The Law of Unintended Consequence

In its simplest form, the law of unintended consequence has evolved as an acceptable, if not logical, explanation for unanticipated effects. In the medical world, the law embodies the idea of side effects. Aspirin can relieve a headache, but in low doses, it can potentially reduce the risk of a heart attack.

The law is exemplified in microbiology when the elimination of one pesky, disease-causing microbe spawns the evolution of another, more dangerous, microorganism. In economics, the law means people acting in their own self-interest can create a greater good. In pop culture, the law of unintended consequence is embodied by the phrase “stuff happens.”

For those in the search engine optimization (SEO) business it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get a client to accept the fact that “stuff happens,” even when minor changes, much less major changes, are made to their Web sites.

It never seems to fail; I’m called in to “fix the search engine problem” 90 to 120 days after a major site overhaul, or after a content management system (CMS) switch is completed. The log files hold the proof of the law of unintended consequence.

Hour of Our Discontent

For ad-driven, content-based sites, a CMS change alone can cut search engine referrals nearly in half within three-months of implementation, even if there’s a helpful 404 error page and 301 permanent redirect plans are in place. It’s not uncommon to see ad revenues plummet 25 percent over the same timeframe. Without a plan in place, available ad inventory will continue to drop, and sales revenues will sink to new lows. It’s difficult for such sites to survive more than six months without SEO intervention.

Depending on the amount of revenue driven to this type of site by each major search engine, (Google, Yahoo and MSN Search) it takes about 45 days to organically repair the damage done. That’s only if the organization is capable of taking immediate action to make the site search engine friendly. If Yahoo is the primary referral source, it may take even longer.

Online, content is king. Buying an ad supported content-based site back into business via pay-per-click (PPC) advertising usually isn’t an option. There are simply too many referrals from too many different key phrases to craft an economically viable PPC campaign for this type of site. Particularly profitable key phrases are usually very costly due to highly competitive bidding. This can drive PPC campaign costs into the stratosphere.

What lures visitors to these sites is free access to relevant content, not PPC campaigns. Even if a campaign is initiated on a limited basis, it’s difficult to maintain a click-through-rate (CTR) that can survive Google AdWords’ rigors. While organic repairs are being made to the site, upping email marketing messaging is usually a far more cost-effective method for driving visitor traffic to curtail the effects of diminished natural traffic, assuming such venues exist.

Transitional Transactions

For pure-play e-commerce sites, a redesign or CMS switch can produce even more disastrous results. In one instance, I was called in to make repairs after the organization’s Web-based sales dropped 75 percent 120 days after implementing a redesign and a CMS change. The implementation had drained business resources, so last-minute plans for a 301 permanent redirect database were scrapped. Implemented instead was a 302 temporary redirect to the home page only. The site didn’t have an informative 404 error page.

In this case, a massive PPC campaign provided immediate relief for dwindling revenues, and a rewrite module was implemented to transform search engine unfriendly dynamic URLs into automatically updated static documents. File structure changes also had to be made to the site architecture so replicated content could be managed by the robots.txt file. Old key entry pages that had been indexed by the search engines received permanent redirects rather than triggering the 404 error page, which also got a makeover.

E-mail and viral marketing campaigns were simultaneously launched in time to impact the business’s seasonal sales cycle. Revenue recovery (a return to comparable pre-redesign revenues after implementing the SEO plan) took about nine weeks. Stable revenue growth took about six months to achieve, as marketing costs were pared down to balance organic search engine referral increases.

Moving Violation

The e-commerce business and its staff wouldn’t have endured these hardships if management had consulted with a competent SEO expert before implementing a redesign or CMS switch. The ad-driven, content-based site wouldn’t have teetered on the brink of ruin if planning for the site launch had included an organic SEO plan and an augmented advertising budget.

Where search engine referrals are concerned, the law of unintended consequence is merciless. Consult with a SEO expert before making critical decisions that could put your business out of business.

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