I messed up pretty badly last week.
I made a change to our site, and within 48 hours our traffic was down by around 20%.
Over the last few years we've been slowly growing our traffic, but we can't afford to lose that many visitors!
The image below comes from Google Analytics. It shows the week before April 17th (orange) and the week after it (blue).
During the second week we were down 18.47% in visits and 19.05% in unique visits. Normally, we get over 60,000 visitors per week, so we lost over 11,000 visitors.
What happened to all the visitors? In short, they stopped coming from search engines.
Google sent us over 18% less traffic which translated to over 8,000 fewer visitors.
Bing traffic plummeted by 5% which cost us ... 6 visitors.
OK, I won't make too much fun of either Bing or Yahoo, but these stats do show that all our search engine traffic was down. They also show how absurdly dominant Google is. Only around 0.5% of our search engine traffic doesn't come from Google.
All of our other analytics data was relatively unchanged. What happened was that our search engine traffic suddenly plummeted.
So what was the big mistake?
At the beginning of this year, we realized that OSTraining was doing a good job in a lot of areas. Our customers were happy, with about 85% reporting that their overall experience was "great".
What we didn't have was an easily identifiable brand name. We've found that people often misspelled or forgot the name. We resolved to turn "OSTraining" into more of a brand name.
I decided to change around the order of our page titles:
- How it was before: Page Title - OSTraining
- How it was after: OSTraining - Page Title
This Company Name - Page Title issue has been long-debated amongst people doing SEO.
Normally the big, famous brands will put their company name first, because they think it will encourage more people to click. For example, here's Amazon:
However, that decision is far from universal. eBay.com does the opposite and prefers Page Title - Company Name.
You even see companies use both techniques. Here's a Company Name - Page Title example from Apple:
And here's an Page Title - Company Name example from Apple:
What does Google think?
In recent years Google has famously started to prefer branded companies. Their rationale is that big companies with a famous brand name are less likely to host spammy content. That's often not correct, but Google has pushed brands heavily as a way to counteract spam: http://www.seobook.com/brands.
However, Google is also unsure as to how prominently to feature company names in search results. This is particularly true for smaller companies. Here's an example of Google experimenting and actively moving the Page Title to the front of the search result: http://www.gordoncampbell.co.uk/colons-page-titles.
So, given the fact that both large companies and Google have different approaches to this issue, means that there's no "right" answer.
The change on our site
Here's how our pages have looked for the last few years. The unique part of the page title was at the beginning of the Page Title:
And here's how our pages looked after I made the change. You can see that "OSTraining - Support -" takes up the first page of the Page Title:
That simple change cost us 20% of our traffic.
Why such a big change?
My guess is that people using Google were searching for an answer for their particular problems:
- They would scan the search results very quickly.
- They didn't care what site the answer was on.
- They probably only read the first 3 or 4 words of the search result and so ignored OSTraining links.
A very large % of our site's pages consist of answers like the ones above and so it was easy for a small mistake to cause 1 in every 5 people to stop clicking on our search results.
We were lucky. We're lucky in that OSTraining has been around for a few years. Google indexes our pages quickly. It took only about 2 days for our problem to emerge, although I was slow to realize the cause of that problem. It took me about 7 days to change the order of the page titles back again. Within 2 days our traffic was back to normal. No long-term harm was done.
People want answers, not brands. People using Google, particularly for information searches, don't much care about brand names. Maybe in 5 years when OSTraining has become a household name, we'll be able to place our brand name more prominently in the search results :) For now, I've gone back to the putting the information first.