SEO and WHMCS • How we Increased Traffic Rankings by 462%
Let us show you how we managed to boost traffic and other metrics with SEO in our own WHMCS site. We didn't hire an SEO expert. We did a lot of research and A/B testing ourselves as we were creating a SEO module for WHMCS.
This gave us the opportunity to test SEO techniques in a real case scenario for an extensive period of time. As we were getting better, we created a WHMCS SEO guide. In the article you can find our strategies, experience and findings.
Due to the dynamic nature of digital world, many SEO experts tell that it takes up to 6 months to start seeing results on rankings. It is also important to understand that results exponentially grow over time. What you're getting after 6 months will be considerably less compared to what you get at 12 months.
To avoid jumping to conclusions on short-term findings, we waited 8 months before making this post. During this time, all we did was sticking to our WHMCS SEO guide and using Mercury, the SEO module for WHMCS.
Our site is online since 2014. At the beginning there has never been much content nor SEO. Our priority at the time was expanding modules. We had the average installation of WHMCS with a terrible template (youthful indiscretion).
We didn't put much efforts into making the site visually appealing till 2018 when we redesigned it from scratch. Nevertheless, we were still not working on SEO as we were creating a lot of new things:
- Monthly invoicing
- Facebook Pixel
- Cash flow
- Credit notes and electronic invoicing
- Customer retention
- Service level agreement
- Automatic FTP & email invoice export
- Refactoring of Billing Extension and Commission Manager
- The new module Mercury
Then COVID lockdowns happened. Let's just say we had plenty of time to finally test SEO strategies online. We moved the first steps in this new world in the late April 2020. Information on this post are up-to-date as of December 2020. We'll keep posting updates so stay tuned!
The very point of SEO is ranking on the first page of Google search results. Getting to page one is vital as 75% of people don't even past the first page. This boosts organic traffic which is "free" and opposite to traffic generated by paid ads.
After 8 months of SEO, the first thing we notice is that organic search is skyrocket (+462%) compared to the same period of last year. This also explains the boost in direct visitors as more people are taking a look at our site.
If we dig deeper into acquisition, all metrics are notably increasing. We're getting more impressions and clicks while we climb rankings and inflate CTR. We understand that SEO feels like learning a new language so let us give you some help:
- Impressions refer to the number of times your page appears in search results
- Clicks is the number of times users have clicked on your links
- CTR stands for click-through rate. Is the percentage of impressions that resulted in a click
We are experiencing improvements also in visitors behavior across the board. This signals that initial enthusiasm is translating into long-term engamement. In other words, we've been able to capture interest.
This teaches us the first important lesson to learn. You can't rank high on Google and attract visitors just with SEO. You need to write high-quality contents consistently.
To confirm this, we noticed the first spike in organic traffic (+385%) after 3 months. At the time we wrote about 10 lengthy articles. Right now we wrote articles for total of 50.000 words (200 pages of an actual book).
Improvements distributes equally on both new visitors and returning ones. This is a very good thing that tells us that we're consolidating loyal customer base. In the same time we're attracting new visitors that didn't know us.
Next chart shows a comparison between 2019 (without SEO) and 2020 (with SEO) in the organic search channel.
We could stop here already and conclude that SEO and Mercury clearly worked for us. But the thing is that we achieved even bigger results that we were not expecting. At least not at this magnitude. We're talking about:
- Keywords distribution and density
- Traffic value
- Page rank
Before we continue with the analysis, we are not showing absolute numbers on purpose. We don't want to reveal statistics to competitors. Especially ones that decided to play dirty with us.
If you like a bit of "drama", one started stealing contents from us. They even bought a negative SEO service trying to stop our climb in rankings. We'll talk about it later as this gives us the opportunity to illustrate the dark side of SEO.
As we said earlier, we started with SEO in the late April 2020. On a monthly basis we completed audits and comparison with competitors. We used (and still use) wide variety of tools (free and paid):
- Google Search Console had been our main weapon
- The good old Excel played an important role at monitoring competitors
- Ubersuggest crucial to track keywords (it's not free)
- Ahrefs for advanced stuff (there's a free version)
- We rarely used Google Analytics
Quite soon we relized that the main source of problems was WHMCS itself. From an SEO perspective it has many flaws rooted in its core. It took us plenty of time before we managed to fix everything with Mercury.
Before Mercury, on a 100-point scale, the health score of our site was around 70. For the sake of completeness, a standard installation of WHMCS ranks around 60. Right now we're constantly hitting 95.
Similarly to SEO, a module alone can't grant you such results by default. Ranking so high requires your intervention. The good news is that Mercury offers all tools you need to design your SEO-Friendly WHMCS site. And it also solves its flaws.
