Can you recover lost search rankings after a botched website redesign or CMS migration? Yes, but time matters.

Glenn Gabe

google, seo

Lost Signals During Botched Website Redesign or CMS Migration

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:
Botched 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.

YouTube video

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.

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.


2 thoughts on “Can you recover lost search rankings after a botched website redesign or CMS migration? Yes, but time matters.”

  1. Nice catch, Glenn. I too found it quite an interesting slip from Gary.

    Any idea / speculation about what these lost signals might be?
    – page age, backlink age/freshness, dwell time statistics…….?

    When Gary says “start from the bottom”, it would be nice to know if he means the signals are lost indefinitely or the signals can be regained after a while of recrawling/reindexing.


    • Thanks Hristo! Yes, very interesting nugget of information from Gary (and makes so much sense based on what I’ve seen).

      And that’s a great question. Just thinking out loud, user happiness stands out (which includes dwell time statistics). When the page gets deindexed, those stats, plus how that compares to other listings in the SERPs, are probably lost. So that’s one signal that stands out. Google has said it doesn’t use bounce rate, but they never addressed dwell time (which to me is a very strong signal to Google whether a user received the information they were looking for).

      And then you have freshness, mentions/citations when the post is first published, etc. I can imagine those signals are important to Google as well. If you reindex a post down the line, those mentions, citations, etc. don’t apply (from a freshness perspective). Again, hard to say if that’s involved with what Gary explained, but it could be.

      Regarding starting from the bottom, I’m sure a url could build up power again, but it would have regain its standing as if it were just published. So there’s no guarantee it would fully bounce back. That’s my understanding of the situation anyway… but not sure if that’s exactly what Gary meant. I hope that helps.

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