When Your SEO Goes Radioactive – How Malaysia Airlines Lost 8.5 Million Web Visitors

It’s said that bad publicity is better than no publicity, but does this statement ring true? Negative attention, in the world of SEO, takes the form of radioactive traffic. I don’t mean that it glows and has the potential to turn you into the Hulk, but more that it’s dangerous and can have long lasting effects on your reputation. A good example of this practice is Miley Cyrus, whose web traffic has experienced great spikes, but at the cost of her reputation and overall traffic performance. More recently, there has been the troubles experienced by Malaysia Airlines. Using SimilarWeb PRO, I’m going to take a closer look at how radioactive traffic has affected the Malaysia Airlines brand.


Malaysia Airlines Traffic Spikes

SimilarWeb PRO makes it very clear to see when Malaysia Airlines have been hit by radioactive traffic. On the day of both incidents, traffic spiked to year high records – this illustrates the speed at which bad news travels online. The driving force of this traffic comes from offline events, so it simply cannot be predicted – the day before Flight MH370 disappeared, Malaysia Airlines received 113,410 visits and the day the flight disappeared they received 562,619! By 29th March, though, traffic had fallen back down to 117,726. A similar pattern is demonstrated around the time of MH17’s tragedy.


Daily visits to Malaysia Airlines between February ’14 – July ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

Malaysia Airlines Referrals

Radioactive traffic can completely change the DNA of traffic reaching a website. Referrals are a good example of this. Between Dec 2013 – Feb 2014, the majority of sites referring to Malaysia Airlines were in the ‘Travel’ industry.


Referrals to Malaysia Airlines between December ’13 – Feb ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

However, following the events of MH370, the list of referring sites was completely rewritten; in March 2014 with 8 out of the top 10 referrers coming from the ‘News and Media’ industry. As well as this domination by ‘News and Media’ the strongest traffic drive came from Wikipedia. This indicates just how much media activity was involved in driving traffic and the thirst for information that the public had. The problem this causes for SEO is that it becomes difficult to identify potential affiliates e.g. building a relationship with a travel company would be a great move for Malaysia Airlines, but building a relationship with the BBC or The Guardian is fairly pointless due to the mismatch of industries.


Referrals to Malaysia Airlines in March ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

Prior to the MH17 incident, as news on the MH370 incident dwindled, the dominance of referrers swung back to the ‘Travel’ industry between April 2014 – June 2014; only one ‘News and Media’ referrer remained in the top 10. This indicates a recovery of some sorts, but this ‘News and Media’ referrer along with Wikipedia were not previously present and shows how traffic is still made up of non-commercial sources.


Referrals to Malaysia Airlines between April ’14 – June ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

Following the MH17 incident, referrals for July show that the dominant industry was, again, ‘News and Media’ with no referrals in the top 10 for sites in the ‘Travel’ industry. This is further proof of how radioactive traffic can take render your SEO redundant as the majority of traffic is not working towards conversion objectives.


Referrals to Malaysia Airlines in July ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

Topic Distribution For Malaysia Airlines

SimilarWeb PRO can show how the topics associated with referrals change over time. I decided to have a look at the topics involved prior to the MH370 incident. SimilarWeb PRO shows, that between Dec 2013 – Feb 2014, they’re a mixture of commercial travel topics e.g. air travel, air fares, budget airlines, tickets etc. These are all useful topics for enhancing SEO and nothing strange is in amongst them.


Topics distribution for referrals to Malaysia Airlines between December ’13 – February ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

Following the disappearance of MH370, in March 2014, the landscape of the ‘Topics Distribution’ changes beyond recognition. Almost all the topics in this period are news related e.g. ‘news’, ‘international news’, ‘news general’, ‘news online’. This radioactive traffic means that the ‘Topics Distribution’ is essentially redundant this month as it does not pinpoint anything that Malaysia Airlines can analyze to improve their service.


Topics distribution from referrers to Malaysia Airlines in March ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

A few months after the MH370 affair, between April 2014 – June 2014, the topics distribution has changed again with more emphasis on commercial topics e.g. ‘budget airlines’, ‘flights’, and ‘travel deals’. However, there are still indicators of an interest in news e.g. ‘sky’, ‘news’,  and ‘newspaper’ being popular topics. This shows how radioactive traffic can have a long lasting effect on your SEO and leave a brand stained.


Topics distribution for referrers to Malaysia Airlines between April ’14 – June ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

During July 2014, the month of the MH17 incident, SimilarWeb PRO shows how the ‘Topics Distribution’ has changed yet again in connection to offline events. News related topics e.g. ‘breaking news’,  ‘international news’, ‘kranten’ and topics related to the flight e.g. ‘nederland’, and ‘dutch’ are the main referral topics. Again, this highlights the power that radioactive traffic has to change internet traffic for a site.


Prior to the MH370 incident, between Dec 2013 – Feb 2014, the non-branded keywords leading people to Malaysia Airlines were mostly variations on the brand name or spelling mistakes as demonstrated by SimilarWeb PRO.


