I don’t profess to know all the answers to ranking well with the search engines but I’m happy to share with you my records for this website in hopes that we can learn together.
If you want to cut to the chase and see the history of our Google rankings then jump to “Me and the Charts” below. If you want a few words to set the scene then read on…
The success of our online business is totally dependent upon ranking well in Google and other search engines. Our records show that advertising for customers costs us about £20.00 for each new customer. On the other hand, customers who come to us from organic searches cost us nothing. Currently about 20% of our customers come to us from advertising and 80% come to us from organic searches (and word of mouth). If the percentages were reversed and we had to pay for 80% of our new customers then our business would not be viable. Brutal but true.
Since we started in December 2010 I have religiously plotted the progress of our main keywords on a weekly basis - with the help of MOZ.com - and tried to fathom what is happening. I’m elated when we go up in the SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages) and inconsolably apoplectic when we go down. Does that sound familiar to you?
I hope that our records might reveal trends and Google idiosyncrasies that will help you but at the very least it will assure you that you are not alone in being confused!
Three years ago I was completely new to SEO and to be honest it took me several months to understand that it was something significant! For anyone else in the same position here is a list of the most important things I have learned about Google:
1. Google doesn’t want to please us, the business owners. No indeed, it wants to please the tens of millions of people who perform hundreds of millions of searches every single day. The more people that use Google, the more money it makes by charging business owners like us for advertising with them.
2. There is not a snowball’s chance in Hell that Google can employ enough people to carefully evaluate my website and your website and everybody else’s website, so Google have to rely on robots to visit the sites and report back.
3. The Google robots are not as clever as people and they therefore need some help to figure out what our sites are about and how “good” we are relative to our competitors. It’s our job to make sure the robots understand us - that is the crux of "white hat" SEO.
4. If your aim is to provide a website service that is exemplary then Google is the most powerful ally you are ever likely to have because your aims and Google’s aims are exactly the same – remember they want the best sites to rank the highest.
5. If, on the other hand, you want a “quick fix” that confuses the Google robots and makes them temporarily rank you higher than you deserve then you are pitting yourself against a mighty adversary - in the time that I have been doing this job I have read any number of accounts of businesses that have been sunk because the cleverness of Google eventually caught up with the illicit, “black hat” practices of website owners.
6. Google can be merciless in the extreme - you have been warned.
I’m fascinated by figures, probably freakish and possibly even geekish!
Each week I record the number of linking domains to the EQ site that are reported in Google Webmaster Tools. Then on a Saturday the keyword ranking results come in from Moz.com and I record those as well.
From this data I construct a number of charts that help me visualise what is happening with our keywords. All the charts cover the same period – 1st December 2010 to the present day.
Graphs for the same "group" have the same background colour e.g. yellow background = KS3.
To accompany the charts I also put in a few diary notes each time something noteworthy happens. What follows is my record of events and you are welcome to use it in any way you please. I hope it helps.
01 December 2010: The site was launched.
06 March 2012: Several people have already linked to us but I had not thought to start recording the numbers until now.
04 December 2012: Have done little to try and build links over the last 4 months (too busy introducing quizzes!) but intend to start again now.
01 December 2010: The site was launched - I am tracking 40 keywords all containing "KS3".
05 February 2011: Although I told Google about the site about 3 months ago it has taken until now to see any meaningful results in the search engines.
10 April 2011: We have gone shooting up the rankings - our average keyword ranking is now better than 20 with several keywords now appearing on the first page.
28 May 2011: What did we do wrong? We have gone from an average position of 20 to an average position of 40
08 June 2011: I am extremely worried. It seems that our problem is most likely caused by a Google algorithm change called "Panda" that penalizes sites with many pages of "light" content. We have changed the way that our quiz pages work so that all the quizzes are now visible to the robots - previously only the first question could be seen by the robots on quizzes that required a subscription.
06 August 2011: Magic! It seems that the changes we made at the site have enabled us to recover from the dreaded "Panda update". Reading through the SEO forums it seems that many site owners have not been so lucky.
02 June 2012: Our average position and our most important keyword "KS3" have been getting steadily better for nearly a year. Our average position is still very good but "KS3" has now fallen off a cliff - position 4 in April to position 41 now! Moz says that Google recently rolled out a "Penguin update" but why it should affect one keyword so badly and affect the others not at all is anybody's guess.
04 August 2012: Google have suddenly promoted "KS3" from position 50 to position 14.
30 October 2012: "KS2" is on its way down again! It has slipped from position 5 a few weeks ago to position 29.
01 June 2013: After a roller coaster ride over the last year "KS3" is now at position 3 - the highest it has been.
10 August 2013: My best guess is that the cause of the “erratic” behaviour of the “KS3” ranking is the result of a terrible sounding thing called “The Google Rank-Modifying Spammers Patent” and explained best at Bill Slawski's website. Our most important keyword is “KS3” and I have no doubt that Google know that. If I am reading the situation correctly then it is probable that Google have been testing to see if we are spamming by seeing how we react to a sudden drop in rankings for a key phrase. We suffered a similar dramatic drop in key phrases containing “KS2” during January and February 2013. If that hypothesis is correct then we did exactly the right thing by doing nothing!
