Do Websites Always Lose Traffic After a Redesign?

few years ago we were brought in on a project after a new site had been launched and the client lost 60% of their lead flow. This was a client that relied on their website almost exclusively for all their leads.

This was a complete restructure, "reskinning," and merging of 3 different websites. A complex project if the client didn't rely so much on the site for leads. Much more complex because of that. Redesigning a site of that scale without someone well-versed in IA and SEO is unbelievably risky. You're pretty much rolling the dice, even with a team that's great in everything else (design, content, etc).

You can't really blame anyone involved. The dominant approach to "redesigning" a site is to completely relaunch everything, so it's completely normal. Nobody knew the risks involved, and because of that, they paid a heavy cost.

We figured out the cause. There was a tool on the site that was ranking near the top of search for a very high volume set of keywords, driving a lot of search traffic, and that traffic was as good a fit with their target customer as I'd ever seen. In addition to this unbelievable SEO goldmine they had sort of stumbled upon by accident, there was also quite a bit of traffic coming from other sites linking to the tool.

The tool had a variety of functions, and each function lived on its own, unique URL. When the site was redesigned, the tool's URL structure was changed, and while 301 redirects were put in place for the tools "home" page, none were created for the tool's sub pages. And those sub pages had all the links and traffic. So we determined that 2 major factors contributed to the traffic loss:

  1. First, because no 301 redirects were in place for the tool's sub pages, Google dropped those pages from the search results and all that traffic disappeared overnight.
  2. Second, the sites that were linking to the tool, sending quite a bit of traffic and propping up its rankings, noticed those subpages were gone and they changed their links to point to competing tools on other websites. Links from other sites play a factor in rankings, so not only did the client lose all the traffic coming from those sites, those links were now pointing at the competition and probably weren't coming back. So even after Google indexed the new URLs, the site's rankings never recovered - they basically handed the competition the entire first page.

As long as the competition doesn't screw up, they'll probably never lose those rankings. It would be possible to bump them out but it would take a lot of commitment and expertise. The client was doing so well because they were one of the first sites in this space to offer a tool like this and there was a lot of demand for it. But they didn't even realize that's where most of their leads were coming from.

The tool wasn't complex, the client was just the first to create it, and by the time of this redesign, hundreds of other such tools were online. There were a number of other issues that contributed to the overall drop in traffic and leads, but this accounted for most of the effect.

We worked with the client to solve the issues, but even after that, leads never recovered to previous levels. This is a client in the double-digit millions in annual revenue that lost most of their lead flow from their primary traffic source. This was the most extreme case I've ever seen, but less extreme cases are surprisingly common.

So what's the solution? It depends.

If you can get away with it, don't change everything all at once. Big tech companies have learned this. Look at Facebook, Amazon, or Google. These companies would never changes everything all at once and without detailed testing.

Hell, they don't even totally revamp their design all at once, let alone every aspect of the site.

And that's because it's incredibly risky. As you change more components of a website, it becomes exponentially more complex to prevent problems like this and to diagnose and fix them if they do occur.

The ideal approach is to allocate budget to ongoing website improvements, testing the impact of those improvements as you go. That way you have data to ensure your changes have a positive impact. That's certainly not easy either, but when the alternative is such a crap shoot, it's definitely the smarter approach.

An alternative approach, although slightly more risky, is to only change one major component at a time: Change the aesthetic design, or the site structure, or the content, or the tools and resources, but don't change all of them at once.

Unfortunately, taking an incremental approach to website improvement is politically infeasible in many organizations today. So, if you must completely redo your entire site all at once, consider budgeting for some due diligence in the planning phases to prevent too big a loss.

This obviously isn't necessary if your website is just a brochure site and doesn't drive a lot of business by itself. But if it is, you're risking an incredibly valuable asset by changing everything at once without a lot of due diligence to ensure nothing goes wrong.

John Crenshaw
John Crenshaw
UFO company founder. 15+ years experience in performance marketing.
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