Link spam, migration disasters and Penguin is nowhere to be seen – Organic growth in 2017

SEO is very much seen as a growth channel, businesses struggle to invest in it to stand still, they need to see better rankings and more organic traffic, however in most industries you need to invest simply to retain your market share, and as competition grows so does the investment required.

This post started off as a way of showing the typical SEO growth of businesses in different sectors as a way of benchmarking performance and managing expectations. However, it’s transformed into much more of a landscape analysis post looking at winners and losers in each sector.

The Data

I’ve taken a sample of highly ranking websites from 9 industries:

1. Finance
2. Travel
3. Legal
4. Home Retail
5. iGaming
6. Payday
7. Fashion
8. Consumer Electrical
9. Automotive

(Use the above links to navigate between industries)

I’ve selected 30 websites from each industry except for Finance and Travel which have 50 websites to compare due to the number of competitors.

Growth has been measured using Searchmetrics data for the last 10 months. I didn’t do 12 months simply due to the number of penguin recoveries affecting the results.

The initial idea was to consider average growth by industry, however as I went through the data it was clear each industry has a slightly different landscape and therefore strategies need to be customised. There were also some obvious tactics used to influence growth, some working better than others that I thought would be worthwhile exploring.

Some caveats before we go into it:

  1. Searchmetrics data includes Brand keywords, therefore growth in brand can influence the results.
  2. The data is based on Google organic rankings only, it doesn’t relate to actual business/revenue growth.
  3. Keyword search volumes can affect visibility.
  4. Increases/decreases in visibility are not necessarily reflected in visitor numbers.

The data is not an indication of good or bad SEO strategy, it is simply showing a trend in organic visibility and from it we can pick out a few key things businesses are either struggling with or doing well. Anyone who works in this industry realises there is always a lot more going on behind the scenes, different priorities and challenges within each business.


Relative gains for smaller businesses puts average growth at circa 50%, however nearly 70% of websites in this sample saw 20% or less growth, with 28% seeing declines in search visibility.

Table of organic visibility growth - Finance

It seems to me that Panda/Penguin recoveries for certain websites have resulted in some established players seeing quite significant drops in visibility. have made huge improvements to the content and usability of their website as well as consistently attracting high quality links.

Uswitch and Money Supermarket have both seen significant drops in visibility over the last 10 months, whereas competitors like and have both seen growth.

Uswitch have made several changes to the architecture of the website and the content, the biggest losses seem to be for broadband terms. The Money Supermarket decline is almost identical to the Uswitch trend and aligns with a Phantom update, this would suggest Google potentially has an issue with the quality of these websites.

The finance industry has always struggled with flexibility due to regulatory requirements, making it particularly challenging to make changes to the website and putting massive restrictions on outreach. It’s left the landscape a little stagnant with smaller niche players taking advantage.

The AA have YoY declines for the past 5 years, and have resorted to developing microsites to try and capitalise on new product/service areas.

It seems to be that instead of resolving issues with the main domain, companies in this industry are building out websites for every product and offering, it makes very little sense from an SEO point of view and isn’t scalable in the long term.


Average growth in this industry is lower at 14%, half of websites seeing less than 10% growth. Again, around 30% of websites saw a decline in visibility.

Table of organic visibility growth - Travel

It seems to be the big airline, hotel and holiday operators that have struggled to grow or maintain their market share. saw no growth and haven’t for a few years, whereas was one of the biggest winners with 79% growth in visibility driven by a huge investment in the platform, usability and content on the website. From an SEO stand point it would make sense to merge the websites together, but differences in customers and the journey might create challenges. saw most of their 100% growth in the last 6 months, this seems to be related to the steady growth in links since February:

Referring domains graph

Some of the more recent links going live look a little aggressive but are clearly helping them to rank. It will be interesting to see how Google’s ‘Real time’ penguin deals with these tactics.

At the other end of the scale, and something we see regularly, is the Virgin Atlantic migration:

Virgin Atlantic website migration graph

Website migrations can be seriously problematic, especially if you’re migrating to a brand-new domain name. Virgin Atlantic are struggling to regain their previous visibility on ‘flights to’ terms including core terms like ‘flights to orlando’.

We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of site migrations in the last two years, many of them going wrong one way or another, House of Fraser being the most recent. A detailed redirect plan, content auditing and a close working relationship between SEO and development is an absolute must.

The legal sector average growth comes in at 272%, wildly skewed by the growth of in the last 6 months, once again proving not so good for the new version of Penguin.

If we remove this result we’re left with an average of 37% growth, nearly half of businesses seeing a decline.

Table of organic visibility growth - Legal

Before the release of the real-time Penguin algorithm we saw higher visibility for news outlets, government websites and national solicitor’s firms, in many cases the results weren’t relevant for those looking for advice or to make a claim. Now Penguin has run we’ve seen the recovery of the claims management companies and what seems to be a little more focus on local firms.

Unfortunately, it seems results are suffering from quite a bit of link spam which pushes visibility down for legitimate businesses/firms.

Home Retail

This is an extremely competitive space with serious investment in both paid and organic search, at peak periods we see aggressive brand bidding which drives up CPCs and means many businesses have to burn budget on protecting their brand.

Average growth comes in at 34%, only 23% of businesses seeing declines in visibility.

