Written by Scott Orth
It’s not often I write a post without a happy ending. But I feel compelled to tell a story of a highly profitable client case study, which turned bad due to some detrimental redesign SEO decisions.
Our client was a small, local services business in California. They were a profitable business which did not rely solely on the web for business leads. However, many of their competitors did, and our client wanted to compete in that space and grow their business overall through SEO.
When we came on board they had just ended a 1-year relationship with an SEO firm that had done absolutely nothing for them in the 12 months they were engaged. Suffice it to say, their trust in SEO companies was not great at the moment. But we came highly recommended, so they gave us a shot.
Within 2 months we began seeing signs of growth, and by the 6-month mark we had undoubtedly changed the landscape of their business online, having already doubled their organic traffic and increased online leads by 70%.
Our client’s lead funnel was a challenging one, so it was difficult matching online traffic to measurable profit-generating leads. But with an open data sharing relationship from my team and our internal client (marketing) contacts, we were able to connect the dots and show that they had earned just under $1M from the work we did in our first year together. It was a successful relationship.
Fast forward 3 years.
Though our marketing contact had changed twice in those 3 years, our relationship blossomed. In those 3 years, we:
– Increased total SEO (organic) search ranking by more than 1,300%
– Increased organic traffic to their website ten-fold (1,000%)
– Increased total leads by 700%
– Before us, they had attributed $0 in new business from the web. But our work had recorded an estimated $3.4M – $4M in new business
And then it fell apart.
In our 3rd year the marketing contact we had been working with resigned her position and left. Our client was not fast to replace her, so we began dealing with non-marketing management folks in the interim.
One of their first decisions (without a marketing manager in place) was to redesign their website. That was fine. The website was nearly 5 years old and the brand was prime for a facelift. I didn’t even mind that they decided to shop the market for web design and developing agencies. That’s just good business.
The unfortunate part was when they decided to hire a cheaper firm, because that firm had a slick salesman that wheeled and dealed and made everything look new and shiny.
That same slick salesman also showed them about 5 keywords they weren’t ranking for that would generate “a whole lot of new revenue”. The problem was these were insanely competitive one-word keywords.
Because I have to be very careful about confidentiality, I can’t use their keywords here. But let’s say you are a small local business and you want to be at the top of Google for keywords like:
If you don’t know SEO, this might not raise red flags for you. But here is a bit of comparison… if you wanted to show up in Google for a search phrase like ‘red Nike running shoes’ there are about 33 Million competing pages on Google for that term. If you tailor your search down to local only – because like my client in this story, you can only sell your services locally – competing pages on the web drop to between 25k – 200k; but many of these won’t show up anywhere in the top 3 pages of Google – so you’ve got a great chance of ranking well, locally.
As a local store, we could get you on Google page 1 for such a localized term. And by the way, this is what your customers would be searching for. Thus, you wouldn’t just rank for the term on Google – you’d actually get real, local business from these searches. That is precisely what we had done in our nearly 3-years with this client… and they had profited over $3M from the work.
In comparison, if you wanted your small, local business to rank for the term ‘shoes’, you will have around 948,000,000 competing web pages to contend with, including some of the largest websites in the world. Oh, and ‘run’ – that one has over 2.2 BILLION competing pages.
Why would you think Google, or any other search engine, would list your small local business on the first page, over numerous global mega-companies, for these incredibly general, one-word search terms?
This is the exact absurdity of the sales approach of our competing web design firm. But it worked. Our client’s business partners had zero understanding of how marketing (or the web) worked. But it was too late.
All the data, all the business intelligence, and all the profit-generation proof I could show them… didn’t matter to them. They had been convinced that they would now show up for these one-word terms and make billions of dollars in their single little California office.
So I got more aggressive. As a long-time web marketing consultant I am never afraid to go toe-to-toe with another online marketer. I’ve been in the business about as long as Google has existed – and I’ve seen just about everything you can imagine, from the good to the ugly and a million things in between.
I compiled more data, showing their local boundaries, shopping metrics, competitive intelligence, search data, traffic projections, scope-based lead projections, and profit projections… along with all the data from the success we created for them in our 3-year relationship.
I then asked for a sit down with the business partners and the other web design firm so that I could educate everyone at the table of exactly what they were about to get into.
Too late – they just signed a 12-month contract with the other firm and will be moving all services to them within 30 days. THEY DID WHAT? Sometimes you just have to wonder what cockamamie ideas run through a business owners head to cause them to make such a quick and uneducated move, without proper staff (like a marketing manager) in place to advise them.
