Curious to learn how a site grew to 185 million pageviews a year and why it lost 40% of traffic within a week?
In the latest episode of the Niche Pursuits podcast, Nick Musica, the former SEO and Content Director of DMV.org joins us to discuss the site’s incredible rise (and subsequent fall).
Nick joined when the site was generating 85 million pageviews a year. And over the next several years, he continuously helped to avoid plateaus with the strategies and tactics he shares today.
The talk is wide-ranging and goes in-depth into many things owners and managers of small and large sites need to consider.
- The importance of building a brand
- Site architecture
- Canonical tags
- How to handle Google Search Console errors
- Crawl budget
- And more…
So if you’re planning to grow an authority site and want to avoid some common mistakes, you’ll definitely want to give this a listen!
Topics Nick Musica Covers
- Nick’s background in SEO
- What DMV.org is
- Pros and Cons of using a .org domain
- Sub-domains vs. sub-directories
- How to manage tons of content
- Thin content
- Technical and content updates
- Your page speed vs. your competition
- The importance of technical audits
- Crawled not indexed pages
- Focusing all content through an ‘aboutness’ framework
- Affiliate strategies
- Why they lost 40% of their traffic overnight
- And more…
Links & Resources
Sponsored by: Stan Ventures
Watch The Interview
Read The Transcription
Jared: Welcome back to the Niche Pursuits Podcast. My name is Jared Bauman. Today we’re joined by Nick Musica with the let’s see, founder and c e o of Optics Inn, which is a small s e o agency. But we are talking today about your time as formerly as the s e o and the content [email protected] Welcome Nick.
Nick: Thank you, Jared. Yep. Yep. Excited to chat with you and, and and the audience today.
Jared: Oh, we have such a good story today. It’s gonna be, it’s gonna be really fun if, if you like to nerd out on some crazy growth, some crazy website growth in the back of seo, and then some some, some real drama perks, pitfalls along the way.
Some great success along the way. This is a. Really fun story we have in front of us. Why don’t you give us a little, little bit, bit, bit of background on you. I know you’re doing an SEO agency right now, but maybe catch us up to your background and, and obviously we’ll pick up the story for your time at at, at the D M V
Yeah, for sure. Yeah. So I, I’ve been working in SEO since 2003. I co-authored a book with Sherry Throw in 2009, mapping usability and SEO together. Spent a, a brief semester at nyu teaching at the graduate level. Mm-hmm. , but most, most folks, most folks know me for the work at D org because of, because of the conversation we’re gonna have here.
But, but I started my own agency in 2019, right before the pandemic. Yep. I found myself sitting alone talking to myself a. With the exception of talking to cats just before everyone else
Jared: was you. Yeah, we, we, the thing about starting a business is it’s often very lonely and then Covid is often very lonely as well.
You kind of double down on it. .
Nick: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, so when, when I saw Covid hitting, my first thought was, oh great, everyone’s gonna have to adjust like I did. Let’s see how that works out. Yeah. And, and we have . That’s a good point.
Jared: I, I I work, I worked from home prior to that, and so when everybody was this whole work from home craze, I was like, if you need any tips, I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I’m a, I am a professional work at Homer
Nick: Yeah. Yeah. We sounds like we both suffered through it, before everyone else
Jared: did. So we did. So we did well, you, you got a story background. Why don’t you launch us off and, and again, if you haven’t, haven’t been the site we’re talking about today is dmv.org and your time there, you were there quite a while.
When did you start with them and why don’t we pick up the conversation there?
Nick: Yeah, for sure. So even before I started, the site was registered in 1999. Wow. Right. So it’s been, it’s been out for more than a minute. I got there in 2012, so there are multiple iterations between 1999 and 2012. So when I got there, the site was getting approximately 85 million visits a year via seo.
No paid social. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of social activity around . Yeah. Getting your license, right? Like there’s just not a
Jared: lot. So not a lot of selfies being taken in the DMV line. At least not good
Nick: ones. Right, right. Got my license today, like not so much. Even kids say just sort of don’t really want to get their license like I did minimally.
So when I joined the company, there was about seven full-time employees, W twos, 10 90 nines, whatever it was, but about seven of us. Okay. And fast forward six years later. We went from 85 million to 185 million visits a year, largely through seo. Wow. And, and, and literally the week after I left, I got a text from my former manager saying, so you’ve been gone for a week and overnight we lost 40% of our traffic,
Jared: which quantifies in the tens of, tens of tens of millions gone overnight.
Nick: Yes. So there were multiple rounds of layoffs. And so from the perspective of employment growth, and so Spokes can do their own math around how much the company was making. Right. So imagine if you will, we went from seven employees to 40, lost 40%. And I can’t confirm or deny this next statistic. But if you go on LinkedIn and start searching around for who’s working where, there’s probably about three full-time employees.
Jared: Do you know anything about where the site is today? Is it still, you know, in the millions of page
Nick: views? I’m making a guess based on third party data. I’m making a guess about 12 cm rush, let, let’s say 12 to 15 million.
Jared: Yep. Okay. Okay. So a rise in a fall. And we’ll get into the fall as well if you want.
Sure. Some interesting storylines , I, there’s some fun screenshots you shared with me that I, I think a lot of people will be interested in, but we’ll get to that. I mean, when you arrived there 85 million pages a year. I just did some math on my phone. It’s about 7 million pages a month, so that’s some serious traffic.
Before we get into some of the things that you were a part of that grew the site so dramatically, help us understand the dmv.org website and then its relation, its relationship to the D M V. And if you’re, if you’re listening across the globe, the D M V is the United States Department of Motor Vehicles.
I think I have that right. Like you said, it’s, it’s not exactly well loved not necessarily their fault, but nobody likes to go and, you know, re-register their license or, you know, and they’re, they’re known for long lines and these sorts of things. What’s the website’s relationship to the D M V itself, the actual government institution or whatever.
Nick: Zero relationship. If you go to the website there is, or at least minimally used to be a big banner at the top where you would typically find a display ad. But on this website it was, we have no relationship with the government at all. This is a privately owned company.
Jared: Yep. Okay. So none. Okay. So what was the goal of this website?
