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Site dropped over the years, not sure why

     
2:26 am on Feb 6, 2016 (gmt 0)

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I have to admit, SEO has taken a back burner to my list of priorities over the years. I've always been of the belief that if you focus on good, user-friendly content, then placement will come naturally.

And two years ago, my sites all had top placements on relevant keywords because of that.

Today, though, that's not the case! My largest site is on the 4th page for the most relevant keywords and phrases, where I used to be #1! And I'm not talking about highly competitive keywords; I target people in a fairly small local area with a population of around 60,000. Think of me like a hometown newspaper (which I'm not, but similar enough for the discussion).

So I'm hoping you guys can give me a few bullet points on what I might change. Here's where I am right now:

1. The domain name includes the main keyword in the name, and has been active since 2002.

2. The logo is an H1 tag that includes the main key phrase. Floating next to that is an H2 tag with the second most important key phrase. Both are styled to fit the area, of course, and are less than 250 lines from the top.

3. On the homepage, the main key phrase is used 5 times in the body text, and 13 times in the title and meta tags (cumulative). I have about a 2.5% keyword density for this phrase on the homepage. I could increase it a little, but I'm concerned that it would look spammy if I increase it too much more.

4. According to Google Webmaster Tools, I have about 137,000 inbound links to my site (a lot of which are on the same server, since we host a lot of local websites). I have about 80,000 unique visitors a week and roughly 7 million monthly pageviews... easily 100 times more than my competitors. The local Chamber of Commerce is one of the top results, which is a site that we host, and I know they have less than 200 unique visitors a month.

5. Most of my outgoing links have rel="nofollow" so that it doesn't look like I'm selling links.

6. I have no real errors in Webmaster Tools, other than a few pages with duplicate titles (these are in the user-driven areas, so it's hard to prevent that). I went through and updated everything with the recommended Structured Data early last year, and even though my site has a few issues on mobile, it's nothing that would make it unusable (the top error is that content isn't sized to the viewport; the second error just refers to Flash that comes from Google ads).

7. Load time is fast; Analytics shows an average load time of less than 2 seconds. The site is also on a dedicated server that I manage personally.

8. I block most non-US IP addresses through the firewall, so (according to Analytics) 99.3% of my traffic comes from the US.

Comparing myself to the sites currently in the top 10, none of them have any of these traits. Or even close! The second result is a single page on a generic Wiki-type site with the key phrase in the 4th section of the URL (eg, example.org/whatever/whatever/whatever/key_phrase/ )

So what have I neglected over the years that would make my placement suffer? My traffic has dropped by about 33% in the last 2 years, and it looks like that's mainly due to the search engine placement, so getting it back is pretty important!
7:59 am on Feb 6, 2016 (gmt 0)

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You are better to get a site review in the member's area here or post in Google Groups to get genuine help. The forum charters limit any potential you can get in the public WebmasterWorld forums.
8:04 am on Feb 6, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Thanks, fathom. I wasn't really looking for a site review, though, just maybe some general bullet points on what is deemed relevant these days.
11:12 am on Feb 6, 2016 (gmt 0)

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60,000 population > 320,000+ uniques > 7 million PVs = 22 Pages per view

I don't know what anyone else thinks however that's awesome! You obviously have a lot of repeat visitors who do not require a search engine.

My traffic has dropped by about 33% in the last 2 years


Mine has dropped 90+% in the last 3 years, firstly in January 2013 when Googe made their image grab and then again January 2014 when they did something else however I can't remember what it was but if you were to look at my graphs it is very evident.

Could it be images which is the "lost" traffic.
1:50 pm on Feb 6, 2016 (gmt 0)

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If it were I, I'd be looking for bot activity (to make sure the problem isn't worse than it looks) and then user metrics to find out where my visitors were coming from and what they're doing while on the site. Bouncing, entry pages, exit pages, time on site, how many pages per session, metrics for specific pages, etc.
4:23 am on Feb 7, 2016 (gmt 0)

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So what have I neglected over the years that would make my placement suffer?


When links are not the issue then it may be on page issues related to how your content treats your site visitors. You begin your post stating how you didn't focus on SEO and the rest of your post discusses outdated SEO factors like keyword phrases in H1, in URL, in domain, etc.

