Digital agencies everywhere are coming to a crossroads as they’re asked to do more with less – smaller budget, more leads; less time, more content; the list goes on. Even as brands continue to shift their focus from traditional to digital marketing, few businesses truly understand that SEO is not a magical and fast-acting cure-all, but rather a comprehensive strategy that requires hard work, dedication and yes, time. Gone are the days of relying solely on the short-term gains of black hat tactics.
So what are agencies to do when they’ve over-committed and realize they’re not equipped to deliver? Many choose to do the right thing and own up to it; others choose to cheat.
The Crime Scene
A relatively new client recently approached us in a slight panic, trying to understand the reasoning behind a steady decline in Organic and Direct traffic year-over-year. As you can imagine, this trend was upsetting to us as well, given that we’d only recently began working with them and an immediate decline didn’t exactly bode well for our relationship. (Wherefore art thou, honeymoon period?)
We did what any self-respecting digital marketer would do: We dug into the data to determine why this was occurring. This downward trend seemed to be in stark contrast to all the keyword ranking gains our client had seen since we implemented a content creation strategy that spoke to their target audience.
So you can imagine our surprise when we found strong evidence to suggest that our client’s previous Organic traffic was heavily driven by fraudulent means.
With all the talk about paid search fraud these days, I think we are all beginning to understand how large that issue is and how to spot it. But how does one spot fraud from an organic perspective? While it’s difficult to specify every red flag, I want to share some of the data points that we found to be indicative of deceitful practices.
Hour of Day
For most websites, especially those operating in specific time zones, traffic establishes a relative cadence. This cadence can be helpful for informing a number of facets related to your overall digital strategy, including when you should post on social media, when to increase spend on paid advertising, and when to offer incentives to visit your site. Organic traffic distribution is usually predictable over a period of time. Sure, you see spikes now and then, but I can confidently say that many of my clients see less traffic during specific hours.
When we investigated this client’s Organic traffic decline, we found one specific page (let’s call it Page X) that seemed to enjoy a constant flow of traffic, no matter the time of day. While the rest of the site saw traffic distributed along a bell curve no matter the channel, this page was a relatively straight line for a period of four months. Ladies and gentleman, this is Exhibit A.
Obviously, it’s important for digital marketers to understand where their traffic is coming from. It’s the 80/20 rule. For brands with great name recognition, Direct may drive the bulk of visitors, while new businesses may need to rely on Paid until their site is fully optimized for their audience. So you can understand why it’s odd for a channel to suddenly spike without cause.
During our investigation, we found that Organic traffic to Page X accounted for a disproportionate amount of all traffic. While the overall site had seen Organic account for approximately half of all traffic, Page X saw Organic accounting for 90 percent of all traffic. Although it isn’t unreasonable to believe that Page X was well optimized, such a large disparity in traffic distribution is quite uncommon, especially given that no other pages saw anything similar. I present this as Exhibit B.
Country of Origin
Imagine you’re a business located in the US. You only offer products and services in the US and 90 percent of all your traffic is domestic. It stands to reason that many organic rankings will appear to those users in the US and are much less likely to appear to users in a country such as Uganda.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that the list of countries driving traffic to Page X looked like the roll call for the UN General Assembly. The page drove traffic from all over the world, from the UK to Oman to Singapore and about two dozen other countries in between.
Countries that were once driving single digits to our client’s site were now driving 10-20 percent to Page X, while the US fell to just 25%. That’s not to say that these countries don’t have a need for our client’s services, but it was interesting to note that our client’s global profile expanded so rapidly in such a short period of time and without prompting. Exhibit C.
Oh boy, now the fun one.
It’s always amazing to me the lengths people will go to game the algorithms. We all know businesses sometimes click their own organic rankings, in the hope that their position will improve. Or they click their competitor’s PPC ad in order to waste their budget. But how often do you see a coordinated global effort to drive traffic to one page?
When we looked into the keywords ranking for Page X, we found that the page saw traffic from 355 variations of a very specific term.
And wouldn’t you know it—people from all over the world were searching for the exact same term in the exact same language. When a person in the UK searched for a term in English, someone in Iran would also search for the term in English, as would someone in Brazil (because why would you search something in your native tongue?). This would make sense, if our client had pages translated into languages other than English, but unfortunately, they don’t.
Exposición D. (That’s Spanish for Exhibit D, if any non-Spanish speakers want to search for that term specifically and click our result.)
Number of Sessions
Finally, we looked into the number of sessions these users had. Given the long-tail nature of the terms employed, we would have expected users to be highly engaged with the website.
If I search for “Neon Pony Lisa Frank Folders”, for example, you better believe I am interested in that folder. I am going to spend time on the landing page learning everything about it. And if I don’t buy it the first time, I am probably coming back for it.
Not visitors to Page X.
They came to the site and despite having spent almost 05:00 on the page, they didn’t convert, they didn’t visit another page and they didn’t come back.
It seems strange that such engaged traffic wouldn’t come back again, no? I call that Exhibit E.
Taken separately, these points are relatively circumstantial. But, when taken together, they point to a focused effort to increase Organic traffic via fraudulent means. As time goes on, I think we’ll begin to see more and more evidence of SEOs participating in this sort of deceitful behavior, all in an attempt to prove their ROI to clients. And just like all the other tricks, this will probably work for a while. But it won’t work long-term.
The problem with this behavior is that it’s about getting a site to the top, regardless of worthiness, which is exactly what search engines have a de facto interest in preventing. Bad SEO is what causes rankings and traffic to be completely wiped out overnight, and without a solid SEO foundation in place, you’re going to spend more time fixing stuff every time the search engines catch on.
Many SEOs today take advantage of a client’s lack of knowledge when it comes to building a digital strategy because doing proper SEO is tough, and it takes time. Well, it’s time that changed. Which would you rather do: Take the time to create great content and to build real relationships with an audience for the long-term? Or jump from shady practice to shady practice every year or so, trying to stay ahead of the search engines because your websites keep getting a beat down?
If you choose the shady practice, you’ll also have to explain to your executive team—or your clients—why their sites have suddenly been relegated to the wasteland beyond the tenth page.