An incredible headline right? I saw it unfold & did a quick audit to see why.
Most business owners don’t really understand how their website works and many think they do. This creates some fundamental problems as they either make changes themselves (or allow others to) without understanding the consequences. In this example a ‘free’ developer was used to update a WordPress Theme & move web host for a large news site – the result was catastrophic but it also highlighted some underlying issues.
IS CHANGING A WORDPRESS THEME SIMPLE?
WORDPRESS THEMES CREATE MOST OF A SITE STRUCTURE
“Hi Paul, I’ve changed web host & it has removed all my Google Ads, can you help fix it”
Wrong – Attributing a loss of Google AdSense Revenue to moving website hosting immediately demonstrated how little the owner of this news website knew about how to manage their site. After a little more probing I discovered the owner had also changed WordPress Theme which is never a simple task to achieve at the best of times.
What the owner of this news website didn’t realise was the old WordPress Theme had a lot of customisations set up that included multiple Google AdSense placement in various sections of the main pages & the news posts throughout the site.
Like the example pictured, a WordPress Theme also holds details like colours, fonts, styling, menu or widget options, responsive device settings & so many more things depending on how it has been set up. So switching from one to the other without any prior testing can be fraught with danger.
WHAT FACTORS LED TO THE LOSS OF ADSENSE REVENUE?
IT ISN’T JUST ONE THING THAT CAN CAUSE WEBSITE PROBLEMS
The devil is always in the detail and this news website owner did not have the skills or knowledge to interpret the multiple sources of information available to help uncover what was happening. This is the danger of looking at high level summary charts that look good on the surface. As a marketing consultant I have the skills needed to not only find the right reports, but interpret the information to create practical steps to resolve problems or help a website grow.
In this example you can see there was a solid growth trend in Google AdSense revenue from early 2020 which hit its peak around October, but then started to decline in November, fell away completely in December & even year on year it didn’t recover in January.
The simple answer is because the WordPress Theme was changed on the site & the ads weren’t appearing. That is what the news website owner had hoped, but it turns out there is a long term underlying issue that is being hidden by the site’s reliance on a single news post.
There are different ways to implement Google AdSense on a WordPress website, the simplest is adding the code Google provides & letting the AdSense platform determine what is needed. The alternative is to set up your WordPress Theme and post layouts so that you have more control over what and where ads are being placed to maximise revenue opportunities.
In this example the site was updated without the developer or even the site owner testing the new layout to ensure all the critical elements were in place to maintain existing performance. The results speak for themselves but proper due diligence should have been done prior to going to a production site.
Although, even when the ads were re-installed the revenues didn’t recover & January 2021 was down year on year – so why?
The alarm bells probably should have been ringing earlier in the year because the site was growing overall & then started to flatten off. Keep in mind this is during a period where people around the world were stuck at home due to pandemic lockdown & many more new stories were being added to the site. Further to that, Nielsen’s Digital Playbook reported a 43% increase in Australian news consumption in 2020.
So you’d expect traffic to continue increasing as the year went on, although November started to fall away & by the end of January it hadn’t recovered at all. One of the factors was the Developer and website owner didn’t even realise the Google Analytics Tracking Code had been removed from the site when the theme was changed. Even allowing for that and making some assumptions on traffic volumes the site has declined significantly, thus ad revenue has as well.
When questioned about this, the website owner put the drop in traffic down to the code not being installed and a Google update in December. Although this is where things get interesting & the expertise of a marketing consultant comes into play. If you exclude the single dominant page that generates most pageviews and traffic you can see in the Google Search Console data that organic search impressions have been steadily declining for the previous 12 months.
So even though the site has over 2,500 individual stories, with many new ones added in 2020, their ability to continually increase search volumes has not materialised at all. So the site is not winning the battle of search for many months.
Typically when search impressions aren’t growing then it makes it harder to improve click volumes. Keep in mind the site earns revenue from Google Ads on the site so it needs visitors from organic search. So both impressions and clicks are in decline when you exclude the single page the site relies on for its volumes.
So the overall numbers hide an underlying long term issue and as I cover in another article, this is where Media Kits don’t reveal the truth about many websites.
By this stage I had worked out the new site theme wasn’t set up properly, traffic was declining and search impressions were declining. So what else could be happening on the site to create such a drastic drop in revenues?
