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What to track in case of lost traffic; a forensic blueprint

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If there's one thing I know well, it's how to deal with lost traffic and Google penalties. Over the last 5 years or so it has become a large percentage of the work I do. One of the problems we often face when doing this type of consulting is a serious lack of information to do the forensics with.

Today we're going to look at what to track, and why.



Why tracking is important.

It is important to note right off the top that tracking this information is great not only for forensics, but campaign and tactic analysis as well. In simplest terms, knowing why things went wrong isn't much different the establishing what went right.

I rarely advise people to do a ton of SEO related changes to a site at one time. The reasoning of course is because we want to understand why things happen. Positive, or negative. If you are making changes en mass, that can be next to impossible.


What to track; a forensic checklist

Below are the various things we look for when we do a forensic audit. Sadly, we rarely have much more from clients than access to Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) and Google Analytics.

Google elements of interest

Track dates of known algo updates – this might seem like a no brainer, but it can be one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal. If you don't have losses that match up with a known algo update or haven't received a manual notification in GWT, it helps narrow down the potential causes.

Track dates of manual action messages and replies in GWT – if you've revived one of the dreaded 'Unnatural Linking' messages or others and have gone into the process of submitting reconsideration requests and/or the disavow tool, it is a great idea to keep this on a time line. It can help you or the consultant that you bring in to assist in the recovery program.

Watch for crawl errors and dates in GWT – this one often doesn't seem to occur to people but can often be a simple solution or part of the larger picture when establishing what's gone wrong. Obliviously we also want to track any actions taken to deal with problems found (see change log below).

Watch query data – this one might not seem obvious, but you can often find hacked pages here. What we're looking for are odd queries that don't seem to fit the terms associated with the site. You know, things like 'viagra' or 'cialis'. More details in this post.


SEO Program elements

Track on site development chances (change log) – I can't count how many times we've seen that site changes made by the development team are at the root of the problem with forensic work. I strongly advise training the dev team to keep a fairly detailed log of changes to the sites infrastructure. This includes elements such as updating PHP or MySQL etc.

List of historic on-site SEO work done (SEO change log) – just as with the above, we also want to be tracking most of the more important changes made on site from an SEO perspective. From content edits to changing internal link ratios and heading tags (H1-4 etc). It is not unusual to see a bunch of change made to the site get little consideration when diagnosing traffic loss.

Track historic indexation levels (total page on site V page indexed in Google) – another simple health check is indexation. We like to watch total pages v indexed pages in GWT via site maps. We also like to look at pages indexed via the 'site:' command. This can give a sense of health as well as bringing to light canonical issues leading to over-indexation.

Track historic rankings – another seeming no-brainer, but actually rare that clients keep a good set of historic rankings. This can work hand in hand with analytics, especially year-over-year metrics. Combined with the aforementioned algo change dates, it can start to identify potential issues.


Link related tracking elements

NEW links, not easy but do-able – Do not, I repeat, do not bother looking at the GWT latest links. I have no idea what they consider new, but we often find links that are many years old and often not even in existence anymore. I recommend Majestic or aHrefs.

Any links manufactured - if you're doing directories, outreach or local citations. Track it. We often find that link builders aren't supplying clients with actual lists and dates. They tend to give some crap about 'proprietary networks' or something. Don't stand for it. Keep records and dates.

Keep historic link building records (spreadsheets etc) – obviously in keeping with the above, we want actual dates and a time line. If you made them or someone else did.. if they popped up outta nowhere, keep records.

Keep lists of any link removals and dates – again, we're looking for cause and effect. If you're actively seeking to get links removed or using the disavow tool, keep records. This can be important for filing reconsideration requests or diagnosing traffic losses.

Network sites – are you building networks for link building? Or even better; are you closing down networks? Track it. Even if you've closed or redirected them Google might know about it. If we, the consultant, doesn't know about it... the waters become muddied.


Tracking Competitors

Rankings – knowing your query space is paramount. We want to track a cross secion of common competitors in your core query spaces. This includes big brand competitors (often ranking a directory) as well as niche competitors (more tightly targeted domain wide). This can show major changes to how Google is treating various query spaces and tactics that are causing others grief.

SEO Visibility – ok, sure... I actually do consulting work for Searchmetrics, so I am biased, but I just love using their SEO visibility tool for watching competitors as well as client sites. It is a great way to do a health check and as a cross reference to analytic data when doing forensics. If you're a subscriber, be sure to add it to the tool kit.

Links – just as we track rankings, we also want to plug competitors into any link tools you're using. In combination with the above, it can help to get a sense of if it's just you that's been whacked, or if others in the space have been as well.


Your consultant isn't a magician

I know it may seem daunting to be tracking all of these items. That's because you haven't just lost all of your traffic/revenues. But if that day should ever come, you'll be damned happy you did. We don't control the Google algorithms. We don't control everything clients or contractors do. There's so much that it out of our control that indeed even you might be hit some day.

As I was saying off the top, it is rare that we have much to work with when we're brought in to consult on a situation where websites have run into problems with the Big G. The less information we have to work with, the harder it becomes to really be effective in getting things back on track.

For you sake, and mine, please do start tracking things NOW, not after it's too late.

Added August 08 2014; I finally started to formally offer forensic SEO services. If you need help, feel free to get in touch.
Tagged in: Google panda penguin

Hi my name is Dave and I, am an algo-holic

I am an avid search geek that spends most of his time reading about and playing with search engines. My main passion has always been about the technical side of things from a strong perspective rooted in IR and related technologies.

Also hook up via


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