Organic Traffic Loss After A Site Migration

Sep 19, 2023featured, It Depends - An SEO Podcast, SEO

Welcome to another episode of “It Depends – An SEO Podcast,” the show where we unravel the intricate world of search engine optimization one topic at a time. In today’s episode, we delve deep into the ever-relevant issue of traffic loss during website migrations and changes. Whether you’re a seasoned SEO professional or just dipping your toes into the digital marketing waters, you’ll want to tune in as we break down the complexities of this critical aspect of website management. We’ll explore the three levels of risk associated with these transitions and provide invaluable insights into just how likely your organic traffic is to be impacted at each risk level. So, grab your headphones and prepare to navigate the shifting landscape of SEO with us on “It Depends.”

Transcript

Jay:
Hey Lindsay.

Lindsie:
How’s it going, Jay?

Jay:
It is going just fine. How are you?

Lindsie:
I’m so excited. I feel like this conversation we’re gonna have today, I feel like we’ve been talking about it all week, so it’s top of mind and very timely for us. And yeah, are you excited? Do you know what we’re gonna talk about today?

Jay:
I have no idea.

Lindsie:
Oh, all right. Well, we are going to talk about web relaunches revamps re whatever you want to call it. Every time a client or potential client comes to us and says, we’re going to redo our website, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. How much is this going to impact traffic, organic paid, whatever mostly organic? Because we don’t want to lose any traffic. Okay. Have you ever had that question before, Jay? Like all the time.

Jay:
Yeah, it feels like it’s once a week and

Lindsie:
At least.

Jay:
it is never like the same answer.

Lindsie:
Never, never. I think it is maybe one of the core reasons the name of this podcast is it depends is because it’s like one of these topics of this, this like, there are so many implications here. But I wanted to kind of further explain why this is timely right now as well. So John Mueller, who is our buddy from Google, I don’t know, Jay, you wanna give us a background on John Mueller of anybody who isn’t familiar with him?

Jay:
He is a fan of cheese and sarcastic Twitter names or ex names, sorry. Um, and he is on the search team. He’s one of the like most public facing people on the team over the last, I don’t know, five years, something like that. It’s, it’s been while. Uh, so he’s someone that will go and post on social media. where there are like SEO related questions or how Google search works related questions and give people a little peek behind the curtain as to what they should be focusing on or maybe like how certain things work. So yeah, on September 11th at 3.53 a.m. he tweeted, “No”.

Jay:
So, I mean, that is like a classic John Mueller tweet, whatever. And, you know, that’s, that’s kind of his style, but there is more here. So the way this started was ex user, at Amchandresh, I’m sorry for the name butchering said, if we will do a website revamp, is there any way to prevent loss from organic traffic keyword ranking? No, domain is remaining the same. and we’re going to do changes in folders and subfolders. That is what John replied to with a no, not even a punctuation, just two characters.

Lindsie:
That’s it.

Jay:
Very efficient. So later the next day, another user said, so does that mean that the site can’t come back to the original status? as it was before the revamp, very confusing in that case. John said, no, it means if you make a new website, revamping the old, you will have a new website. You can’t change everything and expect folks to act like nothing changed. You’re making changes for a reason, maybe to quote, improve your SEO. It wouldn’t be okay to have search engines ignore it. Further discussion. That same user with a terrible name said, I think I understand. So if we had subfolder domains for new language editions, leaving the original page untouched, will that mean Google will see the whole site as a new site? And John said, the original question was about a website revamp, which usually means the whole site changes. I wouldn’t get hung up on anything magical happening in terms of new site. If you create a new state, or change your existing state, search engines will adopt to that new state. And, you know, that got into the whole, it depends, nuance of everything where they’re talking about,

Lindsie:
right?

Jay:
like now we’re taking our existing site and catering to new languages, a site change can mean something different to everyone who experiences it. And I think that’s, that’s a big part of this topic.

Lindsie:
Yeah, and what I wanted to do from what John said and what we experience on a regular basis is explain three variations of site changes. And I don’t mean like we’re going to update an individual page or add new content, but rather we’re looking at some wide scale site wide change, look at three kind of risk levels, what those entail, why they might happen, and how much organic traffic may or may not be impacted. Again, with that clarity that john kind of gave us that if your site is changing, there’s a reason for it to change. And Google is going to look at the new version and index it as such, you know, look at it from that new piece of information that’s been provided rather than historically necessarily what was sitting in that place.