Just to help people out with their D M V questions or what, what, you know, what was the foundation of it?
Nick: Yeah. The, my understanding from my time being there, it, the origin story is there was a family that registered, the domain brothers worked together to get traffic. One brother made a bet with another one that he could meet certain metrics.
And, and so he did within some period of time, which I think it was half of what they agreed to. Wow. And, and then it took off from there. And, and to your, to your point, right. So the DMV is sort of the, the general term for things these days. In New Jersey for example, it’s, it used to be the dmv, now it’s the b c Motor Vehicle Commission.
Oh. And, and every state has. An agency, maybe two agencies. In California, where I am there is the dmv. It manages your car and the driver in Texas, I forget the name of the agencies, but there’s one agency for the driver. There’s one agency for the car. So it’s different. So if you were to move to another state, don’t assume it’s the dmv, it could be a different agency, but largely folks search for DMV or an equivalent of that.
And we aggregated 50 states together on one website. The idea was make it easier for folks to navigate the things they need to do when they go to the dmv. And arguably we did that. Regardless of the traffic drop, we, we did that. I worked with the content folks. We had a great process. We did what we had to do.
It was easier to do research and distill the important information down for states such as California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, where there’s a budget for the D M V, shall we say, right there. All the information’s largely there, most of it. Other states with less of a budget, Alabama, Mississippi, et cetera, don’t have as much of a robust, robust website.
So, so we were able to answer the questions better, faster, better organized on the page as much as we were able to by looking at the other websites and rewriting the content and, and structuring in a way where it was more findable and easy to, to
Jared: underst. So I guess maybe the first question that comes to my mind as we’re talking about this, and maybe you’re gonna talk about it later, so, so tell me if, if you are, but I, I guess they surround the proverbial legalities of using D M V, for example, in the U R L and as the name of the website, and kind of answering these government related queries, if you will, like how we talk about trademarks every now and then again in websites and, and, and how that can come back to bite you.
How it is often very confusing to be quite honest with you. What is an act of trademark? What is it? So it, it kind of just all relates to that big, that bigger question. And how did you guys kind of manage that and, and, and talk about that?
Nick: Yeah, so I, I can answer from the perspective during the timeframe that I was there, right?
And, and keep in mind I got there 2012 and, and it started in 20 1999. So a, as far as I know, there was no issue with any lawsuits around the domain name. Not a lawyer also. Totally. It’s all public. It’s all public domain information. Yeah. It’s, it’s, it’s the government, right? So if you go to census.gov, all that information can be used on your website, structured any way you want to.
Yep. Create a fun graph because it’s typically a big table, right. So it, it’s the same spirit as that. However, this is a little different because dmv.org, even today, if you were to say blah, blah blah.org with something that sounds official, there’s a whole lot of confusion around that. If you were to take a look at the backing profile of this website, you can make an argument, and this is one of the conversations internally was while we try to be clear, we have the banner at the top.
We’re very clear of who we are from our perspective at the time. We benefited from the confusion. Mm-hmm. . There’s, there’s at least one news clip that I can remember where abc, N B C, whatever it was, and the anchor says, blah, blah, blah. The government website [email protected] . Yep. Okay. All right. And this is how it happened.
Okay. At le, at least from a backlink
Jared: perspective. Yeah. Well, I mean, I would probably be a bit confused. You know, especially if you are, you talked about it, you have a different budget, you have different people on your team than the state D M V does, and you can probably over time as we are seeing outrank them for a lot of their queries.
And one very easily might assume that if they’re ranking number one, you got d DMV in the name, that’s the source.
Nick: Yeah. Yeah. And, and if you were to break down the query types, navigational, informational, and transactional, but some folks call a navigational branded query. Same, same. We were outranking the state DMV websites On the daily, yeah, on the daily.
Jared: It’s so amazing. Well, let’s talk about let’s talk about when you got there and you know, I, I just, I want to hear some of the nitty gritty on the, on the, how you grew this site, how you Yeah. Worked with the team. You had a healthy supply of content writers when you arrived. I think you said you had five or five or 10 when you, when you got there.
And again, it’s October, 2012 was when you got there doing about 85 million page views a year at that point. Let’s talk about, you know, what it looks like to manage a site like that and kind of what you did to get a, a handle on what a site like that was doing, because you probably had a, a period of time where you had to really better understand what that traffic was doing on a site before you could kinda come with a plan of attack.
Nick: For sure, for sure. So I, I got there now. I was, I was focusing on seo. There was a content director at the time, so I was just the SEO guy. And we had, we had three websites, but they were called the website. So there was www dmv.org. There was local.dv.org and there was search.dv.org, but they were all the website right in, in SEO land.
Those are three different websites. Yep. But, but when you’re technical and managing the domain, it, it turned into the website. And so that’s how it was referred to in some circles for some period of time. And I fully understood what that meant when I made a request for the DubDubDub site for the canonical tag and somehow it landed on my request, landed on the local.website.
Oh, what? I didn’t. Right. So here’s, here’s what I understood after the fact was the robot’s txt file and some other like a site map, were, were shared files across quote unquote the website going between the sub domains, correct? Yeah. So the same robots txt on dub dub dub dot. Local dot and search dot dean org.
So if you said, exclude this directory on one one, we’ll call ’em a subdomain. It exclude the same directory from the other two.
Jared: But Google’s crawl bot loved that confusion. . Yeah.
Nick: So here’s, here’s how that presented. So I made a request for an adjustment to the canonical tag on dub dub dub I can’t remember what it was, but the result of it was on local is essentially every page got canonized to local.tv.org.
Oh, okay. Right. So within Not good not
Jared: good. Yeah. You’re new to seo. That’s, that’s bad. .
Nick: Yes. We, we, we essentially said, take these a thousand pages and attribute all of their equity to one page on the website. That was essentially, The non-directive, right? Cuz canonical tech should not be a directive because people screw up their website, enter exhibit A, we screw up the website, right?
and oh boy, we, we lost, we lost traffic overnight. So it goes up and then it goes down. And then it took a while to find, because I didn’t make the request. So what am I looking for in the changes, you know, week over week on the push it wa it wasn’t the canonical tag. I finally found it and then I got to learn, oh, this is what we mean collectively as the website.
