SEO Case Study: From Google Penalty To 5x Search Traffic

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One of the worst feelings in SEO is seeing your website’s organic search rankings and traffic plummet after a core algorithm update from Google.

Google Analytics Search Traffic Recovery

This is what you need to know:

  • Before the penalty traffic was at 37,724 per month
  • When we started work traffic had dropped to 1,298 per month
  • Traffic is now at 52,396 per month

That is a 40% improvement over the pre-penalty traffic levels!

So I’m going to show you how my team at Search Logistics pulled it off

Google Search Console

Please make sure you’re paying attention, because I’m going to break down the recovery strategy we designed for this site step by step.

A Closer Look At The Case Study Site

Vector image - SEO case studyThis website operates in one of the most saturated and competitive markets around:

Coupon codes.

The site provides discount codes targeting a range of countries within Europe (France, Germany, Netherlands) with the UK as the primary target.

The site also operates as a content publisher by posting travel tips on their blog on a regular basis.

When joining Search Logistics in February 2021, the client’s primary goal was to recover the site’s organic search traffic as it had been significantly impacted by the core algorithm update in May 2020.

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The Biggest Challenges We Had to Overcome

When a site gets hit by a core algorithm update, you really have to strip things back to basics and work from the ground up.

This means you have to tackle all three areas of SEO:

  1. Technical SEO
  2. Content
  3. Link building

As we completed our initial SEO audit, the biggest and most pressing challenges that we had to overcome were:

  • Cleaning up the index to make sure that only the right pages were being crawled and indexed by Google.
  • Optimising content on the coupon pages to improve conversion rates.
  • Improving keyword visibility with supplementary topically related content hubs.
  • Increasing link velocity with a link building strategy that targets the newly optimised coupon pages and newly created travel content.

With issues spanning all aspects of SEO, the combined efforts of our technical, content and outreach teams helped get the site back on track.

Here’s what we did…

Creating A Plan Of Attack

Although the site had problems across all 3 areas of SEO, the 4 step plan of attack was relatively straightforward.

The first 3 steps all focus on fixing issues with technical SEO and content with the last step focused purely on link building.

Step #1 – Fixing Index Bloat

If your website has thousands of pages, it’s likely that you’ll find pages that offer no value to the user still being crawled and indexed by Google.

These kinds of pages create an issue called “index bloat” i.e. when too many poor-quality pages are being indexed by Google.

This wastes crawl budget as Google ends up wasting time trying to crawl pages that aren’t valuable or relevant for the user.

In our client’s case, there were hundreds of internal search result pages indexed.

So here’s a list of the most common types of pages that cause index bloat (and how to find them easily).

HTTP pages

To find HTTP pages indexed on your site, use the following site searches on Google: inurl:http:// -inurl:https://

how to find http & https pages indexed on your site


To find paginated pages indexed on your site, use the following site searches on Google: inurl:/page/
site:yourdomain.come inurl_p=

how to find paginated page index on your site

/tag/ Pages

To find tag based pages indexed on your site, use the following site search on Google: inurl:/tag/

how to find /tag/ pages indexed on your site

/author/ pages

To find author pages indexed on your site, use the following site search on Google: inurl:/author/

how to find author pages index on your site

www. and non-www. pages

To find www. (and non www.) pages indexed on your site, use the following site searches on Google: inurl:www. -inurl:www.

how to find www. & non www. pages indexed on your site

Empty category pages

To find empty category pages (on eCommerce sites) indexed on your site, use the following site search on Google: “0 products found”

how to find empty category pages indexed on your site

Replace “0 products found” with whatever text you display on your website for empty categories.

Below are some other types of pages that you may find indexed:

  • Trailing slash – For example, if your URLs all end with a trailing slash “/” but you have URLs without a trailing slash indexed.
  • Duplicate pages – For example, if you have multiple URLs all serving the same content i.e.,, etc.
  • Test pages – If you have any test pages from your dev site indexed. This often shows up in the Google Search Console links report
  • Other miscellaneous pages – i.e. checkout pages, thank you pages etc.

Once you have identified a list of page(s) to remove from Google’s index, you need to remove them.

There are a few ways to do that:

  1. Delete the Page – Remove the content and serve a 404 (not found) or 410 (gone) status on the URL. In most cases the page will be removed from the index after it’s been recrawled by Google.
  2. Noindex tag – Add the following code to your page to prevent Google from indexing the URL:

    noindex tag example

    Important Note: For these tags to be seen by Google, make sure that you haven’t blocked them on your robots.txt file!