Jay:
Exactly.

Lindsie:
Okay. So I do want to like put a little bit of color too in the fact that web migrations, all of this transition is a really, really big topic. Honestly, we could talk forever about nuances and our technical guides in terms of getting a client from site A to site B or revamp the site. There’s a lot of implications. We’re not going to go into every single one of those today. Today we’re going to very focus ourselves into kind of these three variations. And if there’s people that have questions or we should talk about something in particular, that’s something that’ll probably be a bigger conversation and another conversation in the future. All right.

Jay:
so you came up with some categories, three of them.

Lindsie:
It’s a really fun alliteration. Okay, so three levels of risk. We’re gonna talk about reskinning the site. So very light changes, refurbish, which is like we’re gonna refresh certain sections and then that full revamp, which is probably mostly what John was talking about in those tweets, where it’s like, everything is changing at once. So let’s start at that like risk level one, that reskin, where a site maybe is going through a brand evolution, they wanna like have a new logo and new colors and like 99% of content and pages remain the same. When might something this light ever happen?

Jay:
I think this is, it’s very much branding means different things to different people. And on the small business side, typically that might mean your logo is changing, maybe nothing else or like visual aesthetic. We have new fonts and we used to have a lot of blue and now we have a lot of green on our website and that’s really all that happened. Uh, and I say on the smaller end, because the bigger your company is, the bigger the budgets get, the more marketing people are involved. Rebranding can get into like our messaging is changing our service offering, our target audiences. Like everything is changing and now we’re not at risk level one. So if, uh, like a reskin or rebrand to you means like we are replacing logo. JPG with logo one dot JPG and not too much else. That’s what we’re really focusing on here.

Lindsie:
So I guess looking at this too from maybe you’re a small branding agency or development agency or you own a small business and you’re like, I just want to give a light refresh to my site, but I don’t want to lose all my traffic. Um, is that possible with this type of kind of reskin level that we’re talking about?

Jay:
Probably, you know, there’s probably some edge cases where there’s some real risk, but I would say for the vast majority of folks that are in this situation where it’s just some like, you know, you’re using the same theme and just swapping out some colors and images, Google is gonna essentially see your site the same way or close enough to where you probably won’t notice any impact in your organic traffic.

Lindsie:
Right. I will, I will add one piece to this. That’s I guess also putting something at a level one that maybe is different, but a site that has no traffic or has never received traffic, the risk of any kind of migration is very low because there’s nothing to lose. So I do have meetings with clients sometimes where it’s like, you have 10 organic sessions a month or potential clients. And it’s like, Ah, you know, I think anything you do is gonna be better at this moment. And getting hung up on what was there is probably not gonna serve you versus where we could go is probably a much better conversation. So I think I would also put risk level one being that kind of we’re starting from nothing and looking to grow.

Jay:
Yeah, totally. There’s, you know, we acquired this company and they have zero web presence, or we are a B2B distributor and you have to like, log into our site with credentials that we will email you from our homepage. Literally nobody can see anything without logging in. So, you know, those sites do exist and they should just focus on making the changes they need to make. And figuring out what the SEO opportunity is going forward and not what they’re trying to preserve.

Lindsie:
for sure. Okay, so risk level one, pretty low here in terms of SEO and organic impact. So let’s go to level two now. This is that like refurbish. So this is like cleaning up types of projects. Again, there’s like a lot of ambiguity here, but it could be we have a new platform, but content isn’t changing, or we’re making major content consolidations, but the overall site isn’t changing. where we’re seeing some evolution, but it’s not everything at once. So I wanna talk about maybe some case studies or times when this has happened, why this happens, and what we’ve kind of experienced in the real world here.

Jay:
Yeah, and this one, you know, there’s, I think the most common scenarios are just, it is a straight replatform for the sake of some functionality. Like we have a new ERP or a new order management system and it just doesn’t work well with our existing site. We’re gonna replatform, we’re gonna consolidate technology under one umbrella or brand, you know, those sorts of things. And it’s just, We’re trying to keep the site as is as much as possible while moving it over to this new system. Those things happen. We’ve worked with those types of clients and sites before. And these are the ones where like, usually everything is migrating from a content standpoint. And it’s a matter of like, what gets lost along the way, or what is going to look different because the new website just doesn’t allow it to look the way it used to. And that could be. you know, if you have an e-commerce site and you have category pages that have descriptions, maybe your old site had like 17 paragraph long descriptions that were nobody was reading, but they ranked for things and whatever. And then you don’t have space for that on the new site, even though it looks essentially the same, just maybe the site flat out won’t allow it, or it would be very expensive to implement. So catching those things becomes important. but you can at least have some comfort in knowing that like the top navigation is probably staying the same. You know, the way all the links are organized in the site is probably staying the same. URLs might change and you gotta deal with that and redirect them, but at least if a URL existed on the old site, that page is somewhere on the new site. You just have to find the new URL.