Got it. Now I’m understanding it. So that was, that was a humbling moment. , what did you do
Jared: that, I mean, that’s amazing you found it because you’re right. Like that’s like looking for a needle and a haystack to some degree. Especially when you don’t even know what the needle you’re looking for is.
Nick: Yeah, so there was a big conversation with Dev around what were the shared files across the websites, what does that mean?
Let’s get ’em parsed out between the different sub domains. Because DM, www dv.org needs its own robots txt, local dot needs its own t robots txt, et cetera. So once we’re able to detangle that, we had more solid technical architecture. And so that was, that was step one. Step two was fix the canon canonical tag on local dot, which, which wasn’t a whole lot of traffic relative to dub Do, do however you still want your traffic back.
So it took about two weeks at the time, once we fixed the canonical tag on local dot for the traffic to start to come back and it did.
Jared: Taking a brief step back, just so people can learn from this, sure. Most people aren’t managing websites that are getting millions and millions of page views. It, there’s a, a healthy use case here to learn from.
I think we all understand to some degree why a site might use architecture where you folder different content or different spaces of the website. So you might have dmv.org/local/you know, the rest of your URL string, and that can be done to help Crawlability help navigability help, you know, with dividing the content accurately.
Talk about why a website would benefit from having these sub-domains. Versus maybe the approach I
Nick: just outlined. Yeah. So for, and, and let’s take it in the context of dmb.org and then we can apply it to anything else we want, right? So and, and there’s also a, a, a third piece in there, which is search dot, which we had search results in this search results, which as, as per Google, not a great idea, right?
Jared: and, sorry, I, I keep laughing, but ,
Nick: there were multiple things to fix, which is why we went from 85 to 185 million visits a, a year, right? It was, it was, it was very good. And we solely sort of bullied the algorithm to some degree because of 50 states collapsed into one and because of the confusion with all the links, right?
So all that was at play. However, going back to the original question, what’s the benefit of a subdomain versus a sub folder, et cetera? For this website, for the size of the website, the cleaner, the architecture is, The, the more thought I would argue you have to give into, is it gonna be a sub-domain or is it gonna be a sub directory?
Also for, for www d.org, there was a lot of questions, how do I get my license? How do I renew my license? How do I sell a car, whatever. It’s, how do we get a title? Very information centric. Local DOT was focused on very specific locations of DMV offices of insurance agents, things like that. So they were, they were, other than the technical, technical concern around the size of the website and the cleanliness of the technical architecture, there was also a question of the audience.
Where, where do these people want to go? Right? If you have everything you need and you wanna go to the dmv, here’s a website. You can go do that. So, so you have size of website and cleanliness. You have, who are these people? What are they trying to accomplish? And then you have the different types of websites.
One’s an informational website, one’s a directory website,
Jared: right? Yeah. And that’s, that’s a great point to bring up. You’ll see that a lot where I suppose you kind of hit to nail on the head. It’s, it’s, it’s intent-based and, and when they intent, it’s so wildly different and the size of the site is justifies it.
That can be why you would go sub-domain versus sub-folder.
Nick: For sure, for sure. I, and, and based on what I’ve seen, we’ll say in the past five-ish years, folks who are first come to their domain, Be it take a look at weed maps. They do some amount of work in cannabis and related topics. If you take a look at weed maps, they started as a directory.
They piled on products, they piled on information. If you take a look at healing maps, which is more psychedelic in nature, they started with directory information, right? So it can be done. You don’t need to separate those two things out, however, coming in late into the game, but there’s, if there’s more than three players in this space, it’s, it’s gonna be a harder time.
Or if you’re not Yelp, it’s gonna be a harder time. Yeah, that’s a good point.
Jared: So these are some of the technical challenges that you were up against. And you know, I mean, I’m just curious, what other tips could you share with us about managing. Large volumes of traffic and, and URLs at scale that, you know, all of us can learn from.
Obviously the majority of us aren’t touching websites that size, but I’ve already, I already feel like you’ve shared some really amazing little insights about how big small technical things can turn into .
Nick: For sure. For sure. So I, I would say this, what my first year, year and a half there was just cleaning up the technical, that’s all it was.
3 0 1 s were getting cleaned up. If there were 3 0 1 loops or, or chains, they were getting cleaned up. We had interstitial pages when folks were clicking on a link and they were about to go offsite. That was a 3 0 1. We had, we made a lot of money on car insurance. We also had a lot of car insurance in state result pages.
Those were all available to Google. It wasn’t necessary. Hmm. We, we had my, my favorite page on the website was snowmobile insurance in Hawaii. Right, because what would ha We had some logic. It was very smart, it was very well done, but also not perfect. So, you know, there was, there was logic where we would have the same topic.
Then you molted out by 51 states. We included DC as a state, but what that meant was snowmobile insurance in all states, including Hawaii. And so my job was not only cleaning up technically, but also trim out this thin content. My, my nickname by a gentleman who I used to work with for a couple years was Choppy Chop.
You would have project meetings and I would come in there and he is like, what are we deleting today, Nick? I’m like, we’re gonna find out. And I probably deleted 500 pages. I don’t know. I’m making it up at this point. It’s been a while, but 500 pages over a year and
Jared: a half. What type of content approach had been taken when you, when you got there?
You talked about thin pages. Yeah. And the fact that you guys earned a lot from car insurance, which I want to get into your monetization. Yeah. Angles in a little bit. I mean, was this a, a website that relied on a lot of informational content to drive its traffic more transactional pages or some of these almost programmatically created pages?
I’m curious about how this site was almost built from a content structure
Nick: standpoint. Yeah, it was one part programmatic in terms of creating topics out. So a topic was driver’s license in state, for example, or snowmobile insurance in state, state, state, and bracket state is a variable. And, and then we would write content around it.
When I got there, all the content was written. It wasn’t great. It was, it would, but it didn’t need to be great at the time. There was no website like this that existed and there was enough of good enough content that the results came in. However, however, this is the right, this is the type of content where, because of the programmatic, there was snowmobile insurance in, in Hawaii.
