How lost organic search visibility & how it should bounce back

Nov 7th, 2014

Here at Click, we’re used to analysing the statistics of websites that have struggled with search engine visibility and identifying areas of potential improvement. Recently, we came across the website If you haven’t visited this site before, check out the screenshot at the bottom of this post

First impressions aren’t great, so we decided to conduct an in-depth analysis of the website to pin-point why it is struggling. Below is a screenshot of the website’s search engine visibility, with significant events highlighted in red:

From this graph, it is clear to see that the website has suffered three noticeable drops in visibility and each significant drop coincides with the following events: Google’s Panda algorithm update, Google’s Phantom update and a new website launch.

Exact match domains

It used to be the case that including the keywords you aimed to rank for within your domain had a positive impact on your search engine visibility. Therefore, this website would have had a distinct advantage over its competitors. In September 2012, however, Google released the exact match domain (EMD) update, which removed this advantage and put all domains on a level playing field. Whilst this had a negative impact on many websites, remained unharmed.

Poor linking

Next, we looked at the website’s link profile. Our initial verdict was that the links were okay, certainly better than many of the website’s competitors. We analysed the toxicity of the link profile, which provided us with the following results:

  • 22% high risk
  • 52% medium risk
  • 26% low risk

These results are within the average parameters of a website with a healthy linking profile. However, according to’s previous marketing manager on LinkedIn, steps had been taken to remove a penalty through link audits and the disavow tool. What is not known is whether or not the penalty was a manual action or algorithmic.

We also don’t have any information regarding how in-depth the link disavow tool was, which makes the website’s domain authority unreliable. What we do know, however, is that the website’s visibility drops do not coincide with any Google Penguin updates. Additionally, we can observe that there is no obvious recovery in visibility, which is a sign of a penalty being revoked.

Whilst we cannot discount the possibility that toxic links are the cause of poor organic search (SEO) performance, the evidence suggests that we should look at other areas. For more information about effective link building strategies, download our Link Building Through Outreach eBook. 

Google’s Panda algorithm

The first evident issue that the website experienced was an apparent algorithmic penalty from Panda 3.7. This occurred in April 2012 and according to SearchMetrics it resulted in a drop in search engine visibility of approximately 25%. Whilst this is a big drop, it is not catastrophic and an effective content strategy could have helped them to bounce back.

So, why exactly was penalised? The Panda algorithm affects low quality content. Examples of poor quality content include:

  1. Content that is copied from another website
  2. Too many adverts, especially Adsense
  3. Too much auto-generated content
  4. Too little user generated content
  5. Multiple pages to describe the same service

So let’s take a closer look at these factors. First up, we’ll look at duplicate content. We took a snippet of content from one of’s major pages, “Cunard Cruises”, and conducted a search on Google.

Whilst this website does not use AdSense or any other third party advertisements, it is easy for users to be overwhelmed by the abundance of visual links on the page to deals. The vast majority of the content on the page is auto-generated and very little human input appears to have been made to create content. We often hear that Google loves “good content”; in our opinion, this refers to content that is written by a human being and which adds value to the user. We think there is very little of this kind of content on this page.

However, the quantity of content on this website has grown over the years. Could it be that is attempting to combat the Panda issues by adding more and more auto-generated content on the homepage?

Finally, there is the issue of multiple pages for the same service. This can be a bit of a grey area. For example, would a page on “Caribbean cruises” and “Caribbean cruise deals” be considered duplicate? This webmaster appears to think so, as the page for the latter has been blocked by search engines using the meta robots tag. In our opinion, they are both legitimate pages that add value to different customer demographics. Stopping useful pages from indexing would almost certainly have a negative impact on search engine visibility.

Think you’ve been penalised by Panda? Find out more here.

Google’s Phantom algorithm

The apparent Panda penalty appeared to cause a significant drop in traffic, but not a disastrous one and recovery should have been fairly straightforward.

However, in May 2013 the website experienced a catastrophic drop in visibility of approximately 75%, according to SearchMetrics. This drop occurred on the same date as Google’s mysterious “Phantom” update. The Phantom update was never officially announced by Google and many are left to speculate as to what effect it has. What is clear, however, is that some websites have suffered a significant drop in traffic as a result.

So, what do we know? Examples of websites hit by Phantom are relatively rare, making it difficult to get a wide cross section of results to compare. However, we know two things: penalised websites have almost always had a Panda penalty in the past and they are often heavily cross-linked with other websites.

