Keywords Rank Tracking – how important are they to help recover from Penguin?

Every client I have ever worked with has been fixated by rankings, even the ones who seem to understand the ‘bigger picture’ when it comes to SEO and search marketing. As we approach 2013, some SEO consultants are still hung up on primary keywords more than they are traffic, sales and conversions, in competitive industries such as travel. This leads me on to just how important is it to track rankings frequently in order to really monitor the effect your work is having across the board.

I have always been of the opinion that being #1 for the industry primary keywords varies from niche-to-niche, as to how valuable it is for the brand. For some markets it is game-changing, and for others the quality of traffic isn’t specific enough and quite simply doesn’t convert. However, does being seen in SERPs at the beginning of the research stage for typically generic ‘fat head’ primary search keywords make it more likely that people will return to purchase later after more research? Maybe with generic branded FMCG products, but what about niche purchases?

Just over a year ago I took on a client who had been heavily spammed and ‘over optimised’ for all the money terms by their previous SEO company, and the domain was sprinkled with a lovely mixture of both manual and automatic penalties. The result of using very spammy old tactics including, but not limited to, the following;

  1. Keyword stuffing (code, URLs, headers, meta tags and copy)
  2. Link juice sculpting with rel=”nofollow”
  3. Hidden text
  4. Reciprocal linking pages
  5. Internal in-content auto linking to category pages  (site wide)
  6. ‘Over-cooked’ backlink anchor text
  7. Spun content offsite with money term anchor text
  8. Comment spam backlinks (offsite)
  9. Comment spam within old pages (onsite)

Right from the start this was going to be a hard job and it was at this point I decided that although the client was still captivated by a few one-word keywords, the only way I could save the campaign was to focus on traffic and conversions. Note – To move domains was not an option due to the cost implications.

Keywords – understanding the bigger picture

The first step was to carry out as much keyword research as possible, to compare the following:

  1. The terminology the client uses (qualitative)
  2. The terminology used by the customer who has already bought this product and understands it (qualitative)
  3. The terminology the Googling masses use (quantitative)
  4. The terminology historic visits to the site used and the quality of traffic; bounce rate, time on site, conversions etc. (quantitative?)

The findings were interesting to say the least. The people questioned in the qualitative research were very similar in their answers, however when this was compared to search volumes using the Google Adwords keyword tool and Wordtracker there were some apparent differences. To increase conversions we needed to go after the less generic keywords and concentrate on lower volume keywords which were more likely to convert.

It was at this point I decided that we needed to track more – a lot more than just primary and secondary keywords. In order to fully understand how Google was reacting to the changes being implemented I needed more data. I’ve been using AWR to track rankings for a number of years, but I have to confess that, until this point, I had never tracked the rankings for in the region of 5000 keywords daily for one domain. So out came the credit card for the extra proxies needed in order to get through the additional work load.

The ability to rank track large numbers of keywords cheaply and affectively was of paramount importance to monitor the effect of unravelling the ‘over optimisation’, AKA spam signals. AWR’s ability to generate segmented ranking reports automatically, emailing them to both myself and the client was irrefutably convenient. This saved me countless hours which could be better used working on the onsite issues, or building authoritative links and producing quality shareable content.

Keeping track of the changes

One by one we started fixing the on-site issues and built ‘trust signals’ to show Google that this company indeed deserved to rank for it’s industry terms in organic search. These trust signals were produced by building a social audience, encouraging social shares/links and completely rethinking the content strategy to focus on content people actually wanted to read.

Then along came a Panda and with it a whole new round of penalties. Pretty much every single keyword/phrase in the top 50 industry search terms seemed to have some sort of penalty or another. For some time after it didn’t seem to matter what we did off site; even building extremely high quality ‘natural’ links from some of the top sites on the internet didn’t help much – those bad backlinks were really keeping the site down.

Link removal – How to tell if it’s working

Long before the Panda update we identified that this was going to be an issue with clients who had been optimising their sites for years; in fact, I wrote a post about the dangers of over-cooking anchor text. My team have been doing link removal for over a year now and rank tracking large volumes of keywords really illustrates how it works, and also motivates the team (as, let’s face it, it’s a pretty boring job). Seeing the results helps give them incentive to keep going!


For anyone who is removing links to websites (or trying to) I can highly recommend using rmoov. Having previously used mail merges to send out large volumes of email, this tool actually goes out and checks if the link has been removed or not as well. There are some problems with this system however, for example;> Hosting down time – Many directories are located on cheap hosting which tends to go down often, causing a link to be marked as removed.

  • Domains expiring and then popping up again
  • Pagination on links across several pages
  • Roaming pages where the page moves depending on the parameter in the URL

On the whole this link removal software works and is great value, and the support from @Sha Menz matches it.

Did the strategy work?

Well, sales, conversions and traffic are all up year-on-year. The client is happy and no longer sending me emails late at night asking ‘how much longer is it going to take?’, so I guess so. Rankings have recovered for the majority of the secondary keywords, but some of the primaries are still firmly lodged on the second page. Hopefully all the hard work earning the right to be on page one (and the Disavow submission of course for those stubborn links) will pay off in a few weeks when the Disavow takes effect. I’ll keep you posted.

So as we move into 2013, will keywords and rankings continue to matter? You bet they will! The only difference is that people want more and more data to help them to understand what works and why. After all, knowledge has and will always mean power in search marketing.  (Disclaimer – Although, as we all know, a little knowledge in the wrong hands can be dangerous)

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