Within a matter of weeks, the redesigned [website] lost all of its first-page positions in Google search results ... The six sub-pages that showed under the homepage where also completely wiped away.
After much effort to research keywords and build SEO features into a microsite branded for an annual conference and expo, I was pleased to achieve several top organic (non-paid) Google search rankings for the client. I took great care in creating page titles, content, and links that included logical search phrases. I also strategically developed the page hierarchy and submitted update,d .xml sitemaps to prompt Google to show expanded sitelinks in some results.
While it took a bit of time for the intended results to appear, once they did, the event showed up in the first page of results during a Google search for the targeted keywords—including a No. 1 ranking and two No. 3 positions. Even better, it was rare for any of the top competitors of this particular event to show up anywhere near my client's listing. It seemed the competition wasn't even trying.
One Fell Swoop
The high-ranking results continued to last ... until someone unwittingly decided to "simplify" things by merging the optimized microsite into the parent organization's website—thus, quickly undoing all the search engine optimization that took so much previous effort. Within a matter of weeks, the redesigned and relocated content lost all of its first-page positions in Google search results. The No. 1 spot fell to eight and was beat by a competing event; both No. 3 positions completely fell from the first page, nor were any of the other positions anywhere to be found. The six sub-pages showing as a result of sitelinks where also completely wiped from Google's search results.
Microsites, Redirects, and Sitelinks--Oh My!
So what happened and how could this have been prevented? Here are three mistakes to learn from and easily avoid when redesigning a website:
- Careless disregard for content and keywords. Instead of editing/updating and perhaps reordering much of the still-relevant information, years of copywriting and content creation were completely deleted from the site. Even worse, the page titles and links that contained strategically placed keywords were gone too. In short, much of what made this content-rich site unique was no more or had been replaced with generic words that could have applied to nearly any industry, audience, or website on the internet. It didn't take long for the Google bots to realize that competing sites were now much more relevant for the previously optimized search phrases.
- Merging a microsite with another dedicated domain. A microsite that's dedicated to a specific brand or audience content almost always performs better in search results than a larger site attempting to cater to a variety of visitors, brands, and information. In this case, the microsite, which once had content that appealed to a very specific audience in an equally specific industry (e.g.: SpecialtyWidgetsExpo.com), became a subset of a larger site with lots of competing content and sub-directories (e.g.: DiverseEnterprise.com/variouswidgets/events/date). Making matters worse, the miscrosite content is no longer housed within the domain that is the brand's unique name , but rather moved under a sub-domain of the parent organization (SpecialtyWidgetsExpo.com vs. DiverseEnterprise.com). This caused content credibility to automatically fall a few notches in the eyes of Google. Too much competing and varied content does not make for better search results.
On the flip side, if you're not currently using a microsite, you may want consider incorporating one to help improve SEO.
- Failure to properly redirect pages. The snowball effect continued because all of the former microsite pages and content indexed by Google were suddenly gone. Any legacy search results that appeared in the interim, when clicked, show a "page not found" error. Even if these 404 errors redirect to a custom page on the relocated mega site (not done in this case), the intended content is unlikely to be found unless the visitor is willing to dig through the site to find the new location of the content they originally searched for on Google. Not only are your visitors likely to go elsewhere, you can be sure that Google will frown upon this and adjust its search results accordingly--and not in your website's favor.
To avoid this, be sure to individually redirecting each page of the old website to the corresponding page on the new site by using a server-side 301 redirect. This extra step takes MUCH less time and effort than rebuilding SEO credibility on Google.
All of these were innocent mistakes made by someone with experience in editing and creating content, but lacking an understanding of SEO ramifications. As the saying goes: "you don't know what you don't know." So be sure to consult a knowledgeable expert before handing web server access to just anyone on your staff. Otherwise, if Google fails to view your site as containing relevant content, you risk damaging the primary reason you have a website to begin with: capturing search traffic and attracting prospective customers.