17 August 2013: "KS3" seems to have settled down at last. It has been in the top 6 positions for the last 10 weeks.
01 December 2010: The site was launched
14 May 2011: At last some of the main keywords are beginning to rank well - at least we are now on page 3.
08 June 2011: We have disappeared again!
03 September 2011: It looks like the changes we made have enabled us to recover from the Panda update as far as "KS3 Maths" is concerned but "KS3 English" is not doing so well and I don't understand why that should be. All the keyword research that I have done suggests that "KS3 Maths" and "KS3 English" are on a par as far as competiveness is concerned.
07 April 2012: It is now 16 months since we launched the site and it has taken until now for "KS3 English" to catch up with "KS3 Maths" and start to rank on the first page of Google.
10 August 2013: Both these major keywords have now been in the top 5 positions for a whole year. Very often we have 2, 3 or even 4 BBC sites above us - were it not for them we might reach the coveted No. 1 position!
15 June 2012: The KS2 section of our site was launched. I am intending to track 40 keywords as with KS3.
02 July 2012: Within only 2 weeks of launch our average position of our 40 keywords is 38. When we initially launched the KS3 section of the site it took us 3 months to rank as well with the KS3 keywords. I expect the better results this time are because we are riding on the back of the "domain authority" we have already established.
01 December 2012: Already we have an average position of 13 with many keywords on the first page.
29 December 2012: A bombshell hit today - we fell from an average position of 13 to an average position of 40 - so much for Google's Christmas spirit! There was a Panda update just before Christmas and I suppose we might have been caught by that for some reason but the odd thing is that our KS3 and GCSE rankings have not changed at all. Why could that be? Everything on the site works the same in all sections.
9 February 2013: I am really frustrated that our KS2 rankings have stayed low at our most important time of year. I can't find any logical reason why our KS2 section has been hit by some kind of penalty but the rest of the site has been left unscathed. In desperation, I have e-mailed Google to see if they have in fact penalized us for some reason.
23 February 2013: Google got back to me within a few days and assure me that they have not penalized us.
02 March 2013: Thank God our KS2 rankings have come back and we are now higher than we have ever been. I guess it will remain a mystery why we fell off so much for a 3 month period.
13 July 2013: Slowly but surely we continue to creep up the rankings. I have no doubt that the higher we get, the more "trusted" we become in the eyes of the searchers - even one upward ranking position is something to celebrate.
16 March 2013: These secondary keywords followed the pattern of the KS2 primary keywords - they came in with a rush in early December, disappeared completely in January and February and came good again in March - I only hope they stay there through the "exam season"!
07 July 2012: The GCSE section of our site was launched. I am intending to track 40 keywords - all containing "GCSE"
08 December 2012: It seems that most weeks the average keywords go up a little but "GCSE" has failed to make an appearance yet - even though we have over 300 pages at the site containing that keyword!
09 February 2013: Thank goodness that the GCSE keywords haven't suffered the same fate as the KS2 ones. GCSE was completely unaffected when the KS2 keywords disappeared off the graph.
27 July 2013: Our average position has varied little for the last 6 months and still there is no sign of "GCSE" emerging from the depths! I expect that our problem is that GCSE is much more competitive than either KS2 or KS3. We will have to work harder at promoting this section on social media and link building to it.
07 July 2012: The GCSE section of our site was launched.
13 July 2013: It is over a year now since the site was launched and "GCSE Maths" has never yet reached position 50! "GCSE English" does a little better and is now bobbing up and down between positions 50 and 25. After a year our KS2 keywords were consistently appearing on the first page of Google. I think this is indicative of the fact that "GCSE" is MUCH more competitive than "KS2".
20 July 2013: Following on from the above idea about competition... My keyword research reveals that there are approximately 3 times more monthly searches on "GCSE Maths" than there are on "KS2 Maths". Rather oddly though, Google calculates the competition for both these keywords as "Medium"!
21 September 2013 : At last, “GCSE Maths” has made an appearance in the top 50 rankings! It has taken over a year
An afterthought... My personal experience over the last 3 years is that there are an awful lot of people in the world of SEO that it is better not to trust but Moz.com are the antidote to this - they are open, honest and incredibly knowledgeable. They have a fun widget that constantly monitors the "Turbulence" in Google rankings - see below. 70 degrees is about average and when it gets to 100 degrees then something is afoot that I need to look into!