Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to get organic search traffic without back-links? The purest of white hat SEO.
Well, it is.
But there’s a catch (everything has a catch, right?).
You need A LOT of pages, a good website structure and patience.
This is not your typical case study (content + backlinks), but in this case study, I’ll line out the most important actions we took to get a clients website similar to an e-commerce store and grew it to the top 32k of all websites in the world and the top 20k websites in the US according alexa.com — in only 2 years and starting from scratch.
If you want to see how I log into Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools, there’s a video at the end of the case study where you can see “live” the improvements month after month — and other things like live visitors on the site.
Soooo, this is how it all started
In June 2014, we were approached by a business owner wanting to take his business to the next level.
This was a smaller startup that had been in “inception mode” for three years and was itching to find an online marketing company that could help them grow.
As you may imagine, they didn’t come to us and say:
“Hi, I want a website that gets at least one million visits per month and breaks into the top 32K websites in the world.” — It’s at 3 million right now, by the way.
It went more like this:
“Hi, I’m a startup that wants to grow. My competition is well established. Are you guys up for the challenge of making this happen?”
This caught our attention.
Why was it a challenge?
First, their competitors were well established businesses — 10 to 20 years of online presence.
Second, because of the nature of their business, we were unable to create a blog, long form content, backlinks, or do content promotion — the foundation most ecommerce stores can use to grow (other than CRO, remarketing, and all that good stuff).
These were the first steps we took.
1 Studying the Competition and Discovering If This Was a Viable Project.
Even though we were up for the intriguing challenge, we needed to do some homework to see if this was even possible…
Studying the competition was our first step. This not only helps us gather key information about what’s working for them, but we can also save weeks of research and analysis before we come up with a game plan.
There’s three levels of competition: Low, medium, and high. After our initial research, we found they were in a medium competition market that was solely focused on organic search.
After what we discovered about the competition, it was time for THE question:
2 What Would It Take to Make This Work?
If you know your competition is a $30 million-dollar company and they are investing 3% in digital marketing, that means they have a $900K budget per year.
That’s what it would take to replicate exactly what they are doing — sort of.
But if you only have a $120K budget rather than a $900K budget per year, the question is:
Would that give us enough leverage to compete?
As an example, we’ve had clients competing with companies like Home Depot, which according to a study made by frac.tl they had a 2015 online marketing budget of:
- $36 Million for Search.
- $16 Million for Internal Display.
- $8 Million for Online Video.
Obviously, I don’t expect you to have a business that is looking to compete with them in every single category and every single product — unless you are Lowe’s, Costco, etc.
However, if they are one of your competitors, we will need to come up with creative and innovative marketing approaches to get a part of their market share because of their mature online presence.
So, after learning the competition’s average budget and the client’s budget, we all decided we were a good fit.
We accepted this exciting challenge.
Our promise was to put our best skills together and execute the best strategy possible to turn a real challenge into something that could grow over time.
3 Digging Deeper into the Competition
Now that we were all on board and feeling the excitement that a new project brings, we went into deep research mode.
Some of the tools we used for this project were:
- Ahrefs — our preferred one (and the one we usually stick to).
- Open Site Explorer (Moz)
- Link Research Tools
- Buzzsumo — we didn’t use this one in this case, but very useful to discover what content resonates with your audience.
- Screaming Frog — Great for smaller size websites
- Knowledge — not a “tool” “per se” but the most important part of the research.
We took the top 5 competitors we had previously analyzed on the surface and looked at what they were doing from an SEO and CRO perspective.
Some of the elements we analyzed were:
- The look and feel of the website — design, mobile version vs. desktop version, copy, language, user experience, colors, buttons, trust-building elements, popups, engagement, blog, social sharing…
- Structure of the website — categorization, silos, sections, breadcrumbs, internal linking, page size (word count), H tags and descriptions, website speed…
- Monetization and shopping experience — mobile experience, price tags, calls to action, coupons, discounts, offers, checkout flow, shipping & handling, refund policies…
- Audience — age, sex, marital status, education, income, hobbies.
- Marketing — SEO, CRO, paid advertising, remarketing… (we already knew this was a purely organic search project).
After we wrote down what they were doing right and what could be improved, we outlined a specific plan that was created with the intention of helping our client “be the best.”
These are some specifics:
- Increase the word count per page. The competition didn’t have much content on their “product pages.” Their low description word count could be improved to give more value to search engines and visitors.
- Improve the internal linking structure. We built a framework to add link silo structures pointing only to pages within the same categories. A silo structure is basically links inside the website that point to specific areas of the website creating a framework.
