Lessons Learned from Losing All our Rankings after a Bad Site Revamp

Goodbye Rankings

“We’re doing a revamp of the website, Sean.”

That’s what my client said late last year before the disaster.

“We need a new look. We need to make our site mobile responsive…”

Totally agree with my client on that end. So I advised them on just one thing.

“Make sure you make the URLs the same for our important pages and landing pages.”

That’s all I asked.

Then January came. The site was launched – and while there was huge celebration happening on the other side of the world (because this was an global company), my brain was having a heart attack.

The URLs were all changed.

Summary: Two-word, fat-head keywords in the first page, first place. We were on top of the world. Then our client went through a site revamp with a third party developer and everything went to hell. Here’s how we recovered and the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

 

A few weeks later, our keywords slipped from Rank 1 (yes, we were able to rank our keywords in the first place for extremely competitive two-word keywords) to Not in Top 100.

This client has been with us for three awesome years and the contract renewal period was nearing. However, when all of our keywords slipped off to Not in Top 100, all my hopes of renewing the contract (worth over $30,000) flew out the window.

We were screwed.

Was a Revamp Needed?

Short answer: Yes. A site revamp was necessary for the client’s site. It was out of trend in terms of design, had problems responding for mobile and tablet screens and generally felt clunky.

However, the revamp was rushed by upper management. They only had 2 months for the revamp before a hard launch date. For a big, corporate company, a move like that was like pulling an angry grizzly bear out of a rabbit hole.

They knew there were consequences in terms of usability and searchability – they just didn’t understand how bad those consequences would be.

I sent them an irritating number of emails about it (thank God they weren’t that irritated). However most of them were left unanswered.

I can’t really blame my client because the 2-month deadline was really a steep climb. I imagine that they lacked lots of sleep during the time and charged forward with blood-shot eyes without really thinking about anything else than launching the site on the hard deadline.

All the advice I gave was put on the sidelines until sadly, it was too late.

What got Broke?

Here’s a summary of the things that went wrong:

  1. The landing pages we were using to rank our keywords were not rebuilt
  2. The URL structure was drastically changed by the third party developer
  3. They compiled all their services (which were our keywords) in one page with little bits of content to show for
  4. Because the URL structure was drastically changed, all the links we built to those URLs were lost
  5. Internal links disappeared
  6. Blog entries we wrote were not revived (approximately 384 posts)
  7. Sitemap was completely destroyed
  8. Images turned to ghost so we lost a lot of traffic from image search

Here’s an image that summarizes how our rankings dropped:

Client Keyword Rankings went to hell

If it’s not so clear to you, let me put things in a simpler light:

Client Keyword Rankings went to hell1

Things looked good until…

Client Keyword Rankings went to hell2

It was a complete wreck.

What we did to Restore Rankings

I’ll try to keep this post short and concise by outlining what we did and where we are now after our recovery efforts.

1) We communicated extensively with the client and educated them about the importance of getting the old URLs back

Because we had their trust by working with them for over three years now, they listened intently and we agreed on the solution to recover their old URLs. They sent us a backup copy of the old site and we immediately got to work on reviving the old URLs.

At first, the landing pages for the old URLs were non-existent so we took to 301 redirects at .htaccess. What we did was redirect all the old URLs to the next best page in trying to signal to Google that “the links aren’t broken”.

Otherwise those links will rot. Link rot is not good. Plus it makes those links a target for broken linkbuilders.

2) We rebuilt the old landing pages

We took to work on getting the old landing page back. Ever heard the phrase “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” ? Well those landing pages were working perfectly fine before the disaster so we wanted them back the way they were before.

However with the new design up and running now, the design changed and that’s fine so long as the content is the same.

After the landing pages were brought back to life, we revised the .htaccess file and removed the 301 redirects because the URLs were now alive with their respective landing pages again.

3) We revived the blog

We wrote a whole lot of blog posts there to thicken the index and suck up organic links. The blog is one of the most important pieces of our work for three long years. Having the entire blog disappear is like chopping off my arms and legs – and then asking me to fly.

