content. I began removing some of my articles and inserting some of the text within my landing pages. I also began reducing my product offerings and combining subsections to make it as easy as possible for visitors to find what they were looking for. I’m still slowly weeding out these pages and incorporating information into other areas of my site.
  • Analyzing landing pages and bounce rate. To do this, go into your Google Analytics account (Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages) and click the column bounce rate. I looked at the pages that had high bounce rates and either modified them, added to them, or deleted them. If your visitors are bouncing off your page quickly, then Google feels something is wrong. Another important metric to look at is Engagement (Audience > Behavior > Engagement). I looked at how many visitors are bouncing off my site in 10 seconds or less, with the goal to lower that to under 55 percent. (It is currently less than 55 percent.)
  • Adding selective products and deleting dead weight. I asked a few friends and family members who were not familiar with my site to browse it. I was concerned that there were too many products, and that shoppers wouldn’t be able to decide. Could too many products be bad? I began to delete the dead weight, the products that were just not making any sales and not converting. I am now being more selective in what I add to my site. I was spending too much time inputting and writing original product descriptions for items that never sell.

Step 2: Maintain Sales after Losing Google Ranking

  • Expanding focus. Was I being too narrow in my focus? My bridesmaid and groomsmen gifts could also double as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, and birthday gifts. I began marketing for specific holidays and other occasions.
  • Putting social media to work. For too long I counted on Google to bring in most of my traffic (it still does), but I began to actively pursue marketing my products on social media networks. Most of my social media referrals came from Pinterest and Facebook, so that is where I focused. Based on Google Analytics, 15 percent of my traffic comes from social media (mainly Pinterest), 15 percent comes from other referrals (mainly blogs) and 15 percent of it comes directly (email marketing and repeat visitors). Thus 45 percent of my traffic now comes from sources other than the search engines.
  • Looking into other sales channels. I also looked into other sales channels, such as Amazon, eBay, Groupon, and Zazzle, to name a few. While they all take a percentage or commission and there are pros and cons to each, they are viable avenues if business is slow and you are looking to diversify. I also partnered with other smaller ecommerce businesses to sell my products. While my website still generates most of my sales, the extra boost from other sales channels is a bonus.
  • Get your name in front of bloggers. I’m not talking about guest blogging. Google’s Matt Cutts said it is a no-no and I never really liked making evergreen content for other sites. I am talking about interviews. For example, consider HARO, where reporters are looking for answers to an article they are writing. Be sure to check the publication, as you don’t want your quote wasted on a low quality site. I’ve had my quotes linked on Forbes, AMEX Open Forum, and through this service. You can also reach out to bloggers in your niche to run a contest or review, as a popular blogger can work wonders for your traffic. However, use it wisely and make sure the bloggers include full disclosure and no-follow links.
  • Harness email marketing. I increased the frequency of my email marketing to 2-to-3 times per week. I always see increase page views and sales when I send an email. The best times of the week for me are Monday and Tuesday, but analyze your company and industry to determine what’s best for you. Also consider the time of day. For example, you may have a lower click through rate if you send in the evening, but those who are clicking may convert better. I have a better open rate when I send late morning (around lunch time). I have a hunch it is because people scan their email first thing in the morning, but they don’t buy because of commuting or work and they have a better chance to browse during their lunch hour. Historically, my busiest times on my website are from 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time. I also experience a small peak in the evening hours. Know when your visitors are shopping and send an email to them just before those peak hours.

My Results

Where does my site stand after all of this? Well, with Panda 4.0 hitting last month, I must have done something right. I now am back on page 2 or 3 depending on the keyword. While not as good as it once was, at least I see an improvement and I know that I am moving in the right direction. My analytics show traffic increases. I am still working on my website every day, tweaking, researching, and fixing what I can. There is still much room for improvement and growth – any ecommerce owner knows there is always something to be done.

Erica Tevis
Erica Tevis
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