Year on Year (Y/Y) Organic Growth in a Setting That Drove 2 Competitors to Bankruptcy
Case study snapshot
- S&P 500 retailer lost ownership of its main category keyword during a time of organic results being reduced in the search engines.
- Partnered closely with internal, client and developer, merchandising and creative teams to overhaul their category ownership strategy. Provided turnkey and targeted recommendations.
- Utilized analytics & advanced forecasting to track progress against KPIs.
- Regained category keyword ownership and saw 64% average year-on-year (Y/Y) page 1 rankings growth on a monthly cadence.
Table of Contents
This e-commerce SEO case study was a heck of a fun ride. It demanded full-stack SEO capabilities in a competitive e-commerce and retail landscape. As the primary SEO strategist and tactician, I led the e-Commerce SEO program to larger organic growth for this S&P 500 retailer.
This growth occurred during a time that saw competitors and other retailers close their doors due to incredible technical debt and a lack of digital transformation.
This retailer had a number of brands and e-commerce properties across various countries: totaling almost 200,000 SKUs. This case study reflects the engagement’s focus on the primary brand, but all properties we managed saw positive organic search growth during this time.
My beginning with this client originated with the client leadership requesting a new internal team at the agency. A different office/region had been previously handling this account, with limited results. My successful engagement with this client lasted over 2 years before transitioning to other accounts which needed help. I handed this client off to another internal team and shortly after, our agency resigned this account to a sister agency in the network to resolve competitive conflicts with new business.
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Challenges: Fighting the Rise of Amazon & Big Box While Organic Results are Pushed Below the Fold
2015-2017 were notoriously tough years for retail and e-Commerce SEO. First, these years saw strong organic rankings advances from Amazon, Target and other big box retailers. Second, Google significantly changed the search results (SERP) to rejuvenate tepid ad revenue:
- Removed right rail ads
- Added more traditional text ad units at top-of-page
- Diminished and blended ad labels to avoid differentiation between organic results
- Drastically expanded and prioritized Product Listing Ads (PLAs), among other changes
In addition to client-specific competitive pressures, these SERP changes pushed down some organic results “below the fold”. This sometimes meant that even top organic rankings weren’t producing KPI growth.
The sum of these developments led us internally to call this time period the Retail-pocalypse. Below are some of the chief challenges that I faced in the engagement.
Challenge #1: Loss of non-brand category ownership
My introduction to this engagement was a hairy and highly visible problem: the principal site had lost ownership of its non-branded category “head” term. (Equivalent example: “men’s jeans”)
Challenge #2: Stagnated internal buy-in and follow-through
Losing category ownership led senior leadership both within the agency and client-side to doubt the effectiveness and efficiency of SEO as a customer acquisition channel.
Thus, while our prior agency team was making some of the right recommendations, very little was being implemented. This meant we had to prove the value of SEO both internally and externally.
Challenge #3: Ad inventory changes and shopping units pushed organic results below the fold
As previously mentioned, organic results were often no longer consistently in the user’s initial view. This meant that even position 1 organic rankings could see significant decreases in click-through rate and organic traffic. In turn, this resulted in early headwinds for value metrics such as organic cost per visit (CPV).
Challenge #4: Radical changes to the competitive landscape
This engagement also coincided with the rise of Amazon and other big box or department stores. This rendered previous insights about historical brick & mortar competitors less useful and produced a heightened sense of urgency to regain category ownership.
During the engagement, a number of brick & mortar competitors that failed to adapt their digital strategy went bankrupt or were subject to unfavorable acquisitions and takeovers.
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Solutions: Successfully Guiding a Household Name Through the Retail-pocalypse
It’s difficult to capture 2+ years of intensive work into a few paragraphs, but we’ll try for the highlights.
Technical SEO doesn’t excite many people. However, as you work with larger enterprise sites, technical SEO becomes exponentially more important to success, even the problem set appears to only be content.
Through the course of the engagement, I developed rapport with the client’s in-house development team. We accomplished a ton despite a tenuous start, constant struggle for prioritization, lengthy holiday code freeze periods, and so on.
- Eliminated cannibalization of duplicate product pages that were generated both by SKUs and product numbers. This was a previously unknown bug of the commerce platform.
- One of our earliest big wins: we noticed the number of indexed pages in Google vs. anticipated number of products was way off. In tandem with the development team, we patched this cannibalization with updating canonical URLs to reference the product number.
- Fixed cannibalization of product listing pages (PLPs or category pages), due to relative canonical URL values.
- This was a key turning point in our relationship with the dev team. We were able to bring the education piece that Google (90%+ of organic traffic) doesn’t recognize relative canonical URLs. (Where absolute is https://domain.com/category1 and relative is /category1.)
- This had become a large problem because the client’s historical lack of investment into analytics and attribution meant that parameterized URLs were all over the site for tracking purposes and competed with the base URL versions. (Parameterized Example: https://domain.com/category1?id=navigation)
- Introduced an international SEO strategy to keep clear swim lanes between country properties
- A diverse mix of country-language combinations was surprisingly trouble-free for this client, most of the time. However, the US English language product catalog increasingly ranked for Canadian English searches.
- As a stopgap, I coded a turnkey hreflang sitemap for the highest-traffic category pages while the dev team incorporated a permanent solution.
- Organized a migration to secure SSL / HTTPS usage
- Using secure HTTPS protocol had become a ranking factor some time ago in 2014. However, this item had languished in the JIRA queue due to a lack of technical support from our agency. I helped bring the necessary requirements: from SSL certificate options to migration considerations so this upgrade could be smoothly deployed.
