Stepping onto a new campaign is never easy.
Like me, I’m sure that you’re passionate about success. So, when I am given a fresh website to work on the first thing I want to know is history. The history of a campaign paints the narrative for your decisions. Therefore, today we’re going to look at SEO narratives.
Here’s a list of different narratives covered:
- Growth Narrative.
- Decline Narrative.
- Algorithmic Penalties.
- Manual Penalties.
- Core Engine Updates.
- Mistakes by Google.
1. Growth Narratives.
To get started with looking at narratives, we’re going to look at Ahrefs. It’s a great tool for historic data on keyword and traffic performance. Therefore, if it’s your sales team that needs to figure out the SEO narratives, this could be useful for them.
I’ve included details on how to view this graph in my Ahrefs Guide, so feel free to check that out.
In this graph, the narrative is simple. Since data began collection in June 2015, this website had continued to grow. Furthermore, we can see that the growth of keywords in the top 100 positions has been a lot more aggressive in recent years.
It can suggest one of two things:
- This website is absolutely killing it, or…
- Ahrefs changed their keyword tables and this growth is imagined.
When working with your own website, you may wish to check these against Google Analytics. If you see similar changes in traffic, it’s going to be more useful. In this case, I happen to know that the website has seen significant market growth in the past few years.
2. Decline Narratives.
Given that SEO is a fairly competitive industry and the information is widespread, it’s rare to see decline narratives. Instead, you often will encounter other types of SEO narratives on a frequent basis. However, if you want to see what it might look like, here’s an example.
In this example, it’s a website that used to be owned by a household brand. When they rebranded their website, they sold the domain, which has since been purchased and redirected as part of a link building strategy. It worked really well for them.
When looking at the organic keywords, the drop would be almost instant. It would actually resemble something like the algorithmic narratives. So, instead, I’ve chosen to demonstrate what it would look like by using their referring domains.
As you can see from the below graph, there’s been a steady decline in the number of links towards this website. As webmasters let their websites expire or realise it’s no longer there, they remove their links with time. There are also fewer spam websites picking up the domain in the SERPs.
3. Algorithmic Penalty Narratives.
When I first started SEO, I figured that every website had an algorithmic penalty. I couldn’t tell when there was a Panda penalty or Penguin penalty, so I figured every website had been hurt. As I learned to better read SEO narratives – I matured from that way of thinking.
In this example, there are actually a few exciting things happening. I’m going to walk you through the whole story to better paint a picture of what’s going on.
Black Hat Growth.
Below, we can see a growth that is much faster than the example from growth narratives. Here, we can see an increase from 15,000 keywords to almost 130,00 keywords in the space of two years. It’s a little too fast for this type of website, considering there are less than 300 articles.
To me, this paints a picture of a black hat link building. So when I can see all the following drops, it confirms my suspicions. However, let’s continue the story because there are a lot of really exciting steps along the journey.
In this initial drop, it’s unlikely an algorithmic penalty, rather the Google Fred update from March 2017. Since we now know that Fred was not necessarily a link related update, it’s unlikely that the initial link building strategy had been hurt at this point.
However, once Google Fred hurt the website, we can see that it becomes stagnant. For around twelve months the campaign never rises. Growth from the initial period has died out and until the website addresses this update – it’s not going to move upwards.
That’s when July 2018 hits this website with a huge algorithmic penalty…
While there were several updates that happened around this time, none of them was strong enough to take a website from 60,000 keywords down to 0 keywords overnight. While the graph takes a couple of weeks to decline, that’s due to the rate of updates to Ahrefs keyword tables.
The graph shows the organic traffic, but it’s based on estimates according to keywords. So, as the keywords are updated by Ahrefs, the traffic will change accordingly.
Finally, the strategy that spurred on huge growth had come back to bite them.
After a few months, they finally decided to submit a disavow file and their rankings improved. However, they had almost half as much traffic from before.
Personally, I find this quite curious. I’ve seen many websites recover from an algorithmic update with the exact same levels of traffic. Therefore, it leads me to believe that one of two things are happening at this stage:
- They were too aggressive with their disavow, therefore removing all the power to their site.
- Alternatively, they were not aggressive enough with their disavow file and it didn’t recover.
In this situation, I would go straight to the disavow file and have a look at what’s going on. If they have thousands of domains disavowed, it might be too harsh. However, if they have disavowed some legitimate websites then that might be why they didn’t recover.
Finally, we can see that once again they’ve hit a point of stagnation. Too many issues on this website remain unaddressed two years after the Google Fred update. Furthermore, without any updates to their disavow file, this website will likely never rank again.
4. Manual Penalty Narratives.
At the start of 2018, Google went on a spree and started dishing out manual penalties. I was fortunate enough to work on many websites that had link related penalties. It helped me to look at SEO narratives and better analyse them. However, even today I can learn more on the topic.
Partial Link Related Penalty
When you’re handed a link related penalty, it can either be partial or site-wide. In this case, I happen to know the website received a partial penalty in January 2018. However, when looking at the number of organic keywords, it had almost no impact.
