Do we Zig or Zag?

During 2014 and 2015, we learned a lot about who our main search competitors were. Besides Quit Smoking Community, we also had TBEC.

 

TBEC was the acronym popularized from their exact match domain: the-best-electronic-cigarette.com


At a time when EMD’s were fizzling out of relevance in terms of having an SEO edge, TBEC decided to make a move.


It was summer of 2015, and we were in full-on content creation mode, climbing the rankings while the popularity of vaping soars. 


We noticed TBEC was ranking just as well as us for articles. We had very similar content and ranked for the same keywords. We were ‘fighting for market share’ of the vaping keywords pie in 2015.


From our estimations and what we could see from our competitors’ websites, we were at least matching content creation for all product review sites in the industry.


One day, we had been browsing the competition, when we noticed that TBEC had redirected their TBEC domain to their new domain: vaping360.com


At that point, TJ and I had decided to reach out and start communicating with TBEC; as we noticed they were in the middle of a branding pivot.


Migrating domains is no easy task, and we were curious to see how their branding pivot would work out for them.


If I’m being honest, I do remember at one point having a conversation with TJ about “what if they fail and their site migration doesn’t work?”. “That would be really good for us.” “We would take over the SERPS.” 


Now, I know that sounds really bad. And I wasn’t really serious, it was more like a ‘hold your breath’ moment and talk a little crap about the competition. But why joke about such a big moment for our competitors?


Because we knew how huge this transition for them was going to be.


We understood that if the guys over at TBEC pulled this site migration off, it was going to do wonders for their site authority.


See, right around the same time, TJ and I had talked about possibly doing a rebranding change as well, because we also had an exact match domain.


We were still ranking very well in Google, so we opted not to go through with a rebrand. 


We were tracking all of our competitors through SEMRush and Similar Webs, and figured it would be more risky to endure a site migration that we were not experienced in doing.


However, we were able to watch one of our main competitors' transition their branding from TBEC to Vaping360. 


See, when your business is reliant on search traffic, redirecting your pages to a new domain name is not the easiest task.


Yet, if done correctly, this branding change could boost TBEC’s (V360) search rankings for the long haul. It’s a great risk reward strategy in terms of SEO

 

There are a lot of things that can go wrong in the process. You need to understand the proper redirection implementations and the correct way for dealing with external and internal linking structures.


All the while keeping the business up and running and doing everything you normally would be doing.


This was a task that TJ and I decided we didn’t want to venture into just yet.

We decided to stick it out because we didn’t want to go through all the redirects and link changes.


We didn’t have the capacity to do that in-house without taking away our focus from content creation.


TBEC actually dipped in rankings when they first redirected their old domain to their new domain for the first 30-60 days in the search rankings (according to Similar Webs data back in 2015).


However, after those 60 days, their ceiling for search terms became higher and higher when their domain transition to vaping360.com finished.


They started ranking higher in Google search for more keywords than they were previously ranking 5,6,7 for. They had a successful rebrand and SEO transition with their domain redirect.


They actually boosted their rankings, and now they’re a fresh website built on the authority of their old one, and that’s when they started to really take off.

See, TBEC was transitioning to a more long-term, brandable name for their review site.


In fact, right around this time we had reached out and had a few phone calls with them to talk with them about the branding change. 


We had started to talk about how we were thinking of doing the exact same thing, however we recognized the risk and rewards of doing so. 


We did briefly talk with Vaping360 and I remember the conversation about content creation with them:


“How many writers do you guys have?”


“We have 3 writers, 1 editor and a publisher” 


Their response surprised us.


“We have 8-10 different writers doing the same amount of output.”, Vaping360 said.


So we found out that we were actually keeping up with Vaping 360 in terms of content creation. 


5 people total working on the content creation process allowed us to release a 1500-2000 word article every day in 2015.


But as we would soon find out, that wouldn’t be enough...

Coopetition Wins

It felt like a mecca of vaping review websites were coming out of Southeastern Michigan in late 2013 - early 2014.


TJ had started venturing out and meeting like-minded business people through the Meetup app.


There was a guy TJ met at one of these meetups who happened to be friends with someone else that was running a vaping review site that didn’t live far from us.


TJ got his contact information and made the connect a few days later. His name was Tyler and he was one of our main keyword competitors who ran the website, quitsmokingcommunity.org.


We became friends with Tyler and started talking about search rankings in vaping, how we got started and what our future plans were. We also talked about how crazy the industry was at a time where everyone was just learning about vaping.


We had reached out to our other main search competitor’s at the time. The guys who ran the website TBEC, now called Vaping360.com. 