  3. URL Removal Tool – Google allows you to temporarily block results from your website using the Removals Tool. Note that this usually lasts for about six months, so you still need to implement one of the other above fixes in order to make sure that your pages are permanently deindexed.

Step #2 – Optimising Content to Improve Conversions

Google’s goal is to provide users with the most relevant results to their search queries. This means that your website content needs to match what the user’s looking for.

After looking at competitors, we noticed that the other top-ranking websites for the keywords we wanted to target were offering more information on the coupon codes than our client.

But closing the content gap between your competitors and your site alone doesn’t always mean that you’re providing the best user experience.

You also need to present the information in the right way – this is the difference between organic search visitors and customers.

In other words, if your users aren’t able to find the information that they expect to see, it’s likely that they’ll leave your site to visit your competitors instead.

Here are some examples of what this meant for our client when looking at competitors content:

Popularity of Coupon Code

One competitor included the number of times that the coupon code has been used. Proving a record like this can help build trust as it shows the likelihood of the code working for other users.

popularity of coupon code

Coupon Code Expiry

Another competitor included the date that the discount code expires. Noticeably, this text is in a bright red colour so that it stands out and provides a sense of urgency for the user to redeem the code sooner.

coupon code expiry

Last Used

The competitor also included the time when the code was last used. This serves as another trust factor as users are more inclined to use codes that have been used often and more recently.

coupon code last used

By providing useful information like this, you’re improving the user’s experience of your website whilst also increasing the chances that they will convert.

This shows that the way in which the information is provided is as important as the information itself.

Pay close attention to how certain information is displayed to users by the top pages for the keywords you want to target. Take a look at my SEO copywriting and website content guides to learn more.

Step #3 – Improve Keyword Visibility With Content Hubs

In addition to coupon codes, the site also publishes travel tips.

Why? …Because it’s much easier to regularly write articles about travel than it is to write about coupons while still creating lots of opportunity for topical relevancy.

We followed suit by creating supplementary travel articles that targeted relevant long-tail keywords. But, instead of writing stand-alone blog posts, we opted for a more comprehensive content strategy: content hubs.

Content hubs are made up of one pillar page supported by a cluster of shorter articles that are topically related to each other.

SEO case study - Content Hubs Example

Content Hub Benefits

  • Rankability – Organizing your content into a power hub improves your chances of ranking for a range of topically related keywords.
  • Brand Awareness – Showcase your expertise within your niche and set yourself apart from the competition.
  • Authority – People that need to reference a topic will use it as a source – which means that it will continue to build authority for you.
  • Engagement – Power hubs attract visitors that are interested in a specific topic. As such, they have the potential to generate a dedicated readership.
  • Internal Linking – Content clusters within the main Power Hub should link to each other and to the main article as well. As a result, users are encouraged to stay longer on your website and browse more.
  • Crawlability – Internal linking between the pillar page and cluster pages makes it easier for Google to crawl and index the pages.
How To Build A Content Hub
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to find potential topics for your content hubs using Ahrefs Keywords Explorer tool.

Step #1

Search for a broad keyword relevant to your website’s niche.

For example, if you had a site that sells organic fruit juices, you might search for “apples”.

Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer tool.

Step #2

Go to the Keyword ideas section where you’ll see several suggestions for keywords that you can target that are relevant to the search query you entered.

These are categorized as follows:

  • Terms Match – Keywords including your original search term
  • Questions – Keywords phrased as questions
  • Also rank for – Terms that the top 10 pages who are ranking for your original phrase, are also ranking for
  • Also talk about – Other relevant topics/keywords that the top 10 pages for the original query mention on a regular basis.

Ahrefs Also Talk About

Step #3

Click on the Terms Match report to find keyword opportunities for your pillar page – this is the slightly longer page in your content hub that will link out to the cluster pages.

Aherfs Terms Match Report

A good candidate in our example is “types of apples”.

Why? …Because the pillar page would be focused on listing and briefly describing various types of apples which allows us to create cluster pages that focus on specific types of apples.

Step #4

Take a closer look to find the keywords that you will target on your cluster pages.

In our example, these will be related to the different types of apples i.e. “granny smith apples”, “gala apples”, “pink lady apples” and so on.

Apples Example

Top tip: Click on each of these keywords and repeat steps 2 and 3 to find yet more related keywords for your pillar page and cluster pages.

Step #5

Once you’ve decided which keywords each page in your hub will target, you need to think about what content to include. The best way to do this is to:

  • Search your target keywords in Google
  • Analyze what the top ranking pages have included

Top tip: Look at the headings of the competing pages to help you structure your own content. This will allow you to identify the most important information that you need to include.

