The somber glow of the screen share multiplied the anguish brewing in the pit of our stomachs.
“This can’t be happening...”
We were staring at a Google Analytics “Audience” report that looked like a cliff to nowhere. 94% of the website’s traffic was gone.
Flashback to April 2016
The CEO of this 40 year old industrial manufacturing company - Let’s call him Neil - asked us to prepare a technical SEO audit for a re-branding project that included migrating his domain from WordPress to HubSpotCOS.
Neil had recently read about content marketing and the successes other manufacturers were enjoying after implementing an inbound program.
He studied how it could improve his sales and marketing results, and became convinced that it was the right thing to do for the ongoing success of his firm.
Setting off on his quest, Neil hired an agency with good design skills and a decent track record of building websites.
We sent them the technical SEO audit we prepared, and they started building his new website and landing pages.
6 months later, in September, they flipped the DNS switch on the migration.
Within 72 hours of going live, the leads and phone calls stopped.
It wasn't a holiday weekend or a hacker that deleted the content. The site had solid domain authority, 3,200 keywords attached to it, and a strong backlink profile from relevant industry sites.
So, why did the traffic grind to a halt?
When drastic changes happen to a website’s traffic, most search engine optimizers (SEOs) start with a low-level audit.
You’d be surprised how many of the smartest, most creative, technical minds, overlook the basics of SEO and end up stabbing themselves in the foot because of it.
Advanced SEO techniques and the latest news about Google algorithm changes are important, but when you crack open the hood on a website, making sure the 101 level stuff (like “Is the ‘power cord plugged in?” Just kidding.) can be surprisingly effective.
Thankfully, in Neil's case, we had a roadmap to follow.
The comprehensive checklist built into the SEO report we created revealed the answer.
You know the disappointment you feel when your drop your double-scoop waffle cone of rocky road on the floor? Yeah...that’s exactly how we felt when we cracked open the report.
Item 1 instructed the agency to: “Add 301 redirects from the old domain pages to the correct path on the new site.”
Item 2 in the report said, “Re-submit sitemap.xml via Google Search console after the redirects are in place.”
Item 3 said, “Force ssl (https) on all site pages for the new domain”
Strike #3, Game over.
None of the meticulously prepared and super basic steps were implemented. Not one.
Turning the Traffic Tide
When NASA was tasked with landing a man on the moon (while still breathing), the first thing they did was prove they could hit the Moon.
The fundamental laws of technical SEO follow the same pattern. If we want to prove we can top a Google’s SERP, we need to make sure we can at least get listed.
Question #1 here is “Are we absolutely sure Google can spider & index my site?”
In Neil’s case, the answer was no.
The very first item in the report, 301 redirects, were never added and ruined Google’s ability to send traffic from search to the new pages.
Fueling the traffic death spiral was the omitted sitemap.xml file -- or the lack of a newly-created file which would have instructed Google on how to absorb the new website pages.
Ignoring two astonishingly simple SEO tasks, redirects & sitemap files, nearly caused the collapse of a 40-year old business. Add in a missing SSL certification and we had a recipe for a complete Google debacle.
These sparks that killed the traffic could have been avoided with just two days worth of work.
There were other issues contributing to the decline, but within about 45 days, the traffic levels were back to normal thanks to three things.
The 3 Pillars of SEO
The moral of this story is it literally pays to review weaknesses in your technical foundation, and solidify those pillars to deliver a consistent user experience to site visitors.
When you look at it through the lens of delivering a great web experience, it makes sense that Google would reward or punish a site based on the ability to get the user to the answer they’re looking for with the least amount of resistance.
However, the diminishing law of returns applies here. With hundreds of technical bits and pieces to analyze, overwhelm is a constant battle.
How then do we laser focus on the things that matter most? What are they?
The 3 main pillars of SEO to tackle are:
That green lock icon in the browser matters more than ever.
If your site isn’t secure, not only will Google penalize you by lowering your rank, but users may feel unsafe visiting or submitting forms on your website.
Securing your site with an SSL certificate has never been easier or less expensive. Just do it.
You may have heard this statistic before: For every second of additional load time, a site loses 7% of its conversion.
When people are on Google, they’re expecting quick answers (especially on mobile) and if you can provide them, you’ll be rewarded handsomely.
Recognizing this, in April of 2018, Google rolled out mobile-first indexing for keywords and, in July 2018, they're making mobile site speed a ranking factor.
Don’t neglect it!
Google’s spider weaves its way through your website using the links it finds on every page. You can help the spider do its job by giving it a roadmap (aka your sitemap) to follow.
If your site has pages you don’t want Google to list, like login pages or internal documents, you can tell it to avoid those folders or file types as well.
We’ll dive deeply into this topic at IMPACT Live 2018, but the two files that give you this superpower to control Google are:
Now, let’s pretend that the spider is happily weaving its way through the sitemap connecting your pages. If it finds a broken link on its journey, it saves that error and marks it as a “404 page not found."
If you have too many 404s, Google can devalue your site, and decrease the amount of traffic it sends your way.
The fix for 404s is redirecting the links that point to those "page(s) not found" to other live pages on your site.