Website Case Study – Can You Recover a Website Penalty?

We are in the process of purchasing a website which as been severely effected by a Google algorithm change, or possibly a penalty by Google. We really have no way of knowing exactly what happened and why, but the massive drop in traffic coincides with a big update by Google.

From all of our investigations and due diligence prior to investing in this site, there appears to be traffic slumps every time there has been a Google update over the past 18 months. Previously, the site has been able to recover, although it had never had such a huge decline in traffic as it did in October 2019. Here’s a visual of what happened:

google organic search ranking
From just under 40,000 users per month to less than 10,000 users. This website owner has suffered a huge loss.

These are the site metrics from Google Analytics for the 2019 year. You can see looking at this month by month view that the traffic dipped around March 2019 and severely tanked towards the end of last year. This coincides with the Google BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) update.

In a nutshell, Google has had a major algorithm change with the BERT update and both the seller of the site and ourselves, believe it has hit the website hard. You can see this a little better when we look at the organic traffic v’s other traffic methods in this image below:

organic search google analytics
Say hello to Google Algorithm changes and what happened to a website that wasn’t being properly monitored or maintained through ongoing search engine optimisation.

To say I’m nervous about this purchase is an understatement. There really is no guarantee that we can recover this website back to its previous traffic or earnings.

The purchase price of the website was based on current earnings, so we have paid a fair price for the site, but it was still quite an investment on our part, and a lot of money to lose if Google has penalised the site and we can’t recover what we have paid.

Having said that, anyone who knows me, knows I love a challenge. Hence why we purchased this website in the first place. Plus, there are always so many questions surrounding search engine optimisation (always our number one choice for long term sustainability online) and the time it takes to rank a website online. I want to use this website as a test – can we recover the rankings and increase the revenue?

We speak with a lot of small business owners and one of the things we find the hardest to communicate to other business owners is making the investment into search engine optimisation (SEO) and the long term value or benefit of SEO. Many business owners know they need it, but do they really understand what they are paying for? I don’t think so.

In the beginning, particularly with brand new website builds, it takes time to rank a website. This is likely to be the case with recovering a website as well. We need to establish trust again with the search engines and the people that are searching our niche. This is going to take work.

Web Traffic Analysis – The Good & The Bad

As we’ve already discussed, the decline in website traffic is a bad thing. Sadly, that wasn’t the only disappointing metric when analysing this website. This is why having Google Analytics installed on your website is absolutely essential, as well as other Google webmaster tools such as Google Search Console. Without these correctly installed on your website, how do you know where you’re at?

Here are some of the other ‘red flags’ as we call them, that we saw when we analysed this website:

google diagnosis

New Users V’s Users

Less than 10 percent of users are returning to the website. This is terrible! Any savvy business owner knows that it costs far less to retain a customer than to get a new one.

90.2% of the traffic to this website in 2019 were new visitors. 9.8% returned. The average number of sessions per user was 1.14 – which means if they did come back once, they most likely didn’t come back again.

Bounce Rate

Bounce rate is always a key metric to measure. This talks about what a person does when they click through to your website. A high bounce rate indicates that people are clicking through to your website, not seeing what they are looking for and clicking back or close and are gone for good. The bounce rate on this website is 87%.

This is not the worst we’ve ever seen on a website, but it’s pretty high. These metrics are averaged over the 12 month period, but still, 87% of people leaving the site without navigating past the page they landed on isn’t a good place to be.

Average Session Duration

The average session duration is how long a person spent on a website before they clicked off. With this website, the average session in 2019 was 44 seconds. Again, not the worst metric we’ve ever seen, but definitely room for improvement. Our first target here will be to get the session duration up over 1 minute.

This might not seem very long, but consider that you have less than 5 seconds to make an impression on someone when they land on your website. In 2020, we’re more likely to see this sit around the 2-3 seconds. If you can get someone to stay on your website for longer than a minute, you’re doing ok.

Pages Per Session

On average over 2019, a person navigated through 1.21 pages on the website. This directly correlates with the high bounce rate, session duration and number of sessions per user. The website we have purchased has about 70 different pages – yet on average people are only viewing 1.2 of these? We have to ask ourselves why?

As web designers and internet marketers, we can see some obvious flaws, particularly when it comes to site design and website navigation. Part of the process of good web design is planning the site structure. But more about that later when we get to renovating the site.