That had to get taken out of the, off the website. There was also a lot of content that was at a date. Things change. Agency names change. Like I said in the top of the conversation, New Jersey used to be D M V, now it’s N V C license ages change. There was not a quote unquote graduated license 20 years ago.
Now, there is, there were, there weren’t times where you couldn’t drive your license at nine o’clock with kids in the car with a permit. Now there is. Right? Right. So, so it had to be maintained, which is part of this whole Skip. Fast forwarding to today, this quality content perspective. Are you maintaining your content?
If you’re not maintaining your content? That’s a quality score issue.
Jared: A lot of the updating, it sounds like, wasn’t happening until you arrived, so you were also kind of championing not just technical updates, but content updates along
Nick: the way. Yeah, so at, at, at one point, I, I became the, the director of Content and seo.
So when I first got to the company, there were two or three writers who were going through the content. When I went downstairs in our office and, and started to manage both content and seo, there were somewhere depending on the day, seven to 10 folks in content, and, and we went through every page of the website.
Wow. The most important pages. A k a, the ones that were getting traffic, the ones that were getting revenue and just kept on going down the.
Jared: What does it look like to manage a site that has that much traffic? What are some things that happen on a site that size that maybe smaller sites don’t run into?
And I’m thinking in terms of, you know, optimizing for, for page speed when you have so much content on the server. I’m talking about images and all the internal linking and just some of these things that we probably don’t even consider at scale.
Nick: Yeah. So, and we talked about this before we start to record, and the problems you see with a hundred page website are not the ones you’re gonna see with a hundred thousand page website.
They’re, they’re just not, you can have a ton of inefficiencies at a hundred pages and it’s sort of okay. You can sort of, Google can modelle through your website and, and figure out what the best pages are as per its algorithm and, and rank them accordingly. However, at some point your technical gets to be very, very important.
You want that thing streamlined as best as possible because the time that Google takes to go to. A hundred, hundred thousand pages or whatever the magic number is, it’s gonna have to pick and choose where it spent its time. And if you waste your crawl budget, you just may have taken out 50% of your pages that Google didn’t even get to a hundred pages.
Not so much. Google’s gonna through, gonna get through all of them. But that’s one of the issues when we talk about, when we talk about page speed, one of the conversations that we used to have internally, but I don’t hear out in the world, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it, is yes, page p page speed is important.
It’s one of, are, are we still saying 200 signals for, for argument sake? Say two. I’ve heard 300 lately. . Okay, alright. One of 300 signals. Right? So what? But it has to be contextualized. It’s you versus your competitors, right? So it’s not me versus Amazon. I, I’m not in the business of Amazon. So when we took a look at our site compared to the California D M V, Texas, dmv, et cetera, et cetera, that’s how we start to understand how we ranked against those sites from a paid speed perspective.
State agencies did not, that that wasn’t their business model, their page fee was always going to be better, always. So we did what we had to do to make our site the best version of what it was, and ideally it was close to the page fee that those other websites.
Jared: The largest site I’ve ever worked on, I think was about 60,000 page views.
I, I have an agency as well, and we don’t normally work on, you know, sites larger than maybe five to 10,000. Not page views, sorry URLs I, I, sorry. 60,000 URLs. And I, you know, man, you hit the nail on the head. Like even just going from a 5,000 URL site to a 60,000 URL site, there’s just so many different things you have to pay attention to.
I can only imagine on a site the size you are working on.
Nick: It’s yeah. So we, I, I use Screaming Frog as a, as a desktop tool. Yeah, right. But I would it would fail , it would fail on this website, I’m sure. And, and I love the tool. I, I use it today. I, I use it with, with a bunch of my clients in my own work.
However, with this website, we used Deep Crawl, which was fantastic. You can set it up, you can create the you know, weekly, monthly, whatever was gonna be crawls. You can see the, the crawl up crawl. You can see where things broke. And for a website like this, and this is true of any website anywhere, there’s, there’s no, there’s no owner of the seo.
There. There may be someone who talks a lot at a lot about it at nauseum, right? Like this guy. But the, the idea of doing that is to get everyone to understand their place in terms of this thing that we call seo. And did you SEO it, right? Like, it’s such a terrible phrase, but did you SEO it? Well, how that relates to images is, did you, did you just grab it off of iStock and dump it up?
Well, that’s a, that’s an image for print. What does that mean? What’s that gonna do to your website in terms of file size? You do it that five times you’re gonna kill Google. So you need to be able to learn SEO from your own perspective. And so we had a wonderful technical team. They, they knew the value of seo, the entire company knew the value of seo, so everyone was well aware of what it meant.
And, and we had a very cross-functional company where if folks would. Get educated on everything everyone was doing. It was really quite fantastic.
Jared: Couldn’t agree with you more, man, I, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve, you know, delivered a site audit and, and the subsequent repairs we did. But the first thing is, okay, we’ve, we’ve fixed all the images and gotten them to the proper size, but mark by words, this problem will literally happen tomorrow if you don’t deploy these changes to your standard operating procedures for how your whole content team does images or else you are gonna call me in a month and say that we have images that are, you know, too large or something like that.
So that buy-in, I mean, otherwise you’re just fighting uphill battle.
Nick: Yeah, I, I had a client tell me once, well, can you QA the changes. I don’t, I don’t understand. I, I, everything is laid out clearly. Is the document not clear? Oh, no, the document’s really clear, but my problem is I don’t trust the people who got us into this situation to q they qa their own work to get us outta the situation.
Oh, oh, okay. Well that makes sense, ,
Jared: thanks. Hey, you mentioned crawl budget earlier, and it was on my list of things I wanted to ask you about. What sort of tips can you share with us about crawl budget, optimizing crawl budget, again at the size you were at? I’m sure some things don’t apply to smaller sites, but nonetheless, you’ve gotta have some great insights into how to maximize the, the amount of pages Google can crawl at a time, you know?
Nick: Yeah. So I, I, I would start with this was, this was the biggest site I worked on up until that point in my career and, and it still is. And so I had a lot of working theories. You know, I studied, I went to the conferences took all the notes. Applied them as, as per my websites at the time, whatever, what, whichever website I was working on.