Lindsie:
So do you think if you are a business owner or marketing person, whatever you are in this type of circumstance, do you think, what is the critical level of needing an SEO expert to help guide you through this? Where is the risk of doing it without an eye on SEO at this risk level too?

Jay:
I feel like these risk levels jump up pretty dramatically. Like we’re putting at this at level two and the risk is still, there could be total catastrophe and you can lose almost all of your traffic. It’s really, to me, it’s like, what is the level of creativity and experience required from the SEO team? These types of sites, I think someone who their job as SEO should be looking at it. because maybe a developer is like, hey, we don’t have time in our budget for redirecting 10,000 URLs. So we’re gonna do the ones that we can automate. And then 60% of them just, oh well, they will, those links will disappear. And an SEO person will make sure that happens, but that can be an SEO person that’s largely following a good checklist.

Lindsie:
Okay, so that’s kind of an interesting way to look at it. Like that risk level one is SEO, our organic impact, very low. Probably don’t need to pay anything fancy to kind of get to a healthy place post launch. This risk level two is like a good solid checklist will get you there. Don’t forget about SEO, there is… potentially very large scale impacts of these changes, especially when you’re talking about a replatformer, major content shifts, but you maybe don’t need to pay for the most experienced SEO team to get through this successfully. Am I hearing that right?

Jay:
Yeah, that’s how I’d look at it.

Lindsie:
Okay, all right, so we kind of understand like, okay, very basic revamps, this refurbish. I think that the meat of this and where we see the most common is this revamp. And again, I think people use this term to explain so many different things. So the this idea of a risk level three revamp is we’re going to change everything, right, we’ve got a new platform, we’re going to brand pages or a blog or we’re gonna consolidate our 100 subcategories to 50. And this is kind of where you were talking about a brand update being much broader than just colors. So talk me through this one a little bit in terms of what, when this happens and any more insights on kind of like why this happens.

Jay:
Yeah, so these things tend to just start growing out of control once they start. And it, it makes sense. Like websites are really expensive. If you’re a very small business, like, you know, five person operation or one person operation, and you’re like selling a handful of products or something. That site can easily cost you 10, $20,000. When you’re looking at. the larger businesses, the enterprise websites, or even just like a decent size, you know, e-commerce site for a business that makes like 50 to a hundred million a year in sales, those sites are well into six figures. And it’s not that people say like, we’re already spending all this money, let’s spend more. It’s one, we’re already spending this money, we may as well invest in these other things that we’ve been putting off for a long time. And

Lindsie:
do it right.

Jay:
There’s just, yeah, there’s just change that is, is going to be required. Like if you’re moving from your, your website used to be on Shopify and now it’s going to be on Magento, like there are other things, other parts of your workflow and systems that just like won’t function with the new site or they won’t function easily and you get into this debate of, well, for like our, our shipping system. We can have the developers custom code all this stuff to make it work with our existing system, or we can get a new one. And the new one is going to have some other implications in like, you know, the front end experience where people are estimating ship prices and times and, you know, it just on and on and on all of these decisions like cascade and impact each other, and you just end up changing way more than you ever anticipated going into it.

Lindsie:
Yeah. So how much impact is there on organic traffic here? What are your risk levels when everything is changing?

Jay:
Everything is at risk, really. So, you know, we said that was the case with the level two, and that is definitely the same here. It’s more like the likelihood of impact is a lot greater. And the chances that something that an SEO person has never seen before are gonna come up are much greater. So.

Lindsie:
Yeah.

Jay:
The tough part is everyone wants to know like how much impact it’s going to be. I know I’ve heard probably a couple dozen developers over the years say that like, it’s totally normal to lose half of your organic traffic when your site launches and it’ll just bounce back. Google will figure it out and it’ll come back. That’s scary. That’s putting a lot of faith in Google to, as John Mueller put it, like, look at your site the way it used to look at your site.