Does your content help your users make a decision?
Is your content original?
Is your site easily navigable?
Do you burden site visitors with popups and ads?
Have you checked the trend line for your niche to see if it's rising, steady or dropping?
5:04 am on Feb 7, 2016 (gmt 0)

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How "fresh" is your site? New content always added? Is outdated material deprecated (noindex)? If your site appears formulaic (keyword based) users, not just search engines, recognize that these days.

Meanwhile, everyone is experiencing traffic drops and some of that, I believe, is due to "answers" appear on the serps which means the user never gets to the site.
8:33 am on Feb 7, 2016 (gmt 0)

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(Note, the italics below are quoted from martinibuster, I just thought it might be easier to read if I put them in italics rather than multiple quote tags)

Does your content help your users make a decision?

I think so, yes. Most, if not all of our content is provided for that purpose, anyway.


Is your content original?

The site is a mixture of local, regional, and national news, along with classifieds, message boards, and several other user-driven features. With the exception of the national news (which comes from a syndicate), the rest is all original.


Is your site easily navigable?

From a user's standpoint, I think so. There are 9 main categories and 46 subcategories (5-6 under each category), and the most active features have widgets on the homepage that link to their respective pages.

I'm not 100% sure if it's easily navigable by a search engine, but since all of the pages seem to be indexed then I think it is. I have not created an XML sitemap, though, for the mere fact that there are literally hundreds of thousands of pages on the site.


Do you burden site visitors with popups and ads?

We've never utilized pop-ups, no. We have two Adsense 300x250 banners in a right column and a 728x90 on the bottom, so while the site does utilize ads, we make a point to keep them from being intrusive.


Have you checked the trend line for your niche to see if it's rising, steady or dropping?

That's a good point, and no, I had not! I looked at Google Trends just now and tested for all of my main key phrases, including my own company name. Going back to 2005 (as far back as the program would let me go) most of them have gone down a bit, with a peak in 2013. That's an interesting result, and I can't help but wonder what happened in 2013 to make that happen. Did people stop searching for it altogether, or just stop searching Google for it?


How "fresh" is your site? New content always added? Is outdated material deprecated (noindex)? If your site appears formulaic (keyword based) users, not just search engines, recognize that these days.


With most of the content being user driven, we literally have about 10,000 things posted each day. A lot of the content expires after a certain time period, but message board posts do not, and I never thought about deprecating older content. According to Webmaster Tools, we have about 262,000 pages indexed. That's down from 428,000 in 8/2015, which may have been around the time that I logged in to Tools for the first time and told it to ignore a specific QUERY_STRING variable that may have been causing the same pages to be counted multiple times.

I didn't make a note of when I changed that, though, so I could be totally wrong about that. It dropped 100,000 pages within 3 days, though, and that's the only major spike on the chart, so that's the only reason I can think of that would explain it.

Is having that many pages indexed a good or bad thing? I assumed it was good?


Meanwhile, everyone is experiencing traffic drops and some of that, I believe, is due to "answers" appear on the serps which means the user never gets to the site.


That may, unfortunately, be true. We've also lost traffic to Facebook, but happily that seems to be coming back as Facebook is losing in popularity (at least locally). That's why I want to make sure that we're placed well, so that users that have left FB can more easily find my site.
3:36 pm on Feb 8, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Some things do not quite align here!

60,000 population


we literally have about 10,000 things posted each day.


This is not a local site or it has the most incredible penetration I have ever seen:-)
4:33 pm on Feb 8, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Did people stop searching for it altogether, or just stop searching Google for it?


Not all traffic drops are related to penalties or SEO. The Google Trends diagnostic can show evidence of a disruption event that causes changes in traffic patterns. For example, the introduction of the iPhone disrupted the camera search queries, which also signaled a decline in that traffic. You may have to consider changes dating from 2013, particularly technology changes that may have impacted your space. But don't limit your inquiry to technology changes. For example, companies can be disruptive, as Uber and AirBnB have changed the way people commute and vacation.
9:27 pm on Feb 8, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Some things do not quite align here!

