We were onboarded by a travel company to work on their SEO and make them competitive again in an industry dominated by huge and aged authority household names.

Here’s what we were faced with when starting:

Current Situation

Organic traffic was extremely low on all 4 websites with low keyword rankings for each.

One of the sites had organic traffic previously, but nothing to write home about (you’ll see the combined traffic and the difference we made a bit further down) and SEO had become much more difficult since.

They’d slid down the rankings as a result. Not updating the site often didn’t help either.

The majority of traffic and sales was coming through PPC but this was getting more and more expensive (as PPC tends to do) and eating into their ROI. Especially when up against giant travel companies with bottomless pockets.

I’ll call the 4 mini-location sites: 

  • Geo O
  • Geo U
  • Geo A
  • Geo Af

Geo O was a site that was previously performing well organically when SEO was easier and brought in the biggest portion of their income. 

Geo U was the youngest site and a new location that they had just introduced with high hopes for success (this was the one we were to work on the most to increase authority and traffic)

Geo’s 3 & 4 were in a pretty poor state. Old website’s with an old instance of WordPress that desperately needed updating.

Migration and Merging Agreed

Luckily, before we were onboarded, we already had buy-in from the client that these smaller “niche” sites should be consolidated into a larger authority site to stand a chance of gaining ground on the competition.

It was agreed the sites were to be gradually migrated – one at a time over the coming months – into one domain and into specific geographical silos (but we were to work on the smaller sites while this happened to increase rankings and authority).

Our Process and Solutions

The 3 Pillars – Technical SEO, On-Page and Off-Page Audits

When you break SEO down, client’s sites (or any site) need three things. 

Sometimes they need more of one than the rest, sometimes they need a combination of all three. 

It’s your job (or ours if you work with us) to audit and decide how to prioritise the following three pillars that your site needs:

  • Improved site structure, usability, crawlability and performance (Technical SEO)
  • Better content (on-page optimisation) 
  • More authority (backlinks)

Technical SEO

We worked with our dev team to initially make sure the site structure and technical SEO on the authority site (the domain we were migrating the 4 mini-sites to) was sound. 

Some of the things we worked on together: 

  • Mapped a new url structure and redirects for the migration of the mini sites to authority site 
  • Ensured pagespeed was optimal on the authority site without breaking any site features (compressed images, cached, CDN, minified where possible etc)
  • Did a broken link check and fixed
  • Fixed http links on the site (changed to https)
  • Checked for orphan links and fixed or deleted
  • Checked for crawlability and click depth. Optimised
  • Updated old sitemap and resubmitted to Google
  • Added missing alt tags to over 800+ images

Honestly, people write 15,000 word dissertations on technical SEO (LinkedIn, I’m looking at you. Yeah, you SEO’s who like to show off to fellow SEO’s, instead of giving practical advice..)

Sure, you can go that deep, but it’s not necessary. 

We have worked with clients who have taken a big share of clicks from HUGE competitors like Google, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, IKEA, Wayfair, Expedia and others..and they STILL had technical issues which we weren’t given access to solve or their development team didn’t get round to fixing. 

Set up your website right from the start and get on with it. 

Set up monitoring with something like Content King or other monitoring tools and get on with marketing activities that will move the needle. 

For the other 4 mini-sites, we didn’t bother with technical SEO since they were all moving to the authority site domain over the coming months. It was important that the site they were migrating to was technically sound.

Content, On-Page Audits & Optimisation

PRE-MIGRATION

Again, we didn’t spend too much time on on-page audits and optimisation for the 4 mini location sites since they were to be migrated soon. 

But we did do some keyword mapping – (mapped the priority and secondary keywords that each url was trying to rank for).

Then we made some small optimisations if these keywords were in conflict with what the existing pages were optimised for (for example, if they were targeting a much lower volume variation of a keyword/product).

We started with auditing what some call the “3 Kings”

  • SEO Page Title
  • H1 Title (and subheadings for secondary, related keywords)
  • URL

We pulled down all urls into a spreadsheet using Screaming Frog integrated with Google Search Console and Analytics to see how these URL’s performed for traffic, clicks and impressions. 

This helped us prioritise which pages to attack first and identified some easy wins. 

