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Case Study: How the Cookie Monster Ate 22% of Our Visibility

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You Can Go Your Own Way: How to Get Things Done When You’re the Only SEO

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

Last year, the team at Homeday — one of the leading property tech companies in Germany — made the decision to migrate to a new content management system (CMS). The goals of the migration were, among other things, increased page speed and creating a state-of-the-art, future-proof website with all the necessary features. One of the main motivators for the migration was to enable content editors to work more freely in creating pages without the help of developers. 

After evaluating several CMS options, we decided on Contentful for its modern technology stack, with a superior experience for both editors and developers. From a technical viewpoint, Contentful, as a headless CMS, allows us to choose which rendering strategy we want to use. 

We’re currently carrying out the migration in several stages, or waves, to reduce the risk of problems that have a large-scale negative impact. During the first wave, we encountered an issue with our cookie consent, which led to a visibility loss of almost 22% within five days. In this article I’ll describe the problems we were facing during this first migration wave and how we resolved them.

Setting up the first test-wave 

For the first test-wave we chose 10 SEO pages with high traffic but low conversion rates. We established an infrastructure for reporting and monitoring those 10 pages: 

  • Rank-tracking for most relevant keywords 

  • SEO dashboard (DataStudio, Moz Pro,  SEMRush, Search Console, Google Analytics)

  • Regular crawls 

After a comprehensive planning and testing phase, we migrated the first 10 SEO pages to the new CMS in December 2021. Although several challenges occurred during the testing phase (increased loading times, bigger HTML Document Object Model, etc.) we decided to go live as we didn’t see big blocker and we wanted to migrate the first testwave before christmas. 

First performance review

Very excited about achieving the first step of the migration, we took a look at the performance of the migrated pages on the next day. 

What we saw next really didn’t please us. 

Overnight, the visibility of tracked keywords for the migrated pages reduced from 62.35% to 53.59% — we lost 8.76% of visibility in one day

As a result of this steep drop in rankings, we conducted another extensive round of testing. Among other things we tested for coverage/ indexing issues, if all meta tags were included, structured data, internal links, page speed and mobile friendliness.

Second performance review

All the articles had a cache date after the migration and the content was fully indexed and being read by Google. Moreover, we could exclude several migration risk factors (change of URLs, content, meta tags, layout, etc.) as sources of error, as there hasn’t been any changes.

Visibility of our tracked keywords suffered another drop to 40.60% over the next few days, making it a total drop of almost 22% within five days. This was also clearly shown in comparison to the competition of the tracked keywords (here “estimated traffic”), but the visibility looked analogous. 

As other migration risk factors plus Google updates had been excluded as sources of errors, it definitely had to be a technical issue. Too much JavaScript, low Core Web Vitals scores, or a larger, more complex Document Object Model (DOM) could all be potential causes. The DOM represents a page as objects and nodes so that programming languages like JavaScript can interact with the page and change for example style, structure and content.

Following the cookie crumbs

We had to identify issues as quickly as possible and do quick bug-fixing and minimize more negative effects and traffic drops. We finally got the first real hint of which technical reason could be the cause when one of our tools showed us that the number of pages with high external linking, as well as the number of pages with maximum content size, went up. It is important that pages don’t exceed the maximum content size as pages with a very large amount of body content may not be fully indexed. Regarding the high external linking it is important that all external links are trustworthy and relevant for users. It was suspicious that the number of external links went up just like this.

Increase of URLs with high external linking (more than 10)
Increase of URLs which exceed the specified maximum content size (51.200 bytes)

Both metrics were disproportionately high compared to the number of pages we migrated. But why?

After checking which external links had been added to the migrated pages, we saw that Google was reading and indexing the cookie consent form for all migrated pages. We performed a site search, checking for the content of the cookie consent, and saw our theory confirmed: 

A site search confirmed that the cookie consent was indexed by Google

This led to several problems: 

  1. There was tons of duplicated content created for each page due to indexing the cookie consent form. 

  2. The content size of the migrated pages drastically increased. This is a problem as pages with a very large amount of body content may not be fully indexed. 

  3. The number of external outgoing links drastically increased. 

  4. Our snippets suddenly showed a date on the SERPs. This would suggest a blog or news article, while most articles on Homeday are evergreen content. In addition, due to the date appearing, the meta description was cut off. 

But why was this happening? According to our service provider, Cookiebot, search engine crawlers access websites simulating a full consent. Hence, they gain access to all content and copy from the cookie consent banners are not indexed by the crawler. 

So why wasn’t this the case for the migrated pages? We crawled and rendered the pages with different user agents, but still couldn’t find a trace of the Cookiebot in the source code. 

Investigating Google DOMs and searching for a solution

The migrated pages are rendered with dynamic data that comes from Contentful and plugins. The plugins contain just JavaScript code, and sometimes they come from a partner. One of these plugins was the cookie manager partner, which fetches the cookie consent HTML from outside our code base. That is why we didn’t find a trace of the cookie consent HTML code in the HTML source files in the first place. We did see a larger DOM but traced that back to Nuxt’s default, more complex, larger DOM. Nuxt is a JavaScript framework that we work with.

