August 04, 2011
How To

SEO: Content-heavy pages can bring search traffic ... and search penalties?

SUMMARY: Everyone knows that relevant and high-quality content can improve your site's natural search traffic. However, hosting too much of a good thing on a single page can cause unexpected problems.

See how one online retailer added loads of content to product pages, and made them the most-trafficked pages on its site -- even after they were buried in search results for high-volume terms. Also see why the team suspects Google penalized its pages, and how it used long-tail keywords to help survive the Google penalty.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

One of the biggest challenges at Pegasus Lighting is teaching online customers and visitors about products, says Chris Johnson, VP, Pegasus Lighting. The lighting retailer's website aims to teach through its abundant content.

"Content is essential to who we are. It's all about having a learning experience in lighting," Johnson says. "We have always written our own content ... it is our competitive advantage."

The Pegasus website gets about 75% of its traffic from natural search, partly due to its rich content. Several of the site's most-trafficked pages are product category pages, some of which feature more than 5,000 words of information (roughly 10 single-spaced pages) as well as links to dozens of products.

The journey has not been all sunshine and roses. Pegasus used to receive about 85% of its traffic from natural search. Johnson noticed several of Pegasus' pages drop dramatically in Google's search results last year after the team relaunched its website, and he suspects the site was hit with a Google penalty.

Below, we describe the key tactics Pegasus has used to turn its website into a powerful inbound marketing channel, and how Johnson's team manages its content-heavy product pages.

Tactic #1. Focus on education

As mentioned, Pegasus loads its pages with content to teach visitors about lighting products and answer questions. This focus starts at the head of the company with Tom Farin, Founder and President, who has a Ph.D. in education

"When you come to our website, clearly we want to sell you something. We're an e-commerce store. But we want you to learn something too, and that's what we have done for 10-plus years," Johnson says.

Although many of its webpages are content-heavy, the company's goal is not to "game" search engines, Johnson says, but to answer any questions a customer might have about lighting.

"One of the things I always tell people is that if you are looking for a xenon under-cabinet light for your kitchen and you come across our page, we will tell you everything we know about it."

Tactic #2. Invest in content

All of Pegasus' content is written internally, Johnson says, and it grows as new customer questions and product features pop up. The key types of content published on the site are:

- Product descriptions

Johnson's team avoids copying-and-pasting product descriptions from manufacturers. Instead, Pegasus writes its own description, adds more information, and uses its own format.

- Blog

Pegasus's blog publishes about three posts per week and informally discusses topics related to lighting. Blog posts are also linked-to from product pages and product category pages.

- FAQs

The team publishes answers to a list of frequently asked questions on many of its category pages. The number of FAQs ranges from zero, such as on the ceiling lighting page, into the dozens, such as on the under-cabinet lighting page. Questions are drafted by the team as well as pulled from questions received from customers.

- Tips

The team's "tips" information provides an overview of a topic and is published directly onto product pages and product category pages. This content can include descriptions of product uses or diagrams of product types.

- Comments and reviews

The site's product pages include published customer reviews as well as buttons for customers to write new reviews. Some pages include a "customer comments" section that features messages customers have sent the company, though a button to write a comment is not provided. The site also has a page of aggregated customer comments.

- Experimental

The team recently created a lighting forum on its site, but abandoned the project after it failed to gain traction among the audience. The team has also added video content to its website, such as on its category page for indirect lighting, which holds the third Google result for "indirect lighting" (this was not one of the webpage/keyword combinations affected by the perceived Google penalty).

Tactic #3. Informative product category pages

Pegasus publishes and repurposes content across its site, but few pages have as much content as the product category pages. Of the site's five pages that receive the most natural search traffic, four are product category pages and one is the homepage.