60,000 population


we literally have about 10,000 things posted each day.


This is not a local site or it has the most incredible penetration I have ever seen:-)


Just to clarify, Analytics shows that the site has an average of about 80,000 unique visitors a week (down from 120,000 a few years ago, but I don't know if it's that traffic is down or that traffic is counted differently), which is obviously higher than the population. So we have some traffic from surrounding areas, as well as overlap from where one person logs in at home, work, and their phone, so it looks like 3 people when it's really one.

Our users are very active on the site, though. We have 6 message boards, classifieds, private messages, and a few other features where users post something. Most of our users visit the site daily (or several times a day), and a lot of them are on there from the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep!

Not to mention, a lot of people make a living by selling things in our classifieds, so they post dozens of ads each day.

We really do have a very high penetration in the area, and I doubt there is anybody nearby that's not familiar with the site. I can think of two times, recently, where I was sitting in a restaurant and heard people in the next booth talking about it! Which is funny, but also kind of surreal.
9:41 pm on Feb 8, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Did people stop searching for it altogether, or just stop searching Google for it?


I see this for some terms just because language changes in even more subtle ways than martinibuster mentioned. Without getting into specifics, it would be like everyone is searching for "wine list" and restauranteurs start using "wine menu" and start educating the public that that is the new term or everyone is searching for "air bags" and automakers educate people that the proper term is "passive restraint"

Those terms are really entrenched and would be hard to change, but even entrenched terms can change - I suspect if you could get the data and disambiguate people who bring you food from a computer that serves stuff, you would see a big rise in "server" and a drop in "waiter" as people choose gender-neutral terms. In fact, in Google Trends, I see that "Waiter, Occupation (Google suggested topic) has almost doubled since 2005 and "waiter" and "waitress" (with quotes) have had much smaller increases.

So how does the topic grow so much while the core terms that underlie the topic don't match pace?

There are a couple of ways to look at it
1. there were always a lot of searches for the new term, but Google was worse at understanding topics and finding synonyms, so you didn't used to compete against those people.
2. the language has shifted, but for whatever reason, Google is not yet smart enough to see that your term and the new terms are the same topic, so you haven't lost impression share, you've missed where the culture has gone

Given that your site has a lot of user-generated content that should, therefore, keep pace with cultural change, I'd bet on #1 (assuming this is the root of the problem at all, and I'm not saying it is - just adding to Martinibuster's comment, not trying to give THE answer)
11:32 pm on Feb 8, 2016 (gmt 0)

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When a site becomes that entrenched in a local area, and people are talking about it, I suspect there's a great deal of direct access (bypassing search engines). Have you qualified/quantified that aspect? I know that one site I manage for a small town in a rather large state in the US is so well known locally that no one searches for it and nearly everyone has it book marked. That's REAL penetration in a market. :)
1:40 am on Feb 9, 2016 (gmt 0)

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More and more people are using mobile devices to search google and surf the web (especially the younger crowd). Is your site mobile friendly?
2:56 am on Feb 9, 2016 (gmt 0)

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More and more people are using mobile devices to search google and surf the web (especially the younger crowd). Is your site mobile friendly?


That may well be he kicker, Jester. A year ago, mobile traffic on my site was negligible so I didn't really bother with mobile optimization. It's something I really didn't want to do, because mobile traffic is virtually worthless to us (very few posts, less pages per session, and the ads are worth about 1/100th of desktop). But today, our mobile traffic is close to 50% (!), so I'm only just now optimizing for mobile. The existing site works OK with mobile, it just requires a scroll to the right to see everything.

I know that not being mobile friendly impacts mobile searches, but does it impact desktop searches? So that on a desktop search, a site that's less mobile friendly will show 4 pages below one that is?


When a site becomes that entrenched in a local area, and people are talking about it, I suspect there's a great deal of direct access (bypassing search engines). Have you qualified/quantified that aspect? I know that one site I manage for a small town in a rather large state in the US is so well known locally that no one searches for it and nearly everyone has it book marked. That's REAL penetration in a market. :)


Tangor, I would almost think that you're describing my site! That's almost exactly us: small town in a large state that has a near-100% penetration.

