3 steps to diagnosing declining website traffic

I’ll let you in on a little secret. My website hasn’t been doing as well lately. In fact, performance of the site has been downright poor in the last 3 months compared to the past. Are the glory days over? Has my writing substantially declined in quality? I needed to find out what was going on.

The path to understanding your website traffic, good or ill, is straightforward: audience, acquisition, behavior.

The first step is to understand the audience. Which audience are you losing? I fired up Google Analytics and looked at the two most basic segments of audience, new and returning users. Briefly, if new users are declining, it typically means you have an acquisition problem. If returning users are declining, it typically means you have a content problem. If both are declining, you typically have a structural problem behind the scenes. New users have been substantially down:

Audience_Overview_-_Google_Analytics

But then, so have returning users:

Audience_Overview_-_Google_Analytics

Something’s amiss, and I suspect it’s structural. The next step is to look at acquisition. Where am I losing my traffic from?

All_Traffic_-_Google_Analytics

It would seem I’m losing my traffic from direct and organic search for returning users, which means people have lost bookmarks, forgot to type in my domain name as part of their daily reading, or don’t find me again through search.

Let’s check out new users now. Where am I losing them from?

All_Traffic_-_Google_Analytics

The same two culprits, but on a much larger scale. I lost half of my organic search traffic. Yikes! I think it’s safe to say we found the problem: search. Both new and returning users rely heavily on search to get to my website.

Knowing that there’s a search problem, the next question is: what kind of search problem. For that, we head to Google’s Webmaster Tools. I looked at the dashboard and it said I have 1,289 URLs indexed under the Sitemaps panel.

Full stop. I know there’s more content on the website than that. There are thousands of pages on this site. What gives?

I looked a little more closely. My sitemap wasn’t reporting most of the URLs on my site. It turns out that when I updated an SEO plugin, it munched my previous settings for sitemaps, and was only reporting 1 out of every 5 actual URLs. I resubmitted my sitemaps to Webmaster Tools, and you can see the difference:

Webmaster_Tools_-_Sitemaps_-_http___www_christopherspenn_com_

That’s a pretty substantial difference right there. 75% of my work wasn’t indexed by Google because it didn’t know about it. Now it does, and I’ll expect to see an increase in the number of pages crawled and indexed in search results in the near future, which should translate into bringing people back to my website.

When you face a situation where you’ve got declining traffic, follow the same framework. Which part of your audience is ailing? Where do they come from? What do they do? By following that structure, you’ll quickly identify what’s broken and the solution to fix it may leap out at you.


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How to use Twitter to replace SEO keyword data

So many SEO folks and blogs have said the sky has fallen with the end of keyword data in our SEO analytics. What’s a marketer to do now that we don’t know the exact words someone uses to search for what we want to rank for? The short answer is that Google is very clearly creating search results using topics, which are aggregations of relevant keywords, misspellings, and related terms. So how do you penetrate this misty veil and discover what people are really searching for, since the individual keyword data is gone?

Use Twitter, of course! Twitter is the world’s largest open stream of conversation available, and the words, phrases, and expressions people use in conversation are going to be the same kinds of words, phrases, and expressions that they’ll use in search, especially around topics they want to know about. Let’s look at an example of how this might work. Let’s say you’re looking to become authoritative on content marketing. What words and phrases are people going to use in relation to this?

Start by doing a search for the phrase or term in question on Twitter.

_4__Twitter___Search_-__content_marketing_

Scroll down as far as you can without making your web browser crash and copy/paste all of the tweets you can into a text file.

untitled_text

Sort the file and remove the obvious bits of text that aren’t relevant, like lines filled with usernames and Klout scores, and you should be left with a nice body of text that contains the different related terms and topics around content marketing, courtesy of the Twitter audience. Condense this down using your favorite concordance software or word cloud software (I like Tagxedo), and you should have a visualized sense of what’s relevant around your core search term:

Tagxedo_-_Creator

Twitter has given you a lexicon you can use of different keywords and terms you can mix and match as you create content to take advantage of the topic as a whole, rather than individual keywords. Give this a try and see if it works for you!


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The short and long games of SEO

SEO

I was listening with interest to episode 3 of the Marketing Companion featuring Tom Webster and Mark Schaefer, and the debate that formed the core of the episode was: is quality or quantity better when it comes to content marketing for the purposes of winning at SEO? The example given was a self-appointed social media guru who did a 9 minute interview with a local business and generated 63 pieces of content from it, helping the client win the local search game.

Is mass content marketing, where quantity and freshness wins out over quality, the way to go? The answer depends on which Google game you are playing; Google offers two of them.

The short game is the game that most SEO folks tend to play. This focuses on impactful, fast wins that leverage gaps or flaws in the search algorithms, things that can artificially inflate the importance of a site.

The long game is the quality game that more content marketers and writers tend to play. This focuses on evergreen or high quality content that isn’t necessarily going to win in the algorithm of the day, but will continue to be relevant for years to come.

Google would like you to play the long game, and in terms of effort and returns on that effort, the long game definitely has the better ratio of effort to return. However – and this is distasteful to many marketers – both games can win if you play them well enough. I used to play the short game almost exclusively back in the days when I was marketing financial services products because I worked for an underdog startup that would have been obliterated if we had gone toe to toe with our competitors on their playing field. I did all of the short game wins at the time very successfully:

  • Making a copy of the Wikipedia database file and posting that in a more optimized, easier to navigate PHP framework
  • Repurposing and republishing US government databases
  • Buying up dozens and dozens of exact match domains and cross linking them to each other

Google has, over the years, devalued each of those techniques, each of those tactics, and in order to remain relevant in SEO, you’ve had to adapt to new short game techniques. This, incidentally, is why most SEO firms really suck – they get into the game at a certain point in time but never evolve their techniques, so they are effective at the short game for only a little while. That said, if you’re good at it, the short game can net you some big wins – big risk giving big reward.

I’ve also played the long game, where it’s all about the quality of the content that you publish, and being effective at capturing and converting the audience you do reap. Most of what I do on my blog here is the long game. A good chunk of what I do for clients today is long game because it serves their interests best in the long term. The long game also requires significantly more expertise in the field you’re working in – high quality content comes from high value, and if you’re not proficient at what you’re creating content about, you won’t deliver high value.

The best strategy is the one that fits the risk you’re willing to take, the time you’re willing to invest learning and staying up to date on techniques, the knowledge you have of the field, and the other marketing resources you can bring to bear.


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