We haggled hard for the blog to be revived. At first the client wanted new stuff in the new site. I know the feeling of starting afresh but if you’re in an extremely tight competitive space like where my client was, the blog is definitely a non-negotiable.

The blog going alive meant getting our inbound broken links fixed. It meant that a lot of ghost images are now alive again. It meant that we have significantly more internal links.

It meant a lot of things.

It meant getting my limbs back – and even if I still can’t fly, it felt pretty damn good.

So Far so Good

We still haven’t recovered 100%. With the sample chart of 4 keywords I showed you earlier, you’ll notice that we have significantly recovered.

On our way back to rank againWe’re really not ‘there’ yet. We haven’t regained our previous ranking spots but we’re mighty darn proud that we have been able to swing back. We’re now inching closer to our previous rankings and hopefully will be back on top in a few months time.

The best thing about all this?

Just yesterday we were given the good news.

Our contract is being renewed.

Lessons Learned

  1. If your company can do the revamp for the client, do it. We lost the bid because our client did not appreciate our expertise in SEO that tied in to our web development processes. I should have communicated this better.
  2. Google is willing to swing you back but will not give you your previous rankings after 4 months of AWOL. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to get our exact rankings back. That’s a lot of extra work for me and my team but we’re happy to be able to jump back after 4 months of disastrous SEO.
  3. Retaining URL structure is extremely important. This isn’t a new lesson but I have been reminded by this – rather painfully so.
  4. Take the extra mile to explain what happened to your clients and what it will take to get back on track. Clients have lots of things in mind and like us, you may be put on the sidelines for a while – until they feel the consequences of that. Communication is a huge way to keep your rankings straight.
  5. Pray. Hard.

That’s it so far. I’m confident that we’ll be able to recover our exact rankings. It’s been a heck of a ride these past 4 months for me and the SEO Hacker team – but this event has been also a huge cause of celebration for us.

If you enjoyed this post, let me know in the comments section below.

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  • ROSHAN

    Never read something like this. More than the lessons learned I loved the way you wrote. I would love to read more such articles from you.

  • Dhinesh K2B Solutions

    Thanks Sean for this wonderful article. We also recently revamped our website but still we are on the track and we never went down on our ranking. We wanted to make sure that nothing goes down. Thanks to our content and SEO team. Waiting for more articles from you.

    • That’s a really good thing. Really good thing.

  • Geoffrey Cooling

    I feel your pain, we have had customers do absolutely mental stuff, however, not nearly as bad as your experience. Well done, great job to recover even what you have.

    • Thanks Geoffrey! Hope you never have to go through what we’ve been through.

  • Because canonicalization doesn’t pass link value 100%. I know 301 redirects from htaccess loses approximately 15% of link equity but IMHO canonicalization makes you lose more. In any case, having the original landing pages have the best positive impact vs all other options.

  • A client of our renamed the url of his page and made the same mistake!

    God that is awful!

  • wonderful article sean

  • Renee G

    Thank you for this great article. You ‘d been committed to your client’s success for 3 years, and you were actually not responsible for the ranking loss, I’m sure they would have renewed their confidence in your team anyway, but the extra mile to explain and be very honest and clear about the situation and what it would take to recover just reinforced their confidence. your experience teaches a lot not only from a technical point of view but also how to build solid relation with clients. Thanks a lot.

  • companymh

    Really interesting and informative article and it is useful information. I will share this article to my social media account. Thanks for sharing

  • brij’s bhalla

    excellent information posted here. i found my many questions answered in this article. thank you.

  • Ben Compo

    My client is revamping their site to new one. We will probably go on live in the next couple of weeks. Thank you Sean, this will surely helps.

    • Glad you were able to drop by before your actual revamp!

  • pooja nain

    Hy sean si,

    Really interesting and informative article and it is useful information. I will share this article to my social media account. Thanks for sharing

  • Digitera

    Its good that you recover from that worst situation…Thanks for sharing these valuable stuff so that we learners will be careful next time.

  • Very informative article, thanks for sharing this. I am going to revamping – redesigning my website this information will definitely helps me me.