Step #6

Now you need to plan the internal linking strategy. You must add internal links (a hyperlink from one page to another page on your own website) from:

  • The pillar page of your content hub → To the cluster pages
  • The pillar page of your content hun → To other relevant landing pages on your website
  • Each of the cluster pages → To the pillar page
  • Each of the cluster pages → To other cluster pages in your content hub
  • Each of the cluster pages → To other relevant landing pages on your website
  • Other relevant landing pages → To the pillar page
  • Other relevant landing pages → To the cluster pages

Once you have published your content hub and taken care of all of the internal linking there is nothing more to do.

You just have to sit back and wait while the content hub will:

  • Help Google crawl and index these pages
  • Help Google understand the relationship between these pages i.e. that they are topically related to each other
  • Help users navigate your website
  • Help guide users to your core landing pages i.e. the “money” pages that are most important for you

With index bloat, content quality and a new content hub published we moved onto the last part of our strategy – link building.

Step #4 – A Competitor Based Link Building Strategy

The last component of this SEO strategy was to give the site a push of authority with a link building strategy to maximize the impact of the technical and content factors that were addressed earlier.

With this in mind, we created a link acquisition plan based on the client’s competitors who had considerably more backlinks (of better quality) than our client.

If you want to do the same for your site, you just need…

How To Setup Our Link Acquistion Template

First you need a list of your competitors websites.

A quick way to find them if you’re not sure, is to do a Google search for a couple of the most important keyword(s) that you’re targeting and make a note of the 10 most common competitors.

Google Search Example

Top tip: remember to only include the websites that are closest to your own domain. For example, if you’re running an eCommerce website and you see an informational article from Wikipedia as a top result, then you should not include this in your list.

Once you have a list of your competing domains, enter their domains under Column A in the template.

Now, we want to fill the rest of the template with information about their backlink profiles (as well as your own) using Ahrefs’ Batch Analysis tool.

Head to the Top Navigation Bar > More > Batch Analysis and paste in your competitors domains along with your own.

Quick Batch Analysis

Set Target Mode to *.domain/* and click Analyse.

Then click on Export > Start Export to export the data.


Open the exported spreadsheet and remove columns that aren’t on the template – here are the columns you’ll need (left = export spreadsheet, right = template):

  • Target = Competitor Domain
  • Domain Rating
  • Domains = Total Referring Domains
  • Ref domains Dofollow = # of Dofollow Referring Domains
  • Total Backlinks
  • Backlinks Nofollow = # of Nofollow Backlinks
  • Total Keywords
  • Total Traffic

This is what your exported sheet should look like after removing the unnecessary columns.

Remove unnecessary columns

Paste this information into the corresponding cells in your Link Acquisition Estimate Template. The template will automatically calculate the average and medians of each of the metrics from your competing domains.

Link Acquisition Estimate Template

You can now see how your domain’s backlink profile compares to that of your direct competitors. From our example, you can see that has a lot of catching up to do in order to match the authority of the other top-ranking sites for its target keyword.

This quick estimate allows you to devise a strategy in regards to:

  • How many backlinks/referring domains you’ll need to rank comfortably against your competitors (yellow row).
  • How many you’ll need to catch up with them (orange row).

With your competing domains at hand, you can now also quickly find link prospects using Ahrefs’ Link Intersect tool – this tells you which domains your competitors have links from, but you don’t.

Enter your domain into Ahrefs Site Explorer and click Link intersect.

Ahrefs Link Intersect

Enter your competitors’ domains into the tool and hit Show link opportunities.

Ahrefs Site Explorer Link  Link Intersect

(Optional) Filter the results so that you only see links that at least three of your competitors have.

This can help you spot the most common (and by extension relevant) websites between your competitors’ link profiles.

In other words, if all of your competitors have a backlink from a specific website, it’s probably worth your website having that link too.

Once you have setup the Link Acquisition Estimate Template, you should use my competitor backlink analysis tutorial to start replicating those links:

This competitor based approach not only shows you how many links you’ll need for your backlink strategy but also allows you to steal their links too!

The results speak for themselves – here’s how the sites link velocity improved since the start of the campaign:

Ahrefs Referring Domains

If you’re struggling with link building then you can lean on one of these link building services to help you out but they won’t replicate competitor links for you.

The Results Are In

As you can see, the May 2020 core algorithm update was devastating for our client taking their search traffic from 37,224 per month to just 1,298 per month.

My team at Search Logistics started work on the site in February 2021 and are now showing a 40% improvement over the pre-penalty traffic levels:

Google Analytics Search Traffic Recovery

As you can imagine the client is very happy with the result especially after seeing such a heavy drop in search traffic which has destroyed many other businesses.