This was the first website where I could work on it and actually apply my theories. So, and, and see what would happen. Because I would say, well, chances are if we do this, this is what’s gonna happen. So the reason I bring that up is it’s a play, right? I was just able to prove those things out on this website.
But they are at play with other smaller websites. Mm-hmm. , right? They may not be as critical, but they’re absolutely at play. So in terms of crawl budget, think about it this way. If you have a hundred pages on your website and you have some amount of duplicate pages because you’re your URL string, because mixed cases, because there’s another sub domain out in the world, whatever the reason is, Google’s only gonna get to so many of those url.
and some of those URLs are gonna be duplicate pages, which means it doesn’t get to all the other good pages. So you need to keep your, your technical extremely clean. Make sure you, your 3 0 1 s are one to one. Make sure you limit your 4 0 1, your 400 s. Make sure you’re, you only have one website. Is it H C T P?
Is it a c TPSs? Is it dub dub dub? Is it nonw Dub Dub? It doesn’t happen a lot these days, but I do find, and this is part of the technical audits that we do, I, I do find that there’s more, more of these older items that typically don’t show up. They, they do find they’re way into the system. So folks, and, and a lot of it’s the server you choose today.
Mm, mm-hmm. . So a lot of folks should, should take a look to see what’s going on, to make sure that they have one u r l to host one piece of content. And that’s an over overly simplified statement, but that’s, that’s the idea.
Jared: There’s a lot of, we’ll call it, you know, errors that get reported in Google search console.
Smaller sites don’t tend to flag quite as many, but as your site gets larger, even into just maybe 500 to a thousand pages and above. And while we’re talking, I just pulled up Google Search Console for one of the larger sites we work on, and I’m seeing, you know, and this is a site that you know is is not being ignored, right?
But I’m seeing redirect errors excluded by no index tag page with redirects not found. 4 0 4 alternate page with proper canonical tag, crawled, not indexed, discovered, not index, et cetera, et cetera, which are the big ones that people should be paying attention to, smaller or large site.
Nick: Yeah. It’s a, it’s a terrible answer.
It’s a, it’s a trick question and a terrible answer. Right. So it’s, it is a bit of a trick
Jared: question. , you caught
Nick: me. Yeah. It, it depends, right? So, so I’ll, I’ll bring up a couple examples that I’ve seen re more recently. I think it’s more relevant to folks who are gonna be listening. So we, we’ve been producing a lot of content for one of our clients, and the first 30 pages were great.
Next 30 pages less, less great. The next 30 pages not as, not as great. Digging into search console, seeing some of their old pages on the website. They’re, they’re not great. They’re, they have not been crawled, they’ve not been indexed, or maybe they’ve been crawled or indexed. E either way, they’re, they’re, they’re not getting traffic.
Mm-hmm. it, it’s not, I’m sorry. It’s not, not indexed. It’s been crawled, not indexed. Crawled,
Jared: not indexed. Yeah. And that’s one of ’em.
Nick: Yeah. Thank you. Mm-hmm. . Yeah. And, and what it is, is it’s, it’s a bunch of terrible content. It’s not good. It’s, it’s duplicative. It’s, it’s, it doesn’t serve. The intent of the page.
And so what that does, it, it, it essentially drags down the value of the other pages we’ve been creating. So you have this, you have this imbalance of quality where a little bit of good pages was great, but if you want, if you wanna get the, the credit for these new pages, you’re, you’re producing after the original bunch, you gotta do something about this thing over here, cuz it’s bringing down the weight of things.
So that’s take, take a look If you’re gonna see a, a bunch of, there’s some natural lag and everyone has it with very good websites. From what I’ve seen there, there’s a lag of some amount of pages, not just not getting into the index. I don’t know what it’s about, but there’s, but it seems natural.
However, if you start to see patterns, if you start to see things in bulk from this perspective, crawled, not indexed, most likely a quality issue or there’s some type of redirect at play there, there could be something that’s not ideal. The, the other thing that. Google Search Console is good for, but also not good for is it gives you a sample and search Con, Google’s trying to show you patterns.
So while something will show up in Search Console, it may not be an issue. It just happens to fit a pattern from their perspective. So Software Fours used to be one of those things before, before they had the actual category for software oh four s, right? There would be pages that show up as 4 0 4 s. I’m like, it’s not a 4 0 4.
Mm-hmm. , why is it right? And so it would be, well, because it’s a thin page, it thinks it’s a 4 0 4 in some way or another. So E, even if it’s, even if it’s a pattern and it doesn’t map to what Google is saying, chances are you should fix it because it’s a problem for Google. So take it seriously. See what you can.
And, and just make sure you, you, you get it outta that Google, Google universe and then, and, and make your site healthier.
Jared: Yeah. Great. Great tips. Okay back to the website, back to DMV org. We, we’ve talked a lot about your first year or two there and, and really what you were focusing on. What did you, what did you guys do to get the growth and maybe in subsequent years to get it to where it was when, when you, when you did leave, I, I think you said 185 million, which is, yeah, I mean, that’s approaching, you know, 13, 14 million p page views a month.
Nick: It was pretty fantastic. And it took a while to kick in, right? So for the first year-ish it, it was only up a little bit. You know, going, going through the archives, I’m just gonna refer to my notes here. We went from roughly 85 million visits to 95 million visits year over year. The first year, 10 12.
It’s not a lot of growth. I mean, it, it is, it’s also not, and, and from that, that point, it starts to really increase. Cuz, cuz the technical, it’s, it’s really what it came down the first couple years. I attribute the technical to, to being the growth. However, after that, literally every page on the website was scrutinized, was rewritten and, and, and just simply made better.
We also, and I mentioned it earlier, we, we took search.db.org out of the equation. So search dot db org essentially crawled and scraped everything on dub dub dub as its own website. Mm-hmm. . And it would be found for very strange things. So I’m, I’m, I’m gonna make a terrible example cuz I’m good at mixed metaphors and terrible examples.
If one page had blue and another page had giraffe on it and you search for DMV blue giraffe, it would, this website would show up. Search dmv.org would show. Right. However, so other than just a bunch of nonsense that it could rank for, the only thing that it would rank for was by default because of how it was created, was anything on dub dub dub, which means it was competing with dub, dub dub.