Let’s take a look at some statistics for 2020. As we are still in the transfer phase of this website purchase, we are yet to fully take ownership of this site. Which means, we are yet to get to work on fixing these problems. The longer the problems go on, the worse the rankings are getting:

seo web design
The importance of keeping an eye on traffic. What would 100 less visitors per month do to your revenue?
Or in reverse, what would 100 more visitors to your website do for increasing revenue?

I have one word… OUCH.

As we are only looking at the first 2 months of 2020 here, we are displaying the statistics on a daily basis rather than monthly. It might look fairly consistent, but in actual fact, there are 100 less users per day at the end of February 2020 than there were at the beginning of January. Can you imagine what 100 less people visiting this website per day is doing to the revenue?

Not to mention the metrics we talked about above – the bounce rate is now up to 89.23% – almost 90 percent of people landing on the website are saying ‘no thanks’ and clicking off.

Returning users has decreased further (which means people just aren’t coming back to the site) and the session duration has decreased down to 39 seconds.

At 1.17 pages per session also, means people aren’t sticking around and clicking through the different articles and information pages that they should be. I think my anxiety might have just increased a little!

Why Did We Make This Website Investment?

We don’t blame you if you’ve got to this point and are thinking… ‘is there anything good about this website?’ I may just be thinking the same thing myself right now!

If you scroll back up towards the top of this page, you’ll notice a long blue bar with the words ‘organic search’ next to it. Here’s what it looks like for 2020:

google website ranking
Knowing how a user found your website is very beneficial

Organic Traffic

In 2019, over 90% of the website traffic was from organic search results. This means, that there is some good content on the website that was at some point, ranking well in the search engines. Content forms part of ongoing search engine optimisation, and we can’t stress enough the importance of keeping a website updated with fresh relevant content for your industry.

You’ll notice the organic traffic has dropped a little in 2020, down to 82%, with an increase in direct traffic. As the website has been for sale, we would expect an increase in direct traffic, as potential buyers checked it out.

That’s why I haven’t told you the exact URL or name of the website – anyone who reads this article and heads over to the website to check it out is going to skew this data. We often see this with new website builds, as owners are keen to check out the progress or show off their website to people.

I want to take a moment to refer back to my paragraph above about the website being for sale. A website is an asset to your business. If you are a small business owner and think you don’t need a website, give me a call and I’ll tell you how many thousands of dollars I just paid for this investment.

A functioning website (not a facebook page, or a blog site on third party hosting), but a purpose built website that generates you leads and sales on your own domain will inevitably value your business higher if you ever decided to sell. Enough said.

User Demographics

track website visitors
Knowing where your website visitors come from is important

The top 4 countries that the users come from are: United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Australia. This is exactly where we want the traffic coming from for this niche.

Also, in the wealthier western countries, people have more disposable income to spend on the products we may choose to promote.

If you had a small business website in Australia, that only serviced Australia (or your local region), we would aim for the majority of traffic to come from your region.

In this case, we are targeting the USA and seeing over 50% of organic traffic comes from the USA we were happy. Finally, a metric we like to see!

Renovation Opportunities

The website has some good content. But people can’t find this as the website has a terrible site structure. This would be from an inexperienced website builder not planning the site out correctly in the beginning. One of the sayings in our office is ‘begin with the end in mind’. That’s exactly what we’ll do.

Some of the images that the owner has chosen to place around the site aren’t the best either. The owner has also used GIPHY’s (you know those slightly moving images with some quirky text over the top?) that are just inappropriate for a serious subject. These will be the first to go.


The website is currently monetised with advertising splashed all over the pages, which in all honesty, I dislike so much I almost want to use the ‘H’ word here. You’re trying to read an article and the web page is jumping around all over the place with advertisements loading. This does NOT promote good user experience.

What is a ranking factor for the search engines? User experience! How does Google determine this? Time on page! Can you see the pieces of the puzzle coming together here?

Unfortunately for us, this is the primary source of income for the website at present, so it will have to stay for now. But not forever, these advertisements will be replaced with more targeted information and offers specific to the users needs. We’ll keep you updated as we do this, how it affects the traffic to the website and whether this impacts the revenue. Stay tuned!

Steps to Recover the Website Rankings

We should settle on this website around mid March and plan to get to work straight away on the renovation opportunities we have identified. We’ll be documenting this journey, to see what works and what doesn’t. If you’d like to follow along, please enter your email address below and we’ll keep you updated. You can also like us on Facebook.

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