To validate that Google was reading the copy from the cookie consent banner, we used the URL inspection tool of Google Search Console. We compared the DOM of a migrated page with the DOM of a non-migrated page. Within the DOM of a migrated page, we finally found the cookie consent content:

Within the DOM of a migrated page we found the cookie consent content

Something else that got our attention were the JavaScript files loaded on our old pages versus the files loaded on our migrated pages. Our website has two scripts for the cookie consent banner, provided by a 3rd party: one to show the banner and grab the consent (uc) and one that imports the banner content (cd).

  • The only script loaded on our old pages was uc.js, which is responsible for the cookie consent banner. It is the one script we need in every page to handle user consent. It displays the cookie consent banner without indexing the content and saves the user’s decision (if they agree or disagree to the usage of cookies).

  • For the migrated pages, aside from uc.js, there was also a cd.js file loading. If we have a page, where we want to show more information about our cookies to the user and index the cookie data, then we have to use the cd.js. We thought that both files are dependent on each other, which is not correct. The uc.js can run alone. The cd.js file was the reason why the content of the cookie banner got rendered and indexed.

It took a while to find it because we thought the second file was just a pre-requirement for the first one. We determined that simply removing the loaded cd.js file would be the solution.

Performance review after implementing the solution

The day we deleted the file, our keyword visibility was at 41.70%, which was still 21% lower than pre-migration. 

However, the day after deleting the file, our visibility increased to 50.77%, and the next day it was almost back to normal at 60.11%. The estimated traffic behaved similarly. What a relief! 

Quickly after implementing the solution, the organic traffic went back to pre-migration levels

Conclusion

I can imagine that many SEOs have dealt with tiny issues like this. It seems trivial, but led to a significant drop in visibility and traffic during the migration. This is why I suggest migrating in waves and blocking enough time for investigating technical errors before and after the migration. Moreover, keeping a close look at the site’s performance within the weeks after the migration is crucial. These are definitely my key takeaways from this migration wave. We just completed the second migration wave in the beginning of May 2022 and I can state that so far no major bugs appeared. We’ll have two more waves and complete the migration hopefully successfully by the end of June 2022.

The performance of the migrated pages is almost back to normal now, and we will continue with the next wave. 

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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

Did you follow the Apple iPad Pro content debacle?

Here’s a quick recap. A recent online ad for the new iPad Pro showed a large hydraulic press slowly crushing various symbols of creativity. A metronome, a piano, a record player, a video game, paints, books, and other creative tools splinter and smash as the Sonny and Cher song All I Ever Need Is You plays.

The ad’s title? “Crush!”

The point of the commercial — I think — is to show that Apple managed to smush (that’s the technical term) all this heretofore analog creativity into its new, very thin iPad Pro.  

To say the ad received bad reviews is underselling the response. Judgment was swift and unrelenting. The creative world freaked out.

On X, actor Hugh Grant shared Tim Cook’s post featuring the ad and added this comment: “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.”

When fellow actor Justine Bateman shared the Tim Cook post, she simply wrote, “Truly, what is wrong with you?” Other critiques ranged from tone-challenged to wasteful to many worse things.

Actor Justine Bateman shared Tim Cook’s post on X, which featured the ad, and added this comment: "Truly, what is wrong with you?".

A couple of days later, Apple apologized and canceled plans to air the ad on television.

How not-so-great content ideas come to life

The level of anger surprises me. Look, the ad does show the eyeballs on an emoji-faced squishy ball popping under the plates’ pressure, but still. Calling the ad “actually psychotic” might be a skosh over the top.

Yes, the ad missed the mark. And the company’s subsequent decision to apologize makes sense.

But anyone who’s participated in creating a content misfire knows this truth: Mistakes look much more obvious in hindsight.

On paper, I bet this concept sounded great. The brainstorming meeting probably started with something like this: “We want to show how the iPad Pro metaphorically contains this huge mass of creative tools in a thin and cool package.”

Maybe someone suggested representing that exact thing with CGI (maybe a colorful tornado rising from the screen). Then someone else suggested showing the actual physical objects getting condensed would be more powerful.

Here’s my imagined version of the conversation that might have happened after someone pointed out the popular internet meme of things getting crushed in a hydraulic press.

“People love that!”

“If we add buckets of paint, it will be super colorful and cool.”

“It’ll be a cooler version of that LG ad that ran in 2008.”

“Exactly!”

“It’ll be just like that ad where a bus driver kidnaps and subsequently crushes all the cute little Pokémon characters in a bus!” (Believe it or not, that was actually a thing.)

The resulting commercial suffers from the perfect creative storm: A not-great (copycat) idea at the absolutely wrong time.

None of us know what constraints Apple’s creative team worked under. How much time did they have to come up with a concept? Did they have time to test it with audiences? Maybe crushing physical objects fit into the budget better than CGI. All these factors affect the creative process and options (even at a giant company like Apple).

That’s not an excuse — it’s just reality.

