Most of our clients had websites before they came to us, and most of those sites were pretty terrible. It’s easy for us web designers to be heroes if the client’s old site was a ghastly beast that didn’t rank on Google.
But what if a new client has an old, embarrassing website that DOES rank well on Google? This can happen. The danger is that in the course of fixing the aesthetic problems with the site, we do damage to the functional part, which is the Google ranking.
Google lays out exactly how to build (and how not to build) a high-ranking website on their site, which used to be called Google Webmaster. Since Google performs over 90% of searches in the US, you either play by their rules, or you don’t rank.
Eagle-eyed and SEO-savvy readers might have noticed that there are some notable exceptions to the guidelines that even Google itself delineates. Let’s talk about that phenomenon.
Sometimes an old, ugly website ranks better than you’d expect. You might own a website like that. They say ugly planes don’t fly well. The same isn’t always true of websites.
1. Sometimes old websites have subpages that target esoteric search terms for which there is a surprising amount of traffic and little competition.
2. Some old websites have been edited hundreds of times, with owners adding content with each round of edits. “Long is strong” still applies in SEO. What looks like bloat from excessive editing can actually make for a powerful SEO score.
So is the solution to leave the site alone? Certainly not.
An old, ugly website reflects poorly on your business. People’s first impression is probably, “I wonder if this guy is still in business.” You will never have a chance to make another first impression, so it’s important to get it right the first time.
Also, your old site might rank well, but it probably converts very poorly. If you have an ancient website, we’d safely bet that you probably used to get more sales and phone calls from your website than you do today. Converting site visitors is a science that was little understood even a few years ago, and if your website is older than smartphones, it likely can’t keep up.
If you update your dinosaur of a website with something cutting edge - and you have it done properly - it will eventually regain whatever advantage it gained from being super old and trusted by Google. In the meantime, there are steps we can take to mitigate the danger that your new site ranks worse than your old one:
1. Keep the word count high
Usually, when a site is completely rebuilt, things are cleaned up. That means getting rid of content that is no longer relevant. After spring cleaning, you have less stuff, right? From a style standpoint, this is good. A great writer once penned a letter to a friend saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” From a search ranking perspective, the opposite is true. By reducing the word count on each page, you will probably be hurting the site’s search performance. The solution? Visually reduce the content without cutting any of the precious word count or keyword density.
2. Match slugs for high-ranking pages
Your current site might have some crazy URLs, especially if it was made in the era of spinning GIFs that read “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.” www.homepage.com/copy-of-home-page is not uncommon if someone built their site with an old WYSIWYG page builder. Slugs (the part of the URL that comes after the .com) should ideally match the target keyword; this is an accepted best practice for website building. (When it comes to matching keywords, what comes AFTER the .com/ is very important. People obsess about integrating keywords BEFORE the .com/, but this doesn’t affect search ranking at all.) However, if the existing, misnamed page ranks front-page on Google for something useful, we need its replacement page to keep the silly slug. Otherwise, we are effectively starting from scratch on getting ranked on Google.
3. Keep targeting what you were targeting. Add if you want, but don’t change
I have a client right now who ranked for a number of years in a small suburb of a huge metro area. He told his project manager (my employee) to switch his targeting to the major city he sits beside, which unfortunately, his project manager agreed to (admittedly a mistake on our part). Now he doesn’t rank anywhere. The solution? Go back to targeting his old suburb, and geotarget other nearby affluent suburbs using dynamic pages. In other words, add, don’t change. As for the major city he wants to target, we can add that to the dynamic pages, but given that he has an extremely competitive set of keywords, there is little point. There are only 10 organic results on the first page of Google whether you are targeting a neighborhood or a megacity.
Targeting a large number of neighborhoods and suburbs with unique landing pages is the secret to going gangbusters on Google. Ranking first for a popular keyword in New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles (not just a part of one of those) takes a ton of backlinking, which is pretty cost-prohibitive, or Google Ads, which are effective but terribly expensive.
Can we promise you that your new site won’t lose some ranking for a period of weeks or months after we rebuild it?
Unfortunately, no, we can’t. But we can mitigate that risk. Also, as we build your new site, we can geotarget dozens of areas where you’re not showing up currently, making up for whatever you might have temporarily lost. In the end, you’re left with a cleaner, more modern website with more traffic, which does a better job of turning site visitors into customers. This website will be more operationally attractive to Google’s algorithm and more organically attractive to the folks who find you.
I’m sure you can tell that we find this stuff pretty fascinating, so why not put our passion to work for you? Give me a call and we will work out a plan to create a site for your business that Google finds irresistible.