We looked for:

  • Pages that had high impressions but low clicks (usually an indication that you’re around the bottom of page 1, top of page 2 or your result isn’t getting a high CTR)
  • Pages that weren’t performing or ranking well, but had low competition on the first page 
  • Pages that needed more links (more on this in the section below)

We then got to work and added our suggestions for optimising each page to the spreadsheet. 

Once these were approved, we got to work and made the small tweaks to SEO page titles, H1 titles and subheadings. 

NOTE: we didn’t provide URL change suggestions at this point as the risk-reward ratio wasn’t worth it for these small sites that were about to be migrated anyway. We noted these URL optimisations with our dev team so they could implement them into the big migration instead. 

Content

Pre-migration, we didn’t do any content optimisation as part of our on-page SEO strategy. 

The client was very picky about the content on each landing page and since the approval process was already quite slow, we didn’t want to add an extra bottleneck to our process. 

We also felt it would be better to push for this again post-migration when the 4 sites became one authority site and we could manage it more effectively. 

NOTE FOR CLIENTS: It’s almost always best to trust your SEO agency with content and/or delegate at least one or more members of your internal team to work on creating or editing any changes to content. This makes implementing new content and content changes quick and efficient. How fast you can build out quality content is one of the most important drivers of growth for SEO. If your SEO agency/freelancer regularly turns around poor content, it may be time to reconsider them or delegate more internal resources to help if the topic is more technical.

Need help? Let us take the whole process off your hands

POST-MIGRATION

Staff Training and Consultation

We trained members of the client’s staff who wrote blogs on the correct way to create outlines, optimise content and on-page SEO after the site migration was complete. 

Their staff were fantastic and so eager to learn but unfortunately, were pulled apart in every direction to the point they couldn’t always prioritise the SEO campaign (more on this later).

When Covid kicked in, this was understandably even more difficult as the client was reduced to a skeleton team of staff. 

Content Briefs

We pushed for, and it was agreed, to build out and focus on one content cluster and topic silo every month for priority locations. 

We performed keyword research and then competitor analysis in Surfer SEO to create content briefs for blogs (inside Surfer’s “Content Editor”) which would help the client build topical authority and indirectly increase rankings of products and money pages via internally linking these blogs to those priority pages. 

Hypothetical example: 

  • we want to rank for the money page “Holidays to Antarctica”
  • we researched and created a brief for the blog “Top 10 Things to do in Antarctica” to be written with an internal link back to the money page and other relevant blogs in the topic cluster.

Unfortunately, it was rare that the marketing staff had an opportunity to build out these blogs. 

We ended up focusing this process more on their many landing/sales pages..

On-Page Audits of Money Pages With Surfer

The money pages of these same topic clusters were also audited and benchmarked vs competitors in Surfer SEO using their “content editor” and “SERP Analyzer” functions. 

We first performed a Screaming Frog audit to pull down all of the urls in a particular topic silo (i.e. Antarctica), and we got to work copying the content of those pages into Surfer’s content editor and looked for areas where we could naturally increase the content score vs our competitors using Google’s own NLP algorithm. 

We input our suggestions and edits into Surfer’s Content editor for the client to have a look at. 

This was DIFFICULT and time-consuming as there’s no real way to offer suggestions in Surfer’s content editor. 

We just added our suggestions in italic and put a line through the text we’d changed or suggested deleting. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t ideal as it may impact the content score in Surfer negatively or positively until the final edited text remains in the editor. 

This would be made much easier if the awesome team at Surfer added a “suggesting” tool like there is in Google Docs, into their own editor. (Can you hear us, Surfer team? 😉 )

The workaround is that you can add Surfer as an extension into Google Docs, so it’s no biggie. 

We just liked working inside their default editor because the client was using the old WordPress editor and copy-pasting content directly from G Docs into the old WP editor came with very annoying and time-consuming formatting problems. 

Anyway, we digress. 

We made our way through a few of the most important money pages in the assigned topic cluster for the month and gave our suggested edits. 

We then sent over the link to the client for approval. 

It was a slow and painstaking process that could have been quicker if we were given carte blanche trust to edit what pages we felt needed it directly inside WordPress, but we understand why we weren’t. 

