Getting to number 1 in Google: An SEO case study

To try and increase sales and awareness at the JJB Sports website, I set about optimising the site for search engines and customers. The major success story was getting the site to the number 1 spot in Google (UK) for the keyword “nike trainers“. Here’s how I did it:


  • Page titles
  • Screenshots:

    JJB as the top result in Google SERPs, a page title, emboldened keywords on a SERP

Some background

Whilst working for JJB Sports Plc (2005-2006), I became increasingly aware of most web agencies’ inability to master search engine optimisation (SEO). In particular, JJB Sports’ main e-commerce site (which cost a lot of money) was woefully unoptimised.

JJB’s website started out with several obvious SEO errors.

  1. All pages had the same page title which was JJB Store
  2. Poor category naming with extensive usage of industry jargon
  3. Dynamically generated URLs e.g. www.jjbsports.com/search.php?supercategory=FR&wcategory=FREP
  4. The e-commerce site was launched at the domain www.jjbsports.com but all the PageRank was on www.jjb.co.uk which remained as an information site.
  5. There was practically no text on the site besides product images and lacklustre product descriptions.
  6. The description meta tag was missing

Problem 1: All pages had the same page title which was JJB Store

Two weeks after starting at JJB in my first web development job proper, I went to see a demo of the new ecommerce website. I was flabbergasted – it was awful. Then I learnt the price tag of the site (which I won’t reveal) and I nearly died!

One of the first things I noticed was that every single page had a title of JJB Store. Firstly, the brand name was JJB Sports or JJB so inventing a new persona was (in my opinion) a bad idea, the fact that it was the only title on every page set alarm bells ringing that the company who had designed the site was quite inexperienced.

Note: When I say page title I’m referring to the window title that you see at the very top of your browser, which is stored in the <title></title> tag of the page source.

Solution: New titles

I changed the titles to better reflect the content of each page and also maintain the brand of JJB so the title of JJB Store on every page became:

Product – Product Category – JJB Sports

So for pages with nike trainers on them, the title became:

Men’s Nike Trainers – Nike Trainers – Nike – JJB Sports

Problem 2: Poor category naming

The category names on the website was also poorly thought-out. Too often, the categories were named after the internal business names so the football section was ‘Replica‘ and the trainers section was ‘Footwear‘.

This oversight was no doubt causing problems for SEO but also for the people using the site who had no idea that the football shirts which they wanted to buy were stored under a category called ‘Replica’.

Solution: New category names

Thankfully, a colleague was also on the ball here too, and over time everyone involved in editing the site improved category names as they created them. Top selling items were grouped into their own categories e.g. Replica became ‘Football Shirts‘ and ‘Football Accessories‘ as football shirts were the best selling items on the site it made perfect sense to optimise for them.

It’s important that products are categorised properly for the user and for the seller. Supermarkets like Asda spend a lot of time working out what to products go in which aisle at what height and next to other items so that they sell the most of their high profit items.

Problem 3: Dynamically generated URLs

URLs need to be readable by users and also by search engines. In Google, when you search for something e.g. ‘stuff‘ every instance of that keyword is bold within the search results. That means if your website’s page title mentions stuff, it’ll be highlighted, if your description mentions it, it will be bold and if your URL features it, it will be highlighted there too. Maybe users don’t notice this but, I’m convinced they do even if it’s subconsciously.

Solution: user friendly URLs with mod_rewrite

I set-up mod_rewrite rules for the site so the URLs properly reflected their content e.g. jjbsports.com/football/. I was still limited to that fact that the content management system only allowed 3-4 letter category IDs. I could have accounted for this with a huge mod_rewrite file but that would future proof the site.

Instead I renamed big categories as jjbsports.com/fitnessequipment and then stuck to removing the horrific query strings from the URLs on subpages so:

jjbsports.com/searchcategory.php?supercategory=FR&branch=FWF

became

jjbsports.com/fr/fwf/

still not too pretty but a little better.

Problem 4: Multiple domains, one goal

When JJB launched their new e-commerce site in August 2005, they launched it at www.jjbports.com which had previously been a domain alias for www.jjb.co.uk (an informational/data-capture site). JJB wanted to keep the www.jjb.co.uk site as data capture and a portal to other JJB websites but, it was damaging the PageRank of the new site.

The result was that www.jjb.co.uk came top of the search results for JJB related keywords with www.jjbsports.com at number 2. www.jjb.co.uk got masses of traffic that simply clicked on the first link they saw to the e-commerce store. This wasted customers time, confused them and didn’t help JJB much either.

Solution: one domain to rule them all

The solution was to set up a mod_rewrite directive to direct the actual www.jjb.co.uk homepage to www.jjbsports.com with a 301 redirect thus making the www.jjb.co.uk obsolete but, still allowing subsequent pages on that domain to remain in operation. Within days, the fortunes of www.jjbsports.com websites in Google’s SERPs improved dramatically.

Problems 5 & 6: Lack of text and meta tags

The site made no use of the meta description tag which is very powerful. Google often the meta description as a website’s description in their results.

Solutions: Improving the use of text/meta description

Therefore the solution was to firstly, improve the text of all the pages then put some of that new text into the description tag.

The website had practically no text on it, category pages had images as links to subcategories and subcategories had images as links to actual products. I changed that so every page had a mini-description e.g.

Nike trainers for all the family. We’ve got Nike Air Max, Nike Tennis Classic and many more of your favourite Nike trainers.

This bumped up the keyword count of all pages.

An extra solution: An opportunity to cross-promote

More text on the page meant more chance to add links and therefore cross-sell. All product descriptions were possible were given links at the end e.g. looking for nike trainers? This was done on virtually every page. I did this for cross selling as much as SEO. When a user landed on the men’s nike trainers section they were given the chance to quickly find women’s nike trainers section.

Summary

At every stage, the changes made to the site were measured with Google Analytics and they were consistently proved to be making more money as people found products more easily.

The mistakes JJB made on their website, are very common and are due to a lack of experience on the part of the website owner and certain web agencies. A website is a complex bit of kit and good search engine optimisation (SEO) should come as standard with any website.

This article first appeared in February 2007.

13 responses to “Getting to number 1 in Google: An SEO case study”

  1. JJB’s website has now been redesigned and they’ve not remembered to update the URLs so this won’t even be in the top 10 within a week.

    Bad move JJB.

  2. very good article – I am just learning and like the way you took the site and improved it.

  3. Can’t see them ranked in the top 40 now……..

    Such a waste.

    I wonder if anyone there understands the value of SEO.

    They certainly don’t value rewarding and recognising talent.

    And to think how much the redevelopment cost..

  4. I get your blog stumbling, and i really liked it.

    You’ve made a great job with this site.

    To improve it a little more, you should try to use the tags on the site’s internal pages, with your keywords on it (but don’t spam!)

    That would help a lot.

    Best wishes.
    Facundo Corradini

  5. I don’t know when will companies listen and learn SEO is a “Serious Modern Art Form”

    Nice work Phil :)

    JJB LOL You Need good SE Friendly URL’s with great titles and content to follow on!

  6. I see they now have “telephone ordering” that was never relevant or needed before. I can’t see them receiving the same volume of essentially free traffic as before the site change, which is no where near what was allegedly envisaged.

    A sad waste for the shareholders. I’ll bet JD Sports are laughing there heads off after a few months of serious worry.