I’ve got a problem, less than Jay Z admittedly – but it’s a significant one.
It is SEO case studies. Something that Tommy complained about in his recent article.
SEO case studies of pure hyperbole to be precise.
You know the ones:
“How Google sent us 1 Million visits in 1 week”
“250,000 organic visitors overnight”
“My journey to 100,000 visits”
… blah, blah, f*cking blah.
Hyperbole SEO case studies set expectations way up in the clouds making us all feel somewhat useless because we aren’t doing that on a daily basis.
So what’s my biggest issue with them exactly?
Well, aside from the fact many of them don’t typically reveal anything actionable, it’s the reality that traffic is not your holy grail.
All you need is traffic, traffic fixes all etc. and yet they fail to acknowledge traffic means squat without conversions.
Mind your Step, there be Piles of BS
Money is the one omission from many case studies and it makes me question the sanity of SEO professionals – the holy grail ain’t traffic, it’s revenue generated > everything else.
Take for example a really simple trick we use on Twitter to increase our website traffic 200-300% over night for ‘free’. We don’t have to spend a penny, just a little time.
Yep, 2x or 3x traffic growth in 24-48 hours.
Look, a graph!
How did we do that? We merely posted our better performing tweets more often.
Sorry – too boring? You’ll forgive me for illustrating a point.
That’s probably why you see massive blog articles written on this. Full of hot air, BS, ‘thought leadership’ and all the other related clutter that hides reality.
But we’re still skirting around the subject here. What does that ‘massive’ boost in traffic actually mean for us, aside from vanity numbers - how does it impact our bottom line?
Traffic without revenue is the anti-climax of anti-climaxes – we’re all waiting for the money shot (pun intended).
What I Won’t Be Telling You Today
I won’t be telling you how to write ‘high quality’ content, or do the outreach to get it featured or cited. I won’t be giving you a run-down of any content marketing techniques.
I won’t be telling you how to research your competitors, or their backlinks, or the fact they will be hiding some of their links.
There a loads of guides out there and this is a case study, not a ‘how to’.
The 12 Month Road to Reward
This case study presents a methodology and strategy that has panned out over the past 360 odd days.
The client in this case study is in a really cutthroat financial niche. They now make millions a year from Google organic traffic where previously they didn’t. They don’t want their competitors, or anyone for that matter, knowing about it.
Oh - and I’m sorry to say, I also won’t be telling you who the client is, either.
I approached several of our clients, for whom we do SEO, and none of them wanted their name on any form of case study, period. That goes for our own website too.
I understand their position. I also have to respect it, they’re a bloody good client!
Therefore you can trust my numbers below, or not. Be the cynic if you will – I won’t take offence and I’ll completely understand.
Acorns or Pumpkins?
As online marketers we make things way too complicated, and to be fair clients often oversimplify everything.
We want rankings, but why?
We want more traffic, to what end?
We want to rank for this keyword, says who?
What we should want is to measure everything and only pursue what works. Measure, analyse and cut the chaff.
Let me show you how even with a tiny bit of traffic you can optimise your way to a small fortune.
Really Shiny Things!
One thing this client hopefully won’t mind me saying is that they spent a small fortune on a very posh website. Their branding and web presence were produced by a design agency and they did a really, really good job.
The website is modern, slick and professional. It works flawlessly on mobile devices too. It certainly looks and feels like a 5 figure budget was spent on it, because it was.
Shame then, we came along and picked holes in it…
Don’t get me wrong the site looks great (and still does), but look at the conversion rate and paltry organic traffic:
A limp conversion rate of 1.19%, no organic growth to speak of and lacklustre revenue (relatively speaking) - this is a multi-million pound business.
The organic spike mid-year is brand search triggered by a trade show, even so it’s tiny.
For reference goal value is set at £2,100 and the average month over the year saw 432 organic visits per month.
I’ll tell you below exactly what we did to improve the situation, and without upsetting the designers too much.
First 90 Days – Pick Low Hanging Fruit
The first quarter of Midas Media’s SEO projects are often termed the low hanging fruit phase. Not because its easy pickings and we’re breezing through, but because we like to tackle the quickest route to success first. After all this business is about return on investment.
Tougher decisions come, so we make the first 90-days really count.
How do we handle search terms and rankings? If truth be known, with kids gloves.
We group keywords in to meaningful lists/groups and we measure the group performance per list, avoiding paying too much attention to individual keywords.
Why? Because individual rankings are noisy, can force your hand and alone don’t make you money.
In many cases clients don’t get keyword reports from us because it’s old fashioned and misunderstood. Traffic to revenue is the ultimate score card.