Clients often want full control of their voice and wording.

These are million dollar businesses we’re talking about. 

But clients, if you can trust your agency enough to remove yourself as the bottleneck in this process, you’ll find much faster growth. 

And agencies, you need to be well versed with the client’s tone, voice and products to earn this trust. 

Backlink Audits & Optimisation

PRE-MIGRATION

Backlinks and building authority were the main priority for this moment and formed the bulk of the work we did to move the needle at this point. 

While we knew the sites were moving over to one large authority domain/site, building links for the priority holiday locations and holiday types on the mini-sites would also carry authority over to the main site after migration (as long as our dev team implemented their url redirects correctly). 

We improved their authority greatly with a highly targeted guest posting and niche edit outreach campaign.

Here’s what we did..

Backlink Audit

To start with, we needed a plan of action instead of building links randomly. 

We added a column to the on-page audit spreadsheet we mentioned in the previous section to show how many backlinks each url had on the mini-sites. 

From there we could do two things: 

  • See how many links our individual pages had vs the top 10 results in Google (and build links accordingly)
  • Perform an anchor text audit for each page to create a strategy that made sure we were building links with enough anchor text diversity (if you spam the same anchor text for every link you build, you risk a penalty)  

We used SEM Rush for this task, but you can use whatever tool you want, whether that’s Ahrefs, Majestic or another tool that tracks links. 

We spoke to the client and agreed which pages and services were their priorities, converted the best and/or made them the most money. 

[This is something we do for you too as part of our Link Building Strategy when we work with you]

From there, we had a clear backlinking strategy and we could get to work on levelling up the site(s)!

Here’s what we did: 

  • Made a list of niche-relevant (travel) and/or general (“news”, for example) high authority sites
  • Outreached and contacted site owners to see if they allowed guest posts or link insertions into their existing content
  • If there was a cost, we started negotiation or offered a value swap (content/infographics/keyword research/something they needed)
  • We added niche-edits into the mix (these links are great for clients on a budget who want more links, but have their pros and cons which we explain a little further) 

And we kept this strategy churning for months until the development team fully migrated each mini-site into the authority travel site. 

This process worked especially well for the youngest Geo U site which was one of our main priorities and one of the last sites to be migrated (see image below).

POST-MIGRATION

Post migration link building was much the same process as pre-migration but much easier to manage, audit and implement (Wayyy fewer spreadsheets and moving parts with one website, than there are for four websites!)

Website migrations and mergers are never as easy as 1=1. 

Some keywords may dip under the new structure, others may benefit from the new structure.

We had to pivot often during this time and keep monitoring rankings to understand where our linking priorities would be for any given month until rankings and traffic settled down. 

Luckily, there weren’t too many surprises or ranking changes that were completely out of whack. 

A few things we kept an eye on were: 

  • High volume, high converting, high value keywords which were ranking below what they were before the migration.
  • Double checking each of the old urls to ensure that the 301 redirects were implemented correctly, for two reasons:
    1) to ensure Google could easily follow the old page to its new home.
    2) to ensure the links we built to the mini sites pre-migration would carry over to the new pages.

We then went on our merry way building links using the same successful process and strategy we were pre-migration. 

Here’s how backlink velocity looked on a chart throughout our campaign: 

The reason it’s fairly flat in the beginning is that we were building the links to the mini sites initially, with only a handful going to the main domain. 

You’ll see as the mini sites begin to merge, those backlinks start to be attributed to the main domain and our work really begins to show.

END OF CAMPAIGN SEO RESULTS

Top 10 Keyword Ranking Progress

The main site started with 7 keywords in the top 10 of Google in March 2018 when I started on this campaign. 

This was to be expected since the smaller sites hadn’t been migrated yet (more context a bit further on around how the smaller sites contributed – or didn’t – to the final results). 

We ended the campaign in March 2021 with 412 keywords in the Top 3 and 1,707 keywords in the Top 10. And 61,446 keywords ranking in Google’s top 100 (according to SEMRush) 

This was a huge result, but were these results simply due to migrating 4 mini-sites into the 1 domain?

