How a website upgrade could kill your business

Just like cars, you can tell an old website when you see one. But when it comes to upgrading your site, there’s a common mistake that can severely hurt your business.

A couple of years ago we had to resuscitate a company’s website rankings after their previous web design company launched an upgrade to their website that went horribly wrong.

The worst part was that the big mistake wasn’t even visible. The new website actually looked good – both on desktop and mobile devices. The pages loaded fast and had been built on a modern platform.

But there was a problem behind the scenes that almost killed the business.

The big problem was that all the URLs of their website pages had changed with the launch of the new site. It’s common for URLs to change with website upgrades, but on this particular upgrade even the home page URL had changed. The home page previously looked like and was now

This shouldn’t have been a problem, as it can be solved by setting up a “redirect” for each old URL. This means that whenever someone tries to view the old page they are immediately redirected to the new page, without even noticing.

However, the crucial mistake was that the previous web design company forgot to set up these redirects – which is common mistake. That’s where things got messy.

Whenever someone went directly to the domain name, the website worked perfectly.  But whenever someone searched on Google and then clicked a link to the site, Google sent them to the old page URL and the user saw a “Page Not Found” error message.

This meant that all of their traffic from Google could no longer see a working website – they just saw the error page. Very quickly the phone stopped ringing with new enquiries. It was killing the business.

But Analytics Didn’t Show the Problem Immediately

An extra tricky part of the equation is that when the client viewed their Google Analytics reports, the traffic still looked strong for the month the new site was launched. The following month their organic traffic from Google  was down, and then the month after that it plummeted. They engaged us to urgently investigate.

So why did their Analytics traffic look fine if people were getting “Page Not Found” errors?

The reason is because anyone who sees a “Page Not Found” error is still counted in Analytics as a website visitor! The default “site content” view shows the URL the person visited – but doesn’t say whether or not this is a valid URL. It’s only when you dig into the data further then you can see that the page they’re viewing is called “Page Not Found”. So the overall visitor numbers gave the false impression the traffic was fine.

So what caused the sudden plummet two months later?

The month after the new site launch traffic was a little down overall, and then the following month after that it plummeted. 

The reason for this is that Google doesn’t want to give users a bad user experience when they click on links.  So after a number of weeks of the site still showing “page not found” errors, Google then removed all of those broken URLs from its results.  This is what caused the dramatic drop in organic traffic, as the old URLs that were ranking well were removed from Google’s search results and the new URLs were buried on page 2 or 3 (or worse).  

Even with active search engine optimisation (SEO) work, it took many months to recover the rankings.

So, if you’re planning on a website upgrade, I recommend talking to your web development company about these two crucial points: 

Firstly, make sure they have a thorough plan for implementing redirects for all pages that receive regular traffic from Google. The bigger the site, the more crucial this is. 

We launched a large ecommerce upgrade for a client last year and made sure that that every product, product category and content page had redirects from the old URLs to the new ones – 1751 redirects in total! This meant that every website visitor was redirected to the correct product instead of ending up on an error page. It also meant that the strong website rankings the old site had achieved were retained by the new site.

Secondly, be sure to discuss who will be responsible for monitoring any URLs that give “Page Not Found” errors.  Even with thorough planning some URLs might be missed, so someone needs to be responsible to monitoring and then adding redirects to fix those errors. Fixing the URLs fast is important for keeping your organic traffic strong. 

We implement redirects and monitor Page Not Found errors for all websites built with Duoplus.

Website upgrades are well worth doing. Just be sure to apply these two steps to avoid the nightmare of a website upgrade killing your business.

Josh Moore

Josh Moore leads the team at Duoplus – a Hamilton-based digital marketing agency that helps businesses generate more leads & sales through highly measurable online marketing.

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