Let’s face it anyone can crop a ranking report, blur keywords and hail themselves a hero. You see it all the time, “Up 99 places today! BOOM!” reads one Tweet.
Cool story, bro.
Anyway enough of that nonsense, moving on:
First up: a Really Deep Audit
What: Full scale website audit, including technical and content with a deep crawl of every element.
With over 100 specific check points, our audit is comprehensive to say the least.
- Technical elements such as schema
- On-page SEO elements
- Site speed issues
- Broken links
- Duplicate and thin content
- Meta data
- WMT data
- Crawl data
- Crawl budget
- Internal linking
- Backlink profile
…and much more besides.
Like I say, over 100 check points. This is why we don’t do free audits.
You’ll see for yourself below there’s no chance in hell a free audit - aka a thinly veiled sales pitch - can achieve anywhere near the level of a proper paid SEO audit can.
Why: in a nutshell we identify where traffic is headed and what it’s doing once it’s there.
Usability you say - but this is SEO? True enough, but technical SEO alone is a very short-sighted approach.
Organic traffic is merely the catalyst to growth. Your website does the hard work of converting people beyond the traffic stage.
It’s for that reason we include user experience and an analytics review in our SEO audit process.
What we did: we tidied up sloppy Meta where descriptions were left empty, or simply duplicated.
Page titles remain keyword centric, but descriptive and typically with a call to action or differentiator.
Do a quick search in a niche, see a pattern, and go against the grain.
Page structures were improved, any thin content was appropriately ‘padded’ and internal links were reviewed and improved.
The backlink profile at this stage is more a case of reviewing what’s there and removing any junk or unnatural anchors. We disavowed a fair chunk of links for this site!
We Tackle Immediate Linking Opportunities
What: not just backlinks in general, but specifically unlinked citations.
Why: a really simple strategy, looking for mentions and brand references across the web that deserve a link back to the client website.
Not easy in all cases, but worthwhile in the long run. Not all will link, but we find the right approach yields a decent reward.
The right approach being?
Try starting your email with something other than:
“Hey, how are you?”
“I just wanted to…”
“How’s your day going?”
“Did you get my email?”
You get the idea.
What we did: we added value first and asked for the link later.
We performed a small outreach campaign to offer corrections and additions to data and content referencing our client.
By improving other people’s content (as a result of our outreach) we were able to achieve a 50/50 hit ratio. Admittedly some of these were smaller less authoritative websites, but a handful were real gems.
Unlinked brand mentions are a great way to pick up white hat links to your site. Ahrefs ‘Content Explorer’ with its ‘Unlinked Domains’ feature make it super easy to discover backlink opportunities. Here’s how you do it…
Step 1: Enter a keyword or key phrase (say your brand name) into Ahrefs Content Explorer tool.
Step 2: Set the ‘Publish Date,’ ‘Language’ or any other relevant filters and click ‘Highlight unlinked domains’ button.
Fill in ‘Check for links to:’ field and Ahrefs will show you content from domains that mention your brand, but never linked back to you.
Step 2.1 (optional): You can export all the opportunities into a .CSV file for further processing.
Step 3: Set up Ahrefs Alerts to get notified about the new mentions of your brand, as they appear.
Identify Search Terms
What: paid search keyword extraction, which sounds like a military manoeuvre.
Why: because relying on the client and keyword research can leave a big hole in your keyword strategy. We want revenue remember – so find the keywords that generate conversions and sales, not just traffic.
What we did: performed a 12 month review of converting terms, aligning this to the client’s historical order book and offline sales. We identified over 150 keywords and grouped them in to likeminded lists.
If you don’t have paid search data to fall back on, then use tools such as SEMrush to identify where your competitors are advertising.
SEMrush is indeed a cool tool, but you can also spy on competitor ads and uncover paid keywords right here on Ahrefs using our ‘Positions Explorer’ tool. Let Tim explain how to use the tool in an episode of his ‘Over Simplified SEO’ series.
BTW, you can check out the rest of Tim’s OSEO series on our youtube channel. Oh and there’s a red ‘subscribe’ button there too… just saying 😉
The User & Message Match
What: following on from the earlier audit, we take action on the website usability and content issues.
Why: to improve the user experience (and understanding of the clients unique value) across the site.
This includes improving load times and performance issues, resolving any message mismatch and content issues with a view to improve conversions.
What we did: one of the biggest wins for clients is when we apply our content and copywriting work.
We look at the core offer and the value proposition, and how each key web page aligns.
For this client, who offer many financial services, we decided to rewrite their homepage (the most frequented page on the site) focusing on their ‘best seller’.