Let’s take a look…

Pre-Migration Keyword Rankings and Traffic

Let’s go through the mini sites one by one which covered different locations: 

Geo O

This mini site was previously driving ok amounts of organic traffic, however, the SEO tactics were outdated and by the time we were onboarded, it was massively declining and haemorrhaging traffic and rankings. 

In the image below, we started at the green arrow and managed to arrest the decline and maintain rankings/traffic until the migration (red arrow). 

Pre-SEO Campaign Organic Traffic: 1,814 visits (approx)

Pre Migration Organic Traffic: 2,336 visits (approx)

Pre-SEO Campaign Top 10 Keywords: 330 (same at pre-migration)

Geo U

This mini-site was the new kid (holiday location) on the block and was our main SEO priority before all the sites were migrated into one domain. 

This site had low domain authority, age and was a fish in an ocean full of sharks. 

This was our biggest success pre-migration and that’s no surprise since almost all of our efforts went here. 

The results we achieved were purely from link building which goes to show how important links still are.

Results below: 

Pre-SEO Campaign Organic Traffic: 309 visits (approx)

Pre Migration Organic Traffic: 3,453 visits (+1017% increase after 18 months work)

Pre-SEO Campaign Top 10 Keywords: 30

Pre-Migration Top 10 Keywords: 280 (+833% increase after 18 months work)

What about the remaining two mini sites?

Geo A and Af

These two were the oldest sites, but also the worst performing. The sites showed their age and weren’t in line with the branding of the newer sites. 

They had old WordPress installs which we weren’t to update in case they terminally broke. 

We barely worked on these two sites besides sending over a few links to high CPC and high volume keywords, as it was difficult to gauge their potential until they were migrated.

Let’s look at the results anyway, as we need these numbers to see the overall success of our SEO campaign. 

Both sites didn’t experience much movement from campaign start to pre-migration: 

Geo Af

Pre-SEO Campaign Organic Traffic: 495 visits 

Pre Migration Organic Traffic: 757 visits 

Pre-SEO Campaign Top 10 Keywords: 25

Pre-Migration Top 10 Keywords: 26

Geo A

Pre-SEO Campaign Organic Traffic: 725 visits (actually peaked to 1,112 the month we started)

Pre Migration Organic Traffic: 754 visits 

Pre-SEO Campaign Top 10 Keywords: 56

Pre-Migration Top 10 Keywords: 52

As you can see, no major changes to either sites. 

4 Mini Sites Vs 1 Authority Domain SEO Results

So the million dollar question; how much of these results were to do with our SEO work vs the merging of the 4 mini sites? 

The only way to know is to add up all of the mini site numbers pre-SEO campaign and compare them to where we ended up at the end of the SEO campaign with the one site. 

Let’s add the numbers up first…

Total organic traffic of 4 mini sites pre-SEO campaign: 

1814 + 309 + 495 + 725 = TOTAL: 2543 visitors

Total organic traffic after migrating 4 mini sites into 1 authority domain and end of SEO Campaign: 

TOTAL: 23,867 visitors [+838.5% increase]

Total Top 10 keywords of 4 mini sites pre-SEO campaign:

330 + 30 + 25 + 56 = TOTAL: 441 Top 10 Keywords

Total Top 10 Keywords after migrating 4 mini sites into 1 domain & end of SEO Campaign: 

TOTAL: 2119 Top 10 Keywords [+380.5% increase]

NOTE: 412 of these 2119 keywords were in the TOP 3 Google Search Results! This is almost the same as the total number of Top 10 keywords the sites started with before we came on board. 

Here’s the image again to show our campaign on the main site: 

As you can see from these numbers, there’s no doubt that our SEO campaign made a huge impact over the 36 months we worked on it. 

When we ceased working for the client, there was an almost immediate plateau and then a decline for around a year, which you’ll also see in the image above.

Thankfully, it appears that they’ve got their act together again after a year of decreasing traffic and rankings.

But do you know what? As proud as we are of our SEO campaign, it could and should have done even better.

Here’s why…

Biggest SEO Challenges Working On This SEO Campaign

Challenge 1 – No control over content

This is a common issue you’ll often encounter in a client-agency relationship. 

There is often the feeling from the client that nobody knows the product or industry as well as they do..and this is completely understandable, especially in more technical niches. 