Quit Smoking and V360 soon became our internal network within the affiliate industry of vaping. We gave each tips, advice and anything else we thought would help


“Hey, this is what we’re doing with this merchant.”


“What’s your guys’ click-through-rate on this new affiliate offer?”


“Hey, this is the commission percentage we’re receiving from the same vendors you guys are promoting”


Stuff like that.


It wasn’t like a competition, we both saw it more like a coopetition.


We were all ranking for the similar keywords with some overlap, it was more like “we’re all going to get a slice of the pie, but you might get a little more here and we’ll get a little more here.”


We were all ranking for the same search pie, it just varied month to month on how it got sliced up.


It was through one of these conversations with Tyler from Quit Smoking, that we found out a recent vendor we had both signed up for was giving a 40% commission to Tyler’s website, and we were receiving only 30%.


And we had a lot more traffic for more relevant keywords. This was a great opportunity.


We used this information from Tyler, and eventually were able to make the same deal with this new vendor, receiving the extra commission percentage.


Overall, because we had that conversation with Tyler, it led us to making an extra $10,000 dollars in commissions over the course of our relationship with that vendor.


If we wouldn’t have befriended people we were ranking alongside us in Google search, that would have never happened.

Starting from Zero

When I started the vaping website in December of 2013, I was just beginning to wrap my head around search engine optimization (SEO).


TJ and I were binge listening, reading and watching dozens of podcasts, articles and videos. We listened to everything from starting a website, to ranking in Google, how to write articles and how to link to products.

 

After about 100 or so odd hours of soaking in information, we decided to start taking action.


Through the process of learning all the nuances of digital marketing, we were suggested to use Google’s Keyword Planner. The keyword planner is a tool provided by Google that allows users to search for ideas for search terms with Google traffic estimates.


After a few days, we narrowed down to a few potential keywords in what we surmised as a relatively new market. 


The product? Vaping tanks, or better known back then as ‘clearomizers’.


Originally called cartomizers, clearomizers were tanks that came with a clear pane of plastic  opposed to a metal, non see through tank.

 

Specifically, we found the search term, “best clearomizer”. We looked at the search results for the term, and realized there were only forum posts and ecommerce pages coming up in the results.


The search term had a volume around 2,500 searches/month.


This was our ‘money keyword’.


Before new years 2013, we had published our first product review (besides our homepage).


Within a month, we had written 4 articles all related to vaping tanks. We decided to focus the main page of our website with a graph ranking every single vaping tank we knew of.


I was really excited to start seeing this “free” website traffic trickle in from Google. 


But, it didn’t come...


Instead, I sat there puzzled as to why we didn’t have any website traffic. Eventually, panic started to creep in as I thought to myself, “well, this was just a bunch of wasted time.”


TJ, on the other hand, wasn't as worried. You see, he had just learned about something called ‘backlinks’. 


A backlink is just a hyperlink from one site to another. In the SEO world, I came to learn that backlinks from other websites help Google understand the context, relevance and authority of your website; and ranks your website in the search results accordingly.


With our very first article published and this new information about backlinks fresh in our minds, our next objective was to reach out to relevant bloggers in the vaping industry and ask them to link back to our website. 


It was early January 2014. About 3 weeks after we first registered the domain and about a week after we published our first article.


We started our first backlink campaign, reaching out to any relevant bloggers in the vaping industry to try and get a link to our brand new website.


We did the email outreach campaign, cold call style, asking for anyone and everyone that had a website in our industry for a link.

Eventually, a vaping enthusiast that goes by the name Grimm Green responded to our request.


GrimmGreen owned a popular vaping blog, and we were the first site he knew that was reviewing just vaping tanks. Grimm saw the value in our site, and he eventually linked back to our homepage.


THIS backlink from Grimm Green’s website was officially the first link we ever had outside of our social media accounts and forum posts.


The following day, I remember we were on Google Analytics and we were looking at our traffic stats. We started seeing referral traffic come into our website from none other than GrimmGreen’s website.


Within 24 hours of receiving the backlink from GrimmGreen’s website to our homepage, we blipped up in both Bing and Yahoo! search engines for the search term: ‘best clearomizer’.


I remember checking the real time analytics and seeing 2, 3, 4 visits at a time to our website from Yahoo! and Bing.


It didn’t seem like much, but that link from GrimmGreen was enough to propel our website out of the “Google Sandbox”.


It wasn’t even a week later and we started ranking in Google.


That link meant everything to us. 


Nowadays it will take more than just one ‘official’ link to get out of the Google sandbox, but in the vaping industry in late 2013, there was no one reviewing vaping tanks in blog form.


We BECAME the topical authority of vaping tanks for that season because no one else was.


And that’s how it all started.