How I Managed to Cut Our Traffic by 20%
I messed up pretty badly last week.
I made a change to our site, and within 48 hours our traffic was down by around 20%.
Over the last few years we’ve been slowly growing our traffic, but we can’t afford to lose that many visitors!
The image below comes from Google Analytics. It shows the week before April 17th (orange) and the week after it (blue).
During the second week we were down 18.47% in visits and 19.05% in unique visits. Normally, we get over 60,000 visitors per week, so we lost over 11,000 visitors.
What happened to all the visitors? In short, they stopped coming from search engines.
Google sent us over 18% less traffic which translated to over 8,000 fewer visitors.
Bing traffic plummeted by 5% which cost us … 6 visitors.
OK, I won’t make too much fun of either Bing or Yahoo, but these stats do show that all our search engine traffic was down. They also show how absurdly dominant Google is. Only around 0.5% of our search engine traffic doesn’t come from Google.
All of our other analytics data was relatively unchanged. What happened was that our search engine traffic suddenly plummeted.
So what was the big mistake?
At the beginning of this year, we realized that OSTraining was doing a good job in a lot of areas. Our customers were happy, with about 85% reporting that their overall experience was “great”.
What we didn’t have was an easily identifiable brand name. We’ve found that people often misspelled or forgot the name. We resolved to turn “OSTraining” into more of a brand name.
I decided to change around the order of our page titles:
- How it was before: Page Title – OSTraining
- How it was after: OSTraining – Page Title
This Company Name – Page Title issue has been long-debated amongst people doing SEO.
Normally the big, famous brands will put their company name first, because they think it will encourage more people to click. For example, here’s Amazon:
However, that decision is far from universal. eBay.com does the opposite and prefers Page Title – Company Name.
You even see companies use both techniques. Here’s a Company Name – Page Title example from Apple:
And here’s an Page Title – Company Name example from Apple:
What does Google think?
In recent years Google has famously started to prefer branded companies. Their rationale is that big companies with a famous brand name are less likely to host spammy content. That’s often not correct, but Google has pushed brands heavily as a way to counteract spam: http://www.seobook.com/brands.
However, Google is also unsure as to how prominently to feature company names in search results. This is particularly true for smaller companies. Here’s an example of Google experimenting and actively moving the Page Title to the front of the search result: http://www.gordoncampbell.co.uk/colons-page-titles.
So, given the fact that both large companies and Google have different approaches to this issue, means that there’s no “right” answer.
The change on our site
Here’s how our pages have looked for the last few years. The unique part of the page title was at the beginning of the Page Title:
And here’s how our pages looked after I made the change. You can see that “OSTraining – Support -” takes up the first page of the Page Title:
That simple change cost us 20% of our traffic.
Why such a big change?
My guess is that people using Google were searching for an answer for their particular problems:
- They would scan the search results very quickly.
- They didn’t care what site the answer was on.
- They probably only read the first 3 or 4 words of the search result and so ignored OSTraining links.
A very large % of our site’s pages consist of answers like the ones above and so it was easy for a small mistake to cause 1 in every 5 people to stop clicking on our search results.
We were lucky. We’re lucky in that OSTraining has been around for a few years. Google indexes our pages quickly. It took only about 2 days for our problem to emerge, although I was slow to realize the cause of that problem. It took me about 7 days to change the order of the page titles back again. Within 2 days our traffic was back to normal. No long-term harm was done.
People want answers, not brands. People using Google, particularly for information searches, don’t much care about brand names. Maybe in 5 years when OSTraining has become a household name, we’ll be able to place our brand name more prominently in the search results 🙂 For now, I’ve gone back to the putting the information first.
Very interesting post and it good to see the real world results of a change in page title.
Do you think the drop was due to lower ranking in the SERPs?
Or do you think the pages ranked in the same SERP postions and were just getting a lower click through rate?
Great post, Steve:
I appreciate you sharing real-world (and personal) examples of how important it is to think very carefully about the decisions we make with our websites.
Thanks so much,
Great job hunting down the source of the issue and spelling it out here! It seems everytime we turn around the SEO game gets changed but one thing remains true……..people just want answers when it comes to searching online!
This is the kind of stuff I’d like to see more of. It’s education but real time useful stuff you can’t so easily get from other sources and it takes too long to drill through a forum in hopes of finding. Well done and thank you, I will be applying this to my sites later today. Much appreciated.
@sjohnson My guess is that the drop in CTR was the major cause although we probably don’t track enough keywords to be 100% sure.
@todd Yes, very much so. My guess is that brands are useful for Google and some e-commerce sites, but a lot of browsers just want information and don’t much care about the source.
@Terry That’s a good idea. We’ve mainly blogged from the point of view of people in our support forums. We’ll try and expand to more personal experiences.
Thanks for this interesting article!
My guess would be that the drop was due to lower ranking in the SERPs. Google puts much emphasis on putting the most important keywords at the beginning. And moreover Google only looks at the first 65 to 70 characters. And it looks like, that by adding OStraining support at the beginning, there is not much space left anymore for the real keywords. In my work as a Seo consultant I have seen significant improvements in rankings just by putting the brand name at the end instead of the beginning. Unfortunately we will never know or are you planning to change it back again just for checking the rankings? 🙂
@mlehr Yes, we put our brand name back at the end of the page title and our rankings returned to their previous lev in a couple of days. Our traffic isn’t bad, we can’t afford to lose 20% for long.
Thanks so much for sharing this. We have asked the same question to ourselves over and over
Thanks for sharing this insight in SEO’s mysterious ways. As always, very clearly explained.
The example you provided for Amazon’s listing in the serp was likely generated by google and not written that way in the meta tag. Google has started changing page titles to reflect brands. I know this is the case because they have moved my “brand” from the end of my page title to the front and added a semi-colon, just as it appears in your amazon example. If you want to see what I mean, search [url=http://yogijbrown.com]yogijbrown.com[/url]. The meta tag is “Yoga Blog | Yoga News and Opinion | yogijbrown” but the page title in the serp is “yogijbrown: Yoga Blog | Yoga News and Opinion” It’s not like I am a big name brand or anything but I did recently turn on authorship and verify the site through my G+ profile which may have had something to do with it. In any case, it may be that google will eventually move your brand to the front anyway. Whether or not that will drop your rankings is still unclear.
Thanks J Brown. That sounds like additional confirmation of the blog post linked to above: [url=http://www.gordoncampbell.co.uk/colons-page-titles]http://www.gordoncampbell.c…[/url]
Google has been re-writing meta descriptions for a long time. Looks like page titles are next, whether we like it or not.
It’s education but real time useful stuff you can’t so easily get from
other sources and it takes too long to drill through a forum in hopes of
finding. In my work as a Seo consultant I have seen significant improvements in
rankings just by putting the brand name at the end instead of the
beginning [url=http://onaprsc.com.vn]on ap standa[/url] / [url=http://onaplioa.com.vn]on ap lioa[/url]