Content failure or content mistake?

Many ad campaigns provoke a “What the hell were they thinking?” response (think Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad or those cringy brand tributes that follow celebrity deaths).

Does that mean they’re failures? Or are they mistakes? And what’s the difference?

As I wrote after Peloton’s holiday ad debacle (remember that?), people learn to fear mistakes early on. Most of us hear cautionary messages almost from day one.

Some are necessary and helpful (“Don’t stick a knife in a live toaster” or “Look both ways before you cross the street.”) Some aren’t (“Make that essay perfect” or “Don’t miss that goal.”)

As a result, many people grow up afraid to take risks — and that hampers creativity. The problem arises from conflating failure and mistakes. It helps to know the difference.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to become a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I failed. But it wasn’t a mistake. I wasn’t wrong to try. My attempt just didn’t work.

Labeling a failed attempt a “mistake” feeds the fears that keep people from attempting anything creative.

The conflation of failure and mistakes happens all too often in creative marketing. Sure, people create content pieces (and let’s not forget that there are always people behind those ideas) that genuinely count as mistakes.

They also create content that simply fails.

Don’t let extreme reactions make you fear failures

Here’s the thing about failed content. You can do all the work to research your audience and take the time to develop and polish your ideas — and the content still might fail. The story, the platform, or the format might not resonate, or the audience simply might not care for it. That doesn’t mean it’s a mistake.

Was the Apple ad a mistake? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Was it a failure? The vitriolic response indicates yes.

Still, the commercial generated an impressive amount of awareness (53 million views of the Tim Cook post on X, per Variety.) And, despite the apology, the company hasn’t taken the ad down from its YouTube page where it’s earned more than 1 million views.

The fictional Captain Jean Luc Picard once said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.” The Apple ad turns that statement on its head — Apple made many mistakes and still won a tremendous amount of attention.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t criticize creative work. Constructive critiques help us learn from our own and others’ failures. You can even have a good laugh about content fails.

Just acknowledge, as the Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote, “Not every mistake is a foolish one.” 

Creative teams take risks. They try things outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they fail (sometimes spectacularly).

But don’t let others’ expressions of anger over failures inhibit your willingness to try creative things.

Wouldn’t you love to get the whole world talking about the content you create? To get there, you have to risk that level of failure.

And taking that risk isn’t a mistake.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute 



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The Future of Content Success Is Social

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

Here’s a challenge: search “SEO RFP” on Google. Click on the results, and tell me how similar they are.

We did the same thing every other SEO does: We asked, “What words are thematically relevant?” Which themes have my competitors missed?” How can I put them in?” AND “How can I do everything just slightly better than they can?”

Then they do the same, and it becomes a cycle of beating mediocre content with slightly less mediocre content.

When I looked at our high-ranking content, I felt uncomfortable. Yes, it ranked, but it wasn’t overly helpful compared to everything else that ranked.

Ranking isn’t the job to be done; it is just a proxy.

Why would a high-ranking keyword make me feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that the whole freaking job to be done? Not for me. The job to be done is to help educate people, and ranking is a byproduct of doing that well.

I looked at our own content, and I put myself in the seat of a searcher, not an SEO; I looked at the top four rankings and decided that our content felt easy, almost ChatGPT-ish. It was predictable, it was repeatable, and it lacked hot takes and spicy punches.

So, I removed 80% of the content and replaced it with the 38 questions I would ask if I was hiring an SEO. I’m a 25-year SME, and I know what I would be looking for in these turbulent times. I wanted to write the questions that didn’t exist on anything ranking in the top ten. This was a risk, why? Because, semantically, I was going against what Google was likely expecting to see on this topic. This is when Mike King told me about information gain. Google will give you a boost in ranking signals if you bring it new info. Maybe breaking out of the sea of sameness + some social signals could be a key factor in improving rankings on top of doing the traditional SEO work.

What’s worth more?

Ten visits to my SEO RFP post from people to my content via a private procurement WhatsApp group or LinkedIn group?

One hundred people to the same content from search?

I had to make a call, and I was willing to lose rankings (that were getting low traffic but highly valued traffic) to write something that when people read it, they thought enough about it to share it in emails, groups, etc.

SME as the unlock to standout content?

I literally just asked myself, “Wil, what would you ask yourself if you were hiring an SEO company? Then I riffed for 6—8 hours and had tons of chats with ChatGPT. I was asking ChatGPT to get me thinking differently. Things like, “what would create the most value?” I never constrained myself to “what is the search volume,” I started with the riffs.

If I was going to lose my rankings, I had to socially promote it so people knew it existed. That was an unlock, too, if you go this route. It’s work, you are now going to rely on spikes from social, so having a reason to update it and put it back in social is very important.

Most of my “followers” aren’t looking for SEO services as they are digital marketers themselves. So I didn’t expect this post to take off HUGLEY, but given the content, I was shocked at how well it did and how much engagement it got from real actual people.

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

Writing a book is a gargantuan task, and reaching the finish line is a feat equal to summiting a mountain.

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