Table of organic visibility growth - Home Retail

Victorian Plumbing have seen huge growth since March 17, there are no obvious reasons for this but my best guess is a huge spike in the number linking pages (not domains), which suggests new site wide links pointing to the website.

Victorian Plumbing growth graph

This combined with a serious amount of blogger outreach seems to be fuelling link growth and driving rankings. Some of the posts look suspicious, similar businesses being linked to in multiple blog posts.

At the opposite end of the scale we have Homebase who have been in decline for the last 2 years. Changes to site design, content and structure have probably contributed to the challenges, however I think poor mobile performance is one of the key reasons for the decline and their site speed is one of the worst in the industry.

House and Garden industry comparison


The iGaming industry hasn’t seen a lot of penguin recoveries, unlike other industries, however certain websites have started to see good growth in 2017 despite any serious investment in Content, UX or mobile.

Average growth comes in at 21% with 40% seeing a decline in search visibility.

Table of organic visibility growth - iGamingMost of the winners have seen growth come in 2017, there is no consistency in the dates and no correlation with algorithm updates.

SEO visibility graph for iGaming

There seems to be no obvious reason for the sudden shift and those that have lost visibility seem unrelated to those that have seen gains. There was a Phantom update in February and Fred in March, however I can’t help but wonder if a revived appetite for paid links and ‘innovative’ techniques are starting to help.

Once again, we see the consequences when migrations go wrong with Poker Stars.

Graph of Poker Stars SEO visibility


There has been good growth in this market across the board with a few new entrants doing suspiciously well. Only 20% of websites in this data set saw a decline in visibility.

Table of organic visibility growth - PaydayThe key thing to pick up on here is those websites that have come from nowhere to suddenly begin dominating keyword sets. It is very clear in this industry that link spam and paid links are still very much working and making it extremely difficult for legitimate competitors to grow and maintain search share.

Referring domains graph for

Just an example of the kind of links seemingly delivering results in this industry.

Penguin, what Penguin?


Businesses in this sector seem to have had lower growth when compared to other areas with average growth only 3.5%. Over half the websites in this set saw declines in their visibility and only 23% saw 10% growth or more.

Table of organic visibility growth - Fashion

From experience of working in this industry getting your content and technical SEO right pays far bigger dividends than any form of link building. Pathways to different products need to be logical with optimised internal linking, URL structure and titles.

The biggest loser on the list is They have been through a website restructure recently and removed categories with high visibility from the main navigation, this has resulted in a huge drop in visibility in the last month. SEO visibility decline

Obviously, I have no idea how much value the lost rankings were driving in terms of revenue, but the restructure has buried and even removed some high-ranking pages that have now diminished in importance and no longer rank.

The biggest winner, Matalan, have seen the benefits of getting the technical architecture right and as such have seen impressive growth in the last 6 months.

Consumer Electrical

Despite some impressive growth in the top half, the average is pulled down to 19% due to 40% of websites seeing no growth at all.

Table of organic visibility growth - Consumer Electrical

Again, we see migration challenges hurting visibility. This time it’s who seem to have recently migrated to https and had a few technical issues along the way. The homepage and various other pages seem to be blocking Google from crawling leaving bare snippets in SERPs and resulting in ranking drops across the board. SEO visibility decline


The automotive landscape has been active in terms of updating websites, fixing technical issues and ensuring websites are mobile friendly. This is evidenced in the data with 66% of websites seeing growth and nearly half seeing 10% or more.

Table of organic visibility growth - Automotive have used an interesting strategy to speed up natural search gains: SEO visibility graph

If you look at their link profile you can see that they are acquiring and redirecting a number of dealership domains: link profile

I wrote about this strategy recently and how it can drive serious results, particularly post penguin.

A company that I love but didn’t make the list is Carwow, they just didn’t appear in the top ten for some core keywords despite great content and some of the best imagery. They invest heavily in video (which is spot on in terms of the automotive journey), but it would be good to see some of these videos live and indexed on the actual website. Growth has been static over the last 12 months, but putting the videos on site and some solid link building projects would improve current visibility.


It’s simple really, the businesses seeing growth in natural search are those implementing technical changes successfully, the most common cause of decline is either ignoring technical or getting it wrong.

On the flip side, it’s clear from all the industries we’ve looked at that link spam is working again. As yet, I see no evidence that Penguin is ‘real-time’ and websites buying/manipulating links are doing well out of it. That’s not to say Google won’t penalise over time, but the idea of ‘real-time’ penguin is for them to not count from the moment they’re crawled.

My opinion is that Penguin doesn’t exist anymore, Google just turned it off and went back to the position they were in before it. As other signals grow in strength this may become less of an issue, but they are still a huge signal and working well.

To finish I just wanted to touch on the fact that all the data used above is trend data, the percentages do not relate to revenue or traffic to a given website. That said, don’t think that massive drops in visibility don’t hurt businesses.

Graph of Money Supermarket Search visibility and share price

You can clearly see above that the share price follows the drops in search visibility.

Not all companies are as reliant on traffic from Google, but poor search performance isn’t just about looking at visibility charts and rankings, it affects the revenue, profitability and even the value of businesses. Serious consideration needs to be given to your SEO strategy, particularly technical SEO as it has the potential to kill off a large portion of your traffic and sales.

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