But this isn’t as much of an issue in travel as information is readily available on holiday destinations for blogs. It’s also largely subjective, for example “Best Beaches in Antarctica” – it’s difficult to get this topic wrong.

Trusting your SEO agency or writers with content (or at least a trial run of content) will lead to the best results from your SEO campaign, bar none! 

As long as they are competent, of course..

NOTE: This is also why cheap SEO simply doesn’t cut it. Good writing takes time, research, experience, editing, formatting and optimising. Managing a team of good writers and editors should not come cheap.

We proposed a content calendar, through our extensive keyword research, as well as to execute the content creation and create topical authority for the client in Google around every geography they were trying to sell a holiday for. 

In short; we were trying to create topical relevance and authority.

The idea behind this is simple. 

Why should Google trust your site as the authority just because you have a page on your site that sells holidays to Mars? (obviously, a fictitious example; our client wasn’t Elon Musk!)

What other helpful content is on your site that shows Google you are THE authority on Mars? Do you cover: 

  • How Long Does it Take to Get to Mars?
  • What is the Size of Mars?
  • Things to do on Mars
  • Best Beaches on Mars 
  • Top 10 Countries to Visit on Mars

..and the list goes on.

These articles, while pulling in traffic on their own and creating brand awareness at the top of your funnel, will also indirectly increase rankings to your money pages as Google starts to see you as the authority – aka “holidays to Mars”. 

The client was previously on a retainer with a blog content creation company, but this wasn’t going well. 

Imagine an early-2000’s SEO content strategy? That’s basically what this content agency was doing. 

Pumping out basic 500 word articles that weren’t optimised and paper-thin, which provided no helpful information to their visitors at all. 

We recommended they drop this content agency which they promptly did, but we never quite got to the place where they handed off content creation to us. (which was strange since they were fine with this content agency who were producing awful content)

We came to a compromise that we would set up blog briefs in Surfer SEO based on the keyword research we did, and their marketing team would create the blogs based on our content briefs. 

Challenge 2 – Lack of Client Resources (Staff & Budget)

This leads us nicely on to the 2nd challenge. 

Unfortunately, their marketing team (who were fantastic, by the way) were largely pulled apart with other tasks and projects, so couldn’t prioritise the content briefs we’d sent them for creation. 

A great piece of content takes a day, sometimes more to produce when you take into account the writing, formatting, image sourcing, video, internal linking, external linking, posting to socials etc. 

It’s not just the writing, it’s the editing and on-page SEO that comes with it. 

They just couldn’t dedicate the time to creating content at the pace we were able to create content briefs like we’d suggested alongside their day to day tasks at the company. 

Challenge 3 – A Change in Director of Marketing

Half way through the campaign, the director of the company’s son was installed as the Director of Marketing and our new contact point for SEO. 

This was a challenge on two counts. 

  1. The Director of the company was also the co-director of our agency.
  2. The new director wasn’t as clued in on SEO as the former head of marketing was, and not as convinced by what we were doing despite the continued success (but the positive spin was that he could potentially move faster on any suggestions and cut through any company red tape quickly..in theory.)

The reason the first part was a challenge was that, whether consciously or subconsciously, expectations are far greater when working with someone invested in both the client and the agency, understandably. 

Expectations are that you prioritise them as a client and deviate from your processes as an agency for them. 

My priorities as the Head of SEO at the agency were to service every client to the best of our ability and deliver on what we’d agreed. 

I felt that favourable treatment for individual clients was just not a moral business code. 

This was a common point of dispute with the new contact at the company complaining that we’d not done what was agreed in monthly meetings. 

When we dug deeper, the real issue was that he had asked for the work “weeks ago”, but we’d delivered within the month as we always promised him we would on our calls. 

He wanted the work faster, despite our regular explanations as to how our process works at the agency with our client’s for maximum effectiveness. 

To mitigate this challenge, we proposed that if anything was urgent, to email the task over and we’d turn it around within 7 days and find a block of time in the team’s calendar to work on it. 

This was done whenever he took us up on the offer, with work often returned to him within 48-72 hours. 

The second part which made this change of staff a challenge can be considered an entire challenge on its own…

Challenge 4 – Client’s Problem With Backlinks

This is a common challenge with client’s who often worry about, don’t fully understand, or aren’t sure of how important links are. 