Lindsie:
right?

Jay:
I have like previously workplaces where we would promise no more than 10% organic traffic loss and do everything in our power to prevent that. And I mean that’s pretty much impossible to do all the time because part of these revamps and you know maybe a rebrand is involved and all this other stuff is maybe the pages on your site that drove the most organic traffic. During this process, you decide those pages aren’t going to exist on the new site.

Lindsie:
we don’t sell those products anymore or that’s not relevant to us and that’s unfortunate for traffic but that may also not be bad for the business overall. Now not saying that losing 50% of your traffic is okay because that’s probably tough for like 90% of e-commerce businesses especially but I think there is a reframe of what you… want to drive traffic to in this moment and making sure that those things are set up well.

Jay:
Yeah, so you can get close to an estimate in a perfect world of what might happen if you think of what content is being updated, changed, removed, what is happening to the structure of links within your site, like is stuff coming and going from the top navigation? Are you adding additional levels of categorization where something used to be three clicks deep from the homepage and now it’s seven clicks deep? But those things are going to have an impact. And you can do some work with spreadsheets to look at all the pages driving traffic and revenue, see what’s happening to them on the new site, and come to an estimate of what the impact is. But then there’s all the other things. Like, is the site going to be a lot slower? Is Google going to be able to even like render and see the content on the site? Or is it something where it’s… coded in a way that all Google sees as some like JavaScript instructions and nothing else.

Lindsie:
all the time. Oh my goodness. And I think especially at this risk level three and really in the level two, even before this, I hear a lot and we get clients that have launched sites recently and we’ll say, we’ve lost our traffic or a large percentage and we need to fix it. We need somebody to come in, rebuilds and it’s like. this is gonna take time. It’s unfortunately not something we can flip a switch and just start driving all the traffic back to your site. It’s just not that fast. Unfortunately, once a site launch has gone awry, and I think what we hear a lot is, well, the developers or this other team was responsible for SEO. And I think there is… a need for expert technical eyes on this process, that their number one responsibility is traffic and sales to the site rather than just from the development standpoint, because when you’re not having an individual or a team advocating for that, I think it’s easy for that to fall to the wayside and then people get real upset after the site goes live.

Jay:
Yeah, it’s like you’re going in for surgery or something and you’re like in the prep room and you’re like, hey, where’s the anesthesiologist? And the doctor’s like, oh, don’t worry, the nursing team has that covered.

Lindsie:
We got it. Don’t worry, they know how to put in an IV. It’s like the same thing, just into your spine.

Jay:
Yeah,

Lindsie:
It’s fine.

Jay:
you know, they’re, it’s, it’s all straightforward. Like you can, you can Google what the doses of different medicines are and whatever. Uh, yeah. So having, having like experts that are focused on this thing, be part of the process is important. And then also like, this is where SEO becomes kind of a liaison between marketing and development or marketing and IT. So it’s important to have someone that hopefully understands the priorities of both sides of that conversation and can advocate for what’s most important in any given moment and situation.

Lindsie:
Right. And I want to resurface something you said earlier, which was like, even if you have a good SEO team that’s done lots of these sites before, you’re going to see stuff on every launch that is different. And having a team that is able to not be that checklist focused, where it is like, very exploratory is really critical. I mean, I think we, I see something new and different with every major site launch we go through is like, okay, here’s this thing that’s broken or this isn’t working and why could this be happening? And it’s much more of a, you know, exploratory dig that we have to do to figure it out in tandem with the marketing and tech teams, right? This is not just us in this alone, but making sure you have that partner that is like not just saying, Google can’t see your site and then they walk away because again, If this is an e-commerce site where you’re relying on lots of money coming in from it, and then all of a sudden it just stops, or even a lead gen site, where you’re getting most of your business from your website and then you lose 50 plus percentage of your traffic, you gotta fix it, you gotta jump fast.