The use of multi-domain in WHMCS must be evaluated. This is particularly true for sites available in more than one language. For instance, we use katamaze.com for English speaking audience and katamaze.it for Italian one.
Now that you know what tools we used, let's start in chronological order. We divided our SEO journey into multiple stages. Each stage reflects the main changes we have witnessed.
This is the tough stage where we worked a lot without expecting anything in return. We created a couple of articles and prioritize the fixing WHMCS SEO bottlenecks. Results? Nothing happened. Really.
The first sign that we were on the right path was page rank (also known as URL rating). Sites with higher ratings tend to rank higher in organic search results. In this particular field we have witnessed a +68% increase.
Page rank growth has been consistent and started almost immediately. We have no problem admitting that this was the main reason why we kept pushing on SEO. But page rank wasn't much help.
For all other metrics we had to wait months of hard work and grind. Here we learned two important lessons about SEO.
Don't stop too soon. It takes a lot of time and effort before SEO starts giving results. To put things into perspective, even now our SEO balance is negative. In our first year, the traffic boost we received didn't paid off man-hours spent on SEO.
This leads leads us to the other lesson. Don't put unrealistic expectations. SEO is a marathon not a sprint. If you have no time or budget to invest at least for a year, maybe you shouldn't even think about SEO.
For our part we're optimistic. We're pretty sure our efforts will be paid off over the next few years.
Before you focus on the nice curves of the charts, remember that the purpose of SEO is to show up on the first page. Don't be fooled into thinking that your strategy is working just because of a slight increase in traffic.
The first chart shows impressions, the number of times our pages appear in search results. The other one refers to the number of times users have clicked on our links.
It's obvious that our SEO tactics and Mercury are playing a role in driving more traffic. But this is just a flash in the pan. For Google our place is still in the #11-100 area. This traffic will go away if we don't focus on increasing the authority of our domain.
Sometime back there was a meme that said «The best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google search results». This is funny but true as 75% of people will never scroll past the first page on a Google search.
At the end of the "food chain", we're still left with crumbs since we have no access to #1-10 spots. The real deal is getting such spots ranking on the first page with multiple keywords.
As you can see from the chart below, we started seeing results on rankings only after 6 months.
Before "1" in the chart
Even though we have a +385% increase in organic traffic, we are still clustered in the #30-100 area (page 4 to 10 of Google). It took half-year before Google reconsidered the positioning of our site.
"1" in the chart
|Google promotes us in the #10-30 area but this lasts for a short period of time.|
"2" in the chart
We drop in the #15-35 zone but in the same time we notice an increase of our crawl budget. In a nutshell, Google was visiting us more frequently to index pages.
"3" in the chart
All of a sudden, we rapidly start ranking higher day by day consolidating our presence in the first page.
"4" in the chart
Our rankings are skyrocketing. Everyday Google keeps ranking our site with more keywords. Keyword density is getting bigger and bigger to the point that we can barely notice previous results in the chart.
It took us almost 7 months of work to appear in the first page. What's interesting is that the big change happened during the last 30 days. This confirms that SEO is a long-term process that works exponentially.
The chart below supports this statement. Dark orange stands for #1-3 positions. Orange refers to #4-10. From April to October improvements have been laughable in comparison to the last 30 days.
The key here is to improve your domain ranking as a whole. Before Google thinks about offering you nice spots, it wants to make sure your site is trustworthy and a good source for contents. Posting an article once in a while with a non-optimized site doesn't impress Google.
Next chart proves the importance of being in the first page of the SERP (search engine results page). Traffic flows peaked as we got ranked #1-10. Before that, we were watching just the tip of the iceberg.
If you need one more reason to focus on long-term strategy, look at this chart. It shows the amount of money we should have spent on Google Ads to rank in the same positions we conquered with SEO. In technical jargon this is known as traffic value.
Of course we know that SEO is not free as it takes a lot of work but is way more cheaper than running Ads. For privacy reasons we can't show you effective numbers but our traffic value has increased by 33900%!
In essence, traffic value gives you a sense of how valuable your keyword profile is. Another way to think of it is how much money you saved ranking organically instead of buying paid traffic. This can be viewed from different angles:
- Enjoy your ranking and money saving
- Invest money on Google Ads only for highly-comptitive keywords for which you didn't manage to rank well with SEO
- Redirect Google Ads spendings on a smaller sample of keywords to beat competitors
Thanks to SEO we have successfully closed the gap between our brand and competitors. Now one thing to note about this is that we didn't put any effort on SEO till April 2020. That's not surprising that before SEO we were ranked at the very bottom for organic traffic.
We increased organic traffic by 99% in our target market. Getting 3th place in 7 months of SEO is quite motivating. Especially because our next target ranks on Google for many keywords not related to WHMCS. If we focus on just WHMCS, we're almost there.
