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 much does brand name matter to SEO and marketing?

These guys will be fighting an uphill branding battle

I was asked recently, “how much does name matter when it comes to setting up a new company? Is it more important to have a distinguishable brand, or more important to be found in generic search?”

This is an excellent and more complex question then you might first think. Being known for something is important; when you’re tackling a space which is very crowded with generics and commodities, having a distinguishable brand matters a great deal. Ideally, the brand is something that is not already in heavy use in the space. Ideally, the brand is also easy to spell and passes the Siri/Google now text where you read out the brand name and domain name to a computer and see if it gets the website address correct. An easy to pronounce, easy to spell brand name is an easy to share brand name.

Naming a company after a generic category would mean that you might capture some portion of generic search about it, but you’re better off creating product pages that are appropriately tagged and structured for a generic search while working to make a distinguishable and distinct brand.

Let’s say you own a coffee shop. You might attempt to create a coffee shop named Boston Coffee Company, on the assumption that people searching for coffee at Boston would find it. However, since Google has given more prominence to existing brands there is a good chance that you would lose what little search ranking you’d get to companies like the Boston Bean Company.

Rather than challenge at a company brand level, you might be better off creating a distinct brand-name for your coffee shop, but have individual coffees that are reflective of the geography and the market you intend to take. You could have, for example, the Jamaica Plain coffee, the Roxbury espresso, is the Newton cappuccino, the Dorchester doppio. This will accomplish your goal of geographically named/obviously named products and services for the purposes of search, while still retaining a sense of individual identity.

A real-life example of this? Look at the brand name of the bread in the photo above. Are you likely to forget it? It’s also easy to find in search, and the domain name is easy to find and share via word of mouth.

Remember also that one of the key drivers of search is inbound links. One of the key drivers of inbound links is public relations work, building word of mouth and endorsement through third parties and media outlets. A clever, fun, easy to pronounce brand name that’s unique will likely be better remembered and linked in stories about you.


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When bad data can be okay

As marketers, and especially as marketing technologists, correct data, correct metrics, correct information is prized by us (or should be). Incorrect data, faulty data, and misleading data are anathema to our profession and our ability to do our jobs. So it might seem absolutely absurd, even heretical, to make the statement that sometimes, bad data can be okay.

When could wrong data, bad data ever be okay? Here’s a thought exercise for you.

Office clock

Imagine for a moment you wanted to know what time it was. On the wall was a clock that was clearly the wrong time. You know for sure it’s noon but the clock says 3. When you check the clock later that day as you head home, you know it’s 5 o’clock but the clock says 8.

Is the data bad? Yes. Can you still use it? Yes, as long as you know the clock is three hours ahead. The data is bad but predictably and reliably bad. You can develop a mental model (just subtract three) to compensate for the error.

Now imagine the clock shows 3 when you know it’s 12. In an hour, it shows 5. Then it goes backwards and shows 11 within a few minutes. Is the data bad? Yes. Can you still use it? No. In this case the data is bad and unreliably, unpredictable, seemingly random. It’s not something you can develop a model on, and thus it’s totally useless.

Many of the measures we use in marketing come from other derived sources, such as Klout scores and other social influence measures or estimated web traffic. When you’re looking at metrics and tools, the question you should be asking yourself isn’t necessarily whether the data is right (though that’s an important question) but whether it’s reliable.

You can model reliably wrong data that you understand. You cannot model correct data with surety if you don’t know what it’s made of, because things could be changing behind the scenes that you can’t see or compensate for. One day you wake up and what seemed like right data became wrong data overnight.

No better example of this exists than Google’s algorithm. No one knows what’s in it, and thus trying to “win at SEO” is an impossible task because what you think is right today may be wrong tomorrow, but you have no way of knowing it until you lose search rankings. Even worse, because you don’t know what’s in it, you don’t know how to fix what’s wrong except by random experimentation.

Ask how reliable your data is!


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