Jay:
Yeah, and that experience level is something that you just like can’t emphasize enough because let’s say you are an in-house SEO at whatever company, your company might like revamp their website every three to five years. And if that’s the only place you’ve worked or primarily where you’ve worked, that means you could have five years experience and have only been through one of these site migrations and it’s using like some outdated trends in development that aren’t relevant anymore or even if you work for an agency and you have a few years experience unless you’re working for an agency where like your entire job or almost your entire job is working with folks that are launching a new site you know you might be lucky if you’ve been through 10 or 12 of these in a decent chunk of your career. So it’s, it’s kind of uncommon from an SEO standpoint to have experience with a lot of these. And that’s where you’ve got to, I mean, you’ve got to really like dig into not just do you know some best practices, but like, you know, what have you seen? Tell me, tell me your war stories.

Lindsie:
I agree with what you’re saying there and that it’s just, I think it’s a unique piece. And I think another note is I think internal SEO people are sometimes hesitant to bring in an agency to help with something like this because of looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. But I think emphasizing the fact that, like you said, this is not a standard best practices SEO job here. And it is okay to bring in an agency that knows how to do this, work for a short-term project with them, have them help you through this, allow them to make you SEO person inside of the company look really good. And then you just keep on. I think in most cases, like we’re okay with just making an internal SEO person look good. making sure they’re set up really well, and then being there as a resource if they need us in the future. But I think it’s also a don’t be afraid to ask for help moment.

Jay:
Yeah, totally. And I think the, you got to think of like where the incentives are for everybody. Developers have gotten, I think better about aggressively pushing development retainers and ongoing relationships. And the trouble with that, even, even if you’re not thinking of, we just build this website and then we’re done, who cares what happens next is if it goes they’re going to use that development retainer. If it goes well, they’re going to use that development retainer. Like the developers are getting money no matter what in that situation, where the internal folks on the marketing SEO side, and then if you work with some external SEO, freelancer agency, whatever, those people want to like have jobs long-term with this company. So it’s in their interest to see this thing go well, hopefully. And so I think there’s a lot of inclination to just trust whatever the developers are telling you. But again, their goal is to like build stuff for you. And as long as it’s not so bad that you go out of business, they’re going to keep building stuff for you whether the SEO turns out okay or not.

Lindsie:
And this is not a conversation to beat up developers in any way. But it is a, I think we have different priorities, honestly. And they have a big job. And so we’re just trying to put a focus on something that’s really critical. Okay, so to kind of recalibrate where we’re at, we talked about a few different variations, risk levels of a site, revamp, relaunch, whatever you want to call it. If you were off the top of your head, Jay, to give some top tips to anybody going through a reskin refurbish or revamp here, what would those tips be to those people?

Jay:
I think having that expert involved, who their focus is SEO is critically important. And having them involved in all stages of the process. It is not a come in the day before launch thing, because there might be 100 hours of work that has to be redone if something is horribly wrong. So have that, that expert for SEO work fast. Once the site goes live. I forget the exact context, but Google has validated this. We’ve always had like a one week rule. If like all of the old links are coming up, not found as a 404, you know, redirects aren’t working or something else is broken. After about a week, Google is gonna just assume that it’s a permanent or long-term problem. And that’s where it goes from, we can fix this to we can maybe fix this, but it’s gonna be months. So you have to move incredibly fast once the site is live. And I think the most important thing is stuff goes wrong with every website launch. It just is part of it. It’s a big complicated thing. None of us are smart enough to get it right every time or anytime. It just always happens. And this is where everyone just needs to be focused on solutions. Just, we want this to go well. We want the things to get fixed. This is how we think we need to fix it. It doesn’t matter who did what to cause this. Let’s just worry about what we need to do now. And that needs to be your mindset.

Lindsie:
for everybody. All of us gotta work together. Okay. All right, Jay, any final parting thoughts on the John Mueller no tweet or this conversation we’ve had today?

Jay:
I think as time has gone on, I’ve gone from someone who thought you can pretty successfully maintain all your organic traffic if you really plan for it with a website revamp. I am on John’s side. I’m not going to just try and contradict what Google is saying. There’s going to be losses because there’s so much complexity and so much typically changes, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and prove it.

Lindsie:
that you shouldn’t do these things either, because there is a moment in time where you do need the new technology, or you need to refresh your catalog, these things happen. And having the right team in place to at least mitigate the pain as much as possible and work towards solutions is the number one piece I think we’re kind of coming away with here.

Jay:
Yep.

Lindsie:
All right, well, thanks Jay,

Jay:
All right, Lindsay.

Lindsie:
another great conversation.

Jay:
It was fun. Talk to you later.

Lindsie:
Yep, talk to you later. Bye!

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