For example, Pegasus' under-cabinet lighting category drives the most revenue for the company, and its page is one of the most-visited on the site, Johnson says. The page illustrates Pegasus' maximum-content approach by including:

o Links to 31 products
o More than 40 FAQs and answers
o One page of information about the category
o Two pages of customer comments
o Five links to related articles

If this information was listed from end-to-end, it could create a dreadfully long webpage. Instead, the team uses two features to help compact the information into a reasonable space:

- Product browsing

Products are listed in sets of 16 within a browsing tool that allows visitors to click to view more products without leaving the page. The tool also allows visitors to adjust the display from grid to list format and sort products by attributes such as color and wattage.

- Expandable tabs

The page's FAQs, descriptive information and customer comments are compressed under accordion-like tabs. When clicked, the tabs reveal or hide the information.

"We wanted to be able to have the content on the page, but not have it completely overwhelm the page," Johnson says.

Tactic #4. Be wary of search engine penalties

Pegasus relaunched its website in November, giving the site a new:

o URL structure for its webpages
o Visual design

Soon after launch, the Google rankings for some of Pegasus' webpages dropped for certain phrases. For example, the site's under-cabinet lighting category page dropped from page one to several pages lower and now resides on page two.

Johnson consulted an SEO expert and asked colleagues to investigate the problem. He suspects the pages were penalized by Google, though no one at the search engine has confirmed this, Johnson says.

Johnson assumes Google penalized Pegasus' site for "keyword stuffing," which Google defines as "loading a webpage with keywords in an attempt to manipulate a site's ranking." Johnson admits that some of Pegasus' pages are heavy on content, but maintains that their goal is to provide all the related information the company has on a topic.

"If you look at it from a cold algorithm standpoint and count the number of times we use the keyword on this page, it's a lot more than anybody else. There are only so many times you can say a pronoun for 'under-cabinet lighting' in a sentence and still have the reader know what we're talking about."

- Not every webpage

The specter of a Google penalty strikes fear into the heart of SEOs across the country. But Johnson's team has not seen its organic traffic completely eroded. This is partly due to the perceived penalty only affecting some of the site's pages.

For example, the under-cabinet lighting category page has dropped to Google's second page for its title phrase, whereas Pegasus' closet lighting page is the top result for its title.

- Not every keyword

The affected pages have seen declines only for certain keywords. For example, the team's under-cabinet lighting category page holds the top result for the phrase "florescent under cabinet lighting," but has been dropped from page one to page two for the phrase "under cabinet lighting." This has encouraged Johnson to focus more of his work on long-tail keywords (more on this below).

- Working to resolve

The team removed some references to keywords on the affected pages. For example, its under-cabinet lights page now says "FAQs" whereas its backlighting page says "Backlighting FAQs."

The team also changed some of the keyword references to pronouns and synonyms such as "under cabinet fixtures" throughout the pages' FAQs, customer comments and other content. The site's under-cabinet lighting page is now on page two of Google's search results for the phrase.

"To be honest, we're moving around all the time. Some days we are number 13, some days we are number 19. I haven't seen us on page one for a long time."

Tactic #5. Fill the gaps for long-tail visitors

Some of Pegasus' pages may have dropped in search rankings for generic, high-volume phrases, but those phrases do not always drive revenue, Johnson says. Instead, he often focuses his work on long-tail terms that are more likely to drive traffic that is more qualified and more likely to convert.

"We've always done well with the long-tail, low-search volume, specific keywords. We always did well prior to the new website, and we continue to do well with the new website," Johnson says.

Some of Pegasus' pages have more than 250 phrases bringing natural search traffic. If Johnson sees a phrase drive a good amount of traffic but it does not convert well, then he will consider adding to the page's content.

For example, Johnson recently analyzed the page on his site receiving traffic for the search phrase "closet lighting."

"I tried to look at our closet lighting page objectively and from the customer's standpoint and thought none of it looked like closet lighting. It's not what I think people probably would have expected to see for closet lighting," he says.

"So what we did was we made a YouTube video and showed how you can use your LED light in a closet, and how you can use your micro-fluorescent fixtures in a closet."

Useful links related to this article

1. Indirect lighting page
2. Under-cabinet lighting page
3. Browsing tool
4. Open FAQ tab
5. Closed tabs

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