Will SEO affect IPOs in 2014?

Recent high-profile loss of search engine exposure for RapGenius and Expedia got me thinking again about the effect that low-quality or short-term strategy SEO might have on a business.

  • Expedia’s share price recently fell by 4% when it became clear that they had lost around 25% of their expected natural search traffic from Google.
  • Rap Genius have Andreessen Horowitz as investors to the tune of $15m USD. I doubt whether they would have received this sort of investment had their natural search tanked by around 60% in the days before the deal went through.
  • Online comparison site Moneysupermarket.com have had problems caused by link buying in the past. As recently as last year they lost a lot of visibility in natural search. The company played it down at the time and the story didn’t make big waves outside of the SEO community, however it was damaging. The correlation between search visibility and share price can be seen below. It seems the price recovered but perhaps more damage was done that can’t be seen in a graph?
Moneysupermarket search visibility v's share price.

Moneysupermarket.com’s share price took a temporary hit at the same time as their natural search visibility dropped.

It’s not just breaking Google’s guidelines that can affect the value of a business from an SEO point of view either. There are numerous ways that poor decision making can kill natural search traffic to a site. If I were investing in a website that relied heavily on search traffic, I’d pay keen attention to their infrastructure, staff skills and competence. A simple “noindex” accidentally added to the homepage, a badly planned migration or removal of key pages can easily have a major effect on search traffic and therefore revenue.

It’s widely reported in investment / financial circles that a large number of both high street and pure play (wholly online) companies are looking at launching on the stock market (known as an Initial Public Offering or IPO) in 2014.

House of Fraser has wanted a return to publicly traded stock for some time and is among a growing list which includes boohoo.com, thehut.com, ao.com, Pets at Home and Fat Face. 

A successful IPO can provide a company with expansion capital to drive the business forward but relies on attracting enough investors who believe the stock is a good investment.

Logically, the larger the potential investment, the more analysis of the business the investor should make. This due diligence can involve all areas of the company and it’s future potential. A company which expects to drive much of its revenue growth via the internet can expect to have all areas of its online marketing scrutinised. This is where things become interesting from an SEO point of view.

Link development

Google’s algorithms have historically been weighted heavily towards link based signals. In very simplistic terms, the more quality links pointing to your site or page, the better it will rank. This fact has been exploited by SEO companies for years and unsurprisingly, Google has put a huge effort into ensuring any “unnatural” links are not counted and regularly penalises sites which ignore (or deliberately misinterpret) its guidelines. In the last couple of years, large numbers of well known companies have had rankings removed by Google’s spam algorithms or by manual reviewers. The resulting loss of revenue can be huge and tends to happen swiftly and unexpectedly.

I took a look at some very basic metrics from publicly available tools to see what further analysis someone planning to invest might want to make. The tools I used were:

SearchMetrics - I’ve only used their visibility tool for a quick overview of how each site has performed and to spot potential issues. For more information on how it works click here.

Link Research Tools - I’ve used their Link Risk tool which provides a figure for the level of risk based on an analysis of the sites linking to yours. More information.

SimilarWeb.com - Gives a nice breakdown on where a site gets it’s traffic. I’ve taken the percentage of total traffic coming from search. More information.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of any of these tools and in fact am quite aware that there are shortcomings with all of them (note the conflicting information between Similar Web and Searchmetrics for ao.com). They all rely on the automatic collection and analysis of large amounts of data and should not be interpreted as definitive. In the case of Link Research Tools, its measure of toxicity throws up false positives regularly. Where high levels of risk are found, this serves purely as a suggestion that further, manual analysis by an expert is required. To put the scores from Link Research Tools in perspective, I looked at the figure for a large retail site which I know for a fact has never done any link building, the score was 266.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the Link Research Tool is based on factors which are not necessarily aligned exactly with the sort of thing Google might penalise. Despite being far from perfect it attempts to identify links which are potentially dangerous and a high score is not something that should be ignored.

I have not dug any further than the top-level publicly available information that I’ve presented here and am not suggesting that any of the companies have done anything untoward.