Over time, though, I have seen our number of unique visitors drop, as well as our number of posts. But it's hard to compare apples to apples because so many other variables exist. People on mobile post less than people on desktop, which explains the drop in posts. The number of unique visitors dropped, but in the same time period we've introduced new sites specific to surrounding counties, so I don't know if those unique visitors actually left or just migrated to the site for their county.

Honestly, search engine placement has never been THAT critical to us, but since I'm in the middle of rebuilding everything now to be mobile friendly, I figured that now's the time to make any other changes that might help.
3:39 am on Feb 9, 2016 (gmt 0)

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A core market, once defined, should be left alone if it encompasses "all there is". If you expand beyond that (and my example above is doing much the same for three nearby cities/town/villages. None are in the 50,000 pop category, and each are being built the same way: serps if they got it, but most is local advertising, radio and tv and providing a real need/benefit for the community. Oddly enough, all benefit to community aside, we're talking quarter mil break points that pay the staff, serve the communities (now three) and promote economic growth as well.

Might be time to look at locale, ditch the global serps, and do only good for those around you, and yourself as well. These comments have nothing to do with google. I'm talking about local, in your 'hood service and in that is a business and revenue stream that serves THEM as well as you and your employees. And some of that is direct advertising, which is more work, of course, but it is personal, fulfilling, and TARGETED.

And I just took this thread in a different direction and I didn't even mention mobile. Just odd thoughts. I've been changing my "web" over the last five years and ... local is the dollar point. For me, at least.

edit: Meant to add that in some locales the number of access points (paying for mobile, desktop, access) has diminished within the locale, but I suspect that is frugality in families at play, pinching pennies, not lesser numbers of interested parties.
12:40 pm on Feb 9, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Three things I can see on the spot

1) The user behavior regarding the type of content/service you offer changed. You can monitor that if you graph the average daily postings by unique members/visitors over the course of one year (or more if you can). If you did not track this type of data, my question would be why not?!?

2) You have way more user interaction than expected if I take your numbers literally. I have seen this with a couple of other well established websites including, searchengineroundtable that god Panda-nized exactly because of the huge amount of comments that trumped the overall algorithmic presence of the website. Perhaps you can have a second look at what this huge amount of user generated content is all about. You might suffer some partial Panda penalty!

3) Have you checked exactly how much of your traffic is real as is. Banning bots, and referal/organic spam can produce clearer results in your analytics. On the same note, you say your traffic dropped, but what about your bottom line? Do you see similar revenue/conversions/paid engagement as before or did that drop at the same pace as your traffic?

Looking forward discussing your issue further.
1:55 pm on Feb 9, 2016 (gmt 0)

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I once ran a similar site in a very localized market (much smaller than yours).

1. Direct traffic will increase over time and search traffic will diminish naturally as a result. This isn't necessarily the root cause of a decrease in organic traffic but it can be a contributor.
2. All traffic is not local even if the site content is localized. I found a great many visitors were using the site to research or plan a trip to the area. Real story, I was having a conversation with a museum director in my town when a stranger stepped up to me (someone from a neighboring state) and mentioned that they come to the area every year and used our site to plan their trips. They really loved what we had done and to-date, it's one of the most rewarding encounters I've every had. The point here, is that the Internet doesn't really have borders unless you create them.

2. Features like classified ads are a great draw but I've not found local classified pages to be the best converting unless you're willing to be somewhat aggressive (even tricky) about it (which is not my style and won't help with user engagement in the long run).

I ran the above site for almost 10 years before Google pulled its rug out from under my feet. I'm sure it could have survived in some fashion but couple that with the fact that I moved half-way across the country and could no longer maintain the type of relationships and face-to-face interactions I once had, I had to let it go and move on to something else.

The type of site you are describing requires a delicate balancing act between engagement and monetization. It also has some natural constraints where audience is concerned but those constraints are not brick walls. Your idea of expanding into other neighboring counties is where I was 8 years ago or so. One county proved more than enough for me though but I still think its a great idea (with the age old caveat "If you do it right). ;)
5:12 pm on Feb 10, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Perhaps Google is looking at your site as having to much duplicate content. You page layouts probable look the same and google seeing pages as Doorways. You seem to have a lot of inbound links for a site focusing on such a limited target, how many are refering domains?
7:59 am on Feb 11, 2016 (gmt 0)

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1. Direct traffic will increase over time and search traffic will diminish naturally as a result. This isn't necessarily the root cause of a decrease in organic traffic but it can be a contributor.