These types of penalties have almost no discernible trace on the narrative. However, if you see the website stagnate for a while, as you can below, it might be an indication that there’s a partial link related penalty that’s preventing growth.
Site-Wide Link Related Penalty
By contrast to the partial penalties, a site-wide link related penalty is massive. The difference is day and night, and you can see here that the website tanked overnight in January 2018. However, the webmasters never bothered resolving the penalty until January 2019.
By this point, the website had lost tons of visitors, brand searches, referring domains and backlinks. Clearly, it’s going to take a long time and lots of work to get this website to recover. Furthermore, you can notice that a site-wide link related penalty very closely resembles the algorithmic narrative.
Because the two are so similar, it’s often hard to differentiate when looking at this graph. However, if you have access to Google Search Console, it should become instantly obvious.
Structured Data Penalty
Lastly, looking at minor manual penalties such as one caused by structured data, we can see it’s not severe. Regarding these penalties, it’s slightly more severe than a partial link-related penalty but much less than a site-wide link related penalty.
To remedy this, the website needed to remove their abusive markup. In this case, they had been using product markup on their homepage to try and show aggregated reviews and boost clickthrough in the SERPs.
It’s hard to blame them for doing it since Google rarely clamps down on this behaviour. They’ve reported to me that the penalty has already been lifted and their traffic returning to normal. Therefore, it was worth the higher click-through long-term considering the tiny consequences short-term.
5. Core Engine Update Narratives.
The last two points on this list are fairly similar since both are core engine updates. However, it’s worth reading the mistakes by Google section too. While the below website shows a series of core engine updates, the website is relatively unknown. Therefore, it’s hard to tell if the changes were justified.
August Update Benefits Website.
Late last year there was a huge algorithm update that speculated wide-spread confusion. Many digital marketers used this as an opportunity to push their own agenda. However, there were clear examples across the industry of websites that should not have been affected.
In this instance, the website in question isn’t particularly good. Yet, despite this fact, it benefited from the August update.
Therefore, if the website isn’t good, why did it benefit? To me, this was the first clue that the August update was not a great one.
September Revision Harms Website.
A few weeks later, Google made revisions to its recent algorithm update. The website that had just seen huge growth suddenly got dropped out of the results.
When dealing with this client, I had explained there were a number of issues with their website that needed to be addressed. However, I made clear that it’s unlikely any changes made will show improvements until a follow-up at the start of 2019.
This is when I figured that Google would need to make a revision.
March Revision Remedies Website.
This website has already been on a rollercoaster at this point. Clearly, there are things wrong with the website, but Google is struggling to say whether there is more good than bad. With the SERPs returning low-quality results, Google has decided to update/revert their previous changes.
In this case, the core engine updates that led to dropped rankings are now undone. The important thing is that we notice the narrative reflects each core update with growth or decreases for several weeks following. If your site has similar SEO narratives, check for Google updates.
I like to use the Moz Google Algorithm Changes tool.
6. Mistakes by Google.
While the previous section about reviewing core engine narratives is very similar, this section focuses on predicting updates.
The main difference between these two sections is the quality of the websites. In the previous section, the website was ranking for around 5,000 keywords at its peak. Whereas, in this case, we’re dealing with a huge brand called MyProtein.
In the United Kingdom, they’re considered to be a massive brand. In every gym that you attend they have sports clothes, protein powders and water bottles in plain sight. It’s such a massive brand, with an amazing website – it seems strange that they would be harmed by an update.
Let’s break it down on how I managed to predict that the August Update was going to be refined or reverted.
Natural Growth Strategy.
Here we can see that MyProtein.com had worked on improving their brand naturally. Unlike the website’s that were harmed by algorithmic penalties, this website shows a natural growth narrative. We can see that in their steady climb for the past 4 years.
Google Make a Mistake.
Unlike the previous website, MyProtein initially came out unfavourable in the August Update. Revisions to the algorithm in September 2018 didn’t seem to make much difference to the website. Having lost 400,000 keywords, I’m guessing their SEO team was working hard.
Many in the industry were calling this the ‘Medic’ Update since it mostly affected health websites. However, the important thing to note is that it’s a core engine update. Therefore, these changes applied to all websites, even if health websites were hurt the most.
However, despite any resources or time that their team may have put into improving the website, nothing made a difference. It’s a website that I monitored closely for months and nothing worked. They clearly didn’t lack expertise, authority or trust. Furthermore, their content was top-quality.
When I saw that no matter what the website wasn’t improving, I made a prediction.
I figured that during the first few months of 2019, Google would have to release an update to restore the rankings to big brands such as this. Yet, when January and February were over, it was starting to look pretty grim. Until…
Google Fixes Mistake.
Then the March 2019 update comes out and websites are reporting huge changes in rankings. When I noticed that every website related to health was starting to see huge increases again, I was confident that Google had reverted or refined their previous changes.
Thus, I headed back to Ahrefs and have continued to monitor the growth of MyProtein for the past couple weeks. It’s clear that they’re seeing a huge growth and I’m not surprised. It suggests to me that this update is a much healthier one than the previous two – but further SERP analysis will be required.