Even White Hat SEO Is Risky

Google’s advice to website owners is that if you create a good user experience and don’t violate their guidelines all will be good. Yes, you’ll still have to compete against other sites and you’d certainly benefit from a marketing plan, but essentially the risk of something bad happening that isn’t of your own doing is nil.

And yet I’ve seen contrary evidence after having worked on two sites this year that did nothing out of the ordinary except change their domain names (one voluntary and one because of a trademark issue). Despite following Matt Cutt’s advice and the advice of numerous SEOs, me included, both sites suffered significant traffic declines, which in turn, had a real impact on revenues.

Simple Domain Change

The first case is the simplest form of a domain change in that all the URL paths and filenames stayed the same. In addition, content wasn’t changed significantly, navigation stayed the same, and functionality was identical. The sorts of things that did change were the logo and the addition of some extra white space in the page layout. The migration itself included one-to-one 301 redirects, an updated XML sitemap, and notifying Google of the domain change via its Webmaster Tools.

At first everything looked good. Traffic remained steady on the new domain compared to the old domain (using the same Google Analytics code made this trending analysis easy). Of course, during this time what we were seeing was the effect of the redirects from rankings of the old content and not Google’s ranking of the new content.

A couple of weeks into the effort traffic dropped precipitously (down 52 percent). For those wondering, this domain change didn’t occur around the time of any Panda updates – the previous update (2.4) was on August 12 and the next one (2.5) was a couple of weeks away on September 28. Also, the old site had not been affected by any of the Panda rollouts since they started.

52 Percent Decline in Google Organic Search Traffic After Domain Change

Complex Domain Change

The second case is a little more complicated than the first. This time around not only did the domain change, but the URL structure was altered too. This meant that there was a greater chance of the 301 redirects being mapped incorrectly, which in turn could affect rankings for the new site. Fortunately, the developers of this site remained vigilant and any incorrectly mapped or missed redirects were fixed within moments of being discovered. In the end, only about 2 percent to 3 percent of the mappings required tweaking. The design changed significantly, but the content didn’t and cross links were preserved.

As with the first case, there was no evidence of a problem at the beginning with traffic ramping up to previous levels (there was new Google Analytics code this time so traffic started at zero). However, once the new site was indexed, rankings for the old domain started to decline without a corresponding ranking increase for the new domain. Or for those who don’t like to talk about rankings, traffic dropped 23 percent. This domain change kicked off right after the Panda 2.4 update in August. Since the domain was new, it presumably wasn’t evaluated and, regardless, the traffic decline didn’t happen until a week later. Panda 2.5, along with its subsequent tweaks, wasn’t due for weeks.

23 Percent Decline in Google Organic Search Traffic After Domain and URL Structure Change

Traffic declines of this magnitude are typically reserved for those who have been overly aggressive with their SEO. So what are we to make of such a situation when all the rules were followed? And what recourse do we have to remedy such issues when even the team receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad spend won’t talk to us regarding the organic search side of the business? I wish I had the answers.

What I find curious is that domain changes I’ve worked on prior to 2010 went well with either no dip in traffic or a short-lived one. This suggests that we don’t just have to worry about the risk that Google won’t behave as we expect or even as Google tells us it will, but that we also have to worry about what we believe to be true not remaining so from year to year.

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