Based on our contract, we continued to work with them over the next 60 days, until the new firm was ready to launch the redesigned website. They were not interested in our SEO consulting, and stated quite firmly that they “had it handled”. (Piece of advice… when an expert-lead, successful consulting firm offers you 3-years worth of profit-producing data for your client… YOU TAKE IT!) But they didn’t want it.
Fast forward about 6 weeks… let’s see where they’re at (Yes I still had analytics access)
– 98% drop in organic ranking.
– 99% drop in organic traffic.
– New audit found 153 offending items on the new site, 49 of which were critical SEO issues/barriers (and a few put them in danger of Google penalties).
– SEO leads dropped from well over 100 per month to ZERO (0)
Fast forward again – 6-months later:
– Still 90% lower organic rankings, and the terms they rank for are branded only
– Still approx 92% decrease in organic traffic
– No improvement to SEO tactics on site, though now they’re sporting some penalty-worthy backlinks from spammy websites
– Still zero (0) SEO leads being recorded each month
It’s a true unfortunate set of circumstances, that even our proven 3-years of success was not enough to show these old-school businessmen and women that the slick sales guy didn’t have the chops to back up his promises.
So now that I’ve shown you how horribly a website redesign can be for business, let’s look at the steps you can take to ensure the above scenario never happens to YOUR business.
HOW TO AVOID WEBSITE REDESIGN (AND MARKETING) DISASTER
1) LISTEN TO THE EXPERT
We might as well start with this one, because it could have saved my client millions of dollars in lost revenues… LISTEN to your expert consultant. As a consultant, I can only be accountable for my advice that you actually put into action. If you’re paying an expert to guide you in any form of business, it would be prudent to employee their advice and heed their consult. If they truly are an expert – their advice will be the best you could possibly get.
I’ve had maybe 7 unsuccessful clients in my 16 years of consulting. I would say 4 or 5 of those 7 were unsuccessful because they never actually followed my advice. These scenarios usually last 3-6 months before we have to just part ways due to no progress. Think of it this way, if your car is running out of gas, I would advise you to put more gas in it. If you ignore that advice and keep driving, your car will run out of gas and die. You simply ignored good advice. In the same manner, if your consultant gives you direction on how to improve, follow it – or expect nothing to change.
2) SEO AUDIT
Do a full SEO Audit of your website prior to redesign. Understand the SEO strengths and weaknesses of the current website, and build a plan for keeping the good and improving the bad with the redesign.
I’ve had clients say “nah – current SEO doesn’t matter. We’ll do it all right on the new website.”
That’s not the point. You need to know what is currently working well on your website so that you don’t inadvertently erase what was already working well.
You want to scan your website for site-wide elements like robots, sitemaps, code cleanliness, and overall URL structure (related to content hierarchy). From there, you’ll want to look at page-specific SEO. If you have a small website, you should scan and evaluate every page. If your website is 200+ pages, it might be better to pull samples from different categories (product pages, content pages, category pages, etc.) to gain an understanding of which pages, and which types of page optimization elements, have had the greatest effect on your website. You’ll want to use this data in planning your SEO strategies for the new website.
3) KNOW YOUR ANALYTICS
Just as knowing your website’s SEO and SEO structure is important, It’s also important to understand the analytic data of your website in order to properly plan for a redesign.
– What are your top traffic sources?
– What are your top visited pages?
– What is it about your most engaged pages/content that makes them so?
– Where do people tend to fall off your site, and where do you have the biggest Bounce Rates?
Knowing this data helps you think ahead. After all, if you were rebuilding your house, wouldn’t you first think about what you loved about the house, and what you hated? What was efficient, and what was not? This is your chance to fix the things you want fixed… but you better understand what things NOT to fix as well – or your redesign could end up haunting you.
Knowing your analytics also tends to go hand-in-hand with the SEO analysis, or audit. For instance, it’s important to look at which pages of your current website receives the highest amount of organic traffic.
In the case of my client in this article, they ignored this data. Unfortunate, because they had 3 pages that received around 40% of their total organic traffic. We even added specific Calls-to-Action, and additional user-flow strategies to these pages because of how popular they were, and how much attention they continued to get through organic search.
After the redesign though, these pages died. The new SEO firm paid no attention to the old site, didn’t look at analytics, and gave no importance to what pages were successful before they came around. Don’t make the same mistake they did. Understand your current SEO environment, and know your analytics!
4) DO THREE MAJOR SCANS OF YOUR WEBSITE
1) Full URL scan to make sure you’ve captured all content and pages – and so you can map this data to your analytics to better understand your pages. Theoretically your developer will already do something like this. But don’t take the chance. Use a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth to get a full scan of your website, understand what your current URL structure is, as well as some other great data you may need… like image URLs, orphaned files, currently redirecting pages, and broken links – all of which may come in handy during the redesign process.
