Do You Know Where Your Website’s Been?


As an agency that specializes in redeveloping outdated or underperforming Web sites and applications, we’re continually picking up where someone else – designer, programmer, agency – left off. This can pose unique challenges, especially when it comes to SEO.

Most designers or developers will tell you that they would prefer to start a site from the ground up, creating a brand new design that’s all their own, accompanied by clean, solid code. Having complete control of a site’s “upbringing,” after all, allows proper oversight from start to finish.

SEO falls within that oversight. Just as in design, where a carefully chosen color scheme can cement an organization’s personality, thorough SEO planning from project inception can help to bolster a site’s success.

It would seem obvious then, that before taking on a redesign we’d do our homework on a predecessor’s SEO tactics, yes? I mean it’s not all about design, right? We’ve been building sites from the ground up for years; by now, you’d think these principles were baked into our DNA. And yet as we recently learned, sometimes it’s the most obvious things that slip through the cracks. Here’s the tale.

A couple of months ago, we noticed that the search engine rankings and overall traffic to a major client’s site had dropped suddenly and significantly. This well-designed site (we actually won an award), on which we had implemented all of the tenets of proper on-page and off-page optimization, had practically disappeared from Google’s radar.

Our first reaction was disbelief. We felt we had done everything right. We were meticulous in our site preparation, and moreover, we hadn’t ever received a manual penalty from Google (which might have given us some clue as to what had happened). We were at a loss.

We ran down our checklist of the factors in our control that could have warranted this outcome; duplicate content, poor site structure, page errors, keyword stuffing and so forth. All non-issues. Then we ran a link detox report.

A-ha. Over 3,000 links came back marked “deadly risk.” But how? What could we have done to cause this? Turns out that “we” didn’t do anything. And that was the problem.

Before signing on with us 3 years ago for a comprehensive site redesign, our client had employed a consultant to drive search traffic. It appears that this group had done whatever it took to point links back to the client’s site – a practice now acknowledged as a major no-no. Clearly, this activity got picked up by Google’s Penguin algorithm update and now our client was paying the price.

For those of you that haven’t experienced a complete wipeout of your client’s search engine results, the effects are sobering, to say the least. We felt that we’d let the client down – that we did something “bad”– even though we had only the best intentions and had approached the project with our typical passion, energy and focus.

Blame the previous agency? Sure. But the bitter reality was that as the team hired to do the re-design, we were the stewards of our client’s site. We were responsible, and we had taken our eyes off the ball. So focused were we on design, UX and development, we neglected to implement key aspects of fundamental search engine optimization.

Once the initial shock subsided, we moved fast and created a disavow file, which we submitted to Google the same day we received the toxic link report.

About a month has since gone by, and in the interim, we’ve started to build links back up, slowly and carefully from only the most relevant, highest quality sources. (In this regard, Moz Local is a great place to start for both local optimization, and for building a strong pool of backlinks.)

Below is an example of the disavow file we compiled for the project. For guidance on how to create one from scratch, check out these guidelines.

sample of disavow file

It will most likely be a couple more months before we start to see any real improvement in search rankings. We’ve been completely transparent with our client, who to their credit have chosen to focus on the historically high quality of our service to them, rather than on this one-time (albeit significant) misstep.

And from all of this drama, we’ve learned a valuable lesson: whether its design, development or a program of formal SEO services, know the history of your client’s Web site. This means taking the time to find out what was being done before your agency and all of its good intentions arrived on the scene. It requires effort, but what you’ll discover will provide invaluable guidance to both you and your client, and safeguard against catastrophes such as the one we experienced.

If you do nothing else, at the start of every redesign, consider the following: 

  • Run a back-link report. From project inception, find out who is linking to your client’s site and why. Products like Raven or Moz Analytics offer basic, low-cost tools to do the job. If you discover multiple low-value links or links from less-than-reputable sites, address those immediately via the process outlined above, so that search engines have time to acknowledge and address the issue as you’re working on the redesign. 
  • Ask about the client’s previous Web consultants. What tactics were they executing for the client? Were they providing monthly or quarterly analytics reports? Don’t be surprised if the client doesn’t have a clue – but sometimes, even the smallest bit of history can help.

We’d be interested in hearing from other businesses, professionals and agencies on this topic. How thorough are your site on-boarding processes? Have you too found yourselves in “Web Siberia” due to someone else’s SEO tactics? Let us know – we’d love to hear how you made it back.

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