Right. It was just a weaker version of it. So we took it outta the equation.
Jared: This is the type of cannibalization that is bad, you know? Yes. I mean, there’s theories about whether cannibalization really actually is bad or not. This is an example where I think no matter which side of the fence you sit on that argument.
This is a bad example of where, because you have one page that’s clearly weaker than the other. For sure. Yeah.
Nick: If, if you’re, if you’re dilemma today around cannibalization is I have two pages that rank for the same term. Enjoy it while it last. Great. Fix the problem when it shows up. Yeah. Right. But, but for this, this was clearly scrape our own content.
And create a website out of it. We, what are we doing? We’re computing with ourselves. So we took it outta the equation and that gave us a huge pump as well. Hmm,
Jared: okay. Okay. You talked about how you went back and just every page was heavily scrutinized. What were, what were the type of things you guys were doing to take it from a, you know, thin page?
I’m using air quotes for those people who are listening from a thin page that wasn’t of high quality and, and improving it. I’m just, I’m just interested, like, what were the things you guys were paying attention to? What were the things you were doing to bring the page quality up?
Nick: Yeah. It fell into a, a few categories.
One were one was simply pages that didn’t exist. Like they keep, I keep bringing up the Hawaii snowmobile insurance. Like, it, it’s not a thing. So if, if, if it’s really just not a thing in the world, remove it. Just take it off the website. There were also a bunch of articles that weren’t relevant, one of which was, and I kid you not, was about.
How to how to cheat the h o v lane and cheat, let me rephrase, . We weren’t encouraging people to cheat the, the H O V lane, however, we reported on folks using a dummy in the seats, ah, in the, in the passenger seat to cheat the h o b lane .
Jared: Right. , I’m guessing that might’ve been heavily searched term.
And if you could, if you could imagine the the blow up dummy from the movie airplane , that, that was the image in the article. So we’re, we’re gonna take that out. Right. So, so there was a lot of thinning out content, just that just wasn’t applicable. And we had a process for doing that. So this, this, this may be helpful to dig in, to dig into a little bit.
So we had, we had a concept that we kicked around. It was called Bowness, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. What is the site about? So we, we had to determine what we were gonna write about and what we weren’t gonna write about. We’re gonna maintain certain content, we know it’s cords of the company, how to get your license, how to get your, your registration, et cetera, et cetera.
But then there was a bunch of all good ideas in the spirit of brainstorming that would show up and people expected their act, their, their ideas to be acted on. Well, it has to fit a certain framework. So we created, we, we created a, an about this framework. So our definition of about this was an engagement with the DMV before, 30 days before and 30 days after it, it was, it was a visit, but sometimes in some states, people get a piece of mail, right?
That’s what happens in California. Did you want your registration for your car? You bet. Here’s, here’s the, here’s the check and I get in the mail. So it was an engagement with the dmv. So if it mapped two 30 days before, 30 days after engagement with the dmv, it was part of our about this. And then it would still have to be scrutinized smart.
But what, but what we weren’t gonna do and if you can imagine a bullseye, right? This is the focus of the website. It’s about you and your car, and then a balloon’s out from there. You could, because you and your car, you could argue driving gloves were part of that equation. Yep. Well, it’s not, it’s too far out.
It’s too far out, right? So what are, what are the, you need to def define? We defined the rings and then went further out from there to understand what was in scope and what was outta scope for us. So for folks building their website today, like not every good idea is a good idea. You, you, you should have a theme.
You should be known for something and using dv.org as the example here. If you take, if you were to run that website through the three query types, navigational, transactional, and informational. Well, as soon as we got hit by an algorithm update, because we are not the D M V, we lost all navigational searches.
They were just gone. We, we outranked the California DV and a bunch of other DMVs on the daily, and then we didn’t, and that was the, that was the 40% drop overnight. So if you don’t wanna lose navigational slash branded queries, you need a brand. You need to stand for something. You need to be the guy or the company behind X, Y, and Z.
If you dilute yourself too much or if you use generic terminology, chances are you’re not gonna be known for anything and you don’t have a brand. So it’s a long-term play versus we’ll say SEO tactics.
Jared: Hmm. It’s great insights. I think that applies to almost every website at every level as you are mapping out where you’re going.
I I really want to get into this story of what happened a week after you left, but I have one more topic I wanna ask you about. Okay. Then, then we’ll, we’ll get to, then we’ll get to the, the crazy drop in traffic monetization. We haven’t talked monetization and I’ve been holding off on it. On purpose, I want to, I want to hear about how you guys monetize this site and any insights that you learned through, I mean, my goodness, the testing that you must have been able to pull off with that kind of traffic you Yeah.
I’m just sure that you guys really had some great monetization going on. We,
Nick: we had a very talented team and so we, we did a lot of things. Well monetization was one of them. We had a gentleman who was running our AB testing, conversion optimization. Did a great job, fantastic job. But here’s an important thing to note with this website.
We never took a single credit card, not once. It was all through partners. We had, it was a, it was a content play. It was an information play. We wanted to help people with their, with their task. Also, sometimes helping people with their task is giving them the chance to transact with something as it relates to their tasks.
So there are companies out there who will sell you cheat sheets around practice tests. So you, you, you can download their cheat sheets, you can take the practice tests, and we, we partner with those folks. Those other folks will help you get your, your passport when you’re in a pinch. Other folks will help you get your license when you’re in a pinch I’m sorry, your registration when you’re in a pinch.
We partner with those folks. So e everything was a conversion off, off the site and we just partnered with a bunch of folks who had good products. So a
Jared: lot of affiliates basically. I mean, to put it in a brass tack,
Nick: that was it. We, we were, we were essentially a super affiliate because of the amount of traffic.
You know, we, we could, we could broker deals with folks who really wanted to be in our universe because the amount of traffic that we got and we had a vetting process, and if we had a partner come in, On a Monday and they stayed 30 days, whatever it was, we weren’t shy to challenge them with someone else who said, I bet I can beat them.
Okay. Well let, let’s see if you can, we had the traffic to get to typical significance to see what it would look like. Yeah. Was was it partner A or partner B or ad A with, right. With versus Ad B, whatever it was. We were able to do that pretty well.