The copy was targeting a specific subset of their audience - the content and calls to action reflected this.
By ensuring message match to user expectations you can pretty much guarantee an uplift in conversions.
Yes, it impacts other services offered but then you can’t apply the same message to everyone – so it makes sense to stop trying a blanket approach and become more targeted.
Post 90-Day Impact
Summarised above is the top-level view of the audit, analysis and action taken.
All told it’s a large list of changes, some of which are cutting. It can be difficult for business owners to stomach such sweeping changes – and whilst you can’t guarantee anything – you can reassure them by basing all changes on the data.
Unveiling a bumper start to the New Year:
*You can see the expanded Analytics year view later.
A before and year after proof that on-site optimisation does work, but be mindful a handful of editorial backlinks were acquired during our 90 day process too.
This example should be further testament to the fact SEO is a multipronged strategy and doesn’t exist in isolation.
Just to show that this wasn’t a really bad website that I cherry picked for this study, here are a couple of examples supporting how a thorough SEO audit process can have dramatic effects on both traffic and revenue.
B2B – Professional Services
Starting before Christmas last year (quiet period), quarter on quarter performance increased after following the above process. This yielded compelling results on very modest traffic levels:
Ecommerce – Home Improvements
More traffic this one, but still not ‘massive’ organic numbers. We started working with this retailer end of April 2015, below is the 90-days after the SEO audit versus the previous 90-day period:
That’s great news for the 3 month story, but there’s another 9 months to follow.
Back to the client in question:
What of the Other 275.25 Days?
The start of 2015 was a good one, the best on record for our client. That meant our 90-day process was not only a success for both sides of the table, but they also employed us for the coming 12 months on a monthly retainer.
So what do we do next?
The website is in tip-top shape, much improved and traffic has essentially tripled in 3 months - and yet we know there’s more to come.
We don’t operate SEO insulated from other services, instead it forms the foundation for a mix of marketing disciplines.
SEO blends with content marketing, outreach, social media and paid promotion.
SEO ensures the content we produce is appropriately researched and optimised. Content marketing ensures the type of content we produce is effective at nurturing existing customers and introducing new customers (traffic) in to the fold.
‘Quality content’ – I hate that term - also ensures we have link worthy assets, because doing any form of outreach with average or worse, sub-standard content is nigh on useless.
Outreach is expensive at the best of times but I’ll make no bones about it, links still matter.
Brass Tacks: an Additional £2.17Million in Revenue
October 2015 has been and gone marking a year since we started working with the client.
In that time SEO and its support acts of content and conversion optimisation have reaped considerable reward.
- Organic traffic is up 247%
- Organic conversions are up 162%
- Organic revenue is up from £130K to £1.675M
When we looked at the attribution model we also saw that conservatively, ~30% of direct traffic is actually organic, or as a result of organic visits.
That brings the annual total revenue up to £2.17 Million for the year.
That’s comfortably over 2,100,000 pounds sterling from less than 1,500 organic visitors per month.
Is there a Catch?
Making money is great of course, but if the costs outweigh the rewards – we’re in trouble.
If we look at the ROI (return on investment) from SEO then we need to understand the risk (cost) to reward (revenue) ratio.
The initial 90-day strategy required the client investing £15,700 (~$24k) in our time and materials.
The monthly retainer for ongoing work came to an average £8,200 (~$12.5k) per calendar month.
This brings the total annual spend to £89,500 (~$136k).
Revenue - spend = over £2Million (~$3M) for the year.
So far so good.
I particularly like the simple metric of monetary input vs output, it perfectly describes the situation without fuss. In this project for example, for every £1 spent we delivered £24.30, or if you’d prefer a 2,420% ROI.
Not bad for what many would consider ‘small’ organic traffic numbers.
Even better when your client can say “our SEO strategy generates over £24 in revenue for every £1 we spend”.
Like I said - money talks.
SEO Doesn’t Exist in a Bubble
In summary, SEO isn’t efficient in isolation and traffic alone won’t work miracles.
This case study is typical of our search engine optimisation process. One that is supported by content, copywriting, analytics and conversion optimisation.
It’s an iterative process of testing methods and improving as you go - SEO doesn’t exist in a bubble.
I hope you can take away some inspiration and ideas from this article that not only help you think about your own SEO exploits, but also rationalise what you can achieve with even a modest amount of traffic from Google.
Not Going Viral
Remember: ignore the 100,000+ vanity posts you read, don’t try and replicate what other people are doing. Instead focus on extracting more from the traffic you already have and ensure you’re prepared to capitalise on existing and any additional traffic that comes your way.