Okay, remember those international versions of the website from earlier? Well, after a bit of digging, we found, which contains a list of all of the international websites. We also know that these websites have been around since at least October 2012. Now, if these websites contained unique content that is tailored to the countries they are targeting then they could be very useful and provide a valuable user experience for potential customers all over the world. These websites do not do that – they have not even changed the currency! As a result, there is a strong possibility that Google will see them as an attempt to manipulate their algorithm by generating links.

As for the content, there are no clear details on how Phantom has penalised websites. The view from SEO experts around the world is that Phantom targets link networks to prevent them from being easily found. It is possible that the multiple websites of could be seen as a symptom of being a link network and therefore been mistakenly penalised by the algorithm.

New website

Since the website has been penalised by search engines, it has had a couple of facelifts. However, in June 2014 the website had another drop in search engine visibility. Whilst this may seem small in comparison to previous drops, it still resulted in visibility being reduced by approximately 30% according to SearchMetrics. This is equivalent to kicking a man when he’s down.

Changing a website is always risky, as it takes Google a while to get to grips with how the new site works in terms of content and structure. Usually, a website launch will be immediately followed by a temporary drop in traffic, which will gradually recover over the following weeks. In the case of, the traffic has dropped but not recovered.

So what changed? Upon inspection, the structure of the website has not changed a huge amount. However, there are a few changes that could be significant. The first thing we noticed was the removal of the following text at the top of the page:

It’s not the most in depth and captivating content you’ve ever read, but it’s a start. It describes Cruise’s experience and awards and has a clear call to action. In terms of user experience, this sort of content is vitally important.

Another notable change was that the new version considerably increased the level of auto-generated content. The end result is a website that looks incredibly cluttered and provides an extremely poor user experience.

What can do to improve its visibility?

It appears that the owners of this website are aware of the visibility issues and have taken steps to combat it. However, these steps have not resulted in a noticeable recovery in search engine visibility. So what can they do to make it better?

Perform a full link audit – It is possible that the drops in visibility could be a delayed reaction to the Penguin algorithm, which penalises poor link profiles. We know that link audits were performed on this website and that some links were disavowed. However, what we don’t know is whether or not the website definitely had a manual action penalty, how many links were disavowed or if a thorough link removal process was undertaken.

Remember, simply disavowing links is not enough to overturn a manual action penalty. A full audit of the current link profile, as well as the existing link disavow file, will give a clearer idea of what impact Google’s Penguin algorithm is having and what further action needs to be taken.

For more information on conducting a link audit, check out our guide to Link Auditing, Removal & Recovery.

Get rid of the duplicate sites – These provide no valuable user experience and are almost certainly harming the brand’s online visibility in the eyes of Google. International organic search can be extremely effective when it comes to spreading brand awareness across the world, but it must be done right. This should not be done on the cheap and a professional organic search specialist should be consulted before work is carried out.

Stop creating for search engines – Rather than thinking “would Google like this?” think “would my customers like this?” Do some market research and invest in a conversion rate optimisation (CRO) strategy. Not only should this help to achieve better search engine results, but it should also increase the chances of website visitors making a purchase.

Keep it simple – The amount of content on the home page should be drastically reduced. The current homepage is not just off-putting to search engines but to customers as well. Keep it simple, uncluttered and targeted. This rule should be applied across the website, especially pages where a purchase could be made.

Create valuable content – It’s no good being the best at what you do, if your customers don’t know it. Create content on each page highlighting what sets this company apart from its competitors. Auto-generated content is good for keeping the page fresh and giving people a reason to come back, but do not over-do it.

Follow the keyword research –Google’s Keyword Planner tool will help you to identify exactly what your customers are looking for. The most popular keywords should have landing pages that are easy to find from the homepage.

The current homepage is cluttered with internal links. The result is that the authority to the most important pages will be diluted by the links to less important pages. The homepage should provide a simple navigation experience.

Go long tail – Are people searching for “luxury cruises in Caribbean” going to be the same people searching for “cheap cruises in Caribbean”? Of course not! Effective keyword research should uncover opportunities to target different demographics for various products and services. Therefore, separate landing pages need to be created based on long tail opportunities. Each landing page should contain unique user-generated content (from scratch) that is tailored to their particular demographic. Above all, make sure that search engines can see these pages.

Learn from competitors – Simply conduct a Google search for “cruises” and see what comes up. One website that struck us was The simple, uncluttered approach to the site benefits both users and search engines, despite a lack of user-generated content. The homepage navigation is simple and only targets the most popular phrases that their keyword research has produced. As a result, they are currently on page one, despite a much poorer link profile. A similar approach from a website with better links and more homepage content should have great results.

Data sourced from:

All data accurate as of 07/11/2014, excluding Research Tools. Research Tools data accurate as of 03/11/2014
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