Keywords for Malaysia Airlines between December ’13 – February ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

However, following the MH370 news, SimilarWeb PRO shows that, in March 2014, there were 320,000 searches involving the term ‘MH370’ which brought traffic to Malaysia Airlines. This is over 7% of their search traffic for one month and, whilst it doesn’t sound much, it’s another indicator of SEO going radioactive and being of little use in terms of analysis e.g. Malaysia Airlines are trying to sell flights, not front row tickets to a news story.


Keywords for Malaysia Airlines in March ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

SimilarWeb PRO also shows that a large increase in keywords relating to flight MH17 was recorded in the last 2 weeks of July following the news story. 25 keywords make up 25,000 search visits in this time and are further proof of radioactive traffic having an effect on SEO at the expense of useful data.


Keywords for Malaysia Airlines in July ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

Social Sources

News travels very quickly across social media and it’s no surprise that SimilarWeb PRO shows the two busiest months for social traffic are March and July 2014 which correspond with the MH370 and MH17 stories respectively. The buzz created by these incidents is huge as people debate who, what, why, when and where regarding the incidents.


Number of visits to Malaysia Airlines from social sources between July ’13 – July ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

The sites referring traffic to Malaysia Airlines in connection with the MH370 story are mainly Facebook and Reddit as per SimilarWeb PRO.


Referring social pages to Malaysia Airlines concerning ‘MH370’ between June ’13 – June ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

SimilarWeb PRO shows that it’s the same two social networks making up the majority of traffic relating to flight MH17, but this time Reddit is creating the bigger buzz.


Referring social pages to Malaysia Airlines concerning ‘MH17’ between June ’13 – June ’14 by SimilarWeb PRO

Social networks, then, can be seen as another source for radioactive traffic. This traffic can be pushed by memes, opinions or just sharing news stories, so the potential to affect SEO is huge. On the flip side, this data provides an outlet for a reputation management strategy – engaging these sites with news and updates mean that Malaysia Airlines could tap into an interested market.

The Aftermath Of Negative Attention

One aviation catastrophe in a year is a disaster for any airline brand, but to suffer two in four months is beyond the realms of any nightmare that Malaysia Airlines could have predicted. Analysts are predicting a very bleak future for the brand and it’s not hard to work out why customers will feel hesitant in booking flights with Malaysia Airlines. At present, the brand is losing $1.6 million a day, but it’s not as easy as pinning their financial freefall on this twin tragedy. For the last three years, Malaysia Airlines had posted losses. Bad management and intense competition in the Asian market have been partly to blame, so problems currently run much deeper than their recent problems.

What effect, though, had the negative attention from the MH370 incident had on the amount of traffic? Huge spikes of traffic had been seen, but once the radioactive traffic had subsided, what did the traffic stats look like? Better due to the intense attention centered on the brand? Or maybe worse due to the public’s anxiousness over the brand?

Using SimilarWeb PRO, I exported the traffic data for daily views between 01/07/2013 – 16/07/2014 to Excel to analyze the stats closer. Prior to the MH370 story, the number of average daily visits was 131,658. During the radioactive period, the number of average daily visits spike to 394,478. After traffic returns to normal, and prior to the MH17 story, the number of average daily visits figure is 108,425. This is 23,233 less visitors per day or nearly 8.5 million less visitors per year. Imagine the massive number of lost conversions and revenue that Malaysia Airlines will be missing out on!


New Start?

With their reputation at its lowest in 68 years, can Malaysia Airlines turn things around and improve their revenue? One option which offers hope is rebranding. In 1996, a Valujet fight crashed and killed 110 people, the effect on Valujet’s finances was enormous and the brand found themselves struggling. Valujet’s solution was to buy a smaller airline – AirTrans – and adopt their name. With the name changed, the stigma associated with the 1996 crash evaporated and finances improved. In 1983, Korean Airlines suffered a tragedy – much like the MH17 flight – when a commercial flight was shot down. As a result, rebranding to the airlines name and logo took place and they emerged as Korea Air. 30 years later, they are still going strong. Malaysia Airlines, then, need to get involved with a marketing team soon to engineer a rebranding campaign to salvage their reputation.

Decontaminating SEO

The effects of radioactive SEO can cause brands a lot of negative attention which, in turn, puts a dent into finances. An SEO team will find their analysis efforts thwarted by anomalies in data e.g. the top referrers are not suitable as affiliates anymore and the traffic they’re receiving is not interested in entering the conversion funnel. The short term effect of radioactive SEO is that traffic does not return to per-catastrophe levels and, ultimately, this means less revenue for the brand. With an unprecedented twin tragedy in just a few months, Malaysia Airlines have no option but to rebrand immediately to prevent their financial state taking the whole brand down.


About the Author -

Natalie Halimi is the Head of Marketing Communications & Education at SimilarWeb. With over 10 years of experience in marketing, Natalie has promoted services and products in the B2C and B2B arenas, in various industries.

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