That's an interesting thought. Do more click-throughs on some keywords influence placement on other keywords? The most common search term that leads to us is our company name, and we get around 40,000 clicks a month on that one search term. I don't know if that's up, down, or equal to 2 years ago, though.


2. All traffic is not local even if the site content is localized. I found a great many visitors were using the site to research or plan a trip to the area. Real story, I was having a conversation with a museum director in my town when a stranger stepped up to me (someone from a neighboring state) and mentioned that they come to the area every year and used our site to plan their trips. They really loved what we had done and to-date, it's one of the most rewarding encounters I've every had. The point here, is that the Internet doesn't really have borders unless you create them.


Very true! Our local EDC Board (economic development) has told me more than once that our site has helped influence companies that are considering a move to the area. Unlike your experience, we have very few tourist attractions that would appeal to the masses, but we do have some traffic that's not local, anyway.

(Usually related to negative things, like high profile crimes, but we don't talk about that...)

I probably already mentioned this, but we do limit our traffic to the US as much as possible. We have a few military bases that we try to allow, but for the most part, non-US traffic for us are scammers and hackers.


2. Features like classified ads are a great draw but I've not found local classified pages to be the best converting unless you're willing to be somewhat aggressive (even tricky) about it (which is not my style and won't help with user engagement in the long run).


If we relied on Adsense you would be correct. We signed on with an ad management company about 4 years ago, though, and they only use Adsense for backfill. So now we get paid on impressions, not clicks.

We've definitely had to work that very thin line between the ads being useful versus intrusive, though. Like you said, when we have a high return rate and high pages per session, we can't risk our ads turning people off. So we've never used pop-up ads or anything like that.

(Although, I have to admit that the use of ad blockers has skyrocketed over the years, so even though we've never been bad, we get penalized for the actions of others.)


I ran the above site for almost 10 years before Google pulled its rug out from under my feet. I'm sure it could have survived in some fashion but couple that with the fact that I moved half-way across the country and could no longer maintain the type of relationships and face-to-face interactions I once had, I had to let it go and move on to something else.


I'm not going to lie, you just addressed a HUGE fear of mine! My main site is now almost 15 years old, which is ancient in internet terms. I'm terrified that new technology like mobile phones and ad blockers are going to make it a thing of the past, and any day now I'm going to go from making a fair salary to being bankrupt. My biggest fear is being 50 years old (or more) and having to start over.


Your idea of expanding into other neighboring counties is where I was 8 years ago or so. One county proved more than enough for me though but I still think its a great idea (with the age old caveat "If you do it right). ;)


Yep, similar minds! LOL We branched out to a second and third county in 2006, and now have sites in 51 counties. None of them have taken off like the original, though. All 50 combined make less than half of what the original makes by itself. Which, again, is pretty scary, because I have most of my eggs in one basket, so to speak. I'm constantly trying to find new ideas and new sources of revenue, but nothing has taken off like the original.
8:08 am on Feb 11, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Perhaps Google is looking at your site as having to much duplicate content. You page layouts probable look the same and google seeing pages as Doorways.


That's a scary thought. I do have the same header, footer, and right column (for ads) on every page except for the homepage, that's true. So other than the "content" area, yeah, most of it is identical.

I'm updating everything right now to use HTML5 tags like <header>, <nav>, <footer>, etc, so hopefully that will help identify what's supposed to be unique?


You seem to have a lot of inbound links for a site focusing on such a limited target, how many are refering domains?


Good point, it does look like Webmaster Tools just refers to the number of links, not the number of sites that link. We host a lot of sites, and many of them have a lot of dynamic pages, so if Google only looks at unique domains then that's a very misleading number.