Let’s have a look at some of the potential UK IPO candidates:

ao.com / appliancesonline.co.uk

AO.com appears to have carried out a migration from appliancesonline.co.uk to ao.com in August 2013. This doesn’t appear to have gone well according to the visibility graph below taken from searchmetrics.com. Natural search rankings appear to have been almost completely killed and presuming the tool is accurate, it’s hard to imagine this won’t have seriously affected their revenue figures. That said, the figures don’t match up with the % of traffic from search (similarweb.com) which is 20% before the migration and 44.5% after.

Prior to the migration, appliancesonline.co.uk had doubled their natural search visibility in a year but receives the highest LinkResearchTools risk factor of all the sites I looked at at 1580 which is scarily described by LinkResearchTools as “Deadly”.

Conclusion: There’s a lot going on here and it all needs a much more thorough investigation before reaching any conclusions.

Risk Risk Score
http://ao.com/ High Risk 671
http://www.appliancesonline.co.uk/ Deadly Risk 1580
% of traffic from search Natural Visibility Paid Visibility
http://ao.com/ 44.5 4257 97
www.appliancesonline.co.uk 20 19428 4716

boohoo.com

boohoo.com has seen strong, consistent growth in natural search visibility over the last 2-3 years. There are no obvious signs of historic penalties and the link risk score not high (“moderate” by LinkResearchTools standards). Their reliance on natural search is fairly high at 38.57%.

Conclusion: On the face of it, everything looks hunky-dory. However, given the reliance on natural search it would be prudent to analyse the SEO strategy to indentify what has driven that growth.
Risk Risk Score
http://www.boohoo.com/ Moderate Risk 404
% of traffic from search Natural Visibility Paid Visibility
http://www.boohoo.com/ 38.57 77503 1124

thehut.com

The Hut’s visibility graph is interesting with spurts of growth up to October 2012 but general decrease since then and drops of varying sizes over the whole period. These drops could indicate penalties or being on the wrong side of an algorithm change but may also indicate a reliance on a few really big terms – dropping from #1 to #3 on a big traffic/revenue term may show as a big drop in visibility.

On the plus side, the link risk score is not huge and natural search traffic is a small percentage of their business.

Conclusion: Natural search and paid search are not major factors for Thehut.com. I’d want to find out what caused those drops but more interestingly, their business has a high level of referral traffic (38.21% according to similarweb.com), suggesting a reliance on affiliates. A look at that side of the business is where I’d start.

Risk Risk Score
http://www.thehut.com/ Moderate Risk 384
% of traffic from search Natural Visibility Paid Visibility
http://www.thehut.com/ 13.64 7177 356

houseoffraser.co.uk

HOF shows solid growth in natural search visibility up until March 2013 where it levelled off. The risk score, at 637 is concerning and the percentage of traffic from natural search, at 54% is high.

Conclusion: I’d be interested to find out why the growth has levelled off and as with any site showing consistent growth over a long period, I’d dig deeper to find out what exactly drove it. I presume HOF’s revenue comes mainly from offline sales though so it’s likely that performance there will be more important to investors than any online marketing problems.

Risk Risk Score
http://www.houseoffraser.co.uk/ High Risk 637
% of traffic from search Natural Visibility Paid Visibility
http://www.houseoffraser.co.uk/ 54.15 189212 14970

petsathome.com

Pets at Home shows solid, consistent natural search growth with low paid search visibility. The percentage of traffic from search is the highest I found at 65% so there’s a heavy reliance of natural search traffic. Their link profile receives a high risk score (“deadly”).

Pets at Home most likely drive most of their revenue from offline sales though, so this may not be as important as it would be for a pure play retailer.

Conclusion: Based on the high levels of natural search traffic and link risk score, investors would be well advised to investigate the backlink profile and overall online marketing strategy. As with HOF however, this may not be as important in the grand scheme of things as the company has strong offline sales too.

Risk Risk Score
http://www.petsathome.com/ Deadly Risk 1191
% of traffic from search Natural Visibility Paid Visibility
http://www.petsathome.com/ 65.1 44390 241

There are no smoking guns or definitive conclusions from the brief analysis above but definitely a number of starting points for anyone considering investing in stock. How big an issue this might be I don’t actually know and will leave for discussion.