Travel is a very hotly fought category in the search space and all colors of SEO are at work! We have been by and large a very reluctant participant in this game. Here is an opinion piece on state of search, earlier this year. But at the same time, we will not restrain from articulating our observations and analysis of any suspected malicious “SEO” activities, when it possibly could affect us.
The past two days data shows some strange user behavior from a category of users coming from Google search engine (which not-coincidentally happens to be the target game of most SEOs).
First lets see the data:
1) Visits from Google for the past month:
So far so good. The visits from Google have increased in the past 2 days. When the direct and referral traffic have relatively decreased, due to the independence day weekend in India. But more traffic. Surprised but Fine! We take it.
2) Now lets look at ‘Average time on Site’ (for users coming from Google):
Whats happening here? Why has the average time on site gone down? And by 2 minutes or so!
Bad. But we can’t do anything about it. May be the new people coming on our site, are not liking it as much. As we can’t think of any reason, why existing users would behave in such a way (and that too en-masse).
3) Bounce rate (for users coming from Google):
Ditto with Bounce rate. High by some 14% or so! in the past two days. So new users are not really liking it. Seems kind of weird but Okay, what can we do.
4) All the above might have made sense … until we see the ‘% of new users’ graph (again for users coming from Google):
Shockingly & Mysteriously, this is down by roughly 14% in the past two days. While for the previous 29 days, it has remained fairly straight. So what’s happening here? What the hell is happening? And where are the new users? And if there are less new users, then why is the total number of visits high?
After some thinking, yesterday and today, we came up with a theory. That these graphs are easily explained, taking into account, the behavior of people doing “SEO” labor. Explain it in a minute.
The data shows that there are actually less new users in the past two days, from Google. And it would be very strange for existing users to suddenly start typing random travel queries on google and start bouncing our site.
But however strange that may be, the data clearly suggests that it is some of the existing users who are doing this. Now who, then, could be these existing users?
What, likely, is happening is that for a lot of travel keywords, e.g. ‘chennai-mumbai train’ those existing users, are just searching google, clicking on 90di.com and exiting it immediately (i.e. bouncing it). And all this in a bid to decrease the good parameters on 90di.com (and possible other competing sites as well).
And at the same time, those existing users, are also perhaps searching for the same query on Google and clicking on <the-website-paying-for-his/her-work>.com and then spending a decent amount of time on that site. All this activity, and likely paid work, in a bid to increase the ‘avg-time-spent’ parameters on the <the-website-paying-for-his/her-work>.com.
If this is happening. And unless, someone has a better explanation, this is clearly black hat in our opinion. And a very sophisticated one at that. This is evil!
And Google (Attention: Matt Cutts!) may do well do to get to the bottom of all such activity. Perhaps they are already aware of such activity and their search engine algorithm takes care of this. So it will help, if somebody, points to some article/post which explains how this is handled.
We have heard that Google looks at hundreds of signals, to rank a website/page. Hope this case is also easy to handle. We hope that it does the following:
Ignore all increase in bounce rate, and decrease in avg-time-on-site, when accompanied with a proportionate increase in overall visits and a decrease in percent new visits.
If its already handled, it would not hurt to get reassured,by a post from somebody at Google (official or unofficial). If somebody has an alternate explanation for this, we would like to listen.
It must also be said here that our direct and referral traffic has been very consistent during this time. Normal long weekend dip. With flat avg-time-on-site and bounce rates (Displaying two relevant ones for direct users below for reference):
a) Direct visits graph:
Expected early dip for the long weekend.
2) Average time on spent by users who come directly:
By and large remains flat. Rather the usual upward hump, in the weekends due to visitors in perhaps a relaxed weekend mood and not in the usual hurry.
So, would want some action to be taken to curb such activity. And also, if possible, would be great to get reassured, that Google takes care of this, if indeed this is a sophisticated black hat at work, as we have deduced that it may just be.
Why bother about all this? Why not just focus on your own work?
Because, if this is indeed happening, then it directly affects us negatively. If somebody is doing conventional SEO of link building, in whatever shade of grey, it is usually none of our business. But what allegedly happened in this case is not fair, its evil. We will do our bit to bring it to notice.
And on a totally unrelated note, but nevertheless important. Not to forget, Wishing our Indian users a very Happy Independence Day Weekend and safe traveling if they are!