When building a new website, retaining and improving your SEO and organic traffic should be a key design goal. This requires a clear understanding of how SEO and website design work together and careful planning for the site migration. If everything is done correctly, you should retain (and improve) rankings and traffic.
Unfortunately, in the real world, this is often not what happens. The site launches. Organic traffic tanks. And then panic sets in. Unfortunately, I get a call like this every week. Most often from small business owners where the loss of organic traffic means that leads or sales slow down and put the business at risk.
It is important to realize that all is not lost and in the majority of cases, there are a few usual suspects to blame for the loss of traffic. In this article, I cover how to diagnose and recover traffic and rankings when a website design goes wrong.
Step 1 – Gathering Information
We don’t need a lot here but in an ideal world we would want the following:
- Google Analytics
- Google Search Console
- Date of launch
- Website URL
- Historic or alternative URLs
- Historic keyword rankings (if available)
Step 2 – Confirmation
Now it’s time to dive into Google Analytics and Search Console and review the traffic drop. What we are looking for here is a drop starting the day or week of the redesign. This drop may be slow and steady or often a sudden, stark decrease.
As an example, the below image shows a 90 percent traffic drop. This was a failed redesign for a charity. They contacted us after this happened and we did some pro-bono work to help them get back on track. This was probably the worst case I have seen but it demonstrates how badly things can go wrong with organic traffic.
Your first port of call here should be Google Analytics:
Google Analytics > Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels
To further confirm a big drop in traffic we can look at just organic traffic or a variety of channels. If we see an organic drop and other channels are relatively unaffected, then this further indicates that the redesign is the culprit here.
If you have Google Search Console and keyword rankings then these can all be reviewed to help you confirm the date of the drop.
Step 3 – Understanding the Losses
Before we can hope to improve things we have to understand the losses to aid us in our analysis and remediation. To do this we want to get a better understanding of keyword rankings and pages that were most affected.
If you have historic ranking data then run these reports to get an overview of some key areas where positions may have been lost. Where historic keyword rankings are not available, some popular SEO tools can provide historic ranking data for analysis. Alternatively, the site owner will typically have an idea of what keywords they used to rank for – this is not terribly scientific but it can give us an idea (which we can look to verify in Search Console if available).
Landing page traffic
We will want to compare before and after traffic in:
Google Analytics: Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages
If we have a few weeks (or longer) since the migration we can compare to the period prior and see which pages were generating the most traffic.
This can be tricky as often page names change in a redesign. So, you have to identify the pages that ranked and received the most traffic and compare them to the counterpart on the new site.
In the worst case scenario, we may find content or pages that were present on the previous site but that has not been created on the new site. No content. No traffic. If the content exists on the new site but is just not receiving traffic then we may be looking at more of a technical issue.
If this is a large site, it can help to put this information in a spreadsheet so you can match up the old and new pages for easy reference.
I am a big fan of using the Wayback Machine here to view the previous version of the site: https://web.archive.org/. With this tool, we can take a look at these pages that were ranking and compare them to the relevant pages on the new site. Again, this can better help us understand physical changes to the pages.
Step 4 – Usual Suspects
With an understanding of the losses we can look at the common problems and what we can do to put things right in each scenario.
Redirects. Whether missing or misconfigured is the most common issue we see. When launching a new site, we want to do one of the following for all important pages:
- keep the URLs the same (ideal)
- 301 redirect from the old page to the new page
A simple way to test this is to get together 10 or so of the highest traffic URLs from the previous site (from analytics or the Wayback Machine) and attempt to visit these pages in a browser. If there is no redirect then this is part of your problem.
If the pages do redirect you need to check them in a tool like ScreamingFrog or any online HTTP header tool (there are many free ones available) to ensure that you see a 301 redirect to the correct page.
A site owner I was talking to recently had a basic grasp of SEO and had tested the redirects so was sure they were okay. When I checked the headers they were all 302 temporary redirects. That issue got fixed and traffic started to climb back to original levels.
In another recent job, the in-house marketing team had tested all old URLs and could see that they all had a 301 redirect in place. Unfortunately, they had not checked the pages they were redirected to as these were all 404s.