However, organic traffic doesn't tell us everything about our SEO progress compared to competitors. One could easily attract low-quality traffic by ranking for the wrong keywords and audience. This is generaly goes hand in hand with bad SEO practices (eg. low-quality and stolen contents). In the long run, Google drops such sites by lowering their domain score.
Attracting good traffic is a whole different story. Google rewards you by inflating your domain score (aka Page rank, authority score). This metric is a great demonstrator that SEO strategy is working. Before SEO, according to search engines we were the least authoritative site. That's pretty obvious as we had no contents at all.
With SEO and contents we managed to surpass most of our competitors. Quite simply, domain score helps us to rank higher. Interestingly, domain rank uses a logarithmic scale. It works like Richter scale to compare the size of earthquakes. The largest domain score can be hundreds or even thousands of times larger than the smallest numbers.
We are still far from unlocking the full potential of SEO. We recall making more than one mistake. Let's see them.
We got ranked for keywords that attract visitors who have no interest in our WHMCS modules. Here are some examples:
- Issuing credit note in WHMCS. The earlier version was attracting people only interested in knowing what is a credit note. They had no clue of what was WHMCS
- Facebook Pixel for WHMCS. Before making the necessary changes, we were attracting the wrong audience namely developers instead of WHMCS users
- Service Level Agreement in WHMCS. Google was ranking this page together with SLA services offered by hosting providers. That was totally out of focus
Since 2014, every page was available in both english and italian. Now with SEO and copywriting it's a whole different story. When we started our journey into SEO, we had to perform a lot of A/B testing hence we paused translations.
As a reference, Cash flow for WHMCS has been rewritten 3 times. Translating "temporary versions" would have been a complete waste of time. And we're still in the process of completing the improvement of our documentation that is quite extensive.
Improvements to the english version of our site have been so big that we reached a fork in the road:
- Drop the italian version of the site to puts all efforts in the english one
- Translate more than 200 pages of articles in italian and repeat SEO and keyword optimization
It will be a difficult decision. We still don't know what to do. The longer we wait the more we damage the rankings of our secondary domain. Luckily there are no competitors in Italy so we can take it slow.
Internal linking is something we started to understand only in recent months. This also extends to titles and meta descriptions but I digress. There are still places where we used meaningless anchor texts. Let us take some examples from SEO guide.
We'll need to rethink the linking structure for a lot of articles. Moreover we need to make sure that every link looks natural.
The last thing we were expecting when we started doing SEO, was to drive mad a competitor.
It all started when we realized they were copying contents from our site. I mean litterally. Same titles, articles, sentences and words. They even copied typos and forgot to remove links to our site and modules. That's how we found out they were copying. Getting visitors from competitors sites looked quite strange.
At first we decided to ignore it as we don't want to make enemies online. Moreover in doing so they were hurting their rankings. Google in fact penalizies sites that steal contents. No to mention they were unknowingly driving traffic towards us. But one day they copied most common mistakes of WHMCS.
This specific article is special. It's based on experience acquired in 14 years of WHMCS and in the hosting industry. How can someone have the nerve to copy someone else's experience?
They were so into copying that we started monitoring their activity. Last time we checked, they totaled almost 1000 hours on our site. Basically we are their source of inspiration and information and so content stealing.
We came up with the idea of turning content stealing into something funny to tweet. This was our first tweet. You can click to enlarge.
We mentioned them trying to get a response but they were silent. Here's the second tweet.
Still no reaction. On the contrary they kept turning back to our site to steal new contents. Third tweet.
We were expecting them to remove stolen articles but we were wrong so we raised the bar. We reported it to the Google DMCA and posted this story on WHMCS forum. This time they were forced to reply and as you can see that was embarrassing.
They denied the obvious but next day all stolen contents was magically gone or slightly altered. At this point there's a twist in the tale. Days later, we started receiving hundreds of spammy links to our site. This is called negative SEO attack.
The point of a negative SEO attack based on backlinks, is to hurt the rankings of an "enemy" site. Google looks suspiciously at sites with many low-quality inbound links. Such links if not detected and removed, can lead to penalties and rankings drop.
Yes, we think they paid money to attack us. We spent weeks disavowing such links nullifying their effects. In the end it was getting boring so we decided to flip the cards still on WHMCS forum. We have better things to do than wasting time with a childish competitor that spams even on LinkedIn groups we administrate.
We suggested them to stop throwing money in the attempt to hurt our rankings. We also said we were willing to post the evidence of their actions if they kept doing it. And guess what? The following day the attack was over. That's pure magic.
This was unexpected fun. The incident gave us the opportunity to learn how to deal with negative SEO attacks. For sure we'll post an article about that so that you can learn how to protect your rankings against childish people.