In all walks of life, we should learn from our successes and our failures alike. While most SEO case studies you come across on the internet will tout tremendous gains an SEO provided their client, this situation is a tale of what not to do. Unfortunately, this is a story where our SEO strategy didn’t align with the customer’s branding desires and when our contract ended, the client undid the substantial work we completed….and paid the price for it.
We were hired by this e-commerce client to correct a serious slide in traffic over the previous 6 months. The previous couple of years had been particularly strong due to high-quality backlinks and product reviews from high traffic sites. However, as those links aged, the website didn’t have the content to support it’s own SEO needs and our audit quickly uncovered a variety of issues. While their website had a considerable amount of content in their blog, documentation, and guides that were valuable supporting content to the product pages. However, this client was extremely motivated by the aesthetics of their website and desired a more minimalist approach where “product was king”. This approach led to all the product pages having too little content for Google’s liking and during our tenure, we spent a substantial amount of time bolstering these pages with additional targeted content to support those pages against much larger competitors.
Ultimately, against our recommendations, once our contract had concluded the client executed the minimalist approach they had desired and removed informative content pages from their site to achieve the desired look they felt was consistent with their brand. These reasons were purely motivated by aesthetics and left a lot of brand supporting content out of their SEO strategy.
The decision to remove this content also led the client to redirect the content URLs of the removed pages to the site’s home page and the results were disastrous. They lost all organic search traffic to the removed pages. Which resulted in the loss of thousands of visitors per day. The home page and category pages lost their top organic search positions. At the time the site was converting sales on an average of 1% of the total visits, which translated to a huge loss to their business.
For example, let’s say they sold leather bags. Their homepage was consistently ranking in the top position for “shop leather bags” and “leather bags” and most of their category pages had top rankings for keywords like “handmade leather bags”, “duffle bags” & “leather backpack”.
The content sections and pages generated a large proportion of the sites of organic search traffic. However, these pages had high bounce rates and very few conversions. They did have targeted internal links pointing to various landing pages in the shop and had a fair number of backlinks from other websites pointing at them. A few days after removing the informative content pages, most of the rankings and organic traffic and revenue of the shop are gone.
While this is not at all surprising to those of us who work in SEO, it is an interesting case which confirms what a lot of SEOs have long believed about content on e-commerce sites. It is vital for e-commerce sites to have informative content to rank better. Product descriptions will never be enough for search engines to rank a site.
Our takeaway is a confirmation that while blog articles and things like how-to guides often generate traffic, that traffic does not always convert. Which makes their value difficult to show internally. Up until this incident, it has been difficult for us to prove that they help other pages rank.
This case seems to confirm that informative content pages help category pages and the home page of an e-commerce site rank better, especially if the former contain contextual internal links pointing to the latter and if they attract links from other domains. The real value of informative content pages doesn’t always lie in the traffic they generate themselves, but in the additional traffic and revenue that the shop’s converting landing pages generate thanks to their existence. It would not have made a difference if the URLs of the removed pages gave back 404s instead of redirecting to the home page.
The redirects certainly didn’t help, but they didn’t cause more damage than 404s would have. This is because redirects to unmatched targets are unlikely to pass on any relevance from external links to the redirected URLs. A 404 would have the same effect, external links to 404 pages are basically worthless.
Redirecting a URL leads to the content on that URL being de-indexed and the internal links pointing to other pages being lost. Again, changing the status code of a URL to 404 would have the exact same effect.
When a website suffers because of bulk redirects to unmatched targets, it’s because the relevance of the content on the pages external links to these pages and internal links from these pages to others is lost. Bulk 404ing pages would lead to the same result. Unfortunately, the client paid a severe price in choosing this strategy, but the lessons learned should be shared with anyone in e-commerce needing to create a balanced SEO and UX/UI Strategy in the future.