You really have to test this end-to-end. In a browser. In a crawling tool. Test all old URLs. Test redirected pages. Make sure it works and verify all important redirects.
Another common issue is that content that performed previously is no longer on the site. If the content does not exist, then you can’t rank. Ensure that all high traffic content is present and the correct redirects are in place.
This can take a bit more manual effort but work through the high traffic pages that you identified in Step 3 and you can get an idea of what is happening. If those pages now just 404 or redirect to a generic page (homepage is a dead giveaway) then you likely have a content issue.
Changes to content can also have an impact. If a page is present but the content has been changed then you will need to perform a qualitative review. Is the new page as good as the old page? What has changed? The web archive is your friend here.
Protocol and domain issues
If your site was previously on http://example.com and with the new site you also make changes to the protocol (https), subdomain (www), or domain then your redirects need to take this into consideration. https://www.example-2.com is not the same as http://example.com. Here you just need careful consideration of how your redirects are put together and an attention to detail regarding the domain, subdomain, and protocol.
In 2018, many sites have several previous iterations, often with many changes to the protocol, domain name, and subdomains. We have seen cases where the migration was seemingly handled well but traffic was still falling. The cause ended up being related to a historic change of domain which was not taken into consideration.
As an example:
2008 – 2016 the site ran on www.example.com
2016 – 2017 – the site used www.example-2.com with www.example.com 301 redirected
When a new site was launched in 2018, the migration was handled correctly from the old to the new but the developers had no knowledge of the previous domain and that historic redirect was never put in place. Unfortunately, in one key example the original domain that had over 10 years history was lost.
The takeaway here is to look back and understand any historic domain changes and redirects prior to this initial design.
Sometimes the new site is just not well put together and the problems relate to the technical optimization of the new site. Crawl issues, canonical URLs, indexation – there is a lot that can go wrong. In this case, you will want to conduct an SEO and website audit to ensure that the technical SEO is 100 percent dialed in.
As with technical, sometimes the optimization does not make it from the old to the new site. Sadly, we still see sites with the same page title on all pages and other real basics just not done properly. Crawl your site and make sure the basics are done correctly.
Something else here to consider is the impact that a website migration can have. This is something at my agency that we call turbulence. The bigger and more complicated the site, the more turbulence we can see. The main point here is to be patient. Check everything. Double check everything. But if traffic is jumping around a bit for a few weeks as long as you are sure everything is in good order just hold steady whilst the new pages get indexed and the older pages fall out of the index.
Step 5 – What if Everything Seems Okay?
So you launched your new site. You had a solid migration plan. You have checked everything over and there are no issues. But, you are still losing traffic. What gives?
Is your analytics set up working correctly? Make sure all pages are correctly tagged and are reporting page views. Consider recent changes like AMP pages.
Did your website launch in the timeframe of a Google Algorithm change? The Panguin Tool allows you to map your analytics reports to a timeline of all Google updates. Using this tool you can identify if your traffic drop lines up with a specific algorithm update.
Does your traffic always take a downward turn at this time of year? Review analytics for previous years and Google Trends to ensure this is not just a natural downturn.
Changes to search engine page layouts can impact organic traffic. Featured snippets or even the move from three to four ads can have an impact on clicks. Ensure there are no mitigating factors here.
If your SEO has not always been squeaky clean then it is worth checking you don’t have a manual penalty. Log in to Search Console and take a look under manual actions.
Security issues / Hacking
Hacking and security issues can also impact traffic. If your site has been hacked you should get a notification in Search Console and your SERP listings will likely show a “This site may be hacked” or a “This site may harm your computer” below your URL. Google does not always get this though, so run a site: command for your URL to review indexed pages and identify anything suspicious.
Getting Back on Track
In an ideal world, we would never find ourselves in this situation. We would ensure we know everything there is to know about SEO and web design and carefully plan for a site migration to preserve our SEO.
But, if you do find yourself in this undesirable situation, then following the steps here should help you get your SEO back on track and your small business SEO on point once more.