While we had been using a similar link-building strategy and campaign to successfully grow their rankings, traffic and authority before he arrived at the company, he immediately began questioning it. 

Based on what they were paying (low 4-figures monthly; and the agency had given them a discount on this fee due to COVID and the hit that the travel industry took), our strategy to maximise their budget was to provide 3-4 relevant and authority guest post links (including our team producing the content) mixed with around 10 link inserts and niche edits on relevant industry sites. 

13-14 links per month. He was pushing for around 20..

We explained our strategy and how it was working like gangbusters (as you’ll have seen from the results) and that their current budget wouldn’t stretch to 20 links. 

Anyway, to provide a few more links and reach a happy medium, we agreed to add some more niche edits.

Now, link inserts or niche edits aren’t for everybody. They have their pros and cons. 

We love them for a few reasons and that’s because: 

  • They are often cheaper when all costs are considered (they don’t require content to be produced which is a huge cost and time sink) 
  • They are on existing, indexed and aged pages which mean they’ll likely have gained authority already (rather than a fresh new page like a guest post link)
  • Less back and forth communication is required with webmasters for content revisions, negotiations etc. 

Among the cons of them is that webmasters who allow link inserts and niche edits tend to have other outbound links on the same page. 

Not always, but sometimes they do, which may dilute the strength of the link slightly. 

Either way, he disliked them. 

I’m not sure whether this was his issue with them but he was never explicit about what exactly the problem was. 

Now the other con, specific to niche edits, which we’re completely transparent with to our client’s before we start, and on our niche edits service page, is that with this type of link, they are often on an open network (hence the lower cost).

A website owner will put their site on this network and allow people who want to buy links on their site in a similar industry to do so.

This works perfectly for both parties 99.9% of the time (we use these links ourselves), but on the odd occasion, a site that isn’t supposed to be on there sneaks in. 

How this happens? Who knows. 

Someone will gain access to the site and verify it on the network, whether that’s someone working for the site currently, a former employee who didn’t have their account shut down, or someone who  gained access through other immoral means. 

It transpired that 1 out of the 200+ links we had delivered the travel agency ended up on one of these sites and they received a friendly email from the site owner asking how it ended up on their site. 

The situation was quickly resolved on our end, and the person we hired to manage the links on these networks was hugely apologetic and gave us 5 links to replace this link at his own cost. 

In reality, it wasn’t his fault as he wasn’t to know. He picks the sites available to him in good faith. But we were happy that we were working with someone who shared our own business code.

We don’t deal in dodgy links, nor do we want to. 

Our biggest fear was that he was somehow acquiring them elsewhere or through other means and for us, that would have meant immediately stopping work with him.

We would have offered the same compensation for the client off of our own dime too and we were relieved that he stood by his work as we would ours. 

Again, these links are NOT for everyone. 

We’re transparent about their pros and cons, but some clients on more of a budget like them to increase link velocity and diversity. 

All’s well that ends well, right? Not quite..

Before we could even resolve the issue, the director had sent an email to the co-agency owner saying he wanted to terminate SEO. 

It’s understandable, but the email he sent made it quite obvious this was the reason he was looking for to end SEO, despite its rousing success. 

Accusations of tasks that weren’t done, our lack of proactivity and more were thrown at us in the email. 

My co-owner and their marketing team knew otherwise as proof of all deliverables were always sent in a monthly report and I compiled a list of suggestions that I had proactively sent over the course of a year which were either ignored or not implemented on their end. 

I was going to forward it to the client to clear our name, but I felt it would just contribute to bad blood and I didn’t want that.

I appreciate every client, and there’s never really any need to end on bad terms, especially after such a successful campaign that was mutually beneficial. 

Even successful campaigns should teach you lessons and most agencies won’t admit it, but even successful campaigns can end with client’s leaving for perceived “greener pastures” or even with the client not agreeing that it was a success.

The stats show that it was for every metric including increased authority, referring domains (unique links), organic traffic, keyword rankings, enquiries and bookings. 

The client barely had an organic business at the start of the campaign, relying heavily on PPC. By the end, they had hundreds of enquiries and bookings via organic traffic. 

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