2) Intra-page link scan – you want to have a strong understanding about how your current pages link amongst themselves. Intra-content linking, for instance, can be a powerful SEO strategy. If you wipe these out in a redesign you may find yourself stepping backwards with your SEO results.
3) Backlink Scan. Links pointing to your website are one of the most important elements in SEO strength. But they can be good or bad. Take this time to do a full backlink scan.
– a. Make sure your developers know about any critical links coming in and the pages they link to.
– b. Use this time to ask for removal from any shady link-sites, so you can improve your backlink environment for future SEO
5) PREPARE A 301 REDIRECT PLAN
301 redirects should be one of your highest priorities when planning a redesign. 301 redirects are all about your URLs. If your URLs will stay exactly the same on the new website, then you can skip this step. But if even just one character is different in a URL string, you must do a 301 redirect for that URL or any history that page has built on the search engine will be wiped off the face of the earth… forever.
Example… www.yourwebsite.com/grey-shirts is now changing to www.yourwebsite.com/gray-shirts.
The simple single-letter change from grey to gray, makes the new URL completely new and different for a search engine. If you set up a 301 redirect from the old to the new URL, all prior search history will pass to the new URL. If you do not do a 301 redirect, you will be starting from scratch – like a brand new domain name. In this case, you should expect many, many months of lost organic positioning and traffic.
6) NEW SITEMAPS
One of the items at the top of your list for the day of launch of the new website, is to update and install current XML sitemaps, and then submit these through Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
How and where you build the sitemap.xml file will depend on how your website is built, and/or what Content Management System is being used. But a great tool to start with for a free XML Sitemap is https://www.xml-sitemaps.com/
In the days that follow the launch of the new website, you’ll want to check into both of these webmaster accounts and monitor for sitemap index depth, and any scan or indexing errors that pop up with the new website. Finding these errors early on can save you a ton of headaches by getting them fixed quickly, and saving your new pages from falling off Google or Bing’s index.
This is one of those expert pieces of advice I cannot state strongly enough… Do this! You won’t be sorry. In most cases, everything will work fine, pages will get indexed, and your sitemap and website pages will show no errors. But if you wait weeks or months to look – and then find out there are errors, it may very well be too late. You can fix the errors… but you may have lost all search strength history of redirected pages that could not be properly indexed.
7) NEVER STOP OPTIMIZING
It’s important to keep up your SEO work during the redesign, and immediately following launch of the new website. By having eyes on the site constantly, your SEO person or team can be better prepared, and can tackle any dropped pages or negative results your site may have following the launch of the new website.
For instance, if you detect that some 301 redirects were forgotten… so long as you catch these pretty quickly (within a week) of the new site launch, you can still get them in place and save those pages.
Analytics should be continually monitored as well. When drops are noticed overall, or to particular pages, you or your web team can dig in and figure out what’s happening in order to correct the ship and keep things moving up and onward.
In a recent, major redirect of a large product ecommerce website, we analyzed product page visits and all ecommerce and sales data, every day for about a month after launch. This allowed us to find and fix hundreds of little elements that didn’t cross over correctly in the new Content Management System, errored out, or for one reason or another caused a dip in traffic or sales. Through this process we were able to correct all elements as they showed themselves, ensuring any issues were caught and fixed immediately. For a multi-million dollar, tens-of-thousands of products, website – the process was smooth as butter (for the most part).
8) PLAN FOR PPC AND OTHER MARKETING CHANGES
Don’t forget the other things you might have going on around your website. If you have Google Adwords running, you’ll want to be sure to update all of your URLs throughout your campaigns. Theoretically, the 301 redirects you put in place will safeguard you for a while. But Google does not like redirects with PPC – so you could find your campaigns shut down unexpectedly.
If you’re like some of my clients who bring in $25k – $75K per day in PPC revenue, this would be a horrible error to make.
But start to spread your mind to other links… Social Media links, referral partners, Blogs. Again, the 301 redirects you put in place will work as a catch-all. But it’s better to get all of these changed so that appropriate links are taking your audience to the right page, without unnecessary redirects.
Redesigning your website should be a fantastic time to create a new, modern look and take your business to new levels. But unfortunately, redesigns have also gained notoriety for being business disaster stories, with huge over-budget costs, and thousands – or in my old client’s case, millions – of dollars in lost revenues.
Follow these steps closely, and you’re sure to have smooth sailing through your redesign. But hey – if it’s a complex redesign, or you aren’t sure it’s being handled appropriately, give me a call. Making things work right is what I do.