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Search Intent & Consumer Behavior
- Gap analysis of the non-branded category head term
- The conclusion was easy enough to reach: Google stopped ranking brand homepages for this category head term, instead preferring category/grid pages that were more specific to the user search intent.
- However, the solve was much more extensive, especially when the competitors had several months lead time against us. I conducted a deep-dive competitive assessment of the pages that surpassed the client site. No stone was left unturned. Site structure, keyword/page targeting, page structure, internal linking, external linking, copywriting, structured data markup and more recommendations were surfaced.
- Better capitalizing on seasonal peak opportunities
- This client had strong seasonality patterns that resulted in more than half of its revenue falling in back-to-school and Black Friday / Cyber Monday (BFCM) periods.
- However, it was quickly evident that the client was leaving a ton of revenue on the table during these peak periods.
- Through our ranking data and tracking, I identified specific misses in keyword targeting for existing pages and new page creation.
- Buy-in was secured by forecasting revenue opportunity (more details below.)
- This topic was handily one of the easiest areas of the engagement, but is worth mentioning due to the business impact it brought. I worked closely with the site merchandising and creative teams to update on-page elements such URLs, headings, sub-headings, links, content and occasionally product details themselves to align with previously unmet search demand.
- Additionally, I introduced a year-round/evergreen BFCM page strategy that allowed key sale pages to avoid prolonged redirection or loss of link equity due to inconsistent page deployments from the client.
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Analytics & Forecasting
- Proprietary forecasting model that addressed SERP changes
- Forecasting organic traffic was (and is) a rare occasion, due to the open-ended nature of SEO and organic search competition.
- However, the SERP changes in early 2016 were largely unexpected: our agency, the agency landscape, client-side, etc. The diminished visibility of organic search results temporarily stunted our organic traffic and revenue growth. This change was so unexpected that the client’s in-house revenue forecasts were unusable.
- Using click-through curve modeling that incorporated the landscape changes and existing seasonality, I produced new forecast bands that were highly accurate through H1 2016 until our strategy adaptations began producing KPI improvements.
- Opportunity forecasting to quantify potential benefits to recommendations
- Many of the items mentioned above competed with other marketing initiatives or development items. Similar to the forecasting effort mentioned above, I started a precedent of backing into estimated organic revenue using click-through curve modeling and applying benchmarks for on-site engagement such as bounce rate, conversion rate and average order value. This allowed SEO recommendations to be prioritized for implementation.
- Cross-Channel collaboration to work through SERP Changes
- I worked closely with our SEO data platform and internal paid search teams, respectively, to prioritize and target keywords where organic results were still showing above the fold.
- This allowed us to get the maximum organic traffic and revenue impact the most quickly, while also allowing the paid search team to save media spend through bid-down and go-dark tests on keywords where we had strong, above-the-fold organic rankings.
- Custom report construction in Coremetrics
- As previously mentioned, this client had amassed staggering technical debt in its e-commerce and SEO efforts. One glaring aspect of this debt was the continued usage of IBM’s Coremetrics (a poorly configured instance at that.)
In addition to my own reporting needs, I also helped other channels troubleshoot and build custom reports that were “standard” in Google or Adobe Analytics. This saved both ourselves and the client many hours.
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Additional Areas: Site Architecture, Content & Off-Page
- I led changes in the global navigation to support the new page that was created to regain non-brand category ownership. The new page didn’t fit into the existing brand/merchandising category structure, so we got creative to subtly include the page within brand constraints across the global nav for internal linking authority.
- Part of our ongoing blocking and tackling was working on category and product page templates. Template overhauls included on-page SEO work: meshing keyword ranking insights into headings, sub-headings, titles, text, internal links, image alt tags, etc. into the templates for higher, more-focused organic rankings. The templates and content were previously driven by merchandising teams that operated without search insights.
- Much of the structured data on-site was incomplete and invalid, hindering our ability to appear in rich result types. I worked closely with the development team to finish building out structured data templates. The updates produced increased click-through rates and also enabled efficiencies for our Product Listing Ads (PLAs) in Google Merchant Center.
- I quickly produced a comprehensive editorial topic bank for content marketing by reverse engineering the highest value rankings of Pinterest and other blog sites. This saved ideation time for in-house content teams and opened the site up to new “upper funnel” keyword rankings.
- As part of the non-brand category reclamation effort, I managed a 3rd party blogger outreach relationship and leveraged various broader corporate properties for link building. This produced additional links containing the target keyword anchor text which helped us regain the top position for the category keyword.
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- The work takes the lion’s share of this e-commerce SEO case study to demonstrate my capabilities and experience. However, my proudest achievements are always the development and advancement of my teammates and team.
- During this engagement, I coached and mentored a junior specialist and taught her just about everything I knew at the time, from crawling sites to research, Excel to client service. She eventually transferred to client service and has received a number of well-deserved promotions since then.
- She remains at the agency today at a tenure of 5+ years, in stark contrast to short tenures and job-hopping.
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Results: Average monthly increase of 64% Year on Year Organic Page 1 Rankings Growth
- During this engagement, I helped bring consistent organic rankings and traffic growth in an uncertain time.
- In just over 6 months, the non-brand category term regained a Page 1 ranking. In just under a year, we regained the position 1 ranking.
- Obviously the site’s overall performance has declined in recent years under various changes in management. However, the position 1 ranking for non-brand category term still remains today.
- As a team, we beat back the threats of Amazon, Target and Walmart in both organic search rankings and share of voice.
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