Google Search Console

But now the site is running on a solid technical foundation with an ongoing link building strategy it will continue to grow this year.

Click Here If You Need Help With Your Search Traffic

Wrapping It Up

That brings us to the end of the case study!

Our three-pronged SEO strategy (Technical, content and links) helped realign the site with its competitors and recover from the May 2020 core algorithm update.

I showed you how to:

  • Identify and fix index bloating
  • Optimise the content on your website to improve conversions
  • Improve keyword visibility with content hubs
  • Increase link velocity with a competitor based link building strategy

Do You Need Help With Your Search Traffic? Just submit an enquiry now and we will help you out!

Otherwise you might enjoy some of our other SEO case studies

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What Are Your Thoughts?

77 Responses

  1. I’m impressed by the detailed recovery strategy you implemented to bounce back from the core algorithm update. It’s remarkable to see traffic not only recover but exceed pre-penalty levels by 40%. The step-by-step breakdown of tackling technical SEO, content optimization, and link building provides a clear roadmap for others facing similar challenges. Your success with a site in such a competitive niche as coupon codes speaks volumes about the effectiveness of your methods. Great job, Search Logistics team!

  2. Hey Matthew, “I’ve always been a fan of your work, but this article is truly your best yet. It’s clear that you put a lot of thought and effort into it, and it shows. I learned a lot, and I’m sure others will too.

  3. This is the method I have to use for my company as well. Before I took over my company, there was another SEO guy who did so many things randomly. As a result, traffic has decreased significantly. This article sounded like what I was looking for. Now I have to put this into practice. This is a great piece of information, thanks for sharing.

  4. Great Content! Loved your case study and also going to apply it in my working life. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks Matthew, you shared a great knowledge with us. Loved your case study and also learned many small things to remember while working. Keep sharing!

  6. Thanks for sharing your valuable knowledge with us. It is really a great article and very informative. Keep sharing such articles and reports.

  7. Thanks sir,This was really great information. This is the one of the most helpful tutorials. I really appreciate your work, please keep it up and help others in such a unique way.Thanks

  8. This is really what I needed. I noticed my traffic and keywords started dropping drastically and I was alarmed then I tried everything I could. Since I did not find a solution I abandoned it. I will try the content hubs to see if I cam rank for the keywords I lost again. Thank you it was indeed helpful.

  9. Your post provides excellent information; thank you for taking the time to share this valuable knowledge with us.

  10. Thanks for this content! I found it extremely helpful. Thanks for info on backlinks. It is an area that I know is important but, it just didn’t seem to make sense on how to go about getting them. The links were very helpful!

  11. Hi Matthew, What an amazing share! I have a friend whose website was in penalty. I think he left that website and built a new one because he thought that getting this website to work again would be nearly impossible. After reading your article, I can see that he was wrong. I also did not know that it was possible, but I gained a lot of valuable insights that will help me in my process a lot. Thanks a lot for such an amazing share, it really was a great read.

  12. This is praiseworthy article that is full of quality information. We are highly impressed with this post.

  13. Nice post very useful and informative article. Thank you for this article and thanks to give me chance to read very informative post.

  14. Hi MatthewGreat SEO recovery article. Love the expandable text sections. Also intrigued by the graphs with ‘fidgety’ content for want of a better expression; very eye-catching. Are they gifs? Best RegardsJohn

    1. Hey John, Thank you for reading the case study. Yes, they are gifs that we created to illustrate our content!

  15. You have done some fantastic articles over the years but even for your user high quality articles this one was amazing I learned a lot of things such as how to get rid of pointless posts or pages you don’t need to index

  16. When you refer to pages do you also mean blog posts? Thank you for this great guide to help us rank better. I love your tips o the index bloat!

  17. Perfect case Matthew.Really thank you for e-mail :)Im waiting for new updates.Btw. Can you send me email with tutorial with informations about spam core update?I cant find it.

  18. Thanks for sharing. Really great findings and very helpful. By the way, I assume you started the work in February 2021 and not February 2022 as is written at the start of the article.

    1. Hey Yvette! It’s written “When joining Search Logistics in February 2021” so… where did you see February 2022?Let me know and we’ll change it! Thanks 🙂

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From Google Penalty To 5x Search Traffic

Campaign Challenges:

  • The weight loss supplements niche is one of the most competitive niches in SEO.
  • Most search results were dominated by huge brands.
  • More than 50% of the pages had less than 500 words
Campaign Results:

Organic Traffic


Organic Revenue

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