The moment you hear your client say these words, your SEO radar goes on alert:
“Are you sitting down?”
In other words, beware of what clients decide to do on their own when you’re at a conference. Upon returning from SES San Jose in August 2009 and embarking on a conference call with the client team, I sat down. Here’s what followed:
“While you were gone, we decided to change our URLs from underscores to hyphens as word separators. We know we should have talked with you first and that we’re going to take a hit, but we decided to just get it done. IT had time to do it, so we jumped on it.”
A Little Hyphens vs. Underscores History
I began working with this corporation at the beginning of 2009 but with a different division and website. Our engagement commenced with an audit as we planned design and optimization of a new site, including information architecture and URL structure.
Communications involved many parties, including members of the marketing team for the company’s main bread-and-butter website. They were working with a large SEO agency who did NOT do an audit when they began their “SEO” efforts. This same agency had previously instructed the marketing team that it was best to create keyword-rich page names (good) using a keyword-rich folder structure (be careful) along with keywords separated by underscores (OUCH). No kidding!
I conducted some research, presented a case study with as references showing that search engines (and people) preferred hyphens vs. underscores.
Needless to say, they later asked me to work alongside their marketing team and let go of that big agency. We focused a lot of discussion on best practices in SEO.
Knowledge is power. BUT, power, in the hands of marketing and IT proved dangerous in this case.
The URL Fallout
The website was a leader in its lead-gen space and was almost 18 years old. It had already suffered from the big-shot SEO agency’s keyword-stuffing/underscore approach earlier in the year. Fallout from round 2 of URL changes began.
Traffic started to falter, partly due to the drop in ranking and visibility. Unfortunately, changes in the economy resulted in fewer people searching for their short and long-tail keyword phrases.Could the timing of moving from underscores to hyphens have been worse?
To add insult to injury, the company cut back staff, and the marketing team of 6 was trimmed down to 2 a month after the rewrites. Budget was also cut back. Our recovery plan and resources were nearly halted.
Could it get worse?
Yes! By the end of the year, they had completely dropped out of the top 100 rankings on Google for a plethora of terms.
As Winston Churchill said,
“Never. Never. Never give up!”
Limited resources cannot hold back creative thinking. The two members of the truncated marketing team were writers. Ah ha! They understood their industry and had learned how to tell a story with keywords and relevant terms. We planned and implemented the following:
- A content development strategy with better images and engaging content
- Industry blogger and PR outreach (link marketing)
- Better linking within the site verticals (Yes, you may use the term “silo” here.)
- Pushed home page PR to key pages with, you got it, keyword-focused anchor text.
Bottom line, we published and updated content frequently. The search bots picked up their crawl rates. Traffic increased.
Fortunately, recovery only took a few months thanks to a website with a lot of history, a PR of 6, 180K+ links, and high authority in its space. By late early February of 2010, we had 11 #1 rankings and multiple page 1 results.
Do you have a similar horror story? I’d love to hear your recovery plans and success.