Jared: Any tips on things you learned from running these tests at scale?
I mean, I’m, I’m, I know comparing two different vendors is just a standard AB test, but more practical, kind of high level insights that you might have learned from anything from call to actions to placement to locations to that design. I, I’m just thinking out loud here. I’m not trying to yeah, I mean, tho
Nick: tell you which ones.
Yeah. Tho those are all relevant 100%. The, the biggest, one of the biggest battles that I recall internally was wanting to call it too early. because you, that the lines would start to go in certain directions and people were like, it’s obviously clear. Take a look. It’s been a week. We have it. And the conversation was it, the time doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re significant.
You’re seeing the timeline. That’s not, that’s not hitting the math we want, so let’s give it another week, another two weeks. We need to hit this number. And so once we hit significance, then we had our answer. But there was, there was always a gut reaction to, if it was, you know, a huge delta between the results to, to call it early.
And that’s just that’s just not how it’s done. You shouldn’t do that.
Jared: The I have an undergraduate degree in econometrics, so the nerd in me wants to spend the next three hours talking about this, but it would just be me and you at the end of that too. . That’s great though. That’s really good. I, I think that, I mean, y you guys obviously had a, had a strong affiliate play.
You mentioned the car insurance. You mentioned all the different opportunities you had to partner with people. You also mentioned earlier that you started lacing ads into that. When did you guys put ads in the site, and was that a pretty big win or was that kind of a sub, a subservient to the, to the affiliate income that you earned?
Nick: Yeah, you know it, it was late in the game, I wanna say 20 17, 20 18, something like that. My recollection at the time was, it was, it was mixed because there were some partners that would take a hit, but overall we would have more. It. I think the biggest benefit was that it, it diversified our traffic or our revenue sources.
However, I, I don’t know exactly how much it Cannibalized or minimized partner relationships. I, I, that wasn’t my department and I, I would be speaking outta school to give a firm opinion on it. That’s
Jared: fair. That’s fair. Yeah. I mean, there’s that debate that that lives on, but I mean, I’m sure that, like you said, the diversification was, was probably a, a big win even with some of the drawbacks.
Nick: Yeah. I, I do know, like if you’re working with AdThrive, one of these companies and you, and you go to put ads on your pages, they, they want to know cuz they want the, they want the, the prime positions, right? That like ad above the fold right here, you know, where all the eyes go. We want, we want our ad there.
We’re gonna make a lot of money. You’re gonna make a lot of money. What’s the value of this call to action? You should know the value of that call to ECMO before you replace it or challenge it with a, with a banner ad display ad, because those guys should be able to tell you out of the gate, we can’t meet a hundred dollars for, for whatever the, whatever the, the metrics are.
Like our math does not beat up your math. We, we know that it’s never going to. Or you should know that maybe the math will beat up your math and then, and then test your website. Well, let’s
Jared: talk about what happened the week after you left and I mean, you left the site in twenty eighteen, a hundred eighty 5 million page views a month a year at that time.
I keep, yeah, going back and forth 185 million pages views a year. But but, but things changed about a week later.
Nick: Yeah. So we, we got early signals, I think it was in July of 2019, I’m sorry, j July of 2018 where we were doing some amount of paid search and our ads stopped getting approved. We couldn’t.
We weren’t, we weren’t able to work as efficiently as we could with, with Google paid search. We talked to our rep, didn’t really have any good answers, but it, it became a constant issue. Ads would show, things would get approved. They would not then, they were not, they were paused. It, it wasn’t working out.
I believe it was September of 2018 where we got a, we got about a 15% demotion in seo. So that was noticeable for us. When we started to dig into Word Out came from, it was largely around the agencies that had good sites, the agencies that had budgets, California, New York, et cetera. So a better website beat.
Our website in that scenario. I remember talking to one of the executives and he said, well, well what do you think? And I said, well, it’s either an algorithm change where Google is deciding that we are fundamentally not the DM B and we shouldn’t be out ranking them. It’s, it’s one of the two, we just don’t know.
Yeah. One, one something we write out and, and the other is potentially catastrophic. So , right. I
Jared: was gonna say you can’t change, I guess we’ll put that under the Google’s bucket of, I guess search intent. I, in that, in that if they, if they decide that search intent is for them not to land on your page, there’s, you can’t SEO your way out of that.
Nick: Well, I mean, I shouldn’t have a website called Ask Jared if people want to talk to you, . Right? Like it does, it doesn’t, it fundamentally doesn’t make any sense. Mm-hmm. , it doesn’t make sense. And, and I, and I say that firmly believing what we did was a service. We did, we did make things easier for people to navigate.
100%. I, I was wearing my little badge at one of the conferences one day and they’re like, I’d love your website. You were able to help me register my car. I had no idea. But then I read your website, fantastic. We did help people. And we are also not the dmv. We shouldn’t be out ranking them. So come January of 2019, I got the phone call, or, or the text from my former manager and he says, yeah, so it’s been, it’s been less than a week.
You’ve been gone and we lost 40% over. And I, I picked up the phone. I called him. I said, so like, are you, are you kidding? Or what, what’s going on? No, no, I’m not kidding. This is not something I would kid about 40% overnight. Okay. Well, let’s take a look. Did you, did you push something and it didn’t work out?
Jared: what’s, is this that darn canonical issue again? . Yeah. Right,
Nick: right. Who doesn’t know the technical? But when it comes right down to it, it was, it was Google saying you should not be outranking the state agencies with navigational or branded terms.
Jared: And so you lost all navigational queries? Yes.
And that was the 40%. Was there any effect on the informational queries? Did Google still want to reward you as a helpful result when people clearly weren’t trying to go to the dmv, but were trying to learn about DMV topic?
Nick: Yes. So, so think about it this way. And, and things changed over a couple years, right?
But it took a couple rounds for Google to really kick this website outta the algorithm because of the history, because of all the links, right? They sort of had to do something with their own algorithm to target. This is my theory. Yeah. Right? So when this, when this change came through, I was taking, I was taking a [email protected], dv.com, social security.org, right?
