There are times companies reach out to me in a panic after going through a botched website redesign or CMS migration. I’ve unfortunately seen the situation many times. Basically, the redesign or migration goes live, all the urls change, and the 301 redirection plan bombs. Either the company didn’t implement a redirection plan at all, or the redirects aren’t working like they are supposed to. So the old urls 404 (and drop from Google’s index). And when urls change without 301 redirects in place, search equity is lost, rankings plummet, and traffic tanks.
Here’s an example of a bad CMS migration SEO-wise:
Now, some companies reach out to me very quickly, while others reach out weeks or even months later. And based on my experience, the time in between the botched redesign and how quickly you address those problems, makes a big difference in the degree to which you can recover. For example, if you catch a redirection problem quickly, and rectify that problem, then you can still end up with a successful redesign or CMS migration SEO-wise. But if you wait too long, and then try to fix those redirects, you often will not recover the lost rankings (at least quickly).
Gary Illyes and Virtual Keynote 2 – An interesting nugget of information.
On May 5th, Eric Enge hosted a virtual keynote with Google’s Gary Illyes. It was a great session packed with excellent nuggets of SEO information. I highly recommend you watch the entire video. By the way, if you’re wondering how to pronounce Gary’s last name, it’s “ee-yaysh”. I asked him that specifically one time because I was bringing him up a lot in presentations and wanted to get it right. :)
At 55:16 in the video, Mark Traphagen asked Gary a user-submitted question about mistakenly noindexing a page that was ranking well. Mark asked if you catch that problem, remove the meta robots tag using “noindex”, have the page reindexed, then can the page recover its lost rankings?
Gary’s answer was super-interesting. He explained that time matters. For example, if the page was just removed from the index for a few days and then reindexed, the signals would still be intact and you could probably regain the rankings you had. So you would be ok if the page was deindexed for just a few days.
But, and this is an incredibly important point, if the page was removed from the index for weeks or months, and then reindexed, some of the signals would be lost. So the page might not regain all of its rankings. Actually, Gary said, “you will pretty much start from the bottom”. Again, the timeframe for remaining noindexed (and out of Google’s index) matters.
What this means for SEOs and Webmasters Going Through a Website Redesign or CMS Migration
Tying what I just explained to redesigns and CMS migrations, this explains what happens when you let a botched redirection plan sit for too long. If you catch it quickly, then you can fix the redirects and probably still end up with a successful redesign or migration (SEO-wise). But if you let the botched redirects sit for weeks or months, and then implement redirects down the line (trying to fix the problem), you might still end up with a serious problem SEO-wise. Remember, many of the old urls that were once ranking well could be returning 404 header response codes (Not Found). Those urls would start dropping from Google’s index.
If you implement redirects way down the line (weeks or months), you will regain lost inbound links, which is good. But Gary explained that “some signals” would be lost. Inbound links are just one signal. There are dozens (or more) based on what Gary explained during the virtual keynote.
The moral of the story is to get the redirection plan in place from the start (and execute that plan flawlessly.) Don’t risk having a botched redirection plan that can sit for too long. If you do, you could end up leaking important urls, losing search equity, rankings, and traffic. And that’s even if you fix the redirects down the line.
How To Successfully Redesign Your Site (or Migrate to a new CMS) Without Destroying SEO
I’ve written extensively about this topic in previous posts and columns, so I’m not going to cover the topic in detail today. But I will provide a bulleted list below, along with several links, that can help anyone looking to redesign or migrate their website.
- Plan accordingly (and thoroughly). Don’t just pull the trigger and hope for the best.
- Make sure someone is helping you that truly understands SEO. That could be someone internally at your company, an SEO agency, or consultant. But do not launch a redesign or migration without someone helping you prepare, test, and monitor the process SEO-wise.
- Nail the 301 redirection plan. If you don’t, you will pay dearly. Know your top landing pages, make sure those pages are accounted for during the redesign or migration, and test your redirects thoroughly in a staging environment (and then as soon as the redesign or migration goes live.) Remember, you can fix redirect problems quickly and still be ok.
- Here are some articles I’ve written that can help you prepare:
Summary – Time is NOT on your side.
When it comes to botched redirection plans, the Rolling Stones had it wrong. Time is definitely not on your side. If you botch the redirection plan, and urls fall out of Google’s index, you need to act fast. If you do fix the problem quickly, those urls can regain their previous rankings. But if you wait weeks or months before fixing the problem, those urls will probably not regain those rankings (at least quickly). So if you are about to go through a redesign or CMS migration, make sure you execute the redirection plan flawlessly. That’s how you can maintain search equity throughout the launch.