Google Analytics can give you all types of information about your website performance and as you can see in the chart above, when you compare some of the basic user behaviour metrics you can see they declined between the new site theme & the old one. Visitors had declined overall (a different problem) but the time being spent on the site had dropped even further from the previous sub 40 second average.
This indicates various things depending on how widespread those statistics are, but generally speaking, it shows that navigation, layout & even quality of the news stories aren’t keeping people on the site for very long. Keep in mind that the site earns money from Ad Revenue, so the less pages viewed & less time spent, the less chance for people clicking on ads.
Looking at the overall number doesn’t give you enough information to make educated decisions. The other metric to look at is what users on Desktop/Laptop are doing vs Mobile. Immediately I saw a huge issue with an 80% drop in Mobile users & even worse, the ones that had visited spent even less time on the new site vs the old one.
Meanwhile, the Desktop/Laptop visitor metrics improved slightly. So without doing deeper investigation I could easily determine the new theme was already creating issues for people visiting via smartphones. That is why it is so important to test a site before it goes live.
To confirm my suspicions I conducted a Google PageSpeed Insights Test. This is a free tool that Google provides where you can get a scan of your site, with a score and a list of items that can help improve performance. This doesn’t mean if you score 100 / 100 you will outrank your competition online, but website performance is treated as a ranking factor by Google so it does contribute. Some developers will set up implementations to help mask or fool the reports but ultimately the algorithms change so frequently that this isn’t a good idea long term.
The low score highlighted the poor performance on mobile phones that combined with the Google Analytics Data there is pretty solid proof that the new theme implementation has been poorly done.
By this stage I had become even more curious as to why such a big shift had occured. One of the things I had helped this site owner implement early in 2020 was to set up a Google News Publisher Account and to begin submitting a XML News Sitemap. That’s right, this popular news site wasn’t being seen by Google News which serves millions of people daily.
More than 16,000 clicks had been generated with an average position in the top 10 for articles & nearly 2% click rate – so really solid numbers. Although with the WordPress Theme change the sitemap functionality was removed & you can see the decline in volumes from October. So this was another lost opportunity for the site owner.
I then wondered if there had been a change in what countries the site was being visited from and not even I could anticipate what I discovered. Nearly 40% of all traffic came from the United States of America even though it is an Australian news website. Worst still they only really look at a single page and stay on the site for less than 40 seconds, so on the surface it isn’t a super engaged audience especially with a bounce rate above 90%.
These metrics provide further evidence to the site owner of the long term underlying issues & you would certainly question any media proposal that promises Australian coverage.
2,500+ pages of content but 3 get 40% of visitor traffic
I then wondered, if the audience was mainly American for an Australian news website, what it is they are reading? To my utter surprise I discovered the answer was simple – it wasn’t very much at all. What I mean by that is out of 2,500 pages of content on the site, just a single page gets nearly 33% of all the traffic. In fact the top 3 pages deliver over 40% of all the site’s traffic.
How is that possible? Lots of factors that revolve around poor search engine optimisation including;
- Poor page structures with lack of heading hierarchy.
- Badly worded news stories that are not keyword search related.
- Images that are not optimised for search.
- Lack of Schema Markup on relevant pages.
- No meta data optimisation to improve click through rates.
- Poor internal linking practices.
Many of these items were uncovered in a marketing audit I completed early 2020 but not implemented correctly. The results speak for themselves & the owner has continued to use either free, cheap or student labour with the impression they understand what they are doing.
Basically the site is a US centric website that is satisfying people looking for a single topic that is on one news story on the site. The dominance of this one page hides the underlying issues in website performance, search impressions and search rankings. You actually have to remove it from any reporting to get a ‘real’ view on the website’s performance levels.
The site owner has compounded the problem & the stats show people aren’t engaging with the new theme, the performance of the site is poor as reported by Google & none of the new content stories are delivering increased traffic volumes. This of course is during a time when news consumption has increased by over 40% in Australia.
Apply it to the ad revenues & they are basically being derived from a single page on the site (a problem in itself) and they are declining because the rest of the site has a multitude of issues that haven’t been addressed by the site owner. That is the danger of looking at high level vanity metrics & not really understanding what it all means.
Just think, the owner of this site runs two others & is very influential within their circle which include many other news publishers. What’s worse is brands are spending marketing budgets to be featured on the site that has less than a few thousand Australian visitors.