So all of these government agency names, not with.gov at the end of it, so.org, dot net, dot info, dot, whatever it is with agency sounding name. And they all got demoted to page two. So somewhere, I think is, is a line of code that says, if sounds like government and doesn’t sound like and doesn’t end in.gov, get out the way.
Right? Get out of the way. And so if it was a navigational query, California dmv, at least at the time it was California dmv 1, 2, 3, 4, et cetera, they intentionally took up the space. They wanted to push everyone down, which they’ve said. At least once or twice. We want diversity in the search results. We don’t want the same site showing up more than once.
Yeah. Well, except sometimes yeah, sometimes that’s true and sometimes that’s not true. So we were able to rank better for they were, at this point, they, they were able to rank better for informational queries. And things sort of normalized out. But over time, based on what I’m seeing there, there’s this long tail of losing traffic.
It, it doesn’t mean it’s not a still a viable business, it just means it’s not the business that I, that I knew that I worked in.
Jared: You sent over a screenshot in our back and forth Yeah. A dubious honor of sorts to be included in the I believe it was the quality radar guidelines for Google, right?
Nick: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that was sort of funny to see that. And, and it wasn’t explicit around a, a website per se. It was in the context of local, but. The Quality Raider guides, to my knowledge, had never anything about the DMV before then. And magically after this website gets chopped off at the knees, there’s, you know, a sort, sort of a subtle cue
Jared: to it.
It was subtle. It was subtle. But after the hour we’ve spent talking, I’m not sure how subtle it really was. .
Nick: Well, anyone else will look at that and go, eh, okay. But when you’re, when you’re in it, you go, oh, oh yeah, that makes
Jared: sense, . Yeah, now I get it. Yeah. It was basically an inclusion of, of, of talking about intent, I believe was the best way.
You know, Google’s addressing how a qual a quality rate would understand search intent. And they happened to use D M V as an example, which ironically, that example showed up subsequently, right after a lot of this demotion happened. ,
Nick: it’s, it’s some funny timing, that’s for sure. .
Jared: Yeah. I mean, At one point, this site, I think you said was in the top 200 websites on the web in terms of traffic.
It was, yeah. Yeah, it was, yeah, absolutely killing it. It’s you haven’t been involved since 20 18 20 19, so, so obviously not a lot of insights since then, but. From a high level. I mean, it’s, it sounds like this site did so many things right. And not really by a fault of its own kind of got put back into where the new Google landscape has them.
Right. And I think if we just take that story as an aside or as a high level, I think a lot of site owners might be in a similar situation with so many Google updates. Right. And it’s hard to understand if you got penalized in an update versus maybe Google just taking away traffic from you that they no longer think applies to you.
They can feel the same, but maybe speak into that a little bit if you could your thoughts on if there are any differences there and how site owners can kind of process through a lot of these algorithm changes that are, that are happening thick and fast now.
Nick: Yeah. I mean, there’s, there’s so much going on at this point.
One way to take a look at it is do you have a brand or do you not have a brand? Right? You, you should be known for something. You, you, you should have an identity tied to yourself. If, if you’re going to, I’m, I’m gonna be harsh, and it’s not entirely inaccurate. But from one perspective, I think it is, given the 40% drop, if you’re gonna masquerade a round is something that you are not, then you can, you should expect the consequences of that, right?
Just that’s what this evidence speaks to. So if, if your website is best car insurance.org or something like that, it’s a query. It’s not a website. That’s not a company, it’s, it’s what’s some, right? It’s not a brand. So if you wanna do that, I mean, maybe it’s a short term thing, maybe you’re learning from your experiment, but I would not, I would not hang my hat on it at, at, at all.
Fa fast forward to just a couple weeks ago. AI content is looks really good, looks really intimidating from a content per production perspective. So what’s gonna happen with that? And there, then there’s gonna be some checks and balances around how do we sniff that out? What does it mean is equality, et cetera.
And even before that, part of the strategy of ranking in the top 10 is what did they do? How do I do what they’ve done better? And how do I add, here’s the most important part. How do I own my own? How do I add my own specific take on it? How do you actually make it better? Not just grab the five subcategories they mentioned on the one page, rewrite it better, no typos.
I mean, sometimes, sometimes a little bit better is actually a lot better. Mm-hmm. sometimes. It’s a crowded space and you better have a brand or else you’re not gonna be found next week. You need to stand for something. You, there needs to be a reason why someone has an affinity towards you and your website or else you are just playing the the Me Too game.
You’re just another candy bar on the shelf and you just may not get chosen at some point.
Jared: Woo. Those are good words though. It’s, it’s, it’s a lot to unpack there. It’s very true though. Nick, this has been amazing. We could, we could we could have gone down a lot of rabbit trails and, and learned a lot, but I think that your story is just fascinating.
There’s so many gold nuggets there, and congrats on that. I didn’t say it earlier, but congrats on the growth. I mean, if you look at it percentage wise, it’s one thing, but if you look at it in terms of the millions of page views that you added, that is just an insane number. So congrats on
Nick: that. Thank you.
It was a ton. It was a ton of fun. We had an awesome team. Yeah. What a
Jared: fun, what a fun ride. Hey, where you, you’re doing Atco nowadays. Where can people fall along with what you’re doing? And if they want, maybe get in.
Nick: Yeah, for sure. And thank you. Optics in.com is my agency. We’re a small SEO agency.
We provide content, technical audits, links you know, we do all the SEO things. Also provide some coaching around folks who wanna do it for themselves. And the most recent thing that that’s exciting, assuming I actually do it, is I’m gonna produce an SEO class in 2023 with the learnings from things like this, from dean db.org to help folks who are managing a mature website.
And for folks who are coming out with their own website, their first website, second website, whatever it is, to avoid those pitfalls, to fast track the learning so they’re not swimming through a bunch of content. There’s a lot of good content out there. There’s also a lot of confusing content around seo.
So the idea is help folks get to their destination faster with this.
Jared: Great. Okay. We’ll get a link to that in the show notes. Nick, thanks so much for coming by telling your story. It’s been really fascinating to hear about the site and about all the things that you did on it. Thank you again. Pleasure, Jared.
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