- Optimize Titles and H tags properly. Their competitors didn’t have all H tags on point. Some didn’t have H2 tags and some didn’t have them properly optimized.
- Add a breadcrumb navigation to each page. Competitors had some but not all of them.
- Optimize images. Competitors weren’t really taking advantage of this. Optimizing images can send additional traffic from the image section on Search Engines.
It doesn’t sound too complicated, right?
It was time to put all the pieces together and execute.
The system that we designed would pull information from a database to automatically create pages that would include all the improvements previously mentioned.
(If you would like to learn more about the nitty gritty, keep reading. Otherwise, continue to the next section).
The system will pull:
* The right titles that were optimized and written with the correct keywords. They also utilized psychological triggers to “help” people searching online to click on the client’s website instead of the competition — compelling titles with the right keywords on them.
* The right H tags with optimized keywords, synonyms, LSI terms (Latent Semantic Indexing), and variants that would cover a wide number of keywords within the group of keywords we wanted to rank for.
* The right amount of content with optimized keywords, synonyms, and LSI terms. The pages would have at least 20% more content than the competitors with a higher word count across the board.
* Optimized images that would contain keyword rich file names, metadata, and relevant alt tags that would add even more keywords relevant to what they represented.
* The right internal linking structure so page links would point to the other generated pages within the same category. These links had exact match anchor text, synonyms, and LSI variations. Basically, links that contain words related to what we wanted to rank for.
* Add Breadcrumbs: They add an extra layer of internal linking, help with indexation (we had a lot of pages to build), and create a better user experience.
We also did some other things like adding multiple sitemaps.xml (50K pages per sitemap max) for pages and images, setting up everything in webmaster tools, fletching and crawling the website, etc.
About 6 months after the first phase was implemented, the site started to take off.
We were really pleased, excited, and proud of how we had turned an initial challenge, with no guarantees of becoming successful, into a project that was getting good traction: 465,190 visits per month!
But something happened.
On February 2016, after 7 months of growth, the traffic became stuck and plateaued.
Even though the traffic had plateaued, we knew we had created something very valuable: a proven framework that brought us excellent results.
After hitting a plateau, it was the perfect time to push our framework to the next level: creating a new big segment of pages and categories.
If we were right, this would be another growth stage.
If we were wrong, this had the potential to turn into a big spoof.
So, what happened?
We deployed the second phase and we got yet another home run.
We were back in growth mode.
With up to 808,043 visits per month, we felt invincible.
Growth continued; however, like the previous cycle, the traffic growth plateaued again in October 2016.
As you may imagine, we were in such a rush looking at how the traffic had been increasing before the plateau that we just had to keep pushing it. We thought we had a proven and invincible framework.
We were crushing the competition.
So, the third phase was born.
Third Phase — Epic Fail?
In the third phase, we did something slightly different. We decided to translate the website into two additional languages in order to grow it three-fold.
This was going to be the epitome of the project.
We were expecting to create something massively impressive.
However, not everything went as expected.
Check the image below to see why:
In 3 months, we went from 968K visits per month to 639K visits per month — losing around ⅓ of the traffic.
This looked like we were having an epic crash!
We analyzed every single bit of information we could possibly gather to try and figure out what was causing this monumental traffic loss (and of course revenue loss), but we couldn’t find anything major that was causing this problem.
Did we merely experience a brief golden era and that was it?
We came to the conclusion that Google was a little bit confused because of the two extra languages launch — pretty much at the same time.
In fact, the traffic loss started closely related to the traffic gain for the other two languages.
There was nothing wrong with our approach so we had to trust the process and the system that we had put in place.
In the worst-case scenario, we would lose all traffic and have to develop another framework. At least we knew we had a framework that was successful up to a point.
So, we all just tried to relax and trust what we’d done.
And then the magic happened…
We were once again experiencing rapid growth.
To the point that we achieved a major milestone crossing the 1 million visits per month for the English version only (you can watch the video to see how other languages are doing).
It doesn’t seem this growth is going to stop anytime soon.
This has been one of our most epic and challenging case studies to date.
Nothing was “average” and there were a lot of ups and downs, but we worked with our client through the good times and through the bad ones.
We found a way to make things work and formed potential solutions in the event of these undesirable worst case scenarios.
All in all, a rewarding experience that will continue to grow in the years to come.
Here’s the video where I log into Google Analytics and Search Console for you to see it “live.”
If you read until here, it means you enjoyed it! (Or you just skip to the video… :/). Please share the love and leave a comment if you have any questions 🙂
Originally published on here