Looking at Analytics > Acquisition > Source / Medium, I see that I've had referrals from 216 sources. So that's probably a more realistic / valuable number.
9:36 am on Feb 11, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Csdude55 - I'd suggest looking at several tools that can help your onpage and off page SEO. They are not expensive (for the business your run that is). Get DeepCrawl and Ahrefs and move from there. The first can bring you juicy reports from broken and 404 pages to duplicate content and site speed on a domain level. The other can give you a very detailed look at your inbound links and can help you point some domains or link clusters you may want to disavow.

Another very relevant tool I believe can provide insights as to what to do better is screaming frog.

I am unaware whether you already use any of these tools, but seeing your original post and follow up comments, it seems you are very dependent on the GSC and GA data, which while not bad will not give you the full picture regarding the status of your website as a hole.
10:25 pm on Feb 15, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Hi Csdude55 - if it makes you feel better (I'm sure it won't!), we're in a similar position. Had a strong niche site in the UK with over 30M pageviews per month - and it's now down to 18M / month just 18 months later. As some have suggested we've looked at industry trends and seen similar movements - partly because Google provides answers in the SERPs, but I also wonder if it's down to a large volume of user-generated content (we have around 10,000 forum/thread posts per day).
1:08 am on Feb 16, 2016 (gmt 0)

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I also wonder if it's down to a large volume of user-generated content (we have around 10,000 forum/thread posts per day).

In my niche, the top-ranked pages for a long time were from megasites that were built around user-generated content. That began to change a year or two ago, and today those UGC pages aren't ranking nearly so high for competitive searches.
8:18 am on Feb 18, 2016 (gmt 0)

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The only sector where pages pumped by user generated content actually ranks extremely well is IT and the main protagonist is stackoverflow . The old way of online news outlets to rank up using complementary content in the form of user responses is gone from my SERPs as well.
9:27 am on Feb 18, 2016 (gmt 0)

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If UGC is inserted into the mix, then look for a general and steady decline across the board. UGC these days has very little "juice" as it is quite obvious the algos in ALL the major SEs are deprecating the content. An increasing number of major websites are noindex nofollow on the UGC of their own sites.
2:34 pm on Feb 20, 2016 (gmt 0)

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I find the main problem is mobile. Everyone uses mobile to search these days and that means the first 5 spots on page 1 is where you want to be. 5 years ago you would still get semi decent clicks being on page 2.

Mobile has increased traffic on the internet but most of that traffic is non converting as people are usually searching on the phone quickly while in between tasks. The other thing taking away traffic in some industries are apps.
10:33 pm on Feb 21, 2016 (gmt 0)

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votes: 80


I'm going to cut to the chase since someone should probably mention this to you. If your content has been online for a while (months or years) and it has ranked well in any way then major SEO sites have recorded each of your best page metrics. They record which pages appear for which keywords and in which position and sell that data to webmaster wanting to buy it.

Perform a "related:example.com" google search to find your direct competitors and take a look, you might not be surprised to find that one of more of your competitors has an article very similar to your best stuff for all of your top articles. They use the SEO data to figure out which sites they deem inferior to theirs are able to get top ranked for x subject set and they target it too. Over time your ranking falls as more competitors attempt the same. Your best pages get cherry picked much more often than other pages.

Solution: having traffic come in across a wide range of articles, none bringing in more than 1% of your total traffic. Your pages will remain off radar so to speak if they don't over achieve. Spread your efforts site-wide, your best pages are most vulnerable. Oh, and don't buy that kind of SEO data and encourage them to sell more, it's all available in GWT anyway if you put it together yourself.
8:17 am on Feb 22, 2016 (gmt 0)

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@tangor - while what you say is true in most cases, there are sectors where UGC is considered high value. The travel and accommodation and IT sector are good examples of what I am talking about. I have recent first had experience where one of the websites I work on decided to JSON-LD markup and index their entire forum and community section (30k+ items). The impression count one month later was up 4% which is quite big for them. Yet to see if this will affect the bottom line in any significant way (I believe not but that's just me) but the point is that Google took all those comments and public support tickets and indexed them increasing the long tail coverage the website can deliver on.
4:18 pm on Feb 22, 2016 (gmt 0)

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joined:June 16, 2010
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"My biggest fear is being 50 years old (or more) and having to start over."


There are many things worse than that.

Believe me.
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